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How to Play “This I Believe” with Your Characters

25 Jul

Owen Egerton’s novel Hollow, according to a NPR review, contains “the kind of grace not usually seen in accessible modern fiction.”

A few years ago, National Public Radio ran a series called “This I Believe.” People, some famous and some not, wrote short essays about their beliefs. It was fascinating because of the weight that we give to those three words. To go public and say “I believe ____” is much different from saying, “I think ___.” We associate the word beliefs with something deeply held and essential to the decisions we make every day. Beliefs are not easily changed, and when they challenged, the internal crisis we feel can leave us distraught.

As writers, we can use our characters’ beliefs against them for gripping results. Owen Egerton offers a perfect demonstration of this in his new novel Hollow. You can read an excerpt here.

How the Novel Works

The novel is about a crisis of faith experienced by Oliver Bonds, a beloved religious studies professor at the University of Texas. After his son dies, his life unravels until he is nearly homeless, his only friend a man who wants to join an expedition to the North Pole to discover an entrance to the Hollow Earth. In this passage, Bonds describes his belief system before his son died:

I believed I believed nothing.

It wasn’t true.

I believed, without ever saying it, that the world was basically good. I believed moral behavior was rewarded by the world. I believed cruelty to be its own kind of punishment. And though I never would have admitted it to anyone, least of all myself, I believed that the most horrible things don’t really happen.

I saw the photos of typhoons drowning entire villages or genocidal wars. Monthly I tithed to charities aiming to end modern slavery or encourage basic health care in poorer nations. But in some deep secret way, I didn’t believe in these tragedies. They were distant, unreal, fantastic. Or, worse, I believed I simply didn’t see the bigger picture, the vague grander scheme that explained these tragedies.

I had one over-arching belief, so basic to my life that I never felt the need to distinguish it as a belief any more than a person would count the sun’s heat as an article of faith. I believed the world made sense.

Clearly, the passage lays out his beliefs, but what makes it really interesting is the phrase “I believed, without ever saying it…” We probably all hold beliefs that are both too important and too fragile to articulate to others or ourselves. We’re afraid to speak them aloud because we know there are arguments against them, and we worry not just that someone might make us look foolish but that we might not hold the belief as firmly as we thought.

Those are the soft points that, as writers, we must press hard upon. And Egerton does, to devastating and thrilling effect.

The Writing Exercise 

Let’s clearly state a character’s beliefs, using Hollow by Owen Egerton as a model:

  1. Start with the easy beliefs. It’s pretty difficult to immediately jump into something as sensitive as our most deeply held beliefs. You’re not likely to share your own with a random person, and neither are our characters. So, don’t make them. Instead, let your characters talk about their beliefs about basic elements of their lives: their partners, kids, friends, jobs, schools, hobbies, etc. Get them talking. This is a brainstorming exercise, and so let your characters say whatever they want—whether it’s in first person or if you’re saying it for them in third person.
  2. Push on those beliefs a little. Try using this sentence starter: “I don’t usually tell people this, but I sometimes wonder if…” You can also change the pronouns to the third person. You’re searching for a belief that is the equivalent of a friends-only Facebook post, something that might require a personal connection to fully understand or that the speaker might not want perfect strangers to know. You can try something embarrassing or funny or whatever. You’re playing, so don’t overthink it.
  3. Keep going until you find yourself feeling uncomfortable. Your character is most likely not you, nor even some version of you. But you should still pay attention to your own comfort level. We’re often made uncomfortable by people revealing things that we, personally, are fine with, but we sense that they are not and so we begin to cringe. If something you write makes you cringe, even a little, follow it.
  4. Use the belief against your character. Oliver Bonds believes that the world is basically good and sensible, and so Egerton challenges him with something awful and senseless. How will he respond? What will he do? This is the basis of the entire novel.

The goal is to discover your story’s plot by finding out what your characters believe and introducing elements that make those beliefs seem untenable.

Good luck.

Give Readers a Sneak Peak at the Wild Action to Come

18 Jul

Nicky Drayden’s debut novel The Prey of Gods is set in a futuristic South Africa where gods, drugs, genetic manipulation, and robots collide.

As a novelist, you will one day inevitably be required to write a query letter or pitch an agent in person, and you’ll quickly realize how important it is to get straight to whatever element of your story can fascinate and intrigue in a sentence or two. It’s an instructive experience because it reminds you about the power of story and what makes people pick up a book in the first place. But you’ll also quickly learn that a great pitch or query is not necessarily accompanied by a great novel. Or, the skills for one are not the skills for the other. Even a novel with the most amazing concept and premise in the world needs to build compelling, rich characters within that premise.

A great example of character building in a novel with a wild premise is The Prey of Gods by Nicky Drayden. You can read an excerpt from the novel at Tor.com.

How the Novel Works

The novel is set in a futuristic South Africa, where personal robots called alphies tend to their owners and the government harnesses technological advances to raise the standard of living. We follow six different characters as this world starts to come apart. We’re introduced to one of them, Sidney Mazwai, in this scene. She works at a nail salon, and one of her wealthiest clients has walked in, preparing for a fundraiser for a politician whose family her own has known for centuries.

“Centuries, you say?” Sounds like the perfect opportunity to hear a long and convoluted story about how Mrs. Donovan’s family came to South Africa during the Anglo-Boer War with intentions of raping the country of its precious metals and gems. Not that Sydney needs a refresher history course since she’d actually lived through it nearly two hundred years ago, but it’ll give her a chance to do the thing that’s the other half of getting those fat tips. Sydney grabs a small bottle of organic botanical oils and squeezes a drop onto each cuticle, then she rubs as Mrs. Donovan drones on incessantly about her lineage. Warmth buds inside that empty space right behind Sydney’s navel, and it travels up– prickling like the skitter of centipede legs–through her chest, over her shoulders, and down her arms, and then finally into the pads of her fingertips which glow as subtly as the sun peeking through gray winter clouds. Mrs. Donovan’s nails lengthen, just a few centimeters—enough to notice, but not so much to raise suspicions. Sydney then rubs out all signs of imperfection and hangnails.

By the time she gets to the left hand, Sydney’s stomach is cramping, but it’s nothing a couple of aspirin won’t take care of. When she’s done, she reaches into her alphie’s bottom compartment and pulls out a bottle of clear coat, keeping it palmed safely out of sight. The empty spot inside her grows as she reaches into Mrs. Donovan’s rambling thoughts and pulls out the shade of the dress she’ll be wearing tonight. Sydney clenches her fist, envisions a nice complimentary color, and opens her hand to reveal a feisty shade of mauve.

“Oh, that’s perfect,” Mrs. Donovan says as the first coat goes on. “I swear, Precious, the colors you pick for me are always spot on. Sometimes I think you can read my mind.”

In this scene, we’re introduced to various aspects of Sidney’s life and personality. She’s on the bottom end of a class and colonial divide, she can create a facade that hides the resentment she feels over this divide, she has magical powers, and those powers take a physical toll on her when used.

Now, imagine how else those aspects of her character could have been revealed. We learn, not long after this scene, that Sydney’s powers extend far beyond cuticle manipulation. She is, in fact, the “ancient demigoddess hell-bent on regaining her former status by preying on the blood and sweat (but mostly blood) of every human she encounters” mentioned on the novel’s back cover. But you wouldn’t know that from this passage. Instead of devouring the woman, she does her nails. It’s the opposite of what you’d talk about in a query letter or pitch. But it’s essential to building the novel.

Novels require pacing, whereas pitches do not. A novel must build up to its wildest moments, and the distance between the mundane and the wild also creates mystery: how are the mundane and wild connected in this one character?

It might be tempting to cut out mundane elements of your story, but a novel without quotidian scenes won’t work. The key is to hint at the wild stuff in the middle of the mundane, which is what Drayden does in this nail salon scene.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s hint at the wildest parts of our story, using The Prey of Gods by Nicky Drayden as a model:

  1. Identify the wild part of your story and locate it in a character. This applies even if your character isn’t magic, like Drayden’s. Every novel has a dramatic scene in which a character acts out of passion and desire. The nature of the act will vary, depending on the novel, but it’s there. It’s probably what led you to write the novel in the first place. So, know what it is and make it something that exists internally in the character. Don’t rely exclusively on external events to drive the action; it will lead to a boring character whose actions feel unconvincing. In other words, what is your character capable of doing?
  2. Give your character a daily grind. Drayden makes Sydney go to work at a nail salon. In many novels, work often supplies this daily grind. So do family, friends, and household chores. Find something that your character does in a thoughtless, mechanical way. In itself, this helps build character because we learn what your character is dissatisfied with. But it also provides a way to surprise the reader, who will sense the character’s boredom with the act and so won’t see the wild part coming.
  3. Build hints of the wild part into the grind. This almost always takes the form of quiet rebellion. Your character pushes back against the grind (and the people who embody it) in ways that help your character (either by giving them the satisfaction of rebellion or, as in Sydney’s case, benefiting them in some tangible way). This rebellion is where you’re really crafting the character. What hints of the character’s wildness are present in that rebellion? How does she conceal it? Both the wildness and the deception will likely become essential to the character and provide building blocks as you move into the more dramatic parts of the novel.

The goal is to build a character and world with an eye toward the sort of dramatic action that might appear in a query letter or pitch.

Good luck.

How to Make and Thwart Plans

11 Jul
Danish writer Mathilde Walter Clark's story, "The Disappearance of Things" appeared in The Chattahoochee review along with works by Roxane Gay and Aimee Bender.

Danish writer Mathilde Walter Clark’s story, “The Disappearance of Things” appeared in The Chattahoochee Review along with works by Roxane Gay and Aimee Bender.

In his poem, “To a Mouse,” the Scottish poet Robert Burns wrote the line—now famous as the source of the title of John Steinbeck’s novel Of Mice and Men—”The best-laid plans of mice and men/often go awry.” As a piece of advice for story writers, the line is as helpful today as it was in 1785. We often create a draft of a story or novel that has The Big Thing That Will Happen and The Way The Character Feels About It, but we don’t have any middle. In other words, we have no plot. To solve that problem, we can create plans and then let them go awry.

This is exactly what the writer Mathilde Walter Clark does in her story, “The Disappearance of Things.” Clark is Danish, and the story appeared in translation (by Martin Aitken) in The Chattahoochee Review, where you can read it now.

How the Story Works

The story is about a man whose possessions have begun to disappear: “a screw lid, a left sock.” It soon becomes clear that this isn’t a case of absent-mindedness. His shoes vanish, and the man realizes that his entire worldview is threatened.

That was not the way matter behaved. It could be obstructive, but it was an obstructiveness that came of existing, of having substance and shape. Of possessing hardness and inthewayness. He was under no illusion that he was a knowledgeable man, but the few things he did know were things to which he attached great importance. He knew, for example, that orderly surroundings make an orderly mind. And he knew that shoes don’t just disappear.

And so the premise is set, and we know how the man feels about it. We also know with some certainty that the disappearances will continue and that this will affect the man’s mental state. The question is now one of plot. The story can’t keep moving in the same way as it began: things disappearing, the man feeling confused. Resistance is needed. The man needs to push back. Something needs to happen. But how?

Here is Clark’s solution:

Following the disappearance of the rissole, he had drawn up a detailed list of all his possessions in order to help him navigate in what were habitually new and chaotic surroundings. The list ran initially to one hundred and forty-eight pages of yellow, lineated A4 paper.

The man creates a plan. He’s going to keep his things in a single room and consult his list to make sure all is accounted for. The temptation, now, would be to immediately thwart the plan. But that’s not what Clark does. Instead, she explains the logic behind the plan (“His possessions were ordered according to the following taxonomy”).

Okay, so now it’s time to thwart the plan, right?

Wrong. Instead, Clark adds to the plan:

He had yet to experience things disappearing in front of his eyes, so if he stayed awake long enough he thought he might be able to reduce his losses. He also took a chamber pot into the living room with him, since a number of his things seemed to be taking the opportunity to disappear during his visits to the bathroom.

This is how plot works. The character encounters a problem and comes up with a plan for dealing with it. The plan has a rationale. It’s personal to the character, and as the character thinks about it, she realizes holes in the plan. Perhaps those holes cause small problems, and so she adapts and closes the holes. Things are under control.

And that’s when you make the plan go awry:

It worked fine for a day or two until the lists disappeared.

Not only does the plan get thwarted, but that act—the disappearance of the list—feels personal:

[T]he leaves of yellow A4 were gone, with the exception of the one itemizing
temporary possessions belonging in the kitchen region. On the other hand,
the pile containing temporary possessions belonging in the kitchen region
was also gone, exactly as if matter had decided to play a very serious practical
joke on him.

The story has created a situation in which the character cannot defeat the problem. But the character himself isn’t defeated. And so the story continues. When all hope is lost, what comes next? That’s where plot must go.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s create and thwart plans to create plot, using the “The Disappearance of Things” by Mathilde Walter Clark as a model:

  1. Create a problem to be solved. The type of problem will depend on the type of story. Clark is writing (generally speaking) in the style of Fabulism (think of the writers Aimee Bender, George Saunders, Manuel Gonzales, Kelly Luce, or the filmmaker Michael Gondry), and so her problem isn’t realistic so much as a supernatural manifestation of some internal problem. The point is this: all genres create problems. Vampires must be killed, bills must be paid, cancer must be faced, and intergalactic nemeses must be defeated. The important thing is to create problems that can be addressed head on. In other words, the character must possess the power to solve the problem (serfs can’t defeat intergalactic villains, at least not on their own).
  2. Create a solution. Simple solutions tend to be better than complex solutions. In Star Wars, the good guys blow up the Death Star—pretty simple. It’s the complications to enacting the simple solution that make it interesting. In “The Disappearance of Things,” Clark has her character make a list of his possessions so that he can track the ones that go missing—again, a simple solution. The solution also fits his character because he’s detail-oriented. So, identify a trait of your character and ask yourself, “What kind of plan would that kind of person invent?”
  3. Give the solution a rationale. In part, this means to explain how it will work (the way a heist movie has its thieves rehearse the heist before actually enacting it). But it also means giving details about why the character knows the plan will work. The reader of the story or novel (or viewer of the heist movie) has suspicions that they’re being set up, but those suspicions need to be balanced out by the solidity of the plan. Readers need to believe that even if one or two things go wrong, the plan as a whole is solid. This is why Clark explains the taxonomy of the man’s possessions. She’s convincing us that the man is mentally fit and together. Even if one or two of his possessions goes missing, he’s still with it. He’ll be fine. Without this paragraph (this rationale for why his solution of creating a list is a good one), the readers will simply believe they’ve been given another plot point to be easily knocked over.
  4. Tweak the planShow your character in a state of reflection. There’s a scene at the end of Don Delillo’s novel White Noise when the novel’s main character, Jack Gladney, is driving to confront a man. As he drives, he repeats his plan to himself. But also, as he drives, he thinks about the plan and adds details to it. Any character, if they bear any semblance to real-life people, will try to anticipate the future and the things that might occur in it. So, let your character anticipate the ways the plan might go wrong or the obstacles it might encounter. Then, give the character room to adapt the plan to these potential problems. In so doing, the plan becomes more solid, more believable.
  5. Thwart the plan. The plan must go wrong. If something goes according to plan, readers will be disappointed. At the very least, the results must be different than expected (the old “Be careful what you wish for” thing). There are two ways that a plan can go wrong: the expected way (that the writer and character have anticipated) and the unexpected way. I don’t mean that a meteor appears from space. I mean that you can use any of the characters or things or trends that you’ve already established and reintroduce them in unexpected ways. Clark does this by returning to the disappearances that set the story in motion. The expected move would be to make things on the list disappear. The unexpected move is to make the list itself disappear. It’s also a move that renders the plan totally unworkable. As a plot point, this is useful because it forces the character into terrain that he could not (or refused to) anticipate. Once the character is in that situation, that’s when the story really takes off and the reader leans in. That’s when we see something we did not expect to see.

Good luck!

How to Introduce a Character with Misdirection

13 Jun
Kaitlyn Greenidge's highly anticipated debut novel, We Love You, Charlie Freeman, tells the story of an African-American family who moves to a research institute to live with a chimpanzee.

Kaitlyn Greenidge’s highly anticipated debut novel, We Love You, Charlie Freeman, tells the story of the Freemans, an African-American family that moves into a research institute to live with a chimpanzee.

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

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

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

How the Novel Works

The novel has a bold premise: The Freeman family is moving into a research institute in rural Massachusetts to be part of an experiment. They will live (and raise their daughters) alongside a chimpanzee named Charlie. The novel begins with the Freemans driving to this institute, where they meet some of the staff and then, finally, Charlie. The introduction is prefaced with this line: “Dr. Paulson thinks it’s best we all meet Charlie now.” It’s a dramatic moment, and here’s how Greenidge handles it:

Charlie lived behind a door in the living room. He had a large, oval-shaped space with low ceilings and no windows and no furniture. Instead, there were bundles of pastel-colored blankets heaped up on the scarred wooden floor. Even from where I stood, I could tell the blankets were the scratchy kind, cheap wool. The room was full of plants—house ferns and weak African violets and nodding painted ladies. “They’re here to simulate the natural world,” Dr. Paulson told us, but I thought it was an empty gesture. Charlie had never known any forests and yet Dr. Paulsen assumed some essential part of him pined for them.

Charlie sat beside a fern. A man knelt beside him. “That’s Max, my assistant,” Dr. Paulsen said.

Max was wearing jeans and a red T-shirt, his lab coat balled up on the floor. He was pale, with messy red hair. He was trying to grow a beard, probably just graduated from college a couple years earlier.

Charlie has taken Max’s glasses and is licking them, and Max is trying to distract Charlie so that he can get them back. We watch this “very gentle disagreement” for a bit, until Dr. Paulsen calls Max and he carries over Charlie. Finally, we see Charlie directly. It’s a good description, with strong, specific imagery. But it’s also clear that Charlie is just a chimpanzee—no more, no less—and quickly the novel returns to the other characters and their reactions to Charlie, ending with the narrator’s mother holding him with tears in her eyes.

So, what can we learn from this?

In this novel, as with The Great Gatsby, the title character isn’t actually as important as the supporting cast. The most interesting scenes take place around the title character, with other characters reacting to him. So, the introduction reflects this fact. In both novels, we’re first shown the people around the title character before the character himself.

The Writing Exercise 

Let’s introduce a character through misdirection, using We Love You, Charlie Freeman by Kaitlyn Greenidge as a model:

  1. Bring the reader into a place where the character is present. The key is for the reader to know that in this place, somewhere, is the character. Horror stories do this all the time: somewhere in this spooky place is the monster, we’re just not sure where.
  2. Give the reader a reason to want to meet the character. Both Fitzgerald and Greenidge do this by putting the character in the title and making them the ostensible reason for the story to exist. Without rich, mysterious Gatsby living next door, there’s no novel. Without Charlie, there’s no experiment. So, give your reader a sense for what role this character will play in your story.
  3. Introduce the character through place. We see Charlie’s home behind the door before we see Charlie. The home is filled with details (the lack of windows, the blankets, the plants) that tell us a lot—not so much about Charlie but about the people around him at the institute. So, think about the place where your character is found. If people entered that place for the first time, eager to meet the character, what details would they notice? What would they discern from them?
  4. Introduce the character through other characters. Charlie is named, but we don’t see him. Instead, we’re shown Max. As with the details about place, the details about Max and how he interacts with Charlie reveal a lot about him. So, show the character interacting with someone else and then focus on that someone else. Again, what details would people notice, and what would they think about them?
  5. Finally, show the character. The details should be specific. Greenidge mentions Charlie’s smell, “old and sharp, like a bottle of witch hazel.”
  6. Return to the other characters or the place. Remember what is important. In Greenidge’s case, the real focus is the effect that Charlie has on the Freemans. With Fitzgerald, the focus is the effect that Gatsby has one everyone else. Show enough of the main character and then return to the effect that he or she has.

The goal is to introduce a character by revealing the world and characters around him or her.

Good luck.

How to Make Setting Striking to All and Personal to One

7 Jun

Julia Fierro’s novel The Gypsy Moth Summer is one of the most anticipated books of the summer.

Some stories are blessed with great settings, such as shadowy mansions with secret gardens and skeletons in the closets. This is a description of many great novels and also a brand new one: The Gypsy Moth Summer by Julia Fierro. One of the things she does so well in the book is play up this great location. But it’s not enough to make a mansion very very shadowy and its gardens very very secret. A novel must also personalize the setting so that its importance becomes acutely attached to one character in particular. That attachment is often what will drive the story forward, and it’s the case in The Gypsy Moth Summer.

You can read an excerpt of the novel here.

How the Novel Works

The novel follows Leslie Day Marshall as she returns to her home off the coast of Long Island, bringing her African-American husband, Jules, and their children. Leslie’s the daughter of the most prominent family on an island full of them, and so we’re quickly introduced to their estate, as seen through the eyes of Jules:

He had no language to describe the Castle then. It took a few days for the archaic terms he had studied in required architectural courses at Harvard to return to him. Turrets and finials and gables. But studying glossy photos in a textbook was nothing like the real thing. Of course Leslie’s parents had named it The Castle. It was the stuff of fairy tales, a white marble palace rising out of the trees, built to protect a royal clan from marauding villagers, raping and pillaging hordes. From war. From the undesirables—what his pops had called the kids in their hood who spent their days slinging dope, lounging on stoops like the sun had melted them there.

These are the details that are supposed to impress pretty much any reader. It’s literally a castle, but it’s also something out of a fairy tale. The house is not just big and fancy; it’s the stuff of legend. A couple of paragraphs later, we learn that the doors weigh a ton each and also that the house is a literal copy of a French castle and resort.

But you can also see the novel beginning to personalize it, with the way that Jules connects the word undesirables to his own background. The novel continues on in that direction:

If there had been a chance left for him to hate the island, to refuse Leslie’s and Brooks’s demands that they move, it died when Jules entered the maze that led to the Castle’s gardens. Leslie, not one to keep anything under wraps, had managed to keep it a surprise, and as Jules ran into the maze, ignoring Leslie’s cries, “Wait, you’ll get lose! You need the directions!” there was nothing he wanted more than to lose himself between the tall (at least eight or nine feet, he guessed) fragrant corridors. It was his personal amusement park—the funny mirror glass replaced with living, breathing, CO2-releasing walls.

We later learn that even the word fragrant is personal. The corridors are formed from boxwood, which “smelled like cat piss,” a scent that Jules is unusual in loving.

This personal connection is important because it will give Jules a reason to stay when things go south—as they inevitably will. It’s a bit like the horror movies, where you scream, “Get out of there,” but the characters never leave. In this novel, Fierro has created an intense attachment that will keep Jules in the Castle, even after he should have gotten out of there.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s make setting striking to all readers but personal to one character, using The Gypsy Moth Summer by Julia Fierro as a model:

  1. Name your setting. Fierro names hers “The Castle.” Your name doesn’t actually need to appear in the story or be used by the characters, but it will help define the setting: the town, the farm, the yard, the school. When you’re able to think of the setting as a single entity or place, it’s easier to begin to give it a sensibility—a mood.
  2. Describe the setting in terms from some other story. All books are read in the context of other books that came before them. It’s why we can think in terms of genres and why a castle off the coast of Long Island is more than simply a great big house. Ezra Pound said to make it to new, and that’s all well and good, but you should also take advantage of the literary traditions that have shaped your reader. If you’ve got a castle, make it more than a big house. So, find some counterpart for your setting in another story—not just old ones like fairy tales but anything people might be familiar with. For example, a small house could be described in terms appropriate to the submarine in Das Boot. As soon as you tap into the connotations and memories that readers have retained from that other story, your own setting takes on a life that is, to some extent, larger than the page its written on.
  3. Connect the setting so one particular character. This can be a literal connection (I, too, once lived in a castle). Or it can be primarily in the character’s head, as it is with Jules, who connects what the castle seems to keep out with the undesirables of his own youth. This connection doesn’t need to be belabored. It’s simply a bridge to connect setting and character beyond mere presence (I’m in a castle). Try using this basic phrase: “The place reminded him/her/me of ____.”
  4. Deepen the connection. Jules sees the garden, and even without knowing much about him, we can already sense that the guy’s got a serious thing for nature and landscaping. So, give your character an “Oh my god” moment, as in “Oh, my god, did you see this ___?” The ____ should be something more remarkable to that character than to the others around him or her. Then, keep going. Focus on some particular aspect of the ____ (like the boxwoods) and make the character respond to it differently than the other characters. This might seem forced at first, but play with it. Dig into the idiosyncrasies of your character or the things in his/her background not shared by anyone else—or simply the weird stuff he or she likes. Use those traits to make the connection with the place intensely personal to that character.

The goal is to set up plot points later in the story by strengthening the connection between one particular character and the story’s setting.

Good luck.

How to Know What’s Worth Showing

30 May
Dolen Perkins-Valdez's New York Times bestselling novel Balm follows three African-American characters who have moved to Chicago after the Civil War.

Dolen Perkins-Valdez’s New York Times bestselling novel Balm follows three African-American characters who have moved to Chicago after the Civil War.

When I was a writing student, a teacher in my program was famous for leaning back after a workshop discussion and saying, “Just tell me a story.” As a piece of advice, it’s almost absurdly on point. “Just tell me a story” is what readers across the country are thinking when they pick up a book. They are rarely interested in matters of craft and language. The problem for writers is that short stories and novels are far different from the stories we tell at bars: they’re much longer. Even if you transcribed the tale of that person you know who goes on and on, the result would be much less than 4000 words, the length of a medium-sized story. So what are all those words doing? That’s probably the biggest question that beginning writers ask. The answer is found in learning what information advances the story and what does not.

One of the clearest examples you’ll ever see of the distinction between story-advancing information and details that should be quickly summarized can be found in Dolen Perkins-Valdez’s novel Balm. You can read the opening pages of the New York Times bestseller at the HarperCollins website.

How the Novel Works

Early in the novel, there is a scene in which one of the main characters, Hemp, has moved to Chicago to search for his wife. He’s introduced to Mrs. Jenkins, a woman who takes boarders, and we’re shown their initial conversation:

She narrowed her eyes, wrinkling a scar across her face that had taken some of the bridge of her nose with it. “I don’t allow no riffraff in my house. That include liars and cheats and no counts, the don’t-want and the can’t-do. My husband and me is God-fearing people.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

This dialogue and scene serves two clear purposes. First, it tells the story: how Hemp found a room. But it also shows the reader a character, Mrs. Jenkins, in all her glory. The dialogue is terrific (“I don’t allow no riffraff in my house. That include liars and cheats and no counts, the don’t-want and the can’t-do”) and brings her character to life, so to speak. We can hear her voice. The rest of the scene continues that process of bringing-to-life for both characters:

“I cook once a day. In the morning before you go off to work, you and the mens sit down with my husband. You got to fend for your other eats.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Course I don’t allow for no loafing. You can’t sit round here all day.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Come on eat. It’s some hoecakes left. You look hungry as a mule. Then get yourself on out in them streets and get some work.”

“Yes, thank you,  ma’am.”

“You don’t say much, do you? That’s good. Ain’t room but for one talker round here. Haw!”

The conversation ends with Hemp explaining that he’s looking for his wife and Mrs. Jenkins promising to keep “an ear on it.” As a scene, it makes sense. We’ve been introduced to the characters and given a feel for their personalities; we’ve been drawn into their lives. We’ve also been introduced to the stakes of the story: Will Hemp find his wife? But look at what the novel does next:

Hemp got work loading ship a week later and earned his first wages as a free man. He bought a sack, shoes, pants, but even his first paying job could not help him shake the sadness. He asked everyone he met, but no one knew of a woman fitting Annie’s description. He decided it would be better for him to stay in one place. It did not make sense for both him and Annie to be moving around.

Before the month was out he knew that as nice as Mr. Jenkins was, he could not go on sleeping in that tight, dark room.

While the novel dramatizes and puts in-scene the initial conversation with Mrs. Jenkins, it summarizes a month of conflict: Hemp’s search for a job, his fruitless search for his wife, and his decision to find a new place to live. All of that could have been the subject of engrossing scenes, yet Perkins-Valdez summarized it. Why? The answer could tell us something about what is important in a story. In this case, what was important was establishing the characters, their voices, their desires. Once we understand those things—once we get a feel for the characters—we don’t need to see their every move. We intuitively understand how those summarized scenes might have played out, and we can skip ahead to another pivotal moment.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s dramatize character and voice and summarize action, using Balm by Dolen Perkins-Valdez as a model:

  1. Choose a pivotal moment in your story. By pivotal, I mean that someone acts, something changes, or a decision gets made. Our usual approach is often to put this moment in scene, but we’re going to try a different approach.
  2. Find or create an interaction that occurs before the pivotal moment. As in Balm, the interaction can be between two characters: a conversation or any moment that requires the characters to work together or against each other or do something at the same time. But the interaction can also be between the character and an object or place: think about Jack London’s famous story “To Build a Fire” and its scene with the man interacting with the wood that he’s trying to burn.
  3. Use that interaction to show off a character. The scene from Balm could easily come with a title: “This is what Mrs. Perkins is like and how newly-arrived Hemp reacts to her.” All of the dialogue and descriptions (“narrowed her eyes, wrinkling a scar”) actively build our sense of Mrs. Perkins. Hemp’s simple dialogue (“Yes, ma’am”) does the same thing. The goal is to give the reader an understanding of who these characters are. Once we have that, we will usually understand their actions. So, choose a moment that allows you, through dialogue or action, to show off the characters, to give the reader a sense for who they are.
  4. Give the scene purpose. In Balm, Hemp is looking for a room and for his wife. He’s not simply shooting the breeze with Mrs. Jenkins. In your scene, something needs to be at stake. The stakes can easily be resolved, as they are in Balm: Hemp gets a room but doesn’t find out anything about his wife. Not every scene needs a pulsing, Hans Zimmer drumbeat in the background. But every scene needs a reason to exist.
  5. After the scene is over, summarize the pivotal moment. Balm summarizes Hemp’s search for a job and his wife and his decision to find a new place to live. After seeing his conversation with Mrs. Jenkins, we can imagine him doing these things, and so it’s not necessary to show them. In the same way, you can dramatize a character-building moment and then trust that the traits you established will be clear enough to make sense during a quick summary of events.

The goal is to build a story that relies more on character and voice (which are inherently interesting) and less on minute-to-minute action (which can become tedious).

How to Give Depth to Character Descriptions

23 May

Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich’s The Fact of a Body: A Murder and a Memoir was named one of Entertainment Weekly‘s “Books You Have to Read in May.”

Beginning writers tend to approach character descriptions in a pretty straightforward way: what does he look like? Is she tall, short? What is a distinguishing characteristic? A nose? Teeth? The result often resembles a police or personal ad description—and that’s fine. It’s a place to begin. But as a writer’s craft grows, so does the ability to do more with character descriptions.

A great example of what is possible can be found at the beginning of Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich’s book, The Fact of a Body: A Murder and a Memoir. You can read the opening pages here.

How the Book Works

The book tells two different kinds of stories. One is about a murder. The other is about the author’s realization that she has a personal connection with the people involved in the crime. To make this double narrative work, we need to pretty quickly feel connected to the crime—to see the murderer and the victim as people who exist independently of those identities. This means, of course, making them appear complex and sympathetic. But it’s more than that. They ought to feel apart of a world. Take any person you know, and I suspect that it’s difficult, if not impossible, to think of them outside of the world they inhabit (or the world they share with you). This is why we’re so often befuddled when we encounter someone outside of their normal context. We can’t place them. In life and in our minds, people exist in relation to everything around them. So, a good description will capture those myriad complex relationships. Marzano-Lesnevich does that in the book’s first chapter:

Louisiana, 1992

The boy wears sweatpants the color of a Louisiana lake. Later, the police report will note them as blue, though in every description his mother gives thereafter she will always insist on calling them aqua or teal. On his feet are the muddy hiking boots every boy wears in this part of the state, perfect for playing in the woods. In one small fist, he grips a BB gun half as tall as he is. The BB gun is the Daisy brand, with a long, brown plastic barrel the boy keeps as shiny as if it were real metal. The only child of a single mother, Jeremy Guillory is used to moving often, sleeping in bedrooms that aren’t his. His mother’s friends all rent houses along the same deadens street the landlord calls Watson Road whenever he wants to charge higher rent, though it doesn’t really have a name and even the town police department will need directions to find it.

The paragraph continues, but you can already see so many ways that Jeremy Guillory has been placed in relation to his world:

  • The particular blue of his sweatpants draws a local comparison (Louisiana lake) and also different names from different sets of characters. Even with a minor detail, we’ve glimpsed setting and many different characters.
  • The boots place him not just in muddy woods but in a community of people who interact with those woods in a particular way.
  • We see his size in relation to his gun.
  • We see his care for the gun.
  • We see his mother and their family unit in relation to his mother’s friends and the street where they all live. We see the landlord who charges them all too much.
  • We see the street in relation to the community that doesn’t even know where it is.

When writing teachers talk about synchronicity or simultaneity, this is what they’re talking about: the ability of a single passage to show readers multiple things at once. In this case, it’s a character description that holds all of those things together—and also brings the character to three-dimensional life in our imaginations.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s describe a character in relation to his or her surroundings, using The Fact of a Body: A Murder and a Memoir by Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich as a model:

  1. Choose a detail that cannot be agreed upon. This is how Marzano-Lesnevich begins, though it’s not necessarily the way you must begin. But, we’ll go in the same order that she does. She picks a seemingly innocuous detail (the color of the boy’s sweatpants) and then gives a neutral description (her own) and then two different takes on it (the mother’s and the police’s). This gives the reader a clearer sense of the disputed issue, of course, but it also allows the writer to bring in other characters. In a purely mechanical way, it opens up the narrative to characters beyond the one being described.
  2.  Give the character a trait that many others like him/her possess. She uses his shoes. We do this constantly in narratives, and the way point of view often matters. When done from an outsider’s perspective, these kinds of details can potentially veer into stereotypes. (Think about the way that baggy pants and Carhartt jackets are used by politicians as shorthand for entire communities.) In a story, those stereotypes can reveal a lot about the character who holds them. But when done from an insider perspective, as Marzano-Lesnevich uses here, the detail can reveal a trait (societal, geographic) that is so strong that it bends the behavior of the people who encounter it.
  3. Show the character next to easily identifiable objects. We know how long a BB gun is (or at least readers with a certain background will). So, we don’t need to learn exactly how tall the boy is. Numbers are almost always less interesting and compelling than comparisons.
  4. Show the character interact with some object. Jeremy polishes the barrel of his BB gun. What does your character take great care with–or what does he neglect?
  5. Show the other people in the character’s world. Think about friends, family, coworkers—or just “their people.” What do they have in common?
  6. Investigate the power imbalances. The landlord has power over everyone who lives on the street or needs a house. The community has power over the street, or seems to based on its not caring enough to find out where it is. Or, to flip the perspective, the street has a kind of power over the community because it’s able to remain hidden—or, at least, certain individuals on the street will be able to take advantage of this hidden nature.

The goal is to explore a character in relation to everything around him. It creates a better description and the opportunity to advance the narrative beyond what the character looks like.

Good luck.

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