Tag Archives: character desire

How to Create Desire with Opportunity

2 May

Maria Pinto’s story “Love Song of a Femme Fatale on Scholarship” appears in the Winter 2017 issue of Flapperhouse.

When I was a kid, my dad once claimed that if you left your car running while you ran into a store, it would be your fault if someone stole the car. It was an attractive nuisance, he said, a phrase that is usually applied to things that might prove both tempting and dangerous to children, like trampolines and pools. I’ve been skeptical of my dad’s claim for years, but sure enough, a Google search for “attractive nuisance laws” pulled up this stat: According to a study by the National Insurance Crime Bureau, from 2012-2014, 126,603 vehicles were reported stolen with the keys left in the vehicle. Did the people who owned those cars get blamed for their theft? I don’t know. But the principle is a great one for writers to keep in mind. Instead of asking why a character has a particular desire, it’s sometimes better to simply put a desirable thing in front of them.

Maria Pinto does exactly that in the first paragraph of her flash short story, “Love Song of a Femme Fatale on Scholarship.” It was published in the Winter 2017 issue of Flapperhouse, and you can read it online here.

How the Story Works

Here is the story’s first paragraph:

Something about seeing teacher on the bus, under the yellow light, the ridges of his brown corduroys flaccid, the finger upon which she’d always assumed she would find a gold band if she bothered to look, how the finger tapped at his bony knee, something about the way the finger had a gold band-shaped stripe on it, the stripe pale, a little indented, the way the knuckle hairs had a practiced wither there, how the stripe rendered him vulnerable as a midair-poised ass, hot, pink from slapping, something about all these things taken together made her want to push the moment, to fuck him. She did not interrogate why. She was a freshman; there was only the urgent press of do, do, do.

Notice how vague the rationale for the desire is: “Something about seeing teacher on the bus.” The character can’t really explain her attraction to her teacher; she just knows that she can’t take her eyes off of him. Nothing about the scene or the man is even particularly attractive: the yellow light, his flaccid pants, his bony knee and hairy knuckles. And yet the woman begins to fantasize about having sex with him. Why?

The answer is, mostly, because he’s there to fantasize about: “the finger upon which she’d always assumed she would find a gold band” turns out to have “a gold band-shaped stripe on it.” Her teacher was married, but now he isn’t. Which means he’s available. And that is all the woman needs to fire up her fantasies—and also basic human nature, “the urgent press of dododo.”

It’s almost identical to a moment in the most recent episode of Veep. A character walks into a hotel hallway, sees a half-eaten room-service sandwich on a tray in the hall, and takes a bite. Why? Because he’s hungry? Maybe. Or maybe he does it because that’s what you do with sandwiches. It’s an attractive nuisance, just like the college instructor with his empty ring finger. Further explanation is not required.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s create an attractive nuisance, using “Love Song of a Femme Fatale on Scholarship” by Maria Pinto as a model:

  1. Identify the aspect of human nature at work. Pinto uses sexuality—people want and need to have sex—but that’s not the only aspect available to writers. To find them, think about the advertisements we see on television, almost all of which appeal to basic human nature: fast food, big trucks, fast cars, cars that sense danger before you do, smiling families, partners who hold your hand as you walk toward a hand-carved wooden hot tub on a cliff overlooking a beach, pharmaceuticals that make you well again. We don’t want these things for logical reasons; we want them because of something deep and essential to our being. Pinto begins her story with “Something about…” Find that something for your character. It’s a broad exercise, but if you can narrow the essential desire down to, say, safety rather than sex, then you’ve got a start.
  2. Create the attractive nuisance. Put something in front of your desiring character. The thing doesn’t even need to be particularly great. Fast food is a good example. It’s disgusting and makes me feel sick afterward, but if I’m in riding in a car that goes through a drive-thru, you’d better believe I’m ordering a value meal. The man that Pinto puts in front of her character isn’t desirable, but he’s there, and so she desires him. In fact, the story is more interesting because he isn’t attractive. If we felt sure that an encounter between would go well, we wouldn’t want to know what happens next.
  3. Reaffirm human nature. If you’ve ever made a regrettable choice in life, someone (perhaps yourself) has asked you, “Why did you do it?” Pinto senses this question looming in the reader’s mind, and so she writes, “She was a freshman; there was only the urgent press of dododo.” In short, she’s made human nature a function of age. She’s created an excuse. Plenty of older people have sex with people they probably shouldn’t, too, but that’s not important. The excuse allows the story to move forward. So, give your character an excuse: she’s young, she hasn’t eaten in a few hours and her blood sugar is low, she just had a fight with her friend. The details of the excuse don’t really matter; what’s important is letting the character (and therefore the reader) off the hook.

The goal is to create story and plot by giving a character something that he or she cannot resist.

Good luck.

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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 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 Tension Between Desire and Thought

6 Dec
Octavio Solis' story, "The Want," appears in the most recent issue of Huizache: The Magazine of Latino Literature.

Octavio Solis’ story, “The Want,” appears in the most recent issue of Huizache: The Magazine of Latino Literature.

Every writer knows that it’s important to find a character’s motivating desire, and those desires are often pretty simple: make money, find love, get revenge, get away, get laid. These are essential human desires, but when they’re distilled down to basics, they can feel too simple. In our minds, our lives are messier and more complicated than any of these desires, which is why we’ve all heard someone say (or we’ve said), “It’s not just about ___. It’s the principle of the thing.” In life and in stories, there’s the desire itself and the invisible architecture of thought, rationalization, philosophy, theology, and politics that we construct around it. Sometimes we become so invested in this architecture that we forget about the desire upon which it’s built.

Octavio Solis crafts an entire story around the distance between the architecture and desire in “The Want,” which you can read in its entirety online at Huizache: The Magazine of Latino Literature.

How the Story Works

The premise is simple. The narrator is home from his first semester of college and feeling lonely. He goes for a drive and thinks, “I need a girl, some girl to lie to, hold, feel against me, someone to give me a little nighttime CPR, for god’s sake. Just one time. One night. That’s all.” It’s a pretty straightforward desire, and if the story proceeded from there, the plot would be the same as any of a thousand movies about young guys trying to have sex. But Solis begins to build an architecture of thought around this desire, and the story changes.

Here is the next paragraph:

The loneliness is hurting real bad now. It’s not in the heart but in the head like a migraine shooting icicles into the back of my eyes. It’s in my throat too, sore with the whispers that keep hissing out of my mouth like bile. All around me, the streets are barren and shiny in the night. All mortals hidden, out of reach. This is what my born-again high school teacher said would happen. You abandon the Lord and you’ll feel the desolation of that choice. You’ll be more alone than you could ever imagine. Painful and paralyzing is the sinner’s harrowing.

The desire has been enlarged, spreading from the heart (and, probably, another organ) to his head and eventually to the entire world (“the streets are barren and shiny in the night. All mortals hidden, out of reach”). You’ve probably been taught about the pathetic fallacy: the giving of human emotions to non-human things (animals, the sky, trees). At it’s worst, it’s an emotional shortcut. A character is sad, and so the weather is sad and rainy. That’s sloppy writing. But Solis is using the same basic idea in a different way. His narrator sees the world (empty streets) and perceives it through the lens of his emotion (lonely, horny), and so in his mind, the street seems to reflect his own feelings back at him.

The desire also becomes about more than just sex. Now, religion is part of it.

Into this new enlarged sense of desire comes a girl, walking alone by the railroad tracks. She’s pregnant. The narrator offers her a ride. The scene that follows depends completely on the distance between the narrator’s physical desire (find a girl) and the thoughts he’s built around it (“All mortals hidden out of reach…abandon the Lord…more alone than you could ever imagine.”) In short, he forgets (or pretends to himself that he’s forgotten) about looking for sex. He tells himself (and her) that it’s human connection that he wants: “I tell her that I draw strength from her company.”

The girl cuts through this. I won’t say how. You should read the story. But it’s important to note what she does not do. In stories by beginning writers (and in some scripts by professional TV and film writers), a character like the girl will dispense wisdom. She’ll be a kind of guardian angel, swooping into the story to help the main character feel better or learn something. If that’s the point of the story (Highway to HeavenQuantum LeapTouched by an Angel), then so be it. But it’s crucial to look out for lazy tropes. For example, when a character like the girl is black, she too often becomes the magical negro. Solis avoids this problem. The girl doesn’t dispense wisdom. She acts and speaks in ways that match her own desires in the moment.

The result is a great, tense passage. Read it here.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s create tension between physical desire and the architecture of thought a character builds around that desire, using “The Want” by Octavio Solis as a model:

  1. Find the basic desire. Keep it simple. What does your character hunger for? Or, what is an absence that is unacceptable to your character? The objects will be some of the usual ones: money, food, shelter, security, love, friendship, sex. Once you find the desire, put the object at its center just out of reach. Solis’ narrator wants a girl, but he can’t find one. The bar is full of “older blinder boozers” and the streets are empty. What does your character want? How can you make it seem impossible to get?
  2. Lay the foundation for the architecture of thought. The story begins on Christmas, and so there is a series of Christmas imagery: Bing Crosby on the radio, a city light that reminds the narrator of the Christmas star. The character is home from college, and so he flips through his high school yearbook, looking at pictures and notes written by classmates. The yearbook suggests a different kind of loneliness, not just sexual but more general. And, it’s a pretty short jump from Christmas imagery to theological loneliness. So, give your character and story something to work with. This is basic narrative work: what details in the setting and situation stand out to the character?
  3. Build the architecture of thought. When your character is alone in his/her head, thinking about these details while in the midst of the basic desire, what thoughts come up? Keep writing. What do they spin themselves into? In “The Want,” we soon realize that the narrator is struggling with his religious beliefs (or has moved past them and is struggling with the aftermath). We also realize that he’s not quite sure how to be an adult (reading the yearbook). He goes into a bar but doesn’t like the company he finds there. Like anyone does while driving, he thinks and thinks about these things and develops some ideas. To some extent, he’s created his own diversion from looking for sex. He’s distracted by his own thoughts. What are the thoughts that your character might become distracted by?
  4. Bring another character into the story. This character will not be aware of the invisible architecture of thought in the first character’s head. The girl in “The Want” only knows what she sees: a guy has picked her up. It’s natural, then, that her actions and words will cut across the world the narrator has created in his mind. She interacts with him based on his desire (which is evident), not his thoughts. Conflict ensues. So, what character can you bring into the story? How does that character fit into your main character’s basic desire?

The goal is to create conflict and tension by giving your main character/narrator both a desire and an architecture of thought build around that desire. You may know what those thoughts will be beforehand, or you may need to explore the premise a bit to discover them. Once you do, bring another character into the story.

Good luck.

How to Figure Out What Really Drives a Character to Act

1 Nov
Hasanthika Sirisena's collection, The Other One, won the 2015 Juniper Prize for Fiction.

Hasanthika Sirisena’s collection, The Other One, won the 2015 Juniper Prize for Fiction.

When you begin a novel, it’s easy to find a detail that pulls you into a character or plot line, and then another detail, and then another, and then one day you look at the accumulated pages and think, “What is this?” One response to this question is to create an outline, a big-picture snapshot of what’s in a novel and where it’s going. The problem, of course, is that outlines don’t create order; they only reveal what’s already there. Figuring out plot and character and what happens next is still the writer’s job. There are no shortcuts, except for maybe this one.

If you can identify a single, driving impulse in a character—a fundamental need that colors every aspect of his or her behavior—then sometimes a story will snap into focus. Hasanthika Sirisena does exactly that in her story, “Ismail.” It’s included in her new collection The Other One and was originally published at Narrative Magazine, where you can read it now.

How the Story Works

Ismael is the story’s narrator, and his story begins like this:

How to explain why my brother Harry and I stood in my best friend Abdul’s backyard at two in the morning carrying five large Mason jars filled with milk and turkey parts we’d bought at Fairway?

From the first line, we know the characters’ motivations will be complicated. Abdul is Ismael’s best friend, and we soon learn that the Ismael’s brother Harry is in love with Abdul’s sister. And yet the two brothers are wrecking Abdul’s house. The situation, as the first line suggests, demands an explanation, a big Why? This ought to be easy, right? Ismael must have a good reason for an action that will have serious consequences. The writer simply needs to let the readers know what that reason is.

The problem is that Ismael is smart—perhaps not book smart, since he “nearly flunked tenth grade,” but he’s observant and self-aware and emotionally astute. These are all great traits for a narrator. (I’m a believer in making narrators as smart as their readers.) But it also presents a challenge that can be summed up in a line a lot of us heard as children: “How could someone so smart do something so stupid?” It’s a difficult question to answer. Any factual statement that starts with “Because So-and-so…” is likely to fall flat. Readers are like your skeptical parents. They have no time for thin excuses. But when we’re pressed to really explain ourselves, we often draw blanks. People rarely act rationally. Instead, we respond to deep-seated desires and urges and then rationalize the behavior that follows.

As writers, then, we need to identify our characters’ deep-seated urges. Here is how Sirisena does just that:

If you go long enough without something, sex, money, even love, you can get to the point you don’t need it. But if you suddenly have access to what’s missing, get it back in your life, then you’ll do whatever it takes to keep that thing. The thought of loss knocks you flat on the floor, your chest caved in, gasping for air.

For a time, that’s what knowing Abdul felt like. I’d been okay without him, but once we were friends I couldn’t imagine what it would be like to lose him. There were days that thought alone—the thought of that loss—left me knocked out on the floor, chest caved in, gasping for air.

Notice the imagery that ends the passage: “gasping for air.” It’s an image of suffocation or drowning, and as anyone who’s ever taken lifeguard training knows, a drowning person isn’t capable of rational responses. Instead, they thrash about and grab hold of whatever object presents itself. That’s the sort of deep-seated desire you’re after: a desire equal to the desire to not die.

Of course, you might be thinking that the lack of sex, money, and love are not the same as the threat of death. But here’s what’s important: the desire doesn’t need to literally be equivalent to dying. Nothing is. It just needs to feel like dying. For Ismail, losing a friend after not having had one feels like dying, and so when it happens, he thrashes about and latches onto whatever seems to keep him afloat: in this case, vengeance.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s find a character’s motivating, deep-seated desire, using “Ismail” by Hasanthika Sirisena as a model:

  1. Start with the action your character must defend. It’s not always the case that action is the best place to start, but it’s probably the place to begin thinking about character and often what draws a writer to a character in the first place. The character is going to do something drastic, with consequences, something that demands an explanation. What is that action? Don’t worry if it doesn’t yet make sense or seems out of character.
  2. Give the character figurative parents to defend it to. This can be as easy as posing this question to your character: Why did you do that? Let your character offer up a list of responses, and then swat them down, if possible, just as a parent would. The goal is to move beyond the easy, unsatisfying explanations until the point at which the figurative parent (you, the writer) can demand, “How can someone so smart do something so stupid?”
  3. Let the character do some soul searching. He might search his past for clues or his family or the other people who surround him: their values or fears. Think in terms of change: the dread, based on experience, that something will change and wreck everything or that nothing will change and everything will remain the same. If you’re familiar with the canon of Western literature from, say, James Joyce to Richard Ford, the statements that results from this soul searching will feel an awful lot like an epiphany. Generally speaking, we’re skeptical of epiphanies now because they’ve been so overused, but that doesn’t mean they have disappeared from stories. The passage from “Ismail” could have been an epiphany except that it occurs in the first half of the story. What statement of causation (I acted because) can you draw from your character’s deepest fears or needs?
  4. Make the character defend the action to someone in the storyOne of the biggest mistakes writers make early on is doing everything I’ve just discussed—but doing it all inside a character’s head. Stories like these consist entirely of characters sitting and drinking/smoking and thinking big thoughts, which is boring. So, force the character to defend the action to some other character. Ismail, for example, must defend his actions to his brother. The defense matters, and the impact it has on their relationship matters. That’s where story and plot come from. Who is that other character in your story?

The goal is to figure out where a story is headed by better understanding what motivates a character to act in the first place.

Good luck.

How a Character’s Past Can Inform the Present Action

18 Oct
Laurie Stone's new book, My Life as an Animal, is about a woman a woman constantly seduced by strangers, language, the streets in the downtown scene of New York City in the 70s, 80s, and 90s.

Laurie Stone’s new book, My Life as an Animal, is about a woman constantly seduced by strangers, language, and the streets in the downtown scene of New York City in the 70s, 80s, and 90s.

Here is one way to think about conflict: A character has a desire (like, say, wanting to eat a really good sandwich), but something stands in the way of satisfying that desire (there are no good sandwiches, only Subway). The story becomes about that character’s effort to overcome the obstacle in order to obtain the desired thing (the quest for the sandwich). There is nothing wrong with this structure, clearly, since it’s the basis of any number of famous stories and novels. That said, it has a simplicity that can feel false. In real life, we often act in ways that takes us away from the thing we desire. Or, we have conflicting desires. When this is the case in a story, a different structure is needed than the “Quest for the Sandwich” narrative.

A great example of this type of internal conflict can be found in Laurie Stone’s new book, My Life as an Animal, new from Northwestern University Press. You can read the opening of the book here.

How the Story Works

The book is a collection of stories, the term that Stone uses to describe her fictions that often use material from her life. (Read about that definition in the interview on Thursday.)  One of the stories in the book, André, revolves around the sexual assault that the main character suffered, when she was 14, at the hands of her psychoanalyst, a man named André. Her reaction to the traumatic event was a kind of dissociation:

Have you ever left your body? People talk about this happening during trauma. Maybe it is a throwback to our chimpy past, when the endangered primate searched for a tree to climb into at the sound of pounding hooves. I looked down at a girl in a blue cardigan with her arms by her sides.

Many years later, she tells the story of this assault at a dinner party, and a man at the party has this reaction:

The man had been quiet until André was mentioned. He had intense eyes and an enigmatic smile. His belly was round, his hair thinning, his arms and legs untoned, despite his work as a landscape gardener. We were drinking margaritas and eating chips. Sailboats raced outside the windows, and I looked around my friend’s peaceful loft with its large, abstract paintings, couches by a window, a coffee table made from an old, green door. I was on a stool and once or twice rubbed my shoulder. The man said, “Can I give you a massage? I have studied massage.” I said, “Okay.” My mother used to say, “Nothing is free.” I did not want her to be right. The man stood too close as he worked on my neck. Softly, he said, “Does it feel good?” I said, “Yes.” He kept working. I closed my eyes. I didn’t like him. His hands were soothing. He was silent for a while and then he said, “Can I kiss your shoulder. These shoulders don’t know they are loved.” I did not want the kiss. I thought he was ugly. I said, “Okay,” and I felt his lips, cool and quick, on my skin.

That night in bed Richard said, “Why did you let him kiss you?” I said, “It felt easier than saying no.’

There is a lot to be learned here about men’s behavior and consent, of course, but the scene also reveals something important about craft: A character’s behavior becomes a lot more interesting and suspenseful if must choose between competing desires. In this case, she wants to be left alone but also wants to avoid a confrontation. The result is that the scene becomes less predictable. There are several different ways it could have gone. The narrator could have slapped the man or told him to get his hands off of her, and it would have made sense. She could have begun crying or stormed out of the room. In short, the narrator’s actions depend on which desire she chooses to act on (to be left alone or to avoid confrontation).

Because the choice between those desires is so difficult, the story becomes about the choice itself (and the stress involved in making it) rather than the action that follows. The narrator alludes to that stress shortly after this scene ends when she says, in one of the best lines of the book, “Suffering does not ennoble people. Suffering mostly crushes people.” The description that leads up to this statement is alone worth the price of the book. And, it’s possible because of the way Stone creates the narrator’s internal conflict.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s create competing desires within a character, using “André” from My Life as an Animal by Laurie Stone as a model:

  1. Give your character a critical event. In My Life as an Animal, Stone uses the abuse by the psychoanalyst. It’s an event that hangs over the narrator for the rest of her life, coloring the way she understands herself and others. Because the narrator is so complex and well drawn, this critical event doesn’t entirely explain her character, and that is important. Characters who can be distilled to a single event too completely risk becoming flat and unrealistic. So, the event shouldn’t define your character, but it should be an inextricable part of your character. For your own character, consider what memory he or she returns to, loves, or dreads. What past event keeps the character up at night or gets told to others again and again?
  2. Jump forward in time to a similar situation. The situation can be exactly the same or vaguely similar; in My Life as an Animal, the narrator is receiving unwanted attention from a man, and the kind of attention is similar but of a different degree. But the situation can also be similar only from the character’s perspective. In real life, we tend to use our own critical events as yardsticks for much of what happens around us. So, the critical event and present situation may seem totally different to one character but similar to another. The point is that the present situation makes your character feel the same—or in a similar way—as she did in the critical event.
  3. Give the character a desire related to that situation. In My Life as an Animal, the narrator’s desire is pretty simple: to be left alone, not harassed. The desire can also be small. For example, some people avoid certain foods (oranges, chives, etc) because they once had a negative experience with them (getting sick). As a result, they live their lives with the ongoing desire to avoid those foods. The desire can also be a positive one. If someone had a good experience in the past, he or she might actively seek out similar experiences.
  4. Give the character an expected way to act on that desire. You’re simply following the logic of the desire. If a character wants to avoid oranges, she’ll behave in predictable ways: avoiding certain aisles in the grocery store or never eating breakfast in a restaurant. How does your character usually act on his or her desire?
  5. Create another desire that, if acted upon, has the opposite effect of the previous action. In My Life as an Animal, the narrator also wants to avoid confrontation with the man who is bothering her. She’s at a party and doesn’t want to make a scene. As a result, she allows the man to give her a massage and kiss her even though it runs contrary to her deep desire to be left alone. To a certain degree, she’s also bombarded with mixed feelings about the man. He’s ugly and creepy, but her shoulders do hurt and his “hands were soothing.” So, place your character in a particular place and time with particular people. What else is going on in that moment? What else does the character want (to avoid making a scene, to relax her shoulders)? These desires don’t need to be inherently contrary to the first desire you created, but the actions that result from them should work against that first desire.
  6. Let the character choose. Generally speaking, drama requires release. A scene builds and builds, and readers wonder what will happen. So, what will your character choose?

The goal is to create a scene by exploring the ways that a past event creates desires that can or cannot be acted upon in the present.

Good luck.

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