Friday, April 18, 2014

7 Tips From James Patterson For Writing Suspenseful Prose

7 Tips From James Patterson For Writing Suspenseful Prose


Did you know that, since 2001, James Patterson has sold more books than any other writer? Apparently 1 out of every 17 hardcover books sold has Patterson's name on it.

Regardless of what anyone thinks of Patterson's writing, there is no arguing with his popularity. So, how does he do it? Here are seven tips Patterson gave to those who want to write suspenseful prose.

(This blog post is based on the article, World's Best-Selling Author James Patterson On How To Write An Unputdownable Story, by Joe Berkowitz.)

1. Fast Paced: Cut out the parts people skip.


James Patterson says:

"I think what hooks people into my stories is the pace. I try to leave out the parts people skip.[*] I used to live across the street from Alexander Haig, and if I told you a story that I went out to get the paper and Haig was laying in the driveway, and then I went on for 20 minutes describing the architecture on the street and the way the palm trees were, you'd feel like "Stop with the description--what's going on with Haig?" I tend to write stories the way you'd tell them. I think it'd be tragic if everybody wrote that way. But that's my style. I read books by a lot of great writers. I think I'm an okay writer, but a very good storyteller."

I think that's what many writers on the bestseller lists would say, that they identify themselves primarily as a storyteller. Their prose may not be as poetic as some, but they can tell an suspenseful, absorbing, story.

* Elmore Leonard also gave this advice.

2. Make it intimate.


James Patterson says:

"I try to put myself in every scene that I'm writing. I try to be there. I try to put the kind of detail in stories that will make people experience what the characters are experiencing, within reason."

I think this is the key to good storytelling. I know Stephen King doesn't think a whole lot of Patterson's books, but one thing both men are know for is a) selling a lot of books and b) being good storytellers.

Personally, I think that King's prose is every bit as good as his storytelling. But, putting that aside, look at the first sentence of Stephen King's book, The Shining: "Jack Torrance thought: Officious little prick." (I discuss this further in Parts of Story.) That sentence is angry and shocking but, above all, intimate. And it raises the question: Why does Jack Torrance think that and whom does he think it of?" Storytelling at its best. 

3. Short chapters.


James Patterson's books tend to have short chapters. I did some calculations and, from the four books I looked at, the average chapter length was about 640 words. That's only about three manuscript pages! Wow, that is short.

4. Outline.


Patterson says that outlining saves time (a view which Chuck Wendig shares). Patterson creates a fairly extensive outline; each chapter is summed up in about a paragraph of text. He says:

"Each chapter will have about a paragraph devoted to it. But you're gonna get the scene, and you're gonna get the sense of what makes the scene work."

If, as I said above, Patterson's average chapter is about 640 words long and if we say that a paragraph of text is about 100 words, then it would appear that those 100 words make up about 1/6th of a chapter.

5. Outlines can and should change so be flexible.


When Patterson writes, his characters speak to him and ruin many of his plans. They can even change the ending!

Patterson says: "One of the drafts I do, I'll decide that okay, it went this way, but it doesn't feel very interesting--what if this happened instead of that? And rarely do I know the ending. Occasionally, but mostly not."

That's a little scary! When I sit down to write I like to have an ending in mind, I like to have a destination. But the ending can--and occasionally does--change.

6. Fake it till you make it.


When he was 26 years old, Patterson won an Edgar award for best first mystery. That book was The Thomas Berryman Number.

"I felt like there might have been a mistake. That’s the kind of lack of confidence you can have early on. You're writing this thing and you hope people like it. You're rewriting and rewriting and get lost in the sauce. Confidence is a big thing."

7. Know your readers.


Patterson says that writers should know who they're telling their stories to and then ask themselves: "What have you got for them?" He says:

"It’s useful that if you tell somebody in a paragraph what the story is and they go, “Ooh ooh, I can’t wait, tell me more,” as opposed to they were just kind of nodding politely. Well, then that just puts so much stress on the writing. That means that the style has to overcome the fact that you don’t have much of a story."

Patterson also mentions that readers want suspense and that the essence of suspense, of creating suspense, is to get the reader to want the answer to a question your story has raised. He says:

"I try to pretend that there's somebody across from me and I'm telling them a story and I don't want them to get up until I'm finished."

Good tips.

Thanks to +Elizabeth S. Craig for sharing a link to Joe Berkowitz's article through Google+. 

Photo credit: "Sondershausen Castle" by *Light Painting* under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Parts of Story: How Setting Can Help Bring Characters To Life



When writing a scene, how much description is enough?

All writers have certain things we do well--or at least, that we do better than others. Things that, relatively speaking, we excel at. I know someone who writes descriptions that make you feel like you're there; you taste the salt in the sea air and feel the early morning chill. But when this person writes dialogue, although it's good, it's not at the same level. And that's fine! Actually, it's reassuring. It wouldn't be, well, human, to be terrific at everything. (Which, I suppose, is an argument that Neil Gaiman is not quite human, but I digress.)

Descriptions aren't my best thing. There, I've said it. I'm talking specifically about the sort of description that needs to go at the beginning of scenes and stories to orient the reader; description that isn't intimately connected with the action of the story but needs to be mentioned. I can't tell you the number of first drafts I've finished where I had given no hint as to the protagonist's hair color, it's length, whether she was cute or handsome or beautiful. Or even a he or a she!

Why? Because it wasn't intimately connected with the action of the story. Or so I thought. Obviously, I under-describe. Readers like to know, for example, whether a character is male or female because they form assumptions, assumptions that may later be proved wrong and that can be disconcerting. 

So back to my question: When writing a scene, how much description is enough? 

I've spent some time mulling this question over and rereading many of the books I've listed in the recommended reading section. I think that, perhaps, in order to answer this question we need to recognize that:

1. A setting isn't just physical, it's also emotional.


In his book, The Fire In Fiction, Donald Maass writes that we should select specific things about the characters environment and describe them in a way that shows the character's emotions. He writes that the combination of details about the setting and the emotions attached to them, "together, make a place a living thing. Setting comes alive partly in its details and partly in the way that the story's characters experience it. Either element alone is fine, but both working together deliver a sense of place without parallel."

Yes. Exactly. That's a great way of stating what we want to do. But (and this is the 64,000 dollar question), how do we do it? I hate it when writers state a question perfectly then quickly pronounce it a problem for the ages, shake their hoary heads, and move on.

Donald Maass doesn't do this. He answers the question and does so with examples. I won't reproduce them here, those were Donald Maass' examples, passages that spoke to him. I've written before about Stephen King, enough perhaps to give you the idea that I admire his writing, especially the way he could draw me into the worlds he created.[2] (I used to swear there had to be dark magic involved!)

But I think Donald Maass, here, has put his finger on another technique King uses, one which I hadn't noticed.[4] The following are the first few paragraphs from one of Stephen King's best books, The Shining (1977).
"Jack Torrance thought: Officious little prick.

"Ullman stood five-five, and when he moved, it was with the prissy speed that seems to be the exclusive domain of all small plump men. The part in his hair was exact, and his dark suit was sober but comforting. I am a man you can bring your problems to, that suit said to the paying customer. To the hired help it spoke more curtly: This had better be good, you. There was a red carnation in the lapel, perhaps so that no one on the street would mistake Stuart Ullman for the local undertaker.

"As he listened to Ullman speak, Jack admitted to himself that he probably could not have liked any man on that side of the desk--under the circumstances."[1]
Right away, I noticed three things about these paragraphs. First, King uses them to describe the characters not the room. We understand the characters, the circumstances, first. Then we get to the physical setting. 

a. Character first, setting second.


The first time I read the above paragraphs I don't think I realized I wasn't 'seeing' an office. I don't think I realized that Jack Torrance was there for a job interview. But that's okay. That information isn't important, not right away. What is important is that we understand the kind of man Jack is, what is important is that we understand how he reacts to Ullman as well as what sort of relationship they have to each other. And we get that (a start at least) from the opening paragraphs, all without knowing the color of each man's hair, if the walls are painted or wallpapered, what kind of desk Ullman has, and so on.

But look at the information we are given. In the first sentence we are told that the protagonist is Jack Torrence and, through that, we know he's (probably) male. We also have an idea of how old Jack is, an age range. A child probably wouldn't have thought 'officious.' That belies not just an adults vocabulary but, most likely, either an educated person or someone who reads a lot. 

Also, a child who thought "officious little prick" (depending on their temperament) might well have also said it. But Jack didn't. He's angry but controlling it. 

And, finally, that first sentence also gives us the point of view: third person, subjective.
"Ullman stood five-five, and when he moved, it was with the prissy speed that seems to be the exclusive domain of all small plump men."
From the second sentence (I'm only going to talk about the first two) we learn that Ullman is short and fat and that Jack thought he was prissy. It's interesting (interesting to me at least!) that while we're told how tall Ullman is, how he moves, that he's plump--quite a number of physical details--we aren't given any of this information about Jack Torrence, the protagonist. 

But that makes perfect sense, doesn't it? After all, we're seeing all this from Jack's perspective, from the narrators point-of-view which is firmly ensconced in Jack's mind. As a result everything Jack sees, everything the narrator tells us about the world, also tells us about Jack. And Jack--this character--couldn't care less about his hair color or how it's cut and styled. One feels Jack would label that as 'prissy,' something Ullman would be concerned about. 

It isn't until a few paragraphs later that we learn what we are watching is a job interview and that the characters are in Ullman's office:
"He slipped Jack’s application back into the file. The file went into a drawer. The desk top was now completely bare except for a blotter, a telephone, a Tensor lamp, and an in/out basket. Both sides of the in/out were empty, too.

"Ullman stood up and went to the file cabinet in the corner. 'Step around the desk, if you will, Mr. Torrance. We’ll look at the floor plans.' He brought back five large sheets and set them down on the glossy walnut plain of the desk. Jack stood by his shoulder, very much aware of the scent of Ullman’s cologne. All my men wear English Leather or they wear nothing at all came into his mind for no reason at all, and he had to clamp his tongue between his teeth to keep in a bray of laughter. Beyond the wall, faintly, came the sounds of the Overlook Hotel's kitchen, gearing down from lunch."
The second thing that jumps out at me is that ...

b. Intimate settings reflect the personality of the characters.


When Stephen King--or, rather, the narrator--describes Ullman's desk (see the passage, above), he is describing Ullman. He is describing items--the desk, the chair, the in/out basket--that Ullman has impressed his personality on. These setting details, therefore, are a reflection of Ullman's character, of who he is and how he wants the world to be. 

It is only in the last paragraph that we are given the information that these characters are at the Overlook Hotel and that it's just after lunch. By this time we know that Jack was enduring a job interview ("He slipped Jack's application back into the file"). But we are only interested in these things because, now, we are interested in these men--particularly Jack--and the peculiar tension between them.

c. Use the setting to introduce conflict.


King uses the setting--which largely consists of the two men, at least at the beginning--to inject a mammoth amount of conflict right from the first line: "Officious little prick." But, as I mentioned above, Jack's thoughts tell us more about him than about Mr. Ullman:
"Jack admitted to himself that he probably could not have liked any man on that side of the desk--under the circumstances."
What are the circumstances? King doesn't answer this question right away. He lets the information unfurl, naturally, like we're perched on Jack Torrance's shoulder, riding along with him on this most disagreeable of days, a voyeur learning about this character and his world; a world which just happens to be the world of the story.

And we're hooked!

Or at least I am. King gets me every time. After I read about three or four paragraphs I couldn't put the book down if I tried. And who's trying? 

2. Describe only those aspects of the setting that are relevant to the scene's purpose.


I've spent most of this chapter talking about Stephen King and what his work can show us about how and when to use description (he also has a wonderful discussion of this in his book, On Writing). I'd like to close with a more general point about keeping description focused.

As you know, each scene has a purpose: the protagonist wants to achieve some goal and they probably won't. Each scene must advance the overall plot and move the story closer to the final, inevitable, show down. 

- Who is the main character, the focal character, in the scene?[3] 
- What is the focal character's goal? 
- What must the focal character accomplish to attain that goal? 
- What opposing force prevents the focal character from attaining their goal? 
- How does the focal character react to the opposing force? 
- How does the focal character meet this opposition? 

Once you answer these questions you'll not only know the scene's purpose you'll know its overall structure.

But how does that help us describe the setting? Donald Maass suggests that to discover what aspects of the setting are important--to discover what aspects of the setting we must describe to readers--we must first find the turning points. To do this ask:

- What has changed?
- When does it change?
- How is the focal character affected by this change?

Make sure that setting has been described in enough detail, and with enough emotion, to ground each turning point. What has led up to these points, these changes?

Everything else--including details about the setting--should focus on these points. If a detail of setting doesn't contribute to any of the turning points in the scene then ask yourself: do you really need to include it? Perhaps it would be better placed in another scene. Or another novel. 

I hope some of what I've written, above, is of help in describing how much description is enough. In the final analysis I agree with Stephen King: It's all on the table. Use whatever you want, especially on the first draft. Experiment, try new things, let it fly! After you've set your manuscript aside for awhile and come back to it, and hopefully read it with fresh eyes, then it will be easier for you to see which parts work and which don't, as well as where you've described too much or too little.

(Note: This is a chapter from my upcoming book: Parts of Story. I've decided to blog the book because, that way, I'm more likely to stay on track. And it seems to be working (Yay!).)

Links/References


1. Notice that these paragraphs were written in third person and yet King seems to have achieved all the intimacy of first person. I've written a bit about how Stephen King might have achieved this--one of the techniques I think he makes use of--in this post: Free Indirect Discourse: How To Create A Window Into A Character's Soul.
2. Stephen King, since writing his enormously helpful book, On Writing, is well known for believing that stories exist external to, independently of, writers. He believes he discovers stories in much the same way an archaeologist discovers dinosaur bones.
3. Briefly, a viewpoint character is the character whose point of view the chapter is being told from. If the point of view is limited then this viewpoint character will be one of the characters in the story. The focal character is the character that all the fuss is about; they are the protagonist, the main actor. For example, in many of the original Sherlock Holmes stories, Holmes was the focal character while Watson was the viewpoint character. 
4. Stephen King also, and very powerfully, uses his character's emotion-laden thoughts to lay bare their souls and make us interested in them. Or at least that's what I think. I've written a bit about this in my article on Free Indirect Discourse (I've given the link, above, in note 1). See also: How Did Agatha Christie Hook Readers?
5. The remark about it all being on the table is from King's book, "On Writing." 

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

How Did Agatha Christie Hook Readers?

How Did Agatha Christie Hook Readers?


In previous posts I've written about Stephen King and how his prose possesses the almost magical quality of being able to draw me into his story world. (See: Free Indirect Discourse: How To Create A Window Into A Character's Soul.)

King gets me to care so deeply about his characters, to identify with them so fully, that even though I'm scared to death and half convinced a decomposing mummy has taken up residence under my bed (it's just waiting for me to stick an unprotected foot over the side), even so, I can't stop reading.

Lately, though, I've been reading less of the King of Horror and more of the Queen of Crime. In a previous post (How To Write Like Agatha Christie) I mentioned that Christie's books have sold 4 billion copies, making her the best selling novelist of all time. (see also: Agatha Christie's Secret: Break The Rules and How To Write Like Agatha Christie: Motifs)

What's her secret?

Of course she didn't have one. There is no piece of writing wisdom that, if whispered over an open grave at the exact moment of the vernal equinox, will transform one's prose into the equivalent of catnip for readers. Not even if it's spoken in latin. (More's the pity.)

No, but Agatha Christie did have a bit of Stephen King's magic. She had the knack of making her characters interesting, companionable. She had the knack of making us care about them, for making it matter to us whether they were murdered or falsely accused.

I've always liked Christie's characters, they have always felt like the sort of people I would enjoy spending an evening with--well, most of them. Since one of these wonderfully charming people is a cold blooded killer I doubt I could ever become too comfortable!

The Opening Paragraphs of Murder at the Vicarage


Let's take a look at the opening to the first Miss Marple mystery, The Murder at the Vicarage. This book was published in 1930, four years after Christie's great success with The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. In fact, Christie acknowledged that the character of Caroline Sheppard was a prototype for Miss Marple.

Vicarage was written in first person from the perspective of--you guessed it--the vicar. Here's how it begins:

"It is difficult to know quite where to begin this story, but I have fixed my choice on a certain Wednesday at luncheon at the Vicarage. The conversation, though in the main irrelevant to the matter in hand, yet contained one or two suggestive incidents which influenced later developments.

"I had just finished carving some boiled beef (remarkably tough by the way) and on resuming my seat I remarked, in a spirit most unbecoming to my cloth, that any one who murdered Colonel Protheroe would be doing the world at large a service.

"My young nephew, Dennis, said instantly:

"'That'll be remembered against you when the old boy is found bathed in blood. Mary will give evidence, won't you, Mary? And describe how you brandished the carving knife in a vindictive manner.'

"Mary, who is in service at the Vicarage as a stepping‑stone to better things and higher wages, merely said in a loud, businesslike voice, "Greens," and thrust a cracked dish at him in a truculent manner."

1. Early Character Development


Christie gets right to it. Although the murder doesn't occur for another five chapters she wastes no time letting her readers know what kind of book they're reading. She even gives us a broad hint about who is going to die and, for good measure, teases us with the idea that the murderer will turn out to be the vicar, or at least that he will be suspected of the crime. But he isn't, though it does get things off to a quick and interesting start.

Also, in that first paragraph we're told that the current scene contains "one or two suggestive incidents which influenced later developments." Right off the bat, the reader is busy hunting for clues and asking themselves which are the important bits and which are the red herrings.

2. Light, Witty, Tone


One thing that jumps out at me immediately is the tone of the passage. It's light, witty, tongue firmly in cheek. 

Christie pokes a bit of fun at the vicar, letting the reader see him as an old curmudgeon with a not-so-hidden soft streak. Dennis teases the vicar and then Christie effortlessly points the camera at Mary. In the same gently mocking tone we are told she is "in service at the Vicarage as a stepping-stone to better things" and then we are shown that she is an abominable housekeeper (she "thrust a cracked dish at him in a truculent manner"). 

Further, all the things Christie shows us are character traits which are connected to significant threads in the story itself. Mary's abominable housekeeping (and the vicar's wife's even more abominable housekeeping) is connected to at least one major clue and sets up one of the main sources of conflict between the vicar and Griselda: her unsuitability for the life of a parson's wife. 

Griselda's unsuitability--or, rather, his unsuitability for her--leads the vicar to worry she is having an affair, but everything is tied up nicely in the end when Christie reveals that much of Griselda's odd behavior is due to the fact that she has been keeping a secret: she's pregnant! And very nervous about how her husband is going to take the news. Of course everything is tied up at the end with a bow and the soon-to-be parents are happy as blissful clams.

3. Opens With Action


In the first few paragraphs there are no descriptive passages. We aren't told what color the wallpaper is or about its design. We don't know what anyone is wearing and we don't know what any of the character's look like. 

But we do know the important bits. We have a decent, though rough, idea of what each character's character is (I wish there was a more graceful way of saying that!). It is as though, with one or two strokes of her brush, Christie brought these characters to life. Not, perhaps, in the same way Stephen King does in, say, The Shining, but that's fine. Personally, I find it difficult--though (disturbingly) not impossible--to imagine King writing an English cosy. 

Colonel Protheroe, the character who will be the victim, is mentioned in dialogue so, naturally, there's no description of him. Nevertheless we learn everything about him we need to know: he is so impossible to deal with that even a man of the cloth would dearly love to stick a carving knife in him.

4. Intimate


Agatha Christie's tone is intimate. Inviting. Wry. She writes:

"I had just finished carving some boiled beef (remarkably tough by the way) [...]" 

In a first person narrative the protagonist speaks directly to the reader, but this isn't always glaringly obvious. In that aside to the reader--"remarkably tough by the way"--it feels to me as though the vicar took a break from his narrative, leaned close to me, and whispered a companionable warning about the quality of the beef. 

Here we have not just a narrator speaking to a reader, they are gossiping. And it feels intimate and personal. That's the sort of thing a friend, a companion, would do. And that's the sort of thing--these little intimate peeks inside a character's soul--that draws me, as a reader, into a story. That sense of character, that sense of ... for lack of a better term ... aliveness

This is something I've noticed about Stephen King's prose as well. I'm going to blog about it in the next few days so I won't go into it in depth here, but if you have a copy close at hand, take a look at the first few paragraphs of The Shining.

Go ahead. I'll wait.

Back? Good. That first line: "Jack Torrance thought: Officious little prick," is shockingly intimate. It is as though we can read Jack's mind (it is almost as though, we too, have the shining). This tells us not only about the person Jack Torrance is speaking to, it tells us a lot about Jack Torrance himself. 

(I would argue that King's first sentence is a lot like Christie's aside about the quality of the beef. Both are intimate, private, remarks make by characters who are reaching beyond the page to connect with you.)

As I reread those initial passages of The Shining I kept thinking, yes, Mr. Ullman isn't the warmest, nicest, person in the world, but there's really nothing wrong with him. Yes he probably looks down on Jack as a mere functionary, but, really, that's how Jack sees himself. What one word seems to sum up the Jack Torrance of those early passages? I'd say: angry. And that's one of the themes of the book, perhaps the dominant theme: Jack's anger and how he deals--or doesn't deal--with it.

Okay, I'd say that's enough for now. In the future I want to analyse two other books by Christie, their openings, in an attempt to pick up clues as to how she wove her spell. Will there be a common thread? Stay tuned!

Posts about Stephen King:



Photo credit: "Belvedere Castle" by *Light Painting* under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Parts of Story: What Is A Scene? (Part 2 of 2)

Parts of Story: What Is A Scene? (Part 2 of 2)


This post concludes a series I began in my last post: What is a Scene? 

Conflict


E.M. Forster, in Aspects of the Novel, writes:

"Let us define a plot. We have defined a story as a narrative of events arranged in their time-sequence. A plot is also a narrative of events, the emphasis falling on causality. "The king died and then the queen died" is a story. "The king died, and then the queen died of grief" is a plot. The time-sequence is preserved, but the sense of causality overshadows it. Or again: "The queen died, no one knew why, until it was discovered that it was through grief at the death of the king." This is a plot with a mystery in it, a form capable of high development."[5]

Let's examine these two sentences.

a. The king died and then the queen died.
b. The queen died, no one knew why, until it was discovered that it was through grief at the death of the king.

What does (b) have that (a) lacks? In a word: conflict. 

(a) is simply a statement of events. As Forster writes, all that a reader can ask--or wonder--in this case is "What happens next?" But, that said, I can't imagine that there could be any sort of genuine curiosity. One could continue by writing, "Then the page died and the cook died." And so on. One could relentlessly take out the entire royal court, but it wouldn't make an interesting story.

(b) is more than a simple statement of events. One can imagine that the queen had a goal: not dying. Something interfered with that goal. What was it? Her grief at the death of the king. (Here we have an antagonistic force--grief--rather than an antagonist.)

Conflict is what moves a story forward. If a story were a car then conflict would be its engine. 

There are various ways conflict can occur but any kind of conflict will involve someone or something who is being prevented from attaining what they desire. 

I think this is why some storytellers hold that the antagonist, rather than the protagonist, is the most important character in a story. But not to the reader. The reader is rooting for the protagonist (or should be). No, the antagonist is the most important person to the storyteller. Why? Because the antagonist is going to create the conflict that drives the story forward.

If nothing prevents the protagonist from getting what they want then all we have is a series of events. Alfred wants a piece of cake and gets it. Beth wants a cup of rich black coffee and gets it, and so on. Boring!

Without something to prevent the protagonist from getting what she wants a story would be about as interesting as watching paint dry.

The conflict should be unique.


Although we do want conflict--lots of it!--we don't want to go with easy conflict. We want conflict that is unique to our protagonist. 

For example, in every episode of the TV series, Monk, there was conflict. Lots of conflict. One of Monk's two main goals was to get back on the police force (the other was to find out who killed his wife, Trudy). Unfortunately, he was his own worst enemy. His obsessions, his compulsions, his multitude of fears and quirks would get in his way and prevent him from achieving his goal. 

One reason that television show worked so well was because the conflict was unique. It was a unique, believable, situation.

Internal Opposition


In order to have a conflict that is unique the opposition to the character's goals must be unique. In Monk's case, the unique opposition was internal. It came from his own limitations, his multitudinous compulsions and phobias. I mean, the man was scared of milk!

Monk was his own worst enemy. His catchphrase said it all: It's a gift and a curse. His uncanny abilities of observation were a direct result of his many phobias, his obsessions. If he lost them he would be normal, sure, but he would no longer excel at solving crime.

So if we see Monk's fears and compulsions as his internal opposition, we see that this did not change through the series. These were the same in every single episode.[6] That said, these fears, these compulsions, were challenged and explored in new ways each episode. The show was kept fresh and interesting because the external opposition Monk encountered varied from episode to episode.

External Opposition


Anything external--exterior--to the character, anything that stands between them and the acquisition of their goal, counts as external opposition. The man who gets punched by a boxer to prevent him flirting with the boxer's girlfriend has just encountered external opposition.

But this external, opposing, force doesn't have to take the form of a person. It could just as easily be a tornado or an illness. Or, as we saw in the beginning of this chapter, grief.

In a television show like Monk the external opposition usually came from two sources: the murderer and someone from within the police department who, for whatever reason, didn't want Monk on the case. These obstacles--both of which were strongly linked to the internal opposition Monk faced (his phobias and compulsions)--combined to form the storytelling engine that drove the episode forward.

Disaster


The overwhelming majority of scenes end in disaster. Given this, why do readers keep turning pages?

It may seem counterintuitive but, as I've said, readers are drawn through a story because their hopes for the protagonist are constantly thwarted by the antagonistic force. 

Try-Fail Cycles


That seems depressing and perhaps a wee bit fatalistic, doesn't it? If the protagonist is constantly thwarted, if he never gets what he's going for, if he never achieves his goal, why don't readers just write him off and give up? Why don't they close the book and stop reading?

Here's why:

1. The reader keeps turning pages because the stakes keep increasing. 


It's ghoulish, but when there's a wreck on the side of the road people slow down to look. Even if it's nothing but a crumpled fender people slow down. Remember in school, if a fight broke out there was no shortage of onlookers. Similarly, in the circus, why do you think some trapeze acts used to be done without a net? Because it upped the stakes and, in so doing, increased the level of excitement, of curiosity.

2. The protagonist only failed because the antagonist was so strong, so brilliant and, perhaps, because the antagonist wasn't playing fair. 


In other words, it's not the protagonist's fault. The deck was stacked against him. 

Which is not to say that the protagonist should ever make this excuse. He shouldn't. He mustn't. He needs to blame himself for the failure even if there was no way he could have avoided it. Only the antagonist is allowed to whimper and shake his fist, spluttering: It wasn't fair!

3. It isn't so much that the protagonist has failed, it's that he almost succeeded. 


I don't have the space to go into them here, but in another chapter I will give examples of try-fail cycles. But, briefly, think of Indiana Jones and Raiders of the Lost Ark. (Lately I've been watching more contemporary movies, movies such as The Winter Soldier, in an effort to give you more up-to-date examples, but if there was one thing that Raiders excelled at, it was try-fail cycles.)

The hero doesn't fail dismally, he almost succeeds. He's so close to succeeding you could taste it. If it wasn't for something completely out of his control, if it wasn't for bad luck, he would have pulled it off.

4. Though the majority of scenes end in disaster and the major goal is never won before the end of the story, minor goals are achieved.


There's a sequence in the middle of Raiders that illustrates this nicely. Indy is trapped in the Well of Souls which has become a snake pit. There are a lot of snakes. Keep in mind that Indy is scared of snakes, that's his minor flaw, his comical--ironic--quirk. His goal in this sequence is to get out of the Well of Souls. 

That goal, to escape the Well of Souls, is what I'll call a sequence goal. A number of scenes and sequels are daisy-chained together, one flowing into the other, and his goal in all of them is to escape the Well of Souls. 

He does. (There was really no question that he wouldn't, it was only a question of how.) After Indy escapes--immediately after--he takes up pursuit of the story goal: finding the ark and bringing it back home.

Throughout the movie Indy achieves many of his sequence goals and he seems to get closer, at times tantalizingly close, to achieving his main goal. But he never does, not until the end.

As soon as the story question is answered, as soon as the protagonist saves the girl, finds the treasure, solves the mystery, that's it. The story is over. Done. Before that happens, though, the protagonist will have all kinds of mini-goals. He'll fail to achieve most of those as well, but he will succeed a few times. But only a few!

I'll talk more about try-fail cycles in another chapter and we'll look at a writer's tool I use often: Yes, BUT; No, AND

Thanks for reading! This post is a rough draft of one of the chapters in my upcoming book, Parts of Story. I welcome any and all questions and (constructive) comments. 

Links/References


5. P.D. James, in Talking About Detective Fiction, reproduces Forster's passage, above, and then comments:
"To that I would add, "Everyone thought that the queen had died of grief until they discovered the puncture mark in her throat." That is a murder mystery, and it too is capable of high development." 
P.D. James' comment has more to do with plot and the respectability of the murder mysteries--the genre--as literature, but the quotation was just too good not to include in a footnote!

6. That's not quite true. In at least one episode Monk lost his fears, his compulsions, due to medication he took. Also, in certain episodes his fears became very much worse. But for the most part, his fears and phobias--his psychological condition--did not change. 

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Parts of Story: What Is A Scene?

Parts of Story: What Is A Scene?


Jim Butcher describes a scene as the place "where all the plot in your book happens. Any time your character is actively pursuing his goal [...] he is engaged in a SCENE."[2]

Dwight V. Swain writes in Techniques of the Selling Writer that a scene is a "blow by blow account of somebody's time-unified effort to attain an immediate goal despite face-to-face opposition."[1]

Jack Bickham in The 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes gives us a warning. He holds that one of the most important aspects of a scene is its continuous nature. A writer develops the "action between the characters moment by moment, with nothing left out; you follow the rules of cause and effect, stimulus and response. To put this another way: you make sure that you never summarize during a high point of conflict in your story."

What elements do these three descriptions have in common? I think it's this: a scene centers around an uninterrupted conflict between two opposing forces. One very important thing: in a scene there is no exposition. No flashbacks. No information dumps. The action is uninterrupted.

The goal of the scene is to draw your readers into the story, to capture their interest, to get them to ask not only what happens next but to wonder why it happened.

Here's how Dwight V. Swain sums up the core, the essence, of a scene: 

Goal --> Conflict --> Disaster

Let's look at each of these.

Goal


Every scene needs two opposing forces, a protagonist and an antagonist (or, more generally, an antagonistic force).[3] Each scene needs someone who wants something desperately as well as someone, or something, who is just as desperate to stop them getting it. 

The goal should be specific.


The protagonist should have a goal so specific you could take a picture of it. A desire for riches isn't a good goal because it's too general, too abstract. Wanting to win next month's million dollar lottery, though, is a fine goal. It even suggests ways to bring it about: buy lottery tickets! Or, if you're writing a crime story, perhaps the protagonist figures out a way to rig the lottery.

Instead of a character wanting to be rich, have them dream of graduating from Harvard Law at the top of their class. Instead of a character wanting love in her life, have her daydream of marrying Ernest Watly, the eccentric librarian who moved to town last year. Instead of a character wanting to travel, have postcards from locations all over the world taped to her walls and give her an abiding desire to see the Nazca Lines in Peru.

The goal should be clearly communicated at the beginning of the scene.


The protagonist's goal should be clearly spoken or demonstrated at the beginning of the scene. There are two things here: first, the goal should be clearly and simply expressed and, second, such expression should occur at the beginning of the scene. As I wrote that sentence it seemed too obvious to state but then I remembered all the stories languishing under my bed in which I didn't follow that advice. 

The scene question.


Every scene should, implicitly, ask the question: Will the protagonist succeed in achieving their goal?

In a scene, any scene, the protagonist sets out to do something. Something specific. Something concrete. But his efforts are opposed. The antagonist has a goal too, and she can't achieve that goal if the protagonist does. So there's a problem. There's conflict.

This is good because now we've created uncertainty. The reader is (hopefully) wondering whether, and how, the protagonist will circumvent the opposition and get closer to achieving their goal.  If so, we've created suspense. It is this opposition between the major characters, this uncertainty, that will create suspense and keep readers turning pages.

The protagonist (and antagonist) must want something desperately.


Dwight V. Swain in Techniques of the Selling Writer notes that characters, like people, have three kinds of wants: to possess something, relief from something or revenge for something.

P.D. James in her marvellous book, Talking About Detective Fiction, writes that "All motives can be explained under the letter L: lust, lucre, loathing and love."

Whatever the character wants, they must be willing to sacrifice quite a lot for it; possibly everything. Their sanity, even their life. Why? Because as a story progresses the opposition the protagonist faces must increase. At a certain point the protagonist's pursuit of their goal will lack plausibility unless they have a strong desire, and a strong motive, to achieve that goal. 

This is where character development is so very important. If what the character wants grows out of who the character is, out of their deepest desires and drives, then--when these drives are linked up to the goal--it will be plausible that the character will be willing to sacrifice anything to achieve that goal.

I'm going to leave off here. On Monday I'll finish this post and talk about the roles of both conflict and disaster in creating a scene.

(Note: This post is from one of the chapters of my upcoming book, Parts of Story, which I usually publish separately. But this particular chapter proved to be a bit thorny and was taking so much time I decided to post it as one of my three weekly posts. I'm sorry if that creates any confusion. Thanks for your patience as I (slowly) blog my book. Cheers!)

Links/References


1. Dwight V. Swain, Techniques of the Selling Writer.
2. Jim Butcher, Scenes, on Livejournal.com.
3. I didn't want to launch into an in-depth explanation of terminology at the beginning of this article since that would be akin to giving an information dump at the beginning of a scene! But I do have a few things to say. In my book this part will likely end up in a glossary. 
- "Protagonist" comes to us from the Greeks and simply means "chief actor." Today, we use the word to indicate the primary character in a story or the main actor in a play. That said, many stories are told through different points of view (POV). Each of these POV characters is the protagonist of their own story. In this way we could talk of a "story protagonist" and a "scene protagonist." I tend to shy away from using these terms as I think they could be confusing. 
- Like "protagonist," the word "antagonist" comes to us from the Greeks and means "opponent, competitor, enemy, rival"[4] and is used to refer to the nemesis or main rival of the protagonist; the character who stands between the protagonist and his goal. The antagonist often isn't evil or even bad (if they are then the antagonist is often called a villain). Strictly speaking, the antagonist is just someone who stands between the protagonist and their goal.
- The phrase "antagonistic force" refers to anything that gets in the way of the protagonist achieving his goal, whether human or not. Tornadoes, diseases, and so on, are examples of natural phenomena that have been used as antagonistic forces.
4. Antagonist, Wikipedia.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Free Indirect Discourse: How To Create A Window Into A Character's Soul

Free Indirect Discourse: How To Create A Window Into A Character's Soul


I feel silly. 

For years I've noticed a technique of Stephen King's, I've even written about it and mentioned that it seemed to be a strange contortionist amalgam of first and third person. But I didn't have a name for it. 

Until now! Yes, I am doing a happy dance. And all because of this article: "So you want to be a writer ...".[4]

Free Indirect Style: What Is It And Why Should You Care?


Jon Gingerich writes that a "benefit of Free Indirect Discourse is it's a more comprehensive way to tell a story. By temporarily breaking away from the narrator's voice within descriptive passages, the reader gets to see things not only through the narrator’s eyes but through the character's eyes as well."[2]

When a skilled writer, someone like Stephen King, uses free indirect speech it is as though he gently pushes the narrator out of the way--or as though he, as storyteller, steps aside--and allows the reader to know the innermost thoughts of the character. 

To put it simply (if rather dramatically), in a master storyteller's hands free indirect speech can be used to lay bare a character's soul.

See what you think. Here's an example of free indirect speech from Stephen King's book Under The Dome:
"Big Jim also did not ask Who did you sleep with? He had other concerns than whom his son might be diddling; he was just glad the boy hadn't been among the fellows who'd done their business with that nasty piece of trailer trash out of Motton Road. Doing business with that sort of girl was a good way to catch something and get sick.

"He's already sick, a voice in Big Jim's head whispered. It might have been the fading voice of his wife. Just look at him.

"That voice was probably right, but this morning he had greater concerns than Junior Rennie's eating disorder, or whatever it was." 
In the quoted paragraphs, above, whose voice is it? Yes, it's the voice of the narrator (King employs an omniscient narrator; he/she/it is no one in the story and the narrator has godlike knowledge), but we get Big Jim's voice peeking through. We have access to the character's thoughts, we hear--not the narrator's voice--but Big Jim's. For example, in the first paragraph, the narrator would not say "diddling," that's Big Jim's word. 

That said, the narrator--and likely the author--are evident in the text along with Big Jim. For example, Big Jim doesn't strike me as the kind of person who would be fastidious about the use of "who" and "whom." 

In the last paragraph the narrator's voice is replaced by Big Jim's; it's almost as though the narrator has temporarily submerged himself within the consciousness of Big Jim; or, perhaps, it is that the narrator has simply stepped aside. He/she/it is no longer between you and the character; it's just you and Big Jim and you're like a god in that, in that moment, you know him. He is laid bare before you; his thoughts, his hopes, his ambitions. The kind of man he is. 

That is what--or at least part of what--can be so seductive about reading Stephen King's books. The slightly voyeuristic promise of being introduced to characters that you come to know completely. Intimately. That you come to know even as you know yourself.

That also shows us one of the principle strengths of free indirect discourse: intimacy. 

To sum up: In free indirect discourse the narrator can seem to dip down into a character and reveal to you their inner workings both through their thoughts (/mental workings) and their speech. In a sense it is third person temporarily masquerading as first person and, as such, goes a long way to eliminating the distance between narrator and character--as well as (and perhaps more importantly) between reader and character.[5]

Direct Speech vs Normal Indirect Speech vs Free Indirect Speech


Free indirect speech seems like it can be powerful tool but if you're still wondering what the heck it is, perhaps this will help. 

Direct Speech


Direct speech is quoted: Bob scowled up at the dark clouds. "Ahw," he said, the sound halfway between a curse and a sneeze. "Gonna rain."

In direct speech, the reader hears from the character himself; in this case, from Bob. Because this is Bob speaking, the timber of his voice, the kinds of words he uses, and so on, are going to be different from those the (omniscient) narrator uses.

Normal Indirect Speech


Normal indirect speech is reported: Bob scowled up at the dark clouds and thought to himself that it would rain.

This speech is indirect because we don't hear it from the character himself. What Bob says and does and thinks is filtered through the narrator. As a result we lose the timber of Bob's voice as well as the particular words he, as opposed to the narrator, would use. When I read normal indirect speech it can feel as though a veil has been drawn over the character, over his mind, his essence, and that I am forced to see him through the lens of the narrator's thoughts and feelings.

Free Indirect Speech


Here's an example of free indirect speech: Bob scowled up at the dark clouds; yep, it was gonna rain.

Here, as with direct speech, the narrator is shunted aside. You, the reader, no longer look at the character through the lens of the narrator's beliefs and hopes and judgements. Here you are shown Bob's unadulterated, unfiltered, thoughts as he thinks them. 

Free indirect speech: who started this wackiness?


Apparently, nineteenth century French novelist Flaubert was the first to be consciously aware of it as a style but both Goethe and Jane Austen used free indirect style consistently. Other practitioners of the form were: Franz Kafka, James Joyce, Virginia Woolf and D.H. Lawrence. [1]

Share your thoughts! What do you think of free indirect discourse? Do you enjoy reading authors who use the technique? Have you used it? Would you?

Notes


1. Free indirect speech, Wikipedia.
4. The article, So You want to be a writer ... is a collection of reactions--all by author-teachers--to Hanif Kureishi's statement that creative writing courses are a waste of time. It was Philip Hensher's essay that included the sentence that opened my eyes: "The focus [in Hensher's writing classes] is on technique as well as emotion and experience. Is the presiding consciousness the right one? Does he need to filter everything through his awareness? Is this the right tense? What is this thing called free indirect style?"

Miscellaneous Writing Links



Photo credit: "Cap Formentor" by *Light Painting* under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Monday, April 7, 2014

How To Write A Murderously Good Mystery: The Murderer

How To Write A Murderously Good Mystery: The Murderer


W.H. Auden writes that the test of a good detective story is twofold:

a) The reader must be surprised when the sleuth reveals the identity of the murderer.

b) The reader must believe that "everything he has previously been told about the murderer is consistent with his being a murderer."[1]

An excellent test! Also, it highlights an important point: a murder mystery is primarily about the murderer. Not the sleuth, not the sidekick, not even the victims. After all, it is the murderer's desire, his goal, that drove him to kill.

Qualities of an Interesting Murderer


1. The murderer must be a worthy adversary for the sleuth.


Storytellers want their audience to think the sleuth is clever and resourceful. This means the storyteller must show him being clever and resourceful. But the only way to do this is to pit the sleuth against an opposing force--the murderer--who is every bit as clever and resourceful as the sleuth. 

When the protagonist fails (as he/she inevitably will at some point) we understand that they were up against someone brilliant. If the murderer isn't clever then when the sleuth fails ... well, that's just embarrassing! 

Also, when the sleuth finally solves the mystery and unmasks the murderer it means  more because the antagonist was clever. So clever, in fact, that only your sleuth could have brought him/her to justice.

2. The murderer should act from motives of self-interest.


No inexplicable desires or drives, please. Not in a cosy. The murderer must have an easy-to-understand motive. P.D. James in her wonderful book, Talking About Detective Fiction, writes:

"All motives can be explained under the letter L: lust, lucre, loathing, and love."

3. The murderer could have a deep psychological wound.


I think there are, roughly, two kinds of murderers. Criminal masterminds like Professor Moriarty and garden variety criminals who poison their great aunt so she won't discover they've embezzled all her money. Generally, Agatha Christie portrayed the latter as weak and, possibly, evil. That works for me. 

Which isn't to say that these person-next-door criminals didn't have awful things happen to them which left wounds. I'm sure they did. But I doubt that any wound could explain committing murder. But wounds do something else: they humanize. And that's good because we want round murderers not stick figures like Dr. Fu Manchu.

Murderers like Moriarty, criminal masterminds, are generally  brilliant and calculating. It isn't so much that they have a deep psychological wound which explains their behavior but that some event or series of events radically transformed them into what they are. 

An event or ability. In the TV show Sherlock, Moriarty is portrayed as a brilliant psychopath, almost as clever as Sherlock himself. But his oddess is--or so I thought--explained by his brilliance. He is so smart that he views ordinary humans as ordinary humans view ants. He views himself as a different, and clearly superior, species. Just as many humans wouldn't bat an eye at killing a moose or deer so Moriarty wouldn't hesitate to kill a human if it was in his interest to do so.

I know this question was about murderers, but I'd like to answer it for sleuths as well. Although this may be seen as heresy, I don't believe that all sleuths need to have a deep psychological wound. Especially if one is writing in something of the style of the (English) golden age mysteries, those set between the wars. (Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers are just two of the many authors whose works fall into this category.)

Agatha Christie's sleuth, Hercule Poirot, though excessively fastidious and saddled with a taste in clothes and facial hair that could be comically old-fashioned, did not have a deep psychological wound (and the same goes for Miss Marple and Sayers' sleuth Lord Peter Wimsey). 

Contrast this with Sherlock from the TV show of the same name. Now that is a character with a deep psychological wound. One of my favorite lines from that show is from the first episode of the first season, A Study In Pink:

Sherlock Holmes: "I'm not a psychopath, I'm a high functioning sociopath. Do your research."[4]

And then, again, in the last episode of season three: His Last Vow:

Sherlock Holmes: "Oh, do your research. I'm not a hero, I'm a high-functioning sociopath."

I would argue that the original Sherlock Holmes did not have a deep psychological flaw. Yes, he was different--quirky--but nothing on the order of the Sherlock Holmes portrayed (brilliantly) by Benedict Cumberbatch. 

And it works. Sherlock is, hands down, my favorite show and I'm not alone. It enjoys a 9.3/10 rating over at IMDb and a 9.1 user score over at Metacritic.com.  

But Poirot is popular as well. Agatha Christie is, after all, the world's third best selling novelist and the most popular mystery writer of all time.

Whether to give your sleuth a deep emotional flaw might depend on the kind of murder mystery you intend to write. In a cosy it is the sleuth's ratiocination that takes center stage. We are concerned with logic; as Poirot would say, it is all about order and method.

On the other hand, in a hardboiled detective mystery such as "The Maltese Falcon" by Dashiell Hammett, or Raymond Chandler's "The Big Sleep," the logic of the crime is downplayed in favor of the sleuth understanding how the city, the police and the gangsters operate. That, and the sleuth's ability to take a punch as well as give one. In keeping with the setting, these sleuths are darker and more flawed.

4. Make the conflict personal.


Make the conflict between the sleuth and the murderer personal. Make the murderer want to taunt the sleuth. Make the sleuth willing to take crazy risks to catch the murderer.

If the murderer is caught then his/her life is over, perhaps literally, but if the murderer gets away with it, what then?

Yes, not being able to solve the puzzle or, worse, offering up an incorrect solution--being foiled by the murderer--could not only ruin the sleuth's reputation (assuming he cares) but send an innocent person to prison. And that is something the sleuth must care about. I think that's a large part of what separates white hats from black hats.

5. Show that the murderer is one depraved, sick, puppy.


For most of the story the antagonist is going to wear a mask. Underneath the mask they are getting more desperate and their sickness, their desperation, escalates.

One way we could show this is by escalating the number of murders, their violence, as well as the murderer's reckless daring.

6. Let your antagonist win occasionally.


Your sleuth needs setbacks. He needs strong opposition to battle against and, so, occasionally, he's going to fail. Often this happens at the midpoint. The sleuth--or the sleuth's helper--thinks they know who did it. But they're wrong. Often the suspect is found dead, killed the way the other victims were.

7. Show the killer's true face at the end.


The murderer is a cold-blooded killer. She has taken the lives of those she knew, perhaps even those she loved. And she did it for personal gain. She's not nice, not ordinary, perhaps not even sane. But for most of the book she has hidden in plain sight and has acted like everyone else. Now we get to see her as she really is. We get to see the murderer's contempt for those around her, for those who counted themselves as her friends.

Although there is a lot more that can be said about qualities the murderer should, or could, have; qualities that would contribute to making him or her an interesting character, one a reader would love to hate, that's it for today. In the next episode of this series, How To Write A Murderously Good Mystery, I'll talk about the second most important character in a murder mystery: the sleuth.

Here are the links to the previous articles in this series:


Links/References


1. "The Guilty Vicarage: Notes on the detective story, by an addict," by W.H. (Wystan Hugh) Auden over at Harpers.org. This article is from the archives and was originally published in Harpers magazine in 1948.
2. "Raymond Chandler’s Ten Commandments for Writing a Detective Novel," by Jonathan Crow over at OpenCulture.com.
3. "A Plot Begins to Take Shape," by Margot Kinberg over at Confessions of a Mystery Novelist ...
4. This line is from the episode, "A Study in Pink," from the TV show Sherlock. Episode written by [].

I also drew from my previous articles:

Photo credit: "Taking A Fence" by Ian Sane under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Parts of Story: What Is Narrative Setting?



What do we mean by "narrative setting"? It's simple: the setting is where the events of the story take place. The story world includes the physical environments the characters encounter as well as the cultural groups they interact with. You can create these environs from nothing but your imagination or you can set the story in the actual world. 

Conjuring a story world from nothing but the materials of your imagination may save long hours of research, but it must be consistent and plausible. A happy medium between these two is to set the tale in a fictional world but to use the actual world as a starting point. By changing aspects of the actual world one can often produce a setting that is both unique and plausible.

However you go about crafting your story world, the most time consuming, intricate and important aspect of a character's environment is their social environment.

What are the rules of your world's societies, both written and unwritten? What sorts of pair bonds are sanctioned? What are their norms, their unwritten rules? Are certain practices, certain actions, sanctioned but discouraged? 

Getting finer grained, what kinds of groups, or sub-groups, does the society contain? By this I mean any kind of group: political, recreational, medical, artificial, criminal, natural, sanctioned and unsanctioned. And if you see fit to give your world something like the internet, don't forget online groups!

Arguably, the most important environment for social creatures such as ourselves is our social environment; our family, our friends, the groups we belong to. But, of course, your protagonist need not be like us! Let your imagination run wild. Anything is fair game as long as it's believable.

Above all, think about ways to introduce opportunities for conflict when creating a story world.

The Elements of Setting: Time


What time of year is it in the story? Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter? If this is a fictional world, does it have seasons? How much time passes in your story? Hours? Days? Months? Years?

Is there anything unusual about the flow of time in your narrative? Is your story written as a stream of consciousness? Does your novel employ time-jumps for flashbacks to convey the story? 

The Elements of Setting: Place


Where does your story take place? What is its geography? Is it an unexplored wilderness or is it well populated? Does the story take place in a town? A city? A tropical jungle? A rainforest? Is the place barren? Lush? Isolated? Densely populated?

Is there much water nearby? Is the air dry or wet? Is there snow at Christmas time? What sports or hobbies could a person easily engage in given the features of the area? Snowboarding? Skiing? Swimming? Surfing? What sports couldn't your characters do? For example, could your characters swim without risking hypothermia in December?

The Elements of Setting: Circumstances


What social groups is your character involved in? Are they religious? Spiritual? Politically involved? Do they have a large family? Small family? No family? If they're a loner, do they have a network of friends online? What kind of social groups is your character a part of at work? Are they self-employed? Unemployed? Are they the first one at the water cooler in the morning, gossiping, or do they keep to themselves? Do they get along with their boss? 

What are the signs of group inclusion? Do your characters have an accent? Do they wear a uniform, or some sort of special clothing? Do they have markings that identify them as part of a particular group?

Do different groups, different societies or cultural groups, have different accents? Different ways of speaking?

How do these marks of social inclusion, these accents and languages, differ from those which existed a century ago? A millennium ago? Also, what will these groups, these societies, be like a century--or a millennium--from now?

Setting As It Relates To Each Scene


I've touched on some of this information, above, but let's get specific. Stories are made up of scenes and most scenes occur at a place and a time. 

For each scene, in addition to knowing what season it is, know (if outdoors) what the weather is like, what characters are in the scene, what happened just before the scene started and what will happen just after the scene ends, and know what time of day it is. Is it high noon? Nighttime? Twilight? The witching hour? 

What associations do the main characters have about this time? What memories might it provoke? For instance, a character might wake during the witching hour and remember a nightmare they had as a child. (This introduces conflict: the character would like to sleep but the nightmare, and now the memories invoked by it, trap them in the waking world.)

Place: Indoors? Outdoors?


If the scene takes place outdoors what's the weather like? Is the sun hidden behind clouds turning day into night? Is it nighttime, yet lightning flashes make the landscape bright as day? Is it snowing? Raining? Is it sunny, with the unbearable heat of the desert baking everything to a brittle hardness? Are the characters in the Antarctic? Are they isolated by distance and the unbearable, bitter, cold? What associations might they have to snow? How about rain? Lightning? 

For example, while an adult might hate to wake up to a winter wonderland, a child would likely be overjoyed--especially if it means a snow day!

If the scene takes place indoors, what are the characters' surroundings like? Are they lavish? Poor? Shabby? Drab? Colorful? Ostentatious? Is it a human-made structure or natural, something like a cave. If man-made, were they invited here? Are your characters comfortable here? Does it make them feel at home or are they unsure how to act? 

A room could be lavish and yet make a character uneasy because, while they have always desired it, they are unused to such luxury. Another character, one equally uncomfortable in such surroundings, might feel the urge to destroy it while yet another might relax and feel at home. This touches on the topic of how setting can be used to develop character, but before we examine that let's briefly look at the importance of being able to use setting to generate conflict.

Conflict


I've mentioned this before but it bears repeating. One thing all stories must have, whatever the story world, is conflict. Political parties battle each other. Countries go to war. Social groups hold diametrically opposed yet strongly held views about what constitutes appropriate conduct.

What do your characters believe? Where in this ever shifting maze of interconnectedness do they fit? What groups do they belong to? What do they believe about the world? Which social practices, which social institutions, do they embrace? How do these preferences generate conflict both within a character and between characters?

It is one thing for a character to understand what sort of behavior a particular society expects from its members, and quite another whether, and to what extent, they will go along with it.

Writing Challenge


Select one of your favorite books and try to answer the following questions: 

- What is the setting for the story? 
- Does the world have seasons? If so, during what season--or seasons--does the story take place? 
- How much time elapses during the story? 
- What is the geography like? 
- How many distinct social groups exist and what characteristics distinguish one from another? 
- Which aspects of the setting created the most conflict and how was it generated? 

Here's the sort of thing I mean. Imagine two societies are remarkably similar but one--Lakehonor--helped defend the surrounding region against an enemy while the other--Broomoward--did nothing. As a result, many citizens in Ladehonor despise Broomoward. It's winter, food is scarce, and a fire has ripped through Broomoward destroying its food reserves. Many in Broomoward accuse Lakehonor of setting the fire. One thing is certain, unless Broomoward gets food many of its citizens will starve to death. What will Broomoward do? Attack the city that defended it? What will Lakehonor do? Share it's food reserves with the city that not only didn't help defend against the enemy but that now accuses them of sabotage?

Given this setting, who would be your protagonist? I think I would choose a child from Broomoward who discovers evidence that their food reserves were destroyed by the enemy they thought Lakehonor had defeated. But will he be believed?

Friday, April 4, 2014

Generating Suspense Through Conflict

Generating Suspense Through Conflict


Suspense. Every story needs some. As Kurt Vonnegut said, "Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water." Suspense enters with the question: Will the character get it?

Suspense is an emotional state created in a reader/viewer when an obstacle is put in the way of a character, one they care about, achieving something they desperately want or need. 

In Gravity (2013) Ryan Stone (played by Sandra Bullock) wants to return to earth. Alive. A number of complications put this outcome in question. At one point in the movie:

"High-speed debris strikes the Explorer and Hubble, and detaches Stone from the shuttle, leaving her tumbling through space. Kowalski, using a Manned Maneuvering Unit, soon recovers Stone and they make their way back to the Space Shuttle. They discover that it has suffered catastrophic damage and the crew is dead. They use the thruster pack to make their way to the International Space Station (ISS), which is in orbit only about 1,450 km (900 mi) away."[2]

Unfortunately "As they approach the substantially damaged but still operational ISS, they see its crew has evacuated in one of its two Soyuz modules. The parachute of the remaining Soyuz has deployed, rendering the capsule useless for returning to Earth."[2]

In my previous post, Three Ways to Create Suspense, I mentioned that Lee Goldberg held that three things were needed for suspense:

a) A real danger to the hero and 
b) the possibility that the hero will escape the danger. 
c) A finite amount of time (/a ticking clock)

Gravity has all three. The space debris provide a cascading series of dangers to Ryan. Usually, though her situation is desperate, one feels there's a chance--perhaps a vanishingly slim one, but still a chance--to escape the danger. Also, there is a finite amount of time in which to do so because she is running out of oxygen.

Great setup.

I think this shows us something else: Suspense (a state created in the reader) is created through conflict. That is, suspense is created through a character's efforts at getting what they need/want being blocked. 

So lets look at the different kinds of conflict we can set up in our stories. What kind of conflict do we want? Is conflict 'one size fits all' or are some kinds of conflict compelling and other kinds less so?

Before I go on to examine that, though, I'd like to take a step back and quickly point something out about MacGuffins.

The Care and Feeding of MacGuffins


If you're not familiar with the term "MacGuffin" see my article The MacGuffin: A Plot Devise from Screenwriting or go to the article on tvtropes.org.

A while ago I read through the articles in Uncle Orson's Writing Class (I highly recommend it) and--though I can't remember which article I read it in--came across something to the effect that a MacGuffin was a thing that one's characters cared about (and, of course, something that doesn't need much of an explanation; treasure, jewels, and so on). 

The only reason I, as a reader, care about whether the character gets the MacGuffin is because I care about the character and the character wants it. 

Granted, if you're anything like me, many times the MacGuffin takes on a life of its own. For instance, the briefcase in Pulp Fiction or the golden falcon in The Maltese Falcon. But that's beside the point. Those movies work because what I care about is the character achieving their goal. I'd care about that even if I had no interest in that goal for myself.

Kinds of Conflict: Complex vs Simple, Unique vs Common, Interesting vs Boring


I made that digression--the one about MacGuffins being something that the character cares about--because I think it lies at the heart (or at least very near the heart) of what Lee Goldberg says about suspense. 

In a recent Google Chat Lee Goldberg said:

"You have to be careful that you're not going with easy conflicts. It's easy to have someone with a gun walk in, it's easy to have a hurricane or earthquake or monster. Those are cheap conflicts. The best conflicts are the ones that truly come from character.

"A cliched version would be the guy who is afraid of heights and has to go to a high building to rescue someone. You want a conflict that is based on character not conflict that could arbitrarily be applied to anyone and would work for anyone. You want conflict that is unique to the characters that you are writing about. That's how you want to invest the audience in what happens to them [the characters]. You don't want a conflict that is wholly exterior and homogenous, a conflict that anyone would find [scary]." (Lee Goldberg)

At first I was surprised. We don't know who our readers are going to be so it would seem a good idea to find a conflict that anyone could relate to: one's spouse and children being killed by a bomb that a terrorist set off, for example. Who couldn't relate to that?

Here, though, Goldberg argues the opposite. Later on in the talk he uses Monk, a character with an obsessive compulsive disorder who is afraid of ... well, pretty much everything! ... as an example. Not everyone is terrified of walking through sewer water. Yes, this is something we'd like to avoid; the idea is revolting; but for Monk it is terrifying. 

My point is that Monk has desires and goals and fears that no normal person--and certainly the lion's share of the series' readers--have. And yet it was a popular series, filled with suspense. 

Here's the key, the takeaway: Remember what I said about MacGuffins. We, readers, don't need to care about what the character cares about. (There's probably a better way of putting that!) We only need to care about the character achieving it. And if the writer has gotten us to identify with the character, we will. (I've written about how to get a reader to identify with a character here and here.)

A Technique To Build Conflict: Cross-Cutting And Point of View


Before I end this post I'd like to talk about a practical technique Lee Goldberg mentioned for creating suspense.[1] 

Third Person

Imagine a camera cutting between the hero and the villain, then between the villain and the hero. Cross-cutting in third person allows a writer to share information with the audience--in our case, the reader--that other characters don't know. Lee Goldberg says "You can control point of view to create suspense."[1]

First Person

Lee Goldberg continues:

"When you write a book in first person the essential element of suspense is understanding the conflict within the lead character. You have to establish who he or she is, what they want, what they're afraid of, what they stand to lose. And then create a situation where all those fears and risks come to a head. So if you are in the heart and soul of the hero or heroine and you see the events that are happening around him or her you feel the suspense that they feel.

"There it's a manipulation of the information you share about your hero combined with the conflict you put them in that's going to make that information have relevance.

"That's a harder thing to pull off. Suspense--I believe--is much easier to do third person than it is first person."[1]

Lee Goldberg


Lee Goldberg recently teamed up with Janet Evanovich to write the New York Times bestselling books "The Heist" and "Pros & Cons" and is now a #1 New York Times bestselling novelist. 

Lee Goldberg is a rare find, a senior writer who has done it all, and who still takes the time to pass along his thoughts on the craft of writing.

Well! That's it for now. If you'd like to sample Lee's writing wares, sign up for his newsletter and he'll send you a free electronic copy of "McGrave." It's a fast paced, engaging, and (of course!) suspenseful, thriller. 

Links/References:


1. Google hangout: Secrets to writing top suspense:
2. Gravity, Wikipedia.

Photo credit: "The Race" by Vieira_da_Silva under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.