Sunday, February 24, 2013

Emotion—the Conduit that Carries Theme

Primates exhibit a huge capacity for emotion. Otherwise, you’d never hear the occasional stories about the primates who aren’t human risking their lives for those not even of their own species. For human primates, though, story remains among the most powerful sources of emotion and therefore empathy.

Story becomes increasingly essential in a world where the internet and media dull our senses: Cataclysm and death become routine in a way they never should. As a species, we dare not lose our capacity to empathize with poverty, suffering, enslavement, and tragedy. To remain human, we must continue to feel the suffering of those who endure what we cannot begin to imagine. At its best, story forces us to imagine that when we’d rather stay numb to. After all, that’s what plot and characterization are for.

The kind of suffering that spawned the French Revolution still exists. Yet that uprising feels remote. How do you bring it close? Make a movie. Reproduce a mother’s willingness to prostitute herself for her child, a bishop’s tenderness toward the thief who stole from him, a man forced to choose between passion for a woman or for freedom. Make the movie from characters who’ve endured for 150 years yet seem relevant right now.

Les Miserables has a lot to do with whatever story you want to tell. The questions it poses are the same ones your story must ask.

·         What does each of your main characters desire more than anything on earth?
·         What opposes each of those desires?
·         What lets each character control fate?
·         What obstructs each character from controlling fate?
·         What links your antagonist to the values of the good guys?
·         What feelings and situations connect your characters to all people regardless of time or place?
·         As the story advances and you pile up problems for the good guys, what humor or beauty or insight keeps the audience anxious yet still believing that morality stands a chance?
·         What truth about human nature leaves your audience with some glimmer of hope when your story ends?

These aren’t easy questions, and many writers confess to me that they write “only to entertain.” Entertainment gets people to movies and originated story in the first place. Entertainment sells films and books. It also sells empathy. You need bushels of insight and energy to create a decent novel. So when there’s so much trouble in the world, why go to all the trouble of writing a novel that doesn’t use its entertainment to teach us a little something about being human?

Tip: We write stories because we’re human. Our best stories remind us what that means.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

The Timeless Story

Shakespeare’s play “Romeo and Juliet” and Verdi’s opera “Rigoletto” were originally set in Italy, around the 16th century. How amazing, then, that you can move either of them four centuries forward, to an iconic location like Las Vegas or New York, and watch the same characters unfold the same story, conveying the same emotions and themes. If the heart of a story is true, it can happen anywhere, any time. It’s eternal.

Baritone Zeljko Lucic admitted that it made no difference to him whether he played Rigoletto as a jester in Mantua or a comedian at a strip club: the character stayed the same. He’s an archetype: a father whose cruelty and vengeance destroys his beloved daughter, just as irrational hatred destroys Romeo and Juliet or Tony and Maria.

How timeless is your story?

Could you move your story to ancient Rome or futuristic Marstopia and reveal identical truths? Wouldn’t it be great if you could?

·         Reduce your story to fundamentals. It doesn’t matter whether the protagonist is a NASA
astronaut or a Greek philosopher. What basic dilemma does she face, and how will the plot
skeleton resolve that? (Incidentally, this is the best approach for a logline, if you’re working on

·         Free your plot from specific conditions or circumstances. If those disappear, so does your plot. So do your characters. Eternal stories come from the human foibles and passions that endure wherever people are.

·         Unearth the changeless conflicts of your story, like love versus duty, or survival versus freedom.  These may not be obvious. But they’re in there. If they’re really not, discover them. Add them. Build your story around them.

Tip: Dig deep to compose a story that isn’t about this group of people, but all people everywhere.

The truths that unite everyone make novels haunting. Isn’t that what you want for yours?

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Flowers and Focus

Madison’s Garden Expo houses hundreds of people, from horticulturists hungry for spring to bemused guys seeking valentine gifts. Attractions range from copper-covered gingko leaf earrings to gigantic black and orange diesel tractors. It’s easy to get lost in the possibilities, especially if it’s your first time in this world.

Even if you’re writing a sequel, it’s still your reader’s first time with these characters at this moment. Because it’s new, they can easily get lost, and it’s your job to help. Maybe they’d like a map?

But unless you’re creating a historical or fantastical world, wandering feels more fun than reading a map. Wouldn’t some sort of guide be more helpful? So you can make your way through this new world?

No matter what point of view you choose, your narrator is a guide. A charming and illuminating one. Your narrator supplies running commentary on the landscape, whether it’s a garden show, space station, or bath in Pompeii just before everything erupts.

·         Don’t let your narrator reveal too much. Good guides let folks discover things on their own.
·         Do have your narrator foreshadow what’s significant.

You can also guide readers through choice and arrangement of details. While this can be trickier, it can be even more satisfying, especially for those who prefer to read more actively than passively.

·         Don’t expect readers to connect all the dots on their own. To visualize your map, they need hints that are neither obvious nor obscure.
·         Do provide clues that feel organic. Accomplishing this in your first draft is quite difficult. Much easier to set up what you’ll need after you’ve written “the end.”

Either way, provide focus rather than expecting readers to navigate without assistance. That separates fiction from reality. Good novels encourage exploration without confusion or overstimulation. Using the details, narrator, or both, supply a map for the world of your novel.

Tip: Provide just enough guidance so readers don’t get lost.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Figure skating and Your Plot

It’s not everyone’s sport. Maybe you’re no fan of glitter, Puccini (which many skaters choose), or a sport reminiscent for many of what they dislike about ballet. Despite all that, as a novelist you might want to at least notice the metaphor.

Take all those lutzes and loops.  Most of us never quite understand the distinction between them, whether skaters execute three turns or four, and if the entrance is difficult or ordinary. (How do the judges arrive at those “magical” numbers, anyway?) It’s like asking a reader, or perhaps even a writer, to differentiate turning points from pressure points. To the observer, the machinery isn’t relevant: only the final effect.

Plot works the same way. The average reader isn’t hunting down the details a writer cleverly inserted in order to exploit later. Readers don’t pause to wonder if that event caused this outcome. And no reader will articulate, “Wait. This is right at the end. Isn’t it supposed to be the most exciting part?”

But just as in figure skating, you needn’t be a judge to notice the painful, disheartening mistakes. So like a skater, you should avoid disappointing your audience. Here’s how.

·         Don’t bite off more than you can chew. If you can’t generate effective transitions, for example, don’t create a scenario requiring an endless succession of them.

·         Don’t stuff the middle with obvious gimmicks. Readers notice attempts to add fluff or distract with irrelevant plots or characters.

·         Don’t fizzle out at the end. You may be exhausted. But if your audience is still there, your book has to be, too.

·         Do plan. You can get through the first draft or wait until after. At some point, though, you’d better notice how everything fits together. If you don’t, someone else will.

Tip: Leave your audience saying, “I don’t know how she does that. But, wow, that was among the best tricks I’ve ever seen.

The cheers will make the whole thing worth it.