Tuesday, October 25, 2011

SiWC 2011 Day One, Part Two: Don't Flinch: Robert Wiersema


Sorry for the fractured nature of this post (you can read part one here). I don't work for a few hours, so let's do this!

The first workshop I attended was Don't Flinch and was taught by Robert Wiersema.

Now, when a writer goes to a workshop it's a good idea, a really good idea, to have something to write on. But in the confusion of registering I had left my notebook in my luggage and of course I'd checked that in at the hotel!

A little thing like not having anything proper to write on never stopped a writer. During registration I'd been given a folder containing sheets printed on only one side.

(For those of you interested in what folks were given, here's a list: a detailed itinerary of workshops (one for each day), the etiquette of conferences, information about the silent action, information about the blue pencil sessions and editor appointments, an advertisement for a writers' retreat, a double-sided two page sheet with short bios of all the editors, agents and presenters. The rules of the silly writing contest, an article welcoming us to the convention and last--but certainly not least--a map.)

Armed with my unconventional writing material I took notes, and more notes, and still more, until I'd gone through all the backs of the handouts and, in desperation, began to write on the back of my folder! This was fine, but for the rest of the conference I felt a bit like the killer in Seven, carrying around a manilla folder covered with close scribbling.

Okay, the class. Here's what Robert Wiersema said was the key to building suspense: You take a bunch of characters, make your readers care about them, set monsters loose on them and then don't flinch. You need to let horrible things happen to them.

(Important disclaimer: These are my notes so I could be mistaken about what Robert Wiersema said, so don't blame him if you read something startling or something that makes no sense, that's me. :)
You want a gun in the first act, this creates an implicit promise. This creates questions. When will the gun go off? Why will it go off? Who will pull the trigger? Where will it go off? This is true for any kind of genre. If you're writing a romance then the question is: When will they get together? Why will they get together? Where will they get together, etc. The techniques of building suspense, of building elevated tension, are the same.

What does "not flinching" mean?
1) HOOK. You have, at most, two pages to grab a reader. You have to grab them in the first scene, in the first sentence. How do you do this? You create a question in the readers mind. The reader must answer the question to understand the sentence. This is like foreshadowing, but it is less blunt/obvious. A hook is implicit foreshadowing.

2) PLOT. How does the plot build suspense? Imagine you're driving down the road and you see a car in the ditch. What is going to happen? That's right, everyone will slow down to look at the car and they'll wonder: What happened? It is part of our nature.

3) CONFLICT & CHARACTER = SUSPENSE
- frustrate your character. Which newspaper headline would arrest/grab your attention: "Man on the run" or "Man captured"?
- Have reversals. Character should be frustrated at most turns. Here's the trick: the plot should be inevitable but not predictable. The plot should not be the same thing you and your readers have seen dozens of times. How do you avoid this?
- THE KEY: The reader should always know slightly more than the character. Let the reader know an event is coming before the character does.
- In order to create suspense, the readers' expectations must be both met and undermined. What we are talking about here is shameless manipulation. You are telling people lies in order to get the response you want. This is blatant audience manipulation.

Writers who are great at audience manipulation: Nicholas Sparks and Dan Brown. These writers are good storytellers and their pacing is good. They have good pacing within each sentence, within each paragraph, within each chapter of their stories.

How can you affect the pacing of your writing?
- Short fast sentences increase tension.
- Description, long words, long sentences, lower tension.
Your story is like a pot of soup, you don't want it to boil and you don't want it cold. You have to keep adjusting the temperature to get it just right. This means introducing stretches of increasing, and then decreasing, tension.

Elmore Leonard was the writer he said: Leave out the stuff people don't read. Leave out the boring bits.

CUE YOUR READERS
- The rhythm of your story is dictated by what you need your story to do. Use the pace to cue readers as to what their reaction should be. Don't treat your readers dishonorably. Cue the reader, tell them what you want them to feel. For instance, if you want them to feel heightened tension then use short sentences and raise the tension.
- The sorts of things that increase tension: Showing as opposed to telling and dialogues.
- The sorts of things that lower tension: Telling as opposed to showing, description, long sentences, etc.

If you're going to focus on something, focus on it for a reason. Use it. You must only focus on what is important to the story.

CHARACTERIZATION
- The stereotype is that thrillers are plot machines. Story arises naturally out of characters. Plot is artificial. Everything: the story, the tension, etc., should come out of the characters. In order for this to happen your characters needs flaws and scars. For instance a classic flaw was pride. Pride is a great flaw to fuel tension and suspense.

Examples:
- Dr. Richard Kimble in The Fugitive. Kimble was arrogant. He was a surgeon. When he was falsely accused of his wife's murder that was the first situation in his life he wouldn't control. He doesn't plot his escape, it happens to him. Kimble needs to become innocent to reclaim his place in society. Throughout the movie he works to get back what he has lost.
- Hitchcock: Hitchcock was a master at using a person's flaws against them to drive a plot. He used suspense to drive a plot. Vertigo is an excellent example of this. Right from the beginning you know that the Jimmy Steward character is scared of heights and that he'll struggle with this fear at the end. You know this, but knowing it doesn't make the movie less interesting, it builds suspense. It increases tension. Rear Window was like this as well.

Protagonists and Antagonists
The reader must be swept along through the story because of their kinship with the protagonist. The antagonist must be as strong as the protagonist. The antagonist is the hero of their story.

Example: Silence of the Lambs. Hannibal Lector is the antagonist not Buffalo Bill, even though Buffalo Bill (aka Captain Stottlemeyer to all you Monk fans) is the murderer. (The instructor asked the class to name the murderer in Silence of the Lambs but it took a minute or two for any of us to come up with the answer.) We remember the Lector character because that character is well developed. We have questions. Hannibal was the protagonist in Hannibal. So, what I'm saying is: Make all your antagonists the heroes of their own story. The antagonist is the physicalization of the negative force.

Load up on your archetypes
People are afraid of the same things. They fear disease, the dark, public shame, loss of a child, death, injury, maiming. These are only a few of the things that make every single one of us shake in our boots. These are the things, the events, that populate our nightmares. Dr. Kimble in The Fugitive was being pursued. That's the fear. The fear of being caught, the fear of footsteps in the dark.

STUPID MISTAKES
- Unbelievability. Tension needs to be believable within the world you create. A good example of BELIEVABILITY is the universe Jim Butcher created for his series, the Dresden Files. This is a universe filled with wizards and vampires and witches and all manner of fantasy characters, but it reads like a matter-of-fact account of the day-to-day happenings of Chicago. How is this achieved?

a. Don't have characters do what you have established they wouldn't do. For instance, if the character is scared of crowds then when they escape through a crowd at the end of your book show that this isn't an easy thing for them to do, don't have them do it blithely.
b. Continuity and logic problems make a story unbelievable.
c. Don't treat your character or reader as stupid. Your questions, your situations, shouldn't have an easy answer that the character doesn't think of. That's the sort of plotting that makes a book airborne -- readers will hurl it against the wall and stop reading.

Example: In Hitchcock's Psycho there's a beautiful young girl who comes to a creepy hotel and, instead of taking one look at it and the macabre Norman Bates and making a run for it, she checks in and takes a shower! Would you do this? No! What makes it believable that she would? Well, she's just stolen some money and is on the run. This cuts her off from any help society could provide. Also, she is to meet her boyfriend at the hotel and they didn't have cell phones in those days, so she has to stay put.

d. Don't resolve the central question of your story too soon.
e. Don't cheat the reader. You want them to read your next book. If you cheat them -- for example if a chance meeting at the end of the book resolves the tension -- then your readers will loose interest.

Not making stupid mistakes, creating the right pace, etc., all these things are skills, we learn them by going through the process of creating and writing stories. Everything that I've said today about what makes a story good, you know this already.

Here's what I want you to do. If you've found a book that has kept you reading far past your bedtime then read it again. As I said before Dan Brown is great at this. Read and watch movies (movie soundtracks are shamelessly manipulative).

Another thing you can do to improve your writing is, when you give your story to readers, ask them to put a mark in the margin where they began to lose interest.

Point Of View
You can have more than one first person POV character, you can even have POV characters that have different points of view (e.g., first and third). Do what works for your story.

Stakes
Suspense is always a matter of stakes. You want to let the reader know, early on, what the stakes are. Kill or maim someone adorable early on. For example, The Firm with Tom Cruise. What are the stakes for Cruise? If he stays with the firm and the feds show it's connected to the mob then Cruise looses everything: his money, his job, his freedom. On the other hand, if he cooperates with the feds then he won't go to jail, but sooner or later the mob will catch up with him and he'll be dead. Nice choice!
- You can know the outcome and still create suspense. There was a movie where the story was told by a drowned person. You know the narrator dies at the end, but the stakes were still raised.

Summing Up
Stakes, consequences. You've created a situation with potentially tragic results. There will come a time when you will want to save your character, to protect them. Don't. Don't flinch.

This moment is terrifying. If we were decent people we would protect our characters. You want a happy ending, but you can't cheat to get it.

You've created characters with flaws and turned the monsters loose on them. You have to be brave and unflinching. You have to do horrible things to nice people.

You don't need to beat your reader over the head with gore and lots of ugly details. You can leave these implicit. Readers have great imaginations, they will fill in the details.

If you do it right then it will hurt. It hurts us to hurt our characters, it hurts us to manipulate the reader. One thing you must realize: We also manipulate ourselves. Ultimately, we do all this manipulation because we are building truth.

We must have courage and strength and you must realize that, yes, you are cruel but here's the real truth: truth hurts and it is crucial that you don't flinch.
So, those are my notes! I had no idea this post would be so long. Yikes! I must be able to scribble pretty quickly.

I guess I'm not going to be able to get to the other Friday workshops today, "The Psychology of Plotting" by Michale Slade and "The Inner Journey" by Donald Maass.

Stay tuned!

6 comments:

  1. Nice post, you've saved a lot of great advice in this presentation. I'm tempted to print it out and put it on my wall :-)

    You've probably heard or read this 1,000 times but I love the way Hitchcock defined suspense. I don't remember the exact quote but it's something like this:

    A bomb blowing up in a restaurant is action. A bomb placed under a table where two people then sit down to eat is suspense.

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  2. Hi Jamie, it's great to hear from you. :) I'm glad you found my notes useful, I think this was the workshop that helped me the most. Great quote from Hitchcock!

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  3. Karen,

    This was great, thanks for sharing it!

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  4. Thanks for posting this, Karen.

    Like Jamie says, this information is out there but the more times I read it, the better chance I have of remembering some of it!

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  5. My thoughts exactly! Thanks for the comment.

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