Sunday, November 19, 2017

The Psychology of Imagery

It’s established that imagery/visualization helps athletes succeed, so imagine how imagery enhances the reader/writer connection. Even in print, and especially in fiction, a picture is still worth a thousand words. Used deftly, verbal evocation of the five senses creates a world where readers feel what the characters do, see what the novelist does.

Tip: Create not just a plot, but one readers can experience—through their five senses.

Here’s how that works. In The Sacred Wood, T.S. Eliot refers to the pedantic-sounding but not actually overwhelming concept of the “objective correlative”:
The only way of expressing emotion in the form of art is by finding an “objective correlative”; in other words, a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events which shall be the formula of that particular emotion; such that when the external facts, which must terminate in sensory experience, are given, the emotion is immediately evoked. 
This observation warrants some unpacking. An objective correlative can link (“correlate”) a subjective idea or emotion with the external world (“objective,” relating to something physical, like an object) in a neutral way (again “objective,” but this time in the sense of impersonal).

Eliot introduced the objective correlative to explain why Shakespeare failed to provide a visual image for Hamlet’s emotions. Although many would disagree, the objective correlative strategy has much to offer not just playwrights and poets, but novelists.

In Wired for Story: The Writer's Guide to Using Brain Science to Hook Readers from the Very First Sentence, Lisa Cron observes that 
what draws us into a story and keeps us there is the firing of our dopamine neurons, signaling that intriguing information is on the way.
And the more scientists learn how about the brain, the more they discover connections between plot or imagery and reader emotion. Want readers to keep reading? Integrate what happens with opportunity to vicariously interact. The source of  that interaction? Language summoning one or more of the five senses: in other words—imagery. 

Genuinely vibrant description provides additional benefits: 

~ Objectivity.

Concrete details eliminate “telling” what you ought to “show.”

~ Bridge from the familiar to the unfamiliar.

Need to explain something? The technique of analogy or metaphor is about as old as ideas are. Comparison helps readers grasp what’s unclear or difficult, which could be anything from quantum mechanics to the protagonist’s tragic flaw.

~ Contributions from your own subconscious:
one of the things you do as a writer and as a filmmaker is to grasp for resonant symbols and imagery without fully understanding it yourself. —Christopher Nolan
~ Engagement of reader emotion.

Readers identify with what they can see, hear, etc. But they can’t identify with references to “terrible agony” or “delightful happiness.” James Bonnet’s paraphrase of Carl Jung explains why abstraction deprives readers of the protagonist’s world and the events there: 
The auditor experiences some of the sensations but is not transformed. Their imaginations are stimulated: they go home and through personal fantasies begin the process of transformation for themselves.
Why not provide that possibility of transformation for your readers?

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Must Your Readers Unpack for You?

In fiction, as on vacation, traveling light frees you to appreciate the scenery. Few of us leave town to exhibit an immense wardrobe, and probably even fewer read novels in order to study. Still, you won’t enjoy the trip if everything you brought is excessively flimsy or bulky, and many readers prefer novels offering a bit of heft. In both cases, the trick is packing thoughtfully, and taking responsibility for the contents of the suitcase.

Your novel’s length determines the size of that suitcase. Yet fiction’s subject matter determines how much unpacking someone must do. Who’s that someone? The novelist—not the reader.

In one sense, “unpacking” involves revelation of the individual components that comprise a complex concept. It makes sense that writers should provide this, so one wonders why more of them—in every genre—sometimes omit the explanation readers need in order to follow. Anxiety plays a role. What if “just saying it” will irritate, bore, or condescend? 

The rest of the answer lies in what Steven Pinker calls “The Curse of Knowledge”: 
It simply doesn’t occur to the writer that readers haven’t learned their jargon, don’t seem to know the intermediate steps that seem to them to be too obvious to mention, and can’t visualize a scene currently in the writer’s mind’s eye. And so the writer doesn’t bother to explain the jargon, or spell out the logic, or supply the concrete details — even when writing for professional peers.—The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century
Pinker blames unclear, densely packed passages on “chunking,” or storing details in clumps. Inside the writer’s head, this process works fine. But readers require “unchunking.” Without it, you offer A = B, A = C—without including that crucial middle step of B = C. 

Pinker also identifies another opponent of clarity: functional fixity. As with structural rigidity, the issue here is your ability to rearrange details for the reader’s benefit. Or are you stuck with whatever pattern you first conceived? That may not be the ideal way to explain.

Ready to unpack? Try these techniques.

~ Imagine your audience.

It’s not you! It’s doesn’t matter what you know—only what your readers do.

~ Be concrete.

It’s a common myth that difficult ideas require abstractions. But the greatest art is clarity without oversimplification.

~ Provide breaks.

Divide your sentences. Start new paragraphs. Both matter more than you think.

~ Use the familiar.

People usually learn by attaching new facts and concepts to more commonplace ones. Break down those big chunks, perhaps comparing them with the well-known.

Tip: For a smooth fictional journey, keep disorganized, overflowing baggage out of sight. 

Saturday, November 4, 2017

Voice: Constraint + Conviction

Writing coaches often urge novelists to “let it flow.” Go ahead and write as fast as you can type, which, for most of us, is faster than we can think. In The Basket Weaver, for example, Jan Marquart suggests: “Sit quietly, listen, listen again, then listen some more and write out everything the voice says with no censoring-–none-–not one word.”

For some novelists, there’s no better strategy. But this approach works only if you’re willing to discard everything—yup, everything—that’s self-indulgent, redundant, or second rate. That necessitates more courage than many writers, including yours truly, possess.

Tip: Voice balances wildness with convention.

You need both individuality and artistry. According to Patricia Lee Gauch,
A writer's voice is not character alone, it is not style alone; it is far more. A writer's voice like the stroke of an artist's brush—is the thumbprint of her whole person—her idea, wit, humor, passions, rhythms. 
If you accept that painters have “voices,” J. W. Turner beautifully illustrates freedom within restraint. He studied, mastered his craft, and produced solid conventional work like this:

But if that’s all he ever did, he’d never have his own gallery in London’s Tate Museum. Historians 
suspect eyesight played a role, but, in any case, here’s why he’s remembered:


Without command of the fundamental, how can you paint or write? Like everyone else, novelists can bore, pontificate, melodramatize, repeat, and confuse. If your voice includes any of that, keep it to yourself. Because “Whether crafting fiction or how-to manuals, self-expression is a negotiation” (Noah Berlatsky in “‘Voice’ Isn't the Point of Writing”).

Without command of the fundamental, how can you paint or write? Like everyone else, novelists can bore, pontificate, melodramatize, repeat, and confuse. If your voice includes any of that, keep it to yourself. Because “Whether crafting fiction or how-to manuals, self-expression is a negotiation” (Noah Berlatsky in “‘Voice’ Isn't the Point of Writing”).

This is where writing commandments apply. Your uncensored self belongs only in a journal. And although we cherish the personal writing of  “the greats,” this is usually due to what they crafted for public consumption—through that “negotiation.”

Writing rules not only reduce “telling,” meandering, and abruptly jolting. Consider your readers, and you create a sort of psychological safety net.  Thasia Frank and Dorothy Wall suggest that
Most writers struggle to unearth voice—not only because one’s own voice is simply too familiar, but also because to speak from your voice means confront your world, your dreams, and your entire life raw and unsoftened by explanations.
In the most exquisite sort of irony, you’re less vulnerable when your narrator and characters stand between your naked self and your readers. And without getting psychologically and linguistically naked, how can you find and use your voice?

And here’s why that’s where it’s at. According to David Malouf,
I've long come to the conclusion that when people say they can't put a book down, they don't mean they're interested in what's happening next; they mean they are so mesmerised by the writer's voice and the relationship that has been established that they don't want to break that.

Isn’t that exactly what you want your novel to do?

Sunday, October 29, 2017

Not Just “Writers Need to Read”—But Why

Tip:“If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have time to write.” — Stephen King

In “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” T. S. Eliot observed, “Someone said: “The dead writers are remote from us because we know so much more than they did.’ Precisely, and they are that which we know.”

Just as true today as almost a century ago. So much more to know—and to read. If this seems daunting, consider the opportunity. The art of fiction comes from who you are—and who you are comes from everything preceding you. As Ralph Waldo Emerson put it, “I cannot remember the books I’ve read any more than the meals I have eaten; even so, they have made me.” 

On a more universal scale, curiosity like this drives people to explore their roots. Don't your cultural roots signify as least as much, whether from ancient Greece or DaVinci? 

Or all those classics that inform how every novelist thinks and writes? Reading reminds writers that the best fiction is timeless. James Baldwin:
You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read. It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, or who had ever been alive.
Here’s Evan Mahone in “The Best Advice for Writers? Read”
Last week the Guardian published a list of writerly rules donated by respected authors. Somewhat surprisingly, only a quarter of the authors advised aspiring writers to read. Perhaps reading is too obvious, too fundamental to be perceived as a rule–like advising chefs to eat if they want to learn how to cook. But despite the fact that most of the rule writers failed to advise people to read, I doubt any writer would argue that reading is not essential to the writing craft.
What does Mahone think reading writers (pun intended) get? Only vocabulary, models, inspiration, and escape from the difficulties of your profession/avocation. So the pursuit of books like the ones you want to write becomes quite serious.
You can't write seriously without reading the greats in that peculiar way that writers read, attentive to the particularities of the language, to the technical turns and twists of scene-making and plot, soaking up numerous narrative strategies and studying various approaches to that cave in the deep woods where the human heart hibernates. --Alan Cheus

J.K. Rowling got it right: “The most important thing is to read as much as you can…” Besides, as Neil Gaiman reminds: “Picking five favorite books is like picking the five body parts you’d most like not to lose.” 

Can you afford not to find the time? 

Sunday, October 22, 2017

On Taking Time and Leaving Space

Exploit opportunity. That’s one distinction between good fiction and great. Sometimes, instead of faulty plotting or limp prose, the issue is timing. Let’s say the protagonist and hunky guy have been flirting for over two hundred pages. When he—and she or he—finally finish the chablis and hit the sack, why rush that? And you certainly don’t want to summarize, as in, “They had the greatest time ever.”

And in order to deliver optimal emotional and dramatic impact, maybe you can do even more. Whoops, someone has an asthma attack or breaks out in hives. Does the estranged spouse return for a heart-to-heart, courting interruptus? What about the cat, the dog, the teenage daughter? 

Go for the extra twist, never settling for the obvious. Then, develop the events that fulfill and startle readers—that haunt forever. Pause to think of your favorite moments in fiction. Are they ever ordinary? Rushed?

Be careful, though. Capitalizing involves a sort of tightrope between underdone and overwrought. To avoid the latter, watch out for these:

~ Stay subtle. 

Add vigorous and original events and details, not familiar or melodramatic ones.

~ Encourage inference.

Fiction thrives on hinting and suggesting, not clarifying or explaining. Which doesn’t, of course, mean you want confused readers.

~ Say it right the first time.

 Then you won’t be tempted to repeat, which usually frustrates more than it emphasizes. 

~ Slow down the good parts.

Writers tend to meander through detail, then zip through action and drama. Why? The humdrum and non-confrontational amass quickly,  not to mention more comfortably. Often, though, the scenes writers find most challenging are those their readers find most enchanting.

~ Carve out a space.

Don’t clog critical moments with layers of description or filler. Instead? Create a sort of pause-and-catch your breath moment. To illustrate, say a mother is awaiting news of her soldier son. Why not delineate her facial expression, the worry in her eyes before learning the truth? This delaying tactic prompts the reader to experience suspense along with her, to internalize the magnitude of a moment that resembles a mini-climax. How else will readers notice?

~ Set up.

Then always deliver.

As you move through the world beyond your novel (remember that one?), observe the reactions of people—and yourself—to momentous moments. Then you’ll have a better sense of how to time and design such moments in your fictional world.

Tip: Capitalize on the subterranean—not at all obvious—opportunities your novel offers.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

From Story Board to Storyboard

Today, storyboard connotes is a series of illustrations or key points illustrating the concept for a film or TV program. Like many techniques from the screenwriting world, this method is also wonderfully useful for novelists and so popular that you’ll find numerous online options for help. But the basic idea is actually much older. Much, much, much older.

Illiteracy, thankfully now far less widespread, was once the norm. If you wanted people to understand the story, you had to show it. Only pictures would do.

For example, in one of the oldest storyboards, the palace of the Neo-Assyrian King Ashurnasirpal II (883-859 BC) at Nimrud (now in northern Iraq) had larger-than-life slabs depicting royal and religious ritual. In the photos below, a winged god drops offers pollen from the scared tree of life, insuring the fertility of the land and its people.

Though novelists use words, the storyboard can give the author an equally useful visual. As Candace Williams observes in “Storyboarding for Novelists,” 
Storyboarding is not a rigid plotting device. The whole point of the board is that it’s flexible. The greatest advantage is seeing exactly how your novel is “built,” just as an architect refers to a blueprint.
The storyboard is especially useful to these novelists:

~ Plotters and pantsers.

If you’re a plotter, this lets you assess pivot points even more efficiently. If you’re a pantser, a storyboard lets you see where you’re going with the least restriction possible.

~ Internal world addicts. Do you revel in oodles of talking and thinking and more of the same? 
Provide an image for each scene, and something will happen in the physical world.

~ Nonlinear writers.

a storyboard, you can write the fourth scene, sixteenth, then second and so on. Compose in any order you like and still see where you are.

In an interview, Rebecca Skloot, author of the complex and successful The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, addressed the complexity of her creative nonfiction with index cards. 

Chuck Sambuchino, in “Storyboarding For Success: Plotters vs. Pantsers,” reminds that:
The magic of a storyboard is turning a book idea into a visual tool, which makes the story’s structure much easier to grasp and handle. A storyboard can be drawn on a board, a piece of paper, or in a computer file.
The storyboard reveals where the climax is, and, in fact, whether you have a climax at all! The inciting incident and major moments that earn the ending are visible—and thus readily reparable. Use index cards, sticky notes, sheets of paper, an Excel spreadsheet, or the many free apps and templates.

Tip: Storyboarding’s been around for a long, long time. With good reason.

Sunday, October 1, 2017

Motive and Movement

Inexperienced comedians and actors often wander the stage aimlessly. Sometimes that’s part of the schtick. More often, though, random action signals nervousness and simply distracts. So in theater, directors often warn actors that you can’t just cross the stage because you feel like you’ve been motionless for too long. Movement originates from motivation.

Tip: Never let your character say or do anything without a current, immediate motive.  

In “Motivation-Reaction Units: Cracking the Code of Good Writing, ” K.M. Weiland explains the “motivation-reaction units,” or MRU’s, that Dwight V. Swain introduces in Techniques of the Selling Writer:
In a story, everything that happens can be separated into two categories: causes (motivations) and effects (reactions). Once you grasp this, all you have to do to create solid and comprehensible prose is to make sure your MRUs are in the right order.
The First Gate blog explores this further. The:
Motivation-Reaction Unit is the fundamental building block of an action sequence (it’s important to stress that it does not apply do description, exposition, or reverie).  It’s pretty simple:  something happens, the hero reacts to it, the situation changes, and something else happens.  How characters react to events will largely determine their plausibility and how closely we bond with them. — 1/21/’11
If perhaps a stream of MRU’s seems like extra work, first consider how logical this is. Then consider all the areas you’ll improve.

~ Characterization. 

To link motive to action, you must clearly identify character psychology. 

~ Verisimilitude.

In real life, people do things for reasons. When they don’t, others ask, “Where are you going?” Or, “What’s suddenly bothering you?” Novels need to supply the answers readers might want to ask. This is especially true when characters change their minds or make major decisions. But. This isn’t permission for a paragraph or two of rumination, because there’s never permission for that. It does mean one sentence pinpointing explicit motive.

~ Stage business. 

A character hears something and thus does something. Causal and realistic. It also tests whether stage business serves some purpose beyond interrupting the dialogue.

~ Causality. 

Within the scene, these MR Units mirror what Linda Seger calls “pressure points”—the five or six turning points forming the spine of the novel. Use MRU’s, and the structure of each scene parallels the structure of the scenario.

~ Emotion.

In both characters and readers. Only characters that make sense elicit empathy, and characters can’t make sense unless the rationale underlying behavior is clear. 

Link motive to motion and action, and you enrich both plot and characterization. Because“why” has always been fiction’s most compelling component.