Showing posts with label #amwriting. Show all posts
Showing posts with label #amwriting. Show all posts

Monday, October 19

Writing: A Support System for Life

"... the job of fiction is to find the truth inside the story’s web of lies ...", Stephen King

What is writing? Stephen King has a very simple answer: It’s the art and craft of telling stories on paper. But what is “the art and craft of telling stories on paper” and can it be learnt?

King believes that, if you’re a writer, then you can get better, but if you’re not a writer then, Sorry, it’s not gonna happen. 

King writes,

“I don’t believe writers can be made, either by circumstances or by self-will (although I did believe those things once). The equipment comes with the original package. Yet it is by no means unusual equipment; I believe large numbers of people have at least some talent as writers and storytellers, and that those talents can be strengthened and sharpened. If I didn’t believe that, writing a book like this would be a waste of time.” (Stephen King, On Writing)

Personally, I believe that anyone with sufficient interest in writing can learn to get better. But, of course, not everyone is going to have sufficient interest. Stephen King, like Ray Bradbury, wrote millions of words before he was published. It takes perseverance. And those who don’t love writing probably won’t persevere. 

By the way, I'm going to talk quite a bit about Stephen King in this article because he has, more than any other writer, helped me write better. That's my goal: to be better today than I was yesterday. (I'm not saying I achieve that! But it's a goal.)

What is writing?

In order to talk about how to become a better writer one needs, I think, to say something about what writing is.

Is there any one thing that writing is? Perhaps. According to Stephen King, writing is telepathy. That is, it is the sharing of thoughts and ideas.

Perhaps, though, there is just what writing is for me, what writing is for you, what writing is for Stephen King, what writing is to Neil Gaiman, and so on.

I don’t see anything wrong with looking at writing like this, but I think that what writing is for any one particular writer is going to have something in common with all writers. What is that thing? 

Writing as manipulation.

I agree with King that writing is the sharing of thoughts and ideas with a reader, but I sometimes wonder if that goes far enough. We are communicating ideas to the reader, but with a desire to achieve a certain end. For example, when a writer creates a book of jokes, his intention is to make his readers laugh. When a writer pens a thriller, she wants her audience to be curious, apprehensive, frightened, and generally caught up in the suspense.

In this view, writing has to do with the manipulation of a reader's emotions. I hate to put it like that because I don’t want anyone to think of writing as Machiavellian. If one accurately communicates a certain idea or set of ideas, it is usually going to be the case that certain thoughts and emotions follow. For example, when Luke’s family's farm is burnt to the ground in Star Wars IV: A New Hope one can’t help but feel Luke’s horror as he sees his relatives’ smoking corpses.

Writing is different for each of us.

As I said, writing is a bit different for each of us. For me, ‘being a writer’ means turning my thoughts, ideas, emotions, wishes, peeves, hatreds, and loves into something shareable. For me, writing is sharing an experience with my reader.

King writes:

"Book-buyers aren’t attracted, by and large, by the literary merits of a novel; book-buyers want a good story to take with them on the airplane, something that will first fascinate them, then pull them in and keep them turning the pages. This happens, I think, when readers recognize the people in a book, their behaviors, their surroundings, and their talk. When the reader hears strong echoes of his or her own life and beliefs, he or she is apt to become more invested in the story. I’d argue that it’s impossible to make this sort of connection in a premeditated way, gauging the market like a racetrack tout with a hot tip." (Stephen King, On Writing)

I really like what King says here. Yes, I can't help but be the kind of writer I am. 

In my everyday life certain things make me happy or sad, certain things make me angry, certain things make me laugh like a lunatic. I'm unique, and that this-ness is and should come out in my work. But, at the same time, that doesn't mean I can't improve my writing. Since writing is the communication of thoughts and ideas, there are better and worse ways of expressing them. And we, each of us, can get better.

So! That leads me to: 

Nine things you can do to become a better writer:


1. Read.

Stephen King believes that in order to write one must read.

“You have to read widely, constantly refining (and redefining) your own work as you do so. It’s hard for me to believe that people who read very little (or not at all in some cases) should presume to write and expect people to like what they have written, but I know it’s true. If I had a nickel for every person who ever told me he/she wanted to become a writer but “didn’t have time to read,” I could buy myself a pretty good steak dinner. Can I be blunt on this subject? If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.” (Stephen King, On Writing)

“If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot. There’s no way around these two things that I’m aware of, no shortcut.

“I’m a slow reader, but I usually get through seventy or eighty books a year, mostly fiction. I don’t read in order to study the craft; I read because I like to read. It’s what I do at night, kicked back in my blue chair. Similarly, I don’t read fiction to study the art of fiction, but simply because I like stories. Yet there is a learning process going on. Every book you pick up has its own lesson or lessons, and quite often the bad books have more to teach than the good ones. (Stephen King, On Writing)


2. Don’t write for anyone but yourself.

Just the other day I was talking to a writer about writing. I do that occasionally, and I always come away looking at the craft a bit differently. 

Sometimes it’s just the realization that not every writer thinks about writing the way I do. Some writers write with the desire to communicate certain thoughts, certain ideas, perhaps even certain emotions to their reader. Other writers write because they are telling themselves a story. If they like the story, good. If other people like the story … Well, great, but that’s not the point. The story will sell or it won’t. Selling is better than not selling but that doesn’t change what they write.

I guess, thinking about it now, I would say that the latter kind of writer -- one who writes what they like and their only concern is the story itself -- is more of an artist than I am. I chew my fingernails and pace the floor when my story is read by others. My first question is a breathless, “What did you think?” But, really, it would be much healthier to just write the story for myself, edit it for the world and then let it go. If readers take to it, great! If they don’t … Well, I should already be working on my next story.


3. Edit for the world.

There are two things here. First, write the first draft for yourself but write the second draft for the world. Second, the first draft will tell you what the story is and what it isn't. On your second draft, take away all those bits that don't belong. (Yes, this is where another bit of King's advice comes in: kill your darlings.) [1]

King writes:

“When you write a story, you’re telling yourself the story,” he [John Gould] said. “When you rewrite, your main job is taking out all the things that are not the story.”

“Gould said something else that was interesting on the day I turned in my first two pieces: write with the door closed, rewrite with the door open. Your stuff starts out being just for you, in other words, but then it goes out. Once you know what the story is and get it right—as right as you can, anyway—it belongs to anyone who wants to read it. Or criticize it. If you’re very lucky (this is my idea, not John Gould’s, but I believe he would have subscribed to the notion), more will want to do the former than the latter.” (Stephen King, On Writing)


4. Backstory

“The most important things to remember about back story are that (a) everyone has a history and (b) most of it isn’t very interesting. Stick to the parts that are, and don’t get carried away with the rest. Long life stories are best received in bars, and only then an hour or so before closing time, and if you are buying.” (Stephen King, On Writing)

Whenever I think about backstory I think of Aaron Sorkin’s advice:

“A song in a musical works best when a character has to sing—when words won’t do the trick anymore. The same idea applies to a long speech in a play or a movie or on television. You want to force the character out of a conversational pattern.” (Aaron Sorkin, from Aaron Sorkin On How To Write A Gripping Monologue)

You want to only give a reader background information when they want the information. The background information needs not only to be relevant, but you want the reader to be sitting on the edge of their seats eager to know the information.


5. Be brutally honest

“The most important things are the hardest things to say. They are things you get ashamed of, because words make them smaller. When they were in your head they were limitless; but when they come out they seem to be no bigger than normal things. But that's not all. The most important things lie too close to wherever your secret heart is buried; they are clues that could guide your enemies to a prize they would love to steal. It's hard and painful for you to talk about these things ... and then people just look at you strangely. They haven't understood what you've said at all, or why you almost cried while you were saying it.” (Stephen King, The Body)

Writing isn’t easy. It requires bravery. I believe that the very best writing needs honesty the way humans need oxygen. That said, no uncomfortable admissions or confessions are required, just be honest about how things seem to you and try to say them clearly. That’s usually awkward enough.

And if that is accompanied by a bit of poetry, by a bit of style, so much the better.


6. Art is there to enhance our lives, not the other way around.

“It starts with this: put your desk in the corner, and every time you sit down there to write, remind yourself why it isn’t in the middle of the room. Life isn’t a support-system for art. It’s the other way around.” (Stephen King, On Writing)

I love this. The purpose of life isn't to create great art, the purpose of great art is to create a good life. Art enhances life, it helps us understand ourselves as well as others. If we're really lucky art helps us come to grips with this great nebulous thing that we sometimes gesture toward by mumbling about “the human condition.”


7. You will have critics. Ignore them.

“Writing fiction, especially a long work of fiction, can be a difficult, lonely job; it’s like crossing the Atlantic Ocean in a bathtub. There’s plenty of opportunity for self-doubt. If I write rapidly, putting down my story exactly as it comes into my mind, only looking back to check the names of my characters and the relevant parts of their back stories, I find that I can keep up with my original enthusiasm and at the same time outrun the self-doubt that’s always waiting to settle in.” (Stephen King, On Writing)

“I have spent a good many years ...—too many, I think—being ashamed about what I write. I think I was forty before I realized that almost every writer of fiction and poetry who has ever published a line has been accused by someone of wasting his or her God-given talent. If you write (or paint or dance or sculpt or sing, I suppose), someone will try to make you feel lousy about it, that’s all. I’m not editorializing, just trying to give you the facts as I see them.” (Stephen King, On Writing)

Tell yourself a story, a story that is unique to you, and enjoy yourself. If no one else likes the story, that’s fine. It will happen. Start writing your next story.

Stephen King knows more than I ever will about writing but, for what it’s worth, I’ve found that my best stories were written quickly, in the heat of the moment. Yes, that initial draft was followed by a number of others, but the story itself, the first draft, was written quickly. And I think that’s key. Checking on a date, or the spelling of a name, etc., is important, but it can break the flow and let doubt in. And, who knows, whatever it is you wanted to research may be a detail that is nixed in the next draft.


8. You will fail. Shake it off and keep writing.


If you try your best to succeed at something, anything, one thing is inevitable: failure. The key to living a moderately happy life is not to let the failure paralyse you. Shug, learn what you can from the failure, and move on. If you send a story to a magazine and it isn't bought, if a book you publish sells only the one copy that you bought, accept that and move on.

"Good writing is often about letting go of fear and affectation. Affectation itself, beginning with the need to define some sorts of writing as “good” and other sorts as “bad,” is fearful behavior." (Stephen King, On Writing)

"What would be very wrong, I think, is to turn away from what you know and like (or love, the way I loved those old ECs and black-and-white horror flicks) in favor of things you believe will impress your friends, relatives, and writing-circle colleagues. What’s equally wrong is the deliberate turning toward some genre or type of fiction in order to make money. It’s morally wonky, for one thing— the job of fiction is to find the truth inside the story’s web of lies, not to commit intellectual dishonesty in the hunt for the buck. Also, brothers and sisters, it doesn’t work.

"When I’m asked why I decided to write the sort of thing I do write, I always think the question is more revealing than any answer I could possibly give. Wrapped within it, like the chewy stuff in the center of a Tootsie Pop, is the assumption that the writer controls the material instead of the other way around. The writer who is serious and committed is incapable of sizing up story material the way an investor might size up various stock offerings, picking out the ones which seem likely to provide a good return. If it could indeed be done that way, every novel published would be a best-seller and the huge advances paid to a dozen or so “big-name writers” would not exist (publishers would like that)." (Stephen King, On Writing)

Don't measure your own success or failure by what other people do. Measure it by where you are today compared to where you used to be.

Above all, don't let fear of failure stop you from doing what you love.


9. The adverb is not your friend.

Stephen King makes no secret of it, he does not approve of adverbs. And for good reason! As he points out:

“Adverbs, like the passive voice, seem to have been created with the timid writer in mind. With the passive voice, the writer usually expresses fear of not being taken seriously; it is the voice of little boys wearing shoe polish mustaches and little girls clumping around in Mommy’s high heels. With adverbs, the writer usually tells us he or she is afraid he/she isn’t expressing himself/herself clearly, that he or she is not getting the point or the picture across.

“Consider the sentence He closed the door firmly. It’s by no means a terrible sentence (at least it’s got an active verb going for it), but ask yourself if firmly really has to be there. You can argue that it expresses a degree of difference between He closed the door and He slammed the door, and you’ll get no argument from me … but what about context? What about all the enlightening (not to say emotionally moving) prose which came before He closed the door firmly? Shouldn’t this tell us how he closed the door? And if the foregoing prose does tell us, isn’t firmly an extra word? Isn’t it redundant?” (Stephen King, On Writing)

I’ve thought about this a great deal over the years, more than is decent. And the more I ponder it, the more I agree. No matter how much you would like to be on congenial terms with all parts of speech the truth is clear: adverbs are traitors. It seems they’ll help you express yourself more clearly but they won’t. If I need an adverb to explain things to a reader then I haven’t done it right.

For example:

a) She looked at him, puzzledly. 

b) Squinting at him, she frowned.

I like to see things when I read. “The man walked down the street.” I see this, and in seeing it I understand it. If I squint at someone and frown, there’s something I’m trying to figure out. 

The first sentence, (a), tells us that someone is puzzled and asks us to do the imaginative work. What would happen if we took “puzzledly” away? We would have no idea that she (whoever she happens to be) is puzzled.

Now, I’m completely positive (and, yes, I did that on purpose!) that you will find my own work (as is King’s work) riddled with adverbs. The point is not to excise them from one’s speech, but to make sure they’re not doing the heavy lifting. (And, yes, definitely, this is a “do as I say, not as I do” moment. ;)


That's it!

Thank you for reading! If I have written something that encourages you to write, I will consider this time well spent. I hope you have a wonderful day, and I’ll talk to you again soon. 😀👋

My home on Twitter: @woodwardkaren


Notes:

1. Stephen King on killing one's darlings:

"... it’s all on the table, all up for grabs. Isn’t that an intoxicating thought? I think it is. Try any goddam thing you like, no matter how boringly normal or outrageous. If it works, fine. If it doesn’t, toss it. Toss it even if you love it. Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch once said, “Murder your darlings,” and he was right." (Stephen King, On Writing)

"Mostly when I think of pacing, I go back to Elmore Leonard, who explained it so perfectly by saying he just left out the boring parts. This suggests cutting to speed the pace, and that’s what most of us end up having to do (kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings)." (Stephen King, On Writing)

2. I thought this was a good article: 22 lessons from Stephen King on how to be a great writer, by Maggie Zhang.


Saturday, October 3

Free Indirect Discourse: What it is and why you should care


What is Free Indirect Discourse and why should you care?

Do you have a favorite author, one who is able to grab you on the first page, immerse you in their story world and release you only when their tale is over? For me, that author is Stephen King.

That was how I read The Dead Zone, It, Carrie, The Stand and many of King’s other novels. Misery was a bit too much for me -- the scene where fan Annie Wilkes hobbles Paul Sheldon did me in for a while but I couldn’t stay away for long.

My question: How does King do this? How does he immerse readers in his world so quickly and so totally? Here’s what I think: It’s his use of free indirect discourse.

What is Free Indirect Discourse?

Free indirect discourse is a way of presenting a character’s voice in such a way that it is partly mediated by the voice of the author or narrator. Or: It is where the character speaks through the voice of the narrator.

There are two things here. First, free indirect discourse has to do with the way in which the thought is expressed and, second, it also has to do with the narrator’s voice bleeding through. 

Let’s take a look at each of these.

1. No reporting clause.

Let’s look at free indirect discourse by contrasting it with different modes of writing:

Quoted/Direct Speech: The child lay on the mat and asked, “Where’s the cat?”

Reported/Indirect Speech: The child lay on the mat and wondered where the cat was.

Free Indirect Speech: The child lay on the mat. Where was the cat?

As you can see, there is no reporting clause in the last example, we are presented with the thought itself in all its naked glory. (Also, the tense is shifted from the present tense to the past tense.)

2. The narrator’s voice intermingles with that of the character.

Free Indirect Speech blurs the boundaries between the character’s thoughts and the narrator’s report. As a result, the reader feels as though they are being given direct, god-like access to a character’s mind, to their motivations.[2]

As Jen Miller writes in her article, “Teaching Under the Dome”:

“Such a technique provides a very useful shortcut for giving readers the personality of a wide range of characters in a short period of time.”[1]

Free Indirect Discourse in Graham Greene’s Short Story The Basement Room

A friend, RLL, recently introduced me to the work of Graham Greene by way of Greene's short story, The Basement Room. What drew my interest was how quickly Greene immersed me in the story, how quickly I bonded with his characters. In fact, my reaction to this story made me think of my reaction to Stephen King’s work.

Briefly, The Basement Room is about a child of seven who is left on his own for a fortnight with only Mr. and Mrs. Baines -- the butler and his wife -- to mind him. The child, Philip, has been looking forward to the freedom this arrangement will bring. Unfortunately, Philip soon learns that Mrs. Baines is worse than an entire gaggle of nannies. She becomes a jailor and he and Mr. Baines are her prisoners.

It seems to me that Greene uses free indirect discourse to overcome some of the limitations imposed by seeing much of the world through the eyes of a young child.

For example:

Philip took the slice of Dundee cake in his hand and munched it round the room. He felt very old, independent and judicial; he was aware that Baines was talking to him as man to man. He never called him Master Philip as Mrs. Baines did, who was servile when she was not authoritative.

Baines had seen the world; he had seen beyond the railings. He sat there over his ginger pop with the resigned dignity of an exile; Baines didn't complain; he had chosen his fate, and if his fate was Mrs. Baines he had only himself to blame. (Graham Greene, The Basement Room)

Here it seems to me that we’re not just getting Philip’s thoughts, we’re getting the narrator's -- and possibly the author’s -- as well. Philip’s thoughts seem to be viewed through the lens of a more mature mind. 

Here it seems that Greene has deliberately run his character’s thoughts, Philip’s thoughts, together with the narrator’s report in such a way that it is difficult to tell which it is. As a result, we get a more intimate peek inside of both Mr. Baines and Philip.

Free Indirect Discourse & Stephen King

Let’s look at another example, this time from The Shining by Stephen King.

Jack Torrance thought: Officious little [so-and-so].

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.

Ullman had asked a question he hadn’t caught. That was bad; Ullman was the type of man who would file such lapses away in a mental Rolodex for later consideration. (Stephen King, The Shining)

At the end of the second paragraph we get this sentence: “There was a red carnation in the lapel, perhaps so that no one on the street would mistake Stuart Ullman for the local undertaker.” This is obviously Jack Torrance’s thought filtered through the report of the narrator and, because of this, it tells us quite a bit about Jack Torrance and gives us a sense of intimacy with the character.

Here’s another example from the same book:

"Your daddy may not be back until suppertime, doc. It’s a long drive up into those mountains."

"Do you think the bug will break down?"

"No, I don’t think so." But he had just given her something new to worry about. Thanks, Danny. I needed that.

The last sentence seems to be a direct report of the character’s thoughts without a reporting clause. As a result, it has an immediacy, an intimacy, it would otherwise lack. We are, essentially, getting a first person report but with all the flexibility that writing in the third person provides.

Free Indirect Discourse in More Recent Work

I peeked at the books at the top of the New York Times Best Sellers list. Most of them had been written in the first person, but there was one, “Total Power” by Kyle Mills, that began like this:

A light mist condensed on Sonya Vance’s windshield, turning the forested mountains around her into smears of green. Clouds had formed beneath the bridge she was driving across, dense enough that it looked like they would catch her if she jumped. 

Tempting.

"Tempting" -- the sole word in the last paragraph -- is an example of the character’s thought merging with the narrator’s voice and, in so doing, it reveals to us Sonya’s mental state. Precarious. 

Tips For Using Free Indirect Discourse in Your Own Work

1. Third Person Perspective

In order for a character’s thoughts to merge with the narrator’s you -- of course! -- need a third person narrator. But you can use either a limited third person or omniscient viewpoint. Of course an omniscient viewpoint, while it gives you the greatest flexibility, also gives you the most rope to hang yourself! 

2. Season to taste

I’ve been scouring my favorite books looking for examples of free indirect voice. It seems authors use it to heighten intimacy with a character who might otherwise not be as transparent (for example, a young child or someone with an unusual viewpoint) or someone unpleasant like Jack Torrance in the Shining. 

Also, if you are using a limited third person viewpoint and your character is on the verge of becoming unconscious, using free indirect voice might help add intimacy and richness of detail.

Do you use free indirect discourse? What do you think of the technique? 

Notes:

1. Teaching under the Dome: Life in a Small Town, Characters, and Narrative Point of View, Site: Fantasy Matters

2. Baktin talks about heteroglossia which is the “presence of two or more voices or suppressed viewpoints in a text or artistic work.”

Bakhtin argues that the power of the novel originates in the coexistence of, and conflict between, different types of speech: the speech of characters, the speech of narrators, and even the speech of the author. He defines heteroglossia as "another's speech in another's language, serving to express authorial intentions but in a refracted way" (1934). (Wikipedia, Heteroglossia)



Wednesday, July 22

Jung and the Hero's Journey: The Disaster (Part 5)



In my last post I talked about The Call to AdventureToday I want to talk about a very important part of any story: the hero’s descent into hell, otherwise known as entering the Special World of the Adventure.

I should note, though, this isn’t the low point of the story. It IS, though, a point of stark contrast between the ordinary world and the strange new world he now finds himself in. Just think of Luke Skywalker in the Mos Eisley Cantina.


Why do I call this the descent into hell? Because—and this is where Jung’s insights into human psychology are so relevant—if the Special World doesn’t give your protagonist the equivalent of a panic attack then you’ve done it wrong! Okay, that’s hyperbole, but there’s truth in it.


The Special World is alien to the hero. It is inside out and upside down. The hero has no idea how things work there, what the social norms are, what sort of accomplishments are looked up to and which are despised. Yes, sure, eventually this shock will give way to a feeling of awe, acceptance and perhaps even (brief) happiness, but in the beginning it engenders terror -- and perhaps curiosity -- in the hero. All his senses are on fire. He is equally attracted and repulsed by this new world.


For instance, in the movie Collateral a hitman, Vincent, convinces Max, a cab driver, to drive him around off the books for the rest of the night. When a corpse falls on Max’s car and Max learns what Vincent does for a living, Max’s ordinary world dissolves into chaos. 


Max had a comfortable life. Like most of us, he had dreams, dreams that would likely remain just that. Then Vincent comes into Max’s life and everything is turned upside down. Put another way, Vincent shatters the fantasy world Max is living in and wakes him up.


Let me develop that analogy.


In a sense, the ordinary world is a dream. It is comfortable but it’s no longer true. In Collateral, Vincent plays the role of a devil, destroying Max’s carefully constructed world and, in so doing, forces him to face the truth: if Max continues as he is then his dreams will never come true. Why? Because Max is scared of change. He’s stuck in a rut and he’s too scared of the dark to risk shattering his nice comfortable world.


The Special World is, in a sense, a metaphor for the terror that comes from having our comfortable lies ripped away, it comes from our being forced to see the world as it is as instead of how we would like it to be. 


(If you are familiar with the Tarot, especially the Rider Waite deck, I see this journey from the Ordinary World into the Special World of the Adventure as nicely represented by the Tower card.)


If the hero has a chance to prepare for his journey into the Special World then things generally go better. But even then it’s going to be a rough ride (for example, Neo in The Matrix.)


That’s it for today! I’ll talk to you again in the next few days. In the meantime be well and good writing!


Say "Hi" on Twitter: @WoodwardKaren


Monday, July 20

Jung and the Hero's Journey: The Call to Adventure



Hi! Sorry that I haven't posted in a while. Lately I've been making videos about writing, but I've missed posting here. 

Today I would like to talk about the Call to Adventure.

If there is one plot point that is common to all stories it’s the Call to Adventure. Why? Because all stories—at least all narrative stories—are ABOUT something. They are about someone, the hero, overcoming (or attempting to overcome) various increasingly troublesome obstacles in order to achieve a goal. Further, the attainment of this goal would make both the protagonist and his community better.

For example, in the movie Alien Ripley wants to kill the monster in order to save both herself and everyone else -- although by the end “everyone else” amounted to the cat!

The relation between the Inciting Incident and the Call To Adventure


In the last three videos we looked at, first, the hero’s original condition, his status quo as well as the rules society expected the hero to follow. Then something happens, something that significantly and irrevocably changed the hero’s world. Further this change was like the release of an arrow, one heading straight for the protagonist's heart.

I’ve used Star Wars: A New Hope as an example so I thought I would continue with it.

In Star Wars, Darth Vader boards Princess Leia’s diplomatic craft in an attempt to find the plans for the Death Star. This prompts Lea to hide the plans in R2D2’s memory along with a holographic plea for help, a hologram which Luke glimpses. 

This change in Luke’s world -- as well as his glimpse of a mysterious and beautiful Lea -- causes him to follow up with Old Ben, at which point Obi Wan asks Luke to help him bring the plans back to Alderaan.

I hope I've communicated something of the relationship the Call to Adventure has to the other parts of the story.

The Inciting Incident is the anomaly in one’s carefully constructed map of the world -- it is the crouching dragon. The call to adventure, on the other hand, is an explicit offer to the hero to do something about it.

One More Thing: The Cost/Sacrifice


Accepting the Call to Adventure will involve a significant sacrifice on the hero’s part. When Obi Wan asks Luke to help him take the blueprints to Alderaan Luke is both very excited by the prospect and reluctant. Yes, Luke is a skilled pilot and has always wanted to leave the backwater world he grew up on to explore the galaxy but that would mean leaving the only place he had ever known. He didn’t want to leave his friends, his droids, his nice safe life.

The Call to Adventure always demands a sacrifice. In Luke’s case, it would mean leaving everything he knows and loves behind. This is why the hero usually refuses the call.

In my next post I will talk about rejecting the call to adventure and how that usually ends in disaster.

That’s it! Thanks for reading, I'll talk to you later. Good writing!

I've made this into a YouTube video:

#amwriting, #writing, #writingcommunity #writingtips #howtowrite

Saturday, January 4

10 Ways to Develop Your Writer’s Voice

10 Ways to Develop Your Writer’s Voice


How to Develop Your Writer’s Voice


How would you go about developing your distinct voice?  And what is voice, exactly?[1] Obviously the way Stephen King tells a story, his use of language, is different from the way, say, Isaac Asimov told a story. And both of these are different from the way Margaret Atwood writes. For example:

Margaret Atwood


“On the eastern horizon there’s a greyish haze, lit now with a rosy, deadly glow. Strange how that colour still seems tender. The offshore towers stand out in dark silhouette against it, rising improbably out of the pink and pale blue of the lagoon. The shrieks of the birds that nest out there and the distant ocean grinding against the ersatz reefs of rusted car parts and jumbled bricks and assorted rubble sound almost like holiday traffic.” (Margaret Atwood, Oryx and Crake)

Stephen King


“Halston thought the old man in the wheelchair looked sick, terrified, and ready to die. He had experience in seeing such things. Death was Halston's business; he had brought it to eighteen men and six women in his career as an independent hitter. He knew the death look.

“The house - mansion, actually - was cold and quiet. The only sounds were the low snap of the fire on the big stone hearth and the low whine of the November wind outside.” (Stephen King, The Cat from Hell)

Isaac Asimov


“He [Gaal] had steeled himself just a little for the Jump through hyper-space, a phenomenon one did not experience in simple interplanetary trips. The Jump remained, and would probably remain forever, the only practical method of travelling between the stars. Travel through ordinary space could proceed at no rate more rapid than that of ordinary light (a bit of scientific knowledge that belonged among the items known since the forgotten dawn of human history), and that would have meant years of travel between even the nearest of inhabited systems. Through hyper-space, that unimaginable region that was neither space nor time, matter nor energy, something nor nothing, one could traverse the length of the Galaxy in the interval between two neighboring instants of time.” (Isaac Asimov, Foundation)

I wanted to also give you a sample of Neil Gaiman’s work -- the first section of Neverwhere -- but that would have made this post too long! But, hopefully, from these three samples you can extrapolate what I mean by a writer’s voice.

Developing Your Writer's Voice


Of course I’m just gesturing toward the idea of a writer’s voice. You need to read many stories by the same author to be able to hear that author’s voice. Similarly, to understand what different SORTS of voices are possible it helps to read dozens, hundreds, thousands of books by various authors. And it helps enormously if your reading is eclectic, don’t just draw from one genre and don’t just read fiction.

For example, in the excerpt I gave from Stephen King’s short, The Cat from Hell (one of my favorites), he has a particular voice and he’s (of course) speaking through a specific narrator. King’s voice will change slightly from story to story in part because each will likely have a different narrator. That said, after you’ve read a few of Stephen King’s stories you get a sense of what-stays-the-same even across books.

Okay, so that’s what I have to say about a writer’s voice. Now I want to get to the real meat of this article: how to bring out the best in YOUR writer’s voice.

Let’s face it, some writer’s voices are more interesting, exciting, irreverent, funny, and so on, than others. Sometimes I would like to try and make MY writer’s voice more exciting. So … what could I do to kick things up a notch?

Chuck Wendig’s Voice


I’m writing this post because of Chuck Wendig’s blog, Terribleminds. I love this blog! CW has good advice for writers (except the part about eating bees) and I enjoy his strong writing style.

(BTW, Chuck Wendig’s blog, every inch of it, is NSFW because of adult language. You’ve been warned! Here’s the link: Terribleminds)

Okay? Onward!

10 ways to a bolder voice


Our keyboards have a delete button for a reason.

If you attempt to make a sentence better by trying out one of the techniques, below, and the sentence is so hideous it hurts your eyes, just delete it!

But, who knows? You might create something playfully creative, something that will make your readers laugh, something you wouldn’t have otherwise attempted. I think it’s valuable to try something new-ish or slightly uncomfortable (and, yes, I’m talking to myself right now!).

What I’m going to do is look at a few excerpts from Chuck Wendig’s work and then I’ll attempt to puzzle out what Chuck Wendig did to make me really like that bit of writing. (By the way, I’ve left links at the end of this article to every single article I quote from.)

Quotation 1


“Oh, and I still get bad reviews. I still get rejected. Writing is hard. Easier for me than many. But still hard. And publishing is harder. Publishing can be 'passing pumpkin seeds through your urethra' hard. It can be 'pushing a rock up a hill until the rock rolls back down onto you and then vultures eat your fingermeats but now it’s time to push the rock again, dummy' hard.” (Chuck Wendig, Writing Advice is Bull****)

Okay, so, here are a few things I noticed in this passage:

1. Take it over the top.


Take something innocuous, a nothingburger of a sentence or idea, and double-down on it. Then triple down. (“pushing a rock up a hill …”)

2. Be bold. Be honest.


To say that I’m shy would be like saying statues don’t move a lot. It’s true but something of an understatement. Writing requires boldness. Fearlessness. Honesty. (And pen names. Pen names are good!)

CW writes: “... I still get bad reviews.” This is honest. No one likes getting bad reviews, much less announcing the fact that one’s work has received bad reviews. But I think that truth, all sorts of truth (personal, moral, scientific, and so on), is crucial to good writing.

BTW, there is, occasionally, a price to pay for boldness and honesty. I think Chuck Wendig is insanely talented and brave, but I need to include this link to show that, while these qualities can be great for creating bingeable prose, bad things can happen.

3. Punch your reader in the face (Metaphorically!!)


As we’ve seen, CW writes: “Publishing can be ‘passing pumpkin seeds through your urethra’ hard.” This metaphor is in-your-face. It’s kinda uncomfortable. A little … gross? But that’s the point! CW’s writing isn’t tame. And it isn’t expected. I guess that’s another way of saying it’s creative. He ruthlessly mashes ideas that have nothing to do with each other together to create something new, interesting and -- if you actually did it -- possibly criminal!

Quotation 2


Chuck Wendig writes:

“What I mean is this: the things I say at this blog and in my writing books is just advice. It’s not right. It’s also not automatically wrong. It’s just advice. It’s like if you ask me about sneakers and I’m like, “I wear these sneakers called Hoka One Ones, and they’re really great.” They are a real sneaker. I actually own and wear and love them. They’re great for me. It’s true. It’s like walking on air. It’s improved my running. They’ve ended my plantar fasciitis and also ended other associated running pains. And they might be great for some of you. For others? You might f****** hate them. But these shoes are what I know and so I will recommend them if you ask. Hell, even if you don’t ask.” (Chuck Wendig, Writing Advice is Bull****)

I could have paired that quotation down, but I didn’t because it’s true and helpful.

4. Talk directly to your reader.


Notice that here, CW is talking right to the reader. He set up a mini-scene. The Reader has asked him a question about sneakers and he’s replying. And the reply makes a clear point in an entertaining way. I’ve noticed that this -- conversing with The Reader -- is a characteristic of CW’s blog posts. That is, he easily drifts into and out of using dialogue to communicate with The Reader. (Stephen King does this as well, but that’s a whole other blog post.)

ALSO, notice that when CW writes, “Publishing can be ‘passing pumpkin seeds through your urethra’ hard” he is talking to you, Dear Reader. Well, not really. I think he’s talking to a hypothetical reader. Most people write with some one person in mind, either real or imagined.

But still. When a flesh-and-blood person like yourself reads this, it feels more immediate, more personal.

Maybe I’m reading more into this than I should, but I think sometimes using dialogue is … Well, I think it’s understood that the writer is NOT talking to YOU per se, the writer is talking to a reader (Dear Reader) … when this happens I have in mind some one person who could be either real or imaginary. But still, it’s a little bit like you and I -- reader and writer -- are sharing a moment together. (But not in a weird way! Hopefully.)

Intimacy encourages interest.

Quotation 3


“But I present you with this to consider:

“I do not much care for Tolkien’s work.

“No, no, put down that broken beer bottle. Relax. I recognize that I’m the outlier there …” (Chuck Wendig, An Oubliette Of Unconventional Writing Advice)

5. Poke your reader.


This builds on my point, above, about talking directly to Your Reader to create more of a sense of intimacy.

Good writing evokes emotions in your reader. When I read CW’s writing, above, I smiled. I have to admit my first reaction when I read “I do not much care for Tolkien’s work” was, “What! That can’t be true,” but then I read on and instead of being grumpy with CW I smiled. Which is good! In general, if you can make your readers smile, you’re doing something right.

I don't want to take us too far afield, but I've noticed that many of the people I enjoy talking with at cocktail parties open with a good natured poke, something that evokes mild tension/conflict. For example, I walk everywhere and as I walk I listen to podcasts. My friends will often poke me about wearing ugly headphones (they truly are hideous but the sound is amazing). That poke, that friendly jab, sparkes friendly verbal sparring.

Of course readers can't poke you back, but I think that injecting mild tension into your prose can make it more readable. Conflict is king.

Quotation 4


“Junk can be wonderful. Have you ever been to a junkyard? An old-timey one with appliances and cars and secret treasures buried throughout? Have you ever eaten a cookie, or had ice cream? They’re junk, too. Ever seen a kid play with an empty box? An empty box is junk. But what they do with it — I mean, it’s a pirate ship, a boat, it’s knight armor, it’s an action figure base. Some junk is just trash, admittedly. But some junk is artful. Masterful. Just because it’s old — or cobbled together from various pieces — doesn’t make it bad. It just makes it junk.” (Chuck Wendig, The Rise Of Skywalker)

6. Ask Your Reader questions.


In the above quotation from his post, “The Rise of Skywalker …,” Chuck Wendig is talking to The Reader and he’s asking questions. “Have you ever seen a junkyard? An old-timey one …”, “Have you ever eaten a cookie, or had ice cream?” (And, yes, this is a good use of parallelism, but I’m trying not to get sidetracked!)

When I’m asked a question I perk up and pay attention. Now, of course, Chuck Wendig doesn’t know me, has never met me much less asked ME a question in real life. But, as someone who has read the above he kind of has. That is, as I read he is sharing his ideas with me -- and everyone else!

Remember the Holodeck on Star Trek? That's how I think our brains work. (See what I did there? lol) In the Holodeck you don't just see images, you're IN another reality. It is immersive.

We don’t just view ideas like images, we engage with them. They are us, we are them. Now that doesn’t mean that every time you think of pain you are in pain (that would be awful!) but if someone asks a question, even if it’s not directly to you, it's a bit like someone throwing a softball at you. Your hand automatically comes up and grabs it. (It's a little bit like saying, "Don't think of a white bear." You just did! Right? You can't read that sentence without, in some way, engaging with the idea of a white bear.)

Similarly, if someone asks 'you' a question, it engages you on another level. At least, that's what I think! Please let me know if you disagree.

7. Be vivid.


Staying with the same quotation from “The Rise of Skywalker …,” it is almost like Chuck Wendig is plucking images from his mind and popping them into ours. Take the sentences: “Have you ever been to a junkyard? An old-timey one with appliances and cars and secret treasures buried throughout?”

That’s vivid! You can SEE it. You can grasp that idea. Then, when you’ve both got (more-or-less) the same idea in mind, he can talk to you (The Reader) about it. It feels like you’re having something like a real conversation with the writer. (And no, I’m not encouraging readers to transition into stalkers!)

(BTW, Stephen King talks about this weird idea-sharing thing in his book On Writing. The chapter heading is “What Writing Is.” (For those who have already read the book, it’s where King talks about the white rabbit.))

Note: I thought about including this as a separate point but thought that might be dangerous. Here's what I want to say: If you have more-or-less mastered the basics of grammar, then don't get hung up on always writing grammatically correct prose. Before your manuscript goes out into the world, have a competent editor look it over, but when you're writing -- especially if it is informal writing -- don't be afraid of sentence fragments if you think one will help you to vividly communicate an idea or feeling. For example in the above quotation CW writes: "But some junk is artful. Masterful." And it works. (THAT's the ultimate criterion: Does it work?)

Quotation 5


(a.) “I see this meme every so often.

(b.) “‘You can’t teach writing.”

(c.) “That is a hot, heaping hunk of horseshit and you should get shut of that malodorous idea.

(d.) “Anybody who puts this idea forward is high-as-f*** from huffing their own crap vapors, because here’s what they’re basically saying to you:

(e.) “‘I’m a writer/artist/creative person and I’m this way by dint of my birth — I was just born naturally talented, a*******! — and it can’t be taught so if you’re not born with it as I most graciously was, then you’re pretty much f***** and f*** you trying to learn anything about it and f*** anybody who tries to teach it and you might as well give up now, you talentless, tasteless, cardboard hack. Now kiss the ring, little worm.’

(f.) “Writing is a thing we learn. Which means it is a thing people teach.” (Chuck Wendig, A Short Rant on the You Can’t Teach Writing Meme)

8. Vary the length of sentences.


There’s a lot to unpack in the above quotation. It is an excellent example of how to inspire emotion in readers, and I’m going to get to that in a moment.

Right now I’d like to focus on how Chuck Wendig varies the length of sentences. Really good writers (from what I can tell) tend to vary the length of their sentences. They will have one, two, three (etc.) long sentences in a row and then pepper the page with a few short ones that condense or funnel the energy of the text. The short sentences bring the point home -- pow! Like the knockout punch of a boxer.

In Quotation 4, look at paragraph (e.). That paragraph has only two sentences. The first is LONG and it is packed with inflammatory language. Then the second, much shorter sentence, drives the point home (‘Now kiss the ring, little worm’).

Of course, CW isn’t saying this, he’s saying that people who feel like this are insufferable, but through his use of language he does a very good job of inspiring The Reader to intensely dislike them. And inspiring strong emotions in our readers is a BIG part of writing.

9. Over the top insults.


As I just said, I love the way Chuck Wendig ended the dialogue: Now kiss the ring, little worm. That is so outrageous it makes me laugh. It’s effective!

This gives me ideas for my own work. If you create a bully and you would like The Reader to want your protagonist to give the bully a black eye, then give the bully a speech that ends like this.

Chuck Wendig is very good at creating emotional hooks -- even in non-fiction!

10. Swear words are emotional.


Okay, I feel like there’s an elephant in the room, so let’s discuss this. Chuck Wendig swears a lot and, by their very nature, swear words are emotional.

Many people (most people?) feel that swear words are naughty. For some people, the very act of reading a swear word can feel transgressive -- forbidden. And every interesting thing ever (e.g., the Forbidden Forest in the Harry Potter novels) is forbidden. Or … well, at least MOST are.

I don’t use swear words in my own work because, for me, that would be like trying to learn to juggle while using dynamite. For Chuck Wendig, it works. I love his blog posts and I try to learn from them.

You have your own style, something that is expressive of who you are as a person. And, as you continue to read and write you will change and so, naturally, will your style. And that’s very cool.

Thanks for reading! (If you are Chuck Wendig then … Thank you! I hope you’re not upset that I examined your non-fiction writing in this way. I’m a huge fan. 😀 I would be interested in your feedback, if you have any.)

In Closing ...


Many times I’ve tried to puzzle out how I could write with a bit more boldness, a bit more flare, a bit more color. That’s why I began writing this post. So I’d love to know what you think. Do you have a tip or three you could share about how to improve a writer's voice?

What I'm doing/reading:


Right now I'm not reading any fiction. Later today I'm going to study two blog posts (this one and this one) and work on a YouTube script (about something totally unrelated). BUT I should read more fiction. Does anyone have a book they could recommend?

Resources:


The following links lead to articles by Chuck Wendig and can be found on his fabulous NSFW blog, Terribleminds.

The Rise Of Skywalker, And How Star Wars Is Junk.

Writing Advice Is Bullshit.

An Oubliette Of Unconventional Writing Advice.

Tips On Horking Up Your Novel’s Zero Draft.

A Very Good List Of Vital Writing Advice — Do Not Ignore!

A Short Rant On The “You Can’t Teach Writing” Meme.

Become a Friend of the Blog


If you would like to support my blog ...

Every post I pick something I love and recommend it. This serves two purposes. I want to share what I’ve loved with you, and, if you click the link and buy anything over at Amazon within the next 24 hours, Amazon puts a few cents in my tip jar at no cost to you. So, if you click the link, thank you! If not, that’s okay too. I’m thrilled and honored you’ve visited my blog and read my post.

Today I’m recommending The Five Love Languages by Gary Chapman. I usually recommend novels, but a friend of mine told me it was very useful for him. I read it and I think, if you're going through couple trouble -- or even if you're not! -- it's a good read. Here is an excerpt:

"The 5 Love Languages is as practical as it is insightful. Updated to reflect the complexities of relationships today, this new edition reveals intrinsic truths and applies relevant, actionable wisdom in ways that work."

Twitter: @woodwardkaren
YouTube: Karen Woodward

Notes:


1. What is a writer’s voice?

I was going to talk about the difference between a writer’s voice and a writer’s style by giving their definitions. But I’m not going to do that. First, I don’t think the difference between them is important to the points I’m making. Second, understanding the difference between these two notions wouldn’t help anyone understand what a writer’s voice is.

Chuck Wendig and Stephen King each have a strong voice, and they are two of my favorite authors. As you read the quotations, above, you’ll be able to FEEL the between their voices. I think that a writer’s voice is more felt/experienced than thought about/understood. It has more to do with the heart than the head.

Saturday, December 14

Deborah Chester: How to Structure a Scene

Deborah Chester: How to Structure a Scene


I’ve been reading Deborah Chester’s excellent book on Story Structure: The Fantasy Fiction Formula.

Have you ever read any of the books in Jim Butcher’s The Dresden Files series? Butcher’s books usually find their way to the number one position on the New York Times Bestsellers list. Well, Deborah Chester was Jim Butcher’s writing mentor. Butcher wrote the first book in his series, Storm Front, while he was taking a class from her, a book he also dedicated to her.

Butcher also wrote the forward for Chester’s book:

“So, aspiring writer, let me do you the favor I wish someone had done me. Let me tell you what you need to hear.

“Shut up and do what Debbie tells you to do.
….
“Who am I to tell you that?

“I’m the guy who took the principles of story structure which she taught me and built a career on them. As I type this, I have published twenty-four novels, the last five of them #1 New York Times bestsellers. …

“And to this day, I still occasionally refer to my notes, taken in her classroom at the University of Oklahoma …” (The Fantasy Fiction Formula, Deborah Chester; Foreword by Jim Butcher)

Also, as Jim Butcher mentioned elsewhere in his foreword, Deborah Chester has also published 40 novels of her own.

What are stories?


I write popular fiction so that’s the sort of story I’m talking about here. The overwhelming majority of popular novels have the kind of structure I’m going to talk about. Why? Because it works. People find books with this structure difficult to put down.

What’s the secret to writing an immersive story?


Stories are made up of Scenes and Sequels. In this post I’m going to concentrate on scenes, I’ll talk about sequels in another post. My apologies in advance for the point form of this post, but there’s SO MUCH information to communicate that I can’t spend very much time on any one point.

What are scenes?


Scenes are the basic units of fiction.

Deborah Chester writes, “If a scene’s going to succeed, it’s because it serves up a CLEAR GOAL, STRONG STAKES, and INTENSE CONFLICT.” [emphasis mine]

In a scene, the protagonist confronts the antagonist in disagreement over a specific, concrete, objective.

What is the function of a scene?


Scenes:

- Push a story forward.
- Reveal character.
- Raise the stakes.
- Intensify suspense.
- Produce consequences later in the story, consequences that are related to the story goal.

What are the elements of a scene?


There are three main parts to a scene:

a. Every scene begins with a goal.
b. Every scene has conflict.
c. Every scene ends in a resolution.

Let’s look at each of these in turn.

a. Every scene begins with a goal


In the beginning of every scene the reader needs to know three things:

i) The characters. Who is the protagonist? Who or what is the antagonist?
ii) The setting. Where is the scene taking place? Could the action taking place as easily take place in another setting? If so, perhaps make the setting more relevant to the scene goal.
iii) The mood. Does the mood match the genre? For example, the setting in a horror story doesn’t always have to be dark and spooky, but that would help it cultivate the right mood.

Scene Goal:


The scene goal provides a scene with direction and organization. If you’re not sure what the scene goal is, ask yourself: What is your protagonist trying to do?

EVERYTHING in a scene revolves around the scene goal. Deborah Chester writes: “If a scene doesn’t change the protagonist’s situation, however slightly, or if it has no impact on later story development, cut it.”

A scene doesn’t start until the protagonist either THINKS, STATES or ACTS on a scene goal.

The scene goal needs to be both specific and attainable now.

Stakes:


- For each scene, ask yourself what is at stake?
- Stakes connect to your protagonist and antagonist's motivations.
- The stakes/conflict determine HOW LONG a scene will run.

b. Every scene has conflict.


The conflict is between the protagonist and antagonist.

(a.) Every scene has a protagonist.
(b.) Every scene has an antagonist and the antagonist is usually a person.
(c.) Every protagonist has a clear, concrete, goal for that scene. This goal is distinct from the story goal.
(d.) The protagonist’s scene goal must clearly relate to the story goal.

Kinds of Scene Conflict:


Deborah Chester writes, “There can be no progression of events unless the protagonist hits opposition. The stronger the opposition, the better the story.”

Conflict can be either internal or external.
- Internal conflict comes from either two desires clashing (for instance, a desire to eat chocolate and a desire to lose weight) or from a desire being affected by an event in the external world (for instance, a desire to eat chocolate and aliens coming to Earth and gobbling up every single last piece of chocolate).
- External conflict comes from a clash between two visible, external, events. For instance, if one character says to the other, “Give me all your money” and the other character says, “No!” then we’ve got external conflict. The conflict in a SCENE must be external. (The conflict in a SEQUEL can be internal.)

What conflict must do in a story:


- Conflict must advance the story.
- Conflict creates CHANGE in the protagonist’s situation.
- Conflict raises the stakes.
- Conflict makes the story outcome less certain.
- Conflict heightens suspense. We want readers to worry about how things will turn out for the protagonist.

Deborah Chester notes that there are two kinds of conflict in scenes: SCENE CONFLICT (which I’ve written about, above) and ADVERSITY. While scene conflict is about “two characters in opposition over a clear, specific goal,” adversity is random bad luck. There is a place for random bad luck in a story -- for instance, it can play a role in the protagonist getting into trouble during the beginning -- but only a very small role. The overwhelming majority of the time the conflict is scene conflict.

Conflict types:


Here are the various types of conflict you'll see in a story: Combat, Verbal disagreement, Interrogation, Evasion and Bickering. Deborah Chester goes into each of these in her book, but I will just mention something about bickering: don't let your primary characters bicker. This is fine for secondary characters -- it can help the reader get a peek into their respective characters -- but primary characters need more robust sorts of conflict to act as a crucible.

c. Scene endings: every scene ends in a resolution.


I've gone into this above, but there are certain things that can't be emphasized enough:

- A scene must end in such a way that things are WORSE for the protagonist.
- Solutions are eliminated, options are taken away. At the end of the story the protagonist has no choice but to face the villain in the story’s climax.
- The protagonist’s trouble is increased.
- The stakes are raised.

Note: There should be no narration in a scene!

Deborah Chester writes, “... scenes should end in complete or partial failure for the protagonist.” “You want your readers surprised, astonished, shocked, perhaps even crying.”

Setbacks


Here are some reasons why the protagonist might suffer a loss, a setback:

- The protagonist is outgunned by the antagonist.
- The protagonist is outsmarted by the antagonist.
- The protagonist is outmaneuvered by the antagonist.

Further, the setback the protagonist suffers must be partly because of something about him or her. For example, in The Princess Bride Inigo Montoya loses a fight because he has less experience and skill than the six fingered man. The six fingered man then goes on to murder Inigo's father and steal a sword. In no way is his father's death Inigo's fault -- we do not expect an untrained child to win a dual with the best swordsman in the land.

The pattern of a setback: the possibilities (yes; no; yes but; no and furthermore)


Every scene has a goal. For example, Jane wants to find a way out of the dungeon the villain has trapped her in. That’s the scene goal. Since that’s the goal, the scene question would be: Will Jane find a way out of the dungeon the villain has trapped her in?

(I've written more about this here: Parts of Story: Try-Fail Cycles)

There are four possible try-fail cycles:

i) Yes, Jane will find a way out of the dungeon. (Success)

ii) No, Jane will not find a way out of the dungeon. (Failure)

iii) Yes, Jane will find a way out of the dungeon BUT as she walks toward the human sized crack in the wall she finds herself surrounded by skeletons shrouded in cobwebs.

iv) No, Jane will not find a way out of the dungeon AND FURTHERMORE the air begins to run out and she starts to suffocate.

Cashing out Try-Fail Cycles


The first possibility (Yes) usually doesn’t happen until the last scene … and sometimes not even then! I say usually because you may write one or more scenes from the point of view of the antagonist, in which case he will win the contest between him and the protagonist.

The second possibility (No) also doesn’t occur very often. The protagonist needs to progress, needs to change. Staying the same is boring, and if the protagonist fails to attain her goal, she’s right back where she began.

The third possibility (Yes, but) is the most common outcome. The protagonist will achieve the scene goal (and so she gets stronger, better, she grows as a person), but something will go wrong, something that plunges her into even more danger.

The fourth and last possibility (No, and furthermore) isn’t used often and is best left for major turning points. This scene ending is a disaster for the protagonist.

BTW, there is a fifth version I’ve heard of: No, BUT … Here the protagonist fails to achieve the scene goal but she manages to do something to get her a bit closer to what she wants. For example, Jane will not find a way out of the dungeon BUT she fill find a candle and some matches.

The Sequel: When the scene is over, the protagonist ...


When the scene is over we often have a sequel, but I'm not going to talk about that here,  I'll eventually do another post on it. But, briefly, in a sequel we'll see the protagonist recover, dust himself off, pick up the pieces of his thwarted attempt to do something.

The protagonist will respond emotionally -- we'll see that he's angry. We'll see him vow to do whatever it takes to never let anything like that happen again. Given all this it will seem reasonable for the protagonist to take greater risks to achieve his goal in the next scene.

Protagonist and Antagonist


The scene’s antagonist needs to work in DIRECT OPPOSITION to the scene’s protagonist.

The antagonist doesn’t have to be the story villain, the Big Bad. Of course, it could be! But it might also be a friend, or ally or even the protagonist’s sidekick. For example, the two could disagree on how to achieve a common goal.

In Lord of the Rings Sam and Frodo fought over whether Golem could be trusted. Ask yourself:

- Why does the scene goal matter to the protagonist?
- Why does the scene goal matter to the antagonist?

Explaining the logic of a scene


Allow the protagonist to encounter serious, continually escalating trouble. This ensures that your protagonist is miserable most of the time (I talk about why this is important, below).

Use action/reaction units. Unless you’ve read Bickham or Swain this likely won’t make any sense to you. No worries, I talk more about it, below.

1. Keep your protagonist miserable by continually escalating/intensifying the trouble they get into.


DC writes that you do NOT want your protagonist to be successful or happy. You need them to be:

- Worried
- Stressed
- Suffering

Change is difficult. We don’t want to change. That means we need to force the protagonist (and perhaps her allies) to do things they normally wouldn’t. We need to force them to do things that will make them uncomfortable, that will even terrify them. Why? This is the only way humans can change: by doing what is difficult, by entering the forest where it is darkest, we get stronger (if we survive!)

Think of a blacksmith. Pure iron is stronger than impure iron. How does one get rid of the impurities? They are burned away in a crucible. The hottest fire yields the purest/best product. What is true for iron is also true for our characters, we must put them in a crucible to get rid of their weaknesses, to force them to change and grow.

As Deborah Chester says, “Your protagonist needs to run full-tilt into terrible trouble, fight her way through, and hit worse trouble, fight her way through, and hit worse trouble." And so on.

The protagonist must take risks the other characters won’t. She must stand and face problems to help her friends, or anyone she cares about.

2. The hero must fail.


Before the very end, the villain, the bad guy, will continually outmaneuver the protagonist.

DC writes, “Whatever matters most in the world to her [the protagonist] should be endangered so much that she can’t sit passively, crying and doing nothing. She must take action. She must become -- by stages, and through failures, and as a result of confrontations -- a hero.”

3. Use Action/Reaction Units (A/R Units)


A/R units are all about cause and effect. They have to do with an action and its immediate reaction.

There are two types of units: SIMPLE and COMPLICATED.

3a. Simple A/R unit.


What makes the simple A/R unit simple is that it includes, basically, one sentence (or one clause) that is an external, visible, action. This action is followed immediately by a reaction.

There must not be a gap or interruption between an action and its reaction.

For example: The girl threw a snowball at Mark. Mark ducked.

I’m not saying that's an eloquent example! But you get the idea.

3b. Complicated A/R units.


In a complicated A/R unit at least one of the characters involved in a complex scene won’t be fair or honest. There are two things here:

i) There is what the protagonist and antagonist are saying and doing, their dialogue and actions. (External)
ii) What the protagonist -- the viewpoint character -- is actually thinking and feeling. (Internal)

In other words, there needs to be tension between what the viewpoint character is saying versus what she’s feeling inside.

Here is an example Deborah Chester gave:

"Hello," Michael said.
Screeching, the pixie flew at Michael's face, trying to jab his eye with what looked like a sewing needle.
What the hell? Baffled by the tiny creature's rage, Michael swatted it away. "What's wrong with you?" he shouted.

Chester goes on to say that, "Michael's puzzlement about the pixie's behavior will mirror reader confusion." That's important because if the reader is confused but the character isn't then there's a problem with the writing.

That's it!

What I'm reading:


Last night I stayed up way past my bedtime because I had to finish Orphan X by Gregg Hurwitz. I thought about starting the next book in the Orphan X series, The Nowhere Man -- I know I'd love it -- but variety is good. I'm going to start either Lee Child's thriller, Blue Moon, or Midnight Riot by Ben Aaronovitch which is the first book in his Rivers of London series.

What are you reading, I'd love to know! 😀

If you would like to support my blog ...


Every post I pick something I love and recommend it. This serves two purposes. I want to share what I’ve loved with you, and, if you click the link and buy anything over at Amazon within the next 24 hours, Amazon puts a few cents in my tip jar at no cost to you. So, if you click the link, thank you! If not, that’s okay too. I’m thrilled and honored you’ve visited my blog and read my post.

Today (no surprise!) I’m wholeheartedly recommending The Fantasy Fiction Formula, by Deborah Chester.

Wednesday, November 27

Free Indirect Discourse: Its Advantages

Free Indirect Discourse: Its Advantages


When I began writing, I wrote from the first person perspective. Lately, though, I’ve been experimenting with free indirect discourse.

What's so great about free indirect discourse? I hear you ask. Well, with free indirect discourse, the narrator can float between the third person and the first person.

Because you're writing in third person, your narrator can be in any scene, but because you're using free indirect discourse your narrator can plunge into the viewpoint character’s consciousness.

If you're a bit dubious, please let me try to unpack what I just said! 😀 (BTW, if you want to read more about this topic, I've put links to a few articles on the subject at the end of this post.)

The Benefits of Free Indirect Discourse


Here are a few examples:

Direct discourse:


Alice sensed something fly by her cheek. Heart pounding, she thought, “That bullet came altogether too close!”

Indirect discourse: 


Alice sensed something fly by her cheek. Heart pounding, she thought that the bullet had come too close.

Free indirect discourse: 


Alice sensed something fly by her cheek. Her heart pounded. The bullet had come too close.

As you can see, free indirect discourse draws only a hazy distinction between the character’s thoughts and the narrator’s voice. Perhaps you feel differently (and, if so, I’d love to hear from you!), but I feel that the free indirect discourse version of the sentence is more immediate.

I think that free indirect discourse is the key to good writing. Here's why:

Intimacy 


One of the reasons why Stephen King, one of the most successful writers of all time, is so successful is that he is able to create an intense sense of intimacy, and, as a result, gets his readers to bond with the characters.

How is intimacy created? 


Of course, free indirect discourse isn’t going to be enough to write a great story, but it is a very powerful tool to have in your writer’s toolkit. (By the way, if you’ve never read Stephen King’s wonderful book On Writing, please do! If I could have just one writing book as a reference, I would choose that one.)

Anyway, back to intimacy.

As I’ve said, free indirect discourse creates intimacy because it allows the reader to dip into (and out of) a character’s consciousness like the first person does, but it doesn’t restrict the narrator. Let me try to unpack that.

Access to a character’s thoughts 


I know I’ve given this example before, but here is my favorite example of free indirect discourse. It is from The Shining:

“Jack Torrance thought: Officious little #$@^&.” [2]

Instantly we know three things:

a. Jack is an angry person 


We have a pretty good idea what Jack Torrance is like: he is prone to anger. Of course, we can’t know that for certain from just the one line, but as we continue to read we discover anger is one of Jack Torrance’s core characteristics and that it drives his alcoholism. In turn, Jack’s alcoholism is a large part of what makes him vulnerable to the malign spirits within the Overlook.

And, thanks to free indirect discourse, this is all set up in the first, very short, sentence! I truly believe this is a big reason for the popularity of The Shining (as a book). The first line grabs the reader's attention from the very first line and sets up the major themes early.

b. Jack hates the person he is talking to. 


The first line also tells us that, whoever Jack is talking to, he hates them. The next two paragraphs unpack this. IMHO the following two paragraphs are writing at its best.

“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.” [2]

c. Jack realizes he is being unfair.


In the second paragraph, we find out that Jack isn’t being fair to Ullman. We also find out that Jack is self-aware enough to admit this to himself.

Jim Butcher: Comparing the first person perspective to the third 


Here’s what Jim Butcher, New York Times Bestselling author of the Dresden Files has written about the first person perspective in his livejournal blog:

“First person offers the novice writer an intuitive advantage in writing a strong, emotional central character. It creates a few problems for your plot, but nothing that can't be gotten around. It's best suited to a story focused upon a single central character, and as such is most often found in mysteries and thrillers, with occasional appearances in fantasy/sf.

“Third person is far more flexible and offers you a wider range of options, dramatically speaking, but it's also considerably more difficult to learn to handle well--but if you learn to do it, you can really go to town, creatively speaking. Third person is found in every genre, but is particularly prominent in romance, on account of most of the romances like to present the story from the perspective of the two principal characters at the very least.” [1]

Disadvantages of the third person perspective 


While it is true that in the third person it is possible to convey the thoughts, emotions and opinions of a character, the first person is more intimate because we have access to the character’s actual thoughts.

There is a big difference between:

“Jack Torrance thought: Officious little #$@^&.” [2]

and

“The man sitting in front of Jack Torrance was officious.”

Disadvantages of the first person perspective 


The first person perspective is restrictive. You are confined to your protagonist’s mind. That means your protagonist has to be in every scene. I have read books which introduce two or more characters who are written from the first person perspective, this can be confusing for the reader.

But! Good news! There’s a solution to this problem. Yep, you guessed it: free indirect discourse.

Free indirect discourse is flexible 


I used to write everything in the first person, in part because of the (excellent!) advice Jim Butcher gives about this[1], but now I use the third person and free indirect discourse.

With free indirect discourse you have the benefits of the third person without the drawbacks. For example, you can have a viewpoint character other than the protagonist. That’s a huge advantage!

Of course, there are workarounds for authors who write in the first person. For example, In the past I’ve had to change the plot so my protagonist could be in a particular scene. Some Science Fiction and Fantasy authors have given their protagonist special powers so they can send their consciousness elsewhere. In this way they are able to observe what is happening in a space the viewpoint character doesn’t occupy.

For example, the viewpoint character could be locked in a wizard's high tower, but she has the power to concentrate and send her consciousness downstairs to spy on the wizard. She can see who he talks with and overhear their conversations.

That’s it! I hope you try out free indirect discourse. Perhaps write some microfiction. If you do, please share!

Support the Blog


Thanks for reading! Each blog post takes me a few hours to complete. If you like this content, please consider making a small contribution. Ways to support the blog:
Thanks!


Notes: 


1. Jim Butcher, his Livejournal
2. Stephen King, The Shining

Helpful Articles:


  • Narration -- Everything you never wanted to know about first, second and third person!
  • Free indirect speech -- I haven't covered everything about free indirect discourse/speech. If you want to read more, this is a good starting point.
  • The Benefits of Free Indirect Discourse -- "Free Indirect Discourse is essentially the practice of embedding a character’s speech or thoughts into an otherwise third-person narrative." If you're interested in the topic, I can't recommend this article highly enough.

Saturday, November 2

Truth in Fiction: The Importance of Honesty

Truth in Fiction: The Importance of Honesty


Today I want to explore the importance of honesty in writing. First, though, let's look at dishonesty and its effects. That's right! We're going to talk about politicians.

An Example of the Importance of Truth-Telling: Politics


I’m a politics nerd and, over the years, have watched many politicians evade reporters’ questions. To a certain extent, this mild dishonesty goes with the territory. You’ve probably heard the old joke:

Question: How do you know if a politician is lying?
Answer: Are their lips moving?

But, occasionally, a politician's evasiveness, their disingenuousness, goes over the top and voters lose faith. Let me give you a couple of examples of the kind of evasiveness I mean. (In a moment I'll talk about how dialing up a character's honesty or dishonesty can influence how readers feel about them.)

Example 1 out of 2


I’m not going to mention the politician’s name because that’s not important. Let’s call him Joe.

Joe was asked an obnoxious question. I’m paraphrasing here, but he was asked if he had been inappropriate with any of the young people who had been in his charge before he entered public life.

There is absolutely no reason to think this was the case, so it was a cheeky question, an offensive question, and the way Joe answered made it clear he was hostile to the questioner. And, absolutely, it would be difficult NOT to be hostile to someone who implied that you were using your position to exploit the children who were in your care.

That said, I found myself not liking Joe as much. The fascinating thing, to me, was that even though I believed Joe and thought the reporter's question was obnoxious, the reporter somehow came out looking better than Joe. After all, just as politicians are often less than candid, reporters ask insulting questions, it's part of their job.

The Takeaway: Applying this to Writing


Even though I one hundred percent believe Joe answered the reporter’s question honestly, the WAY he answered it made him seem dishonest.

Why was this?

Here’s what I think. Putting this in terms of Story the reporter was the protagonist of that particular scene.

As you know, the protagonist is the person who the reader or viewer identifies with, So the question is: Why did I view the reporter as the protagonist? What made me do that?

I think it was because the reporter was the most active one in the exchange between the two men. Also, I viewed the reporter as having a clear goal; namely, to 'encourage' the politician to be candid, to say what he really thought, so that his fellow citizens could figure out who to vote for.

After all, if I don't know what a person thinks, what goals they have, what ideals we share, then I don't really know THEM, the person. All I know is their mask, the persona they have crafted.

Example 2 out of 2


The same anonymous politician, Joe, was asked another question, one much less obnoxious than the first.

Joe was asked whether he had tried to set right a particular wrong, one he had admitted to committing. Joe didn't answer the question, instead he made a completely unrelated political statement.

Joe’s response made him seem dishonest. Why? Because I thought he COULD HAVE answered the question without any major political fallout. He could have said, “No, because …” and given his reasons for not doing it. Or he could have said, “Yes, I thought it was important for me to do that because …”

Joe probably would have gotten some flack either way, but I think he suffered MORE for not being open and honest.

The Takeaway: Applying this to Writing


If you want readers to be drawn to your character, to think he or she is the kind of person the reader could respect and be friends with, keep these two things in mind:

a. Have the character tell the truth.

b. Have the character tell the truth in an extremely difficult situation.

(b) is the key. Anyone can tell the truth if there are no consequences for doing so. But if, at least in your character’s mind, there could be a terrible price to pay, then it really means something when they refuse to lie.

Conversely, if you want another character -- perhaps your antagonist -- to look shady, untrustworthy, then have him or her tell the truth in easy situations but lie when the stakes go up.

The Truth in Fiction


Stephen King, in On Writing, tells us that even in fiction, there is a core of truth.

Sure, the town you're writing about doesn’t exist. Sure, the characters are imaginary but, at the story’s core, is a truth.

For instance, in Stephen King’s IT, I would say that the core truth is that we -- humans -- are stronger together. We can best the human bullies as well as the monsters that lurk in the darkness. We need to be our authentic self, we need to trust each other and work together. We need to accept each other in all our weird wacky messiness and cooperate to accomplish a goal.

If we do all that we MAY succeed ... occasionally.

Be Honest


This is the most important thing and, really, what this post is all about. Remember: No one is going to see your Zero Draft (I sometimes call this the vomit draft[link]).

Honesty is difficult because it makes us uncomfortable, it exposes who we are and so opens us up to the possibility of rejection. That fear of rejection causes anxiety.

If I tell my friend that she does something that irritates me (for example, showing up late) my friend may become angry and end our relationship. Despite the risks I think that telling the truth in real life is worth it.

But you might think: Karen, you're talking about fiction here, isn't it different?

I think the same principle applies. I think that telling the truth in fiction AS YOU SEE IT is absolutely essential.

Why is this? Here's my explanation: Truthfulness meshes with the world in a way that its opposite does not. If I am honest about what makes me happy, sad, angry, frustrated, and so on, then -- because we are all much like each other -- my readers can relate to these experiences. This is what Stephen King refers to as the truth within the lie.

I'd be interested what you think about this. Do you agree? Disagree?

NaNoWriMo


If you’re participating in NaNoWriMo, good luck!

How many words have you written so far? I have 14 pages of (longhand) notes where I wrote ... how can I describe it? Word jazz. I brainstormed arcs, main characters, how the arcs intersect, and so on.

Today I need to sit down and write about 5,000 words. I'll check back in with you in my next post.

Thanks for reading, and good writing!