Monday, March 31

Parts of Story: The Structure of Genre

Parts of Story: The Structure of Genre

Every story has a unique structure; no one structure fits them all. That would be boring. Good writing, good stories, may be a lot of things--thought provoking, exciting, uncomfortable--but they aren't boring. 

That said, stories of the same genre have a structure in common. Which really is just another way to say that all stories within a certain genre follow certain broad, general, rules. That is, after all, an important part of what makes a genre story a genre story! 

Genre


I know it's obvious, but for a story to be a murder mystery it must have both a mystery and a murder. There will also be various clues as well as a sleuth who investigates them. Certain characters will be suspects and there will be at least one murderer. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the sleuth will, at the end, reveal not only the solution of the mystery but how he winnowed away the lies and subterfuge to arrive, finally, at the truth. As a result, order is restored.

But there are different kinds of murder mysteries, each with a more particular, more exact, set of requirements.[5] A cosy or whodunit (think Agatha Christie or Dorothy L. Sayers) should have all the above plus a logical, rational, solution. No hocus pocus, no unfounded intuitions, are allowed. Also, the focus is on the mystery of the murder (it seems impossible that the person was murdered yet they were) as well as how the sleuth goes about solving the crime. In these stories it is crucial that the storyteller play fair with the reader and tell them everything the sleuth learns as he (or she) learns it.[7]

A hardboiled detective story, on the other hand, often focuses less on the mystery and it's solution and more on action and gritty realism. Thrillers are different. Though they generally crank up the suspense, thrillers have about as much mystery as any other kind of story. 

Another popular genre is romance. Breaking that down further, there's contemporary romance, fantasy, erotica, gothic, historical, military, paranormal, regency, and more. 

The thriller genre, on the other hand, breaks down into legal, military, political, (my favorite) psychological, suspense and techno-thrillers. And many, many, more.

My point is that each genre--mystery, thriller, suspense, romance, horror, etc.--breaks down into sub-genres and each of these sub-genres have their own conventions, their own requirements. Their own structure.

If one writes a book and then markets it as a psychological thriller but doesn't talk about their characters' psychological states, if they don't do a study of their characters emotions and how they change over time in response to the (multiple) tensions in their environment (as exemplars of this see William Golding's Lord of the Flies or Chuck Palahniuk's Fight Club), then while they may have written a thriller there really wouldn't be anything uniquely psychological about it. As a result, anyone who bought the book who wanted to read a psychological thriller would be disappointed no matter how good the book was.

As Lorenzo Semple Jr. said in his interview with Lee Goldberg, if he sat down in a restaurant and ordered fish but the server brought him, instead, a beautifully cooked steak he'd be upset no matter how good the steak was. Why? Because he wanted fish! He'd feel deceived. Ripped off.

If a reader feels mislead about the kind of books they've bought then they aren't going to be happy with the book or, most likely, the author. Personally, I think that's the reason for the lion's share of one star reviews: a reader's expectations were not only disappointed, they were taken out behind the barn and shot. 

Since there are so many different genres and sub-genres I won't even try to talk about a typical structure for every one. Though, that said, I do talk in some length about mysteries--whodunits in particular--and what the requirements of that form are.

Further Reading/Links/References


1. Write Your Own Murder Mystery, by Lindsay Price over at theatrefolk.com.
2. List of literary genres, Wikipedia.
3. Talking About Detective Fiction, P.D. James.
4. Mystery Fiction, Wikipedia.
5. It is often said that the primary distinction between genre and literature is that genre is plot/structure driven while literature is not (mainstream is often viewed as moodily occupying a no-man's-land between the two). Humbug! Literary stories simply don't have as rigid, or as much, of a structure, but they do have a structure. I love reading Ursula K. Le Guin on this subject and agree with her completely:

- Le Guin’s Hypothesis, by Ursula K. Le Guin over at Book View Cafe. In part she writes: "Plot is not the reason I turn to novels and is often the least interesting element to me in them. Story is what matters. Plot complicates and extends story; plot is indeed pure artifice. But Mr Krystal seems to say that only genre writers are aware that a certain level of artificiality must prevail in fiction. Does he mean that literary writers don’t use artifice? That they don’t know, just as as surely as genre writers, the absolute, imperative, marvelous artificiality of their art?" Yes. That. Exactly.
- On Serious Literature, by Ursula K. Le Guin. I found this gem on Ms. Le Guin's website (ursulakleguin.com). It is a piece of flash fiction (only 577 words). Marvelous. 

6. Storyville: What is Literary Fiction? by Richard Thomas over at litreactor.com.

6 Tips From A Legend: Lorenzo Semple Jr On How To Write




In 2008 Lorenzo Semple Jr. was hailed by the Writers Guild of America as a Living Legend.[1] 

Semple was one of the writers for the original Batman series (1966 - 1968). He also worked on the screenplay of King Kong (1976), Flash Gordon (1980), the James Bond movie Never Say Never Again (1983) as well as The Parallax View (1974) and Three Days of the Condor (1975).[2] Mr. Semple died two days ago at the age of 91. 

In 2011 Mr. Semple sat down with writer and TV producer Lee Goldberg and passed along some of his writing wisdom. (See: Lorenzo Semple, Jr.) What follows is my transcription of a small portion of that talk.[4]

Lee Goldberg Interviews Lorenzo Semple Jr

LG: What is the best piece of advice you've ever given and what's the best advice you could give someone just starting out writing for television?

Semple: With TV, it really depends on who you have involved in the project. If I wrote a two paragraph idea for a series, everything would depend on who I got enlisted for the project.

1. Be likeable.


Networking, the politics of television, is very important. That and, these days, having an original voice helps. Programs like Monk and Weeds are trying to be more original.

But, generally, here's what you want to do: improve your personality. I don't care about your writing. Making television is difficult, it's arduous. I'm talking about working with all the people involved in the process, getting notes and all that. Some of the people you'll work with will be detestable.

Anyone in their right mind wants to work with someone they like rather than someone they don't.

Be likeable but don't lick boots. They like to be insulted a bit if you do it wittily enough.

One line I always used selling pitches to movies: This movie probably will fail, most movies do, but if it succeeds, what an upside!

That's what they really want to hear. Most movies are going to fail, but if you can appeal to their greed ... They don't want to know that if it's good it'll win an award, they want to know its going to be huge!

That's a piece of advice I would give writers. 

And don't be self-pitying. Many writers say they're the only ones who face the agony of the blank page. I say you're idiotic. The blank page is the greatest moment of writing a script. It could be the greatest script in the world. Be happy that you have the privilege of having the blank page. That should be your approach to writing.

2. If you want to understand a movie then read the script. 


I'm not talking about the Syd Field's type of thing, about something having to happen on page 23 or all that. That's all very useful, and required, particularly in television, but that will come naturally as you read scripts.

I'm a great believer in reading scripts rather than watching movies to learn about them. You're distracted by the movie. 

3. The first 10 minutes of a movie should establish the characters, their basic motivations, and the genre.


My favorite thing I would do in class, I would show the first 10 minutes of any movie and at the end of 10 minutes I would stop it and say So, what has been established? What do we know now? What kind of story is this? What do we think this is going to be about?

A lot of things should have been established. The characters. Not by direct exposition, but you should have a strong idea of the movie you're going to see.

When you start a movie you're making a contract with the reader/viewer. If you go into a restaurant and order fish and they bring you a wonderful steak you're going to say Hey! I didn't order this, take it back. You're going to feel cheated. So I think it's very important to be clear about the kind of thing you're writing.

4. Do a bullet point outline of each scene.


And that's an argument in favor of outlines. Which I'm too optimistic, too hopeful, to write myself. I find it very hard to go through the thing I'm writing and outline. But I do believe strongly in outlining the scene before you. I believe they call that using bullet points. Outline what's going to be in the scene.

5. How to avoid writer's block: never quit writing for the day when you're stuck, always quit when you know what the next sentence is going to be.


Another thing. Never quit writing for the day when you're stuck. Quit when you know what the next sentence is going to be or the next little scene is going to be. Then you don't get blocked.

I've never done it, but I know a couple of people who do.

6. Stand up when you write.


I also believe in writing standing up at a lectern. That way it's more like painting. You write something, walk away from it, walk around the room, think, come back. I think its a much more flexible, a much more artistic and fluent way to write.

LG: But you don't do that.

Semple: I have trouble standing up now. In my day, I hadn't thought of it. [laughter] I've read many maxims I think are very good that I don't do.

One person said that in every scene every character should think he's the main character in that scene. That's a wonderful idea but I don't know how you do it. That's one of those things that sound great when you're giving sage advice.

But, anyway, that's how I sum up my view of writing and my career.
That was the end of the interview. I'd encourage you to watch the YouTube video since so much was communicated through tone of voice and gesture. 

My favorite bit of advice was the part about letting your readers know right away the genre your story is in. That's two points, really:

a. Be clear about the genre from the first paragraphs and 
b. market the book accordingly. 

Even if one writes the best romance this world has ever seen, if it's marketed as a murder mystery readers are going to be disappointed and (militantly) upset. Which means the number of one star reviews will skyrocket even though the book was well written and tells a compelling story.

That's it for today! 

I'll publish another post on Wednesday as usual (my regular posting schedule is Monday, Wednesday, Friday) but I'm also attempting to blog chapters of my upcoming book, Parts of Story. I'll put those out Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday. 

At least, that's the plan. I'm not sure if I'll put those posts through Twitter; if you're interested in seeing them then you will as long as you've subscribed to my blog feed. Also, if you're not interesting in reading these 'blogging my book' posts, they'll be clearly marked with the prefix "Parts of Story." (For example, Parts of Story: The Structure of Genre or Parts of Story: Choosing a Theme and so on.)

Thanks to everyone for your patience as I try this out.

Links/References


1. Lorenzo Semple, Jr., Wikipedia.
3. Lorenzo Semple, Jr, EmmyTVLegends.org.
4. This is not a word-for-word transcription. Certain points are, but, overall, it is more of a paraphrase. Anything that reads well is due to Mr. Semple, anything that is awkward or incorrect is my fault. Thanks to Lee Goldberg who mentioned Mr. Semple's death on his Google+ feed and gave the link to his previous interview with the writer.

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

Friday, March 28

Crafting Interesting Characters



No one wants to create boring characters, but what qualities does a character need to be interesting? In this article I explore five qualities that can make your characters jump off the page: exaggeration, exotic setting, an active introduction, being true-to-life and empathy.

The Five Qualities of Interesting Characters


As you've probably guessed, no one quality or characteristic can make a character interesting. Jim Butcher puts it like this: While no one characteristic can make a character interesting, there are five qualities that "consistently make a team contribution".

Let's examine each of these qualities in turn.

1. Exaggeration 


Interesting characters are extreme characters. Think of Stephen King's character, Carrie, from the book of the same name. Carry White, a traumatized young girl, is pushed too far, snaps, and kills half her town. Carry isn't just telepathic, she's the most powerful telepath who ever existed! 

That's extreme. 

Or take Lee Child's hero, Jack Reacher. Reacher is 6'5'' tall, has a 50-inch chest, and weighs about 250 pounds. He is a physical wrecking machine. 

That's extreme.

Jim Butcher uses one of my favorite detectives as an example when he writes "Mister Monk is not merely fussy and unstable, he is fussy and unstable to an insane degree". He really is. This is the only character I know who is scared of ... wait for it ... milk.

Rick Gekoski writes:

"The major pleasures of a Reacher book are relatively simple. The ex-army major and MP, a peripatetic loner who leaves no traces except in the hearts of those he has touched, is a one-man wrecking crew, hurling bad guys into the darkness with breathtaking efficiency. In one scene, a fight in a bar, five roughnecks are dispatched within a minute. How cool is that?"[2]

Very cool!

Why does exaggeration work? Two reasons:

i. Wish fulfillment.


Humans crave excitement. Most folks would rather read about a 6'5'' mountain of man-muscle who is a vagabond on a mission than about Joe Milquetoast, a man who makes a good wage, has 1.6 kids, takes a vacation a year; a man for whom a speeding ticket is a major event.

ii. Exaggerated traits are memorable. 


An exaggerated, extreme, over-the-top trait captures one's imagination. 

This quality of being memorable is critical. What, as storytellers, are we trying to do? Among other things, we're trying to recreate a world, our story world, inside our readers' minds. The more readers remember about our characters, the more vivid and appealing this world will be.

2. Exotic Position/Exotic Setting


Exotic position is a kind of exaggeration, but one that is focused on place and occupation. All things being equal it's more interesting for a character to be a wizard or a CEO or even an archaeology professor than to be an ordinary dad or mom with an ordinary job. 

That said, it seems to me that this particular principle is especially true of action heroes and, perhaps, less true of the work-a-day characters that often populate comedies.

3. Introduction


First impressions count. When your character comes onto the page for the first time take the opportunity to do something characteristic, unique and memorable.

Characteristic: We can make a character's introduction characteristic by using tags and traits.[1] Which tags and traits are most important to the telling of the story? Those are the ones you want your readers to remember so those are the ones that should be showcased when introducing the character.

Unique: In order for an action to be characteristic it must be unique to the character. For example, if white-blond hair is one of a character's tags then no other character should have white-blond hair. Similarly, if one of your character's tags is their beaten up leather jacket, then no other character should have a beaten up leather jacket. (That said, your antagonist could have a pristine leather jacket, this would help to compare and contrast the two men, who they are, their characters, their values.)

Memorable: Although just about anything can serve as a tag, it helps if it is memorable (something exaggerated, fun, or linked to a significant event in the character's life). So, for instance, Jim Butcher has made Harry's staff one of his tags, as well as his shield bracelet. He gets bonus points for linking these tags to significant events in the character's backstory.  

Example 1: Indiana Jones in Raider's of the Lost Ark

Although Indiana Jones is on-screen from the movie's beginning, the character is introduced the first time we see his face. In that scene he uses his whip to disarm an associate who is about to shoot him in the back. This scene introduces many of Indy's tags and at least one trait. His whip is a tag, as is his leather jacket and high-crowned, wide-brimmed, sable fedora. Traits that are consistently reinforced in the trailer are his keen sense of hearing, a well-honed survival instinct and a sense of compassion and fair play.

(I find it interesting that in the revised third draft of the script for Raiders that Indy kills his would-be executioner, Barranca, rather than, as happens in the movie, letting him go. I think the writer's final choice was the best; it shows Indy's compassion without taking away his sense of danger.)[5]

Example 2: The sisters in Frozen

One sister, Anna, pushes the other, Elsa, to use her gift and, ultimately, attempt to do things she doesn't have the control to do. At the same time, we see that Elsa has an unusually strong ability to "create and manipulate ice and snow." 

Throughout the movie Elsa struggles to conceal and control her abilities. Elsa's actions throughout most of the story are driven by her fear that she will harm others, especially her younger sister, Anna, who she loves dearly.[3] All this is encapsulated in the scene that introduces Anna and Elsa. We see Anna's naive exuberance as well as Elsa's budding gift and the potential for disaster that lies within it.

Characteristic Action


We've seen that each character should have a few memorable qualities which are depicted using tags and traits. Further, since we're likely to remember the first time we catch a glimpse of the character--and since we're likely to remember it more clearly than any other moment--it's good writing practise to use a character's introduction to indelibly inscribe the essence of that character in our readers' minds. (No pressure or anything! This is why I hate writing openings.) 

All things being equal, the character should be doing something that only they do, something that is exaggerated, over the top. Something that will allow the reader to grasp--and remember!--the essence of their character. Butcher does this with his wizard, Harry Dresdon. 

In the 6th book of his wonderful Dresdon Files series, Blood Rites, Harry Dresdon is in the midst of fighting monkey demons trying to save a litter of ... can you guess? That's right, puppies. I guess he read Blake Snyder's other book, Save The Dog! (I jest, of course) 

But, still, puppies. Can you get cuter than that? A litter of them. Talk about pulling one's heartstrings. It's a terrific read; not a bad one to start the series with.

If you haven't read Butcher's Harry Dresdon novels, think James Bond. If you've never heard of James Bond, the opening sequence of the movie will tell you everything about him you need to know. Curvy young woman (not wearing enough to clothe a toothpick) swoon over him, he is suave, a skilled fighter, and a stone cold killer.

In general, you want the reader to be able to think, afterward, "Yes, that was so them." Like Harry Dresden nuking a huge demon-monkey in the opening pages of Jim Butcher's Blood Rites.

4. True to life


Even though your character is a pseudo-person they need to be true to life. If a character isn't true to life they're not going to be believable and unbelievable characters are boring characters. 

A character has to be believable in their actions, their responses, their thoughts and their dialog. Showing a character's emotions to the reader is a huge part of creating a character that is true to life.

There are two tools of the trade that can help a writer out here: first, what I'm calling mini-sequels and, second, tags and traits.

4a. Mini-sequels


Jim Butcher writes that the best way for giving the reader the sense that your character is "a whole, full person with his own life outside the purview of this particular story" is by showing your character's emotions, reactions and decisions. That is, show how the one leads naturally into the other. Events happen and rounded characters react to these emotions believable in a way unique to them.[1]

If you haven't read Jim Butcher's posts about scenes and sequels and aren't quite sure what they are, I highly recommend them. 

4b. Tags & Traits


Tags

Jim Butcher writes:

"TAGS are words you hang upon your character when you describe them. When you're putting things together, for each character, pick a word or two or three to use in describing them. Then, every so often, hit on one of those words in reference to them, and avoid using them elsewhere when possible. By doing this, you'll be creating a psychological link between those words and that strong entry image of your character."

That's a great description. Here's another, this time from Dwight V. Swain and his book, Techniques of the Selling Writer:

"A tag is a label.

"You hang tags on story people so that your reader can tell one character from another. An impression [...] is created by the tags a character bears.

"Black hair is a tag. It helps distinguish the raven-tressed girl from another who’s a blonde.

"A stutter is a tag. It sets apart one character from others who speak without impediment.

"Shuffling your feet is a tag. It keeps people from confusing you with your friend, who strides along.

"Pessimism is a tag. It marks its victim as different from the joker.

"Tags also may translate inner state into external action. Each time the brother in Arsenic and Old Lace shouts “Charge!” and dashes up his imaginary San Juan Hill, we’re reminded that he lives in a private world."

Dwight V. Swain goes on to describe four different categories tags fall into: appearance, speech, mannerism and attitude, but that is outside the scope of this article. 

Jim Butcher writes:

"This [tags] is a really subtle psychological device, and it is far more powerful than it first seems. It's invaluable for both you as the writer, and for the construction of the virtual story for the reader."[1]

Traits

So far we've looked at tags. What are traits? Dwight V. Swain calls them tags of attitude and writes:

"Tags of attitude—sometimes called traits—mark the habitually apologetic, fearful, irritable, breezy, vain, or shy. Obsequiousness is an attitude, and so is the habit of command. Here, too, are found the men and women preoccupied with a single subject, whether it be golf or babies, business or yard or stamps or fishing. For all preoccupations, in their way, represent habit of thought or view of life.

"The key thing to remember about tags is that their primary purpose is to distinguish . . . to separate one character from another in your reader’s eyes."

After all, if the reader has trouble telling one character from another--or, worse, can't remember the character--then they can't be very interesting.

5. Empathy


Jim Butcher calls empathy the Holy Grail of character design. He writes:

"If you do your job, you will create a sense of empathy in your reader for your characters. This is what makes people burst out laughing while reading. It's what makes readers cry, or cheer, or run off to take a cold shower.

"Like V-Factor [verisimilitude], empathy takes time to build and it relies heavily upon the skilled use of sequels. But if you can get the reader to this point, as an author, then you WIN. Big time. This is the ENTIRE GOAL of all this character work, because the reader's emotional involvement is the single most important factor in how well your story is going to fly.

"Or put another way, if you can make people love who you want them to love and hate who you want them to hate, you're going to have readers coming back to you over and over again."[1]

That's it! I said, in the beginning, that this post was about characteristics that make a character interesting but, really, I think it's more about avoiding things that could make your character boring. 

Notes/Links/References

1. Jim Butcher, Characters.
2. Why I love Lee Child's Jack Reacher novels. The Guardian, August 2013.
3. Elsa (Disney), Wikipedia.
4. Dwight V. Swain, Techniques of the Selling Writer.
5. Lawrence Kasdan wrote the screenplay for Indiana Jones and Raiders of the Lost Ark while George Lucas and Philip Kaufman created the story. (See the entry for Raiders over at IMDB.)

Photo credit: "dancing with the wave" by *Light Painting* under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Wednesday, March 26

Agatha Christie's Secret: Break The Rules

Agatha Christie's Secret: Break The Rules


Today I'm continuing with the second part of my two part series on how to write like the Queen of Crime, Agatha Christie. Today I want to look at three things:

1. Agatha Christie the rebel
2. Christie's story structure
3. The reveal

I feel that each of these elements contributed not only to her astonishing success but to the uniqueness of her work.

By the way, my title is somewhat tongue-in-cheek. I truly don't believe there was a secret to Christie's success; no formula exists for reproducing her phenomenal achievements. That said, I do believe that part of her success was due to her willingness to flout the conventions of her craft and risk the ire of critics as well as her peers.

(Note: Though I did try to get through all these points, I only made it through the first. As a result this article is actually part two of a three part series.)

1. Christie did the unexpected, even the forbidden


There is a story making the rounds that Agatha Christie was nearly thrown out of the Detection Club because she so thoroughly and regularly broke their rules of fair play in writing, specifically her novel The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. According to the story it was Dorothy L. Sayers (then club president) who cast the vote that saved her from the disgrace of expulsion.

While this is a terrific story, I doubt it ever happened. (Since this is off topic, I'll put my reasons for disbelief in footnote 9, see below.) The reason I mention the story is because the tale nicely illustrates an essential truth about Christie's work: she wasn't afraid to break rules or flout conventions. For example, although I doubt anyone wanted to expel her for it, she did likely break the rules of the Detection Club more than any other writer. [11]

Let's take a look at each rule of the detection club (these seem to have been less like rules and more like ethical guidelines) and see whether, and how, Christie broke it.

(Spoilers ahead)

Rule #1: "The criminal must be mentioned in the early part of the story, but must not be anyone whose thoughts the reader has been allowed to know."


Famously, Agatha Christie broke this rule in her masterpiece, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. That book is told by the killer who is acting as Hercule Poirot's assistant--his Watson--in the case. Further, it is told using the first person, so one does know the innermost thoughts of the narrator/killer. 

This certainly didn't seem to hurt the book! This is from Wikipedia:

"It [The Murder of Roger Ackroyd] is one of Christie's best known and most controversial novels, its innovative twist ending having a significant impact on the genre. The short biography of Christie which is included in the present UK printings of all of her books states that this novel is her masterpiece. Howard Haycraft, in his seminal 1941 work, Murder for Pleasure, included the novel in his "cornerstones" list of the most influential crime novels ever written. The character of Caroline Sheppard was later acknowledged by Christie as a possible precursor to her famous detective Miss Marple." (The Murder of Roger Ackroyd)

Not satisfied, in 1967 Christie broke the rule again in her critically acclaimed Endless Night.

Rule #2: "All supernatural or preternatural agencies are ruled out as a matter of course."


Off the top of my head, The Idol House of Astarte and Dead Man's Mirror violated this rule. Yes, the final solution didn't involve anything supernatural but the supernatural wasn't ruled out until the very end. That is, a supernatural explanation wasn't ruled out as a matter of course but, instead, seemed to be taken seriously. (Also, The Adventure of the Egyptian Tomb)

Rule #3: "Not more than one secret room or passage is allowable."


Christie had a lot of fun with secret rooms and passages, but (as far as I can recall) nearly always used them as a red herring, something the murderer used in an attempt to throw the sleuth off the trail. For example, Three Act Tragedy and Peril at End House. However Christie did use them more seriously in The Adventure of Johnnie Waverly.

Rule #4: "No hitherto undiscovered poisons may be used, nor any appliance which will need a long scientific explanation at the end."


I don't think Agatha Christie broke this rule. 

Rule #5: Do not use stereotyped boogymen. [This is my paraphrase of the original rule.]


Just last night I re-watched the BBC's excellent adaptation of Cards on the Table which breaks rule number five, a rule which I take as saying that one must not use fictional stereotyped boogymen like Fu Manchu. One's villains (in this case Mr. Shaitana) must be three-dimensional (or round). 

In Cards on the Table Christie subverted the steriotype. Though I have never read a book that Fu Manchu appeared in, it seems he was, fundamentally, the kind of character who killed people and did all sorts of dastardly deeds. Christie cleverly subverts that steriotype in Cards my making Mr. Shaitana do the completely unexpected--he kills himself. This is made plausible by the psychological state of the man and what he hoped to accomplish by the act.

Rule #6: No accident must ever help the detective, nor must he ever have an unaccountable intuition which proves to be right.


Though I have to say that Christie didn't always play fair with the reader--in at least one of her stories I swear there was no way a reader could have guessed the solution--I can't think of a book of hers in which this occurred. (Can you? If so, please leave a comment.)

Rule #7: "The detective himself must not commit the crime."


Christie shattered this rule more than once. She did this first and most spectacularly (as we have seen) in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, but also in Endless Night

Rule #8: "The detective is bound to declare any clues which he may discover."


I think Christie tended to play fair with this. Her detectives shared all their clues with the reader, but almost never shared the inferences drawn from them, except at the end.

Rule #9: "The 'sidekick' of the detective, the Watson, must not conceal from the reader any thoughts which pass through his mind: his intelligence must be slightly, but very slightly, below that of the average reader."


As we have discussed, Christie shattered this one in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd.

Rule #10: "Twin brothers, and doubles generally, must not appear unless we have been duly prepared for them."


I think Christie played fair with this. One of the books she used this idea in (though they aren't, strictly speaking, twins) with great effect is A Murder is Announced.

Agatha Christie's Score: How much of a rule breaker was she?


What is Agatha Christie's score?

Rule 1: Broken
Rule 2: Broken
Rule 3: Subverted
Rule 4: Kept
Rule 5: Subverted
Rule 6: Mostly kept
Rule 7: Broken
Rule 8: Kept
Rule 9: Broken
Rule 10: Kept

(By "subverted" I mean that while Christie technically broke the rule she still played fair with the reader. By "broken" I mean to indicate that, strictly speaking, she did not play fair.)

Well, 4 out of 10 isn't bad! (grin) So she broke the rules more than she kept them, but she did it intelligently, creatively and with wit.

Thanks for reading and I promise to wrap up this series in one more post. (Perhaps not the next post--I think I'll blog about something else next time--but soon.)

Links/References


1. "The Writing Style of Agatha Christie," by FreelanceWriting.com.
2. "Agatha Christie - Her Method of Writing," over at christiemystery.co.uk.
3. "Agatha Christie," Wikipedia.org.
4. "Random House employees get $5,000 bonuses, thanks to ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’," by Caitlin Dewey over at The Washington Post.
5. "Fifty Shades of Grey," Wikipedia.org.
6. "Creator: Agatha Christie," tvtropes.org.
7. "Mystery Tropes," tvtropes.org.
8. Some accounts have the Detection Club forming as late as 1930. Either way, however, my point stands.
9. First, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd was published in 1926 and the murder club didn't start up until 1928.[8] Presumably the other authors had read, or at least knew of, Agatha Christie's work and wouldn't have invited her to join if they so disapproved with her methods.
     Second, Dorothy L. Sayers became president of the Detection Club in 1949, 23 years after Christie published The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. I find it difficult to believe that it took (at least) 23 years for the members to become so incensed at the flouting of their rules that they clamoured to expel her. 
     Third, in the documentation I have read about Christie and the Detection Club [link to post on murder site], the members--especially by 1949--seem to have been in awe of Agatha Christie so I doubt any of them would have demanded her removal.
     But, I could be wrong. As they say, life is stranger than fiction. If anyone has any concrete information about this please do leave a comment or use my comment form to contact me privately.
10. The oath and initiation ceremony of the Detection Club. A-Z Challenge – Rules of the Detection Club (circa 1929), by elegsabiff over at Quite Contrary.
11. S.S. Van Dine also formulated a set of rules. See: Twenty rules for writing detective stories.

Photo credit: "Breaking the rules" by Karen Woodward under Creative Commons ShareAlike 2.0. The original photo is "Chicken Run" by Alison Christine under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Tuesday, March 25

How To Write Like Agatha Christie

How To Write Like Agatha Christie

Agatha Christie is the best-selling novelist of all time and one of my favorite authors. I've spent many a night curled up in front of a roaring fire, cocoa close at hand, reading and re-reading her now familiar tales. 

Although no one can write exactly like she did--and who would want to? The goal of each writer is to develop their own voice--time and again I have wondered about the secret of her success. I'm not suggesting she employed any sort of formula, but I believe that there were certain elements, certain characteristic regularities, to her work that may have contributed to her phenomenal success.

Before we turn our attention to this, though, let's take a quick look at Agatha Christie's accomplishments.

Agatha Christie


Agatha Christie's novels have sold 4 billion copies making her the best-selling novelist of all time. Since her books have been translated into over 100 languages she is also, to date, the world's most-translated individual author. [3]

That kind of success is difficult to grasp! Christie's best selling novel--And Then There Were None--is also the best selling mystery novel ever with 100 million in sales. To put that in perspective, the 50 Shades of Grey series has sold 100 million copies to date. Those books did so well that "Random House CEO Markus Dohle" awarded "$5,000 bonuses to every member of his staff, from top editors to warehouse workers."

Even though Christie passed away in 1976 her influence has not waned. Just last year her novel The Murder of Roger Ackroyd "was voted the best crime novel ever by 600 fellow writers of the Crime Writers' Association." [3]

So! Hopefully I've whet your appetite. The question is: How (apart from hard work and luck) did Agatha Christie write books with such universal appeal?

The Structure of an Agatha Christie Murder Mystery


I'm in the midst of writing a series that discusses the building blocks of a mystery novel (victims, sleuth, murder, and so on) so I don't want this post to cover territory I've already gone over. As a result, I'm going to concentrate on only those aspects I feel are characteristic (though perhaps not unique) to Agatha Christie.

- Setting
- A, B, & C Story
- Murder (Inciting Incident)
- The Psychological Method
- Trickery
- The Unexpected
- A Unique Structure
- The Reveal

Setting


These points about setting aren't unique to Christie but they are so important that I think they bear repeating. If you're writing a cosy (and cosy's are the kind of mystery I'm focusing on) then the setting needs to be:

a) closed, and
b) something that provides a contrast

I go over these points in detail in my article, The Importance of Setting In Writing A Murderously Good Mystery, but, briefly, you want a setting that will exclude the possibility of a character from the outside coming in and committing the murder and, also, you want to maximize the disruption the murder will create in the society. For example, the murder of a presidential candidate on the eve of the election, one executed somewhere public such as a parade route, would cause a lot of disruption to society compare to, say, the murder of a John Doe in an alleyway in a crime infested part of town.

Main Plot & Subplots: The A, B & C Story


In "The Writing Style of Agatha Christie," Evelyn Hepburn writes that Agatha Christie generally has two main threads in her books. One thread involves the murder while the other, a subplot, "involves a psychological trickster: a character that intentionally creates fear and chaos for the other characters. Usually this character is not the one that committed the murder, as this conclusion would be too obvious; rather, it is an individual with a hidden vendetta against the rest of the party." [1]

As soon as I read this I thought, "Yes! Why hadn't I noticed that?" 

Myself, I think Christie often (though not always) had three distinct threads interwoven throughout most of her plots. Let's call these the A story, the B story and the C story.

A Story --> the murder (the whodunit)
B Story --> a romance
C Story --> a touch of evil

The A story is the main story, the story of the murder. The B story is a subplot that includes one of the main characters in a romance. The C story is another subplot, one about a character who has malign intentions toward one of the other characters. These intentions aren't related to the murder--perhaps this is suspected but, in the end, the 'touch of evil' character will not be intimately connected with it.

Yesterday I watched a BBC program based on Christie's Greenshaw's Folly. In that story (the BBC version at least), the main story was the 'touch of evil' plot. A mother (Louisa Oxley) and her young son flee her abusive husband. Miss Marple put them up for a night and then found the mother a job at Greenshaw's Folly where, of course, a number of suspicious deaths occur. Throughout the story, the young mother is terrified that her husband will find her and take her son away. Louisa thinks she sees her husband's face several times, peering in at her through a windowpane.

In Greenshaw's Folly the main subplot involves the murders and continues to grow in importance until around the 75% mark where this subplot and the main plot dovetail.

The second subplot is the romance that is slowly developing between the main character, Louisa (who, interestingly, is not the sleuth), and her object of romantic interest, Alfred Pollock. Since Louisa is, technically, still married the romance itself is downplayed but Alfred is shown to be an excellent role model for her son and a steadfast friend. It is a rocky romance, though, since Alfred is suspected of the murders and, were it not for Miss Marple, he would have hanged for them.

One thing that I like about Agatha Christie's stories is that, while her sleuths are strictly celibate, many times there is a (very mild) romance between two of the characters. Though other authors do include a romance in their mysteries or thrillers, I appreciate the way Christie intertwined this romance with the main thread of murder, making the outcome of the romance dependent on finding out who the true murderer was.

The Murder (Inciting Incident)


Many of the murder mysteries I read (and watch) have a relatively short interval between the start of the story and the murder. Not so for Agatha Christie's books. She often had an extended interval between the first character walking on stage and someone getting knocked off.

I found this over at tvtropes.org:

"Author Filibuster: Christie novels tended to have long Start to Corpse times, something which she was occasionally criticized for. She used the first chapter of Towards Zero to respond to these criticisms by having a character deliver a lengthy speech on how a murder is the culmination of a murderer's plot rather than the instigating point, and thus should come as late in the book as possible." [6]

Received wisdom these days seems to be that one should get to the murder as soon as possible, but a late start certainly did work for Christie. 

The Psychological Method


Hercule Poirot often refers to his "little grey cells." This harkens back to the idea that a true detective needs nothing more than the facts and a comfortable armchair to solve a case. Though Poirot fits within this tradition, Christie added a twist: the psychological method. 

It wasn't through facts alone--the overturned candlestick in the bedroom, the list of toiletries in the bathroom cabinet, etc.--that the murderer was discovered, it was also through a deep understanding of human psychology. In Christie's later books Poirot holds that certain types of crimes are committed by certain types--certain psychological types--of people. 

In contrast to other detectives (notably Monsieur Giraud of the Sûreté in Murder on the Links), Poirot arrives at the identity of the murderer by looking at two things: a) the nature of the victim and b) the psychology of the murderer. (Hercule Poirot, Wikipedia)

Trickery


Poirot--and to a certain extent Miss Marple--wasn't beneath using deception if it would help him unravel the psychological puzzle before him. To this end, Poirot sometimes got people to talk to him by giving out false or misleading information about himself or his background. (Hercule Poirot, Wikipedia)

Also, HP would make himself seem more foreign or vein to make other characters underestimate, or even despise him. As their estimation of his ability lowered so did their guard and they often let slip something they never would have if they thought he was an upstanding, competent, member of English society.

Poirot would do things Hastings (the Watson) viewed as very un-English, like rummaging through a woman's belongings without her permission and reading her love letters to find a clue.

I thought I was going to be able to get through this material, but there's no way! I want to talk (briefly) about Agatha Christie doing the unexpected, even the forbidden, and what the result of that was. Finally, I want to share certain points about the structure of Christie's novels that were, if not unique, characteristic of many of her works. 

Links/References


1. "The Writing Style of Agatha Christie," by FreelanceWriting.com.
2. "Agatha Christie - Her Method of Writing," over at christiemystery.co.uk.
3. "Agatha Christie," Wikipedia.org.
4. "Random House employees get $5,000 bonuses, thanks to ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’," by Caitlin Dewey over at The Washington Post.
5. "Fifty Shades of Grey," Wikipedia.org.
6. "Creator: Agatha Christie," tvtropes.org.
7. "Mystery Tropes," tvtropes.org.

Photo credit: "Dubler" by Thomas Leuthard under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Friday, March 21

Writing A Murderously Good Mystery: The Importance of the Murder Victim

Writing A Murderously Good Mystery: The Importance of the Murder Victim


Today I'm continuing my mini-series on how to write a murderously good mystery by exploring what qualities the murder victim might have.

The Victim


W.H. Auden in The Guilty Vicarage [2] writes that two things should be true of the victim (and please keep in mind that the murder mysteries under discussion are English cozies where all the characters have some connection to each other):

i. All your characters should have a reason to want to kill the victim.
ii. All your characters should feel sorry, or at least a little guilty, that the victim is dead, or for wanting him dead.

The trouble, of course, is that for everyone to want the victim dead it's unlikely he's going to be a shining ray of sunshine. On the contrary, he's probably going to be one fine example of an SOB. This sets up a contradiction: Why should the characters feel guilty that someone they hated is dead? Or, more importantly, why should your readers care that the victim is dead?

Survivor Guilt


First of all let me mildly disagree with W.H. Auden. In the majority of the murder mysteries I've read and watched the survivors do not mourn the untimely passing of the first victim. In fact, often, this initial death is greeted with a measure of glee. Though, that said, I do grant that sometimes, perhaps even often, one or more of the survivors do experience feelings of guilt for wanting the victim dead. 

For example, Agatha Christie's short story, The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding, the victim is singularly despicable in every way and anything we found out about the deceased afterward just confirmed our low opinion of him. (The same can be said of the victim in Christie's Murder on the Orient Express.)

On the other hand, in Evil Under the Sun, Agatha Christie reveals that much of what we thought we know about the victim came by way of the killers. Sure, no one would nominate her for person of the year but she was young and lonely and alone. 

Perhaps the lesson here is that if you want your characters to think better of the victim after they've given their pseudo-life for the plot, you could have the survivors discover either that they'd been misinformed about some of the victim's faults or discover new information about the victim, information that paints them as a nice--or nicer--person. For instance, perhaps the victim gave generously to a children's hospital because his child died of an, at that time, incurable disease.

A Sympathetic Character


Occasionally when the first victim is thoroughly reprehensible you can get your readers to care about who killed them by making a sympathetic character the first suspect (e.g., Agatha Christie's story, The Triangle at Rhodes). 

The sympathetic character, though, doesn't always have to be the first suspect, it could be someone who cares about the suspect (a girlfriend for example) or someone who believes that justice has not been done and swears to make sure it is. 

For example, in Agatha Christie's Mrs McGinty's Dead, James Bentley--a thoroughly unsympathetic character--is convicted of her murder. But that's fine because Christie draws the reader into the story--makes them care about the fate of the prisoner--through her use of the thoroughly sympathetic character, Superintendent Spence, as well as James' almost-girlfriend Maude Williams. And, of course, through the recurring character of  Hercule Poirot. 

Subsequent Victims


Auden writes, "If there is more than one murder, the subsequent victims should be more innocent than the initial victim, i.e., the murderer should start with a real grievance and, as a consequence of righting it by illegitimate means, be forced to murder against his will where he has no grievance but his own guilt." [2]

This is something I've noticed as well; it doesn't always happen, but if you have a murderer whose first victim is a reprehensible character, one the murderer felt pushed to kill, it is often effective to have the next victims be sympathetic, perhaps even characters the murderer cared for. When this is the case it sets up tremendous conflict within the murderer.  

For instance, in Agatha Christie's novel, A Murder is Announced, while the first murder victim was a minor criminal and not very sympathetic, the other two victims were. More than that, the killer truly loved one of them. 

In the next installment of this series, How To Write A Murderously Good Mystery, I will talk about what readers look for in the second most important element of a good murder mystery: the murderer.

Links/References


2. "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.
3. "Raymond Chandler’s Ten Commandments for Writing a Detective Novel," by Jonathan Crow over at OpenCulture.com.

4. "A Plot Begins to Take Shape," by Margot Kinberg over at Confessions of a Mystery Novelist ...

Photo credit: "Lavender Dreams" by Bhumika Bhatia under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Wednesday, March 19

A Four Act Structure

The Four Act Structure


When I write a story I use a three act structure--Act One (Ordinary World), Act Two (The Special World of the adventure), Act Three (The Return Home)--or I used to. I'm thinking of dividing my next story into four acts.

Today I'm going to talk about what the four act structure is. In a later post, after I've used the structure for a while, I hope to go over the pros and cons of using it.

I've written about the three act structure here (Story Structure) but here's a (brief!) summary:

Three Act Structure


Act One (Ordinary World) -- first 25% of the story

- Flesh out the setting and introduce the characters.
- Hero accepts his call to adventure.
- Stakes increase and the hero is locked into the adventure just before we break into Act Two.

Act Two (The Special World of the adventure) -- middle 50% of the story

- Explore the new world, it's differences, it's rules.
- B-story begins: Subplot that exposes the hero's inner strengths and weaknesses.
- Make friends and enemies.
- First pinch point: get a peek at the Big Bad.
- Prepare for confrontation. (Perhaps there is a romantic interlude.)
- Midpoint. Hero confronts the antagonistic force. The hero learns more about the special world of his adventure; he now has a different perspective. He has confronted death and (probably) survived.
- Hero either celebrates and has bonding time with friends or licks his wounds and rallies from his defeat. (Perhaps there is a romantic interlude.)
- Second pinch point. Another reminder of who the Big Bad is and why the hero has to win.
- At the end of Act Two the hero will (usually) be at his lowest point. It seemed that everything was going the hero's way, then BAM! Everything fell apart. The worst doesn't happen, the worst raised to the fourth power happens!

Act Three (Return Home) -- last 25% of the story

- Third act twist. The hero figures out how to get himself out of the fix he's in, or at least he comes up with a plan that just might work, but probably won't. Chances are very much against it but he has no choice. He has to make it work. Sometimes the hero figures out the 'good trick' by resolving the B-story.
- The climax. The hero confronts the villain or, if the opposing force isn't a person, the antagonistic force.
- The aftermath. Cash out the stakes. If the hero wins, what happens? If the hero loses, what happens? The hero goes back to the Ordinary World. Show how his actions have changed the hero and what this means for him in the Ordinary World.

Please keep in mind that this is how I see the three act structure. I don't think anyone thinks of it in exactly the same way. 

The essential points are:


- There are three acts; the third act is as long as the first and third acts combined.
- In Act One the ordinary world and the characters are introduced and the hero takes up his quest. 
- In Act Two the hero enters the world of the adventure (which often isn't a separate world; it could simply be a different social environment). The hero will confront the villain and attempt to overcome obstacles.
- In Act Three the hero has his final confrontation with the villain and either wins or loses.

The Four Act Structure


The four act structure is a lot like the three act structure with the exception that each act is the same length. Basically, this is the three act structure cut down the middle. 

Here's a fun fact: Christopher Vogler uses a four act structure and so does Lee Goldberg. In fact, Lee Goldberg was the inspiration for this post. As I listened to the Google Chat he did with Libby Hellmann and Paul Levine (you can listen to it here: Secrets to Writing Top Suspense) he rattled this off the top of his head. Great stuff!  

Lee Goldberg's description of a story in four acts:


"For me, the four act structure goes something like this:

"There's the tease, there's the hook, there's ... the Star Ship Enterprise flies through outer space. There's a giant octopus! You stick around to see how the Enterprise deals with this giant octopus.

"Act One sets up who all the characters are, what the stakes are, if they succeed or fail. It basically sets up everything they are trying to achieve and all the obstacles to them achieving it. And then something really bad happens that ups the stakes at the end of Act One.

"Act Two, whether it's a mystery, a doctor show, a science fiction show, Act Two is the hero's ... come up with a plan, an approach to solve their problem, to save the world, to rescue the people, to discover the murderer, and they put that plan into action, and its going great, and then everything goes to crap. At the end of Act Two everything they thought they knew was wrong, the guy they thought was the killer isn't, the thing they thought would cure the patient doesn't cure the patient. There's no way they can win, everything they thought they knew was wrong. They're screwed.

"Act three is essentially the hero's recovering from the calamitous events at the end of Act Two, trying to come up with a new approach, a new way of dealing with things but in the midst of this everything keeps getting worse. The stakes are raised, the pressures increase. By the end of Act Three there is no way in hell they'll win a conviction, they'll save the girl's life, they'll find the murderer, they'll stop the giant planet-eating octopus. They're screwed.

"Act Four. They put a new plan into action and solve the problem. They catch the murderer, they stop the giant planet eating octopus, they save the girl's life, and by the end of Act Four equilibrium is restored and everything is back to, essentially, the way it was at the beginning of Act One and they're ready to face a new conflict.

"And I find that's essentially the pattern of any great drama that is on the TV or even every great book that I've read, every crime novel, anyway."

Once again, that's from a Google Chat Lee Goldberg was part of. You can view it here: Secrets to Writing Top Suspense.

Let's put this in point form.

Four Acts In Point Form


Act One (first 25%)
- The inciting incident occurs (/the hook).
- Establish the (initial) stakes.
- The lock in: something happens to up the stakes just before we break into Act Two.

Act Two (25% to 49%)
- The hero comes up with a plan, a way to solve the problem or a way to approach the problem. If this is a murder mystery, it is a way to find out who is the murderer.
- Put the plan into action.
- The plan fails. Everything the hero and his companions thought they knew was wrong. Back to square one.

Act Three (50% to 74%)
- The hero and his/her companions tries to recover from the calamitous events of Act Two. They try to come up with a new approach.
- Everything keeps getting worse for the hero and his companions. The opposing force increases.
- The stakes are raised.
- By the end of Act Three it seems as though the hero has lost. 

Act Four (75% on)
- New plan
- Solve the problem.
- Attain the goal.
- By the end of Act Four equilibrium is restored and we're back to the Ordinary World of Act One, ready for another adventure.

The biggest difference between the three act structure and the four is that the third act has been split in two. Now we have one major crisis at the end of Act Two and the "all hope is lost" point comes at the end of Act Three. 

Food for thought!

Question: What sort of structure do you use, if any? Three acts? Four acts? Six acts? Another sort of structure completely? Please share! 

Photo credit: "Nokia Lumia 1020 - 02" by *Light Painting* under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Tuesday, March 18

Three Ways To Create Suspense

Three Ways To Create Suspense


What is suspense? That's the question I'll be looking at today. Specifically we'll cover the role of the following in creating suspense:

- Dramatic irony 
- Conflict
- Well-defined stakes 
- A ticking clock

What Is Suspense?


Suspense is an escalating sense of apprehension or fear, a building of pressure, heading either towards an uncertain conclusion or a horrifyingly certain one. You (/the reader/audience) might know there's a giant monster at the end of the tunnel and our heroes are heading toward it. Or it's a ticking clock of what-the-hell's-going-to-happen and we don't know what's coming. Suspense is getting your readers to ask: What's going to happen next? [2]

So we need: 

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)

Further, dramatic irony can be used to increase the audience's sense of curiosity and concern for the hero.

Dramatic Irony & Suspense


Scenario 1: Imagine a hero inching along a darkened path, oblivious to the deathly shadow soundlessly creeping up behind him, poised to suck the lifeforce from his bones.

Scenario 2: Imagine that, as before, our hero inches along a darkened path anticipating a threat just round the bend. He doesn't know whether there's a monster there, but there could be. Unlike before there's no deadly shadow stalking him ... at least, not that we know of.

The first scenario creates suspense, in part, by giving the reader/audience more information than the hero possesses. We see the danger creeping up on him and want to scream: Turn around!

In the second scenario there is no such disparity of knowledge. We know what the hero knows and, with him, we cringe as he rounds every corner, every bend in the twisty road. 

The elements of dramatic irony:


In order for dramatic irony to exist there needs to be a difference in how much two characters, or a character and the audience, know. Generally speaking, there are two possibilities:

1. The audience knows more about the danger than the hero.

This is what was used to generate suspense in Scenario 1, above. You, the reader, know there's a monster lurking around the next bend but the hero doesn't. Perhaps the hero thinks the evil has been neutralized or he thinks it's somewhere else. But it isn't. It's lying in wait for him and as soon as he rounds the next bend it's going to attack.

Or perhaps the villain has set a trap for the hero that the hero is oblivious to. The hero is rushing headlong to help someone in need. We see the villain set a trap for the hero and watch as he runs toward the trap. We want to warn him, to shout out that it's a trap, to stop, to go another way, but the hero keeps running and we are helpless to prevent the outcome.

Or something like that.

2. The audience knows less about the danger than the hero.

There is a scene in the classic movie The Thing where one of the scientists (I believe it was Dr. Blair) looks through a microscope at a sample taken from a mutilated corpse. We don't immediately know what he sees or know what he knows ... but we want to. He has begun to understand the mystery and we want to as well.  

This short period of unknowing, between the audience seeing the character's reaction to the new knowledge and finding out what it is, creates tension. I wanted to take Dr. Blair by the shoulders, shake him, and say something suitably melodramatic like, "What is it?! Tell me!"

3. (No dramatic irony) The characters and the audience/reader have the same amount of information.

A scene can be tense even though it lacks dramatic irony. In this case the tension will be produced by other factors, factors like a ticking clock, a clear statement of the stakes, and conflict. Lets take a closer look at these.

Preconditions For Suspense


In order for a story/yarn/tale to be suspenseful, the following must be in place:

1. Conflict.


What is conflict? How is it generated/produced? 

It's simple.

Conflict = (a character's goal) + (opposition to that goal)

That is, conflict results from the clash of two things: 

(a) What the hero desires or needs. His/her goal.
(b) Something fearful that opposes the hero, something that can prevent him from getting what he wants/needs. [2]

2. Stakes.


In order to create suspense, the stakes of the conflict should be clearly spelled out well in advance. That is, before the hero is actually menaced by the danger. 

The general stakes for most horror movies are as follows: 

The hero wins: the hero (and possibly one or more other characters) escape the evil and live.

The hero loses: the hero fails to escape the evil and they die.  

By the way, Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard's movie, The Cabin in the Woods, gives these stakes an ironic twist. It's a huge spoiler, so I'll talk about it in a footnote. Don't look if you haven't seen the movie and want the ending to be a surprise. [3]

3. A ticking clock. 


“Make them laugh, make them cry, make them wait.”

You need to build up pressure/tension which means that, in some way or other, the characters must be racing against a clock. This both sets a deadline and gives the character time to plan, agonize and, finally, fight; time in which the reader can agonize.

Lee Goldberg said:

"[To create suspense one needs] A ticking clock that escalates the conflict either within a person or between two characters, and that's an essential part of suspense, its the kindling that creates suspense, the conflict between two characters and the outside force or the outside pressure that makes that conflict even greater and then--boom!--you have the inevitable scary, frightening, exciting climactic verbal explosion."

An Aside: Another way to create suspense: raise a question


When we talk about creating suspense we (of course) are talking about an emotional state that exists within a reader/viewer/listener. Generally we try to evoke this emotional state by getting our readers to identify with our characters--especially our hero/protagonist. We make it clear what the protagonist wants/needs and then we force the protagonist into danger as he/she tries to attain their goal.

Yes, certainly, this kind of conflict creates suspense. But I would like to point out that there is another way to create suspense: raise a question.

Lee Child is a great proponent of this method. He even goes so far as to say that it doesn't especially matter whether your readers care about the subject matter; there is something about a question being raised that makes us want to know the answer.

And you know what? He's right!

The other day I read a fabulous short story--"In The Cave" by Tessa Hadley--where the suspense was generated by a question the storyteller asked: What happened to break the hero's infatuation with her almost-boyfriend? 

Yes, sure, I read on because the writing was enchanting, and because of the conflict generated by the clash of the protagonist's current state of affairs and the state of affairs she desired for herself. But, mostly, I read on because I wanted to know the answer to the question the storyteller had raised in the first paragraph: Why hadn't it worked out between the protagonist and her companion?

That's it! Here's a writing challenge (I'm challenging myself with this as well): Build some suspense in your writing today. 

References/Footnotes


1. Suspense, Wikipedia.
3. In The Cabin in the Woods Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard put an ironic twist on the stakes making it the case that if the hero (Marty) wins and escapes the evil then the world will end. On the other hand, if the hero allows himself to be killed by the evil then the world will be safe ... and five other people will be brutally murdered every single year the world stays that way.

Links


Google hangout: Secrets to writing top suspense:

Guest post on Lee Goldberg's website about suspense. Post is by Libby Hellmann:

Photo credit: "Bern - Switzerland" by *Light Painting* under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Friday, March 14

One Million Words To Competency, Who Said It First?


In my last post, A Million Words To Mastery?, I talked about whether writing a million words was sufficient to be, if not a creator of effortlessly poetic prose, then a competent writer. My not-at-all startling conclusion was: No!

One million words may be necessary for competency but they clearly aren't sufficient. After all, one could type (like Jack Torrance did in Stephen King's The Shining) "All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy" 100,000 times and, while it might improve one's typing, it wouldn't improve one's prose! 

But the question was raised: Who first said (in effect) that one needs to write, and discard, one million words before one can be a competent writer? In what follows I investigate whether it was David Eddings, Jerry Pournelle, Ray Bradbury or John D. McDonald.

David Eddings


Trevor Martin, in the comments, mentioned that it was David Eddings who spoke of the one million word rule. And that's true, Eddings did speak of it and he is quoted all over the internet as speaking of it, but I can't find out precisely when or where that happened. Was it in a book? An article? A TV interview? 

In any case, here's an extended quotation:
"My advice to the young writer is likely to be unpalatable in an age of instant successes and meteoric falls. I tell the neophyte: Write a million words–the absolute best you can write, then throw it all away and bravely turn your back on what you have written. At that point, you’re ready to begin.

"When you are with people, listen; don’t talk. Writers are boring people. What are you going to talk about so brilliantly? Typewriters? The construction of paragraphs? Shut your mouth and listen. Listen to the cadences of speech. Engrave the sound of language on your mind. Language is our medium, and the spoken language is the sharp cutting edge of our art. Make your people sound human. The most tedious story will leap into life if the reader can hear the human voices in it. The most brilliant and profound of stories will sink unnoticed if the characters talk like sticks.

"Most of all, enjoy what you’re doing. If you don’t enjoy it, it’s not worth doing at all. If hard and unrewarding work bothers you, do something else. If rejection withers your soul, do something else. If the work itself is not reward enough, stop wasting paper. But if you absolutely have to write–if you’re compelled to do it even without hope of reward or recognition–then I welcome you to our sorry, exalted fraternity." (David Eddings R.I.P, Christchurch City Libraries Blog)
That is the most extensive quotation I've found and it was posted by Marion (no last name given) on the Christchurch City Libraries Blog on the 4th of June, 2009, on the event of David Eddings death. 

Although it's only the first paragraph of the above quotation that includes the text in question the whole thing was well said and good advice. Also, it gives us a hint at where Eddings might have said it which might give someone a hint as to when it was said.

It seems as though Eddings was speaking to a group of writers; perhaps a writing convention or awards ceremony? If anyone knows please do leave a comment, I'm looking for the earliest mention of the 'million words required for competency' idea.

Jerry Pournelle


Another commenter, Antares, noted that his friend "Jerry Pournelle advised writers to 'write and throw away a million words of finished material'" but mentioned he didn't know if Jerry Pournelle had gotten the idea from David Eddings.

Antares also gave a (much appreciated) link to the December 1996 issue of Byte Magazine where Jerry Pournelle's article "How To Get My Job" appeared. Although Pournelle notes that he "added a few sentences here and there" the article remains mostly unchanged from its first publication in 1996. Here's a quotation:
"I am sure it has been done with less, but you should be prepared to write and throw away a million words of finished material. By finished, I mean completed, done, ready to submit, and written as well as you know how at the time you wrote it. You may be ashamed of it later, but that's another story."
The entire article is well worth reading, but for our purposes that's the relevant bit. 

Now at least we have a date: December 1996. (Clearly Jerry Pournelle had this million-words-to-competency idea previous to 1996. If anyone has documentation of it's use before this date, please do leave a comment.)

Ray Bradbury


At this point I did a google search on "million words" and "throw away" in an effort to get to the bottom of this minor mystery: who first came up with the idea of 'a million words to competency'?

In December of 1999 Alex Keegan wrote the following:
"It takes a minimum of three years' full time study, or 7-10 years of part-time study to get a university degree. Becoming a writer is harder! I think it was Ray Bradbury who said we need to write at least a million words just to make it to the foothills. Seems like a lot? Not really. 3,000 words a day for a year or 1,000 words a day for three years and you're home free. What d'you mean it sounds tough? It IS tough!" (Advice to the Younger Fiction Writer)
So I googled Ray Bradbury and found this quotation in "What Does It Take To Be A Writer?" by Mark O'Bannon:

“Write a thousand words a day and in three years you will be a writer.”
– Ray Bradbury

That's the idea we're looking for stated slightly differently. One of the things I was looking for was the phrase "a million words" but perhaps I'm being too picky since writing a thousand words a day for three years would yield over a million words (1,095,000 words, to be exact). 

The big question: when did Bradbury write that? 

The best textual evidence I've found for that quotation comes from the blog Life, Literature, & Everything in Between: Underworlds. In a post entitled "Ray Bradbury, In Memory Of … (1920-2012) — SF Writers Pay Tribute to an Icon" Ken Scholes wrote:
"At sixteen, I wrote him [Ray Bradbury] and told him what I was doing, typing up stories and submitting them to magazines, following in his footsteps. He wrote back. He recommended some books and urged me to write a thousand words a day until I had a million words. And he encouraged me to write to him each October. The next year, I wrote again and he wrote back…this time with a silver pen on a Something Wicked This Way Comes poster."
That is only a small excerpt of Ken Scholes beautiful tribute to Ray Bradbury; if you have time, and Kleenex at the ready, I recommend reading it.

We may be closing in on a date. The question is, when (approximately) did Ray Bradbury write that letter? Ken Scholes mentions receiving it when he was sixteen. 

Mr. Scholes was born June 13, 1968 which would make him sixteen years old in 1984. That's 12 years before Jerry Pournelle's article was published so this is the earliest date so far.

Unable to leave the subject be, I did another internet search and hit paydirt:

In a thread on The Straight Dope Captmathman wrote:
"I've long held that Robert Heinlein once gave this sage advice to aspiring authors: "Your first million words don't count." My wife recently repeated this to a third party, but [he/she] insisted that it was originally spoken by Ray Bradbury. In an effort to clear things up, I went online to discover the truth. Seems that Bradbury was the correct answer. As was Heinlein. I could find no authoritative source to provide an attribution. Any ideas?" (Who said, "Your first million words don't count?", by Captmathman, The Straight Dope)
This comment was made in reply:
"Ray Bradbury used to say this at speaking engagements in 1973. I was there, so my post is my cite." (Who said, "Your first million words don't count?", by Fear Itself, The Straight Dope)
1973 is the earliest date I have of this idea being expressed. (Here's an article which corroborates a mid-70s date) I admit, I would be tickled if it were to turn out Ray Bradbury was the first to say this, but I will struggle to remain impartial. That said, I'm sure both Ray Bradbury and Jerry Pournelle had this idea years before their documented use of it.

John D. McDonald


Here's another reply on the The Straight Dope thread I mentioned above.
"Hmm. Elmore Leonard notes a similar quote, which he attributes to John D. MacDonald here [...] (Who said, "Your first million words don't count?", by Captmathman, The Straight Dope)
The last comment mentioned the article Elmore's First Million Words published November 19, 2006 on elmoreleonard.com. He writes:
"It wasn’t until 1950 that I really decided to be a writer. I chose westerns because I liked westerns movies and I wanted a market that I could sell to without a lot of trouble, without having to learn too much, I figured I would get better as I managed the craft.

"John D. McDonald said that you had to write a million words before you really knew what you were doing. A million words is ten years. By that time you should have a definite idea of what you want your writing to sound like.  That’s the main thing.  I don’t think many writers today begin with that goal: to write a certain way that has a definite sound to it."
This seems to leave open the possibility that the million words idea was around as early as the 1950s! I've tried to find documentation of this quotation and while many writers attribute the 'million words to competency' idea to MacDonald, I haven't found anything that would settle the matter.

Summary


For all my poking around the internet I haven't been able to discover who first articulated the idea that one can't be a competent writer until one writes a million words. If anyone knows of a recorded mention previous to 1973 of anyone using this idea, please do let me know in a comment. I can also be reached through my contact page.

Thanks for coming along with me as I attempted to unravel this minor mystery, and thanks to Trevor Martin and Antares for their help.

Note: Just before I published this post I discovered that Marion Zimmer Bradley had also said (in effect) that the first million words were practice. Unfortunately, though, I didn't find any hint as to when she first said/wrote that.

Links


These links don't have anything to do with the million words quotation, but, still, I wanted to share them. Ray Bradbury was a wonderful writer but he was an even better person.

Interview conducted over the telephone in December of 1975.

(Interview originally broadcast in 1988.)

Interviewed by Sam Weller for the Paris Review.

(Video. "The Lost Interview of Ray Bradbury is a personal tribute to the great sci-fi master. Shot over 20 years ago by Director Harry Hall in the basement/office of Bradbury's home.")




Photo credit: "Tessies" by Thomas Leuthard under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.