Sunday, September 27, 2015

Dialogue: Animosity or Virtuosity

Consider Nancy and Kevin. This brother and sister mostly got along, though it’s years since they’ve been close: marriage, kids, careers—they drifted. But neither Kevin nor Nancy predicted that dad’s death would endanger their relationship.

Unless you’re related to Nancy and Kevin, why would you care? Because the demise of Kevin and Nancy illustrates how dialogue works. Or doesn’t.

Kevin’s fury might launch a scene. After all, he maintained Dad’s hardware store, plus keeping his lawn mowed, snow blowed, and roof repaired. Nor was Kevin’s schedule exactly overflowing with spare time for someone else’s life.

“Your life? What about mine?” Nancy wants to know when she adds her lines to the script.  Hardly her fault that Kevin took years getting Dad’s house in shape to sell. Especially since her husband graciously took Dad into their home. Of course Dad didn’t intentionally torment every member of Nancy’s family (even Rover). But his dementia irritated, exhausted, and freaked them all. Every day. For years.

Who’s right? Nancy. And Kevin. Life has enough actual bad guys. Fiction shouldn’t. Readers must believe both stories. That promotes dilemma—the most genuine source of tension. Make dilemma drive the script characters play out when they interact.

Tip: Good dialogue comes from a forceful, credible, well- justified script for each character.

You get there not by replicating reality, but simulating it.

~ Brevity.

In the real world, Kevin and Nancy might shriek, accuse, and bellow. Or bicker twenty-nine separate times over a four-month period.  That won’t propel fiction.  Their conversations need to be short, snappy, and subtle. And two or three times beats twenty-nine.

~ Subtext.

Kevin might actually scream, “If you can’t understand what this cost me, I never want to speak to you again!” Makes sense. A bit tepid, though. Why read on, when we can predict what’s next. Besides, wouldn’t it be more fun (not to mention more accurate) to wonder if Kevin’s rage disguises hurt? There’s greater ambivalence in “I can’t believe you’d say that,” or “I don’t even recognize you.” Cliché, yes, but reflective of complex emotion. That’s how they became cliché.

~ Equality.

In real life, courts determine guilt or innocence. In fiction, everyone’s both. If you despise Nancy or Kevin so piercingly that you can’t design two defensible versions of the so-called facts, you have no business telling their story.

Want virtuoso characterization and dialogue? Handle animosity not as if it were a heat-seeking missile, but a feeling we all experience at least occasionally. Emotion is intricately complex: rage mixed with pain, greed laced with regret, righteousness tempered by anxiety about never speaking to your sibling again. Make sure all your characters can justify themselves. Because each person both believes his or her story—and doesn’t. Unless dialogue reflects that, it won’t infuse the depth, intricacy, and credibility your story deserves. Because your readers do.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Types: Stereotype, Archetype, Trope

Archetypes, stereotypes, and tropes are about equally elusive and significant. Does it matter if you’re sure which you use?  Classification’s unimportant. What matters? Lay a foundation with archetype; use trope to speed pace; avoid stereotype whenever possible.

~ Stereotype.

The etymology says it all. The word comes from the mold that made identical copies of the original. In life or the novel, stereotypes feel clichéd—uninspired. Worse still, generalizations about ethnicity, religion, size, education, hair color and so on ignore individuality. Stereotypes are misleading and harmful. How useful can they be in fiction?

Stereotypes are contrived writing solutions, while archetypes are the platform that tradition offers.

~ Archetype.

The archetype is the original mold used for the stereotypes that follow it. According to Carl Jung, roles like the Hero originate in the “collective unconscious.” We’re all in it together. (For more on this, check “The 12 Common Archetypes,” by Carl Golden.)

In The Writer’s Journey, Christopher Vogler analyzes archetypes as a source of plot from inciting incident to climax. Archetype underlies the classic plot: coming of age, abuse of power, love changing identity and history. Yet without your own original twist, the situation and its characters will seem stereotypical.

If the distinction between archetype and stereotypes is a bit fluid, trope is even more so, because it’s used in several different ways.

~ Trope

It can be a symbol (a rose equals love), a genre convention (“once upon a time”), a shortcut conveying plot or character (a stranger came to town), or an over-used device (the bossy, bespectacled librarian). Tropes range from very, very useful and efficient to very, very the opposite. While archetypes are universal, tropes often refer to a particular genre, like YA, Horror, Cozy, Western.

What does all this boil down to?

Tip: Tradition can both bring forth the richness of allusion—or the poverty of cliché.

How to know the difference? The easy answer is to solicit feedback. A wise, objective reader will let you know if you’ve united the benefits of both convention and innovation.

The harder answer lies in the details. Obviously, the over-familiar is tedious, manipulative, or facile. The “novel” part of the novel demands “something new under the sun.” Build on the conventional: archetype, trope, allusion.  Add to that dimensionality, mutability, individuality, and universality. You’ll have something good—maybe even great.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Can “ugly” emotions be good?

If even Jimmy Carter admits that “I’ve committed adultery in my heart many times,” how can the rest of us escape not only lust, but wrath, greed, sloth, pride, envy, and gluttony? Regardless of how you view traditional religion, you likely disapprove of them all. Add a bit of psychology, and the list lengthens: manipulation, sadism, passive aggression, lack of empathy. Who wants to be like that? Or know someone like that? Far fewer people than the number who’d love to read about it.

Tip: Ugly emotions keep readers turning pages.

Aside from the popularity of true crime, thrillers, and mystery, everyone enjoys a good bad guy. And most of us equally enjoy a good guy who’s at least a little bad. These characters mirror the sins in our hearts, and because we recognize ourselves in that mirror, the novel’s bad guys inspire us to improve, while the good guys reassure us that nobody’s perfect. Not even in fiction.

Take betrayal. Its underpinning is a smug self-righteousness. How could you do that to me when I was so generous/thoughtful/compassionate/supportive? Like anything about fiction that’s taken too far, betrayal can build such an unpalatable character that readers simply close the book.

Yet in healthy doses, betrayal can drive a novel fast and far enough to become a classic. Javert kills himself because Jean Valjean betrays the officer’s belief in absolute justice. Madame Bovary feels betrayed by the life that first her husband, then her lover promised. Gatsby betrays his moral center for the fool’s gold glitter of Daisy; vengeance drives Ahab to betray his crew’s trust in their captain. In The Art of Fielding, the sport that Henry loves betrays him: when the ball he wields so well injures his friend. Henry, in turn, betrays his skill—by resolutely and suddenly losing it.

Dark thoughts—like betrayal—fertilize both dilemma and causality.

 ~ Causality.

 In the best novels, every event except the last arises from the one preceding and spawns the one following. Pride goeth both before a fall and the next scene; the proud character will make mistakes, possibly horrifying, and definitely instigating whatever happens next.

 ~ Dilemma.

Most of us hope to bury or at least hide our dark thoughts. We know that greed is offensive, that envy is never classy, and so on. We struggle forward. But when a character’s dark thoughts clash with the sense of right and wrong—that’s an immovable object meeting an irresistible force. In other words, it’s fiction.

This doesn’t mean that your protagonist must act on every unpalatable thought. You could leave that to the antagonist. Or not. But while complicating the protagonist with some stifled but evil impulses, don’t neglect to complicate the antagonist. As Robert McKee observed, a worthy antagonist shapes a worthy protagonist.

Worth has much to do with credibility. Do we believe in the protagonist? That external forces pressure her into earning the ending? Credibility also demands exposing the secrets most humans vault away. This exposure is both credible and intriguing. We want to know what’s in the protagonist’s vault just as intensely as we want no one to guess what’s in our own.

Sunday, September 6, 2015

Healing Wounds

My dad’s favorite saying was “Time wounds all heels.” But he wasn’t a fiction writer. Fiction writers know that the quip reflects wishful thinking more than reality. Worse, it disregards fiction’s essence: How do the good guys go from hurt to healing, from dragged down by the past to buoyed up by what it can teach? How do characters get from haunted to heroic?

Whether romance or western, literary or mystery, the heart of every novel is the journey from everything that crisis entails to everything that a cathartic climax entails. The protagonist suffers and, through that pain, achieves insight and some relief. So do the readers.

This healing process very closely resembles recovery from a physical wound.

~ The gash.
It might be a cut, bite, or burn. The pain, from bloodshed or betrayal, is fierce and immediate—like someone setting you on fire. You know from the start that this scar will be permanent. You might not be in danger of bleeding to death. You are in danger of wanting to.

~ The rage.
The second act is often fury. How could I, or him, or her, or something be so stupid and inappropriate, and directly in my way, or unwilling to provide what I want/need/deserve? In life, many of us love to blame. But isn’t fiction bigger than that? When the protagonist finally relinquishes rage for serenity, that’s part of the ending’s pleasure.

~ The hurt.
It happened so long ago. How can it still feel as raw as if it the stab is three hours old? The bruise throbbing, the scar forming, the sore abating—all can feel worse than that first thrust. The brevity of the injury is nothing contrasted with the time needed to let go.

~ The healing.
It’s your job to offer a plot that forces your protagonist to heal emotional wounds, so readers can go along for that ride. Objectivity promotes healing: Readers get to see who really did what, and why. Readers also watch characters bid blame farewell. You didn’t mean to stick your arm over the flame anymore than the flame intended to attack you. Forgiveness is where healing happens.

Novels provide diverse things: excitement, glorious language, fantasy fulfillment, psychological insight, and—catharsis. The story’s climax is the cathartic moment when whatever past event or syndrome daunted or wounded or stymied becomes part of the past. Where it belongs. When fiction works as it’s supposed to, readers heal right along with the characters.

Perhaps fiction’s greatest gift is that we watch characters struggle, fail, and experience the gamut of emotions while we sit safe on a lawn chair or couch. All we have to do is turn pages. We risk nothing. Yet we stand to gain everything. Because of catharsis.

Tip: The lessons characters learn from pain are the lessons readers hope to learn effortlessly.

Make your characters suffer. Let them act out, being childish or tempestuous or febrile. But then let them learn forgiveness, forbearance, and, yes, some kind of faith. Because that’s how those writing about them learn. And, more importantly, those reading about them, too.