Archive | January, 2017

How to Give the Ending Away Without the Reader Knowing

31 Jan
Shannon Perri's story "The Resurrection Act" was published in Joyland.

Shannon Perri’s story “The Resurrection Act” was published in Joyland.

The best endings feel both surprising and inevitable at the same time, but in early drafts of stories, we tend to focus on one or the other: surprising or inevitable. We throw in a crazy twist, shocking readers but making them feel as if we were holding something back. Or, we set things too clearly and neatly so that the ending feels like a letdown. We need to do both, which requires showing readers the elements of the twist or final drama without them knowing recognizing what they’re seeing.

This is what Shannon Perri does in her story, “The Resurrection Act.” It was published at Joyland, where you can read it now.

How the Story Works

The story is about a locksmith who performs as an amateur magician at night. As the story begins, the first thing we’re shown are keys:

Earl set the keys to the ash-colored minivan on the motel room’s nightstand. He moved the keys to the desk made of fiberboard, and then proceeded to place them on the dresser near the door, with a prominent jingle.

It’s a weird detail to focus on right away, but we see him focusing on other small objects not long after:

He’d never performed for more than fifteen people, and he was told this audience could be upwards of a hundred. Clipped to his lapel, he felt the weight of his gold American Magician Association pin. A glossy picture of his wife in a red sweater from when they first met hid in his pocket, along with a lock pick.

We eventually learn that the trick he will perform for this unusually large crowd is an escape act. He will be handcuffed and buried alive in a coffin. Naturally, the story returns to the pick:

He slipped his fingers into his pocket and felt around for the lock pick. His fingers frantically searched around the waxy photograph of his wife, which felt strangely sticky, but the lock pick wasn’t there.

We’re shown the pick again, but I won’t tell you how because it would ruin the story and the ending. Their exact whereabouts is pretty dramatic. I also didn’t see it coming (but I also had no idea what would happen in The Sixth Sense). But even if I was blindsided, I was able to go back and see where I’ should have seen it coming. We literally see the lock pick before it’s important. And we know that he’s a locksmith. And the beginning starts with keys and his concern in where they’re placed. The keys are thematic, which is useful, setting the stage for what is to come. That thematic move works because it’s tied so closely to character and an impulse we all understand very well: not wanting to misplace our keys. Through practical strategies, Perri sets up a killer ending.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s lay the groundwork for a great ending, using “The Resurrection Act” by Shannon Perri as a model:

  1. Know your ending. This exercise works best if you know where your story is going. For some writers, that’s easy. They know right away. Other writers don’t know the ending until they write it at the very end of the final draft. If you’re the latter, go walk your dog or rake some leave. (I live in Texas, and we rake leaves in January.) But if you have some sense for where the story is headed, write it down. Be clear. What particular items are involved in the ending? Anton Chekhov wrote that a gun on the wall in the first act must go off by the third. This applies to all explosive elements in endings. What proves to be important?
  2. Show readers that element early on. Be practical about it. If it’s present at the end, it’s probably present earlier. Let us readers see it—sitting on a table or in a pocket. Show it in the most benign way, just something that’s present because it’s required.
  3. Connect an emotion to that element. Now, you’re hinting to the reader why the detail is important. Earl obviously cares a great deal about the lock. One, he’s a locksmith. Two, he can feel it in his pocket. Notice how both of these elements create an emotional attachment to the object. It’s part of his professional gear, and his mind is drawn to it, even when it’s thinking about other things. How can you show both a professional or practical need for your object and a kind of obsession with it?
  4. Hint at it thematically. Earl doesn’t use keys to open his cuffs, but keys serve as a pretty clear metaphor. What objects might your character be attracted to because they serve a similar purpose (literally or in the character’s mind) as the object you’ve chosen? Force your character to interact with that object.

The goal is to set up an ending by showing readers objects that are part of it before they’re relevant. You can do this both practically and thematically.

Good luck.

An Interview with Rajia Hassib

27 Jan

By Selin Gökcesu

Rajia Hassib was born and raised in Alexandria, Egypt, and moved to the U.S. at age twenty-three. She earned a degree in architecture from the University of Alexandria and a second bachelor’s and a master’s in English from Marshall University, where she went on to teach creative writing and postcolonial literature. She lives in Charleston, WV, with her husband and two children. In the Language of Miracles is her first novel.

Rajia Hassib was born in Alexandria, Egypt, and is the author of the novel In the Language of Miracles.

In the Language of Miracles by Rajia Hassib is the story of the Al-Mehshawys, a Muslim family from Egypt. Nagla and Samir immigrate to New York in 1985, with their infant son Hosaaam, and Samir finds success as a physician in the suburbs of New Jersey, where the family has two more children, Khaled and Fatima. When Hosaam murders his girlfriend, Natalie, and takes his own life, the family members become outcasts in their community. In the Language of Miracles is a novel about individuals dealing with loss, grief, and shame in the aftermath of violence.

Selin Gökcesu

I read in previous interviews that you were moved by the events surrounding 9/11 in designing the plot and having the novel unfold around an act of violence. But, the act of violence in the book is very specific, and in some ways, very stereotypical: a young man kills his girlfriend and commits suicide. Can you tell us more about this choice, about its relationship to political violence at a larger scale, and its personal impact on the characters?

Rajia Hassib

While the aftermath of 9/11 was, indeed, the main reason I built the plot around an act of violence, I was never interested in a direct exploration of the political aspects of that particular terrorist attack. Instead, I wanted to explore how this one event shaped the lives of so many who were neither involved in it nor in any way responsible for it. As a Muslim living in the United States since before 9/11, I saw firsthand how this terrorist attack rattled the entire Muslim community in so many ways, and I wanted to investigate this on its most basic, human level.

To read the rest of this interview, visit Books Are Not a Luxury.

First published at Books Are Not a Luxury, January 2017

 

How to Set Up and Break a Routine

24 Jan
In the Language of Miracles is Rajia Hassib's first novel. You can read two great essays about being an American Muslim in response to the novel at Books Are Not a Luxury.

In the Language of Miracles is Rajia Hassib’s first novel. You can read two great essays about being an American Muslim, written in response to the novel at Books Are Not a Luxury.

If you have writer’s block and can’t break out, there’s one trick that is almost guaranteed to help. You probably know what it is: set up a routine for a character and then break it. Story will inevitably follow. Watch: Every day she went out alone to pick flowers, but then one day someone was waiting for her… Or Every day he ate dinner alone at the corner restaurant where no one else ever ate, but then one day it was closed, so he… As writers, first we must learn the basics of how the strategy works: the set up and the twist. Once we’ve developed that piece of our craft, then we can begin to play with it, adding variations. It’s partly true, as one of my high school English teachers used to say, that writers have been telling the same stories over and over since Shakespeare. There are only so many types of stories. The art is in how we make them our own.

Rajia Hassib does exactly that with the strategy for establishing and breaking routines in her novel In the Language of Miracles. You can read the opening pages here.

How the Novel Works

The novel follows the Al-Mehshawys, a Muslim couple who immigrates to the United States from Egypt, establishes a medical practice and home and family, and then watches it all fall apart after their son murders the girl next door. After a prologue, the novel begins by establishing a new routine following the murder:

For almost a year, the Bradstreets and the Al-Menshawys practiced elaborate avoidance tactics, living next door to each other yet hardly crossing paths. Khaled noticed his parents’ change of habits right away: Samir, after years of leaving for work at 8:00 a.m., started heading out a full half-hour earlier just so he would not run into Jim Bradstreet. Coming home, Samir no longer parked his car in the driveway and walked through the front door but squeezed his Avalon into the cluttered garage then slid through the barely open door and walked into the kitchen. Nagla abandoned her wicker armchair on the deck, moving her ashtray to a bench where she sat with her back to the living room wall, looking away from the Bradstreets’ backyard and hidden from their view. Even Cynthia Bradstreet forsook her gardening and the backyard she had practically lived in for years. From his window, Khaled watched as her irises wilted and drooped and her herb garden succumbed to negligence, the tan spikes of dry dill and cilantro eventually covered by snow, which, once it melted, revealed a rectangular bed of lifeless mud where the blooming garden once stood.

The routine in this passage is clear. Both families do everything they can to avoid encountering each other. We see this avoidance three times: through Samir, Nagla, and Cynthia. Each character’s avoidance is tethered to a specific detail, which is where their routines come from. The reason that the families don’t want to talk or see each other isn’t stated, but we know why.

Then, the routine changes:

Then, just short of a year after the deaths, Khaled answered the door one evening and saw Cynthia Bradstreet standing on his parents’ doorstep. One hand still holding the doorknob, Khaled stared at her, forgetting to step aside to let her in.

The change is so simple. They avoid each other, and now one of them is seeking out the others, a change so unexpected that Khaled is shocked and doesn’t know what to do. As readers, we have to keep reading to find out what will happen. The story has kicked into gear, which is the beauty of setting up and breaking a routine.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s create and break a routine, using In the Language of Miracles by Rajia Hassib as a model:

  1. Give your characters a compelling reason to behave a certain way. It’s easy to set up any old routine. At the beginning of this post, I wrote this one: Every day she went out alone to pick flowers, but then one day someone was waiting for her… This is fine and serviceable. It will get the job done. But a better routine is driven by necessity and desire. Hassib’s characters really don’t want to run into their neighbors, for good reason. So they behave accordingly. In your story, what is foremost on your characters’ minds at any given point of the day. Try out different times of day. Find a moment when something seems so large that they feel compelled to behave in a certain way. If it’s a recurring moment, the behavior will probably get repeated, turning it into a routine.
  2. Attach the routine to specific objects. Hassib does this with three different characters. Samir parks his car, Nagla moves her ashtray, and Cynthia abandons her garden. It will be tempting to use certain objects (newspaper, coffee cup, alarm clock), but try to think beyond these items. What else is essential to your character’s day? What objects are present in the moment you wrote about in the first step? Pick one and focus on it. Put it at the center of the routine. Describe the object with specific details, as Hassib does with the cluttered garage, wicker armchair, and dill and cilantro.
  3. Break the routine. Who will do it? Which character will behave contrary to expectation? What single act will signal the break in the routine? Hassib uses Nancy: Instead of avoiding the Al-Menshawys, she knocks on their door.
  4. Figure out why that character has broken the routine. In this case, Nancy wants to tell her neighbors about a memorial that will be held in a few days. In other words, an event has broken the routine (as events tend to do). You can also cause characters to change their behaviors by adding external elements: someone new shows up, or something unexpected is discovered (fortune, disease). The bigger the reason for the routine in the first place, the bigger the reason for break it probably needs to be.   

The goal is to creating story and narrative momentum by establishing and breaking routine. You might not do it in the order listed above. Often, writers know what characters will do but not why. Sometimes they know what drives characters to act but not what they’ll do. Either one is a good place to begin.

Good luck.

An Interview with Steph Post

19 Jan
Steph Post is the author of the novels Lightwood and A Tree Born Crooked.

Steph Post is the author of the novels Lightwood and A Tree Born Crooked.

Steph Post is the author of the novels Lightwood and A Tree Born Crooked. She is a recipient of the Patricia Cornwell Scholarship for creative writing from Davidson College and the Vereen Bell writing award. Her fiction has appeared in the anthology Stephen King’s Contemporary Classics and many other literary outlets. She has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and was a finalist for The Big Moose Prize. She lives in St. Petersburg, Florida.

To read an excerpt from Post’s story Lightwood and an exercise on creating villains, click here.

In this interview, Post discusses how story cannot be separated from point of view, the moral center of her crime novel, and its villain based on a Pentecostal preacher Post knew as a child.

Michael Noll

This is a crime novel, and one of the genres that closely associated with crime is the detective novel, which tends to have a single point of view that follows the detective. This novel, however, is told from many points of view, and I wonder how you found that structure. When did you know that the novel wouldn’t have a character that provided the central gravity of the story?

Steph Post

Lightwood was a novel comprised of many points of view from the very beginning. I write straight through, from first word to last on a first draft and so I switched points of view as a I wrote. When I write, I imagine the novel cinematically as if it were a film or a television show and the multiple point of view structure comes naturally. For me anyway, point of view is everything in story. A scene written from Judah’s point of view is going to be very different from one written in Ramey’s, even if they are in the same room, trying to accomplish the same objective. Point of view gives you insight into a character’s thought process, but also provides a lens for which to view the different characters. Sister Tulah is a different character when viewed from Brother Felton’s eyes as opposed to Jack O’ Lantern’s. I think not having one central character who anchors the point of view in Lightwood is a risk, but I believe the style fleshes the story out in a necessary way.

Michael Noll

Almost everyone in this novel is breaking the law. The characters who push back against the criminals (like Felton) are doing so out of an immediate concern for particular people and not some moral code. As the writer of this world, where do you look to find the moral or ethical center that holds it together? 

Steph Post

Steph Post's crime novel, Lightwood, tells the story of a released convict who, upon his release, must face his powerful family, a vicious Pentecostal con artist, and a biker gang.

Steph Post’s crime novel, Lightwood, tells the story of a released convict who, upon his release, must face his powerful family, a vicious Pentecostal con artist, and a biker gang.

I think the moral center comes in the form of the personal responsibility each character feels and how they act on that sense of responsibility. Most of the characters are thrown into situations that immediately force them to make complicated and, yes, usually unlawful decisions. Some of the characters, like Sister Tulah and Sherwood Cannon, are acting out of deliberate malice and this makes them the obvious villains. Others, like Judah and Ramey, are making choices which come with various degrees of consequence. They are guided by an ethical code that extends to their families and those they care about, even if this hurts outsiders to some degree. And I’ve always felt that Ramey is the moral compass of the novel. While she may not always be following the law, she does have her head more on her shoulders than anyone else.

Michael Noll

You’ve written a great villain—Sister Tulah—a con artist and preacher, and what I found so interesting about her is that her sermons are clearly designed to manipulate her followers, but she also seems to believe them in a way, and we get long descriptions of them. What inspired this character? 

Steph Post

Sister Tulah is loosely based off of a real Pentecostal preacher I knew growing up. While I was not raised Pentecostal, my mother was and so I was aware of and fascinated by Pentacostalism. Most followers of charismatic religions believe in their faith to a degree that may be hard for outsiders to fathom. Sister Tulah, while obviously evil and clearly manipulative, believes in the force behind her religion. She is hypocritical, yes, but she also believes very much in the power she holds and that it comes as a divine right to her. Sister Tulah is so much fun to write because of her extremes and in the sequel—due out next year—I really explore where she comes from and what makes her tick.

Michael Noll

In Chapter 10, you change up your chapter structure and begin with a series of paragraphs that tells us what different characters see when they wake. Was this opening created out of a particular narrative need at that point in the novel? What inspired you to change the structure like that?

Steph Post

The opening of chapter 10 serves to give the reader a moment to breathe—Lightwood is a very fast novel—and also to take stock of where all of the characters are, both physical and mentally. I like the idea of all of the characters waking up on the same day, perhaps even at the same moment, but with very different experiences ahead of them. The characters of Lightwood are so tangled up in one another and I wanted to take a pause to see them all individually. Chapter 10 marks an important turning point in the plot that changes the outcome of the story for all the characters as well, and I wanted to make it clear, especially for Judah Cannon, that his life would no longer be the same after.

January 2017

Michael Noll Michael Noll is the Editor of Read to Write Stories.

How to Ground Your Villains

17 Jan
Steph Post's crime novel, Lightwood, tells the story of a released convict who, upon his release, must face his powerful family, a vicious Pentecostal con artist, and a biker gang.

Steph Post’s crime novel, Lightwood, tells the story of a released convict who, upon his release, must face his powerful family, a vicious Pentecostal con artist, and a biker gang.

My 7-year-old is obsessed with Percy Jackson and the stories of the Greek gods and heroes, which means that I’ve gotten obsessed as well. One thing you quickly learn—or relearn, as the case may be—about these stories is that the villains are often far more memorable than the heroes. I’m willing to bet that almost everyone knows about Medusa and the Minotaur but not the guys who killed them. In both cases, the heroes had their own interesting, compelling backgrounds, but they became memorialized because of the monsters they played. The villains defined the greatness of the heroes. This continues to be true, which is why the best and greatest character in Star Wars was—and continues to be—Darth Vader, not Luke Skywalker.

Lightwood, the new crime novel by Steph Post, continues in the tradition of creating great, memorable villains. You can be introduced to her in the opening pages here.

How the Novel Works

If we use Medusa and the Minotaur as models for villains, we discover a couple of essential qualities that villains possess. First, their very identity is memorable. We all know that Medusa had snakes for hair and that looking at her would turn you to stone. We also all know that the Minotaur was half man, half bull. You cannot overstate the importance of catchy, easily-described characteristics. It’s true of pretty much every great villain, but cool details aren’t enough on their own.

You also need a backstory, even if that backstory isn’t known yet or ever learned. For example, Darth Vader looks cool (check), but we don’t ever learn his complete backstory in the original three films—but we’re given glimpses at it: the fact that he once studied under Obi-Wan Kenobi, that he turned to the Dark Side, and that he’s Luke’s father. The same is true of Medusa and the Minotaur. Medusa started out beautiful but made the mistake of ticking off the wrong god, and her punishment was to be transformed into a monster. The Minotaur was the result of god-induced royal bestiality and then was trained to be a killing machine the way that some people train dogs to fight. These backstories matter because they ground the villain in the world of the story. Without them, you get stories like the ones I used to tell in third grade. Ninjas or aliens were always showing up, no matter the world or story, because they were cool. The problem was that they didn’t make any sense in the stories where they appeared. So, it’s crucial to ground the character in the narrative world.

Post does both of these things with her villain. We’re introduced to Sister Tulah in the first chapter. We find her standing outside her Pentecostal church, staring at the sky and listening to her followers sing as she waits to make her grand entrance:

Sister Tulah took one last look up at the black, gaping vastness overhead and decided that if she was ready, God must be also. She straightened the lace collar on her long, flower print dress and smoothed back her hair, once dishwater blond, but now a sharp steel gray, making sure that it was pinned in all the right places. She rubbed her pudgy, age-spotted hands together and then licked her lips before pursing them tightly together. Without turning to look over her shoulder at the awaiting sliver of light, Sister Tulah replied. “It’s time.”

We don’t yet know that she’s one of the novel’s villains, but I suspect that most readers will sense that she is. Why? Because she’s a tough woman preacher with great descriptive lines (“pudgy, age-spotted hands”) who clearly wields a lot of power. Though we sense that we’ll learn some unsavory things about her, we don’t actually see them yet. Instead, we see her as a part of the world: working class, rough-and-tumble Florida, a place with bars and ex-cons and motorcycles and Pentecostal churches. She becomes an even greater villain because we buy into her existence in the first place.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s ground a villain, using Lightwood by Steph Post as a model:

  1. Give the villain cool details. Go crazy with it. The Greeks gave a woman snakes for hair and a guy a bull head and torso, and those stories have lasted for a few thousand years, so it’s safe to say that subtlety is not necessarily a virtue when it comes to villains. The same goes for more realistic stories. The best character in the TV show The Wire was Omar, the whistling, shotgun-wielding Robin Hood of drug corners in Baltimore. Release your inner third grader. To do so, you might try two different strategies. First, take a normal character and add something weird: snake hair or an unusual weapon or weird habit. Second, start with the wild detail and attach it to a realistic motivation and behavior. Before we learn why Darth Vader wears the cool suit, we see him wanting something simple (to capture the droids and the plans to his weapon) and behaving in understandable ways (getting frustrated in a meeting and choking a guy to death).
  2. Give the character a backstory. In short, how did Medusa, the Minotaur, and Darth Vader become the characters they are? For all three, there was a transformation. They weren’t always evil monsters—or, their evil and monstrosity was not always their dominant feature. What happened to your character and transformed him or her?
  3. Locate that backstory in your fictional world. Think about the character pre-transformation. What was he or she doing before things got wild? Or, find a moment post-transformation when the character is just living life, not being evil—or, at least, not immediately evil. This is the approach used by Post. We don’t yet know Sister Tulah’s backstory, but we see her standing outside her church while her flock sings. It’s a moment portrayed as part of the Florida landscape. How can you make your villain part of your story’s fictional landscape? Which details about the villain are noteworthy or possible only in your particular setting?

The goal is both to create a memorable villain and make readers buy into the villain’s existence.

Good luck.

How to Create a Rhetorical Touchstone

10 Jan
In his essay, "The Rebirth of Black Rage," Mychal Denzel Smith uses Kanye West's statement, "George Bush doesn't care about black people," as a touchstone for discussing black political rhetoric.

In his essay, “The Rebirth of Black Rage,” Mychal Denzel Smith uses Kanye West’s statement, “George Bush doesn’t care about black people,” as a touchstone for discussing black political rhetoric.

When making an argument, it’s useful to be able to hold up something as an example that everyone recognizes and whose nature everyone agrees upon—to be able to call a spade a spade. In our current political moment, this is difficult, often impossible. I’m hardly the first person to point this out. The Internet is full of articles about “post-truth” or “truthiness” or, as one Donald Trump surrogate said, “There’s no such thing as facts.” Facts do exist, of course, and if you doubt it, stick your finger in an electrical socket and your uncertainty will be cleared right up. But it’s certainly the case that our partisanship has made it difficult to agree upon anything, even when their reality is staring us right in the face.

I don’t know how to ultimately solve this problem. But I encountered one possible solution in Mychal Denzel Smith’s new memoir Invisible Man, Got the Whole World Watching: A Young Black Man’s Education. It was an essay on Kanye West, originally published at “The Rebirth of Black Rage” in The Nation, where you can read it now.

How the Essay Works

In the essay, Smith argues that, in his lifetime, black rage had ceased to be an option for politicians (and even for regular people). In its place, at least politically, was electoral politics, in which electability is strategically chosen over anger. For anyone born after, say, 1980, this new political discourse was the only discourse. However, as the essay’s title suggests, Smith wants to show that black rage has returned, challenging electability and, in many ways, presaging the Black Lives Matter movement. To make this argument, Smith must establish both terms in specific, recognizable ways; we need to know black rage and electability politics when we see them.

Smith begins with black rage. He finds a perfect example of it in a speech by Kanye West during a televised fundraiser for the victims of Hurricane Katrina:

Speaking as if he were reading from the teleprompter, his cadence straddling the line between stiff and natural, he looked straight into the camera and said, “George Bush doesn’t care about black people.”

Mychal Denzel Smith's memoir, Invisible Man, Got the Whole World Watching, is being promoted by Books Are Not a Luxury, a project that aims to turn book-buying into social activism. To learn more, click here.

Mychal Denzel Smith’s memoir, Invisible Man, Got the Whole World Watching, is being promoted by Books Are Not a Luxury, a project that aims to turn book-buying into social activism. To learn more, click here.

This moment is well-chosen for a couple of reasons. First, it was a primetime event that received exhaustive news coverage. Everyone saw it or heard about it. Second, West’s statement is clearly made in anger. Third, it came from an unlikely source. West had talked about race before this speech, but he wasn’t known for it, at least not in a broad, public way, not like Cornell West or Jesse Jackson.  The speech by Kanye was important because it made people pay attention. It was something that seemed new.

Once Smith sets up this standard for black rage, he uses it to show how different electability sounds. As a primary example, he discusses President Obama’s Philadelphia speech, the now-famous speech in which then-candidate Obama addressed the inflammatory remarks of Reverend Wright, the preacher at the church the Obama family attended in Chicago. In the speech, Obama specifically addressed black rage and said this:

That anger is not always productive; indeed, all too often it distracts attention from solving real problems; it keeps us from squarely facing our own complicity within the African-American community in our own condition; it prevents the African-American community from forging the alliances it needs to bring about real change.

This excerpt can’t be farther from the Kanye West statement. The phrase “forging the alliances it needs” is pure electability politics. He goes on to give a second example:

When Henry Louis Gates Jr. was arrested in front of his own home, Obama’s response was to call him to the White House garden for a beer summit with the arresting officer, thereby sending the message that racial profiling is, meh, not that big a deal.

At the time, President Obama’s speech in Philadelphia was roundly applauded. In it, he even went out of his way to explain that many poor white people in the Rust Belt and rural places did not feel that they had benefited from racial privilege. And, the beer summit also received positive media attention. Even when President Obama forcefully spoke out against racism and violence against black people, as he did after the murder of Trayvon Martin, he continued to offer olive branches to certain groups of white voters, as when he said, “I think the African-American community is also not naive in understanding that, statistically, somebody like Trayvon Martin was probably statistically more likely to be shot by a peer than he was by somebody else.”

Because Smith juxtaposes these statements and actions with the off-script remarks of Kanye West, he’s able to draw clear distinctions. President Obama was working within one frame of thought (Smith calls it respectability politics), and Kanye West was working under another (Smith calls it black rage).

When your audience can’t agree upon facts, it becomes part of the writer’s job to define the pertinent facts to his or her point so convincingly that they they’re difficult to dispute. (That doesn’t mean that everyone will accept them, of course.) If certain politicians are bent on destroying a common set of basic beliefs, then writers can have a crucial role to play in pushing back and creating standards that people recognize and can refer to in their own discussions and arguments. This is what Smith does in “The Rebirth of Black Rage” and Invisible Man, Got the Whole World Watching: A Young Black Man’s Education.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s define facts and create a rhetorical touchstone, using “The Rebirth of Black Rage” by Mychal Denzel Smith as a model:

  1. Decide what your point is. This goes for fiction as well as nonfiction. In an essay, your point is likely an argument, usually some version of this is how the world works, or this is what exists. You’re pointing to something and telling the reader to take a second, closer look. In fiction, your point is more likely to be connected to experience: this is crazy, this is funny, this is sad, this is sweet, this is big or small or rich or poor. This often applies to character and setting descriptions.
  2. Figure out what is noteworthy about your point. In his essay, Smith nails what is noteworthy in a single word: rage. So, think about your point in terms of adjectives: size, color, normality, intensity.
  3. Choose a touchstone. The original touchstones were pieces of jasper used for testing whether something was gold or not. In writing, a touchstone plays a similar role. You’re looking for something that clarifies or reveals or highlights your point. In comedies, we accept this strategy without thinking; it’s called the “straight man.” In procedural police dramas, there is almost always a good cop and a bad cop. The point of the bad cop is to make the person being interrogated realize what a sweet deal the good cop is offering. In his essay, Smith uses Kanye West’s statement about Bush to the same effect. That statement clearly doesn’t care what people think; it’s simply expressing his anger. When juxtaposed with other statements, it will reveal even the slightest effort at rage-minimization, the least bit of trying to get along. In fiction, we put big characters into tight spaces and outlandish characters into serious situations, neat freaks with slobs, and sweet employees with horrible bosses. So, try to find a character or setting that will highlight whatever you’re trying to show the reader.
  4. Prove that your touchstone is a good one. This is the tricky part. In fiction, we often use descriptions to prove things. If something is small, we show how small it is. Smith uses a slightly different approach. He introduces something we’re all familiar with (Kanye West’s live-TV statement) and then makes an argument that seems so obvious that it’s not even an argument: Kanye West was angry. Because we can all agree upon this point, he’s able to make a claim based on it (the rebirth of black rage) and hold it up against a statement that he believes exemplifies a different approach. The key, then, is finding something that is obvious on its face—to almost everyone. This isn’t easy, as climate scientists will tell you. But it you can find it, you’ll be able to build a complex argument upon it.

The goal is to establish facts for your essay or fiction in order to get readers to buy in to the fundamentals of your argument.

Good luck.

10 Exercises for Creating Characters

3 Jan

Happy new year! To celebrate the arrival of 2017, let’s look back at ten exercises on creating, describing, and developing characters from 2016.

1. Introduce Characters through Misdirection

Kaitlyn Greenidge is the author of We Love You, Charlie Freeman, has been called "auspicious," "complex," and "caustically funny."

Kaitlyn Greenidge is the author of We Love You, Charlie Freeman.

The introduction of one of the most famous characters in literature happens without the reader’s knowledge. In The Great Gatsby, Nick Carraway attends a party at Gatsby’s house but nobody’s seen Gatsby. People are trading rumors (“I’ll bet he killed a man”), and so Nick goes searching—into Gatsby’s mansion, into his library—before finding himself outside again, talking to a guy about the army. Someone asks if he’s having a good time, and Nick says, “I haven’t even seen the host.” That’s when the introduction happens: “I’m Gatsby,” the other man says.

This is an important piece of strategy on Fitzgerald’s part because the reader badly wants to see Gatsby. In a way, he’s the entire point of the novel, as the title indicates. But if Fitzgerald had introduced this great character directly, the reader might have been disappointed. No description would have matched the hype. So Fitzgerald snuck him onto the page.

Kaitlyn Greenidge does something similar in her novel We Love You, Charlie Freeman. The novel is named after a character who is surrounded, early on, by intrigue so substantial that any direct description might disappoint. You can read her approach in this exercise.

2. Describe Characters Without Relying On Mirrors

Kelli Jo Ford is a former Dobie Paisano fellow and recent winner of the Elizabeth George Foundation Emerging Artist Grant.

Kelli Jo Ford is a winner of the Elizabeth George Foundation Emerging Artist Grant.

We’ve all written this type of character description: the character walks past a mirror, stops, and examines the face and person it reveals. It’s a simple strategy that allows the story to tell the reader, “Here is what this person looks like.” The problem is that it’s overused. People really do look in mirrors, of course, and sometimes it’s necessary in fiction. I’m not suggesting that mirrors should never appear in our writing. But they shouldn’t be used as a crutch. There are other ways to describe characters, and some of them can feel so active that we don’t even realize a description has occurred.

An excellent example of an active character description can be found in Kelli Jo Ford’s story, “You Will Miss Me When I Burn.” You can read an exercise based on it here.

3. Add Physical Description to Dialogue

Saslow

Eli Saslow is a Pulitzer-Prize winning journalist for the Washington Post.

A key difference between beginning and experienced writers is the ability to handle the attributions and descriptions within dialogue. As we improve our craft, we work from “he said with glittering eyes” to “he guffawed” to “he said” to “he said, looking hard at her” to, finally, something better. Well-written dialogue uses carefully chosen physical details to push forward or expand the dramatic moment and the reader’s understanding of it.

An excellent example of this skill (and, frankly, an excellent example of pretty much every type of good writing) is “A Survivor’s Life,” Eli Saslow’s article about a 16-year-old girl who survived the mass shooting in Roseburg, Oregon. It was published in The Washington Post. Find an exercise based on it here.

4. Create an Emotional Backdrop for Characters

Hannah Petard's latest novel, Listen to Me, has

Hannah Pittard’s latest novel is Listen to Me.

Most of us have had this experience: we’re upset about something and chew it over in our minds, over and over, becoming dead certain about the rightness of our feelings and thoughts—and then we share them with someone. Suddenly, we understand how wrong and ugly our thoughts have become, perhaps as soon as they leave our mouths or maybe not until the other person puts us in our place. If we’re lucky, our ugly thoughts are about someone or something not present, and we feel relieved: “Whew, I’m glad I said this here instead of out in public.” If we’re not lucky, our ugly thoughts are directed at the person we’re talking to. In that case, our lives are about to get unpleasant. When it happens in fiction though, the drama is about to get interesting.

This is exactly what Hannah Pittard does in her novel, Listen to Me. Find an exercise based on it here.

5. Give Characters a Frame of Reference

Tom Hart

Tom Hart is the author of the graphic memoir Rosalie Lightning.

When people face tragedy, they rely upon the philosophical framework they’ve built their entire lives. You can hear this framework in the stories they tell, the rituals they follow, and the words of wisdom they recall. Our characters should be no different, yet it’s easy to think only in terms of the questions a character must grapple with in the aftermath of something life-changing: where to live, who to be with, how to cope with what they’re feeling. But all of these questions are answered within a frame of reference. Characters, like us, do not invent every feeling and bit of knowledge or instinct from scratch. Instead, they build their experience of the world hand-in-hand with the books, art, religions, and stories that exist around them.

An excellent—and heartbreakingly beautiful—example of this essential human practice can be found in Tom Hart’s new graphic memoir, Rosalie Lightning. You can read an exercise based on it here.

6. Describe a Character from the Perspective of Others

Unknown

Tristan Ahtone is a journalist and Vice President for the Native American Journalists Association.

The easiest and most common way to describe a character is directly, like this: She’s tall and loves Adele but believes people who sing along with the music are disrespecting the artist. The first part of that description (she’s tall) can be deduced from observation, and perhaps the second part (loves Adele) can be as well if the music is audible. But the final part (disrespecting the artist) requires knowing her thoughts, which means that she speaks them aloud. For most characters, this isn’t a big deal. But what about characters who can’t or won’t speak?

A good example of using every  available resource to describe a character can be found in a recent series, “The United States of Bus Travel,” from Al Jazeera America. Journalist Tristan Ahtone traveled the United States by Greyhound bus and wrote short vignettes about the people he encountered. You can find an exercise based on it here.

7. Manipulate Chronology to Build Character

Chinelo Okparanta is the author of the novel Under the Udala Trees and the story collection Happiness, Like Water

Chinelo Okparanta is the author of the novel Under the Udala Trees.

Chronology is something most writers and readers take for granted. Time moves forward, and so does narrative. There are exceptions, of course. Memory isn’t constrained by the inexorable march of time. It can leap backward at will, or against it—and can even get stuck in the past. But we understand memory to be unusual, unlike the rest of our lives, which move forward. This fact highlights the extraordinary achievement of fictions that move differently. Charles Baxter’s novel First Light, for example, starts at the end and moves toward the beginning. And Nicholson Baker’s novel The Mezzanine takes place completely within the time required to ride an escalator. Most writers will never attempt such ambitious structures. But it can be useful to try them in miniature.

An  example of this kind of chronological experiment can be found in Chinelo Okparanta’s novel Under the Udala Trees. You can find an exercise based on it here.

8. Reveal Tension Between Characters Indirectly

Daniel Oppenheimer's book Exit Right has received glowing reviews, like this one from the Washington Post: "This book proves so satisfying precisely because it leaves you wanting much more."

Daniel Oppenheimer is the author of Exit Right: The People Who Left the Left and Reshaped the American Century.

One of the most famous writing exercises is John Gardner’s barn assignment from The Art of Fiction: “Describe a barn as seen by a man whose son has just been killed in a war. Do not mention the son, or war, or death.” The goal is to write a passage that does not address its main subject directly, head on. In some ways, the exercise is the ultimate statement about the purpose of craft. In first drafts, we attempt to figure out what we want to write (a man’s son died in the war), but in revision, we find the best way to write it (by describing a barn, with no reference to anything on the man’s mind).

Indirectness isn’t only important in description. The best writers can surprise us at any moment, in any type of passage. A terrific example of artful indirectness can be found in Daniel Oppenheimer’s new book Exit Right: The People Who Left the Left and Reshaped the American Century. You can find an exercise based on it here.

9. Build Character within Action Scenes

Manuel Gonzales is the author of The Regional Office Is Under Attack!, which the New York Times called "rollicking good fun on the surface, action-packed and shiny in all the right places" and also "thoughtful and well considered."

Manuel Gonzales is the author of The Regional Office Is Under Attack!

The most boring prose is often supposed to be the most exciting: action scenes. No matter how exquisitely detailed and choreographed a scene’s punches, kicks, shouts, commands, charges, and retreats, the reader can bear only so much. After more than a few sentences—or perhaps a paragraph or two at most—it simply washes over us, unseen. Our eyes glaze over. So, good writers will mix something into their action sequences, and usually that somethingbuilds character.

One of the best at this strategy is Manuel Gonzales, who does it again and again in his weird and wonderful new novel The Regional Office Is Under Attack! Read an exercise on how he does it here.

10. Create Stand-Ins for Characters

Katie Chase is the author of Man and Wife, a story collection that Edan Lepucki calls "comic and horrific."

Katie Chase is the author of the story collection Man and Wife.

For my money, one of the most intense scenes in any film is the moment in Ridley Scott’s Alien when a character goes into an air duct with the goal of pushing the Alien toward an air lock so it can be sucked out into space. (If you’ve seen the film, you know the scene; it’s everybody’s favorite.) We barely see the Alien. Instead, we track it with a motion sensor which registers both the man in the air duct and the Alien as dots on a grid. One dot draws closer to the other. It’s terrifying—as suspenseful or more than if we saw the actual Alien racing toward the man.

A lot has been written about the scene, in particular how it resulted from Ridley’s small budget. He couldn’t afford crazy special effects. In prose, writers often work under similar restrictions. Every word costs the same, but they aren’t always equally available. So, it’s useful to keep the dots from Alien in mind. A stand-in for the real thing is often as effective or more than the thing itself.

A great example of this approach can be found in Katie Chase’s story “Man and Wife.” You can read an exercise on how she does it here.

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