Tag Archives: fiction writing

The Story Analyst: Character vs. The Moment

SCEW - WordPress embedded icon - glass lookBelievable 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?

That’s so romantic.

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.

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Writing Quote: John Irving

SC Blog - Irving - Know the StoryKnow the story—as much of the story as you can possibly know, if not the whole story—before you commit yourself to the first paragraph….If you don’t know the story before you begin the story, what kind of a storyteller are you?
-John Irving

[Read some comments below}

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Writing Quote: Dean R. Koontz

SC Blog - Koontz - Literary Fiction Quote“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

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Writing Quote: Anton Chekhov

SC Blog - Chekhov - moon quote“Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.”
― Anton Chekhov

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The “Because” of Storytelling

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Years ago a client came to me with a massive unpublished coming-of-age manuscript set in an era rife with racial tensions. She had a magical way with description. During a workshop a brief excerpt had even been given tons of praise and attention by an award-winning internationally renowned author, who saw great potential in the writing and in the bones of the story. This author even gave the writer her agent’s name and contact info, with express consent to name drop to the agent.

Take a moment to let that kind of opportunity sink in.

Yes sir!

Yes sir!

It’s almost hard not to picture said author giving said writer a little chuck under the chin and a knowing wink.

So the writer came to me to help her get the story into a publishable state. About 600 pages later the character had passed through all the epic horror and beauty you’d expect from that era and place, including a brutal act of violence experienced by the protagonist.

It was never published. All the lush description in the world could not save this manuscript or this writer. The world-class author could not have known how problematic this manuscript was based on the first few pages – which can be the best pages in a m/s, or the worst. Upon completing my analysis I informed the writer that unless she followed my advice it would never be published. She didn’t – or couldn’t – do it, and what might have been an important story likely became bird-cage liner.

So, what went wrong?

There’s some advice that’s been around forever about the narrative “and” versus “and then”. This happens, and this happens. Or this happens, and then that happens. One is supposed to be better than the other, but let’s break that down and see what kind of value it really has in storytelling.

Beginning writers often take a character and drop them into a successive string of events, with the idea that as long as the the protagonist’s the center of action and an end is reached they’ve succeeded. This is the simple addition of narrative. Event + Event. Scene + Scene. This happens, and this happens, and this happens, the end.

Now, these stories might be really well written but it’s not storytelling, and often this approach results in a sprawling, disjointed, pointless, tedious product. Yes, in the case of this manuscript the protagonist went from childhood to womanhood and even found inner peace, but only because the writer said so. The story proved nothing of the kind. The protagonist moved through a succession of scenes typified by the era – in fact, one might argue, the equivalent of a tour-book cliche of it. The end.

Let me repeat that. The protagonist moved through a succession of scenes.

The protagonist did not experience the events. She didn’t even witness them or offer reportage. She merely passed through them like an inert bubble. In them, but not of them. The placement of the protagonist into guidebook attractions only compromised any hope for authenticity, as though the writer had wanted to touch upon all the touristy things that absolutely must be experienced in this locale in order for it to be recognized by readers. In truth, she did not trust that she could tell a story about place without them. This lack of any real agency and authority would give any story all the earnestness of a Paris Hilton driving through Jim Crow South in the back of a Hummer with a Condé Nast Traveller, then trying to write To Kill A Mockingbird.

Nope.

Nope.

The damage this additive approach – scene+scene – causes to a story is endless (see sprawling, pointless, tedious, disjointed above), but the chief failure in this case was that the writer seemed unable to give the protagonist any kind of emotional or psychological functionality. Part of that was a consistent urge to tell rather than show.

Say a serial killer broke into your kitchen and slaughtered your beloved Ma. I just made that up to drive home a point. There you are, standing at the door looking in on this scene, a plate of hamburger and fries slathered in ketchup in your hand, and you think OMG, I’m s-o-o-o terrified. Police arrive, you tell them you were s-o-o-o terrified, then you leave the scene and … never think about it again? And if you passed in and out of that kitchen regularly for the next few years, would you just go right ahead and squeeze that blob of ketchup out, lick a dab off your thumb, and never even get a twitch?

I was so terrified. Meaningless. What does terror feel like? How can you make the reader experience terror by proxy? In our manuscript example, the worst was when the protagonist as a young woman was gang-raped, then went on for the rest of the story exactly the same way she had since page one.

Terror has an aftermath too, so this client put her character through some unspeakable events whose effects had exactly zero impact on anything once that scene was over.

No emotional/psychological functionality. Not good. Not in fiction, not in life. Not in a writer.

Now, if you’re writing about sociopaths or particular psychological states where the protagonist regresses or detaches, that’s one thing. The writer did not appear to know how to offer the reader anything but descriptions of things and places, or understand how to write growth or development into a character, which is hard to miss in a coming-of-age story.

If you look at the most hardcore non-linear literary works they are never merely strings of events out of order. Even epistolary and picaresque novels give the appearance of this simple narrative addition, but are far more complex and carefully orchestrated.

Writers then tend to go from the additive approach to writing into the realm of narrative algebra. This happens, and then that happens takes the scene+scene idea up a notch, suggesting a movement that simple narrative addition lacks. Here order matters. To even get this far our promising writer needed to make each scene serve a purpose to the story that went beyond describing what everything looked like, or as mere breadcrumbs between beginning and end.

In mathematics, addition is a basic operative function. Order doesn’t matter. In storytelling, this would be the equivalent of one scene having no more or less value than any other. You can keep adding scenes but it will not give the outcome any more weight. You can have 2+1+1 or you can have 1 + 1+ 2. Writers who are just stringing scenes together get the same outcome, with nothing else making any difference. No particular scene changes the character much, or the plot points.

Algebra (al-jebr: the reunion of broken parts) involves mathematical systems of representation (letters for unknown quantities). After approaching the writing process as additive, writers might begin to put some weight on the events and scenes to end up with something more like this:

(Scene a + Event b) x X = novel

This can work just fine for very formulaic stories or genres. The whodunnit, the bodice-ripper. But there’s still something missing. It’s the connectedness and reflexivity between the events. Breadcrumbs lead somewhere, but they are only discrete placeholders.  Picking up a narrative thread and following it to wherever it leads is better but almost as limiting. You still don’ t know where you are in the grand scheme of things. You’re just going from here to there.

Story is more: because this happened, that happens. Now we’re getting into a more complex kind of narrative calculus:

(Event 1 + Scene 1 ) +  Purpose Y  x  ∑  (Δ emotional state/Δ psychological state ) +  time X + Event 2 = Scene 2

Now, all that’s just a bunch of fancy looking nonsense to demonstrate the complexity of storytelling, but the truth is that everything beautiful in mathematics is what makes storytelling rich. Calculus is the mathematics of change. Calculus deals with differentiation, integration, function, and symbolic reasoning. Wow, that’s beautiful for writers. The pros know it deep in their solar plexus.

One of my suggestions to the client was to take the rape out and rewrite it as a children’s story. Certainly the makings of an excellent children’s story were there. In fact, it was too naively written to be anything else. If she could not develop the character maturely, or could not see the story through the filter of cynicism needed to create the kind of emotional and psychological ugliness the events demanded, children’s writing was the only realistic option.

My guess is that she promptly made a beeline for the agent’s open door, cashed in the secret handshake given by the famous author, then …

Mary Poppins Inappropriate Story

Um – maybe urban violence isn’t the right fit for this story …?

Nothing. Good description can’t save bad storytelling.

If a writer’s lucky there’ll be some generous hints from an agent or a publisher about how to fix what’s broken. Most just get rejected, no specified reason. What happens when a manuscript is fixable but the writer can’t or won’t do what the story requires? Back then I’m sure the client continued trying to find a publisher or agent, obviously without success. Today she might go straight to self-publishing, then wonder why only close family and friends and a handful of strangers interested in the subject have bought a copy. The despair of rejection or the inability to understand storytelling will make most writers give up. I’m sure she did.

Any time I’ve worked with beginners the mistakes are the same. They’re stuck at the narrative addition stage. Or they go in the opposite direction and the characters’ emotional and psychological states are gut-spattered all over the pages until none of it has any value. There isn’t enough internal value carried through the story. Dropped threads. Meagre or nonexistent internal lives. Events and experiences that pop up with little  or no continuity or connection to each other or to the characters’ internal lives. There’s no sense of because.

This happens because that happened, and because that happened, there is change.

If you’re not getting anywhere with your stories, or if you’ve self-published and have sold poorly, ask yourself whether your writing is too additive, or too algebraic. Are your characters’ emotional and psychological states carried over across the entire story, expanded and contracted by joy and trauma in the same way they would if real people had those same experiences? Does the calculus of you narrative account for change?

Have you looked for and developed the “because” in storytelling?

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Writing Quote: Rainer Maria Rilke

SC Blog - Rilke - go into yourself quote“Go into yourself. Find out the reason that commands you to write; see whether it has spread its roots into the very depths of your heart; confess to yourself whether you would have to die if you were forbidden to write.

This most of all: ask yourself in the most silent hour of your night: must I write? Dig into yourself for a deep answer. And if this answer rings out in assent, if you meet this solemn question with a strong, simple “I must,” then build your life in accordance with this necessity; your whole life, even into its humblest and most indifferent hour, must become a sign and witness to this impulse. Then come close to Nature. Then, as if no one had ever tried before, try to say what you see and feel and love and lose…

…Describe your sorrows and desires, the thoughts that pass through your mind and your belief in some kind of beauty – describe all these with heartfelt, silent, humble sincerity and, when you express yourself, use the Things around you, the images from your dreams, and the objects that you remember. If your everyday life seems poor, don’t blame it; blame yourself; admit to yourself that you are not enough of a poet to call forth its riches; because for the creator there is not poverty and no poor, indifferent place. And even if you found yourself in some prison, whose walls let in none of the world’s sounds – wouldn’t you still have your childhood, that jewel beyond all price, that treasure house of memories? Turn your attentions to it. Try to raise up the sunken feelings of this enormous past; your personality will grow stronger, your solitude will expand and become a place where you can live in the twilight, where the noise of other people passes by, far in the distance. – And if out of this turning-within, out of this immersion in your own world, poems come, then you will not think of asking anyone whether they are good or not. Nor will you try to interest magazines in these works: for you will see them as your dear natural possession, a piece of your life, a voice from it. A work of art is good if it has arisen out of necessity. That is the only way one can judge it.”
― Rainer Maria Rilke

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No Great Mischief – Loss and Pain

SCEW - WordPress embedded icon - glass lookThis is a student video presentation about the immigrant experience, and the themes of loss and love in the late Alistair MacLeod’s stirring – and only – novel, No Great Mischief. Quotes from my essay Staring Down My Ghosts In Northern Ontario, published in the Globe & Mail a while back, were included as part of the presentation. Interesting synchronicity that the students couldn’t have known: MacLeod not only taught me, but was the first person to offer encouragement about doing graduate work, an astounding idea considering I had a business degree and one mediocre English course credit under my belt.  About a decade later he sat in on my thesis defense, which I didn’t realize was unheard-of until it was over and my defense committee commented that they’d never seen him do that before.  It’s humbling that my name even came within glancing distance of his when it comes to writing, even in a student presentation, but it’s pretty cool nonetheless. Dr. MacLeod was one of the loveliest men you’d ever meet with a fantastic sense of humor that got me through Jane Austin without going postal (sorry Austinites, but I’m more of a Frankenstein kind of gal). Thanks, students, whoever you are.

Click on Video above, or this link:

http://prezi.com/6n6dyjx7uwnu/?utm_campaign=share&utm_medium=copy&rc=ex0share

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June 12, 2014 · 1:12 pm