Saturday, October 27, 2012

Fiction and Flux

 Novels trace change. Think about that. Fiction begins by making trouble for an appealing protagonist. After that, all but the darkest stories follow that protagonist through a series of changes yielding resolution, if not success, happiness and a pot of gold at rainbow’s end.

No one wants to notice those incremental changes in the protagonist. That would resemble watching the wizard work the machinery behind the curtain in the land of Oz.  Change should evolve mysteriously. Yet every scene must advance the protagonist to the climax.

Tip: Justify each scene by centering it around an incremental change in your protagonist.

This is easier to execute than you might think. Try these techniques.

  • Plan how the scene will affect your protagonist.
  • Revise scenes to incorporate protagonist maturation.
  • Coordinate external events with internal realizations.
  • Let the antagonist induce growth in the protagonist.
  • Use your minor characters to help the protagonist evolve.
  • Mesh the external environment with your protagonist’s arc.
  • Represent many kinds of change, from psychological to moral.
  • Consider how small changes help deliver your theme.
  • Imagine your novel without this particular scene.

This last one is the toughest, but perhaps the most instructive. Don Maass, at a Writer’s Institute at UW-Madison, said that every scene should be so essential to the whole that the entire structure collapses without it. Every scene must contribute. Every scene must capture change. That’s more credible, of course, because nothing in the world stays still. It’s also more engaging, because the protagonist’s growth inspires our own.

Yes, you might lose some scenes and have to revise others. Isn’t it worth it to have a novel that’s realistic, dramatic and haunting because it proceeds—inevitably—to its outcome?

Thursday, October 18, 2012

A Riddle for Writers

What do writers and rivers have in common?

Both choose the path of least resistance, which makes perfect sense. Who wants to fight an uphill battle, go against the current, churn and flail instead of flow? No one, and for rivers, that’s no problem.

Not so for writers. Why? Because rationalizations please writers—not readers. Broadening your point of view for convenience or dumping a pile of backstory because it’s easy isn’t just weak writing. It actually robs you of the chance to solve whatever problem you face with an original, dynamic solution. This is the why the exercises in Don Maass’s “Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook” are supremely effective: They make you probe deep under the surface for the genuine truths, the genuine energy.

You’ll never get that meandering downstream, floating on the current of whatever pops into your mind first. Your story will never reach its full potential unless you find a way to counteract the very human tendency to choose the easy route.

Tip: Constraint breeds creativity.

So here are some approaches to try:

v     Decide what readers need in every sentence of every scene—and supply it.
v     Follow standard rules, like minimal backstory and consistent point of view.
v     Don’t solve writing problems by saying you struggled with this one for too long.
v     Generate ten potential solutions to a writing problem. Choose the last one.
v     Don’t give up on the moment until you love it. Your readers will, too.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Conflict versus Dilemma

The greatest stories—the ones that haunt—present the hero/protagonist with an impossible choice: love versus freedom, honor versus death, duty to country versus protection of loved ones. How is the protagonist supposed to choose between such agonizing options? The point is that one can’t, and the impossible struggle to do so drives the story to its climax with such intensity that readers can barely breathe wondering what happens next.

But whether you call it cynical, realistic, savvy or any combination of those, honor and duty don’t quite compel the way they did in Greek or Shakespearean tragedy. So for the contemporary writer, the problem is escalating plot and characterization to that level of intensity. And no matter what genre you write in, this is a problem. Why? Because you want to keep your readers breathless. You want your characters to seem not ordinary but memorably larger than life. Finally, you want a story that lasts because it touches on the human instincts that remain unchanged across the centuries.

The trick is to uncover the elements of your plot that are universal:

  • Nourishment
  • Safety
  • Love
  • Family
  • Security
  • Duty
  • Religion
  • Freedom
  • Loyalty

More of these exist, of course, but this gives you the idea. 

Then you want to take what might seem like a pedestrian conflict (Will she accept his proposal?) and make it more substantial (Will she accept his proposal even though she loves him but her religion forbids her to marry him?) Raise the stakes not just by cornering your characters, which is a terrific starting point, but cornering them with absolutely impossible choices. That’s the kind of thing that keeps pages turning and therefore attracts agents.

Tip: Don’t settle for conflict. Make your protagonist transcend dilemma.

Friday, October 5, 2012

There IS a hurry

Whatever your age, “Take it easy, there’s plenty of time” is a wonderful motto—except if you’re writing a novel.

Readers love efficiency:

  • Details that simultaneously build scene and setting
  • Foreshadowing that hints outcome while revealing character
  • Minor characters that echo the protagonist’s dilemma
  • Description that advances dialogue while adding symbolism

Readers also love efficient sentences:

  • Crisp diction
  • Smooth syntax
  • Parallelism
  • Structure echoing content

In 1657, philosopher Blaisé Pascal quipped, “I have only made this letter longer because I have not had the time to make it shorter.” That’s still true. It takes longer to find double-duty details (although you’ll get better at it) and longer to write a concise, elegant sentence (although you’ll get better at this faster still).

No matter how long it takes, novels flow only when every moment, every description and every single word advances the story you want to share: moment to moment and sentence to sentence.

Tip: Whatever fails to add literally subtracts.