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How to Describe a Character’s Mental State

20 May
Nami Mun's novel Miles From Nowhere was a Booklist Top Ten Novel in 2009.

Nami Mun’s novel Miles from Nowhere was a Booklist Top Ten First Novel.

Our tendency as writers is to focus on describing the emotions of the characters closest to us: our narrators or, in the case of third person POV, the character we’re following. We become a Henry James-in-training, trying to capture the minute shifts of perception and feeling that occur inside the characters’ heads. But what happens when we need to describe those shifts of emotion inside a character whose head is closed to us? How do you describe an internal thought process when all you have available is the character’s exterior appearance?

A good example for how to approach this problem can be found in Nami Mun’s story, “Club Orchid.” It was a chapter in her novel Miles from Nowhere, a startling book about a homeless teenager that seemed to come out of nowhere in 2009 and appeared on many best-of lists. “Club Orchid” was originally published in Evergreen Review, where you can read it now.

How the Story Works

The story is about a homeless teenage girl in New York City in the 1980s. She rents a blood-stained mattress at night and has found a job in a brothel. Here is a passage that demonstrates the narrator describing her own thoughts and feelings about the club:

But the club was all right for what it was and I was just glad to come in from the rain. After a whole day of walking around downtown looking for work at grocery stores, gas stations, and donut shops, it was nice to hear someone say you’re hired, just by looking at you. Like I was a model or something. Miss T. didn’t give me any forms to fill out, didn’t ask how old I was or where I went to school. She did ask if I was over eighteen, and I felt bad about lying, but I really needed the money. And to be honest, she didn’t seem to care all that much about my answer. Rajeev the night manager at Bombay Palace Hotel had asked me the same question before renting me a room, and I’d lied to him, too. But I didn’t feel guilty about fibbing to him because he charged too much money.

Notice the indicator phrases: “I was just glad,” “it was nice,” “I felt bad,” and “But I didn’t feel guilty.” These types of phrases are available to a narrator talking about herself. But, they’re not available if she’s describing the interior mind of someone else. Here is a passage that shows how the description changes. The narrator is talking to a man who has hired her services, and she’s failed to follow the act he expected:

I turned back and caught the old man wiping his face up and down with both hands, like he was washing it or something, then he rattled his head to shake off the invisible water. He took a deep breath, held it, then let it out, sending me a wave of garlic and more garlic. His face squeezed out a big clown smile that looked more painful than anything, and he pulled up his chair closer to the table, sitting upright and tall. He was a new man. He was gonna take it from the top.

One key to this passage is that the narrator not only describes the man but mentally engages with the things she is describing. In other words, the thoughts and intentions behind the man’s actions are important to the narrator. She’s in a dangerous and unfamiliar situation, and so it’s necessary for her to figure out what is happening around her. As a result, the narrator provides specific descriptions of the man’s appearance and behavior and experiences these descriptions in different ways: she compares them to actions she’s familiar with (“like he was washing it”) and smells them (“sending me a wave of garlic and more garlic”). She also imagines the physical sensations that he feels (“a big clown smile that looked more painful than anything”). Finally, she interprets his intentions (“He was a new man. He was going to take it from the top.”)

If you go back and look at the first passage, you’ll see the difference. In the paragraph about the man, Mun uses none of the indicator phrases that appeared in the paragraph about herself. This may seem fairly obvious, but in early drafts of stories, it’s not unusual to find writers forcing narrators to convey their own emotions by describing their physical appearance (the most common way is to have a narrator look into a mirror). Or, the writer will force a narrator to describe another character’s emotion without describing that character physically; the result becomes speculation that can make the reader wonder about the narrator’s reliability.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s describe the thought processes and emotions of a character whose head is closed to us, using Nami Mun’s story “Club Orchid” as a model:

  1. Choose the characters. You’ll need a narrator and another character. Give them a relationship (friends, spouses, lovers, siblings, parent-child, customer-service provider, etc).
  2. Determine the situation. You don’t want to choose a scene in which nothing is at stake. Think of the situation as a transaction: the narrator is trying to get something from or give something to the other character (or vice versa). The thing being transacted could be information (where were you last night?), a word (yes or no), an agreement (what do you want to do?), or even engagement itself (talk to me, look at me, don’t ignore me). The thing could also be money or some object or action. I read a lot of Matt Christopher’s baseball novels when I was a kid, and the transactions in them were often between pitchers and batters. The thing being transacted was a baseball, but it was also cues that might give away the character’s intention for that ball (curveball, fastball, changeup). Be specific about what the narrator is trying to get out of the situation.
  3. Let the narrator describe the character using a comparison. So, you’ll need a description of the character (“the old man wiping his face up and down with both hands”) and the narrator’s sense of what that description is like (“like he was washing it or something”). The key is to give the character something to do. Try to avoid gazes (he looked at me like he was a jackal).
  4. Let the narrator engage physically with the description. Again, you’ll need a description of the character (“He took a deep breath, held it, then let it out”) and a way for the character to engage physically with it (“sending me a wave of garlic and more garlic”). The physical engagement can be through any of the four senses other than sight. Your goal is to make your narrator more than a distant observer. It’s one thing to watch somebody have a breakdown through a window, but it’s another to watch it from across the table. Make whatever the narrator is observing difficult to evade or hide from.
  5. Let the narrator imagine the character’s physical experience. In other words, let your character notice something (“a big clown smile”) and then imagine what it feels like (“more painful than anything”). This might be the easiest of the descriptions. One way to approach it is to watch for act and reaction: for instance, a character slamming the table with her fist and then the grimace that immediately follows. Allow your narrator to comment on what he sees.
  6. Let the narrator interpret the character’s intentions. Think of everything that the narrator has described (all of the character’s actions) as a transition from one mental state to another. So, is the character transitioning from joy to anger, from confusion to clarity, from grief to frustration? What is the outcome after these actions take place? Because the narrator cannot escape what is happening (Step 4), this outcome matters a great deal. So, let the narrator try to understand what that outcome might be (“He was a new man. He was going to take it from the top.”)

This exercise may yield a lot of writing. The next stage will be paring it back to a passage that propels the story forward. This likely means simply picking the descriptions that work best.

Good luck!

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How to Take Your Characters for a Drive

6 May
Sarah Bird is the best-selling author of The Yokota Officers Club and, now, the much anticipated Above the East China Sea.

Sarah Bird is the best-selling author of The Yokota Officers Club and, now, the much anticipated Above the East China Sea.

At some point in almost every story, characters will move from one place to another. This change in scene ought to be simple, but it can be one of the most aggravating problems writers face. Too often, we try to mimic the actual experience of driving or walking, the way our minds wander across subject and time. Not infrequently, we use a car ride as an opportunity to insert backstory. Maybe this works—and if it does, that’s great. But if it doesn’t—if the reader begins to skim—then perhaps a more succinct strategy is required.

Sarah Bird’s new novel Above the East China Sea demonstrates perfectly how to quickly and effectively move a character through space. You can read an excerpt (and an interview with another great writer, Mary Helen Specht) at Necessary Fiction. You can also find a free sample at iBooks and Amazon.

How the Story Works

Moving from one place to another in fiction is an opportunity for something to happen, for something to change. If a character drives or walks somewhere, and the place she ends up is identical to the place she left and if the things that happen there are the same as the things that happened in the last place, then the move was not important. Unimportant moves should probably be cut from the story. Or, they should be made more impactful.

In this scene from Bird’s novel, notice how much changes along over the course of the drive. You don’t even need to know the plot to understand that something is about to happen:

He flips the photo back onto my lap and pulls into traffic. “I know exactly where and what that is.”

The rain has stopped by the time we leave the broad boulevards lined with royal palms and shops spilling out their glittering merchandise and turn onto narrower and narrower streets until we’re creeping along a nearly deserted back street. On either side are abandoned businesses with boarded-up windows and weeds growing through the concrete steps sporting signs so faded by the sun that I can barely make out the names: Club Kentucky. High Time Bar. The Manhattan. Girls Girls Girls. GI Welcome.

Suddenly, amidst all the gray buildings, we encounter one painted a vivid crimson. The shocking color frames a painting two stories high that depicts a beautiful woman in a red-and-lilac kimono sniffing a flower. A few blocks later there is another painted a shocking pink. A two-story poster depicts a pair of animé girls in French maid costumes, breasts overflowing laced bodices. An invisible fishing line hoists up the backs of ruffled skirts to reveal the clefts of their butts. With a weirdly sarcastic tone, Jake translates the caption beneath the girls: “‘Welcome home, Mr. Married Man. Your wife is out shopping for the day. Is there anything we can do for you before she gets back?’”

Two important things happen in this passage:

  1. The change in place corresponds to a change in something else. Obviously, the characters have driven to a different part of town. The streets look different, and this difference is an indicator that the people who live and work on those streets are different as well. They have less money and less opportunity. In short, this is the economic hinterland of the city. The things that happen here are not the same things that happen on the “broad boulevards lined with royal palms and shops spilling out their glittering merchandise.”
  2. The characters discover something unexpected. Yes, one of them is driving and knows what they’re going to find, but, for the narrator, the brightly painted buildings are new. At a very basic level, this discovery sets up suspense: What are these buildings? What happens inside them? Why has this person brought me here? This suspense is important because it forces the readers to recalibrate their expectations. We were led methodically down gradually narrowing streets, to a poorer, forgotten part of town, and then suddenly things have changed. The expectations we had for “abandoned businesses with boarded-up windows” are no longer useful.

In almost every kind of fiction, a trip usually indicates that something is about to happen. If you find yourself writing scenes that change locations aimlessly, it can be a sign that something deeper is wrong with the story. Those kind of “smart bombs” as one of my former teachers once called them can be immensely helpful; recognizing them helps you begin revising sooner.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s change locations in a story, using the passage from Sarah Bird’s novel Above the East China Sea as a model:

  1. Choose the point of origin. What kind of place is it? Is it a neighborhood, a business, a park? Is it private or public? What kind of area is it? Rural, urban, or suburban? Wealthy, poor, working class, or white collar? Are its fortunes rising or falling? Once you’ve got the place set in your mind, write a few descriptions of it that convey this information to the reader. Keep in mind Bird’s description of her point of origin: “broad boulevards lined with royal palms and shops spilling out their glittering merchandise.”
  2. Choose the new location. The same questions as before still apply. What kind of place is it? Once you’ve got it set in your mind, pick some descriptors that tell the readers what they need to know.
  3. Transition between locations. The easiest way to do this is to find a description from the point of origin that can be continued into the new location. Bird uses streets: their width and appearance and the buildings along them. This trailing description allows the reader to do what we all do in real life. As we drive somewhere, we mentally chart what is happening around us and make educated guesses about what those changes mean. So, look back at the descriptions you’ve written so far. Are any of them parallels? Can you easily connect a description from the point of origin to a description of the new location?
  4. Introduce something unexpected. The discovery can be totally unexpected (“Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition”), or it can fit within the world you’ve brought your character into. Bird introduces brothels after taking us to an economically disadvantaged side of town. It’s not shocking that they’re there. Instead, the surprise is that any number of things are likely on that side of town, and this is the thing we’ve found. In other words, treat your new location like the backdrop on a stage. The scenery gives the audience a clue about what will come, but the actual scene must still surprise us. You’re creating expectations with the transition, and now you must both fulfill and scramble those expectations. One way to do this is with an abrupt shift in landscape. Interrupt the smooth transition with a quick change. Regardless of what you introduce with the change, the fact that things have shifted so quickly gets the reader’s attention.

You’ll notice that I haven’t talked about plot or story at all. Of course, you’ll need a story to go along with your change of location. But sometimes a change in location can inspire or prompt a story. Play around with different locations and see what happens.

Good luck!

How to Set Up a Power Imbalance

29 Apr
NoViolet Bulawayo's debut novel, We Need New Names, was shortlisted for the Man Booker prize.

NoViolet Bulawayo’s debut novel, We Need New Names, was shortlisted for the Man Booker prize.

A common writing tip is to create a power imbalance between characters. There are obvious ways to do this: give one character a gun. Or, create a structural imbalance (teacher/student, coach/player, rich family/servants). But what if these approaches don’t fit comfortably in your story, and you don’t want to shoehorn them in? You need something more nuanced.

NoViolet Bulawayo’s novel We Need New Names contains many rich, complex portraits of her native Zimbabwe, and one of the many things she does well is reveal imbalances of power. A terrific example can be found in this excerpt, “Blak Power,” published at Guernica, where you can read it now.

How the Story Works

The novel takes place in Zimbabwe during the land redistribution of the 1980s, after the transition to a government led by black, not white, leaders. The excerpt opens with an encounter between some kids, who are picking guavas from a rich neighborhood, and the guard, who has been hired to watch over the gate to one of the houses. The dialogue is funny and menacing. If you haven’t read the excerpt yet—or the novel—these pages of dialogue are worth the time by themselves.

That great dialogue, though, depends on a power imbalance between the guard and kids. Here is how Bulawayo describes the kids seeing the guard for the first time:

“We can tell from his uniform that he is a guard. We haven’t seen any guards in Budapest before so at first we are not so sure what to do with him. He beckons us with his black baton stick, and because we are too close to turn around and run we just walk towards him.”

Already, even though we know very little about the guard or even the kids, we sense the tone of the encounter. A guard ought to convey a sense of authority and power, but the kids are curious more than anything else. They approach him in the spirit of play (“we’re not sure what to do with him”), almost like he’s a caterpillar or some other amusement they’ve happened upon.

Now, watch how Bulawayo describes the guard through the kids’ eyes:

We’re right there with him but he is busy shouting like we are on Mount Everest. He looks us over with his dirty eyes, and we look him back, not answering, just watching him to see what he is all about.

I can’t figure out if he is frowning or it’s his general ugliness. He is tall and his navy uniform looks like it’s just been slapped on him. On his left arm is a discolored white patch with a picture of a gun and the word Security embossed in red letters, and on his breast is a ZCC church badge.

The trousers barely reach the ankles, and his boots are unpolished. He is wearing a black woolen hat and matching gloves, never mind the heat. Everything about him looks like a joke and we know he is a waste of time—if we weren’t this close we’d probably call him names and laugh and throw stones.

Imagine how differently the guard might have been described by someone impressed by or intimidated by his power. For instance, the badge with the picture of a gun might have seemed frightening rather than shabby. But because the kids are not afraid of the guard—because the power imbalance actually runs the other direction, with the kids possessing more than the guard—details that, from the guard’s point of view, are supposed to seem intimidating, are, instead, comical. By the time the narrator says that they’d “probably call him names and laugh and throw stones,” we already understand the power dynamic.

The great dialogue (“Where is your roger-over, can I see it?”) depends on this description to set the stage. (Incidentally, if you read the entire excerpt, you’ll see how the power imbalance plays an important role later on. The kids merely tease the guard, but others will take a more heavy-handed approach.)

The Writing Exercise

Let’s create a power imbalance with description, using the passage from NoViolet Bulawayo’s “Blak Power” as a model:

  1. Choose two characters from any story or vignette you’ve written (or are writing). It doesn’t matter which characters so long as they have an opportunity to interact with each other.
  2. Figure out the power balance. There isn’t an interaction that happens anywhere on Earth that doesn’t have some sort of power balance. Even conversations between friends are charged: who gets the last word? Who picks up the tab? Who determines where to meet, when to leave, or what to talk about? When a disagreement is broached, who politely keeps their mouth shut? Who doesn’t? If a character says something stupid, does the other one call him/her on it? The important thing is to think of power in terms of agency, not force. It’s not a question of one character forcing another to act but, rather, one character being more able to fully inhabit his or her agency. The character with less power censors him/herself or waits for permission or instructions before acting.
  3. Choose one character as a lens to view the other. It doesn’t matter if you choose the more or less powerful character. The key is to pick one. You’re trying to write a description that is conscious of the power imbalance.
  4. Describe the other character, charging each detail. The easiest way to do this is to use the phrase “looks like.” Bulawayo uses the phrase when she writes that the guard’s “navy uniform looks like it’s just been slapped on him.” The charge can also be more subtle. In the next sentence, Bulawayo writes, “On his left arm is a discolored white patch with a picture of a gun and the word Security embossed in red letters.” She could have focused on the gun, but she leads with the word “discolored.” As a result, everything that follows is less impressive. We make judgments like this every day. Someone will say, “Isn’t he great?” And we’ll respond, “Yes, but did you notice…” You might even look back at descriptions you’ve already written. What adjective (like “discolored”) could you add to convey the attitude of the character doing the describing?

The power imbalance doesn’t need to be gaping. Even the slightest imbalance can cause an otherwise uncharged scene to become much more interesting.

Good luck!

How to Write a Story Ending

17 Apr
Óscar Martínez spent two years traveling with Central American migrants through Mexico on their way to the United States. His essays about the migrants were published in the Salvadoran online newspaper El Faro and collected in The Beast: Riding the Rails and Dodging Narcos on the Migrants Trail.

Óscar Martínez’s essays about traveling with Central American migrants were published in the Salvadoran online newspaper El Faro and collected in The Beast: Riding the Rails and Dodging Narcos on the Migrants Trail.

The easiest part of writing any story ought to be finding the beginning, middle, and end. So why is it often so hard? And why does so much ride on making the right choices?

The Salvadoran journalist Óscar Martínez has written one of the best story endings I’ve ever read in his nonfiction book The Beast: Riding the Rails and Dodging Narcos on the Migrant Trail. Martínez spent two years traveling with Central American migrants through Mexico on their way to the United States. The essays were originally published as dispatches in the Salvadoran online newspaper, El Faro, and translated in this collection from Verso Books. You can read the first chapter at Dazed.

How the Story Works

Martínez tells stories about many different migrants in the book, and one of them is about a teenager named Saúl, who was born in El Salvador but raised in Los Angeles, where he joined the M18 gang. He was deported after robbing a convenience store. The problem was that he didn’t know anything about El Salvador—hadn’t been there since he was four years old—and so he started walking and searching for the man who was supposed to be his father:

And what happened to him is what happens to any kid who doesn’t know what he’s doing in Central America, who thinks any neighborhood is just any neighborhood. A group of thugs turned out of an alleyway and beat him straight to hell.

So, the beginning of the story is pretty simple. The thugs, members of the Mara Salvatrucha gang, take Saúl to their leader, who, in turns out, is his father. Now, watch how Martínez sets up the story’s ending—and how he wraps it up:

“I’m Saúl,” Saúl said, breathless, “I just got deported. And, I swear it, I’m your son.”

The man, as Saúl recounted it to me on top of the hurtling train, opened his eyes as wide as possible. And then he exhaled, long and loud. And then a look of anger swept over his face. “I don’t have any kids, you punk,” his father said.

But in the days following, the man gave Saúl a gift. The only gift Saul would ever receive from his father. He publicly recognized him as his son, and so bestowed to him a single thread of life. “We’re not going to kill this punk,” Guerrero announced in front of Saúl and a few of his gang members. “We’re just going to give him the boot.” And then he turned to Saúl. “If I ever see you in this neighborhood again, you better believe me, I’m going to kill you myself.”

They left him in his underwear in another Mara Salvatrucha neighborhood. He only got out alive by covering himself (and the 18 tattooed on his back) in mud and pretending to be insane.

In short, a gang member has been captured by a rival gang in a foreign country, and it turns out the rival gang’s leader is his father. What incredible tension, right? And how does Martínez handle that tension? He could have given us a moment-by-moment account of arguments, beatings, and who stared down who. Instead he almost everything that happens: “But in the days following.” Why?

To answer that question, it’s useful to ask what those skipped moments could have added to the story. Saúl has already been beaten “straight to hell.” He’s already had a stunning encounter with his father (go back and look at how well the father’s shifting emotions are handled). Whatever comes next must advance this conflict. The problem is that you can’t advance severe beatings and familial rejection. More violence is just more of the same. So, when Martínez skips to the father’s pronouncement, he’s simply finding the moment where something new and different happens. The father changes his mind and doesn’t kill Saúl.

Sometimes condensing scenes—or a series of scenes—of high action actually increases the story’s tension. This is exactly what happens in that final paragraph, the story’s ending. It’d be tempting to describe what happens to Saúl in that other neighborhood minute-by-minute. But nothing Martínez could have written would have been better than the weird, surreal, stunning way that he summarizes the action: “He only got out alive by covering himself (and the 18 tattooed on his back) in mud and pretending to be insane.”

When closing out a story, sometimes one conflict-filled sentence is better than several less tense paragraphs.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s write a story ending by summarizing action and scenes, using the passage from Óscar Martínez’s The Beast as a model:

  1. Summarize the situation and how the character entered it. The point is to get into the story as quickly as possible. The summary should highlight factors that will appear later. If read the entire story from Martínez’s essay, you’ll see how he highlights Saúl’s gang membership and lack of knowledge about El Salvador. Then he skips past everything that happened to Saúl before he ran into the gang members who beat him up. So, you should focus on drawing the shape of the conflict: why your particular person/character is an especially bad match for the situation. (Bad matches in life make for good matches for stories.) Then, find the first significant action that results from that poor match.
  2. Make an outline of everything that happens next. Simply list all of the noteworthy moments from beginning to end. You don’t even need to use complete sentences. It’s an outline.
  3. Mark the moments of highest tension or action. They might be the most tense because of what information is revealed or because of the extremity of what happens.
  4. Are the remaining moments different or similar? Now that you know what your most tense moments are, you can begin carving away at the rest of the moments so that the best ones stand out. To do this, ask yourself if what is left is any different from those tense moments. If not, you can either cut them completely or group them together into a quick summary (a sentence or two) that sets up whatever tense moment comes next.
  5. Offer an escape valve in a sentence or two that restate the conflict. This strategy of summarizing and highlighting can be carried through until the very end. A great way to finish a story is by pivoting sharply. One way to do this is to restate or remind the reader of the conflict that you first presented at the beginning. You can do this with an actual reminder or by finding a moment that distills the conflict (“They left him in his underwear in another Mara Salvatrucha neighborhood.”) Then, offer an escape valve, a way to leave the conflict. Releases tend to be quick (think of a needle and a balloon). Once the reader knows an escape will occur, the writer’s work is mostly done. The tension has been broken. As a result, there’s no need to draw the release out. The quickest version is often the most interesting, as Martínez illustrates: “He only got out alive by covering himself (and the 18 tattooed on his back) in mud and pretending to be insane.”

Good luck!

How to Write a Murder Scene

18 Mar
Claire Vaye Watkins won the prestigious Story Prize for her debut collection of stories, Battleborn. Her story, "The Last Thing We Need," appeared in Granta 111.

Claire Vaye Watkins won the prestigious Story Prize for her debut collection of stories, Battleborn. Her story, “The Last Thing We Need,” appeared in Granta.

American films are full of violence; in fact, the anticipation of death is probably one of the reasons that people go to the movies. There’s a visceral, perverse thrill in seeing someone killed in front of your eyes, and that feeling is harder to create in writing than it is on the screen. It’s difficult to replicate the speed of a gunshot or the blind, chaotic feeling of participating in a fight. Some writers try to copy the techniques of film: a lot of choreography (punches, kicks, and ricocheting bullets). But the best writers use techniques that are only available in written fiction to create powerful scenes of violence.

Claire Vaye Watkins has written such a scene in her story, “The Last Thing We Need.” It was published in Granta, where you can read it now.

How the Story Works

The scene takes place at a gas station in the Nevada desert. The narrator is a high school kid working the night shift for the station owner, a man who keeps a shotgun under the counter. He’s doing his homework and doesn’t see a car pull up. As you read the scene, pay attention to two things: the choreography (who did what) and the delay (what details are given to slow down the action):

I looked up and the guy was already coming through the door at me. I looked outside and saw the ’66 Chevelle, gleaming under the lights, grasshoppers falling all around it like rain.

I tried to stop him but he muscled back behind the counter. He had a gun, held it like it was his own hand. He said, You see this?

There was a bandanna over his face. But Beatty is a small town and it was even smaller then. I knew who he was. I knew his mother worked as a waitress at the Stagecoach and that his sister had graduated the year before me. The money, he was saying. His name was Frankie. The fucking money, Frankie said.

I’d barely touched a gun before that night. I don’t know how I did it. I only felt my breath go out of me and reached under the counter to where the shotgun was and tried. I shot him in the head.

Afterwards, I called the cops. I did the right thing, they told me, the cops and Bill Hadley in his pyjamas, even my father. They said it over and over again. I sat on the kerb outside the store listening to them inside, their boots squeaking on the tile.

Every time I read this passage, I’m struck by the line, “I shot him in the head.” It’s blunt and direct. The language does not try to convey anything other than the barest of facts. This is important because badly written violence tends to be overwritten. The language tends to tell the readers not only what happened but also how they should feel about it (anxious! afraid! sickened!) and how it occurs (in a flash! suddenly! out of the blue!). So, how does Watkins avoid those mistakes and write a powerful scene? She does two things:

  1.  She uses simple sentence constructions to convey the choreography. By simple, I don’t mean in the grammatical sense—one subject/verb pair—though there are several of those types. For instance, this is a simple sentence: “I only felt my breath go out of me and reached under the counter to where the shotgun was and tried.” The beauty of a simple sentence (in the grammatical sense) is that it’s usually crystal clear. While you never want your readers confused about basic elements in a story, you especially don’t want them confused during the moment of greatest importance. That said, by simple construction, I mean sentences that use as few words as possible, like this one: “I tried to stop him but he muscled back behind the counter.” Imagine how else that sentence could have been written. Stop is a vague word, right? Another writer might have described the exact physical movements used in the attempt to stop the man. It might have worked. Who knows? But it might also have lost the sense of purpose. In all the arm-grabbing and shuffling, the reader might have forgotten the elemental goal of stopping the man with the gun. Who really cares how motions were involved? The same is true of the word muscled. Again, Watkins eschews detailed description and again boils the movement down to its essence: stop and muscled back. She’s conveyed the physical dynamics of the scene (one person is stronger than the other) and also the basic action in only twelve words. Written stories can never approach the speed of film, but they can still move quickly, as Watkins has shown.
  2. She interrupts the action with plain information. Beginning writers tend to try to make each sentence in an action sequence more intense than the previous one. But this is almost always unsustainable. Another strategy is to switch back and forth between intense action and something that isn’t intense. Watkins interjects the actions in the gas station with basic info: “But Beatty is a small town and it was even smaller then. I knew who he was. I knew his mother worked as a waitress at the Stagecoach and that his sister had graduated the year before me.” Imagine if, in advance of reading this scene, someone told you that the best way to write a murder scene is to tell the reader, just before a man is shot and killed, how big the town is. You’d likely think it was terrible advice. But what it does in this scene is heighten the tension. A man with a gun is one thing, but a guy you know with a gun is entirely different. Watkins keeps switching back and forth between action and info: “The money, he was saying. His name was Frankie. The fucking money, Frankie said.” She does the same thing with the narrator, telling the reader that he’d never touched a gun before. These interjections slow the action down but also make us lean into the page in anticipation. What started as “stop and muscled back” becomes “The fucking money, Frankie said and I’d barely touched a gun before.” In other words, the information makes the scene more personal, which, of course, makes it more tense.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s write a violent scene, using the scene from Claire Vaye Watkins’ story “The Last Thing We Need” as a model:

  1. State what will occur. Know what your destination is. In Watkins’ story, a teenage gas station attendant shoots an armed robber. Don’t worry about crafting a great sentence. You’re just reminding yourself what the endpoint of the action is.
  2. Describe the choreography in simple sentence constructions. Your goal is a sentence like this one: “I tried to stop him but he muscled back behind the counter.” Boil the action down to quick descriptions of purpose. What are the characters trying to do? When the purposes are clear, it becomes easier to introduce complications. So, for instance, you might write, “He grabbed at the money, and I tried to pull it away. The bills  ripped down the middle.” Try to choose words that accomplish two things at once: statement of action and description of how that action occurs. Consider the difference in the scene if muscled was replaced with slipped. It might make the man harder to shoot in the head. He might be too quick, and so the scene would play out in another direction.
  3. Interrupt the action with plain (uncharged) information. By uncharged, I mean that if you read the information out of context, you wouldn’t think twice about it. But you can’t insert just any old info. You need a goal in mind. Are you trying to make the scene more personal for one of the characters, as Watkins does? Are you trying to make the characters more hesitant or eager? Do you want more or less urgency?  Do you want them thinking of ways to safely extricate themselves from the scene, or do you want them escalating the tension? How do you want the characters to feel after the scene is over? Regardless of your goal, the information should be simple. Characters who are about to engage in violence probably don’t have a lot of mental space for abstractions or reflection. The information should be the sort that they would likely be instantly aware of during the moment.
  4. Switch back and forth between action and information. The idea is not so much to keep applying pressure on the reader but to take short breaks from the tension so that the reader wants to know what will happen. One way to do this is to repeat one of the pieces of information that you’ve introduced. Watkins does this by revealing and repeating the identity of the man with the gun: who his mother was, who his sister was, his name, and his name again. The result is that the scene becomes increasingly personal for both characters because they know each other. You can do something similar by taking one piece of information and showing it to the reader in slightly different ways. (Genre writers, especially mystery/detective/crime writers, often do this. At a moment of high tension, the character will notice a refrigerator humming too loudly or a scratch on the floor. Sometimes this fact will get incorporated into the scene somehow, either directly or by causing the character to remember/realize something.)

The key to a scene like this is twofold: use short, clear language that reveals multiple things at once and add moments that step away from the tension to reveal information that is initially uncharged but that becomes important as the scene progresses.

Good luck!

How to Find a Plot (and Humor) with Repetition

11 Mar
Teddy Wayne's humor piece, "On the Internet, Nobody Knows You're a Human Who's Turned Into a Dog," appeared in the Shouts and Murmers Section of the New Yorker. Wayne is the author of two novels and many fictions like this one.

Teddy Wayne’s story, “On the Internet, Nobody Knows You’re a Human Who’s Turned Into a Dog,” appeared in “Shouts and Murmurs” in The New Yorker. Wayne is the author of two novels, most recently The Love Song of Jonny Valentine.

When working with plot, we tend to think forward: what happens next? But sometimes that’s the wrong question. Occasionally, we should think of plot as if we’re telling knock-knock jokes to a 4-year-old. You finish one, the kid shouts, “Again, again,” and you ask yourself, “How can I possibly tell another?”

Comedy writers understand this question perhaps better than anyone. Repetition is part of the genre. The challenge often becomes about how long the writer can stay with an idea.

Teddy Wayne uses this kind of repetition in his story, “On the Internet, Nobody Knows You’re a Human Who’s Turned Into a Dog.” It appeared in The New Yorker‘s “Shouts and Murmurs” section, where you can read it now.

How the Story Works

When we break the story down by its sections, it’s clear how Wayne is repeating and modifying the same idea. Here is each section, summarized:

  1. States the premise (transformed into a dog) and the medium (Facebook).
  2. Introduces a problem with the medium: People “like” things without reading them, forcing the narrator to restate the fact that he’s turned into a dog.
  3. Introduces another problem with the medium (People expect to laugh at Facebook posts), which causes a problem for the narrator because they be laughing while he starves to death.
  4. Introduces another problem with the medium: Facebook moves on without you.
  5. Introduces another problem with the medium: Facebook attachments are weak, and so people will unfriend you if you ask too much of them.
  6. Begins to accept the limitations of the premise: The narrator’s a dog, and he won’t try to fight it.
  7. Accepts the medium: The narrator posts about non-dog topics.
  8. Fully accepts the premise: The narrator becomes a dog in mind as well as body.
  9. The payoff: The narrator finds a way to make dog life work for him and deactivates his Facebook account.

This summary reveals the clothesline that the funny stuff has been hung from. Without this structure, the writer doesn’t have the space to riff.

So, how does this structure work?

While Wayne seems to be writing about a single idea (dog transformation), he’s actually writing about two ideas: dog transformation and Facebook. It’s the latter that turns out to be the most important. If you reread the piece, you’ll see that the narrator repeats the dog premise over and over without many changes. The dog stays in the house. What changes, then, is his reaction to the limitations and problems posed by Facebook. (This is similar to what Will Ferrell does in his famous Saturday Night Live skit about the man grilling at a backyard party and yelling at his kids to get off the shed. The premise doesn’t change: the kids stay on the shed. What changes is Ferrell’s reaction to the medium: his inability to shout loudly or angrily enough to get his kids’ attention.)

As a result, the story is less about a guy turning into a dog than it is about trying—and failing—to communicate something important via Facebook. The story is funny, though, because it’s about a guy who’s turned into a dog. If it was a cry for help from someone with a more realistic problem, the story might become a tragedy, not a comedy.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s create a structure for a comic story, such as often appears in “Shouts and Murmurs,” that focuses on repetition. We’ll use Teddy Wayne’s story “On the Internet, Nobody Knows You’re a Human Who’s Turned Into a Dog” as a model:

  1. Find a premise. Your character discovers something that needs to be communicated. The premise can be absurd (man turned into a dog) or realistic (kids climbing on a forbidden shed). What’s important is making the need to communicate urgent.
  2. Find a medium. You need a method to communicate: phone, Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, yelling, cup and string, Morse code, tapping on the prison wall, the “telephone” game of speaking across a chain of people.
  3. Brainstorm the limitations or expectations of the medium. Will Ferrell was limited by the distance between the grill and the shed. Wayne’s dog is limited by the ways that people interact with Facebook. The story’s tension (and humor) are produced by the ways that the medium is ill designed for the premise that must be communicated.
  4. Isolate and challenge those limitations. You can do this in real time (the character tries to communicate but fails) or as a reaction to what happened (character tries again after failing, as Wayne’s dog does). You can introduce new limitations, one after another. Or, you can let the character challenge the same limitation in increasingly strenuous ways (as Ferrell does in his skit). In this case (or, perhaps, both), the tension and humor result from the ways that the attempts to communicate push against ideas of acceptable behavior in the society in which the story takes place.
  5. Undermine or negate the premise. As your character challenges the medium through which he/she is trying to communicate, the tension will rise with each challenge until a logical endpoint appears: the character will ultimately succeed in communicating or fail and suffer the consequences. Once that end presents itself, set it aside. That’s not the ending for you. Instead, you want to surprise the reader. This is often done by undermining the premise. Ferrell wrote many “Get off the shed” skits, and, in most of them, his kids walk up and he realizes that he’s been yelling at the wrong people for no reason. Thus, all of his shouting has accomplished nothing and been for naught—except our entertainment. In Wayne’s story, the dog makes a fortune off of his story and deactivates his Facebook account so that he can get some work done on the film script. Thus, in both examples, what was urgent turns out not to have been so urgent. So, think about your premise: what would make it not urgent? What would make it cease to be a premise? You’ll come up with some obvious answers and some less obvious ones. Play with them to see which is the funniest.

Remember, your goal is to create a structure to riff within. The structure is essential to the humor, but it’s not funny in and of itself. The way that you play within it will be the source of the humor.

Good luck!

How to Create Conflict with Subtext

4 Mar
Diana Lopez's YA novel Ask My Mood Ring How I Feel

Diana Lopez’s middle grade novel Ask My Mood Ring How I Feel has been called an “honest, sometimes uncomfortable, but always hopeful look at how cancer affects family.”

Conflict is essential to fiction, and, of course, the easiest way to create conflict is by pushing characters into a fight or argument. But how do you set the stage for the big confrontation? One way is to establish competing needs or desires (I want my neighbor to cut his grass, and he wants me to keep my opinions to myself). Relying on this strategy too often, though, can lead to predictable scenes. A story needs unexpected arguments. One way to set those up is with good intentions. In fiction, as in real life, we’re often stunned to find out that our good deeds are not always appreciated.

Diana Lopez uses this strategy perfectly in her middle grade novel Ask My Mood Ring How I Feel. You can read the opening chapters at Hachette’s website. (Look for the maroon tab that says “OpenBook-READ AN EXCERPT.”)

How the Story Works

When setting up scenes, we often choose the most obvious paths toward conflict. One character is upset about something and says so. Another character doesn’t like what’s said and so reacts. Thus, conflict. While this method can work, it also limits the characters to thinking about and acting on whatever is happening directly in front of their faces. In other words, there’s no subtext.

In a conflict that arises out of subtext, the characters are thinking about something that is not happening in front of their faces, and the conflict arises because those thoughts begin to manifest themselves through the character’s actions. As a result, a character’s internal conflict becomes external.

Here’s the scene from Lopez’s novel that illustrates this idea perfectly. The subtext isn’t stated in the scene, but it’s clearly present:

As soon as she saw the table, Mom said, “What’s this?”

“I made dinner,” Dad announced.

“But I could have made dinner,” Mom said. “I was planning to. I always make it, don’t I?”

“Just wanted you to have a day off,” Dad said, all cheery.

He pulled out her chair. He could be a real gentleman, but since he pulled out Mom’s chair only at fancy dinners or weddings, this was weird. Mom must have thought so too, because she hesitated before sitting down. Then Dad went to his seat and told us to dig in. We did. Quietly. For once, Carmen wasn’t acting like a know-it-all and Jimmy wasn’t begging for something to hold. It was a perfectly quiet dinner like Dad had wanted, but it sure wasn’t peaceful.

After some typical dinner-with-kids chaos, this happens:

“So let the rest of us help,” Dad said. “There’s no need for you to do everything.”

“And there’s no need for me to do nothing at all.”

I felt totally confused. Dad was acting super nice, but Mom was acting mad. “What’s going on?” I had to ask.

It’s at this point that the subtext is revealed: the mom has breast cancer. With that knowledge, you can go back through the scene and see how the dad’s and mom’s actions all stem from this subtext. What makes the scene work is that not everyone is acting on the subtext in the same way: The dad has approached the cancer diagnosis differently than the mom, and the kids don’t yet know what’s going on. As a result, the scene involves three different characters (mom, dad, kids) reacting to subtext (conflict that is happening off page) in three different ways.

What’s interesting is that all of the characters have good intentions. No one is the bad guy or antagonist in the scene. Keep this in mind. A good subtext can pit good people against one another simply because they have different, incompatible reactions to the subtext.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s write a scene whose conflict stems from subtext, using the scene from Diana Lopez’s novel Ask My Mood Ring How I Feel as a model:

  1. Choose a subtext. Or, decide what the character(s) are thinking about while they’re doing other things. What often works best is a subtext that is shared by more than one character. So, you could consider news or revelations about health, career, relationships, school, or finances. These are big areas, the sort of things that stories are “about.”
  2. Choose characters. Who are they, and what is their relationship to one another? Remember, you’ll be putting these people together in a scene, so you need a reason for them to be together.
  3. Give each character a different approach to the subtext. How does each character feel about the subtext? In Lopez’s example, cancer makes the mom determined to enjoy life and the dad determined to care for the mom, and the kids don’t know about it yet. In your writing, each character should have his/her own personal reaction to the news/revelation and also a need to act on that reaction. In life, some good advice is to never act rashly or in haste—to let news sink in before acting. But in fiction, this is bad advice. People and characters alike have a gut reaction upon learning news, but with people, this reaction is sometimes tempered with time. In fiction, time should actually heighten the reaction. In other words, by the time your characters find themselves in scene with one another, they should be so disturbed or bothered by the subtext that they’re chomping at the bit to act. It might also be helpful to have at least one character who doesn’t know the subtext.
  4. Put the characters into a room together. Lopez uses the occasion of a meal. Many stories use wedding, funerals, and graduations. Jane Smiley, in her brilliant novel A Thousand Acres, has her characters play Monopoly. The point is to put the characters into a confined space that they cannot leave: a car, around a table, a space station (Gravity).
  5. Make one of the characters act first. Lopez has the dad act on his reaction to the subtext first (making dinner, pulling out the chair), and the sequence of events dominoes from those initial acts. The act should stand out in some way. The easiest way is for the character to act out of character, and, often, this kind of act will cause the character to be embarrassed or behave awkwardly. Remember, the character is doing something out of the ordinary, and so he/she likely won’t be very good at it. The small failures in the act can provide openings for other characters to react.
  6. Keep the subtext just beneath the surface. Don’t let it be stated outright. As Lopez makes clear in the first chapter of the novel, once the subtext is revealed, the scene ends. So, the longer you can keep it under the surface, the longer you can keep the scene going.

Good luck!

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