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How to Give Your Characters a Kick in the Pants

21 Feb
Paige Schilt's memoir, Queer Rock Love, was called a "well-balanced, soul-searching family memoir with broad appeal" by Kirkus Reviews.

Paige Schilt’s memoir, Queer Rock Love, was called a “well-balanced, soul-searching family memoir with broad appeal” by Kirkus Reviews.

One of the hardest things to learn as a writer is that it’s boring to read about characters thinking. If thinking and realizing are the primary actions in a story, that story probably isn’t going to work. Even the most brilliant ideas need to be attached to drama—action, intrigue, conflict. On a practical level, this means that it can be a great exercise to start chapters or stories by giving your character a kick in the pants and forcing him or her to act, not just think.

Paige Schilt proves that this strategy works for nonfiction as well. Again and again, she starts chapters of her memoir Queer Rock Love with action. You can see how she does it here.

How the Memoir Works

The book is a love story featuring Schilt and her wife, Katy, an Austin rocker/therapist (a very Austin combination). Unlike many love stories, it begins with marriage, which means that the drama is found not in falling in love but in dealing with the obstacles that threaten to overwhelm love once it’s established. That said, this chapter comes early in the book, when Schilt is finishing up graduate school in Pennsylvania and still figuring out what it means to be the relationship. One of Katy’s friends decides to buy a house in Austin, but since Austin prices are quickly rising, the only place he can afford is a duplex—if someone splits it with him and lives in the other unit. He decides that Katy will be that person:

“And, because Katy and I had decided that we were married, that meant that I was meant to buy a house with Jim too. That night on the phone, Katy told me that she and Jim were going to look at a house in South Austin. “He says it just has this remarkable energy.” I rolled my eyes in the privacy of my Pennsylvania apartment, and Katy continued unaware. “He thinks we ought to buy it together. It’s a duplex, so we could live in the top and he could live in the bottom.”

“Hmm…” I said. In my heart I had decided to move back to Austin, but I hadn’t given much thought to where we would live. I was filled with dread at the prospect of telling everyone—my department chair, my mentors, and especially my parents—that I was quitting my job. Through six grueling years of grad school, life had seemed linear. If all went well, I would land a tenure track position and move up the ladder at regularly scheduled intervals. Now I felt like I was sailing over the edge of the known universe in a barrel. I wasn’t entirely sure if I would survive the journey. What did I care for the details of how we might live when (and if) I arrived?

A few nights later, Katy brought it up again. “You’re going to love it,” she said. “There’s something about it—it’s just got the greatest energy.” I tried to remain noncommittal, but suddenly Katy was talking mortgage lenders and down payments.

“But,” I objected, “I haven’t even met Jim! How can I buy a house with someone I’ve never met?”

My feeble sandbags were no match for the tidal wave of Katy’s enthusiasm. “You’re going to love him too,” she assured me. “He’s super smart, and he reads Lacan! I think you guys actually have a lot in common.”

Think about how this passage could have been written—and often is written in early drafts, especially in beginning writer workshops. The character/narrator would have agonized over what to do, perhaps while drinking coffee, smoking a cigarette, or looking out the window—actions that would have been meaningless filler. Schilt avoids that problem by giving the scene real drama and action (people buying a house) and, therefore, a meaningful choice to make. The same pondering that would have filled the alternative draft are still there, but now they’re made concrete with the duplex.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s make a character or narrator’s thoughts concrete, using Queer Rock Love by Paige Schilt as a model:

  1. Identify your character’s or narrator’s existential dilemma. For Schilt, that dilemma was about what it meant to be in a marriage—and in this marriage in particular. It’s a lot for any person or character to think about, which is great for drama. It’s what we often mean when we use the term stakes. So, what does your character or narrator (real or invented) worry or think about late at night, while driving, or while he or she ought to be focused on something else?
  2. Introduce a decision made by someone else. In this passage, Schilt does not suddenly get it into her head to buy a duplex. The idea doesn’t even start with her wife, Katy. Instead, it’s a third person who talks Katy into it, and then Katy goes to work on Schilt. This is important for two reasons. First, it takes some of the pressure off of the main character to be the focus of all the drama. The drama should affect the character/narrator, but it doesn’t need to be started by the character/narrator. Second, it creates a larger world for the story. Suddenly a character we haven’t even met yet is playing a crucial role, which means our sense of the place around the main characters grows. So, look beyond your main characters. Who are their friends, coworkers, family members, and acquaintances? What decisions are those people making that might impact the main characters? How and why would these side or minor characters try to include the main characters in their plans?
  3. Force the issue. Katy doesn’t raise the possibility of buying the duplex and then let it drop. She brings it up over and over again, each time applying greater pressure, moving from “you’re going to love it” to practical issues like mortgage payments. The duplex is becoming a reality, whether Schilt wants to engage with it or not. As a result, she must figure out her feelings about the big, existential issue because this more practical matter is coming to a head. How can your characters apply pressure, forcing your main character or narrator to make a decision, not just about the practical issue (whether to buy a duplex) but also about the larger existential issue, whatever it is for your character?

The goal is to move the story along, from though to action and, therefore, drama by forcing the issue. Important practical matters often require us to sort out our feelings about existential dilemmas.

Good luck.

How to Write Moments of High Emotion

14 Feb
The linked stories in Barefoot Dogs follow the members of a wealthy Mexican family after their patriarch, José Victoriano Arteaga, is kidnapped.

The linked stories in Barefoot Dogs follow the members of a wealthy Mexican family after their patriarch, José Victoriano Arteaga, is kidnapped. Read essays by writers responding to the book at Books Are Not a Luxury.

Robert Olen Butler has a theory that stories are written from a white-hot center. Your job as a writer is to find it. But what happens when you do? That center often carries significant emotion, and the challenge is how to dramatize that emotion without verging into sentimentality or melodrama. In other words, you need to hit the note at the right pitch and for the right amount of time.

A story that hits that moment just right is Antonio Ruiz-Camacho’s story, “Barefoot Dogs,” originally published as “Madrid,” from his collection Barefoot Dogs. The moment comes at the end, in a ghostly encounter, and the dialogue that carries the moment is quick and affecting. You can read the story here or in the collection.

How the Story Works

The story is about a man who is beginning to realize how much he misses his father. The reason for this realization? His father has been kidnapped by members of a Mexican cartel, and the son (the narrator) has fled to Madrid with his wife, dog, and newborn son. At the story’s end, a moment comes when the father and son share the page. The father is not present in the traditional physical sense, but he’s there, and the two talk for a minute. (Spoiler warning, obviously, but the ending will make you want to read the entire story).

At first, they talk about nothing (parking) and share the usual gestures (a hug). The son is dumbfounded, and that disbelief is focused on something particular, the father’s feet (read the story and you’ll know why). They talk about the feet and the father’s shoes for longer than you might expect, but the details of their back-and-forth build the establish the father’s reality (at least as far as the narrator and we are concerned):

“Whose feet are they?”

He clears his throat, and my stomach cramps for everything looks and feels so real, his voice, his gestures, his presence around me, that always soothed me, regardless. “To be honest with you, I’m not sure. I got them at a flea market, and I preferred not to know all the details about the previous owner, if you know what I mean.”

The strangeness of the dialogue (feet bought at a flea market) tells us how to read the scene: real but not real.

Next, the characters say what they need to say: “I miss you” and “I’m so proud of you.”

Then comes the white hot center—at least for this scene. A story often has several hot spots. The son says this: “You could have told me that before.” What makes this moment interesting is how quickly it passes. The narrator feels regret at saying this, and then the conversation shifts and they talk about daily life and how to be in the world. Eventually, the father offers advice about the dog, which the son recently took to the vet. There is a connection between the dog and the father, but it’s not overplayed, and the story ends. What is important is how the scene surrounds the moment of high emotion with details that locate us physically and, on the emotional side, set and continually re-establish the tone: not too high, not too low. Just right.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s write a moment of high emotion, using “Madrid” by Antonio Ruiz-Camacho as a model:

  1. Choose the white-hot center. You do this by choosing your characters and the tension between them. The characters (like real people) will have developed mechanisms for being together without getting sucked into the white-hot center—the place of highest tension between them. To use another metaphor, there’s often an elephant in the room and they’ve figured out how to avoid walking into it or getting stepped on. So, your job is to uncover the elephant, the white-hot center, the point of conflict. If there is more than one, you will likely craft scenes around each of them.
  2. Figure out what must be said. If the story or scene is inevitably headed toward that point of conflict, what will the characters say when it gets there? The writer and teacher Debra Monroe has said that every story what can be distilled to a phrase from a Hallmark card or a Lifetime movie, and that’s true, of Ruiz-Camacho’s story as well. “I miss you,” the son says. “I’m so proud of you,” his father says. The white-hot center and the dialogue in it doesn’t need to be original, just affecting.
  3. Accept that the reader knows what is coming. A few stories manage to fool the reader, but most develop a sense of direction. The reader knows where the story is going and anticipates scenes that begin to feel inevitable. So, when those scenes arrive, rather than sneaking them into the story, set them up. Give details that locate those scenes specifically within the story. Ruiz-Camacho does this by showing the reader a white Lincoln Town Car, the exact car his father drove. He shows the car once, fleetingly, and then shows it again. As a result, when the father gets out, we’re ready for the scene that will follow.
  4. Set the tone. Start too high, and you’ll have nowhere to go. Start too low, and the reader will be bored. So, where do you start? One strategy is to present an obvious question and then deal with it in an unexpected tone. This is what Ruiz-Camacho does in the story. The son immediately looks at his father’s feet (again, read the story, and you’ll understand why), and rather than handling that question in a sad or tragic way, the father gives an answer that is both absurd and inscrutable (found them at a flea market). The result is that we’re thrown off-balance, which is a good place to be in an anticipated scene. For your scene, choose a question that must be answered or an uncertainty that must be made certain and answer it in a tone that is not less or more but different than what is expected.
  5. Write the moment. Move quickly into the moment. Don’t work your way up to it. In the case of “Madrid,” Ruiz-Camacho doesn’t even let the father finish a sentence about his feet before the son says, “I miss you.” Once the tone is set, move into the moment as fast as possible. Remember, the reader knows it’s coming and will get restless waiting for it.
  6. Get out of it. If you know what must be said, then as soon as it’s said, move on. Don’t draw out something that has accomplished what it needed to do. One approach is to move next to what the characters would talk about once they got the big stuff out of the way. How do they chitchat? How do they talk with one another when they’re relaxed and nothing is on the line. Of course, something is on the line, which is why the scene exists, but once the tension breaks, how do the characters try to revert back to their normal relationship and selves? Ruiz-Camacho lets his characters talk about daily life: parking, jobs, connections that might be useful. All of this is colored by the question of how a man and father should be, which at the center of the white-hot moment that we just read. That’s the great thing about finding that emotional tension: find it, and everything else will be colored by it and made more dramatic.

Good luck.

How to End a Story

7 Feb
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 Essay 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 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.

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.

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.

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