What’s missing from your story?

Spoilers in here for Gone Girl, The Meaning of Everything and The Circle. 

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The most riveting aspect of some stories is what’s not there.

What would happen if, on the first page of a murder mystery, the author exposed the murderer, how the victim was abducted, tortured and then brutally killed?

Gone would be the experience for the audience to ponder the suspects, to learn inch-by-agonizing inch where the murderer did it, how they did it, and how they tried to get away with it. In other words, there wouldn’t be a mystery at all.

What keeps us reading is the missing information — the things we don’t know. Some things are hinted at but not spelled out, other things just seem odd. Little clues are planted by the writer to keep us guessing, pondering, thinking.

When we’re thinking, we’re engaged and keep turning pages. That’s why murder mysteries are so popular: our brains go click, click, click as we try to figure out who is guilty.

But missing information isn’t just for murder mysteries. All genres, including non-fiction, can benefit from keeping secrets from the audience. In The Meaning of Everything: The Story of the Oxford English Dictionary, the key contributor of entries politely turns down invitations from the editor to attend events or meet, yet submits volume after volume of beautiful work. Eventually the editor goes to this contributor’s address to thank him in person. At the address is an insane asylum.

Missing information is the striptease of storytelling. It creates tension and surprise. It turns the story in a new direction, or reveals the reason for odd behaviour.

In Gone Girl, Amy has gone missing. Her husband, Nick, tells us that he’s lying to the police, but doesn’t tell us what he is lying about. He admits to having a temper, to hating his wife, and never fully says that he’s innocent. Meanwhile, he has a disposable cell phone that keeps ringing. He doesn’t answer. He wants to throw it out. The missing information: he’s having an affair. He looks guilty because he feels guilty.

In some stories, the secret is not something hidden by a character, but the author. Again in Gone Girl, Amy’s journals are a fiction created by the character, but the reader doesn’t know this. She learned of Nick’s affair and is furious enough to doggedly plot and plan her revenge for months. She creates a journal that leaves a trail of clues that show her as the good guy and Nick as an angry, brutal husband. As we continue to read years of faked entries, we grow to like this fictional Amy, even if there are aspects that seem a little too perfect or a tad too cliche. Half way through the book her ruse is revealed and we meet the very sick puppy that Amy is. Someone capable of knifing herself so she bleeds until she’s faint, who plans on killing herself to enact her revenge.

The biggest piece of missing information a storyteller can create (methinks) is to serve us the bad guy as the good guy. When we discover the truth, it turns our world upside down. We’re forced to revisit all that has come before, click, click, click. It’s a trend I’ve noticed in a few novels of late.

In The Circle, for example, Mae is established as the protagonist, hired by a Google-like conglomerate in a low-level job. At first she struggles in her new role. But as the story progresses and she buys into the company’s mantra to the point of turning in friends, we realize that perhaps she isn’t the one we should be rooting for.

Turning your protagonist into the antagonist is a ginormous leap to take. You don’t need to go that far unless you have a good reason.

What skeletons are rattling in the closet?

Other opportunities for missing information lie in the shameful fact a character wants to keep hidden, until…. The person your character doesn’t want to face because…  An unsavoury ambition, such as Amy’s goal of seeing her husband fry… A secret from long ago never shared, such as a child who was given away… A vice they’re trying to hide, such as drugs, smoking or pornography. That uncle who drinks too much and then gets in his truck as everyone in the family looks the other way. The death (or other event) that didn’t happen exactly as now told. An object with a significance never shared. Something that didn’t happen, but was very much wanted, such as the pregnancy in, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolfe?

Look for it in positive emotions as well as bad ones. A character can be hoping for something to happen in the future, such as someone to return from the past. Do remember that a key theme of many fairy tales: Be careful what you wish for.

Your job as writer is to slowly peel away the secrets, layer by layer. To give your audience a striptease that makes them wonder what’s next, what’s real, what’s not? To yearn for more. To make them think.

The question to ask yourself: How far will my character go until they are forced to reveal their secret? Then, take the character to that place, because that’s the writer’s job.

To begin at the beginning…

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It seems to make sense doesn’t it? You begin your story at the beginning.

Well… maybe not.

You see, those first lines are extremely important. The beginning is the doorway into the world of your story. It sets a tone, introduces the setting, characters, the flavour of the story.

So, consider this metaphor: When building a house, the door is the last architectural component put in place.

So it should be with a story.

Your first line should entice. The first 3 paragraphs are like the foyer. It’s like you’re the cinematographer of a film and you need to guide the audience’s emotional attention. Do you need a panorama, an intimate moment, or something shocking?

In speaking about a novel’s introduction, Stephen King said, “An opening line should… say: Listen. Come in here.”

door3Reading is an experience. The purpose of the first few sentences is to immerse readers in that experience. Hurl them into the cold depths of the lake. Open a door to reveal a wondrous fairyland. Whisper in their ear, so intimate and seductive. Writing is a seduction.

To do this well, ask yourself: What is the essence of the lake or land of my story? Then, distill your opening into an elegant whiskey or wine, immersive and striking, irresistible.

What you’re trying to avoid

A typical problem of many first novels, is an opening made of writing warm ups. That is, back story, setting description, or banal day-to-day details with the main character doing things like brushing their teeth. It’s like opening the door to your guests wearing sweat pants.

Back story, description or details about things such as cooking dinner are not the makings of story; they are the writer’s homework. There things you as writer need to know — the intimate details of your character’s lives — but the reader doesn’t.

Details go in only when the reader needs to know because you need to convince them of something. And even then, description, back story, details need to go into the story in a way that adds meaning or depth, interest or intrigue. Anything that feels like a checklist should be remain in government websites or your notes.

A common substantive edit suggested to writers is to cut the first 5-20 pages of a book so it starts where the true action starts. Great writers do this before they give the book to someone to read.

door1Process suggestions

Get an idea for the opening? Throw it in your first chapter document in rough form. Don’t word-smith it, copy edit or try to create poetry. Get another idea? Add it in, too! The more the merrier.

Follow Anne Lammott‘s advice and write a “sh*tty first draft.” Heck, keep your first chapter crappy well into your second or third draft.

As you develop your story, things will shift and hopefully, the layers of relationships, the uniqueness of the characters, will deepen. So when it comes time to hang the door, you can better understand what kind of doorway your story needs.

To make sure you’ve got the goods, write a few versions and put them in a drawer for a month or two so you forget them. Work on the rest of your book during that time. Then look at them again with fresh eyes.

Finding your opening

Here are a few approaches. If you can think of others, leave a comment below.

  • Start with action > A bomb blows up. Someone walks through the door. A car accident. A man becomes suddenly blind while walking down the street, as if by magic.
  • Ominous > A statement or choice of words that hints that something bad’s going to happen.
  • Apt image or metaphor > What is the primary struggle of the story? Can you find an image or metaphor that begins that exploration? For example, if the central struggle is about breaking free,  show your character trapped in a supermarket line-up.  Or if your story is a voyage and return, force the main character through some kind of passage that allows them to enter that world.
  • Toy with expectations > Have your murdering dictator show kindness to a puppy. Show your innocent heroine lying to cover up a secret she doesn’t tell us.
  • Be provocative > What provocative idea does the situation in your story explore? Begin with a question or statement that provokes interest.

A few novel novel opening lines…

When I think of my wife, I always think of her head.” ― Gillian Flynn, Gone Girl

“Your father picks you up from prison in a stolen Dodge Neon, with an 8-ball of coke in the glove compartment and a hooker named Mandy in the back seat.” ― Dennis Lehane, Until Gwen

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

“The day the freight train hit my father, I was eight years old and in grave contemplation of our maple tree’s crown, shielding my eyes from the sunlight speared there.” ― Kirby Gann, The Barbarian Parade

“Her father would say years later that she had dreamed that part of it, that she had never gone out through the kitchen window at two or three in the morning to visit the birds.” ― Edward P. Jones, The Girl Who Raised Pigeons

“The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.” ― William Gibson, Neuromancer

“It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.” ― George Orwell, 1984

A writer’s spices

Show versus tell in character development

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Do you remember what it was like to look at a page in a book before you could read? Letters were mysterious and powerful squiggles. Adults had the magical ability of interpreting the squiggles into language.

Like any change, when you learn something new you also lose something. You forget what it was like to not know. Once you can find middle C on a piano or tie your shoes, it’s hard to go back.

It’s this tendency to forget what we didn’t know that can get in the way of creating. You write “Uncle Fred has a warm smile” on the page,  but your imagination imbues those words with so much more.

A visual artist works on her skill of stripping away what she thinks she is drawing so she can draw what is actually there. The writer has the same challenge. Nowhere is this clearer than when developing a character based on someone known.

How warm is that smile?

You may write, “Uncle Fred has a warm smile.” You fill that warm smile with your memory, which is a selective beast. What your audience sees is like a movie where several frames are missing.

William Stanley

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If you decide to use Uncle Fred in your story, you need to look at him again, to see his spirit, not your memory of his spirit.

The spirit is revealed through actions — doing. This is where showing versus telling will be your guide…

…how Uncle Fred sweeps into the room touching everyone as he goes, leaning in so close the yummy musk he wears brushes my nostrils. I can hear his warm smile in his voice, it makes me want to lean in for a hug. After making the rounds he swirls into a chair, flicking his jacket flaps back as he sticks out his chest, ready to perform as master of ceremonies. His eyes jump from one person to the next and when the glance touches me it’s a gentle caress. He speaks with a voice that rings deep and yet tender like a Buddhist meditation bell, so resonant and full every person in the room is calmed to silence by it.

I went a little overboard in that paragraph to demonstrate, but the point was to use all the detail types…

  • Visual detail
  • Sensual detail
  • Smell
  • Movement
  • Music
  • Rhythm

These are a writer’s spices. For special scenes, the ones where you want cinematic detail, throw them all in and see how they work. But a fine meal can be ruined by overwhelming flavours. As writer, your job is to create a balanced experience — a balanced meal.

Choosing when to show — and how much — and when to tell is one of the fine lines a writer traverses. But you know what, it’s not really up to you.

Your story will tell you when. If you listen.

Listen well.

Look. Smell. Feel. Move. Sound. Beat.

What they don’t want

In playing a scene, an actor will ask herself, “what do I want?” That is, what does her character want from the other person in this scene?

Do I want this man to be my seducer? My victim? My best pal? What do I want to hear the other people in the scene say and why? Am I looking for flattery or confirmation? What are my goals?

Do I want to get married? Do I want the job? Do I want to see him suffer?

What a character wants helps the actor to determine the tactics they’ll use to get what they want. Are they flirty, firm or fidgety? Forceful, flowery or fretful?

It sounds all very manipulative, doesn’t it? And yes, it is. But come on, you do it, too. Sometimes without realizing it, you’ll be a bit more pouty than you need to be when declaring a case, or a bit more effervescent when faced with someone you fancy.

From a writing/acting perspective, thinking about a character’s wants helps you inject action into the scene. If a character has a goal, they aren’t going to sit there picking at their cuticles waiting for their life to change. They will do something. Actions betray their true desires, words don’t.

But what your characters don’t want can be just as, if not more, important to figuring out long-term motivations. I’d argue that their hopes for the future are bound up more with what they don’t want than what they do want.

Look to your own future. You don’t know what it holds. You can imagine, yes, but you don’t know for sure if the goal you’re striving for will satisfy you. You think you do. But at the same time, one thing you do know is, you don’t want to be…

  • a cubicle worker for the rest of your life
  • drunk every night like your mother
  • alone in the world
  • (insert your own or your character’s fear here)

In some ways, it is as though we head into the future running backwards, terrified of becoming one of those train wrecks we see spinning into the background as we hurl ourselves through time.

Just as in life, your characters are struggling to release themselves from something. So, in trying to figure out what they want from the future, try to consider what they are trying not to be, just as much as what they hope to be.

Stories are the means we use to “get away,” or escape. They are filled with characters trying to release themselves from a fate, a situation, a struggle.

A tragedy is a story where the hero discovers that what she thought she wanted comes at a price higher than she was willing to pay. She may think she wants to be queen, to discover the criminal who killed her father, or that she wants her son to demonstrate his love. She can taste what this satisfaction will be like with absolute certainty. She looks forward to it, fights for it at every turn. Consider, if you will, Macbeth, Oedipus, King Lear.

Modern stories tend to morality tales where the hero always wins. They ‘win’ the throne, put the criminal behind bars, and the son buys her a mansion in the country. It is as though we need the happy ending because of… what?

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Rhythm doesn’t only come from drums.

Ruts. They’re furrows we make and keep following. It’s natural and easy to keep going in the same direction. Trouble is, it’s also boring.

I’m currently reviewing a multi-multi-multi–character screenplay that demonstrates the common rut of consistency. The writer captures the setting quite well, has created some vivid characters. At first, it’s an interesting story with some lovely touches audiences will love. But then scene after scene follows the same formula: two people come into a room sit down and talk.

This is typical of first or second drafts, when you’re just roughing out the story. The focus is on just getting the story down.

You have the story down so it feels complete. But it isn’t a piece of art yet. Any story at this point is like a wood sculpture that’s been roughed out by an axe. Sure, it has a shape, but little nuance, dimension or detail.

In finding the furrows you follow, there lies an opportunity to vary the experience for your audience.

Slow down/speed up/slow down…

If your story is fast-paced, find a place to give your readers a deep breath. If your story has a leisurely pace, find somewhere to get their heart racing.

Go through your scenes and find the patterns. What are the characters physically doing?

Now, think about of the flow of scenes from your audience’s perspective. Ask yourself: When will my audience start become comfortable with the pace? 

Just before that comfort zone, that’s where you want to change things up. Yes, just before that. That’s how you keep your audience guessing.

If you need to up the pace, rather than having characters sitting down get them walking down the street? One is walking faster than the other. The other person is running to catch up, desperately wanting something from the other.

Or, to slow down, place your character in a reflective atmosphere. They stop by a river, they lie on their bed, they sit in a church pew or a coffee shop, they look out the window and breathe.

Taking a breath is a good opportunity for self-reflection. If your story is an action thriller, your main character has probably not been thoughtful. So, here’s the place where you can show what they’re feeling and thinking. They can piece things together and have an epiphany.

You can also poke through your scenes to see where you can use physical action rather than dialogue. If Jenny and Peter are having a power struggle in their relationship, what if rather than having them talk it out, show it physically:

Every time Peter walks into the kitchen, he moves the bowl of fruit. Jenny comes in, sees the bowl of fruit, she moves it. He moves it back. She moves it back. 

The change in pace needs to feel like a natural part of the story. As with any scene, despite the change it still needs to further the plot, develop character and create a sense a place.

Having trouble? In looking for potential scenes to change, look at the dynamics of an individual scene. Ask yourself:

What is going on between the characters? What do they want from each other? Who has the most urgency? Why do they need each other? Why don’t they both just walk off in the other direction?

In answering these questions, you’re looking for their intentions. That is, what they want from each other. By examining these, you’re looking for ways to up the conflict, because that’s what makes a scene pulse.

Conflict happens when two characters want (their intentions) different things. They may want the same thing, but may see different answers.

For example, a principal and the mother of Johnny meet to discuss his recent problem behaviour. The principal thinks Johnny’s bad behaviour is because of too much sugar. His mother thinks the discipline is too severe. They both want the same thing: Johnny to behave. They disagree on how to get there. You, the writer, see this conflict clearly, the characters in the scene do not.

Or, Ted and Tina are planning to get married. But slowly, Ted is realizing their is a problem. It takes him a while to figure it out, but one day, he asks her: Do you want to be married, or do you want to be married to me?

In other words, he realizes that they have a conflict. He wants her to be the love of his life. She wants him to be her ‘husband.’ Anybody could be that husband. He just happens to be there.

I cover the idea of roles in my other blog post, Creating Conflict: Roles and Relationships.

One point: There are no such things as negative intentions. If two characters are in a scene together, they both want something from each other.

Negative intention examples:

  • I want him to crawl up and die
  • I want him to go away
  • I want her to leave me alone

If Fred just wants Tina to go away, why doesn’t he just leave? Walk out the door? Hang up the phone? Something has to be keeping him there. It’s your job as a writer to find out what that reason is and adjust that desire until it makes the scene sing.

Write well…

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A good hard look in the mirror

On occasion, I try to paint. I’m not very good at it, but that doesn’t matter. I don’t have aspirations of becoming some an art-world wonder. Painting is something I do to get away from a computer (because everything we do these days seems to require time in front of a glowing screen).

When I want a new perspective on a painting in-progress I hold it up to the mirror. Seeing the image in reverse is much like seeing a photograph of yourself in that it’s just different enough to point out the flaws.  I can see where the shadows don’t agree with the light source, or how the eyes look more cartoon than sketchy.

Over the years I’ve tried to find an equal to a mirror for writing, but it’s not easy. Laying the pages down on a table one after another doesn’t work. A single-page outline of the story where I highlight the events and plot points always helps as it gives a view of the whole from a distance. But that’s not a true reflection.

A story or a play or a screenplay provide the audience with a journey. On this journey, there are uphill climbs, pratfalls, victorious dances and moments of true solitude. To see all of that in your mind’s eye in one go is impossible when you have your nose pressed up against the pages. Your nose gets stuck on the nitty, gritty.

What does work, however, is a very simple tool that takes great discipline: placing your manuscript in a drawer and leaving it there until you let the story go.

Working on a project is addictive. Moments in the shower or driving become opportunities to consider a character’s thought processes or the flow of a scene. It’s no longer a project, it’s a lifestyle.

That kind of rapture is essential for writing, of course. Like an actor who writes journal entries for the days leading up to a play’s action, it is in that state where insights and nuances are found.

But there are two ruts I find myself falling into:

1. In the scenes I don’t have the patience to figure out, I dash words together until I get something I think kinda works okay and then send it out before it’s ready. Sending it out is all about the dream: Someone will overlook the flaws as charming and declare it a work genius.

2. I dig into the perfection process, going in circles. I write and re-write and revise and revise and go back and start again and again and again.

What I’ve learned is that if you treat my writing like a box of food that can be heated up in a microwave, people see that.

Or, if I keep my nose so tightly in the words, they suck me into their vortex and I never find my way out of their grasp. The relaxed flow of language is also stiffened by over-thinking or over-writing. That characters stop breathing.

It takes great discipline to let go. If you do though, time will work its mirror magic.

When I come back to a manuscript after a month or so break, I find I have a new-found objectivity more clear and insightful than any reviewer could give me. In one section I’ve hit my stride. In another, the pithy words I was so attached to glare like dollar store bling.

The pace and flow of the work becomes more obvious. Am I writing in all one flurry, or are there hills and valleys for the audience to enjoy?

The drawer takes patience and discipline. But isn’t that what the craft of writing is all about?

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A metamorphosis

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The publishing game, like the recording industry, is in evolution. Book publishers are struggling. Many authors with impressive publishing records are finding it hard to place their work. Bookstores are disappearing. According to some, the novel is a dying art form.

Dying or evolving?

I would argue, however, this kind of hyperbole is the easy way out and it does nothing to pinpoint where the real change resides.

Will Self wrote a compelling (and long) piece for the Guardian about the novel’s demise, pointing out that the long narrative form is in an evolutionary stage, not a death rattle. I think he’s got a point. The novel is just one type of long form narrative. Prior to the novel’s prevalence, Dickens was publishing his stories in magazine serials.

In the New Yorker, George Packer wrote a piece, Is Amazon Bad for Books? about how Jeff Bezos used the book industry to gather data and figure out how to sell stuff to intelligent people. In doing so, he removed the publishing gatekeepers from their castles and turned publishing into a two-tiered system. On the one hand, there are the Harry Potter Shades of Grey trends that go from page to movie screen to McDonald’s plastic lunch figurines. Below that there’s a swamp of cheap unknowns. Gradually, the masses are becoming the gatekeepers.

If his version of the trend is correct, we’ll we end up with picture books of cats and dogs.

Cats and dogs

As much as I like cats and dogs, I don’t think I could survive on a steady diet of them.

I bet there are many others who feel the same. More people than ever are curling up with their kindles or kobos or iphones. They’re reading on packed streetcars and planes. They’re drinking too much wine at reading clubs trying to remember explain metaphors. They’re hearing and participating in Canada Reads debates and lapping up Oprah’s recommendations (I’d link to her, but her site is weird and I don’t think she needs the promo 😉 ).

We crave those moments, sitting alone, allowing our imaginations to take wing. Where the stage of imagery is on the screen of our minds, rather than constructed for us. Where stories allow us to explore places and experiences outside the realm of normal day-to-day schedules.

The gatekeeper role is changing places, but it doesn’t mean that, in all cases, they’re lowering their standards.

Less talk, more action

A few initiatives are out there that are helping to figure this conundrum out.

In a new blog on self-publishing, The Guardian makes a very good point: The trouble with many self-published projects is quality. New authors, so proud of the plain act of stringing so many words together, get their work out without much reflection or input. Then they’re defeated when their work doesn’t catch on. Or, writers who do manage to find quality are not so good at promoting their work, and get lost in the deluge.

But how do you get a one-man band to realize they may be very good at playing the harmonica, but may need some help with the bass drum?

Indie Author Land has a competition to find the 50 best self-published books of the past year. They received 5,000 nominations in 2 weeks. (Yikes!).

Should book publishers be morphing into book development midwives? Change the emphasis from putting stories on printed pages and focus on developing the writers? A model similar to that has existed for playwrights in Canada (PDCC). These organizations read early drafts of a playwright’s work, provide feedback and when ready, hold a reading with professional actors. These organizations are government funded, but so are literary presses.

If anyone out there knows of another indie author community, please let me know in the comments. Or do you have something to say on this topic? Go for it.

Responding to criticism

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When words of criticism come, they either have an acid burn or they’re just plain confusing. It hurts. You feel like you’ve done something wrong. It doesn’t help that some people, when giving their feedback, get angry or go into such detail it’s dizzying. 

Before you do anything, take a deep breath and consider this. 

When we read a work, we’re looking to be transported away. When a reviewer isn’t transported away, they look for the reason why.

In going through that process, they are essentially trying to make the work their own. If they find the character Henry not believable, they’ll try to imagine how they would make him believable. If the rhythm of the story is jerky, they’ll try to imagine how they would give it a more natural flow.

But the work isn’t theirs, it’s yours. If you give it away to anyone, you’re letting yourself down. Which is why I strongly suggest you don’t do anything right away. Nothing. Don’t even change the obvious spelling and grammatical errors. Do not touch them. 

I suggest you wait a few days. Try not to even think about the work. Slowly, as you realize you don’t need to be defensive or reactionary, the comments that strike a chord will become obvious. For things you’re unsure of, find a way to explore them rather than apply them.

If a comment regarding plot pings at you, try revising only the story synopsis. This allows you to feel through the plot change before you dig into the meat of your story and begin chopping it. 

For character notes, try writing a dialogue between you and the character about what the critic said. Yes, really; like a little play. Doing so will help you delve into what was said, make some discoveries about your character and  translate them into the larger work.

Your first question for any character that is not believable: What does your character want more than anything in the world? Perhaps you haven’t fine tuned this aspect right. 

And lastly remember, if someone displays anger in their comments, it’s not about you or your script. It’s about them. An angry person may provide useful insights, but you need to separate what’s about them from legitimate comments about your work. 

Writing in Images

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“I don’t see him as evil.”

The writer looked at me in dismay. “But it’s in here,” he said, returning to his pages. “Look here where the character says…”

The project: Television pilot.

The problem: Words, words, words.

It’s so easy to get caught up in the words on the page. Those are our tools, right?

But whether you’re talking film, theatre, fiction or non-fiction, it’s not the words on the page that really count. It’s the story the audience takes away that matters. What they experience. And the most powerful way to tell a story is through images.

You want to make someone in power seem evil? Show them in silhouette or from above looking down. Show them smiling after something bad happens.

You want a couple in love? Show them interrupt a task to touch or kiss each other.

A few examples:

“They skirted the northern rim of the town. No one was abroad at this nearly midnight hour, and nothing was open except a string of desolately brilliant service stations.” In Cold Blood, Truman Capote

With few words, Capote captures something familiar and shows it for what it is. Haven’t we all seen those strip malls, the asphalt swamp of parking lots before them, the lights blaring?

“She is thin, and her polka-dot dress is too large. She is clutching the baby and the suitcase as though she were continuously counting them.” The MisfitsArthur Miller.

Miller gives us both an image of the woman and a wonderful characterization. He doesn’t tell her she is anxious, she shows us.

“I see him, ashen, lost inside his clothes, and always, like me now, with a three-day stubble, moving wraithlike without sound through rooms gaunt with summer’s stillness, a stooped figure flickering trace of his passing save a sort of shimmer, a fold in the air, and a coiling question-mark of cigarette smoke.” Eclipse, John Banville

I love Banville for how he packs images into his writing. In this very long (overly?) sentence, we are shown a very thin man. We aren’t told he’s skinny. He is, “lost inside his clothes,” and that his passing by is evidenced by “a fold in the air.”  We aren’t told he smokes. We are shown “a coiling question-mark of cigarette smoke.”

In his book Stein on Writing, Sol Stein suggests a piece of fiction needs at least one visual on every page. When reviewing a draft he recommends you place a “v” in the margin of every page that has a visual so you can go back and find the pages that are missing a visual.

Readers want to experience writing, not be told about it. They want to make up their own minds, not be told how to interpret. Focusing on images gets you to move from telling to showing.

How much is too much?

As much as I love Banville for his dense use of images, I sometimes wonder if his writing is overworked to the point where style gets in the way of the story. In fact, it becomes the story.

If you’re not writing in images, give it a try. In doing so, you’ll heighten the impact of your writing and find your own balance.

 

Making friends with monsters

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Who likes conflict? It’s so darned uncomfortable. Full of raised voices, tears, harsh words, exasperation, confusion. Who hasn’t tip toed past a door to avoid such nastiness?

Thing is, the very thing we all try to avoid every day is the meat of story telling.

When a writer is struggling with conflict it manifests in the work in one of these ways:

  1. No conflict – high realism style. Characters talk, scenes are described, but nothing happens.
  2. No conflict – perfect-world style. The perfect character jumps from one victory to the next. Readers yawn in disbelief.
  3. Too much conflict – the sky is falling. The sky is falling! Repeatedly. But the falling sky never has an impact on the world in a way that you’d expect.
  4. Too much conflict – it’s not my fault. The main character is a victim who has no responsibility for anything in the story because they never do anything, other than sniffled and moan and whine.

I’m being hyperbolic here, of course, for the purpose of highlighting.

The most common form of this I see in manuscripts is 1) as it masks quite well as “stream of consciousness” writing. But a story without the shaping afforded by conflict is not a story; it’s a bunch of meandering words on a page.

So, how can you make conflict your friend and make your protagonists suffer the way people want them to in stories?

At a story-wide level, start by looking for the monsters under your very own bed.

In Going Sane, Adam Phillips wonders if creating art involves packaging things we find difficult to face in a form that is somehow reassuring. Taking monsters and making them something we can face.

When a writer is successful, stories allow the audience to practice facing conflicts in real life, making them more manageable somehow. Phillips summarizes the famous essayist Charles Lamb on this, which I’ll quote here:

“The sane genius transforms everything that might disturb us, “the wildest dreams,” into something that is familiar and reassuring. It is his artfulness that makes us feel at home; it is the weak writer who makes us feel estranged, or baffled, or lost.”

How can you use this? 

For the story you are writing now ask yourself: What is it about this situation that I am frightened of and need to face?

Poke around in the idea of your story and look for the things that terrify you. Or those things that make you feel shameful. Perhaps you are trying to figure out a past relationship, or to figure out how to handle some aspect of your personality.

Your purpose isn’t to look at the struggle and become its victim. It’s to put on some galoshes and walk through the swamp of terror so you can figure out what facing this challenge means for getting through life. In other words, how can you find your way through the swamp as a hero who grows and changes?

What if your story is a tragedy? Then your tragic hero will put on galoshes, but some fatal flaw will have them make bad decisions with each step. In Woody Allen’s recent movie Blue Jasmine, for example, Jasmine is thrown into the gaping abyss and because she fails to admit she has any responsibility for where she is and what has happened to people around her, she keeps falling and falling and falling. A riveting and terrifying descent.

Once you understand the monster you are struggling with, you have the tools to figure out the plot points of your story. But that’s another post.