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How to Figure Out Who Is Telling Your Story

14 Nov

Juli Berwald’s book about jellyfish, Spineless, has received glowing reviews and been called “revelatory” and “thoroughly delightful and entertaining.”

One of the most basic elements that writers must figure out is who should—or is—telling their story. This means point of view: first person, second person, third person, omniscient, and all the shades of each. The possibilities can be overwhelming, and if you start asking yourself, “Is this really the right POV for my novel/story/memoir/nonfiction,” you can drive yourself crazy and never write anything. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t ask it, but sometimes the better approach is to forget the jargon and consider these simpler questions: Who is telling this story? What is the nature of that person? Why are they telling it?

A great example of a book whose answer to that question is tied inextricably to the way it is written is July Berwald’s captivating new book about jellyfish, Spineless. You can read the opening pages of the book here.

How the Book Works

The book is two things: a scientific report about jellyfish and argument about how they ought to be viewed by the public and studied by researchers and also Berwald’s personal story about the circumstances that led her to become interested in jellyfish. In terms of POV, the question becomes this: “What sort of person can tell both parts of that story?” It’s an aesthetic question but also a practical one. After all, readers could easily become confused if the scientific text they’re reading suddenly becomes a memoir.

As you might expect, Berwald sets out these different parts of her book right away. She begins with the personal: being in Hiroshima and seeing wild jellyfish. After a few pages and a space break, she breaks into the scientific: “The technical name for the stage of a jellyfish’s life when it swims freely in the seas is medusa…” It’s a line that could fit into a textbook or article in Nature. But if the book were to simply move back and forth between science/personal, a lot of readers would begin to skim one in favor of the other. The book wouldn’t work. So, what Berwald must do is figure out how the person telling the story—her—would talk about jellyfish. In short, what is the POV for the scientific sections. What is the voice of the narrator?

Here is the rest of the passage that follows that initial scientific line. Watch how it answers the question:

The technical name for the stage of a jellyfish’s life when it swims freely in the seas is medusa, a moniker shared with the Ancient Greek mythological monster. Medusa is famous for her horrible face, which could turn a man to stone, and her wild locks of hissing snakes. It’s not hard to see the similarities. A swimming medusa could look like a floating head with a wayward mane of terrifying stinging tentacles.

But dig a little deeper into the story of Medusa, and what you find is not at all a monster, but a victim whose story has been misunderstood. Medusa was born to two ancient marine deities and, according to Ovid, was stunningly gorgeous. She served the goddess Athena in her temple. Others say Poseidon couldn’t control himself. As in too many cases like this, it depends who’s telling the story. Since I am: He raped her, right there in Athena’s temple.

The passage goes on to finish the story about Medusa and its connection to jellyfish. This is something that Berwald does throughout the book: convey factual information (in-depth, scientific, scholarly, contextual) in this engaging, personal voice. It makes the book a beautiful, captivating read even if you thought you didn’t care at all about jellyfish.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s figure out who is telling your story, using Spineless by Juli Berwald as a model:

  1.  Identify the parts of the story. I don’t mean the beginning, middle, end, setting, plot, etc. Instead, the parts of the story are the types of information that are conveyed. You see this a lot in novels that include characters with expertise in certain subjects, like Tom Clancy’s experts in warfare and weapons. In his novels, there is the story and also the vast amount of technical information that the characters know and talk about. Most fiction contains some version of this. Science fiction and fantasy has worldbuilding and lore that must be conveyed to the readers. So does historical fiction. In your book—whether it’s fiction or nonfiction—what is the area of expertise for the characters. What are they obsessed with? If you’re writing nonfiction like Berwald and focusing on that expertise or obsession, what is the story around it (yours or other people’s)? Who are the individuals involved?
  2. Decide which part will be dominant (or which part will lead the way). In Spineless, Berwald leads with the personal. If I had to guess at a ratio, I’d guess that more than half of the book is actually scientific and factual, but she uses the personal to lead us into the science. In your story, think about both measures. What is the dominant information in your story? What does it focus on most of the time? And, what part of the story most often serves as the hook for the reader? What part leads the reader into a chapter or section?
  3. Weaves the parts together. Berwald starts with the personal and then pivots to the science. But when she does, it’s not a screeching change in direction. Instead, she uses the personal (which led us to the science) to comment upon the science and shape how we learn about it. She does this by overlapping types of information. So, in the passage above, she overlaps science with mythology, which provides an opportunity for explanation. In your story, you can do the same thing. Give your narrator (whoever and whatever POV it is) multiple kinds of information to talk about at once, which usually leads to explanation. She also personalizes the information, moving from a general perspective (“It’s not hard to see the similarities”) to a particular one (“it depends on who’s telling the story. Since I am:”). I don’t know if Berwald has taught university classes, but this technique is what often distinguishes the most popular professors in any field: their ability to convey factual information in an entertaining, engaging, and often personal way. It’s the difference between “Here is what is” and “Let me tell you what is.”
  4. Explore the nature of that speaker. In your story, who is the me that navigates between the different parts of the story? Try using Berwald’s sentence about Medusa as a literal model: “It depends on who’s telling the story. Since I am…” How would the of your story talk about the information in it. This works for third-person and omniscient POVs as well. They often have an attitude. Becoming more aware of it can help you fine tune your story’s voice to make it as engaging as possible.

The goal is to find the voice and perspective that allows you to weave together the different parts of your story as effectively as possible.

Good luck.

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How to Intimately Connect Character and Setting

10 Oct

The stories in Erin Pringle’s new collection, The Whole World At Once, reveal “how many strange shapes grief can take and how universal a human experience it is,” according to a Kirkus review.

Sometimes you’re reading along and hit a line that makes you stop. You can see in your mind the thing the words are describing, not just an image or a person but the whole thing: the world, the characters in it, the way they’re all connected. Setting isn’t simply a green screen behind the characters. It shapes every moment of their lives, big and small. Anyone who’s read the high-school literary classic “To Build a Fire” by Jack London is familiar with the big ways that setting shapes character, but the smaller ways are just as important.

A great example of how setting and character become a single entity can be found in Erin Pringle’s story, “How the Sun Burns Among Hills of Rock and Pebble.” It was originally published in The Minnesota Review and then as a stand-alone chapbook by The Head & The Hand Press. It’s now included in Pringle’s new collection, The Whole World At Once. You can read the beginning of the story here.

How the Story Works

The story is set in a small Midwestern town, the sort of place where the annual Agricultural Fair is an anticipated calendar event. Already, the reader is developing expectations for how setting will affect character. It’s a relationship that’s a staple of probably hundreds of movies: the young person who can’t wait to get in a car and go screaming past the city limit sign. But, just as Erika T. Wurth did in her story Mark Wishewas, Pringle moves beyond this familiar setup in a small but effective way. Here’s an early paragraph describing some girls in the town:

The girls’ new hips pull at the seams of their cutoffs. They walk in the most middle of summer, which, after the fair packs up and disappears down the interstate, will tip toward autumn and school doors and Friday night football fields. The girls carry bottles of water and soda cans like boredom. They roll the bits of string from their cutoff shorts against their thighs, balls of lint under their fingernails. Now and then one of their prepaid cell phones rings, but if it’s not that boy, they don’t answer since their mothers won’t buy another refill card from the dollar store until next month.

It’s that last sentence that made me stop, hit with a flash of recognition. It wasn’t that I recognized the moment from my own past. I did grow up in a small, Midwestern town, but it was before people cell phones. Instead, I recognized the moment because it made a kind of crystal clear sense to me: the idea that your cell phone minutes, doled out by your mother, were so precious that you’d answer only if the right boy called you. In a single sentence, Pringle has managed to show us the place, its economics, its family ties, what different members of those families value (mothers/money and daughters/talking with the right boy), and the scale of those values (the small amount of money required to purchase a refill card and literally minutes of phone time). I was hooked.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s create a small moment that reveals how setting and character are connected, using “How the Sun Burns Among Hills of Rock and Pebble” by Erin Pringle as a model:

  1.  Set up the general relationship between character and setting. Pringle uses a pretty simple device: an event (Agricultural Fair) that suggests a usual behavior that is common in the place but wouldn’t be elsewhere. If her story was set in New York City or Atlanta or Los Angeles or Austin or even any of a hundred medium-sized cities in America, nobody would care about an Agricultural Fair. What is an event or situation that quickly characterizes the general population of your setting?
  2. Show the characters in the midst of a usual behavior that suggests their attitude toward the setting. After the fair leaves, there’s nothing to do. The girls carry their water bottles and soda cans, bored and listless. If the fair represents a high point for the population of this place, the days afterward represent the return to regular life. What does regular, everyday life look for your characters? How can you dramatize it with an action (like walking with bottles and rolling lint)?
  3. Introduce one element of that usual behavior. Again, Pringle uses a simple device: something the girls are carrying as they walk and roll lint. A cell phone rings. As you’ll see in the next step, this is a key moment in their day. Look around your scene. What objects or implied actions are present? Introduce them until something strikes you as interesting.
  4. Let the characters react to it with a sudden shift in attitude. Earlier, the girls were bored, but when the phone rings, they’re paying close attention to the caller’s number. (Note that Pringle doesn’t actually show the girls looking at their phones or even what they see. She skips to their conclusions based on what they see. It’s a great example of how to describe a scene without showing every literal part of it, which is crucial to pacing.) In Pringle’s story, as far as the narrative is concerned, it doesn’t really matter who’s calling. What’s important is that the girls care who’s calling, and it breaks them out of their bored walking. Their level of interest and engagement has dramatically changed. So, what is an element that is part of your scene that will cause the characters to suddenly change their level of interest and engagement. That’s the element you want to describe.

The goal is to reveal the way that character and setting are connected and bring a story to life.

Good luck.

How to Help Readers Intimately Connect with Characters

26 Sep

Buckskin Cocaine, the new story collection by Erika T. Wurth, tells the complex, gritty stories of eight characters working in the Native American film industry.

When I teach characterization, I often tell people to begin with statements like, “She’s the kind of person who…” as a way to move beyond basic description to attitude, routine, and potential action. But, of course, it’s still a strategy that tends toward generalization, and the characters that stick with us as readers don’t feel generic. They feel fully realized and complex, and, as we read about them, we forget that we’re reading.

That’s the Holy Grail for writers—to create characters who no longer feel created. The difficulty is that they are created and that the creation often starts with generalizations. So how can writers move beyond them? How can characters begin to take on a life of their own?

Erika T. Wurth’s new collection, Buckskin Cocaine, is full of characters that do this. You can find one of them in the story “Mark Wishewas,” first published as “Mason Snap” at Literary Orphans, where you can read it now.

How the Story Works

Each of the stories in the collection focuses on a different character who is involved in some way in the Native American film industry. The voice of each character is vastly different from the others, but they do share one commonality in that they tend to begin with a trait or statement that makes them immediately recognizable to the reader. For example, the story “Lucy Bigboca” features a narrator who uses LOL, LMAO, sooooooo, and WHATEV. It’s a voice we recognize as a kind of type. Sometimes the characters also see others as types. In the story “Robert Two Stories,” the narrator starts off talking about Oklahoma and how “the homeless there, the Natives, they were so real.” He’s casting them into types. The story “Mark Wishewas” does something similar in its opening paragraph:

I know I’m smart. And a great filmmaker. Just because I haven’t filmed anything doesn’t mean anything. I know what I’d film would be ten, no one-hundred times better than what those other Indians have done. They don’t even deserve all the attention they’ve gotten. I mean, I’m going to be working with George Bull, and though he acts like he can barely stand me, I know he thinks I’m a genius.

Right away, our unreliable narrator alarm goes off. The narrator is not as great a filmmaker as he thinks he is, and pretty soon we see the disdain that George Bull has for him. It’s a characterization that will feel familiar to anyone who has read Catcher in the Rye or watched the show Eastbound & Down. We have a good idea for where this story is going: the character’s sense of his own worth will run into some immovable object and be thwarted in its quest for greatness. Wurth is terrific at creating voice, and she does a ruthlessly effective job of setting this guy up to fail. But that’s not why I think this character and the others in the collection are great.

Instead, it’s the small details that Wurth introduces that makes these characters feel intimately human. We fall into the character and momentarily forget the direction we’re pretty sure the story will take. In “Mark Wishewas,” for me, that moment comes when the narrator, Mark, encounters George Bull at a bar and buys him and another man shots:

I stand at the long, wooden bar fuming, trying not to face punch the drunk white guy next to me who keeps elbowing my ribs when. the bartender finally pays attention to me. I get myself a beer and order shots of Patrón cause that’s the only thing George will drink. He thinks he’s some kind of Navajo G I guess. I walk back over to them, my heart pounding in my chest the whole way, and hand them their tequila.

The detail that gets me isn’t that he gives serious thought to the best drink to buy but that his heart is pounding in his chest as he carries the shots back to them. So much of this story is built on big talk and humiliation, and both are present in this moment, literally and potentially, but what I love is the brief moment of vulnerability. The narrator is a big talker, and we have a good idea what’s going to happen to him, but for a moment, we see that he’s nervous, and it’s endearing. This is what a great characterization can do: make the premise of a story intimately human.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s build a character with a small, intimate detail, using “Mark Wishewas” by Erika T. Wurth as a model:

  1. Set up the character’s attitude. Try finishing the sentence, “He/she is the kind of person who…” In this case, Mark Wishewas is the kind of person who has an inflated sense of his own self, an attitude that is perhaps a defense mechanism. He anticipates rejection, and so he both builds himself up and tears others down. What does your character anticipate? What attitude does the character bring to that anticipated moment?
  2. Give the character a clear desire. Mark Wishewas wants to make a film and wants to be recognized for it the same as others have been. He wants this so bad that it’s the most prominent thought in his head. What does your character want more than anything else?
  3. The desired object is put within reach. The story is set in a bar where Mark can approach the man who might satisfy his desire. What sort of place offers that potential to your character?
  4. Show the reader how that moment really feels. For most of the story, we’re getting the story that Mark tells himself and the broader audience of the people he imagines want to hear his story. When he carries the shots to the filmmakers, though, that story and his rehearsed way of telling it (“face punch the drunk white guy next to me,” “the bartender finally pays attention to me”) gets dropped and we see into the narrator with his facade removed. We see his heart pounding because he’s nervous. So, think about how your character feels when faced with the opportunity to get whatever is desired—not how the character says he/she feels but some detail that slips out, unfiltered and unvarnished. That is the detail that can fully humanize your character.

The goal is to make readers buy in to your characters by unexpectedly revealing something intimate about them. It can be a small detail, glimpsed briefly, but the results can be huge.

Good luck.

How to Use a Light Touch in Heavy Moments

19 Sep

Joe Jiménez’s essay, “Cotton,” appears in the most recent issue of The Adroit Journal.

One of the most difficult things to learn in prose, whether it’s fiction or nonfiction, is how much certain passages ought to weigh. There will be moments that feel heavy, and so we write them heavy: longer, more drawn out, with more forceful words and images. These are the sentences, we tell ourselves, that people are going to quote. And yet when we return to those passages in the revision process, they don’t read right. They feel like they’re trying too hard—or not hard enough. We’re often not sure which, only certain that something is not working.

It’s often the case that less is more in prose, and sometimes the most important moments in a story need the lightest touch. A terrific example of this can be found in Joe Jiménez’s essay, “Cotton.” It was published in The Adroit Journal, where you can read it now.

How the Essay Works

The essay moves back and forth between passages about the cotton fields that dominated the landscape where Jiménez grew up and personal stories that lead up to, and away from, a moment where he realized that his life needed to change. Obviously, those personal stories will be doing a lot of narrative work, and yet they occupy a surprisingly small amount of space in the essay—because Jiménez exercises a light touch in some devastatingly effective ways. Here’s one example:

A story: I fell in love with a man with one ear. I was 29. We bought a house. We got dogs. We drove to Missouri. We drove to the coast. We lay on the beach, and we ate green peppers and Roma tomatoes, small sour limes, which we grew in red clay pots in the backyard.  When one of the dogs gave birth, one of the pups died, and we wrapped her in a white cotton towel and buried her beneath a papaya tree. Citlali, we named her. Little star. The papaya tree grew—we liked to believe that little star was growing into a strong tree, into those seeds.  But one winter, that papaya tree froze. It never grew back. Every year, including that one, the man told me he wanted to die.

There are a lot of ways this passage could have been written more directly, dealing with the events and the emotions of the relationship head on. But it doesn’t do that. Instead, it states the premise and a noteworthy detail (“I fell in love with a man with one ear”), sums up some noteworthy points on the timeline of the relationship (“I was 29. We bought a house. We got dogs. We drove to Missouri…”), and then focuses on two things: what they ate on the beach and what happened to one of their puppies.

In part, the focus on things that are not the thing itself (the relationship) is a perfect example of what John Gardner was talking about in his famous barn exercise (describe a barn from the point of view of a farmer whose son has just died in a war, but don’t state what he feels or what happened to his son). Jiménez is moving tangentially, getting at the emotionally heart of a scene through an unexpected entry.

But Jiménez is also doing something else: he’s juxtaposing a short, tangential-seeming story with a statement of absolute clarity and directness (“Every year, including that one, the man told me he wanted to die”). It’s a statement that would get our attention regardless of where it is placed in the essay. But it’s particularly breathtaking because it comes at us from outside our line of vision. We’ve been looking at food and puppies. It’s all connected, of course, but we’ve been temporarily distracted. To go back to the theoretical giants, it’s an example of what Kenneth Burke wrote about the scene in Hamlet where Hamlet is waiting on a platform for his father’s ghost; while he waits he and the audience get distracted by his drunken uncle, and so the thing we suspect is coming arrives out of nowhere.

Jiménez manages this in one short paragraph, and that brevity makes the passage even more effective.

The Writing Exercise 

Let’s use misdirection and indirectness, using “Cotton” by Joe Jiménez as a model:

  1. State the premise and a noteworthy detail. In general, premises are simple: somebody loves somebody, somebody hates somebody, somebody wants something and can’t quite get it. They’re built on universal experience and emotion. The noteworthy detail is what makes your universal moment less universal. Not everyone has just one ear. It’s a fairly small detail and not the hinge upon which the entire story turns, but it gets our attention so that we’ll read onto the more important details. So, what is your universal premise and what is a detail that can particularize it?
  2. Sum up some noteworthy points on the story’s timeline. In short, write a montage. This happened, this happened, and this. It can move that fast in your passage. Use short sentences. Be direct. You’re setting the stage for the bigger moment.
  3. Focus on one or two details. Jiménez focuses on food and a puppy. The food is not generic. He and his lover grew it themselves, so it had meaning to them. That’s really the best filter to use when figuring out which details to focus on: what has the most meaning to the characters. It’s often small things that they’re most proud of or most moved by in the moment. The puppy is a great detail because it’s personal to the characters but also because there’s a narrative arc attached to it. That arc creates a story within the story. So, what details are meaningful to you or your characters and which details have narratives attached to them? Describe those details and tell their stories as quickly as possible.
  4. Jump back to the premise. Jiménez jumps to “Every year, including that one, the man told me he wanted to die.” That sentence is one of the big reasons he tells this story in the first place. It’s the next part of the premise: I fell in love with a guy, and every year he said… Write a sentence or two that states, as directly as possible, a fact that makes the story significant to your or your characters.

The goal is to juxtapose that direct statement with the less direct details that precede it, and perhaps you can plan that juxtaposition, but it’s more likely that you’ll come at it from a couple of angles before one feels right. Give yourself the space to keep trying until it all clicks into place.

Good luck.

How to Bridge Between Scenes in a Novel

5 Sep

William Jensen’s debut novel, Cities of Men, tells the story of a boy whose mother disappears, leaving him to search for her with a father who may not want to find her.

When you move from writing short stories to writing a novel, you quickly realize that the novel’s length means that one or two hard-hitting scenes can’t carry it. More is needed. Each scene must immediately suggest another scene, again and again, until the end. In a way, it’s the opposite of the famous epiphany ending we all learned when reading Joyce’s “Araby”—the concluding sentence to a scene that makes us all grab our hair and sigh. In a novel, a scene must resist epiphany, even if it’s tone and momentum seem to be taking it toward that sort of ending.

A great example of how to create a bridge to the next scene in a novel can be found in William Jensen’s novel Cities of Men. You can read the opening pages here.

How the Novel Works

The novel’s opening chapter begins, “I saw my father get into only two fights” and then proceeds to tell us about one of them, a fight in a grocery store parking lot. The father and his wife have bought their son, the novel’s narrator, ice cream, and their father is walking back to the car when he hears an argument between a man and woman in another car. He steps in, and a fight ensues. The scene is well written and clearly memorably for the narrator, who observes not just the fight but the ways it could have played out but did not—and also his mother’s reaction and the weather. He’s beginning to place himself in the universe, the sort of coming-of-age moment that naturally builds to an Araby-like concluding line: “Gazing up into the darkness I saw myself as a creature driven and derided by vanity; and my eyes burned with anguish and anger.” But that’s not what Jensen does because Cities of Men is a novel, not a short story.

Instead, the scene ends like this:

I ran to my room. Seeing Dad cry scared me more than the night’s violence. But I couldn’t tell you why. I pulled the sheets up to my collar. I dug my face into my pillow, closed my eyes, and tried not to think.

I saw Dad fight only one other time. And that wouldn’t happen until four years later, shortly after my mother disappeared.

The ending line echoes the first line of the novel, which is no coincidence. I don’t know which one was written first, and it doesn’t matter. At some point, Jensen knew that there would be a second fight and that the mother, who is so present in this opening scene, would leave, and so the scene is written to introduce both of those elements. Naturally, we want to know more. It’s the last two sentences that do the important work, veering away from epiphany to what-happens-next.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s create a bridge between scenes in a novel, using Cities of Men by William Jensen as a model:

  1.  Write the scene you want to write. It’s the thing that likely drew you to this story, and so don’t give it short shrift. Jensen’s opening chapter, minus the first and last lines, could be a quick short story, almost flash fiction. It has its own narrative arc and emotional impact—which is good. If you have a scene like this in mind, one that you’ve been writing in your head for years or one that you’ve written and don’t know what to do with, let it be itself. Don’t run away from the story you want to tell.
  2. Take away or add something. Play a simple what-if exercise with your scene. What if something essential to the scene was taken away? Or, what if something new and burdensome was added? You’re not subtracting or adding to the scene itself but to what comes next. Jensen takes the mother away at the end, after the scene has wrapped up. It’s a simple move that provides the foundation for the entire novel: establish the emotional relationships in the novel and then mess them up. What can you subtract from or add to your scene in the scene that follows?
  3. Be explicit about the addition or subtraction. I may have said this so many times that I’m beating a dead horse, but there’s nothing wrong with coming out and being direct with your readers—especially if being direct forces you to be direct with yourself about your characters’ motivations. Jensen could not be any more explicit unless he wrote, “Then my mother disappeared.” Actually, that’s basically what he writes, only more artfully. And it’s great. Save your nuance and subtlety for the moments in between big, plot-changing sentences. Make those sentences hard-hitting. Tell the reader what you’ve added or subtracted.

The goal is to turn any scene in a novel into a bridge to the next scene.

Good luck.

How to Introduce and Name a Cast of Characters

9 Aug

Christopher Brown’s debut novel, Tropic of Kansas, has been called “a modern dystopian buffet” in a NPR review.

One of the questions that will drive writers—and not just beginners—crazy is whether to name a character right away. You’ll hear and read different takes on this. Some journal editors say that they’ll put down a story that begins with he or she and not a name. But naming a character right away can feel odd. The reader doesn’t know this person. Who cares what his name is? The right answer (there isn’t one) is actually part of a larger problem of introducing characters. Do it well, and nobody cares if you start with he. Do it poorly, and that’s an easy way to write off your work.

A great example of introducing characters well (and handling their names) can be found in Christopher Brown’s novel Tropic of Kansas. You can read read an excerpt from it at Tor.com. 

How the Novel Works

The novel is set in a United States that, like the dystopia in the television show The Handmaid’s Tale, feels like a version of our current state of affairs if everything we fear might happen actually did. A big chunk of the novel is set in the American Midwest after some natural apocalypse has rendered the land mostly barren and a political apocalypse has made it run by militias who take their orders from a tyrant leader in Washington, D.C. In this scene, a low-level government bureaucrat has been sent to the area to hunt for an escaped prisoner, and we meet the militia men that she must deal with:

The militia were mostly white, generally stupid, and all scary. The kind of men you would avoid if you saw them on the street, especially if you were black and a woman. The midwestern ones were extra dangerous, because most of them seemed kind of nice when you first talked to them. Nice like the guy at church who smiles at you and offers you a brownie before he tells you how he is going to regulate your life.

Notice that we don’t have any names yet, nor any individuals. Instead, Brown shows us the militia as a generalized whole. The details come a few lines later:

The welcome party were a big ruddy guy in bulletproof brown overalls with built-in ammo pouches and the smell of cigarettes, and a little red-bearded guy dressed more like a run-down pastor than a militiaman, complete with a wooden cross hanging from his neck—and a big pistol on his belt. Turned out he was the doctor, Dr. Craven, and the big guy was the commander. Patrol Leader Koenig was the way the commander introduced himself, but then he said just call me Bob.

Before telling us the names of these guys, Brown shows us them: their complexions and clothing, how they smell, and what they resemble. Then we get their names. While this isn’t the only approach toward names and character introductions, it is a useful one to keep in mind. We’re more likely to remember these guys’ names because we’ve seen them and they’re memorable. Brown also makes their names easy to remember: Craven and just-call-me-Bob. Again, any name can be given to a character, but you want to set readers up to remember who they belong to. As a reader, it can be frustrating to stop in the middle of a scene and ask, “Who is that again?”

Brown follows this introduction with a paragraph about the militia compound:

The house was huge, on a big acreage, a suburban home converted to paramilitary command center. The walls were covered with big maps of the area, annoyed in black grease pencil and red marker. Tania saw photos of targets, some of them mug shots, others surveillance photos. Radios and computers and all manner of gear. Styrofoam cups and a big pile of beer cans in a corner. More guys who looked like Bob, other guys who were leaner and harder looking, and one Asian woman who looked toughest of all, even though she couldn’t have been much taller than five feet.

We’re back to seeing the militia as a single entity, not a group of individuals. All the guys look like Bob. Some are a little tougher looking, and one is a really tough Asian woman. She gets the extra distinguishing detail because she stands out in the crowd.

Very quickly, Brown has introduced a large cast of characters and shown us, through his descriptions, which ones we ought to pay close attention to and which ones should fade into the background—literally, since in the last paragraph the men are given the same status as radios and Styrofoam cups.

The Writing Exercise 

Let’s introduce characters and their names, using Tropic of Kansas by Christopher Brown as a model:

  1. Start with your characters as a group. Obviously, this means you’re writing a scene with more than two characters. Place them in one of the crowded places they’re likely to go. Who do they spend their time with? How might an insider describe that crowd? How might an outsider? Either way can work; it just depends on the circumstances of the scene and who is present. Don’t be afraid of generalizations. Use them to sketch out the broad outlines of who we’re about to meet.
  2. Narrow the group to a few individuals. Who is memorable? Or in charge? Or important? Use the natural progression of real-life introductions. We almost always see someone before we know their name, and we tend to notice a few details about them (but only a few; our minds have a limited ability to take in everything that’s going on in a given moment). What stands out about these particular characters, and what conclusions or comparisons might your insider or outsider draw about them. Brown uses the “run-down pastor” image, which is great because, like the group description, gives the reader a general idea of who this person is or how he appears to be.
  3. Name the characters. Do it quickly and as memorably as possible. Brown actually doubles down on Bob by having his outsider character immediately refer to him by name: “Where’s my prisoner, Bob?”
  4. Place the characters in their surroundings. There’s no rule that says we need to see place before characters. Sometimes that makes sense; other times it doesn’t. What’s important is that one set up the other. Brown’s description of the home focuses on the details that remind us who is staying there. Then, we see those characters as inhabitants of that place.
  5. Introduce the rest of the cast in terms of who we’ve met already. We’ve met Bob, and so Brown can say that the rest of the men are a bunch of Bob’s—and a few of them are tougher. Bob gives him a point of comparison. He also focuses on the character who stands out—the Asian woman in a sea of white men. So, when you’re rounding out your cast, introduce the characters the way we’d see them in real life: as similar to the first characters we met or different. 

The goal is to quickly and memorably introduce a cast of characters so that the story can move on to the scene they are apart of.

Good luck.

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.

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