Sunday, September 17, 2017

The Secret Spaces inside the Scene

Fiction requires vividness, suspense, and empathy. But do you leave readers enough room for an intimate experience of detail, tension, and emotion?

As Charles Baxter puts it, 
A novel is not a summary of its plot but a collection of instances, of luminous specific details that take us in the direction of the unsaid and unseen.
That’s subtext, which, according to A.J. Humpage, 
is the implied meaning or theme within the narrative. It can also refer to the thoughts, actions and motives of characters that are not always so overt.
If everything is “overt,” from the character’s loneliness to the cold moss where she rests her tear-stained cheek on a fallen tree in the Southeast corner of the Olympic National forest, then perhaps ironically, fiction becomes drab, tepid, and dispassionate. 

Tip: Spell everything out, and you deprive readers of the chance to participate.

In Wired for Story: The Writer's Guide to Using Brain Science to Hook Readers from the Very First Sentence, Lisa Cron observes that:
When you put together large numbers of pieces and parts, the whole can become something larger than the sum.…The concept of emergent properties means that something new can be introduced that is not inherent in any of the parts.
What’s this new entity? In the best novels, it’s the synthesis of every aspect of fiction: plot makes detail more vivid, context builds characterization, and description intensifies suspense. But there’s more. That’s your readers feeling, wondering, interpreting, and analyzing. Until “The End,” those responses change frequently. And if the writer succeeds, many of those conclusions will prove irrelevant or inaccurate. Do you want surprised readers? Give them some freedom.

When readers can infer, fiction imitates life. There’s no circumstance where we reliably have all the information. So if fiction leaves nothing to the imagination, a novel is not only overloaded and oversimplified, but unrealistic. 

How can you encourage reader participation?

~ Subtext in dialogue.

      People rarely say exactly what they mean. Your characters shouldn’t, either.

~ Metaphor.

     When symbolism works, it replaces setting dense enough to overwhelm plot.

~ Emotional overload.

      Provide clues that let readers experience what the characters do.

~ Focus.

     If your goal is intense drama or suspense, don’t let anything compete with that.


Instead of walling readers out with excessive description and explanation, let readers take the journey along with your characters—instead of getting it secondhand.

Sunday, September 10, 2017

The Shopping Cart and the Novelist

Consider this random grocery list, left behind at a supermarket.

Anything strike you?

That’s what this blog’s about. Not a suggestion that if you can’t fix a passage or find a publisher, stock up on butter pecan ice cream, toffee peanuts, chocolate syrup, and marshmallow fluff for topping. Nor will the following suggest how to build a character from a mash-up of income, hair color, education, favorite TV show, and place of birth. Instead, here’s the deal.

Tip: The wonderfully unexpected is available everywhere; you only need to notice.

And that’s mostly a matter of habit. Because finding pattern in chaos approximates the age of humanity itself. Things have changed, though:  
Surprise, the unknown, is all around us, but due to the way human beings live now, our lives are built to streamline through, to desperately try and cut through surprise, mystery, or ignorance. All the information in the world is available from a computer screen. — J.P. Shiel, “The Element of Surprise: A Storyteller’s Secret Weapon”
For creators in any field, including fiction, the price paid for that instantaneous knowledge is high. We’re no longer continually on the hunt for the observations to protect our families, no longer sifting and sifting to recall a particular fact. It’s easier just to look it up, and that includes storm watches and warnings.

This means it’s harder for the cook or woodworker or novelist to surprise herself. That’s not good, because as Jane K. Cleland puts it, “The best surprises add significant insights to the characters involved in that surprise, while setting up future suspenseful situations.” It’s why people don’t want to know the ending of the book or movie in advance. Surprise is fun.

Now what’s this got to do wth shopping carts? Scrutinizing details is among the many potential strategies for perceiving pattern and producing surprise. For example, what can you infer from the list above?

     Lots of brand names

     Both fancy tortellini and pedestrian hamburger

     Few carbs

     No desserts

If you wanted to, couldn’t you use this list to build a profile, shape a character, compose a backstory? You probably don’t want to, because that’s unlikely to improve your novel. Here’s what will, though:

~ Notice everything around you. Seek the unfamiliar in the familiar.

~ Recognize “found art.” Ruminate on its meaning.

~ Check for patterns in the apparently random. This might take practice.

~ Look for potential organization in what seems totally chaotic.

~ Train yourself to brainstorm without censorship. Inhibition thwarts creativity.


Next time you find someone else’s list, imagine the story behind it. This will open you to a more insightful and original version of that story you really want to tell.

Sunday, September 3, 2017

“Awwww” versus Awe


Neither including the sound "awww" nor "telling about the concept "awe"is likely to evoke the desired reader response. But "showing" either?  Perhaps juxtaposed? Ahhhh. Here’s why.

Awe comes from perceiving perception, as in Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See:
To shut your eyes is to guess nothing of blindness. Beneath your world of skies and faces and buildings exists a rawer and older world, a place where surface planes disintegrate and sounds ribbon in shoals through the air. Marie-Laure can sit in an attic high above the street and hear lilies rustling in marshes two miles away.
Or from spirituality versus practicality in Colson Whitehead’sThe Underground Railroad
Poems were too close to prayer, rousing regrettable passions. Waiting for God to rescue you when it was up to you. Poetry and prayer put ideas in people's heads that got them killed, distracting them from the ruthless mechanism of the world.
Don’t you experience awe when someone explains the incomprehensible?
Looking a dead insect in the sack of basmati that had come all the way from Dehra Dun, he almost wept with sorrow and marvel at its journey, which was tenderness for his own journey. In India almost nobody would be able to afford this rice, and you had to travel around the world to be able to eat such things where they were cheap enough that you could gobble them down without being rich; and when you got home to the place where they grew, you couldn't afford them anymore. ― Kiran Desai, The Inheritance of Loss
In contrast, “Awww,” like ice cream that never melts, is cleaner and happier: 
Although there are times I'd give anything to have her back, I'm glad she went first. Losing her was like being cleft down the middle. It was the moment it all ended for me, and I wouldn't have wanted her to go through that. — Sara Gruen, Water for Elephants
But perhaps most effective of all is an unexpected pivot. In Jean Hanff Korelitz’s The Sabbathday River, the shift from “aww” to awe represents not a doll’s murder, but a child’s:
 She saw, freshly, the two blond little girls in smocked dresses on the television commercial; she could hear the happy jingle extolling the doll's mind-bending ability to wet. And her name: Sallie Smiles! (The exclamation mark thoughtfully provided by the manufacturer.) Naomi Roth's parents--they of the Little Red School House and Pete Seeger persuasion--had been horrified, naturally enough, but she must have had her fill of ant farms and nonsexist creative discovery objects. The small blond pixies on the television were the company she kept in her fantasy of the parallel childhood she was not leading. She coveted the doll.     
When it disappeared, less than a week after her birthday, she had waited before panicking.Then she approached her parents, whose unmistakable relief over her carelessness--the carelessness they assumed, despite her denials--was clear. Naomi's older brother declined to shed light on the situation, but months afterward it was from his window that she saw her doll again, grimy in city filth on the roof of the apartment building next door. It lay on its stomach against the asphalt, its bright face obscured, its fleshy pink hue bleached to stark white, and the legs between which it had wet so endearingly splayed to the extent of its somewhat limited hip sockets.
Tip: Expand your novel’s world by capturing rather than mentioning “aww” or awe.

Sunday, August 27, 2017

The Man Who Said Everything Twice

“Not much traffic today.” His wife nods, and they continue on. He lights a cigarette. “Nope. Not much traffic.” As their destination comes into view, she says nothing. He clears his throat. “Nice flat lake.” She turns away from him, toward the window, as he repeats, “Nice flat lake.”

Irritating as this man is, she probably won’t leave him for this reason alone. But if this pattern materializes in your novel, your reader will likely leave you.

Most writers know that they mustn’t repeat. So why do they?

~ Metaphorical throat clearing

Saying it again resembles “um” or “er” in conversation. Maybe details or events occurred twice in the first draft and were never deleted. It’s mostly habit—and you can break it.

~ Schooling

Over and over, writers heard: introduce what you’ll say, develop what you introduced, summarize what you said. This makes sense for teaching and learning. Is that what novels are about?

~ Distrust of the reader

This one is the most powerful. Good writers are nearly always insecure, comparing themselves to novelists they love and feeling they fall short. Very short. Concern that the metaphor is shaky, the subtext too subtle, or theme too understated, such writers clarify. Usually, though, they merely repeat what readers already absorbed.

What do writers repeat?

* General/specific

You know. First you comment on all dogs, then on individual breeds. You could also reverse the order to specific, then general. But don’t.

* Metaphor and explanation

If the metaphor can’t communicate without explanation, it’s not one you want.

* Transition

Yes, you must link each detail or idea or moment to the next. But, for example, don’t link each detail or idea or moment to the next by repeating the whole thing!

* Recent events

Never bring other characters up to date by repeating what readers already know. Hint. Condense.

How do you handle the repetition problem? You already know. About the lake and the traffic.


Tip: Once is enough.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

It’s Not a Dream!

Fiction is neither as long-winded, random, or forgettable as the scraps of stories that visit us during the night.  The novel’s achievement starts with the creation process that John Gardner describes:
In the writing state—the state of inspiration—the fictive dream springs up fully alive: the writer forgets the words he has written on the page and sees, instead, his characters moving around their rooms, hunting through cupboards, glancing irritably through their mail, setting mousetraps, loading pistols. The dream is as alive and compelling as one’s dreams at night, and when the writer writes down on paper what he has imagined, the words, however inadequate, do not distract his mind from the fictive dream but provide him with a fix on it, so that when the dream flags he can reread what he’s written and find the dream starting up again. 
This is narrative at its happiest and best—writing that gives readers a  world more dramatic, realistic and moral than daily routine. But the boundaries of this world are fragile. In fact, as Gardner points out, “one of the chief mistakes a writer can make is to allow or force the reader’s mind to be distracted, even momentarily, from the fictional dream.”

Those distractions come in many shapes and sizes, but the other kind of dreaming goes a long way toward explaining them.

~ Cliché.

If you’re gifted enough, of course it’s possible to write anything. But, for the most part, any version of “Henrietta woke, relieved that it was only a dream” won’t work. Dreams may be messages to the dreamer, but rarely to anyone else. If you want your novel to delight others, everything must seem new, starting with the plot and ending with the details capturing it. Cliches like waking from a bad dream? That is a bad dream. 

~ Grounding

Dreams let us fly out windows, land in foreign countries without deplaning, simultaneously chat with former lovers and elementary school teachers. If there’s anything fun about dreams, that’s probably it. But readers demand a fictional dream that, however invisibly, explains arrivals, departures, changes of location, and everything else that makes any world outside a dream clear, logical, sensible, and compelling. 

~ Credibility

In your nightmare, your patient and adoring Mama turns on you for no reason, viciously humiliating you in front of every teacher you encountered in your entire life. No wonder you can’t wait to wake up! But the point is that fiction, unlike dream, requires motive and causality. It’s logically true to itself. Anything else shatters the fictional dream that Gardner describes.

~ Pace

Often when we narrate our dreams (or are forced to hear someone else’s), events and details emerge with agonizing slowness. Trivia receives meticulous tedium, while grounding rarely arrives at all. In contrast, novels need momentum and context. Without those, readers doze off, blissfully escaping to the other kind of dream.

Tip: Dreaming is the first step for many writers. But it shouldn’t be the last.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Bridge It


San Francisco weather often hides part of the Golden Gate Bridge. Without the mid-portion, it resembles two ends of a structure—with only heavy mist in between. Omit the transitions in fiction, and readers might feel as if only mist joins one sentence to the next. With an important exception. California fog can seem mysterious and romantic, whereas two disconnected ideas or sentences or paragraphs are anything but.

How often do fiction readers need a bridge? Every time they sense a shift, and that’s in the reader’s mind—not the writer’s. Shifts include focus, time, space, speaker, mood, emotion, scene, or verb tense. And lack of connection isn’t among the surprises readers enjoy.

Tip: What seems linked to the writer doesn’t always seem linked to the reader.

Because most writers live with their story world until every relationship seems obvious. So those crucial transitions joining one observation or moment to the next often go missing. 

Here’s an example: 
Leaning back with a sigh, Abby surveyed everything she loved about the living room: white carpet versus drapes in a slightly different ivory tint, Danish modern furniture, hand-blown glass artfully catching the light in various corners.     Though her husband had only black socks, they always looked mismatched.
Whoops. How did we get from interior design to hubby Bill’s habits? For the writer, this might seem crystal-clear. The character muses on order and taste and how differing hues complement each other, unlike her husband’s mismated footwear. Abby might resent his slovenliness contrasting with her taste, which she clearly admires. Perhaps she wonders why she likes snow-white with ivory, but not brand-new black with three-years-old black. 

And, in fact, developing any of those would clarify why the passage abruptly shifted from decor to laundry. The crucial component you accidentally omit from the page perplexes readers. Huh?

Remedies exist:

~ Notice, even if you don’t want to fix this until later.

Consider capitalizing markers like LETTING HER MIND WANDER, or LATER THAT EVENING.  This reminds that you need to improve this temporary transition.

~ Collect transitions in your daily world.

Store effective links from what you read, hear, and see. This becomes part of noticing.

~ Identify the connections you thought of but never included.

This smooths the way while adding causality and suspense.


Let readers view the entire bridge—without something missing in the middle.

Monday, July 31, 2017

The Allure of the Lure

What about these openings?

“When the blind man arrived in the city, he claimed that he had travelled across a desert of living sand.” —Kevin Brockmeier, A Brief History of the Dead 

“Ships at a distance have every man’s wish on board.” —Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God

“It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York.” —Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar

“You better not never tell nobody but God.” —Alice Walker, The Color Purple

In every case, don’t you want to read on? Don’t you feel you can’t help it, even though you ought to walk the dog, empty the dishwasher, pack the lunches, turn out the light?

Tip: Start every scene—especially the first one—by enticing your reader. Irresistibly.

Because, as Paula Berinstein puts it, “We all know that if we don’t capture reader attention within a few seconds, we might as well kiss the sale of our work goodbye.”

K.M. Weiland adds: 

Readers are like fish. Smart fish. Fish who know authors are out to get them, reel them in, and capture them for the rest of their seagoing lives. But, like any self-respecting fish, readers aren’t caught easily. They aren’t about to surrender themselves to the lure of your story unless you’ve presented them with an irresistible hook.

Hooked on hooks yourself now? These tricks might work more often than not:

~ Check to see if your hook is already there—just not in the opening sentence. 

~ Emphasize what drives the scene. 

How will it intensify the obstacles from the previous one? What must the protagonist learn? What additional pressure will the antagonist exert? What single sentence propels the protagonist into the next difficulty or exacerbation of a previous one?

~ Value high stakes over context, which you can easily fill in after you’ve grabbed attention.

How can you crystallize huge tension right now? Can you provide enough grounding with a prepositional phrase or two?

~ Write vigorously. 

This means connotative nouns, active metaphorical verbs, and minimal modifiers.

~ Watch your sentence structure.

Don’t overdo any one technique. But compound sentences rarely coalesce the most energy. Strive for either short sentences or highly rhythmic long ones.

~ Use the ending of the scene to launch the subsequent one.

It’s often helpful to have that in mind before you even begin writing a scene. How will this one cause whatever’s next?


Like so many things about fiction writing, developing hooks is a skill that anyone can master, simply through lots and lots of practice. No magic involved. Doesn’t that challenge hook you?