Sunday, May 31, 2015

Character and Coincidence

Heraclitus said that “Character is fate”; who you are determines what happens to you. If only it were so! The people who fill collection boxes or steal the bills in them would each get what’s coming to them. They don’t. But your characters should.

Tip: A huge part of fiction is good guys finishing first. And bad guys finishing punished.

Yet it’s tricky to make character drive character. How do you reveal that decisions and actions at least influence fate, if not overtly causing it?

Questions drive actions, and questions can drive character motive and behavior.

~ Does luck play a role in character victory or failure?

Randomness is the state of the world, but people can read newspapers or history books for that. Novel readers enjoy reaching the end and being able to trace exactly what determined that ending.

~ Do you subject your characters to dilemma?

There’s no better way to discover what a woman’s made of than asking her to choose between her art and the woman, man, or child she loves. Her decision says everything about who she is. Don’t baby your characters! Make them suffer.

~ Are your characters ironically consistent and inconsistent?

People settle into certain habits— exercising daily or never; working constantly or studying TV like an art form; hating cats or orchids or letting them take over. Yet smokers suddenly quit. Family suddenly replaces frenzied job commitment. In real life, the motive might seem inexplicable. Don’t let that happen in your novel.

~ Are your characters resolute?

At least on paper, the people we admire desire passionately, risk impulsively, and enjoy or despise intensely. That’s another way of saying that they love life and we love watching them love life. Create characters who put everything on the line. They know they might lose, but they’ll never lose for lack of trying.

~ Are your characters flexible?

Heroes adapt. They don’t just keep doing what they did yesterday and a thousand yesterdays before. They don’t just cross their fingers or wish on stars. They use their brains, muscles, and courage to affect the outcome. And how we love them for that.

The world’s certainly unjust enough, and coincidence isn’t particularly interesting. Readers expect novels to supply the causality and credibility that insures a just ending. Why not show how characters achieve the sadness or triumph they deserve.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Mad about Resolution

Audiences go mad for resolution. Because it’s among the main attributes of story. So audiences get mad when deprived of resolution, or when it happens too fast for either fun or credibility. The finale of Mad Men, justifiable winner of numerous awards, is no exception: we want the resolution we’ve waited for.

Sure, pressure exerts terrible pressure. Enough that someone can change years of selfishness quite rapidly. But the audience has a hard time believing change that happens too quickly or out of sight. Set up is needed. Gradual build-up is needed. Even for as superb a writer as Matthew Weiner.

Because, as Mark Twain put it, “Truth is stranger than fiction, but it is because Fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities; Truth isn’t.” People, whether in fiction or life, tend to go on as they always have. What disrupts the status quo? Screenwriting guru Linda Seger calls these moments “pressure points.” Intervention, divorce, and death leave no one unscathed. Upheaval brings out the best in characters. And fiction has always been about human beings at their worst—and best.

After all, we trace our novelist roots back to moral instruction thinly disguised as plot: Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones is saved by the wise, upstanding, symbolically named woman he adores: Sophia. The hero earns his beloved—and the novel’s resolution—because morality triumphs in the end.

What about character arc and plot resolution in your own ending? Here are a couple tricks.

~ Seeds.
Plant them in the very first chapter. If you protagonist has moral fiber or quiz show potential or a dynamic pas de deux, introduce that early. Then the final resolution doesn’t feel like an unjustified miracle, or deus ex machina (miracle-making machine).

~ Pressure points.
Space them out. Successful novels usually have an arc of character development from flawed to worthy of happiness. Use five or six weighty events to make that happiness seem justified.

~ Clues.
Make them too obvious, and you’ve fizzled all the fun from your book. But make them too arcane or oblique and readers won’t believe or accept the ending. Every novel is a kind of mystery. Treat yours accordingly.

~ Memories.
Recollection often saves us. We revisit fleeting images from childhood, recall small victories or big leaps into forgiveness or discovery. Changing our thinking about the pattern helps change the pattern. But the key word here is “fleeting.” You don’t need a whole flashback—just a moment, maybe just part of one sentence. Anything longer is usually a waste of the reader’s precious time.

~ Doors.
Leave them open. Dickens is a great, great writer. But it’s too late to imitate him.

Tip: Set up the ending right from the start, so readers can enjoy a credible, causal climax.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

A Tale of Two Questions

You can reduce many questions about writing your novel to just two:

1.      Do readers want to experience this as a live-time scene?
2.      Do readers want these contextual details, and if so, earlier, now, or later?

Tip: Question what your readers want, and when. It won’t make you clairvoyant. It will improve your ability to meet reader needs.

1. Start with scenes.

Novels can’t survive without them. What must they accomplish?

~ Direct access to the characters.
Sol Stein, in Stein on Writing, reminds us that “scene happens in front of the reader, is visible, and therefore filmable.”

~ Lack of resolution.
According to Jack M. Bickham in Scene & Structure, scenes are for characters struggling toward their goals, not for achieving those goals. 

~ Psychological change.
Author and writing coach Jessica Page Morrell says that scenes change characters. Unless there’s enough pressure to force that, maybe it shouldn’t be a scene?

2. Connect your scenes.

Background and context are the glue that sticks scenes together. Readers want who, what, where, when, and why, and neither so early that the information seems cluttered and irrelevant, nor so late that they’re already confused.  It’s all in the strategy.

~ Connect details to what’s happening in the novel right now.
Sometimes you have to delve into the past. Always use that to escalate present-time tension.

~ Disperse gradually.
Info dumps, if they belong anywhere at all, are for textbooks. Respect reader attention span.

~ Keep action prominent.
Sense of place is crucial, but not necessarily as the start to every chapter. A hook pulls in the reader while reminding the writer where the scene is going.

Question the contents of your scenes. Question the details connecting your scenes. The answers help create the illusion that your novel is perfectly paced. Isn’t that worth a question or two?

Sunday, May 10, 2015

The Space Between

At the recent AWP (Association of Writers and Writing programs) conference in Minneapolis, novelists Stacey D’Erasmo and Charles Baxter, and poet Carl Phillips tackled the reader/writer relationship. The panel focused on the reader’s relationship to the text. How much does the individual affect the meaning of what’s on the page? How much should the individual affect the meaning of what’s on the page? Their consensus? A lot. I heartily agree.

But reader participation requires “space.” Not the kind buzzing with unimaginable sub-atomic particles, but an emptiness—because not every dot is filled in—that lets the reader join a “conversation.”

This space resembles openness, or white space on the page, or the silence between the movements in classical music, or the blank parts of a drawing or painting. The individual ear or eye fills that space. Novels work the same way.

The quality of the space depends on the fragile relationship between reader and character, reader and narrator. Not enough narrator, and there’s insufficient context for the reader to react, much less interpret. But too much narrator, and reader interaction becomes impossible.

Tip: The secret to handling empty space in a novel is the balance between character and narrator.


~ Let your narrator offer interminable logistics, or not enough who, what, where and why.
~ Let your narrator draw every conclusion, preventing readers from doing that.
~ Let your narrator withhold so much for so long that readers lose interest.
~ Let your narrator upstage your characters. Readers follow characters.


~ Let your characters rely on subtext. Implication intrigues everyone. That includes readers.
~ Let your characters intimate intimacy. Readers want to contribute their own experience.
~ Let your characters fall silent. This doesn’t mean silence while worrying or yearning and
   reminding readers of that. It means characters acting, so readers can decide what that means.
~ Let your characters steal the show, with readers deciding who deserves a happy ending.

A novel is an opportunity to enter a world so compelling that we leave everything humdrum, improbable, or amoral far behind. Any real world, fictional or otherwise, is composed of clarity and vagueness, of questions answered or only introduced, of people saying what they think while we calculate whether they mean what they say they think.

Give your readers an opportunity to enter a world of conversation and silence, of empty space that readers can fill with questions they never knew they wanted to ask. Give your readers enough space to reflect on those questions.

Sunday, May 3, 2015

Sentence Sense

When you think of it, a novel is just one sentence after another until The End. So every sentence needs lots of attention. But there’s so much to sort through. You know the drill:

  • Be concise.
  • Be parallel.
  • Be rhythmic.
  • Be varied.
Yet these sometimes conflict. Add extra words for rhythm or parallelism—and you’re inefficient. Perhaps you wish that sentences functioned more like math. Aside from a few mysteries like infinity and negative numbers,  2 + 2 will always yield the same satisfying result. What to do if sentences are your tools?

Tip: Accept that rules relating to language usually have exceptions. Context is king.

Neighboring sentences exert tremendous impact. For example, a long sentence might be glorious on its own, but odious if it’s the fourth lengthy one in a row. Despite context and exceptions, some rules apply. Usually.

~ Too much grammar can hurt.
How many characters can credibly say “It is I?”

~ Too little grammar can hurt.
After completing the aerobics session, a tiny waist is assured. Eek.

~ Connect cleverly.
The word “and” suggests that everything is equal and that nothing ever causes anything else and that nothing depends on anything else. And that’s not true.

Reserve “and” for equal items or moments:”She loved her brother and her sister equally.”

When there’s disparity, use words that capture progression or inequality: “She checked her watch, then gulped her coffee.”  Or “Because he loved her beyond anything, he let her pilfer small change without confronting her.”

~ Beware doubling up.
Do you really need to say that “Ann glowered and made a fist”? Writers offer two gestures from habit plus a sneaking suspicion that neither gesture is quite right.

~ Emphasize.
A long sentence in a series of short ones will accomplish that. So will the reverse.

~ Train your ear.

Notice sentences you love—or don’t. What turns you on—or off? What better way to sensitize yourself to the sound of the sentences that compose your novel? Sentences are the engine that transports the plot. Give them the attention they deserve.