Sunday, August 21, 2016

The Curiously Non-Causal Quality of Coincidence

Does the “curiosity” in the title above merely add alliteration? No, because, sadly, novelists don’t necessarily treat causality and coincidence as antithetical. What’s the cause of that?
A loose definition of plot. Ideally, it stems not from a sequence of events but the sense that choices, usually dreadful until the end, produced this result. E.M. Forster famously observed

“The king died and then the queen died” is a story. “The king died, and then the queen died of grief” is a plot. The time-sequence is preserved, but the sense of causality overshadows it...If it is in a story we say “and then?” If it is in a plot we ask “why?”

Only causality can explain “why.” Forster published Aspects of the Novel back in 1927, but nothing has changed since. A recent Editor’s Blog reminds that “Coincidence messes with the suspension of disbelief because it so quickly and thoroughly reminds readers that they are reading fiction.”

And the cause of that one? With the same probability each time, life can deliver victories or catastrophes. Fiction doesn’t work that way. The bar for credibility is far higher than for anything based on fact. That’s why you risk sounding contrived any time you record exactly what happened.

Beware these trouble spots.

  • Planted Clues
She never checked for phone messages, but because she did, Ellie found the note.

  • Fortuitous Accidents
Before Ed could respond, the doorbell suddenly rang.

  • Convenient Backup
Good thing Mark remembered to take his gun after all.

  • Improbable Meetings
Her first love, out of Sue’s life for thirty years, stood on the subway platform.

  • Impossible Rescues
Though unsure of the sergeant’s location, the troops arrived just in time.

Tip: Without credible motivation, responses and actions seem convenient, if not contrived.

How to fix the coincidence issue?

~ Plan your plot—and causally.
As Don Maass put it, “Every scene should be so essential that if you omit one, the whole thing unravels.”

~ Introduce objects and people in advance.
Never add characters, details, or characteristics only as the need arises.

~ Transform sequentiality into causality.
            Build your story not on what happens, but what motivates subsequent events.

Isn’t it curious how often coincidence crops up in fiction?  Convenient as that might be, only causality can earn an ending satisfying to both you and your readers.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Asset or Accident, Experiment or Intuition?

Recently, a very talented writer confided that he never has the slightest idea whether his material is awesome or awful. And, he’s partially right: every writer needs feedback. Yet every writer also needs honest, judicious self-assessment.

Tip: Learn to be your own best, most trusted critic.

Writers usually know a ton of “rules,” everything from “Vary the length of your sentences,” to “Tension is the most beloved character in every novel.” If you know all those rules, and you’re a smart cookie, why can’t you see whether you break the rules unintentionally?

Because most novelists rationalize as skillfully as they write. And then, alas, succumb to their own rationalizations. Ever used one of these?
  • It’s monotonous to start every chapter with a hook.
  • Sometimes readers need a break from all that action and just want to overhear the characters thinking, wondering, and deciding.
  • Words like “anguish,” “yearning,” and “joy” engage readers emotionally.
  • An occasional point of view slip makes things more interesting.
  • Readers choose the novel form because in order to study history and savor description.
  • Anyone who can create compelling characters won’t need much plot.
Hmm. How much of a critic, or writer, can you expect to be if you defend every misstep, justify every self-indulgence, excuse every shortcut, and break every rule?

The trick is to know when you can—should!—break the rules. Certainly too many exist, along with too many instances where rigor should bow to the serendipity of inspiration. Still, those rules exist for a reason, so you need a reason to ignore them. 

Want some help deciding?

~ Identify and appreciate your skills.
Writers often prefer listing their faults. But to undermine those, you need your—assets.

~ Notice and exploit writing accidents.
            They produce some of the loveliest writing moments.

~ Experiment with your plans.
            Try things out. Take risks. You can’t revise what you never wrote.

~ Intuition.
Anyone inclined toward fiction intuitively knows when to ignore the rules.

Listen to yourself. What better way to discover much you already know?

Sunday, August 7, 2016

Structure Your Scenes—All of Them

Coaches like Jack M. Bickham and Dwight Swain offer terrific suggestions for scenes, yet focus more on the building blocks than the writer’s perception of what happens next.

Tip: Plan your scenes to meet the goal of tension on every page.

Here’s an alternative: Character Goal…Hook…Hook.

~ The goal.
Know what your character wants. Instantly. Why can’t the character achieve this right now? And what’s the immediate result of failing?  “Instantly” and “immediately” are the key words. A casual, long-term possibility offers little at this moment. And readers, who have all sorts of other ways to spend their time, don’t want to wait. Don’t make them.

An added bonus: if you identify what your character desires, then you know where the scene needs to go. Win/win/win: characters get motive; readers get conflict; writers get strategy.

~ The hooks.
Use your protagonist’s goal to start every scene with a genuine hook, or anything that whets reader appetite.  Hint: it’s rarely just the setting. Consider these possibilities:

  • Seemingly unwinnable goal
  • Snazzy dialogue
  • Question
  • Short sentence that pops
  • Secret
  • Complex emotion
  • Huge dilemma
  • Grave danger
  • Emotional upheaval
  • “Ticking clock” (as Noah Lukeman put it)
Launch the scene with a hook, and conclude every scene but the last with another hook. Again, a bonus not just for readers, but for writers. Hooks help identify which material needs to be in scene while maintaining high tension right up to The End.

Now for the frosting. It’s often the writer’s motive, but less so the reader’s. Some examples:

Ø  Backstory
Ø  Themes
Ø  Symbolism
Ø  Allusions (literary or others)
Ø  Social commentary
Ø  History or geography or any other kind of “lesson”
Ø  Poetic moments

Like frosting, perfectly delightful. But in small doses, and never as a substitutes for the actual cake. The good news? Build scenes from hooks and goals, and you can add that delicious frosting without distracting from the plot. That’s where tension thrives.

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Why Blame a Duck for Not Being a Loon?

It’s not the sparrow’s fault it’s not a cardinal. Nor the mallard’s that its plumage is drab, its flight uninteresting, and its call pedestrian. Neither is it fantasy’s fault that it offers wizards, nor literary fiction’s that if you read quickly and carelessly, you might miss the whole point. 

Ducks are as admirable as any other water fowl. They’re worthwhile even if you drove to Wisconsin’s North Woods for loons and eagles. Know how to find the bird you want. That also applies to the novel you want to read—or write.

Tip: Immerse yourself in your genre so you can fulfill reader expectations.

~ Familiarize yourself with conventions.

  • In your genre, do readers tolerate some “telling,” or hardly any at all?
  • How much backstory will your readers accept/want?
  • Do readers expect a sex scene, and how graphic can it be?
  • Are long, complex sentences part of the pleasure—or the diminishment of it?
  • When does theme become intrusive, or is it nearly as crucial as the story itself?
~ Write to an ideal reader.

  • Can you explicitly identify your audience?
  • Can you picture the person seeking the precise book you want to write?
  • Are you entertaining, moving, scaring, pleasing, charming this individual? That’s a great way to test the aptness of your prose.
~ Heed relevant feedback.

  • Do your critiquers resemble your potential audience, and if not, can they objectively assess YA, westerns, mysteries, or whatever you’re writing?
  • Do you pay special attention to suggestions geared toward your intended audience and less attention to those that seem irrelevant or subjective?
  • Can you be scrupulously honest about what’s irrelevant or subjective?
~ Write toward realistic goals.

  • If you crave public acclaim more than personal satisfaction, do you have a big Concept? A marketable scenario? A plan for landing an agent and a publisher?
  • Are you honest about why you’re writing? After all, if only a loon will satisfy you, don’t look for one in New York City.

Happily, many motives drive novelists, and no two readers want exactly the same book. Write from your heart, and know whose heart you want to touch. Proceed thoughtfully and relentlessly. That’s the path toward the call you seek, whether from waterfowl, agent, or publisher. You just have to try realistically—with open eyes.

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Alliteration on the Side, Please

Few of us are entirely immune to gorgeous, partially-clad people; tear-jerking movies; Viennese pastries or waltzes; or even a gob of imported, cream-laden blue cheese dressing. Overdone, though, delicious becomes cloying, because too much is…too much.

Amplified amounts of awe-inspiring alliteration almost always aggravate more than amaze. After all, the easy way out defeats plot captivating because of causality, characters haunting because of depth, sentences noteworthy because of rhythm, and wording harmonious because echo replaces repetition.

Whatever calls too much attention to itself in prose, even in poetry, fills the space that readers should inhabit. No one likes being patronized. Understate, and readers can participate. Avoid these alternative forms of “telling:

~ Italics.
Consider reserving them for constructions like x’s and o’s or foreign phrases like oy gevalt. Avoid italics for emphasis. Instead?  “Show” your readers how to read it. Better still? Let them decide for themselves.

~ Exclamation points!!!

No!!!!! Please!!! These distract even more painfully than alliteration or italics!!! See what I mean? Again, as they tell the kids, use your words.

~ One-sentence paragraphs.

            Every so often?


            Over and over?

            No dice.

Such paragraphs hint that you’re shouting or filling space. And if so many single lines are so important, maybe you should rethink something?

~ One-dimensional emotions.

Few emotions actually are. Guilt and anxiety often tinge lust. Sadness can sneak into the loveliest happiness. Limit the number of straightforward, oversimplified, abstractions like “good,” “sad,” “triumphant,” “frustrated.” These, too, distract.

You might quickly surprise yourself by how little you miss obvious devices once you stop relying on them.

Tip: Reserve cute for rabbits, kittens, and the dimpled knees of newborns.

Friday, July 15, 2016


You needn’t look closely to see that nature slips into compositions all the time. Out the window an oak dramatizes a sliver of moon and a single star. A staghorn fern fans itself across the glitter of mica-encrusted rocks.  Male and female goldfinches feed beside a six-foot-tall pure yellow lily. Nice.

But artifice, not nature, shapes the kinds of frames that novels need—the kind that add coherence and aesthetics to plot and tension.

~ Hooks.

Those of us raised on 19th century novels associate the hooks with setting, often a long, long, long, LONG description of something. But these days anyone can visit exotic places with a couple of clicks. Though E.M. Forster’s Passage to India is a great novel, today’s readers no longer a need a dozen pages on the Marabar Caves—or anything else.

Instead? Hook with drama, tension, secret, promise. Begin and end every scene that way. Want to integrate conflict with setting? Go for it. Just don’t forget the conflict part. That’s the hook.

~ Sequence.

            “A story is already over before we hear it. That is how the teller knows what it means”
(Joan Silber, The Art of Time in Fiction: As Long as It Takes). Her observation suggests how fiction exerts its power. Novelists comment on truth not just through plot and character, but time itself. So many options. Where does the story start? How much backstory would add, and where does it belong? Is the ending foreshadowed? Does the pace let readers savor what’s interesting and speed past what’s not?  The unwinding of time contributes to the frame embellishing the story inside.

~ Scene structure.
Whether you make a plan before you write (definitely not a bad idea), or revise what’s already written, every scene should frame a moment in time. Photographers choose what to include, omit, and emphasize; similarly, novelists can use the constraint of each individual scene to make this chunk of plot coherent, dramatic, and causal.

~ Set-off.

            Frames exist to enhance what’s inside. You might think of description, foreshadowing,
            backstory, and the prose itself as the framework supporting the plot. If any of those distract or
            diminish tension, then the frame overwhelms the part that matters.

~ Set-up.

            Reality is random. What’s great about novels? They aren’t. But only if the narrator frames the

Tip: Frame your story. Great frames make what’s inside even more compelling.

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Characters with Character

We call oddball eccentrics “characters.” Yet character is also the possession of attributes, often moral, and characters are the individuals enacting a plot. Compile all these definitions, and you get—story.

Story harnesses entertainment to make morality easier to swallow. Based on that, your characters need equal parts moral fiber and zany individuality.  Those are the building blocks for making characters more “real” than real people.

In The Art of Fiction, John Gardner reminds us that “The primary subject of fiction is and has always been human emotion, values, and beliefs.”  The more your plot delivers that, then the more complex emotions your readers will experience. So you need conflict—big conflict, even the danger is exclusively psychological.

Adversity tests a character’s character. Will you answer the quest? Continue despite seemingly insurmountable odds? Earn the love, happiness, respect, honor, or victory that the antagonist mercilessly struggles to rip from you?

Robert McKee has said that the pressure the antagonist exerts brings out the best in a character. It also brings out the best in the reader, who begins wondering, “Would I fight that hard?” “Are my own struggles as weighty as those the protagonist faces?” “How can I not feel empathy for a battle of this magnitude?” How come the great human issues never change?

Your readers respond that way because of the emotional, causal, and moral nature of fiction. As Robert McKee put it in Story: Style, Structure, Substance, and the Principles of Screenwriting:

A character is no more a human being than the Venus de Milo is a real woman. A character is a work of art, a metaphor for human nature. We relate to characters as if they were real, but they're superior to reality. Their aspects are designed to be clear and knowable; whereas our fellow humans are difficult to understand, if not enigmatic. We know characters better than we know our friends because a character is eternal and unchanging, while people shift - just when we think we understand them, we don't.

Creating characters who are metaphorical works of art is a tall order. What makes that happen?

~ Breed empathy.
Your antagonist(s) can help.

~ Emphasize resilience.
            Who loves a whiner?

~ Celebrate morality.
Life is unfair. Should fiction be?

~ Liberate your characters.
            Unless you set them free, how can they surprise you or anyone else?

Tip: Don’t just incorporate tension. Use it to reveal and build character.