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

Friday, January 22

Writing a Genre Story: How to Create Suspense

Writing a Genre Story: How to Create Suspense


Let’s talk about what suspense is. Sure, yes, we know what it is in a “I know it when I feel it” kind of way, but if we want our stories to create suspense in our readers, it would be helpful to have a definition. 

Lee Goldberg once said that, "Suspense is an escalating sense of apprehension or fear, a building of pressure, heading either towards an uncertain conclusion or a horrifyingly certain one." [1] 

I will look at two ways of creating suspense. First, the author might get a reader to ask a question without immediately answering it. We’re human, and once we have an interesting puzzle we find it difficult to NOT try to solve it. Second--and this is really just a more specific way of creating a question in the reader’s mind--the author might give the reader either more or less information than the hero. Let’s look at each of these techniques in turn. 

Ask a Question but Withhold the Answer

Lee Child holds that suspense boils down to asking a question and making people wait for the answer. He believes that humans are wired to want the answer to a question they don't know the answer to. 

Want viewers to stick around during a commercial break? Ask them a question before the break and answer it when the break is over. This is Child's explanation for his view that “The way to write a thriller is to ask a question at the beginning, and answer it at the end." [2]

Child also talks about his technique in his New York Times article, "A Simple Way to Create Suspense." [3] 

"As novelists, we should ask or imply a question at the beginning of the story, and then we should delay the answer.... Readers are human, and humans seem programmed to wait for answers to questions they witness being asked."

"Trusting such a simple system feels cheap and meretricious while you’re doing it. But it works. It’s all you need. Of course, attractive and sympathetic characters are nice to have; and elaborate and sinister entanglements are satisfying; and impossible-to-escape pits of despair are great. But they’re all luxuries. The basic narrative fuel is always the slow unveiling of the final answer."

Dramatic Irony and Suspense

In order to understand how to create and build suspense we need to understand dramatic irony. Why? Because dramatic irony can be used to increase the audience's (and in this case our reader is our audience) sense of curiosity and concern for the hero.

An Example

Scenario 1: Imagine a hero inching along a darkened path, oblivious to the deadly monster creeping up behind him, poised to strike.

Scenario 2: Imagine that, as before, our hero inches along a darkened path but now there is no deadly threat stalking him. Instead, he is anticipating a threat just around the bend. He doesn’t know a monster is there, but he thinks one could be. 

The first scenario creates suspense by giving the 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 we, the audience, know what the hero knows and, with him, we cringe as he rounds every corner, every bend in the twisty road. 

That was a quick overview. I go over these points again, below.

Some Aspects of Dramatic Irony

Surface meaning versus underlying meaning

Dramatic irony occurs when the surface meaning of an utterance is at variance with its deeper meaning. In other words, dramatic irony depends upon certain people knowing more than others. Some who hear the utterance will be stranded at the surface while others will go deeper.

Let's look at the possibilities.

The audience knows less than one or more of the characters.

Tension can be generated when we see a character's reaction to, for example, the contents of a suitcase even though we never find out what it contained.

This example comes from Pulp Fiction. Vincent Vega looks into the suitcase, its eerie illumination playing over his face. For a moment Vega seems lost in whatever he sees. The viewer doesn't know what's in the suitcase, but Vega and his partner, Jules Winnfield, do. Vega is looking right at it but, damn him, he's not telling! 

The audience knows more than one or more of the characters.

I think this is the far more common scenario. It happens on almost every show I watch, nearly every episode.

A character knows less about something than another character, and they don't know they know less.

For example, a couple of months ago I re-watched the science fiction and horror classic Alien, a movie that has aged remarkably well. At one point one of the characters, Brett, searches for Jones the cat. Everyone on the ship is going back into stasis and that includes Jones, but Brett needs to catch him first. Yes, sure, the alien is on the loose, but in this scene Brett isn't overly worried about meeting the alien since he knows Jones is in the area and, therefore, attributes any weird noises to the spooked feline. 

Brett hears a noise, looks beneath nearby machinery and spots the cat. Brett tries to coax the cat out of his hiding spot but, just as the cat walks toward him, we see a tentacle unfurl behind Brett. Jones sees this, hisses and darts away. Brett is stunned. He thinks the cat hissed at him. Puzzled, he keeps calling Jones, trying to coax the cat out of hiding. While Brett does this we see the alien slowly, silently, unfurl behind him. 

At this point in the movie, if you're anything like me, you grip the cushion you have a stranglehold on even tighter and scream: Turn around!

And, of course, Brett turns around but it's too late. He becomes monster chow.

This is the kind of thing we mean when we say that in dramatic irony the implications of a situation, speech, and so on, are understood by the audience but not by at least one of the characters in the drama. In this scene both the cat and the alien had more information than Brett did and, as so often happens in horror movies, Brett paid for that inequality with his life.

Unwise Behavior

When a passage contains dramatic irony, the character from whom information is being kept usually reacts in a way that is inappropriate and unwise.

In the example from Alien, running away and hiding would have been both appropriate and wise. Standing in front of the alien calling out "kitty, kitty," not so much.

Summary

To summarize, suspense is an escalating sense of apprehension or fear of a certain ending. Part of the reason this is effective is because it asks a question, “Will the hero survive?” and makes you wait for an answer. Lee Child has spoken quite a bit about this way of creating suspense. Dramatic irony is another way of creating suspense and it occurs when there is an incongruity between what the expectations of a situation are and what is really the case. 

Notes

1. For more on this see the Google+ Hangout Libby Hellman hosted, "Secrets To Writing Top Suspense."

2. Lee Child was quoted having said this in an article about Thrillerfest, but I can't find the reference.

3. "A Simple Way to Create Suspense," by Lee Child (2012)

Photo Credit

Indiana Jones and the Mountain of Rocks, by JD Hancock. I altered the image to create a greater contrast with the text. I highly recommend dropping by JD Hancock's website and viewing his many, fascinating creations.

Wednesday, January 20

Writing a Genre Story: Try-Fail Cycles

Writing a genre story: Try-Fail Cycles

Try-fail cycles are the key to writing engaging prose because they structure conflict in such a way that it creates suspense.

Try-Fail Cycles and Conflict

Let’s talk about the nuts and bolts of the try-fail cycle.

For every conflict that comes up, a question can be asked: Will our hero succeed? There are four possible answers:

Yes

Yes, BUT

No

No, AND

Let's look at each of these.

1. Yes

People love it when they get what they want but, let’s face it, hearing about how you won the corner office is probably not a story other people are terribly interested in. I love it when I get what I want, but it makes a boring story. “I wanted a new phone for my birthday and then I got one!” 

Think of it this way, when families get together at Christmas what's the gossip about? Who got divorced, who lost their job, who is drinking too much. It's about the bad things--or at least the sad things--that have happened to your family, friends and neighbours.

Being told that, “Yes, the hero will succeed,” won't generate conflict. It's not interesting. 

An Example

Imagine someone told you the following story:

Bruce woke up Wednesday morning with an overpowering desire for waffles. Bruce promptly got up and took himself over to the nearest waffle house and ate a hot, flaky, buttery, waffle. The End.

Boring.

Even if we give Bruce some motivation, it still doesn't help matters:

Bruce’s wife, Cindy, woke up Wednesday morning with an overpowering desire for waffles. Cindy was seven months pregnant and hadn't had any appetite for the last three days. Her doctor was worried. When Cindy woke up wanting waffles Bruce was overjoyed. "You wait right here," he said, "I'll get you a stack of the fluffiest, most mouth watering waffles you've ever had. Be right back." 

Bruce jumped into his car, got the waffles, and gave them to his wife. She scarfed them down in no time and everyone was happy. The End.

Still boring.

2. Yes, BUT ...

A hero needs setbacks because if what he desires were handed to him that would be dull. Let's give Bruce a few obstacles. 

Bruce jumps into his car but it won't start. He investigates and discovers his battery is dead. Bruce heads over to the neighbor's house hoping he'll help jump start his car but his neighbor isn't home.

Bruce peers through the neighbor's window hoping the man just fell asleep on the couch. Instead of seeing his neighbor--an ancient relic who shuffles about, his underwear sagging dangerously--he sees an attractive young woman he doesn't recognize. She's moving around the living room putting valuables into a sack. 

His neighbor is being robbed!

Bruce tries to call the police on his cell but can't get a signal. He wonders if he should bang on the window or say something to the intruder to scare her off. As Bruce ponders this the woman turns and sees him. She is startled and screams something at him that Bruce can't hear through the thick glass. She pulls a gun from her pocket and points it at him.

Bruce is terrified. How had a simple errand to get waffles turned into a scene out of Die Hard?

And so on.

That's not as boring. I might be able to do something with that. And it's all because we didn't give the hero what he wanted.

By setting up goals and obstacles and making Bruce hop from one to the other, getting in more trouble each time he fails, the story becomes more interesting. Why? Because character is revealed through adversity.

3. No

Answering the question, "Will the hero get what he desires?" with "No" is almost as bad as answering it with, "Yes." We don't want to see our heroes fail. We want to see them triumph over adversity, or at least make some progress toward triumphing. 

Imagine this scenario:

Bruce woke up Wednesday morning with an overpowering desire for waffles. Bruce tried to drive to a waffle house but his car wouldn't start. Dejected and waffle-less, Bruce climbed back into bed. The End.

That’s just terrible!

4. No, AND ...

This is very common. Not only doesn't the protagonist fail to achieve what he set out to do but another complication is thrown in his path. The question is: will Bruce get a jump start from his neighbor? The answer: No, AND he has a gun pointed at him.

Setbacks Create Conflict

Your main character has goals, he wants things. But if he got everything he wanted right away then your story would be as entertaining as watching paint dry. The solution: give your main character setbacks. This can be difficult! It is easy for me to get attached to my characters. I want to let them sleep in and eat ice cream, I do not want to create a fire breathing dragon to roast their behinds as they flee in terror. But no one said writing was easy! 

In Indiana Jones and Raiders of the Lost Ark, Indiana goes on a quest to find and bring back the lost Ark of the Covenant. About halfway through the movie Indy and Marion escape from the Well of Souls and Indy decides he and Marion must stowaway on the plane the enemy will be using to fly the ark out of the country. 

Indy fails in the end (the plane blows up) but the sequence of goals and conflicts are memorable. Let's examine the scene.

No, AND

Question: Will Indy sneak onto the plane undetected?
Answer: No. Indy is spotted crawling up the plane toward the pilot
Complication: AND a fight begins.

Yes, BUT

Question: Will Indy win the fight?
Answer: Yes.
Complication: BUT a much bigger man starts a fight with Indy (AND the pilot spots Indy and starts to shoot at him).

Yes, BUT

Question: The pilot starts to take pot shots at Indy. Will Indy escape being hit?
Answer: Yes, Indy dodges the pilot's bullets.
Complication: BUT the pilot keeps shooting. 

No, AND

Question: Indy is fighting a huge bad guy. It looks like Indy has no chance of winning. Will Indy, against all odds, win the fight against the Man-Mountain?
Answer: No.
Complication: AND the pilot is still shooting at him.

Yes, BUT

Question: The pilot takes aim at Indy, from this angle he can't miss. Will Indy survive?
Answer: Yes, Indy survives. Marion hits the pilot over the head and knocks him unconscious.
Complication: BUT as the pilot slumps over in the cockpit he hits some levers and starts the plane rolling forward while Indy, on the ground below, fights the Man-Mountain.

You get the idea. The entire scene is well worth watching.

Steaks Go Up

One more thing. The hero’s stakes gradually escalate throughout the scene. At first Indy just wants to board the plane, then he gets into a fist fight, then there's an impossibly huge man he has to fight, then someone starts shooting at him, then the plane begins to move, then there's a truckload of German soldiers who see him, then Marion explodes gasoline containers, then there's gasoline on the ground running toward the fire. At the very end of the scene a pool of gasoline rushes toward the burning gas canisters while the impossibly huge man continues to beat Indy to a pulp. Then the canisters explode and the whole camp, all the bad guys, rush to investigate. It's quite something.

The stakes go from high to higher to very high to insanely high and, finally, to something truly spectacularly high. 

Try-Fail cycles are present in every story. The next time you read a book or watch one of your favorite TV shows, pick a scene that captured your imagination and write it out. Dissect it to see how it works, how the effect was created. (It’s okay to dissect scenes, they can be put back together again. Just dust them off, give them a bit of milk and they’re fine. ;)

Thanks for reading! I'll have another post up in a few days, I'm trying for at least one a week. I hope to see you then. In the meantime, good writing!

Where you can find me on the web:
Twitter: @WoodwardKaren
Pinterest: @karenjwoodward

Monday, January 18

Good Storytelling: Internal and External Stakes (Part Four of Four)

Good Storytelling: Internal and External Stakes (Part Four of Four)

Just as characters have internal and external goals so there are internal and external stakes.

Inner Stakes versus Outer Stakes

As I’ve mentioned previously in this series, in the movie Shrek the protagonist's internal conflict, his challenge, was to risk rejection and let people past his defenses, to let others know how he really felt. Specifically, his internal challenge was to tell Princess Fiona he loved her. Shrek needed to risk rejection so he could make connections with her and find true love.

Shrek's outer challenge was to get the fairytale creatures out of his swamp by rescuing Princess Fiona and bringing her to Lord Farquaad so she could be Farquaad’s bride. If Shrek did that Farquaad promised Shrek to remove the fairytale creatures from his swamp.

Inner Goal versus Outer Goal

Different kinds of stakes accompany different kinds of goals. If Shrek failed to rescue Princess Fiona from the castle, Lord Farquaad would have had Shrek killed. 

If Shrek failed to lower his internal defenses and let people in, he would have lost the love of Princess Fiona and endured a sad and lonely existence in his now vacant swamp which would have made it a pyrrhic victory.

Stakes and Complexity

It's not the size of the stakes that count, it's their complexity. Complex stakes involve not just a character's internal or external goals, but both together. It's not just about saving the world, it's about overcoming one's fears so that one can save the world. 

Escalate the Stakes

Stories contain compcolications. The hero sets out to do one thing, a complication pops up and blocks him, he tries to get around the complication by doing something else but that only makes things worse, and so on. The stakes escalate throughout the story until everything comes to a fever pitch at the end.

Conflicting Goals, Conflicting Stakes

Conflicting goals often mean conflicting stakes.

In Raiders of the Lost Ark, there's a terrific scene in the middle where Indy ducks into a tent to hide from the bad guys and comes across Marion tied to a tent pole. Indy begins to untie Marion then realizes that if the Nazis discover her missing they'll know he is in the camp looking for the ark. If he frees Marion he will give himself away and fail in his quest. What does Indy do? He ties Marion back up! She's furious with him. It's a great scene. 

Let's take a look at the stakes at play in this scene. 

Indiana's stakes at the beginning of the scene:

Indiana’s goal: Escape the guard's notice and obtain the ark.

What success would look like: Indiana doesn't get captured and is one step closer to his goal. 

What failure would look like: Indiana is captured, possibly tortured. He fails to obtain the ark.

Marion's stakes at the beginning of the scene:

Marion’s goal: Get untied, sneak out of the Nazi camp, go to America.

What success would look like: Marion gets her freedom.

What failure would look like: Marion's future is unknown. She could be tortured, various nasty things could happen to her.

In the middle of the scene the stakes change when Indy realizes he has to tie Marion up or risk losing the ark.

Indiana's stakes in the middle of the scene:

Indy's goal: To find the ark and for Marion not to hate him.

What success would look like: Marion's forbearance and a possible future together.

What failure would look like: Marion's lasting wrath.

For Indy to succeed in winning Marion's affection--or just to avoid making her furious with him--he must help her escape. But he can't. Not now. If he helps her, then he risks his primary mission. So he fails to achieve this minor goal, accepts Marion's wrath, ties her back up and exits the tent.

The point is that conflicting mini-goals with their own stakes often pop up within a scene. I thought the above scene was especially interesting. It highlights Indy's and Marion's diametrically opposed interests. Marion would much rather just escape and forget all about the ark, but recovering it is Indy's primary goal.

Summary

Characters have goals. Every goal has stakes attached, what it would mean for the hero to achieve, or fail to achieve, the goal. Will their lives go better or worse? This--the space between where the character is and where the character could be--creates various kinds of conflict and conflict is the engine that drives a story forward. 

I hope you have enjoyed this series! If you have any comments or questions, please get in touch. Either leave a comment or reach out to me at karenwoodwardmail (at) gmail (dot) com. Thanks! Good writing.

Saturday, January 16

Good Storytelling: Unique Stakes (Part Three)

Good storytelling: unique stakes (part three)



















This is Part Three of a mini-series. This part can be read on its own, but if you would like to read the first two parts they are here: 

Good Storytelling: Give Your Characters Something to Die For (Part One)
Good Storytelling: Goals, Stakes and Consequences (Part Two)

Unique Stakes

Quick review. Each character has a goal. For example, in Star Wars IV, Luke Skywalker wanted to destroy the Death Star. After all, anything called a Death Star probably needs to be destroyed!

What will happen to a character is based on whether she achieves her goal. Those are the stakes. Think of gambling. If I place a bet on my team to win the Big Game then the stakes of the bet are the amount of money I could gain or lose. In Luke Skywalker's case, when he prevented the Death Star from blowing up the rebel's base on Yavin IV the resistance was preserved.

But that was Luke's main goal--that was the story goal--and, as such, he shared that with many other characters such as Princess Lea. Luke had other goals that were unique to him. For example, he wanted to learn how to fly a variety of spacecraft and he wanted to learn how to control the force. 

Sure, Han Solo was an accomplished pilot and Obi-Wan Kenobi was a Jedi skilled in controlling the force, but Luke--while he did have the capacity to be both these things--wasn't there yet. 

And that these (becoming a better pilot, becoming a Jedi) were his goals said something about him, they made him unique. 

That's what I mean by unique stakes.

Character Creation

What does your character want? What drives him? What gets him up in the morning? The answers to these questions show who your character is.

Stakes help reveal your character's personality. 

Here’s a trick I learned:

If you’re not sure what desires drive a character, ask: If this character won an obscene amount of money, what is the first thing she would do with it? Would she rush to the bank to make an investment? Would she fly with 20 of her closest friends to Vegas? Would she buy a house? Would she get married? Would she give it all away to charity?

In Luke Skywalker’s case the answer is easy: he would take care of his aunt and uncle and then go offworld to the Academy and learn how to fly all sorts of aircraft.

What does your character fear? When he was a kid what kind of beasties lived under his bed?

The best character’s fears are a unique blend of the universal and the particular. A few universal fears are shame, boredom, hunger, pain and death, but characters are particular and these universal fears need to manifest themselves in the character’s life in a unique and preferably quirky way. For example, one of the things I loved about Mr. Monk was that he was scared of milk. Milk! That fear was unique and revealed his character.

Sherlock Holmes was not fond of being bored, he required a difficult, interesting puzzle to solve. 

Luke feared letting his aunt and uncle down. He also feared being bored, being trapped on a planet where nothing exciting ever happened.

A character’s wants and fears tie them to their goal

In Raiders of the Lost Ark Indiana Jones is terrified of snakes. And of course snakes are found in any dungeon or ancient temple worth the name.

Luke is scared of turning to the dark side of the force like his father did.

In The Matrix, Neo is scared that Morphius will die because he, mistakenly, believes that Neo is The One. Of course it turns out that Neo IS The One, and Morphius doesn’t die, but that was the fear that motivated Neo to act.

The Reader


A character's wants and fears need to tie into the reader's wants and fears.

It’s good when a character’s wants and fears tie in with their goal--which, for the protagonist is the story goal--but we write for wonderful people, our readers. We want to draw them into our story.

This is another advantage of writing a genre story. For example, if you’re writing a romance story you know what your reader will want to feel. She will want to vicariously fall in love along with the protagonist, have a good cry with her when it doesn’t work out and then have renewed hope at the end when the lovers get back together.

If you’re writing a horror story the reader is going to want to be terrified. 

And so on.

It’s the stakes that tie the reader to the characters--especially the protagonist--and, in so doing, the stakes tie the reader to the story.

Readers Stakes versus Character Stakes

For example, in William Goldman's wonderful story, The Princess Bride, why did Inigo Montoya devote his life to becoming a master swordsman? It was because the six-fingered man (Count Rugen) killed his father and Inigo had sworn to avenge his father's death. 

So yes, sure, Inigo's goal was to kill Count Rugen but I would argue that, generally, he wanted to do right by his father. The love that Inigo had for his father was the glue that kept him focused on his goal. 

What are the stakes for Inigo? When Inigo finally fights Count Rugen it seems as though Inigo is dying, felled by a sneaky, dishonorable blow meted out by Count Rugen. We understand from the very beginning: the stakes of this contest, this battle, are life and death and Count Rugen isn't going to fight fair.

All that is true, but I would argue that for Inigo the stakes that matter to him aren't life and death--his life and death--they are whether he succeeds in avenging his father. If he were to discover that avenging his father would mean his death he wouldn't hesitate. If Inigo doesn't succeed in avenging his father's death, it seems to me that Inigo wouldn't want to live. 

Does the reader think about it that way as well? I don't think so. I think we care much more than Inigo does about his life. Yes, absolutely, we want to see justice done. We want Inigo to complete his quest and kill the dishonorable Count Rugen. But it is also very important to us--much more important than it is to Inigo himself--that he survive.  

So all that has been building up to this: the stakes of the character aren't necessarily our stakes, the reader’s stakes. We sometimes care passionately about something the character themselves doesn’t seem to care a lot about. And that's great! What we want as writers is to get our readers to care passionately about our characters and what happens to them. 

Okay! That's Part Three of this series. There's only going to be one more part. In the final part I'll talk about internal and external stakes. That's it for now! Good writing.
Where you can find me on the web:
Pinterest: @karenjwoodward

Tuesday, December 29

Good Storytelling: Goals, Stakes and Consequences (Part Two)

Good Storytelling: Goals, Stakes and Consequences (Part Two)

[This is Part Two of a mini-series on good storytelling. This part can be read on its own, but if you would like to read Part One it is here: Good Storytelling: Give Your Characters Something to Die For (Part One)]

This might seem obvious, but in order for a character's stakes to matter the character’s goal must be clear.

Goals

Every main character must want something. This goal, achieving it or failing to achieve it, will define the character’s arc. (And each arc will itself usually have a beginning in the Ordinary World, a middle in the Special World and, in the end, the Return.) 

The protagonist’s arc is also the arc of the story.

External Goals

All characters have external goals. In Raiders of the Lost Ark Indiana Jones's external goal was to obtain the Ark of the Covenant. He didn’t have an internal goal.

An external goal is something concrete, something you could take a picture of, something that exists in the external world independently of your character.

Internal Goals

Shrek, though, had both external and internal goals. His external goal was to get the fairytale creatures out of his swamp. His internal goal or challenge was to allow himself to be connected to others. In addition, there is tension between Shrek’s external and internal goals. He wants the fairytale critters out of his swamp because he is the ultimate loner, but his internal goal/challenge is to become more connected to others. His love for Princess Fiona is the concrete manifestation of that inner challenge.

An internal goal is usually a need or challenge that the character must meet or overcome. Usually it is the internal need or challenge that is met at the end of the B-story and that contributes to the epiphany that gets the character out of the All Hope is Lost moment and helps him formulate a new plan.

I’ll say more about all this later on, but I wanted to begin to introduce the ideas here.

One Goal to Rule Them All

A main character--like the real people they are a fiction of--can, and should, have more than one goal, but it must be clear they want one thing desperately and they must want it more than anything else. The thing that the protagonist passionately wants becomes the story goal. If the protagonist achieves the goal then she's succeeded, if not then she's failed.

For instance, in Raiders of the Lost Ark, if Indiana finds the ark and brings it back with him then he has succeeded. If not, he's failed.

What are the stakes? If Indy achieves his goal then he gets professional kudos and the opportunity to study a fascinating artifact. If he doesn't, then the Nazi war machine will use the ark to help turn the tide of war in its favor. 

Of course, the goal can change along the way. In “The Firm,” Mitch McDeere starts out wanting to be a rich lawyer then, about halfway through the story, his goal changes: he just wants to be free, he doesn't want either the FBI or the mob to own him.

The stakes must matter to the characters

This seems obvious. If the stakes don't matter to a character that's like creating a beautiful car but neglecting to put gas in the engine. 

Tying Stakes to Goals

The other day I was walking through a fairground and one of the hawkers called out to me: 

"Hey! You wanna play this game? I know you do. It's fun and you could win a great prize." 

"Oh?" I said. "What prize?" 

The youth held up a big stuffed pink and green elephant.

No thanks. It would be cheaper--a lot cheaper--for me to go out and buy myself a stuffed elephant! 

Now, if he'd held up the promise of a critique by, say, Stephen King I'd have played. Heck, he wouldn't have been able to get rid of me!

Why? Because the stakes, the possible consequences of a course of action--in this case winning a critique by Stephen King--are connected in the right way to my desire to become a better writer. That is, the stakes would help further my goal.

When the stakes help a character further their goal then the stakes will matter to your character.

Tying Stakes to Emotions

This is basically just another way of saying the same thing I just said, but it takes the topic from another direction. 

This point about the stakes needing to matter to your characters is also about believability. 

When the going gets tough and your character is getting beaten up, whether literally or figuratively, the character needs a believable reason for why they keep on keeping on.

How do you, as a storyteller, make it plausible that your characters will go through hell to achieve their goal? You make the stakes matter to the characters. Okay, but how do you do that? Simple: you tie the stakes into your character's wants and fears.

I think this is one reason why stakes are often life and death. Whether or not a person continues living matters a great deal to them and it doesn't need explanation. If a burglar pulls out a gun and points it at your character, the reader understands the character's panic. 

-- --
Thanks for reading! I'll post Part Three in this series soon. In the meantime, good writing.

Monday, December 28

Good Storytelling: Give Your Characters Something to Die For (Part One)


First, a caveat. In the following I say things about ‘all X,’ for example, ‘all main characters,’ but of course statements like that are generalizations. There are wonderful stories that do not fit into the patterns I describe.[1] 

That said, I think reading about the hero’s journey is valuable even if the stories you are interested in would traditionally have been described as more literary. After all, there are patterns, rhythms, to good storytelling regardless of the story being told. And while I do wholeheartedly agree that there are more ways for a story to express these patterns than are described in the hero’s journey, I do believe that the hero’s journey IS one way to access those patterns.

The Importance of a Good Stake (Punny ;)

I've already discussed the importance of having goals and the inevitable conflict that follows from that (blog post: Storytelling). But the amount of conflict depends on how high the stakes are.

Think of it this way, if you bet the price of a coffee on your sports team winning a particular match you wouldn't care as much about the outcome as if you had bet your entire rent for the month. (Not that I’m recommending that!)

Stakes and Suspense

Goals--especially diametrically opposed goals like the ones I’ll talk about, later--are important because they create conflict, but this conflict means little without high stakes. The stakes control the suspense. Low states, low suspense. High stakes, high suspense.

Stakes are the possible consequences of a course of action. What will happen if the protagonist achieves her goal? What will happen if she doesn't?  

For example, let's say we have a character, Rob. Rob is on a diet, he wants to lose 20 pounds before his brother's wedding. Here are two versions of the story:

Version 1

Possibility A: Rob loses the 20 pounds and doesn’t have to rent a tuxedo.

Possibility B: Rob failed to lose 20 pounds and had to rent a tuxedo.

The story question: Will Rob lose 20 pounds and not have to rent a tuxedo or will he fail and be forced to rent a tuxedo for his brother's wedding?

Either way, so what? Why should we care? I don't know about you, but I don't have strong feelings either way about rented tuxedos!

Let’s increase the stakes.

Version 2

Rob makes a bet with his brother that if he can't fit into his tuxedo in time for the wedding he'll pay for the wedding. But paying for the wedding would wipe out Rob’s savings and he wouldn't be able to fulfill his lifelong dream of climbing Mount Everest. And if he doesn’t fulfill his dream of climbing Mount Everest he will be depressed, stop making friends and develop an unnatural addiction to Cheetos.

Now we have:

Possibility A': Rob loses the 20 pounds and so not only fits into his tuxedo but is able to fulfil his dream of climbing Mount Everest. Afterward, Rob starts a new blog to share his experiences, meets lots of other cool people and lives a meaningful life surrounded by those who care about him.

Possibility B': Rob fails to lose the 20 pounds and so not only has to rent a tuxedo but can’t fulfil his dream of climbing Mount Everest. Rob becomes depressed, never blogs, becomes addicted to Cheetos and dies alone.

Here’s our new story question:

Will Rob be able to lose the 20 pounds before the wedding and fulfil his dream to climb Mount Everest or will he fail, pay for his brother's wedding, become depressed and die alone?

That's a better story question. Obviously the example is tongue in cheek, but hopefully it illustrates the point. 

As soon as Rob has something with emotional weight to lose, we begin to care more about what happens to him.

In order for this to work, though, the possible consequences of a course of action must be clear.

-- --

That's it for now! I'll try and get Part Two of this miniseries up tomorrow or the next day. I'm blogging a draft of my new book on writing, so your input on anything I write would be greatly appreciated! If you think I'm wrong about anything I say, please let me know! I enjoy discussions about writing. Thanks for reading.

Cheers.

Notes:

[1] 
I went looking for examples of stories that I didn’t think easily fit the form of a hero’s journey. For example, Pulp Fiction. Yes, Pulp Fiction is a film, but… See Note 2, below. Anyway, I came across the article, “Not Everything Is A Hero's Journey,” over at NarrativeFirst.com. (I looked for the author’s name, but couldn’t find it. My apologies. If anyone knows the author’s name please tell me and I'll add that information.)

Although I disagreed with some things in the article, I liked this part:

“There can be nothing more destructive to the world of storytelling than this compulsion for spiritual metamorphosis.

“Stories are about solving problems. Sometimes, solving those problems require the centerpiece of a story, the Main Character, to undergo a major transformation in how they see the world. Sometimes they don't. There is nothing inherently better about a story where the Main Character transforms.” 

I really liked the author's style and wit. I would encourage anyone interested in this topic to read the article (I’ve listed it in Further Readings).

But, anyway. The hero can, and often does, fail to achieve his goal. One of the ways the hero can fail to achieve his goal is that he fails to transform. To my mind, though, the hero’s transformation does not guarantee success. That said, I liked the comment that stories are about solving problems. Yes! Agreed.

Also, I liked the comment, “There is nothing inherently better about a story where the Main Character transforms.” Of course, it depends on what one means by better. What is the criterion? Perhaps I’m going too far afield, but is the criterion subjective (I liked this story better than that story), or objective? 

I favor the idea that there is an objective aspect to such a criterion. Let’s say we have two stories. Here’s the question: Could one story help someone live a better life than the other story? For example, if we had two identical populations, and one took the first story as a myth and the second took the second story as a myth and we ran the simulation over 1000 generations, in which population would individuals have lived more meaningful lives? And we could run this entire experiment many hundreds or thousands of times. Would one civilization be much more successful than the other? Of course, such an experiment isn’t possible.

Anyway. I do think that is why we are fascinated with stories. It’s why a character’s goals matter to us, it’s why stakes matter to us, it’s why we care about endings. But I’m open to people disagreeing. I love those sorts of conversations.

[2]
Books versus films. I regard a book as a way of carrying a story around in the world. Similarly, I regard a film strip--or these days a thumb drive containing an electronic file--as another way of carrying a story around in the world. Of course there are differences. In a book bits of ink form letters which form words and when read images unspool in the theater of the mind. In a film images are displayed on a flat surface and they flick by so quickly that our eyes and brains are fooled into seeing motion. Sure, films--flicks--generally don’t require the viewer to bring the same mental equipment to bear to unspool a story as books do but, in terms of the story told, I don’t believe there is an essential difference between the media.

Or, to put it another way, a book or film is a medium/container for a story in something like the way a body is thought to be a medium/container for a mind. It’s the story that is the essential thing, not the specific form in which it exists in the world. Or something like that. At least, that is one way of thinking about it.

Further Reading:

Not Everything Is A Hero's Journey, over at Narrativefirst.com.

Friday, December 25

Storytelling


My Dad was an amazing storyteller. Because of him, I’ve spent a lifetime thinking about stories, thinking about whether there’s something that great stories have in common.

There is: the hero’s journey. (Also called the monomyth.)

I started blogging about writing in 2010 because I believed that, as Seneca wrote, "by teaching we are learning." My blog grew from that quest.

The sort of stories I focus on are genre stories. Those are the kind of stories that keep decent hardworking folk up until indecent hours, unable to put their book down until they find out what happened, whether the hero or heroine rescued their love, recovered the treasure, saved the day. 

The key to writing good genre fiction is to create suspense. Which means creating complex, compelling, characters, putting them in an interesting yet hostile setting, introducing believable opposition with clear stakes, and wrapping it all up in a well thought out plot.

So...simple. ;)

Genre

I know it’s an obvious point, but stories within the same genre have a common structure. An example: for a story to be a murder mystery it must have both a mystery and a murder. There will be a sleuth and they will uncover various clues. Some of these will help the sleuth nab the murderer, some won't. Certain characters will be red herrings and there will be at least one murderer. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, at the end of the story the sleuth will reveal not only the solution of the mystery but how they uncovered the suspects' lies to arrive, finally, at the truth. As a result, order is restored.

Murder mystery stories are a subgenre of mystery stories, but the divisions and subdivisions don't stop there. There are many different kinds of murder mysteries, each with a more demanding set of requirements. A cozy or whodunit (think of Agatha Christie or Dorothy L. Sayers) should have all the above as well as a logical, rational solution. No hocus pocus, no unfounded intuitions. The focus is on the mystery of the murder itself--how it was accomplished--as well as how the sleuth goes about solving the crime. It is crucial that the storyteller plays fair with the reader and tells them everything the sleuth learns as he or she learns it. A hardboiled detective story, on the other hand, often focuses less on the mystery and its solution and more on action and gritty realism. 

I'm not going to go through each genre and give a detailed map of reader expectations. What I'm going to do is talk about a structure that is common to all good stories, regardless of genre. At least, that's the plan. 

A Three Act Structure

Most stories can be broken into three acts.

Act One—The Ordinary World—First Quarter

Act One is where you introduce your characters and the world they live in. As the story unfolds, readers find out more about the characters as they interact with each other as well as with the world around them, both physical and social. We see their strengths and weaknesses, their hopes and fears, their quirks and idiosyncrasies. The most important character in all this is the hero because the story revolves around his quest. That's what a story is, fundamentally: a description of a character's pursuit of a goal.

The Inciting Incident And The Call To Adventure

The Ordinary World of the hero is static, at least in the beginning. Often, there is something deeply wrong with the hero's normal existence. The hero exists in a state of imperfection. He isn't happy but he's afraid that if he tries to change anything things will get worse. 

During the Inciting Incident something happens that changes the hero's world. This change will eventually effect the hero and shatter his status quo. The Inciting Incident creates an imbalance, an inequality, that must be addressed. This is the problem the hero seeks to solve, the wrong he seeks to right, when he answers the Call to Adventure.

For instance, in the movie Shrek the namesake character is an ogre who says he wants to be left alone in his swamp. Of course, what he really wants is for people not to make up their minds about him before they meet him. He wants to forge some sort of connection with others, but he's afraid of being rejected because it happens so often.

When Lord Farquaad exiles legions of fairytale creatures to Shrek's swamp (this is the Inciting Incident), Shrek's solitude is stripped away. This sends Shrek and Donkey off on a mission to confront Lord Farquaad and convince him to send the fairytale creatures somewhere--anywhere--else. But Lord Farquaad has another idea. 

Lord Farquaad proposes (this is Shrek's Call to Adventure) that if Shrek conquers the fire-breathing dragon and frees Princess Fiona from her imprisonment in the castle, that he will grant Shrek's wish and clear his swamp. Shrek accepts and, in the process of accomplishing his mission, falls in love with the princess. Now Shrek has another goal, to tell the princess he loves her. What prevents him from doing so is his fear of rejection. This fear is what Shrek has to overcome if he is to achieve his goal and win Fiona's hand in marriage.

The Lock In

At the end of the first act the hero is locked into their quest. He has a moment of realization and understands that if he takes up the quest he must leave his ordinary world behind. It is important that the hero understand the stakes involved and, despite the dismal odds of success, choose to take up the quest knowing that, if they do, there is no going back.

In Shrek, when Lord Farquaad gives Shrek his Call to Adventure, Shrek has a choice: accept or not. But archers perch atop the walls ready to shoot him dead if he refuses. After that, Shrek is locked in to the quest. 

In Star Wars when Luke finds his aunt and uncle dead, massacred by storm troopers, he understands there is no going back. His ordinary world is gone. 

I think the most obvious case of the Lock In is The Matrix. At the end of Act One Morpheus gives Neo a choice: take the red pill or the blue pill. The red pill will change Neo's entire world and show him the truth he has always searched for. The blue pill will restore the status quo of the Ordinary World. His choice is irreversible.

Act Two—The Special World—The Middle Half

At the end of Act One the hero answers the Call to Adventure and crosses the threshold into the Special World. Here everything is different, strange, reversed. The hero's strength (usually characters have at least one strength) isn't going to serve him as well here, perhaps it even puts him at a disadvantage. 

In the first part of Act Two the hero goes through a series of Tests And Trials, most of which he fails, and he makes new acquaintances, both Allies and Enemies. It is also here, at the beginning of Act Two, that the B-story starts. Some of those the hero meets will become his staunch allies and will join his quest while others will become his enemies. This time of Trials and Tests is also a time of Fun and Games. In a movie this is where you often have a feel-good montage.  

The first half of Act Two often contains a moment of bonding. If there is a romance, the hero and his love interest may deepen their relationship. After all, the hero is about to confront the villain and, perhaps, pay with his life. If there is no romance, the story will likely still contain a moment of bonding between the hero and their sidekick, a pause, a girding of the loins, as well as a review of the stakes. What will happen if the hero loses? If he wins? Who will it effect? 

The Midpoint

Finally, the moment of confrontation has arrived. The Ordeal has begun. Since we know the stakes of the battle we watch anxiously as the hero risks everything to defeat his foe. The confrontation between the hero and his nemesis can be a physical one but it needn't be. Sometimes they are each going after the same item. In the movie Indiana Jones and Raiders of the Lost Ark, Indy loses the ark to Dr. René Belloq, his nemesis. In Star Wars, Luke discovers the Death Star.

Regardless of whether a physical confrontation occurs, the Midpoint represents a sea change in the story. Where before the hero was passive, now he is active. This doesn't occur all at once, but the Midpoint marks the change. Often this change occurs because the hero receives information. This information could be about the villain. It could also be about the nature of the Special World and the villain's--as well as the hero's--place in it. 

After the confrontation at the Midpoint the stakes of the battle get cashed out. If the hero is successful, he will get a reward. If the hero isn't successful then usually this is just the beginning of the grief that rains down upon him and those he cares about. Often, if the hero fails at the Midpoint he will also fail at the Climax of the story. Similarly, if the hero wins at the Midpoint he will likely win at the Climax.

Regardless of whether the hero wins at the Midpoint, the stakes go up. Way up. The hero hasn't resolved the conflict, he has increased it. I can't stress this enough. Where before it was only the hero's life at stake now it is also the lives of the hero's allies. Perhaps, by the time we reach the Climax, even the lives of his loved ones back home--as well as, perhaps, the world or even the entire galaxy!--will lie in the balance. 

Another important change that occurs around the Midpoint is that now it's not just the villain who is driving the story forward, it's also the hero. You even see this in stories that have a non-traditional structure, stories such as The Usual Suspects.

Disaster

Toward the end of Act Two matters have radically changed, and for the worse. There is often a Major Setback, quickly followed by an All Hope Is Lost moment (or, rather, by a series of them where each is more intense than the one before). As the name implies, something occurs that transforms the hero's world, or his view of it, and brings him to his lowest point.

For instance, in the movie Shrek the Major Setback comes when Shrek overhears Princess Fiona talking with Donkey. Shrek misunderstands who Fiona is talking about and jumps to the mistaken conclusion that Fiona thinks he is ugly and unlovable. Since he was working up the courage to tell Fiona he loved her, this revelation comes as quite a blow.

The All Hope Is Lost moment comes shortly after Shrek is cruel to Donkey. Of course we, the audience, know Shrek is acting as he is because he mistakenly believes Donkey was deriding him. Shrek tells Donkey to go away, that he isn't welcome in his swamp again, ever! This is Shrek's lowest point. As a result of his own actions, Shrek has become estranged from the two people who care about him most.

Act Three—The Return Home—Last Quarter

After the All Is Lost moment the B-story is usually resolved. Because of the way the B-story ends, an important change occurs in the hero and he is able to resolve his inner conflict as well; this often takes the form of an epiphany. The hero then uses this revelation to figure out how to turn matters around and make one last desperate try to achieve his goal. 

 I don't mean a superhuman ability--though, depending on the kind of story this is, it could be. But whatever it is, the ground must have been laid for it, otherwise it would be a cheat. Perhaps the hero is now, finally, able to think clearly. Perhaps the hero lacked empathy but now understands how other people feel.

Whatever the case, something fundamental within the hero changes and, as a result, he is able to defeat the villain and achieve his goal. (I should mention, though, that not all heroes have an internal conflict. If there is no inner conflict, the hero can draw upon some characteristic that defines him such as his strength or his knowledge. Indiana Jones in Raiders of the Lost Ark is a good example of a hero who lacks any significant internal conflict.) 

(Note: Though, having said this, one of my readers quite rightly pointed out that Indiana Jones starts out the movie doubting that the power of the Ark is real. By the end he knows it is. So his is a journey from ignorance to knowledge.)

One way of describing this point in a story, this beat, is that the scales drop from the hero's eyes. He thought he knew how things were, but he didn't. To use Shrek as an example again, the ogre thought he knew how the Princess and Donkey felt about him, but he didn't. He was dead wrong. After the All Hope Is Lost point Donkey comes to Shrek and tells him Fiona wasn't calling him ugly and unlovable. Donkey doesn't tell Shrek she was describing herself because that's not his secret to tell. This is when the proverbial scales fall from Shrek's eyes and he realizes he acted like an idiot. Shrek decides to do what he should have done long before, he decides to risk rejection and ridicule and tell Princess Fiona he loves her.

Here's another example. At the end of The Matrix Neo realizes he's The One, and that he loves Trinity. At that moment the scales drop from his eyes and he sees what he had been blind to. He finally understands and this realization transforms him. It allows him to do something he wouldn't have otherwise been able to do. Neo triumphs over The Matrix and becomes The One. 

I'm not suggesting that this life-transforming moment of self-realization occurs at the end of every story. It doesn't. But it happens often enough that I wanted to mention it. 

But, of course, the hero doesn't have to win. Sometimes the revelation comes, but too late. Sometimes the revelation doesn't come at all.

Aftermath

In the Aftermath, or Wrap Up, the audience sees the effects of the hero's efforts. How did the hero's Ordinary World change as a result of his adventure? What was his reward? Or, if he failed, what was the cost of his failure? This is where any loose ends are tied up.

Caveat

I don't want to leave anyone with the impression that there's only one story structure. As Chuck Wendig says, every story has a unique structure if looked at in all their particularity. No one can look at the structure of a story and say, "That's wrong!" just because it's different. The bottom line is: If a story works, then it works.

The structure I've talked about, above, is one I've been thinking about and working on for a while now. I think that it describes over 90% of the stories I've read, listened to, or watched; or at least parts of it do. That's because it looks at a story abstractly. It is a web of generalizations and so is almost guaranteed to get something right! 

As I write I like to think about the structure of the story I'm working on and make it explicit. Often, if I feel something is wrong with a story but I just can't put my finger on it, I go back to basics and study various story structures in an attempt to puzzle out what the problem is. I think that's the bottom line. If something helps you, use it, if it doesn't, ignore it. Let your own sense of what is right for you be your guide.

Recommended Reading

Talking About Detective Fiction, by P.D. James.

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

Le Guin’s Hypothesis, at Book View Cafe by Ursula K. Le Guin.

On Serious Literature, by Ursula K. Le Guin.

How To Write A Murderously Good Mystery

How To Write Like Agatha Christie

Agatha Christie's Secret: Break The Rules.

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


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.