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Tag Archives: fiction writing
It’s pretty amazing to pull off. If you can pull it off. Make the POV character appear to be the protagonist so convincingly that the only way anyone would ever notice s/he is actually the antagonist is to re-read the story with a mental focus on someone else.
The quote is from The Generous Gambler by Charles Baudelaire: “The loveliest trick of the Devil is to persuade you that he does not exist!” If you’re a writer and you can disguise your antagonist as a protagonist, you can convince readers to look elsewhere for the story’s devilment. By doing so you’ve created an undercurrent of such angst that it keeps readers digging right through to the back of the story trying to figure out the source of their uneasiness.
But like anything that makes us feel that way, we just have to make it go away, to resolve it somehow. But even when you find out, you’re left with a permanent sense of self-doubt about who’s the real devil.
In my last Story Analyst post, The Second Glance, I discussed how Margaret Mitchell did such a thorough job convincing readers that Scarlett O’Hara is a proto-feminist survivor and hero of phoenix-like power who has been a role-model for millions of women, especially those who faced the Great Depression and WWII, that it isn’t until you look at the story through Rhett’s choices that you realize there’s something very different going on – and it’s so much darker and more sinister than readers realize.
This is playing with storytelling DNA. It’s the epigenetics that runs deep in the molecular matter of powerful, memorable narratives that no plot twist could ever equal. Plot twists merely change a story’s outcome. Great storytelling DNA allows writers to flip a switch through this epigenetic quality that changes what the story is depending on how you look at it. It’s not just the appearance of one thing until the end confirms the trick, like a Shyamalan movie. It’s simultaneously different stories.
In The Virgin Suicides [spoiler alert: plot points and ending will be discussed], when Jeffrey Eugenides introduces us to the collective voice of the neighbourhood boys who witness the tragedy of the Lisbon family, it’s very easy to get so caught up in the fact that we’re being told this story from their perspective that we assume their role is that of any ordinary narrator – the protagonists in a story about their efforts to understand what happened in the house across the street (I’ll refer to the narrators in plural, although it’s never entirely clear).
But Eugenides does something so clever – or intuitive – and subtle that it’s never even mentioned when you read reviews or critiques.
The narrators are not protagonists. The narrators are the antagonists.
They’re sexual predators.
While they’re busy asking themselves what was wrong with the Lisbon girls, we should be asking ourselves what’s wrong with these boys and, potentially, boys. Period.
After all, they are as a narrator a multi-headed beast, the collective “we”. A Chimera.
What we’re convinced by the narrators is fascination with a family of beautiful girls is actually a lurid and dehumanizing sexual obsession. It’s a prolonged, concentrated, group violation on the sisters during a period of their sexual formation that slowly chips away at their sense of security, privacy, integrity, selfhood, sexuality, and identity – as all violation does – until their damage is so irrevocable that suicide is the only way they can escape the torture that’s described to us in such passionate and delighted terms. And like all sexual violence, the community shares blame by doing nothing about what’s going on. Boys will be boys, right?
Check out the first scene. Cecilia the Stoic is floating in the bloody water of the tub after having slit her wrists, with a laminated “picture of the Virgin Mary … held against her budding chest.” Spirituality and sexuality together are an important cue for what we’re about to experience; they are not just dichotomies which, taken to extremes, are devastating, they are also inextricable binaries that bleed into one another. Repression and profligacy, denial and dogma. The boys and the Lisbon parents play out this drama in tandem, trapping the girls, squeezing the humanity and life out of them from both ends.
Every single detail matters symbolically to the story, even the fact that the picture is laminated.
By linking this imagery, Eugenides is already revealing the terrible source of the sisters’ pain, and by using the term Stoic (as opposed to stoic) right off the bat he’s instructing us to not look at the story based on what we are told, but by what we witness of the players’ behaviors. That’s what Stoicism is, and it’s an important revelation to place right there at the beginning.
The story is so richly written that there’s hardly a thing a reader dares ignore – even Mary in her bedroom window, captured in a real estate photo looking as if her hair were on fire like Lavinia standing at the sacrificial altar from the Aeneid.
(Oh dear fellow writers, this is why you must know your legends and mythologies and biblical accounts! Details like this make you want to snatch Eugenides by his soul patch and kiss him straight on the … forehead? Forehead. I wouldn’t take any liberties, after all.)
The boys’ focus on the girls is expressed with a robust enthusiasm that makes the reader lose sight of what’s actually happening.
Now, instead of teenage boys, let’s exchange the narrators for a group of neighbourhood men and see how it would make any woman feel.
They watch the house, look into the windows. They know intimately the Lisbons’ comings and goings. They watch them from their own homes. The girls are their masturbatory aids.
When one of the boys is invited to dinner, the entire experience is framed through the narrators’ sexualized interpretation. If the girls are kicking him under the table, it isn’t just youthful goofing around. It’s sexual. It’s arousing. When the boy goes upstairs to use the bathroom he violates their privacy and sanctity by making a creepily detailed inventory of their rooms (the bra hanging on the crucifix reinforces the spirituality/sexuality binary) and the contents of the bathroom, right down to the shade of lipstick they are able to match to its owner when they spy on her later. Which is disturbingly specific. He digs into the trash and finds a used tampon – something the narrators sickeningly find titillating, like the handkerchiefs dipped in blood after an execution and kept as a souvenir.
One of the boys crawls through the sewage system to break into the house with the intention of watching them shower and to spy on them in their most intimate moments. When he hears water running he enters the bathroom without hesitation . He’s on the hunt, that’s what he’s there for. There is no question of his entitlement in this act.
Imagine someone doing that to your home, your private, personal space invaded by someone who is willing to permanently cripple your sense of safety, privacy, and feelings, just so he can watch you shower. It’s so rapey it should send chills down the readers’ spines. But it doesn’t. Like all other aspects of rape culture, even in its infancy stage (which this novel perfectly illustrates) our only response has always been going blind, deaf, and mute in its presence.
So the boy walks in on the opening scene of the book – Cecilia naked in the bath, covered in blood from her slit wrists.
Now, by this time the boys have been watching and sexually abusing the girls for quite a long time. This is not a new development. There’s no way the family – or at least the girls – would be unaware of the lewd interest always directed at them.The boys have opened their pants and exposed themselves to Cecilia. They have looked up her dress. Transgression is their norm. It’s our norm.
After the funeral – of a thirteen year old girl – another boy admits he “would have copped a last feel … if only [the others] had been there to appreciate it.” They enlist a neighbourhood girl to take inventory of Cecilia’s bedroom post-suicide, even checking to see if the sheets have been cleaned, what’s in her underwear drawers.
Even in these moments of finality, the narrators’ prey is denied her own space, sanctity, dignity, and peace.
They further impinge on her right to respect by getting hold of her diary, stolen by a plumber’s assistant, and pass it around, fingering it like porn instead of returning it to the family. Even the sisters’ medical records are later breached as the boys grow up and research every aspect of their lives in their increasing fetishization.
The high school bad-boy, Trip Fontaine, later tells the boys he loved Lux like he’d never known love before or since, that it was a once-in-a-lifetime thing. Yet he pursues her relentlessly until she finally finds herself on the football field on prom night losing her virginity to him. She awakens there in the morning alone. Despite his claim that he never loved anyone the way he loved Lux, he abandons her after sex and discards her there on the field like a used condom, then never speaks to her again – or even sees her.
Stoic. We must look at the actions, not the words.
On and on it goes, a portrait of boys so secure in their romanticized depravity and their right to it that even we the readers grow too fascinated by the Lisbon girls to really notice much more than a faint cringiness as we’re reading.
Violation is the norm. The knife-sharpener delivers a fifteen minute demonstration just to leer at fourteen-year-old Lux sunbathing in a bikini. Fourteen.
Each of the girls is a casualty of these experiences. Set up against the increasing repression and break-down of their parents, they react in ways that any rape or sexual assault victim – or any therapist – will agree are credible: depersonalizing, disengaging, becoming hypersexual, disappearing into faith or mysticism.
With each progressive assault on their privacy, burgeoning identity, and sexuality, the girls go from being normal, healthy, vibrant young women to depressed, disconnected, and suicidal.
None of this happens until the boys begin to essentially violate them – sexually or otherwise – on a continuous basis. The girls are their sexual fantasies and little else, a living, breathing pornography that requires no consent, and no humanity.
Is it any wonder the girls invite the boys over to return the violation: they use the boys’ blind lust to lure them to the house where each girl one by one commits suicide right under their noses. It’s the only way the sisters can regain their power as women and as human beings.
This is a story about a group of boys’ sexual awakening at someone else’s expense. When, finally, they ask themselves if they contributed to what happened, the only conclusion is no, they didn’t.
Of course not.
Look at the way those girls acted. Look at the way they dressed.
They weren’t just asking for it. They were begging …
Bravo, Eugenides. That was truly the loveliest trick of all. Your readers thank you.
Writers, how about it? Could you pull it off?
Little by little, as narrative has transitioned from a means of interpreting human experience to one of interpreting personal experience, and from expression to self-expression, we have lost our focus on story as a means of connection with others.
So let’s start with this: writing is to storytelling what talking is to conversation. Writing is a monologue. Storytelling is a dialogue. You can talk at someone without ever being in a conversation with them. Unfortunately, more and more writers simply write at readers.
Great writers are great storytellers, and they know they’re in a kind of conversation with readers.
So what’s the problem?
Well, it’s the writing paradigm that we’ve all bought into which creates a natural barrier between writers and readers. Right now the process of story production such as it is begins with an idea, continues with extrapolating that idea to the writer’s satisfaction, and ends with a completed manuscript.
After that, if the writer wants to reach an audience it becomes the publisher’s responsibility, along with all the various supporting strategies now available digitally.
As writers we’ve come to rely on the sense of security that the work of establishing readership is out of our hands and placed into a delicately balanced system of marketing and PR and social networking and cash. It’s branding, it’s positioning, it’s funding. If the book fails it’s because some part of that system – or all of it – has failed. Even when we’re busy with promotion ourselves as writers, the outcome still depends on the success or failure of promotion.
That’s how we’re being brainwashed anyway.
The final fall-back for blame is that the writer wasn’t much good to begin with – or was just too beautiful for this world. Only one of those is ever true – and about 99% of the time.
But the failure of the formula is not the root of our failure to reach readers. The failure is that how the reader fits in is wrong. The whole writing paradigm is wrong, wrong, WRONG.
Now, you’re probably thinking – but isn’t that the way it’s supposed to go? Where’s the pitfall?
Think about it like this:
The job of reaching the reader shouldn’t start with the publisher. It shouldn’t even start with the writer. It should start in the writing.
Now, when I’m talking about the reader, I don’t mean the vague reader-as-theoretical-consumer that writers assume – the imagined persona that comes with the question we’ve all been told by well-meaning advice-givers to ask ourselves at some point – “who is my reader?” – which represents the kind of demographic that would pick up a book like ours.
Some of us imagine a particular friend or relative as a stand-in for this mythical consumer, or we latch onto a more successful author’s fanbase to claim as our intended fans.
Which really only means “I want her buyers or I want his buyers” without ever understanding the most powerful reasons the writer has earned those readers to begin with.
But identifying who your ultimate fan might be is a terrible misunderstanding of the role the reader plays in story creation. We imagine some ghostly set of characteristics hovering in the backdrop that silently love – and buy – our kind of writing.
Nothing could be farther from the truth.
The reader is not outside the text, watching, assessing, guiding.
For the writer, the reader is not a demographic. Not a consumer. Not even a potential fan. That’s who the reader is after the fact, once the story reaches the marketplace.
Before that point, for the writer, the reader is in the fact, in the story as it’s being created. The reader is as absorbed into the text as the writer is.
But if you as a writer don’t understand what this means, there’s no way you can engage the reader through your creation. And if you don’t engage the reader, no amount of writing or marketing or money or social networking will ever create an audience for you.
A consumer is just someone who buys a product. A fan is a happy consumer.
The reader is the other half of the story-mind. The reader is the other participant in a narrative conversation. If the story has failed, it’s because the writer failed primarily as a storyteller and secondarily as a writer.
Being in that dialogue and getting into the reader’s head is not the job of the publisher, or the social network, or bloggers and book-selling entities. Getting the book into the reader’s hand is the publisher’s job, the job of marketing and promotion.
Getting into the reader’s head is the writer’s job. And writers don’t have a clue how it happens.
It isn’t magic or some mysterious creative force, or luck, that you either have or don’t have. That’s what talent and genius bring to a narrative.
And this is not to say in any way that writers should produce what they think an audience wants to read. It has nothing whatsoever to do with that at all. It’s about understanding how the reader’s mind interacts with story.
The most important factor in reaching the reader is storytelling, and understanding storytelling requires that the writer understand what creates a story beyond just the act of writing.
But right now, storytelling illiteracy is rampant among writers. Storytelling illiteracy has been fostered by the writing paradigm and supported wholeheartedly by the publishing model as an acceptable minimum.
Reaching the consumer is not what creates success. It’s reaching the reader first that makes success even a remote possibility. Yet something goes wrong somewhere between the writer and the writing. All you can do is cross your fingers and hope that the string of plotting details you’ve laid out works and that the outside forces will do your job in addition to their own to get readers interested.
That’s an awful lot of your life and creativity to leave to luck or someone else’s whims.
But in the current writing paradigm, that’s what writers are doing. We’ve all been absorbed into this creed and have even taken the blame for how it consistently fails us.
We’re awful storytellers, and the writing paradigm makes it impossible for us to know it. It privileges writing over storytelling, so writers can spend years in the writing community at every level – from informal writer’s groups all the way up to graduate programs – without ever being taught what creates storytelling, and without ever knowing how badly we’re messing it up.
The insurmountable problems writers are consistently creating in their narratives are developing out of a writing paradigm that sets writers – and publishing – up for failure. In fact, in the writing paradigm, success is the anomaly rather than the rule. There is no other choice.
While we labour away according to a writing paradigm, stories that last grow out of a storytelling paradigm. We no longer have the knowledge or the ability – or justification if you listen to some people – to privilege storytelling over writing. In fact, in some circles incoherence and a complete lack of storytelling are honoured as evidence of literary superiority, but if you look at some of the masterpieces of experimental narrative, there is nothing incoherent about them. They adhere to the principles of storytelling as much as any straight linear work. But the writers then break narrative into bits and pieces so the reader must approach it archaeologically or forensically and representationally and linguistically as a rare thing to be discovered and mentally reassembled. Experimental writers are failing not because they’re too smart for the reader but because they actually believe that the narrative is created out of incoherence. Not so.
We need a new paradigm, and it has to be a storytelling paradigm that gives writers a holistic view of narrative that embraces reader engagement. The storytelling paradigm is the one that accepts that the story doesn’t end with a finished manuscript but rather a finished story.
What a massive difference that makes in the outcome. When the writer has taken control over storytelling, it means that the reader has been engaged before the query even reaches the publisher’s desk. If a story is well-written and well-told, then even with a minimum of marketing effort there’s at least a chance that the groundswell will come from readers pushing for the book instead of the publisher.
Isn’t that what we all want? Don’t we want to create that hunger in readers?
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Here’s the premise. A poor, oddball social outcast salvages a steam engine to win a girl who offers herself as a marriage prize in exchange.
And now the summary. Sit tight, it totally gets better. Totally. A poor, oddball outcast is walking to church one day behind the pretty orphaned niece of a shipping entrepreneur, and after she writes his name in the snow along the roadside he falls obsessively in love with her – which is always the best kind of love.
Her uncle’s ship, invaluable because it’s the only steam-powered vessel anywhere and is the source of his wealth, runs into a reef, but with the treacherous conditions and impossibility of the task, nobody wants to lift a finger to go get it for the old coot. The girl, who sure has a high opinion of herself, promises to marry anyone who can salvage the engine. Obviously selling yourself for an engine beats, say, getting a job to help out a bit. Imagine the shot to her ego when the only taker is the village weirdo.
So the young man sets out for the reef determined to win his prize of an insincere but sweetly naive tease.
The bulk of the novel is about his
resolute pig-headed struggle against the sea, starvation and thirst, and the work of trying to jerry-rig a way to remove the engine without destroying it (all without the proper tools) as the ship slowly breaks apart.
All for this totally worthy woman.
[spoiler alert: end of the novel discussed ahead]
superhuman psychotic amount of effort he eventually saves the engine and, half dead, sails back to the village to claim his wife and reward. Now, by this time he has been written off for dead and his beloved has already forgotten about him and fallen in love with someone she just met a moment ago. Upon our hero’s return he overhears the girl accept a marriage proposal from the much better looking, less weirdo-ish Anglican priest from the “in-crowd” – a bit like the head cheerleader throwing over the kindhearted but pimply D&D freak for the football captain. Rather than force her into marriage our friend instead arranges their wedding and helps them board a ship to whisk them away to a happy life together. Then he climbs up into the rocks along the seashore to an indentation at the crest that forms a rock-chair. As he watches their ship disappear into the horizon, the tide rises and he allows himself to drown. The end.
Oh, and plus there’s a haunted house.
And a monster octopus.
And it’s a statement about the Industrial Revolution.
Did I mention the haunted house?
Um … what? Who would read that? More to the point, who would write it? It sounds like some terrible manuscript Elaine Benes would be asked to edit for a job in publishing.
So who wrote it?
Victor Hugo, that’s who. Yes, that guy, the Les Miz guy. It’s Toilers of the Sea, and it’s one of the most taut, harrowing stories you’ll ever read. You will swear at that idiot Gilliat, you will pound your fists against air because of him, you’ll white-knuckle it through gale-force winds and feel rigging lash and snap through the air around you. You will loathe and admire him and curse him and feel for him and cheer for him –
– then on the power of pure adrenaline (because you will, I promise you, be completely, physically wasted) you will stand straight up from wherever you were when he dies in that damned rock-chair and you will make weird chuffing noises like “bu – he – I – he – b – ” then you will lay or sit right back down, hold the book to your chest, stare out into the literary void and say, “Merci, M. Hugo – or should I say mercy.”
When you’re able to stand again on your own, the first thing you’ll have to do is hobble over to see your doctor, who’ll ask, “What brings you here today (you hypochondriac)?”
You’ll say: “I need to see a physiotherapist.”
“Oh?” You’ll get that look, you know, the down-the-nose look that says what now, moron? “Hurt yourself?”
You’ll squinch your shoulders a bit, avoid eye contact. “Uh, yup. Hurt myself.”
“What did you do?”
“I uh – ” (quick, think, do you say you hurt yourself READING?)
“- I pulled something – “ (think, think -)
But the words will just disgorge into the room: “- See, there was this IDIOT, and he was trying to salvage this steam engine off Guernsey and it was so cold and I – sorry, he – didn’t have the proper clothes and there was this storm, and the ship started breaking up on the rocks and there wasn’t enough food or water and I – he – he had to get this engine off the wreck and it was days and weeks and – I don’t know, I lost track of time, it was like war, it was this war with the elements and this octopus monster and my own – his own – stupidity and all I wanted was to get that damned engine off that damned ship – and now my back and muscles are killing me -”
“You did say therapist, right?”
Ahh. That’s what happens when you take a weird, unworkable premise and give it to a master, and he proceeds to PHYSICALLY. HURT. YOU. WITH. IT.
Now, why is it that we all probably have way better premises stashed away somewhere along our writing experience, and all we manage to do is write an awful story?
Well, for one, Victor Marie Hugo knew how to tell a story. We don’t.
What’s interesting is that telling a great story can still go hand-in-hand with some tremendous flaws. We can all agree that ole Victor Marie had a tendency toward the melodramatic. But it’s so delicious! He also frequently just droned on and on and on about background facts in punishing detail but man, it’s so worth powering through to get to the good bits because usually that, together with the big picture and including the droning parts, is so much more important than any flaws.
There is nothing particularly likable about the premise of Toilers of the Sea. The protagonist is the kind of poodley oddball you’d feel burning holes in the back of your head without having to even turn around to see him there. The kind of guy who would make hang-up calls. Lots of them. Every day. Watch you from a parked car down the street. The girl’s a bit of a jerk whom you suspect will never really care for him no matter how good he is because of his position. Almost the whole story is this grueling struggle for some dumb engine. There’s just so much to turn a reader off. It’s not sexy. It’s just sad and exhausting.
And 1000% worth reading. It’s Hugo’s unsung masterpiece, unfairly eclipsed by you-know-what.
So what’s our old pal Vic doing to make it work?
He knows how to break your heart with all the qualities you don’t want to like about it. Gilliat’s life is bleak, and his obsessive love for Deruchette, as wrong-headed as it is, gives him a little hope for something deeply human: to belong – not to the girl herself but to what she represents, and that’s life inside the circle of human connection. Belonging. To be a part of the whole instead of apart from it.
His struggle for the engine becomes a stand-in for the epic human struggle to change the course of a life that otherwise has very little going for it. Little by little the reader goes from wondering why Gilliat would even bother, why he doesn’t give up in the face of so much catastrophe, to understanding that he’s not fighting for an engine at all or for Deruchette’s love, but rather for simple hope and acceptance. We don’t believe in Deruchette’s love or sincerity, but he does. He has to. Nobody can live as an outcast without suffering, and even the risk of death is not too great if it will mean an end to the suffering of exclusion. So when Deruchette goes, Gilliat’s hope goes too. Despite expending all he had, he still loses. There’s nothing left in him to fight again for even a shred more of hope and he can’t live on as an excerpt – so he can’t live on at all.
When Hugo is done with us, we understand how epic the human spirit truly is to create change – for the heart, for the soul, for the body, the family, or the conditions we can no longer endure as they are. There is a bit of Gilliat in all of us. Hugo shows us how much the human spirit can expend of itself and endure for hope and, when Gilliat sits in that rock-chair to slowly die, how easily it can be broken when hope is gone.
In fact, it works because Hugo chooses such an odd premise instead of just vomiting up one more iteration of the same ideas everyone else is kicking around, and because he knows that the story is a stand-in for something much, much more valuable.
Don’t be afraid to offer the reader an unusual premise for an unusual story. But kick it up by making it about way more than what it appears to be at first glance.
It’s that second glance that changes everything.
Follow this blog for updates about a game-changing story development tool that can help turn writers into storytellers. Whether you’re using complicated software or your own methods to help you write, this is the tool you’ll need first to understand how to create an engaging story instead of just writing.
You’d think that with all the writing going on today, and all the advice out there about writing, we’d be churning out more masterpieces than ever. But it almost seems like the opposite is true. So what’s going on?
As an editor I see the same problems over and over. As a writer, I repeat the same problems over and over. We all do. Editing obviously helps with a lot of minor issues, and even some major flaws can be fixed with editing. But the one quality that counts most, and the one failure that’s consistent in the writing I see – and in my own – is the one that can’t be fixed with any amount of editing.
Writers just don’t know how to tell a story.
And if you can’t tell a captivating story, how will you ever get published? How will you get read, or if you do get published how will you find an audience? Because being published is not an indicator or a guarantee that you will ever have readers. If you’re writing, you must want readers, right? We’re all in this to one day be read.
But writing is what writers are interested in. Writing, and getting published. Everyone is writing everywhere, and wherever you look someone is telling writers how to write so they can get published. So much writing, and so much writing about writing.
Such a huge waste.
Writing isn’t what gets you read. It’s what gets the story out of your head, but it isn’t what gets the story into the reader’s head.
There’s one part of the narrative process everyone’s skipping over, the one part that’s most important to get right and the least understood, and that’s storytelling.
And to be clear, storytelling is not plotting. You can have a so-called plotless novel that’s a storytelling powerhouse, and you can have a heavily plotted novel with no storytelling value whatsoever. Writers focus obsessively on the one quality that almost doesn’t even count as long as you can string sentences together, but they do almost nothing to nurture storytelling – the one thing that brings the reader into the story. They don’t know how.
I certainly never did.
Just ask any editor or publisher and they’ll tell you that incompetent storytelling is such an overarching deficiency that editors aren’t eager to commit precious resources to fix something the writer doesn’t even understand about her or his own work.
Think about it.
It isn’t writing that keeps readers turning the page. If it were, lyrical literary works would be bestsellers all the time, and some of the worst writing out there wouldn’t be turning some people into millionaires. Really riveting storytelling can blind a reader to terrible writing. And on the other hand, beautiful writing keeps the reader mired in the words, not in the story; it can blind the writer – and sometimes publishers – to the importance of storytelling.
It’s all about storytelling. It answers for reader engagement in a way no other part of writing can. It is the narrative transportation system between the writer’s mind and the reader’s mind.
As a writer, I’ve never had problems getting my queries read. About 90% of the time I get a full manuscript request. At times I’ve gone up to two years into the consideration process before that final rejection. I’d lick my wounds, then go back to the writing.
And I’d keep going back to the writing when writing wasn’t the problem. It was the storytelling. I could see the lack of storytelling in my clients’ submissions, or in too many of the novels I was reading, but never in my own. The more contact I had with other writers’ work, the more I began to recognise that it was a universal fatal blind spot.
So the question is, what makes up storytelling? What urges readers to give up their weekends and forego sleep to plough through the pages of someone else’s imaginative output? What makes so many readers go back to the same stories over and over again throughout their lives?
Now, let me give you a bit of background so you can judge for yourselves my qualifications to even talk about this issue. I’ve been editing and writing for nearly thirty years. I have a business degree with a specialty in marketing but strategy also fascinated me. My master’s degree is in literature and creative writing, with a specialty in composition rhetoric.
These divergent backgrounds have helped me approach problem solving for writing from a completely different angle than other writers and academics who are producing all the workbooks and guidebooks advice blogs and writing methods and software out there, who all approach a textual problem with a textual solution.
So, there are some unusual skills I bring into not just diagnosing the problem, but also finding a solution to address all the problems writers face in story development.
Putting aside uncontrollable variables like genius and raw talent, I started analysing the best fiction ever written with an eye to understanding what it is about their shared storytelling qualities that has made devoted fans of readers generation after generation. Despite widely varying writing styles and voices and approaches, I wanted to know what storytelling choices in the most enduring fiction out there, literary or genre, keyed into reader engagement.
Then I went to work putting what I was learning into context.
I asked myself: what does it take to get the story that forms in the writer’s imagination to take root in the reader’s imagination?
If you trust Dickens and Tolstoi, Graham Greene and Hemingway, if you trust Toni Morrison and William Faulkner and Stephen King and Margaret Mitchell, and all those other great writers we’re still reading today, storytelling is everything. Even character development works synchronously with story development. If you have poor story development, characterization suffers. It has to. What happens to character depends on what happens to story. It’s why the most memorable stories also usually produce the most memorable characters.
I began to analyse method to the story process in a way I had never seen done before – not online, and not in any of the textual material that’s available.
If you think about the story as a body, you have to have a skeletal system that provides form and structure. In order for it to make sense, the parts have to connect to each other in a specific way to give the whole its shape. The same is true in something like architecture. You can have the most outrageous appearance on the outside of a building, but if you don’t abide by certain physical principles of structure and engineering the building simply won’t stay standing.
You can’t just throw something together and hope it will turn out right in the end, yet writers do this all the time. Editors and readers know when you’re offering them a mess, even if you don’t realise it. Even stream of consciousness is purposeful and still great storytelling in the hands of a master. You have to compose deliberately, consciously, with a keen eye for cause and effect. Everything in narrative is connected, but not in the way writers think framed in a series of plotting details.
Then there’s the musculature that provides force and locomotion. If it functions well it pulls the reader along as though the story has a will of its own, and the reader has no choice but to submit. If it doesn’t function, it trips the reader up. It moves one way then another or shifts focus until the reader finally gives up long before the story actually stops moving and dies – which is usually well before the last page anyway.
So there was this idea that something has to keep a story together to give it authority and credibility so readers can trust that the writer knows his or her own creation and what to do with it. Something has to keep it moving to generate the kind of page-turning momentum that gives storytelling vivacity.
But none of this matters for writers unless you address three other problems in story development: continuity, management, and tools.
Serious writers have always intuitively known that uninterrupted story development was crucial to storytelling, and to solve the problem they’ve done everything from writing on the walls to taping sheets of paper together to keeping bulging files and plastering sticky notes everywhere.
What other choices are there? Designers have blueprints and computer-aided design. Composers have scores. What do writers have that can help them manage story development?
The answer has always been inadequate. Paper. Then computers.
No workbook or guidebook or complicated software can ever do the job properly. The forms are not a good match for narrative function. And the hallmark of excellence in design is the perfect fit between form and function. Form must properly fill the gap between function and need.
In fact, the tools writers use every day – the paper and screen forms – actually contribute to the problem for writers simply because the act of turning the page or tabbing over to another screen disengages the writer from story flow. There is no way to access every part of a narrative at once. And if you want strong story development, this is critical.
Then there’s the problem of how to deal with the constant change that comes with each draft and rewrite. Writers try juggling it all in their heads but there are a lot of dropped balls in every manuscript, and a lot of balls still being juggled that should have been dropped, which only contributes to the mess industry professionals see ever day.
What are writers to do, then?
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Okay, if The Walking Dead would stop handing out such great opportunities to discuss storytelling I could stop mentioning the show. So stop it already. (No, please don’t, I didn’t mean it, don’t be angry AMC, just keep batting em out of the park).
Check this out (not actually a video, just a sad screen grab):
Maybe a quick recap first. Picture it: it’s Season 5, Episode 3 (Four Walls And A Roof). The group is holed up at Father Gabriel’s church, which by the way is called St. Sarah (Sara the Black), who is the Romani patron saint of gypsies. Sainte Sarah, who by some accounts stood on the shores of Gaul (France) to await and welcome a boatload of holy refugees of early Christian persecution. Which is why I love this show so much. Isn’t that just so perfect?
So one night Bob steps out for some fresh air and a little manly crying jag when the surviving cannibals from Terminus set upon him. He wakes up groggy in their encampment and is subjected to some loony-tunes hectoring by the icky Gareth. Seems they’ve got themselves a good old fashioned spit-turned open-pit barbeque going on. The lip-smacking, the slurping, the greasy chins, the sinewy strings of pink meat, the chewing. Oh, the chewing. The chewing and slurping and smacking. Seems Bob’s their guest of honor. Slowly, we – and poor Bob – realize how hard it is to come upon any meat other than squirrel and snake in these post-zombification days of apocalypse. Plus, Bob’s leg is missing below the knee. Yep, that ain’t no leg of lamb sizzling and crackling on the fire. FF a bit, hahaha, Bob reveals he’s been bitten and they’ve just eaten infected meat. Idiots! Commence projectile vomiting. Oh, and also the Termites throw up. Welp, that sure oughtta take care of that.
So what’s all this recapping and crazy talk getting to? The screen grab above happens when Bob is returned to the group and ultimately dies. Tyreese spares his sister from having to posthumously rearrange Bob’s grey matter with a hunting knife by doing the deed himself. He has just pulled the knife away when this moment blips by on the screen.
What is it?
That’s a wood-carved plaque of The Last Supper. The Last Supper. I mean, come on people, Tyreese isn’t even centered in the frame! That’s no art-house film technique. He’s nose-to-nose with it. You’re meant to see that plaque. Now, why is this prominently displayed at precisely this moment? Why not a simple crucifix, or a nice little annunciation scene? Why The Last Supper?
Because of what happens at the Last Supper. Christ prepares the disciples for the end by introducing the symbolism of the Eucharist and performing the first communion. Eat of my flesh, drink of my blood. He warns of a betrayer in their midst, and predicts the denial by Peter. This very night, before the rooster crows, you will disown me three times.
Now, I haven’t gone through the episode with a fine tooth comb, but I counted at least three times that Maggie “denied”. Once, when she picked up the bible on the pew, looked at it with disinterest, and set it down again, thus signalling the denial of her family’s previously deep faith. Then after the Termite slaughter when Father Gabriel surveys the gore and cries, “But this is the Lord’s house !”, Maggie flatly says, “No. It’s just four walls and a roof”, as an overt denial of the sacred. Then again, when Abe Ford and his crew start for Washington rather than put Eugene at risk, Maggie along with Glen both agree to leave with them, to abandon – to deny – their survivor family. No wonder, when you look at the absolute horror on their faces during the Termite extermination. Three types of denial, and it’s still night.
In the previous episode, the gang partakes of the church’s sacramental wine. Drink of my blood. In this episode, the sacramental bread is partaken of by the Termites. Eat of my flesh. (Oh, the chewing and slurping and smacking.)
This apocalyptic world is an inversion of that biblical metaphor. It’s a perversion. On some levels it even harkens to social theory about civilization and its fall to barbarism in the presence of irremediable human hubris. But that’s a post for another time.
It is not an accident that all this is also linked to the slaughter of the Termites at the altar of Father Gabriel’s church. The Last Supper was a Passover meal, which required the offering of a lamb in thanks for delivering the Hebrews out of Egypt. Remember that the Hebrews at the time were told to mark their doors with the blood of the sacrificed lamb so that their households would be spared from the Angel of Death, sent by God to punish the Pharaoh and his people for refusing to let the Hebrew slaves go. The letter A had been written, presumably by the Termites, in blood by the door of the church.
And so it happens that the group is indeed spared, because Rick and his squad return unexpectedly and proceed to ex-terminate the Termites. But like the Hebrews, once delivered, we are left to wonder if they too will be cast adrift in the wilderness after proving time and again that they don’t yet deserve the Promised Land. We see this through Maggie’s and Glen’s horrified reactions to – and lack of participation in – the savagery.
With the addition of one innocuous item of art, the writers are telling viewers a whole lot more about what’s happening to survivors of this apocalypse. It’s both warning and hint at the conditions that took the sacred and the divine out of the equation, and thus brought about an onslaught straight from hell. Whether it’s nuclear power, where mankind has finally discovered a way to do to itself what only God could do before – wipe out every living thing – or whether it’s fictionally tampering with the human genome and unwittingly unleashing a zombie virus, our distance from God, the sacred, the divine, has never been greater. We drink of our own metaphorical blood, and eat of our own flesh, and therefore no longer participate in the divine (communion).When humans supplant God, we become monstrous, and the Promised Land remains farther and farther beyond our reach.
The show’s subtle allusions to Nazism and communism are not without reason either. These have been our greatest historical examples of what happens when humanity supplants God in trying to create a Promised Land.
In storytelling, these are the little details that seed a plot with richness and depth. Even if an audience doesn’t consciously pick up on that plaque hanging there on the wall, it certainly will be taken in, somewhere deep in the subconscious brain. And that subconscious brain has a few cells set aside for all the information our vast circuitry has ever absorbed about The Last Supper, which are then set aflutter by the un/conscious perception of that plaque.
Your brain starts telling you to anticipate. All those synaptic zips and zaps are connecting flesh, blood, bread, wine, sacrifice, betrayal, denial, wilderness, Promised Land –
Just from that plaque. The writers are signalling and signifying with well-placed visual cues like this.
Add to that the expression in Daryl’s eyes (that too could be a whole post on its own) at the end of the episode and all your spidey senses should be left tingling: is he the betrayer? Or has he brought the betrayer into their midst?
Now that I think of it, Carol has been behaving strangely. And what was she doing back at the prison anyhow after the Governor ambushed the group, when she knew she would not be welcome? What would we have found out about her activities during her absence if the battle with the Governor had not forced the group from the prison? What was her purpose in being there? Had she been sent by someone? She’d already crossed a line by pre-emptively killing two sick but very much living members of the group, so there’s no telling how this bent in her personality was further warped by isolation and segregation from the only semblance of family she had left. And once they’d all settled into Father Gabriel’s church, you know when Carol found that car on the side of the road that she was going to leave on her own (or meet up with someone else?), and was about to just when Daryl grabbed her to chase down the car that took Beth.
Did she have something to do with Beth’s disappearance? Or that awful, freighted look in Daryl’s eyes when Michonne realized it was him coming through the woods and he glanced back toward the darkness in the trees and told someone to come on out? Is that expression evidence that Daryl – and thus everyone – has been betrayed by Carol?
Writers who use symbolism, metaphor, and recurring motifs can trigger profound subconscious emotional or psychological responses in readers that can keep them turning the page or watching episode after episode for reasons they might not even perceive. But in order to work, they have to be universally understood, or at the very least understanding must be attainable through the story’s context (in other words, never assume they’re going to pause, research it, then return to the story).
For example, a dove suggests something very different from the vulture, or the peacock. In exactly zero ways can you successfully write a horror story involving a dove as the symbol of malevolence unless you intend to be funny or satirical or ironic. Doves in horror will be the first thing to die.
Oh, and hey – guess how many survivors there are left from the battle at the prison?
This is conscious, deliberate storytelling with strokes of genius.
Think about it this way: you can throw a slab of meat on the barbie (sorry, I have to go there, I really do), and yes, it will be tasty all on its own with all that fat dripping down, juices flowing.
But a great master barbequer knows that a particular kind of wood and a hint of very specific herbs and spices depending on the meat – but not so much to overwhelm all that sizzling and crackling barbeque deliciousness – makes the meal oh-so-much more satisfying.
Believable characters work in a kind of inviolable synchronicity with story itself. Sometimes character is more important than almost any other part of the story, like Raskolnikov in Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. Other times, as in much genre or pulp fiction, characters are little more than lightly sketched catalysts for the story’s unfolding details.
So what makes a character credible?
Whether you’re writing cardboard characters or hanging a literary skin on a complex psychological, emotional, intellectual, and experiential scaffolding, there must still be something true about them for the reader. The best opportunities to use character to create energy and momentum for a story is through moments of decision or crisis. Growth – or lack of it – should not only enrich the story’s path, but also solidify the reader’s trust even when they hate what the character does. A reader who throws a book down and screams, “That would never happen!” is very different from one who screams, “That’s not what I expected to happen!” As a writer you want to aim for taking characters in a direction that both works for the story and takes the reader by surprise.
Here’s a great example. Apologies to those who are not Walking Dead fans. Also condolences. Truly. The following scene hails from the Season 5 premiere, and it depicts the moment when Carol and Daryl reunite after a long separation brought about when Rick, the de facto leader of our merry band of survivors, expelled Carol from the group when she broke the only rule that safeguarded their humanity: she killed the living who were not an immediate threat to personal or group safety.
Now, Carol and Daryl were developing a romantic relationship when all this happened. This scene nakedly exposes how they feel about each other. But it also reveals so much more.
In this scene the two are drawn like magnets, running into each others’ arms with almost childlike abandon. Daryl, self-styled white trash, tough guy, bad boy, bites back a big gut sob just having her in his arms. He steps back, hesitant, like a little boy who doesn’t know where to put such big emotions, but the best he can do is drop his head against her shoulder and let her hold him. It’s almost mother/son-ish.
But why doesn’t Daryl kiss her? Why doesn’t she kiss him? Glenn and Maggie would have (kissed each other, that is). I mean, Carol salvaged Daryl’s crossbow (sniff) and brought it to him. His crossbow, people. Sniff. If that’s not love, what is? That’s how gals like Carol roll, right?
Should they have kissed? What would it mean if the writers had given them that “first” in this scene? Sure, it would have pandered to a moment of high emotion, and to the viewers’ desire to see these two find something beautiful in each other in such an awful world, but it would have done nothing to reflect or explore – or further – character. Nor would it have served as a social commentary about the world before and after zombification.
It reveals so much more about who these people are and their social conditioning to have not kissed. Obvious is that the feelings these two have for each other are singular, and belong only to them and between them, but the missing kiss suggests that while they clearly have cared about each other, the blush might be off this rose. Maybe Carol and Tyrese bonded just enough to make her doubt her feelings for Daryl. Maybe what Daryl experienced with Beth on the run, then losing her the way he did, hurt more deeply than it appeared.
There’s a wall up between them. That much is clear.
Let’s take it up a notch. The moment reveals some residual resentment or reticence after having been ex-communicated and left to fend for herself. Who knows what she experienced out there on her own? Carol’s doubt about her acceptance by the group and by Daryl could also be implied. Don’t forget that Carol was in an abusive marriage before the swine Ed got what he deserved: a zombie to the jugular and a few well deserved blows to the brain stem delivered by Carol. Carol’s whole past with men is in that not-kiss. It is not easy for abused women to trust – not men, yes, but they don’t trust their feelings or their gut instinct either. How could Carol physically give herself over to any man after Ed, but more importantly how can she trust her attraction to someone who, for all intents and purposes, is (was?) a whole nuther level of human scum who shared a bloodline with the likes of Merle?
Oh, we all love Daryl but let’s face it, he’s not exactly the kind of fella a well-bred lady would take home to meet the folks, even if there aren’t any folks left to care about social niceties. In that not-kiss moment Carol probably went with her primal attraction and ran to him, then thought, “Carol, what are you doing? Sure, he’s hot but do you really see yourself scrubbing out the skidmarks in his gotchies while he gets pig-eyed over a barrel of rotgut? Didn’t you learn your lesson from Ed?”
The not-kiss also reveals Daryl’s inability to accept himself yet as part of this society – one made up of the same types of people who wouldn’t have even made eye contact with him in the before-time. Maybe he even picks up on Carol’s hesitation or doubt. Right now, in this moment in all its raw emotion, Daryl’s pre-zombie identity is painfully still very much in play. It’s what impels him to move aside despite his feelings and his need for Carol, to make way for Rick. Who, by the way, made the high-handed executive decision behind everyone’s backs to exile Carol to begin with. Daryl’s before-self is still holding him back from allowing love, friendship, passion, romance – and even the brotherhood that Rick proclaimed last season. He steps aside because he knows he’s not Rick’s brother, not his equal. Not anyone’s equal. That’s the Daryl who didn’t matter to anyone peeking through. When he’s killing walkers there is a sense of simpatico between Daryl’s former self and his survivor self. But what is Daryl in love? What is Daryl with love?
Daryl don’t know.
Nor should we.
In one curious omission during a critical scene – the lack of a kiss – who Daryl and Carol were, who they are, and who they’re becoming – are all exposed in one shot. That’s credible character development.
Not kissing means that viewers have something to anticipate. A kiss would have left no room for guessing. Maybe it will still be a private moment between them later on, and in nine months baby Judith will have an ersatz brother or sister. Or it could mean the dissolution of their relationship because Daryl will realize he has to keep his walls up if he wants to survive.
For Daryl and Carol, kissing would have told us about what was. Not kissing told us about what could be. It’s fraught with possibility. It keeps viewers moving forward. It’s the not knowing that’s so delicious.
That’s how writers can create moments that are not just true for character, but sizzling with potential, all without compromising the credibility that readers and viewers depend upon in good storytelling.
Create moments like this in your writing, and you will have readers kissing your hand. Or not.
“Authors of so-called ‘literary’ fiction insist that action, like plot, is vulgar and unworthy of a true artist. Don’t pay any attention to misguided advice of that sort. If you do, you will very likely starve trying to live on your writing income. Besides, the only writers who survive the ages are those who understand the need for action in a novel.”
—Dean R. Koontz, August 1981