Showing posts with label how to write. Show all posts
Showing posts with label how to write. Show all posts

Sunday, April 18

How to Write a Genre Story: Character Introduction: Empathy

How to Write a Genre Story: Character Introduction: Empathy



The end goal of character creation, the Holy Grail, is for your reader to feel empathy for your character. 

Jim Butcher writes:

“...if you can make people love who you want them to love and hate who you want them to hate, you’re going to have readers coming back to you over and over again.” (Characters, Jim Butcher)

Creating empathy for your character 

Empathy, like happiness, can be elusive. 

The problem: I can’t will myself to have empathy for a character anymore than I can will myself to be happy! And I certainly don’t have a magic pen that I can wave to create empathy in my readers. Writing a character people love--or love to hate!--is a dark art.

BUT, as we have seen, there are things--like exaggeration, unusual position, and verisimilitude--that can increase the chance that your reader will emotionally bond with a character. 

If I could use an example. Happiness is wonderful, but one cannot simply will oneself to be happy. Also, there’s no list of things one can do that will guarantee happiness. That said, there are activities one can do (eat ice cream, take a long stroll on a beach, and so on), states of mind one can cultivate (focus on a goal, don’t have unrealistic expectations for oneself, and so on), that will increase the chance that one will be happy.

In the same way, there are things we can do to encourage a reader to love a character.

The Key to Creating Empathy: Sequels

Butcher writes:

“Like V-Factor [verisimilitude], empathy takes time to build and it relies heavily upon the skilled use of sequels.” (Characters, Jim Butcher)

(By the way, I’ve written about sequels in my blog post: Parts of Story: The Structure of Sequels.)

Empathy and Sequels

In writing, especially genre writing, stories are made up of an unbroken string of scenes and sequels.

Scenes are where the action happens. It is where the protagonist clashes with an antagonist, whether this clash is verbal/intellectual, mental or physical. In the sequel--which is a place where characters and readers alike can take a breath between scenes--we see the characters reveal themselves, their inner persons, through how they respond/react emotionally to the set-back (or victory) they experienced in the previous section. 

It is by seeing the characters REACT that we get to know them, get to know the kind of people they are. And here’s the trick that isn’t a trick at all, it’s just a basic fact of human nature: How a person responds to a setback is a large part of what makes us admire them, love them. Or despise them, hate them.

It is in the character's response to the setbacks of life that WHO SHE IS shines through.

Think of it this way. I’m old enough to have thought (when I was a teen) oh this is what I would do if such and such happened. For example, if I caught my boss stealing his employees tips, or if I saw my neighbour being robbed, or … well, you get the idea. And then, as one goes through life, those boxes get ticked off, some of those things, things that I was so sure I knew how I would react to, actually happen. And sometimes I didn’t react at all as I thought I would. My emotions weren’t what I thought they would be. Things that I thought would make me angry made me cry and vice versa. As a result I learnt about myself.

Sequels

So. Emotional reactions--authentic emotional reactions--are crucial for exposing a fictional person’s character and so for encouraging the reader to relate to, and bond with, the character.

Okay, now we’re getting into it. In a sequel order is important. (I write about this a bit in “How to Write a Genre Story: Character Introduction: Verisimilitude.”)

The Structure of Sequels

There are different possible structures for a sequel.

Dwight V. Swain:

1. Emotional reaction
2. Cognitive reaction
3. Anticipation
4. Choice

Jim Butcher:

1. Emotional reaction
2. Review, Logic & Reason
3. Anticipation
4. Choice

Here’s how I think of it:

1. Emotional reaction ==> a) Instinctive b) Cognitive
2. Reflection (look back, figure out what was)
3. Anticipation (look ahead, figure out what could be)
4. Choice

Sequels: The Order

Part 1: Emotional Reaction

The emotional reaction breaks into two. There’s the instinctive emotional reaction and what I think of as the cognitive emotional reaction.

Instinctive Emotional Reaction

I wrote about the instinctive emotional reaction in my last post, the one on verisimilitude.

Think of burning your hand on a hot stove. You react and your hand moves away from the burner before you realize what happened.

Think of the first time you felt betrayal. Perhaps your significant other told you they had been cheating on you with you best friend for the past 20 years, or perhaps you found out your business partner emptied your joint bank account of millions of dollars and fled the country. I doubt either of those apply to you, but we have all been betrayed in both big and little ways. Think of one time you felt betrayed. What was your immediate reaction?

If you’re anything like me at first I had an almost physical reaction, it was like a punch to the gut. I couldn’t catch my breath. There was an odd dislocating sensation, it was as though I had been kicked out of the ordinary world of my normal existence.

Cognitive Emotional Reaction

THEN, in the second stage, the emotions come. Emotions like pain, disbelief and anger. Then perhaps resentment and the desire for revenge. But these emotions are what I call cognitive in the sense that they are your reactions, your emotions, where for the first few seconds or minutes, you just felt the shock, like static electricity, wash over you. 

Part 2: Reflection

After the first wash of emotions sweeps over someone, they start asking questions like, “How did this happen? Why did this happen? This involves looking back at their world and noticing how that world has changed. You thought your partner was working together with you for your mutual good when, instead, he had been lying to you. Now you wonder: How was it really? How--why--did I allow myself to be fooled, what happened? What did I do wrong? How could I prevent this from happening in the future?

Part 3: Anticipation

Next, our fictional someone looks ahead and says, perhaps with a sigh, Okay, THAT happened. Now what?

Well, there’s rarely only one possibility. If my business partner made off with the company’s money it might look something like this:

Possibility 1:
I could hire someone, perhaps a PI, to get the money back, or try to get it back myself.

Passibility 2:
Forget about the loss, write it off. He’s gone, forget him. I’ll earn the money back.

Possibility 3:
Steal the money back. Get him to trust someone like he got me to trust him and steal the money back. Do to him what he did to me.

There are more possibilities but you get the idea. Which possibility our fictional person chooses will tell you a lot about her, it will begin to reveal to you the kind of person she really is.

This brings us to…

Make sure the STAKES (what the character has to lose) and the potential REWARD is clear.

We must cash out each possibility in terms of what the hero would risk and what they stand to gain, what are the potential drawbacks and benefits?

Your reader must be crystal clear on what the personal cost and potential reward is for each contemplated course of action.

Part 4: Choice/Decision

It’s important--crucial--that the hero has a goal. A goal gives the hero a way to order possibilities, the good and the bad.

Think of a pyramid. The top of the pyramid is the hero’s goal. The idea is to order the potential plans along the pyramid. But this pyramid has different dimensions. One could order the potential courses of actions, the proposed plans, according to each plans chance of success or one could order the proposed plans according to whether each plan would necessitate the hero violating their principles, or a person could order the plans according to the likelihood that bystanders will be injured, and so on. In other words, in choosing between the proposed courses of action, tradeoffs will be introduced.

Difficult Tradeoffs

Tradeoffs are great for creating tension. Let’s say that Possible Action A would get the hero the closest to his goal but it would mean violating one of the principles he lives by. 

Does the hero want to achieve his goal so much that he is willing to violate the code that has structured his life and has made him the person he is? Or will the player abandon his goal and so stay true to the principles he lives by?

This is a difficult decision and what he chooses to do will tell us a lot about him. 

Examples:

Goal: Save a young child from an evil villain who would do nasty things to her.
Principle: I keep my word. Always.
Cost: Hero would have to break his word if he is to save the child.
Dilemma: If you keep your word you will have to allow the young child to die.

Goal: Save a village from starvation.
Principle: Saving lives is good.
Cost: The life of a young child.
Dilemma: If you let a young child die, you will be given a big sack of money and so be able to save an entire village from starvation. But that would mean letting a young child die when you could have prevented it.

Or let’s say you’re writing a romance:

Goal: Find your soulmate, the lost half of your true self.
Principle: Keep the secret of your strength/power.
Cost: The cost of being accepted by your soulmate is that the hero would have to make himself vulnerable, he would have to place himself at the mercy of someone he isn’t sure he can trust.
Dilemma: The hero has a secret that he mustn't share. If he shares it, then another will know how to weaken him and he could die. But he has fallen in love and his love is telling him: You don’t trust me! If you truly loved me, you would trust me. Share your innermost secret with me and I will know that your love for me is true.

So, what will the hero do? Will he choose the way of trust and acceptance of what he hopes is true love or will he stand by his principle and say, “You can accept me as I am or not at all. Your choice”?

Each choice a character makes will affect how your reader feels about him.

In my last example I was of course drawing from the biblical story of Samson and Delilah, but the writer could resolve this conflict however they wanted. Perhaps the girl is forcing the hero to choose because she has been charged by the hero’s enemy to get his secret and doesn’t love him. Or, perhaps, she has been burnt before and simply wants to know that the man she loves would trust her with his life and she really would die before she gave up the hero’s secret.

Well, that’s it! This is the last post in my mini-series on character introductions. Also, I’m nearly at the end of blogging my book. If you have a topic you would like me to write about, please do suggest it! Leave a comment or contact me on Twitter: @woodwardkaren. Good writing!

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Other posts in this extended series (I'm blogging a book):
How to Write a Genre Story: The Index

Where you can find me on the web:
Twitter: @WoodwardKaren
Pinterest: @karenjwoodward
Instagram: @KarenWoodwardWriter
YouTube: The Writer's Craft

Blog posts you might like:

Links

Characters, Jim Butcher.

Monday, April 12

How to Write a Genre Story: Character Introduction: Verisimilitude

How to Write a Genre Story: Character Introduction: Verisimilitude



This post continues my mini-series about how to introduce a character. I’ve already written about Exaggeration, Unusual Position and introducing characters in Action. 

Today I’m covering Verisimilitude and later this week--I’m aiming for Thursday--I’ll close the series off by writing about Empathy. Here are links to my previous posts in this mini-series:

How to Write a Genre Story: Character Introduction: Exaggeration
How to Write a Genre Story: Character Introduction: Unusual Position
How to Write a Genre Story: Character Introduction: Characteristic Entry Action

(Here is an index to all the blog posts in my soon-to-be written book: How to Write a Genre Story)

Verisimilitude

Verisimilitude. No, that’s not an exotic disease.

If a character has verisimilitude then they act believably which means that they act in a way that is consistent with who they are, with their core attributes. By the way, I’m getting much this information from Jim Butcher and his wonderful article, Characters. Jim Butcher calls verisimilitude the “V-factor.” 

He writes:

“The most exotic character in the world becomes nothing more than an annoying cartoon figure if he doesn’t behave in a consistent and believable manner.”

As an example, Butcher mentions Jar Jar Binks. As you likely know, Jar Jar was first introduced in the first of the Star Wars prequels, The Phantom Menace. 

It seems as though the character of Jar Jar checked most of the right boxes. He definitely had exaggerated and unusual traits and he was introduced in a way that helped make him memorable. But then WHY were Star Wars fans' reactions to him so mixed? Jim Butcher thinks that it is because, at least in part, Jar Jar didn’t have a consistent and believable manner. To paraphrase Butcher, the V-force was not with him. (Sorry, couldn’t resist!)

How to give a character verisimilitude

I think there are two things that make a character feel real.

First, as we have seen throughout this mini-series, you give the character tags and traits that illustrate who they are. Further you make at least one or two of these traits exaggerated, unusual. 

Second, a character’s V-factor has to do with HOW you communicate a character’s emotional reactions. That’s what Jim Butcher focuses on and that’s what I’ll talk about, below. Here I just want to note that if this sounds similar to the pattern of a sequel, I would agree. This is the very same pattern. And it is enormously important.

Think of when you’ve encountered a sudden setback. What happens? Well, myself, I’m hit with a wall of pure, raw emotion. There’s no thought, not yet. It’s sort of like when I touch a hot stove (and, yes, I have been that idiotic, ‘Gee, I wonder if it’s hot yet.’) My hand started to move away from the burner before I felt the pain. Then I had a reaction which was, “Wow, touching a hot burner was a really bad idea.” Finally I made the decision to not do that again.

That’s perhaps a silly example but think of any sudden, negative, shock you’ve had. A significant other suddenly breaking up with you, hearing that you’ve been betrayed, and so on. Human beings have a reaction to those sort of things and it happens in a particular order. If that order isn’t right your readers probably won’t notice it but, still, it won’t FEEL right to them.

So. Jim Butcher lays out the three stages:

1. Emotions
2. Reactions
3. Decisions

In one of Jack Bickham's books he gives an example of a person coming home from work and, as they usually do, he calls out, “Honey I’m home!” But he is met with the silence of an empty house. Puzzled he looks around and spots a piece of paper on the hall table. He walks over and looks at it.

It’s a note from his wife. She tells him that she has been having an affair with the grocer for the past year and that she has left him.

What is his first reaction? EMOTION. A wave of emotion, of pain and regret. He’s not thinking about anything. There’s a chair nearby and he slumps into it because he doesn’t want to fall down. 

Then he REACTS. Then he’s angry. How could she? How could she lie to him like that? How could she betray him, deceive him? She had told him she loved him, and all that time…

But what should he do? He could try to get her back, try to track them down. He could hire a private detective to find them. Perhaps the grocer had pressured her, perhaps he had blackmailed her. Even if not, perhaps he could win her back. But does he really want to do that? Perhaps he should let her go her own way. 

The man presses bloodless lips together and makes a DECISION. To hell with her. He will scrub her from his life, from his memory, from his heart.

You see the pattern. If we had the decision before the emotion, it wouldn’t be credible or if the man had the reaction after the decision that wouldn’t make sense. You might be thinking, “Well, yeah… Did you really have to tell anyone that? Isn’t it obvious?” And, sure. On one level it is, but it is something that writers can get wrong and then the character doesn’t feel real.

Summary

When an event important to your character occurs, have your character react to it in a way that makes sense (see above) AND in a way that makes sense for them, that is true to their core characteristics. Those two considerations are equally important.

Well! That’s it for today. I’m trying to keep to a schedule of putting out a blog post on Monday and publishing my interview with a marvelously interesting writer on my YouTube channel on Tuesday. Tomorrow I will upload my chat with a singularly fascinating individual, Lydia Moore.

I hope you have a wonderful week, I'll talk to you again on Thursday. Good writing!

-- --

Other posts in this extended series (I'm blogging a book):
How to Write a Genre Story: The Index

Where you can find me on the web:
Twitter: @WoodwardKaren
Pinterest: @karenjwoodward
Instagram: @KarenWoodwardWriter
YouTube: The Writer's Craft

Blog posts you might like:

Thursday, March 25

How to Write a Genre Story: A Character's Dominant Attitude



I’ve already gone over Swain’s idea of a character’s dominant impression, now let’s talk about their dominant attitude.

A character’s attitude

“Attitude is a matter of behavior patterns—a character’s habitual way of reacting to a particular kind of situation. Mary Poppins’s eternal cheeriness reflects an attitude, and so does Rambo’s macho stance.” (Creating Characters: How to Build Story People, Dwight V. Swain) 

Other examples of attitudes: sanctimony, ingrained suspicion, anxiety, discontent, and so on.

Like flesh and blood people, a character has more than one attitude. For example, a character can be both cheerful (like Mary Poppins) and sanctimonious, though at any one time one attitude will be stronger than the other. Overall, though, the character will have one attitude, aptly named the ‘dominant attitude’ that defines the character more than any other. I’ll go over a character's dominant attitude in a moment, but before I do let’s look at some examples.

Examples

I was at a party the other day and fell into conversation with someone I knew slightly. This wasn't the first time we'd met, but it was the first time we had a chance to exchange more than awkward pleasantries.

After a minute or so my impression of him was fixed: he was not a person who suffered fools gladly. It was an observation that didn't set me at ease since I was keenly aware that what constitutes a fool in someone's mind can be distressingly relative. Anyway, if he was a character I was writing, that would be his dominant attitude.

Keep in mind that our characters are pseudo-people and so tend to have less subtlety than their flesh-and-blood counterparts. For example, if a character's primary attitude is fearfulness, then that trait, that quality, will find a way to insinuate itself into everything that character does. 

Example 1: Mr. Midgley

If a character--Mr. Midgley--is, say, irascible then he might snap at other characters over minor slights or inconveniences. As a response to this, other characters might gossip about him. This character’s house would be the one school children are gently but firmly steered away from on Halloween. 

An irascible character can be kind or considerate, but there would have to be a reason. It would require an explanation. For example, perhaps one of the neighborhood children--Sarah--reminds him of his estranged daughter and so he has a soft spot for the child. He's sentimental. It's his daughter’s birthday so he bakes his daughter's favorite cookies--chocolate chip with extra chips. Then he sees Sarah creep hesitantly, fearfully, onto his back lawn to retrieve a baseball that has landed in his flowerbed. Something about the sight makes it hard for him to swallow and he wipes his eyes with a tissue. Rather than bawl her out for trespassing he goes out and gives the child a cookie. An unlikely friendship is forged.

Example 2: Monica Geller from Friends

Here's another example, this time from the TV show Friends. I would say that Monica Geller's primary attitude was obsessive compulsiveness when it came to cleaning. Informally, we would call her a neat freak. Everything had to be just so or she'd clean and scrub and rearrange until it was. Monica didn't need a reason to clean, no explanation was required. If she didn't clean up a mess, THAT would require an explanation.

Example 3: Mr. Monk

One last example: Mr. Monk from the TV show Monk. I would say that Mr. Monk's primary attitude was fearfulness. 

Mr. Monk was obsessive compulsive and he had an uncanny knack to remember even the most minute, irrelevant detail about his environment. He was also scared of just about everything. Even milk. Milk! One reason that show was a success was that, in practically every scene, the screenwriters demonstrated Monk's primary characteristic--fearfulness--and tied everything else to it. Then, at the end of nearly every show, the writers had Monk do something that for him was courageous. He had goals he was driven to attain--becoming a detective again, figuring out who killed his wife, protecting a friend--and was temporarily able to overcome his many fears. So, really, the most terrified man in the world was courageous.

Once you've picked a character's dominant attitude it should be reflected in some way in nearly every scene.

The Dominant Attitude

Dwight V. Swain writes, “...you’ll need to become aware of the special areas of mind and thought that your story brings into focus.

“You can do worse than to term this collective pattern your character’s dominant attitude.” (Creating Characters: How to Build Story People, Dwight V. Swain)

“Thus, in a romance, Female Lead’s dominant attitude very well may center on the way she sees—and, in action, reacts to and behaves towards—men. Are they dominating bullies, like her boss? Frail reeds, in the manner of her hopeless, helpless uncle? Eternal womanizers...? [Are they] [s]hadow images of her boastful, bragging brother?…. Stalwart partners for a lifetime of warmth and peace? (Creating Characters: How to Build Story People, Dwight V. Swain)

In a science fiction story the dominant attitude of the protagonist might be one of ingrained suspicion. In keeping with this attitude he might believe that the human race is doomed to extinction at the hands of an alien race. He feels/thinks that, because of the aliens’ technological superiority, that our only hope is to ‘acquire’ their technology before they have the opportunity to crush us.

In a suspense novel, perhaps the protagonist’s dominant attitude is one of distrust. He looks at his fellow humans either as perpetrators--those who take advantage of others--or victims--those who are taken advantage of by others. Because of this belief he becomes withdrawn, leaves society and goes to live all by himself in the hills.

In a mainstream novel, the protagonist might have the dominant attitude of cheerfulness, she believes that there is good in everyone, even the most hardened murderer. Because of this belief she becomes a psychologist and opens a rehabilitation center for hardened criminals.

So you see the pattern. A character has an attitude which, in conjunction with a belief, contributes to the character having a goal. The conjunction of the attitude with the belief might even suggest a way of achieving the goal. 

Attitudes and beliefs

Above, I’ve mentioned a belief. 

I haven’t written much about what this belief is, where it enters into things. It seems as though the belief encompasses that character's view of what the best way to live one’s life is. Perhaps the character’s attitude stems from this belief, or perhaps the belief is a result of their attitude. Who knows!

In my last example the belief (or worldview) the protagonist had was that, "Good is in everyone," and the course of action she took based on that view was to get a degree in psychology and open a rehabilitation center.

Dominant Attitude and Theme

At some point I would like to write a blog post about a story’s theme, what it is and its importance to making a story riveting. It seems to me that a character’s dominant attitude would tie them into the theme of the story, or--to put it another way--set the theme of the story. I need to think about that some more. 

That’s it! As always, I’d love to know your thoughts. 😀

Good writing. I’ll talk to you on Monday.

Other posts in this extended series (I'm blogging a book):
How to Write a Genre Story: The Index

Where you can find me on the web:
Twitter: @WoodwardKaren
Pinterest: @karenjwoodward
Instagram: @KarenWoodwardWriter
YouTube: The Writer's Craft

Blog posts you might like:

Sunday, March 14

How to Write a Genre Story: Making a Character Memorable: Strengths and Flaws

How to Write a Genre Story: Making a Character Memorable: Strengths and Flaws


What makes a character memorable?

Deborah Chester writes in her article, Bonding with Your Characters:

"We want readers to either love or hate our characters. What we don’t want is a 'meh' reaction. Or even worse, 'Who? I don’t remember her.'"

The question: What qualities do vivid, well crafted, memorable characters have? 

1. Memorable characters are exceptional. Novel.

I want my readers to obsessively worry about my protagonist and loathe my antagonist. This only happens if I’ve managed to craft memorable characters, and exceptional traits are memorable.

We don’t fall in love with characters who are boring and forgettable. Think about Captain Hook in Peter Pan. The man is deathly scared of a crocodile who has eaten his hand, has a ticking clock in its belly and now views Captain Hook as a nice tasty snack. Or take Peter Pan, he is perennially young and has a feisty fairy--one with a mad crush on him--for a best friend.

What makes something memorable?

You could notice many things about your environment, so many things it would be impossible to take them all in at once. So, what do you remember? Of course it’s the thing that sticks out, the thing that doesn’t fit in, the thing that is conspicuously different from everything else.

Lukewarm, middle-of-the-way characters, don’t stand out and so aren't memorable. (BTW Jim Butcher, author of The Dresden Files and creator of the very memorable Harry Dresden, has a really good blog post on this, I urge you to read it: Characters.)

One of my favorite books is William Goldman's novel The Princess Bride. I love, or love to hate, every single character in that story. And I’m sure I’m not alone, If you've never read William Goldman's masterpiece, please, please, do. 

2. Characters need clear motivation.

A character's motivation and her goal are intimately related yet distinct. 

Let’s break this down. What is motivation? 

Motivation is a particular state of affairs that impels a character to pursue another state of affairs, one that represents the character’s goal. 

For example: Susie is in a boat frantically rowing toward a sandy shore. Why? What is her motivation? Susie is being chased by a huge shark with long white serrated teeth. Where is she going? What is her goal? Susie is heading toward the safety of the beach. 

In this example, the danger the shark embodies provides Susie her motivation for rowing and the safety of the beach is her goal. Yes, one could say that her goal is to escape the shark--and that would be true--but I think it helps to keep the states of affairs separate.

3. If a character has a strength, something she excels at, she will be more memorable.

Before we talk about the importance of skills and excelling, let’s talk about the importance of the antagonist being stronger than the protagonist.

3a. The antagonist should be stronger than the protagonist

Jim Butcher was the first person to make me realize that the antagonist needs to be a bit stronger than the protagonist. Why? Because throughout most of the story the antagonist needs to best the protagonist. Also, the struggle between protagonist and antagonist needs to be real and challenging and it’s not going to be if the protagonist is stronger; then we would expect him to win. If there isn’t a more powerful force pushing against the protagonist, motivating the changes he makes to his life, then the stakes introduced won’t make sense and the story isn’t going to be interesting.

Jim Butcher writes:

"Your villain has to have enough power, of whatever nature, at his disposal to make him a credible threat to your hero. Personally, I believe that the more the villain outclasses the hero, the better. David wouldn’t have gotten nearly the press he did if Goliath had been 5’9” and asthmatic."

Jim Butcher, author of the fantastically entertaining series The Dresden Files, has written a series of blog posts in which he gives extremely good, eminently readable writing advice. His posts are terrific, so much so that I’ve assembled an index for them here: Jim Butcher on Writing.

3b. The protagonist needs a unique skill that he becomes really good at toward the end of the story.

You might be wondering, “Well, if the antagonist is stronger than the protagonist, how could he beat him?” By changing, by growing, by learning when the antagonist doesn’t or can’t.[1] Also--and this is terribly important--the protagonist needs a skill, something that he does better than anyone else, and he needs to develop this skill throughout the story. 

Think of Luke Skywalker in Star Wars IV: A New Hope. Luke has a skill, something unique to him: He has the capacity to use The Force.

If the protagonist beats the antagonist at the end of the story this victory needs to be earned. (And, by the way, the protagonist doesn’t need to beat the antagonist, he can also lose, but those stories don't seem to be as popular! People like to have hope that tomorrow can be better than today.)

In order to earn their victory the protagonist has to be great at something, something that only he can do. In practise this means that the protagonist needs to have some characteristic, some trait, that will, in the context of the specific environment of the confrontation, allow the protagonist to plausibly beat the antagonist. 

Yesterday I re-watched Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. It was a lovely movie. If you’ve seen it, recall that Harry defeated Voldemort because of a special property related to his touch. His touch was deadly to Voldemort because Harry was still protected by his mother’s spell, the spell that resided in his blood.

Or, think of a mystery story, one of Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot adventures. Poirot could solve mysteries that flummoxed everyone else because he used his ‘little grey cells’ and paid attention to the psychology of the situation. Mr. Monk, another wonderfully quirky detective, was aided by his obsessive and involuntary attention to detail. As Monk often said, “It’s a gift and a curse.”

4. Characters need weaknesses and flaws.

As I have said, a story is about change. It is about a character who wants something so desperately that he is willing to change who he is so that he can overcome a specific obstacle to achieve his goal. 

But, none of this change would be possible if the protagonist didn’t start out with a weakness. So let’s talk about the importance of flaws. 

Major Flaws

Generally, a major flaw is a beefy, serious thing that prevents a character from achieving his goal. This could be a mental illness such as Mr. Monk's obsessive compulsive disorder or what might be seen as a physical weakness like Dr. Watson had in the first episode of Sherlock (his psychosomatic war injury). 

Classic examples: some sort of physical malady such as the loss of a sense (sight, hearing, etc.), loss of memory, or a character flaw such as greed, lust, wrath, pride, and so on. Arguably, Walter White's weakness was his pride. Frodo's weakness wasn't a character flaw, it was the One Ring he carried that made him vulnerable to the siren call of the dark side.

Minor Flaws

Minor flaws are minor because they don't affect the main storyline in any significant way and are often played for comedic effect. Indiana Jones was scared of snakes. Jack Ryan was afraid of flying.

5. Exceptional characters are unique.

As I have said, each character in your story should be memorable and part of this is being unique. One way to achieve this quickly is to give each character tags and traits. I'll talk about this more in a later post.

That’s it! In my next post I’ll talk about a practical way to make characters memorable by discussing character tags.

Notes:

1. Strictly speaking, this isn’t true. In some stories the antagonist also grows and changes. For example, this often occurs in romance stories. Say there’s a female protagonist and male antagonist and these two characters begin the story hating each other but end it in a loving committed relationship. Here both the protagonist and antagonist will have changed and grown. These stories can be a wee bit tricky because the changes usually need to be complementary so that, in the end, the main characters grow together rather than apart.

Other posts in this extended series (I'm blogging a book):
How to Write a Genre Story: The Index

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

Blog posts you might like:

Monday, March 8

How to Write a Genre Story: Characters: Homo Fictus

How to Write a Genre Story: Characters: Homo Fictus


Characters--Homo Fictus--are the raw material from which stories are created, but who are these entities who populate our stories and how do they differ from flesh-and-blood people?

Homo Fictus

Characters can be viewed as a pseudo-species of humans that differ from their flesh-and-blood counterparts in at least three respects.

1. Characters are fathomable, understandable. Humans aren't.

I'm not suggesting that great characters, outstanding characters, don't have contradictory desires or goals. All the best characters do.

One of the most interesting characters I've come across is Walter White from Breaking Bad. What are his two main drives? To take care of his family and to make is mark on the world. He wants to unleash his intellect and, no matter the consequence, show the world what he can do. 

These two desires--to provide for his family and to be remembered--often come into conflict and drive the story forward. And we easily understand this clash of motivations.

Humans, though, can be truly unfathomable. We want one thing one minute and then the opposite the next. I’ve gone into an ice cream shop with a friend convinced that regardless of what my friend wanted I was not going to buy an ice cream cone...and walked out with an ice cream cone.

Humans can be flaky, their goals can and do change on a whim and they make bad decisions in silly ways that aren't interesting. 

How well do you know your friends and neighbours? If you think you know them pretty well, think about how many times you've heard the neighbors of a serial killer say, "He seemed like such a nice man."

The key point here is not that characters shouldn't have contradictory drives or desires--they should!--it is that readers must be able to understand them. As a story progresses we need to see more of a character’s layers. Although I may revise my initial judgement about a character, by the end of the story I must feel that I understand her. Not necessarily approve or condone, but understand. I must be satisfied that the kind of choices a character made were a result of the kind of person she was.

For a character to be interesting and memorable she must be fathomable. If she isn't, the reader will become bored, turn away from the story and find something more engaging to do.

2. Characters are exceptional; most humans aren't.

Granted, not all characters are exceptional, but every character I've fallen in love with, every character that has lingered with me after the page on which they were introduced, has been. 

To understand the importance of this let's look at what Dwight V. Swain calls a trait, or a tag of attitude (for more about this read Swain's book, Techniques of the Selling Writer). A tag of attitude is a behavioural quirk or disposition. He writes:

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

For example, on the show Monk, the lead--Mr. Monk, played by Tony Shalhoub--is a former police detective with an obsessive-compulsive disorder whose main goals in life are to find his wife's killer and to get back on the police force. As a character, Mr. Monk is mostly unexceptional. His wardrobe is bland, his culinary tastes are bland, and his personality is bland. 

So, why did so many people--myself included--love the show? Mr. Monk is exceptional in two ways: he is fanatical about cleanliness (as well as orderliness) and he is the best detective in the world. His core skill (or trait/tag of attitude) is that he notices absolutely everything in his environment regardless of whether it's important, something that is both (and this is Mr. Monk’s catchphrase) a gift and a curse.

3. Humans are infinitely complex, characters aren't.

Fictional human beings are simpler and more goal-oriented than ordinary flesh-and-blood people. As E.M. Forster writes in Aspects of the Novel:

"But people in a novel can be understood completely by the reader, if the novelist wishes; their inner as well as their outer life can be exposed. And this is why they often seem more definite than characters in history, or even our own friends; we have been told all about them that can be told; even if they are im­perfect or unreal they do not contain any secrets, whereas our friends do and must, mutual secrecy be­ing one of the conditions of life upon this globe."

I used to have a gal pal I went to go see movies with, I'll call her Rachel. In general, we had the same taste in movies. After awhile we got to know each other well. I could tell which parts of a movie she'd find funny, which parts she'd roll her eyes at, which parts would make her cry, and so on. 

But she continually surprised me. Occasionally, she wouldn't laugh at something I thought she'd think was hilarious or she thought the hero who sacrificed it all for his true love was an idiot, or...well, you get the idea. No matter how well I think I know someone they can surprise me. But this isn't true of a character. 

If a character surprises us--for instance when I learnt Keyser Söze's true identity at the end of the movie The Usual Suspects--I looked back through the movie and realized that I'd missed, or misunderstood, quite a few things. The ending made perfect sense. If it hadn't then it wouldn't have been a good ending. In real life, though, endings often don't make a great deal of sense but, hey, that's why we tell ourselves stories! ;)

-- --

Humans are complex. We do unexpected things with unsatisfying results in ways that make little or no sense. That's boring. Or maddening. Often both. Compared to humans, our characters are blessedly simple. They have fewer desires, fewer goals, and the needs they have are more exaggerated and more intense than yours or mine. 

Other posts in this extended series (I'm blogging a book):
How to Write a Genre Story: The Index

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

Blog posts you might like:

Saturday, February 6

Writing a Horror Story: Or, how to scare the pants off someone! (Part 2)

Writing a Horror Story: Or, how to scare the pants off someone! (Part 2)


(FYI, this post is part of my How to Write a Genre Story series. By rights I should have titled it How to Write a Genre Story: Setting and Mood (Part 2), but I couldn't resist the more evocative title: "How to scare the pants off someone!" There are links, below, to other articles in this series, but you don't need to have read any of them to understand what follows.)

Setting does many things in a story. 

First, it helps establish the mood. Do you want your reader to be horrified (horror/thriller)? Do you want your reader to be curious (mystery)? Do you want your reader to be excited to explore a society dramatically different from their own (fantasy)? And so on.

Second, the setting brings the story world to life through the senses: smell, taste, sight, touch and hearing. 

Finally, the setting of a story is used to introduce, and increase, conflict.

Today I'm going to chat about the first of these, setting and mood. I'll address the second and third points in the very near future.

1. Setting And Mood

Mood draws the reader into a story. Since one of the reasons to tell a story would be to produce a particular emotion in the reader, creating the right sort of mood is crucial.

An Example

How can setting affect mood? 

I think the best way to illustrate this is by talking about horror, both the mood and the genre. So let's say that you’re writing a horror story. Naturally, you want to horrify your readers.

It is so obvious I hate to say it (well, type it), but a person isn't going to be horrified if they aren't afraid. What has to happen for a person to be afraid? They need to perceive a threat and feel vulnerable to that threat. 

For example, imagine that you're walking down your front path to get your mail from the cute letterbox your kids got you for Christmas. You hear a noise, perhaps a footstep, to your right. Out of the corner of your eye you see something pink and frilly. "Oh that's Mrs. Jones," you think. Mrs. Jones is your relentlessly friendly nextdoor neighbour who walks around in a poofy pink dressing gown. You turn to wave but then you see that Mrs. Jones has turned into a shambling, half decayed zombie. And she's heading right for you!

Perhaps you're made of sterner stuff than me, but I would be horrified! I would promptly forget all about getting the mail and, fearing for my life, run inside. Why? Because (of course!) I would be afraid of being turned into the thing my grey haired, slipper-wearing, absent-minded next door neighbour had become. 

I think that fear is, fundamentally, an acknowledgement of, or recognition of, my vulnerability in the face of imminent danger. 

Here is a partial list of what I think evokes a feeling of horror:

- Recognition of the imminence of my death or the deaths of family/friends.
- Recognition of the imminence of my pain or the pain of family/friends.
- Recognition of the imminence of the unknown (or unknown unknowns).
- Recognition of the imminence of my disfigurement or the disfigurement of my family/friends. (Think of slasher films like Saw.)
- Recognition of the imminence of disillusionment or the imminence of destructive revelation.

Now ask yourself: What sort of setting would help communicate these sort of feelings/thoughts to the reader? What would its characteristics be? 

I had intended this post to be about how to evoke more moods than just horror, but here are a few things that I think would contribute to evoking that particular mood.

4 Things that Evoke Horror

The Dark

The dark hides things, it makes the familiar alien, it contains unknown unknowns. Chaotic things lurk out there beyond the light of the bonfire.

I know that observation isn’t original, but the dark is used in (I’m rifling through my memories) every single horror story for a reason.

Isolation

When the hero confronts the Big Bad they can’t receive any help, they have to confront the antagonist all by their lonesome. If the hero is to win and escape the horror, they will have to do it relying on their own wits and strength. This is especially true in the case of a horror story. 

The hero, or the hero and his allies, usually travel to someplace remote and unusual. Someplace they haven't been to before. (And then of course there's a story a local tells them that scares the pants off them but which they discount, and so on.) At the end, the hero's allies have met an unpleasant death but she is still there and now she's really ticked off and has a plan. But all of this is facilitated by the isolated nature of the setting. Otherwise she'd just use her cell phone to call someone for help!

Monsters

The monsters that scare me the most are normal things that have been twisted. I haven't been the same since I read Stephen King's book, Pet Sematary! 

Here's an example of how twisting a familiar setting can create horror. The story is called Bad Dreams and was published anonymously on Dramatica.com but, before you head off there, know that the site is NOT work safe. That's putting it mildly. But this story is fine, it is one hundred percent PG.

‘Daddy, I had a bad dream.’

You blink your eyes and pull up on your elbows. Your clock glows red in the darkness--it’s 3:23. ‘Do you want to climb into bed and tell me about it?’

‘No, Daddy.’

The oddness of the situation wakes you up more fully. You can barely make out your daughter’s pale form in the darkness of your room. ‘Why not, sweetie?’

‘Because in my dream, when I told you about the dream, the thing wearing Mommy’s skin sat up.’

For a moment, you feel paralysed; you can’t take your eyes off of your daughter. The covers behind you begin to shift.

Great story, right?!

The setting used here is familiar. Intimate. Isolated. The protagonist is in his bedroom with his wife and child. Would the story have the same impact if it was morning, rather than the witching hour? Would the story have the same impact if the exchange took place while the protagonist was preparing to drive to work? I don't think so.

I think that the closeness, the intimacy, of the threat contributes to the isolation. If the wife was in the kitchen or even just out in the hall the situation wouldn't feel so intense and creepy. It's the intimacy of the threat (your wife is lying right behind you) that adds to the feeling of isolation. For example, I'm in a crowd then someone sticks the muzzle of a gun in my back and tells me, "Don't scream, don't talk, just walk." I'm instantly isolated because I can't call for help.

Surprise, Disorientation & Isolation

I've already talked about some of these things, but I need an excuse to trot out one of my favorite horror scenes. This scene--well, I suppose it is more like a series of scenes--occurs toward the end of one of the best horror movies ever made, Alien. (Yes, okay, that's my personal opinion. If you disagree, let me know in the comments.)

Toward the end of Alien, when Ripley (played by Sigourney Weaver) makes her way to the shuttle, she runs down twisting hallways expecting danger at every turn. For me, that was the most suspenseful part of the movie. 

The dark--both of the spaceship and the surrounding, suffocating, emptiness of space--isolates the hero from any possible aid and disorients her, magnifying her fear--which, mysteriously, has become your fear even though you're perfectly safe and sitting snugly on your couch chowing down on buttered popcorn. Or, no, wait! that was me. ;)

Well, that's it for today. If you'd like to chat or ask a question or tell me I'm wrong, leave a comment. Until then, good writing and I'll talk to you again soon.

Other posts in this extended series (I'm blogging a book):
How to Write a Genre Story: The Index

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

Blog posts you might like:

Wednesday, February 3

How to Write a Genre Story: Setting (Part 1)

How to Write a Genre Story: Setting (Part 1)

There are many stories that don't fit the hero’s journey. For example, the movies Psycho and The Princess Bride. And that's great! There are as many ways to write a story as there are writers. 

I mention this to emphasize that what I am going to talk about is only one way of doing things. If it doesn’t work for you, or you have developed your own way, great! However, if you are looking for an example of how things could be done, this is one possible way.

Narrative Setting

Narrative setting is the setting where the events of the story take place. 

The story world includes, among other things, the physical environments your characters will encounter as well as the groups they interact with. You can create these environs from your imagination or you can set the story in the actual world. 

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

Social Setting

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

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

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

The most important environment for social creatures such as ourselves is our social environment; our family, our friends, our coworkers, our distant relatives, our facebook friends. Of course, your protagonist need not be sociable! Let your imagination run wild. Anything is fair game as long as it's believable.

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

The Elements of Setting: Time

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

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

The Elements of Setting: Place

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

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

The Elements of Setting: Circumstances

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

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

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

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

Setting & Scenes

Let’s talk about setting as it relates to each scene.

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

For each scene, in addition to knowing what season it is, know (if outdoors) what the weather is like, what characters are in the scene, what happened just before the scene started and what will happen just after the scene ends. Also know what time of day it is. Is it morning or high noon? Nighttime? Twilight? The witching hour? You don’t have to--you likely shouldn’t!--put all this information in the scene, but it helps to know.

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

Place: Indoors? Outdoors?

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

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

If the scene takes place indoors, what are the characters' surroundings like? Are they lavish? Poor? Shabby? Drab? Colorful? Ostentatious? Is it a human-made structure or natural, something like a cave. 

Wherever your characters are, were they invited here? Are they comfortable here? Does this place make them feel at home or are they unsure how to act? 

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

Conflict

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

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

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

Writing Challenge

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

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

A Thought Experiment

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

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

Okay, that’s it! This was a bit of a grab bag of ideas. I hope you got something from it. I’ll talk to you again soon. In the meantime, good writing!

Other posts in this extended series (I'm blogging a book):
How to Write a Genre Story: The Index

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

Blog posts you might like:

Thursday, January 28

How to Write a Genre Story: Conflict

How to Write a Genre Story: Conflict


How to Generate Conflict

Conflict results from the clash of two things: a character's goal and the opposition to that goal. It follows that every scene needs two opposing forces, in genre fiction these are usually a viewpoint character who wants something desperately and a force that prevents her from getting it. 

Specific Goals

The protagonist should have a goal so specific you could take a picture of it. A desire for riches isn't a good goal because it's too general, too abstract. Wanting to win next month's million dollar lottery, though, is a fine goal. It even suggests ways to bring it about: buy a lottery ticket! 

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

Opposition to the Goal

Something must oppose the hero reaching her goal.

What characteristics should the opposing force have? First and foremost, it must have the ability to prevent the hero from achieving his goal. Second, it must give the opposing force the ability to evoke the hero's deepest, darkest fears.

Indiana Jones’ antagonist, his opposing force, was Belloq. He managed to keep track of Indy’s activities and rob him of whatever artifact he sought. Also, when Belloq sealed Indy and Marion in with the Ark when they were in the Well of Souls, there were lots and lots of snakes, the creepy crawlies Indy was terrified of.

Luke Skywalker’s anatangost was his father, a sith, and his darkest fear was being seduced to the dark side of the force.

Stakes

I’ve written quite a lot about stakes in my “Good Storytelling” posts, I’ll leave links to them below. 

Anyway. Stakes. This part is easy: the hero must have something to lose and something to gain.

To create suspense, the stakes of a conflict should be clearly spelled out in advance, before the hero is menaced by danger. If the hero achieves his goal, how will his life change? If he loses, what difference will that make?

In The Matrix Neo would have lost the love of Trinity as well as his life if he had not achieved his goal and become The One.

In Star Wars IV, if the resistance had lost and failed to destroy the Death Star then the resistance would have been snuffed out. Of course, the resistance won, the resistance survived and went on to topple the Empire.

Ticking Clock

To build tension it helps if the hero is racing against a clock, though perhaps not an actual clock. They must be under pressure. This both sets a deadline and gives the character time to plan, to agonize and, finally, to fight. 

I know I’ve talked quite a bit about Star Wars IV but that was a good story. At the end Luke, and the entire resistance, are rushing against a ticking clock. The Death Star is powering up to destroy the planet that the resistance is based on. If the Death Star isn’t destroyed by then the resistance will blink out of existence.

Raise a Question

I’ve also talked about this in Writing a Genre Story: How to Create Suspense.

When we talk about creating suspense we are talking about an emotional state that exists within a reader. We generally try to evoke this emotional state by getting our readers to identify with our characters, especially our hero. We make it clear what the hero needs, as well as what he fears, and then we force the hero to face his darkest fears as he struggles to attain his goal. 

Because the reader has identified with the hero they feel concerned for him and this keeps them turning pages to see whether the hero will succeed.

And it's effective. I've stayed up into the wee hours of the morning more times than I'd like to admit simply because I had to know what happened. 

Well, Lee Child is a proponent of another, easier, way of creating suspense: simply raise a question. He even goes so far as to say that it doesn't especially matter whether your readers care about your characters, there is something about a question being raised that makes readers want to know the answer.

Photo Credit

FRANK IN STEIN by JD Hancock.

(BTW, I also write about this in How to write a genre story: how to create suspense.)

-- --

Other posts in this extended series (I'm blogging a book):
How to Write a Genre Story: The Index

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


Blog posts you might like:

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.

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Other posts in this extended series (I'm blogging a book):
How to Write a Genre Story: The Index

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