Tag Archives: character development

How to Set Up the Second Half of Your Novel

8 Jul
Natalia Sylvester's debut novel, Chasing the Sun, is a literary thriller that has drawn comparisons to Gillian Flynn's blockbuster Gone Girl.

Natalia Sylvester’s debut novel, Chasing the Sun, is a literary thriller that has drawn comparisons to Gillian Flynn’s blockbuster Gone Girl.

Almost everyone who tries to write a novel hits a wall roughly a third to halfway through the book. They discover that the plot is played out and the characters have hit dead ends. Why is this?

Part of the problem is often found in the opening pages. One of the inescapable truths of storytelling is that you must get to the story quickly; it’s the reason readers won’t be able to put down your book. This is true for every kind of story, but it’s especially true for a novel that fits into the category thriller. Yet if the novel focuses solely on kicking off the plot, it won’t give itself enough material to keep going once the initial plot mechanism runs its course. This is why many early novel drafts tend to stall out after 70 to 100 pages.

The question is how to do two things at once: hook the reader and also plant seeds that will sprout later in the book.

An excellent example of planting seeds can be found in Natalia Sylvester’s novel Chasing the Sun. The hook is made clear in the front flap: “Andres suspects his wife has left him—again. Then he learns that the unthinkable has happened: she’s been kidnapped. Too much time and too many secrets have come between Andres and Marabela, but now that she’s gone, he’ll do anything to get her back. Or will he?” But you have to read the first chapter to find the seeds that will sprout into the second half of the novel.

How does Sylvester integrate early hints of those secrets into the kidnapping scene that must begin the story? Find out by reading the opening pages here.

How the Story Works

Anyone who’s read the jacket of Chasing the Sun knows that Marabela will be kidnapped. So, the novel has no choice but to begin there. Even if Sylvester had wanted to start earlier, the reader wouldn’t have stood for it. If readers know what happens next, they won’t keep reading for long. So, Marabela disappears in the first chapter. And yet what a difficult place to begin. Once the kidnapping occurs, there are certain steps that must quickly follow: calls from the kidnappers, requests for ransom, negotiations, and wrong steps by everyone involved. These events carry an incredible gravitational field. The reader’s eye will skip over everything else and move straight to the central question: then what? Good luck creating depth of character or culture or place when a woman’s life hangs in the balance. But character and culture and place are the best parts of the story and (from a practical standpoint) the triggers that will propel the plot forward after the initial burst of kidnapping energy has played itself out. As a result, the writer must imbed these things, this backstory, into the hook. Sylvester does this in a couple of ways.

First, she creates synchronous events. While Marabela is being kidnapped, her husband Andres is on a business call. Sylvester ties the events together in a few deft sentences, when Andres has to explain why his wife couldn’t come to the meeting:

He’d hoped Marabela would come with him today to help make a good impression.

“She’s so sorry she couldn’t make it. She was really looking forward to seeing you again,” he says.

“Tell her I said hello and that I hope she feels better,” Lara says.

We don’t yet know she’s been kidnapped, but we know something is going to happen (and if we’ve read the jacket, we know exactly what will happen), and so we’re aware of the irony of Lara’s statement. Sylvester doesn’t let it drop there. After the meeting, Andres’ son asks why his mom would come to a business meeting for something that doesn’t directly involve her. Watch how Sylvester uses Andres’ answer to do something crucial to the novel:

He sighs, unsure how to explain the less concrete aspects of his business. “Sometimes those kinds of things help the situation along. A man like Manuel wants to know the person he’s about to do business with shares his values. That he’s a good husband, a family guy. That he can be trusted.”

Again, the statement is ironic (“a good husband, a family guy. That he can be trusted”). Sylvester is making a clearcut statement about the man Andres wants to be, and, later in the novel, it will inevitably turn out that he’s not this kind of man. But Sylvester is doing something else as well. She’s beginning to tell the reader the values that Andres holds dear. Just one page later, when Andres and his son are being driven home, his son accidentally rolls down the window at a stoplight:

“Señor, tres paquetes de galletas por un sol.” A young boy, no older than thirteen, pokes his head through the window. Ignacio shakes his head and starts rolling up the window when his father leans forward to stop him.

“Not so fast. You already got his hopes up. Don’t toy with the kid.” He leans over and shouts, “¡Dos paquetes! Go ahead, pay him.” He nudges his son.

“But you’re the one who—” With a stern look from his father, Ignacio stops protesting and fishes two coins out of his pocket.

The scene might seem incidental, but it tells the reader that Andres lives by a particular ethical code. Just as the novel will inevitably challenge Andres’ definition of himself as a good husband, a family guy, and trustworthy, the novel will also inevitably challenge his ethical system, forcing him to act in ways he would have previously believed unacceptable. The scene has also introduced Andres’ relationship to the larger political situation in Lima. The novel is set during the days of the Shining Path, a guerrilla group whose battle against the government cost more than 100,000 lives. It’s not accident, then, that the scene just described involves two people with a hired driver and a poor boy selling cookies. The novel is hinting at the politics that will play a large role in the story.

These seeds will become increasingly important. The kidnapping will be resolved, as it must, and that is when the real story begins—a story that is impossible without these details about Andres that can be turned on their head, a turning that will drive the plot forward again.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s plant some seeds using Chasing the Sun by Natalia Sylvester as a model:

  1. Create a synchronous event. Your novel probably has a Big Event that kicks off the story. At its most basic, it’s likely some version of a stranger arriving in town or a character leaving on a trip. The story hinges on that event, and, as a result, it’s difficult to shoehorn any character development in those scenes. So, carve out a scene that takes place at the same time or within the Big Event. It can be anything. Sylvester’s Big Event is the kidnapping, and her synchronous event is the business meeting. In a way, this is true to life. We’re never doing one thing at a time, and when something big happens, we’re almost always engaged in some other activity. Create that activity. If your character is getting ready to leave on a trip, send her to the bank, the grocery store, the mechanic, to coffee with a friend, or to the person who will take care of the dog while she’s gone. If a stranger is arriving, find out what people are doing as the stranger gets into town; they’re probably not sitting around, waiting for him.
  2. Connect the events. The connection is essential because otherwise the reader may feel like you’ve added an extraneous scene. Obvious ways to connect the events are with glimpses of someone (I saw a figure walk past the window and didn’t think much of it) or with phone calls or text messages (Ready yet?). You can also connect the events with irony (I couldn’t wait for a relaxing evening, or, they seem like they’ll make the perfect married couple). Because any novel’s initial events are given away by the jacket flap, the reader is anticipating whatever Big Event you have in store. So, if you’re dropping hints that the characters have certain expectations that won’t be met, the reader gets a sense of anticipation. Therefore, the connection that you make between events doesn’t need to be direct; it can simply hint at expectations that the Big Event will disrupt.
  3. Use that connection as an opportunity for character definition. Remember, not all character development is created equal. It’s fine to know that a character is vegan, but if you write that a character refuses to sit in an establishment that doesn’t serve vegan options, then you’re creating a scene that the reader can anticipate. A great way to create expectations in the reader is to define the character’s value system (He’s the kind of person who…). Sylvester lets Andres define himself as a good, honest husband and family man. The reason that he defines himself is because he’s thinking about his wife’s absence at the meeting. So, how can you use the connection between events as an opportunity for your characters to define themselves? If your character is leaving on a trip, let her define the kind of traveler she is (I take books and a coffee grinder, but I refuse to answer my email). If it’s a stranger arriving in town, let the character define the kind of place he lives, which will be a reflection of how he sees himself (I thought about hitting the showers but decided to knock out another couple of sets. The guys nodded at me as I came back into the weight room.) You’re setting the stage for the Big Event. Notice that these definitions contain value systems. When you establish a value, it’s a good idea to try to pressure it, even break it, in the story. The reader will be expecting nothing less.

Good luck!

How to Ground Ecstatic Experience in Human Motivation

27 May
James Baldwin published The Fire Next Time, with its two long essays, in 1963, and its enormous success put Baldwin on the cover of Time Magazine.

James Baldwin published The Fire Next Time in 1963. It contained the long essay, “Down at the Cross,” and a letter to his nephew, “My Dungeon Shook: Letter to My Nephew on the One-Hundredth Anniversary of Emancipation.” After the book’s enormous success, Time put Baldwin on its cover.

One of the great regularities of human existence is that many of us, at one time or another, feel as though we’ve become the conduit for some superhuman energy. The source differs: God, the artistic muses, love, sex, drugs, and probably a host of others. When writing about such experiences, our language must necessarily match the intensity of the moment, relying on metaphor and on diction and syntax that transcend the everyday or commonplace. But when the moment is over, when the essay or story must move on, how does the language (and, therefore, the essay/story itself) come back down to regular life?

James Baldwin’s famous essay, “Down at the Cross,” included in the book The Fire Next Time, contains an astounding moment of spiritual ecstasy and then immediately grounds that experience in human desire and motivation. You can’t read the essay online, but you should go find a copy at the library or bookstore. It contains so many quotable passages and great pieces of writing that to discuss them all would mean excerpting the entire essay.

How the Story Works

Baldwin is writing about a conversion experience that he had as a teenager. His best friend had taken him to his church, and after a summer of increasing sexual confusion, Baldwin was suddenly overcome one day during a church service:

“One moment I was on my feet, singing and clapping and, at the same time, working out in my head the plot of a play I was working on then; the next moment, with no transition, no sensation of falling, I was on my back, with the lights beating down into my face and all the vertical saints above me. I did not know what I was doing down so low, or how I had got there. And the anguish that filled me cannot be described. It moved in me like one of those floods that devastate countries, tearing everything down, tearing children from parents and lovers from each other, and making everything an unrecognizable waste. All I really remember is the pain, the unspeakable pain: it was as though I were yelling up to Heaven and Heaven would not hear me. And if Heaven would not hear me, if love could not descend from Heaven—to wash me, to make me clean—then utter disaster was my portion.”

This is the intense moment of ecstasy that Baldwin experiences, a moment of human relief that he later calls “at once so pagan and so desperate.” He does not understand how, exactly, it happened, and he feels inadequate to the task of describing the sensation of it. So he turns to metaphor: “like one of those floods that devastate countries” and “as though I were yelling up to Heaven and Heaven would not hear me.” It would make sense if this passage came at the end of the essay because how can anyone follow up something so powerful? How can an essay move forward from such a climactic scene?

Here is how Baldwin solves this problem:

“I was saved. But at the same time, out of a deep, adolescent cunning I do not pretend to understand, I realized immediately that I could not remain in the church merely as another worshipper. I would have to give myself something to do, in order not to be to bored and find myself among all the wretched unsaved of the Avenue. And I don’t doubt that I also intended to best my father on his own ground.”

Baldwin may have experienced the divine, but when he gets up off the floor, he’s still human. He’s still baffled by what is happening to him (“a deep, adolescent cunning I do not pretend to understand”), but the force is no longer an unearthly one but, instead, intrinsically human.

This shift from the sublimely divine to human motivation is common in many religious texts. It’s in the Book of Exodus when Moses goes up the mountain to receive the commandments. He’s blasted by the presence of God. Then, he comes back down the mountain and into human desire. His reaction to the carrying-on of his people is purely human as well: he smashes the commandments in anger and then has to go get new ones made. This shift is also present more generally in the New Testament, when Saul gets knocked off his horse and blinded on the road to Damascus. He was a zealot for one cause before the incident, and even though he changed his name to Paul, he remained a zealot afterward, only for a different cause. In both cases, the touch of the divine is interpreted and grounded in human motivation and personality.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s ground a moment of ecstasy in specific human motivation, using the passage from James Baldwin’s essay “Down at the Cross” as a model:

  1. Find a moment of ecstasy. You can write a new one, but what may be better is to find one that you’ve already written in an unfinished draft of a story or essay. These types of moments tend to sit uneasily in our writing. We want to convey how it feels to have such an experience, but we’re often not sure how or where to do it. So, think about the drafts sitting in your proverbial drawer, collecting dust. What moment of ecstasy (intense spiritual, mental, or physical experience that transcends normal, everyday life) have you tried to write about? Find that draft or passage.
  2. Sum up the result of the experience. Usually, the change is something along the lines of “I was a changed person.” The question is what kind of change took place. How were you or your character fundamentally different after the experience than before? Baldwin sums up his experience in three words familiar to any American: “I was saved.”
  3. Explain how that change fits in with the person you inescapably are. Any change worth its salt has a real-world impact, and yet the change almost never results in a reversal so complete that it leaves you unrecognizable. So, when Baldwin writes, “I could not remain in the church merely as another worshipper,” he’s not talking about a result of the change but about a character trait that had been present all along, a refusal to blend in. So, identify a trait in you or your character that is present before the experience and explain how that trait directs your behavior after the change. If you’re stumped, try using the same introductory phrase that Baldwin uses: “I realized immediately…” Follow the idea through to its practical conclusion. So, Baldwin writes, “I would have to give myself something to do, in order not to be to bored and find myself among all the wretched unsaved of the Avenue.” Because he cannot simply go along, because of his active, searching mind, he must engage himself in the change to an exceptional degree. In your piece, think about the ways that you or your character react to the change, in the context of the character trait, in practical and necessary ways.
  4. Explain how the change impacts the dynamics of an existing relationship. While the change might alter the relationship, it might also simply play into the dynamic that exists. So, Baldwin writes, “And I don’t doubt that I also intended to best my father on his own ground.” That tension between father and son already existed, and Baldwin’s experience in the church merely gave that dynamic another way to manifest itself.

Remember, the goal is to ground an experience that seems unreal or unearthly in the very earthly and real life you’re portraying (yours or your character’s).

Good luck!

7 Craft Lessons Every Writer Must Learn

31 Dec

Every writer must, at some point, come to terms with certain aspects of writing craft. Here are lessons drawn from seven excellent stories featured at Read to Write Stories in 2013.

1. Make Setting Do More Than Describe a Place

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Esmé-Michelle Watkins is an attorney based in Los Angeles and co-fiction editor of BLACKBERRY: A Magazine. Her writing has appeared in Boston Review, Word Riot, Voices de la Luna, and 4’33”.

If you’ve ever gotten bored while reading, the parts that you skimmed were probably descriptions of places. It’s not enough, as a writer, to use description to show what a place looks like. Try to convey the narrator’s or character’s attitude toward the thing you are describing. For an example, read this excerpt from Esmé-Michelle Watkins’s story “Xochimilco,” published in Boston Review:

There was nothing to see. Gone were the Stay Away drapes tall as street lights, whose heavy fabric Mammì flew all the way from our house in Pasadena to Nonna’s in Bivona to have custom-made; the Go Sit Down oil fresco of clustered villas hugging crags along a turquoise sea; the Knock You Into Next Tuesday French-legged dining table and high backed chairs, formerly below the Go Ahead and Try It chandelier; the Touch and Lose Your Life crystal bowls, where Mammì kept my favorite Sorrento lemons sweet like oranges, and the Cabinet of Doom wide as two hall closets, which housed the finest of Mammì’s That’s a No-No clique: tableware from Baccarat, Tiffany, and JL Coquet. (From “Xochimilco” by Esmé-Michelle Watkins)

2. Develop a Character’s Interior Life

Kelli Ford's story, "Walking Stick," was published in Drunken Boat.

Kelli Ford has been a Dobie Paisano Fellow and is finishing a collection of short stories.

It may seem obvious, but books are not movies. A reader’s relationship with a character is primarily with the character’s thoughts and feelings, not physical appearance. Yet, a simple description of who a character is and how she looks can be an entry into her interior life. Kelli Ford illustrates this perfectly in her story “Walking Stick,” published at Drunken Boat:

At sixty-seven, Anna Maria did not hurry with much these days. She was still stout and round, but a bone spur on her right ankle forced her foot out at an odd angle. That shoe always wore thin on the inside before the other. She could feel the gravel poking through. (From “Walking Stick” by Kelli Ford)

3. Write a Thrilling Action Sequence

Kevin Grauke's new story collection, Shadows of Men, was published by Queens Ferry Press and has been called X.

Kevin Grauke won the 2013 Texas Institute of Letters Steven Turner Award for Best First Book of Fiction for his short story collection, Shadows of Men.

I grew up reading Hardy Boys mysteries and Louis L’Amour cowboy adventures, which means I read a lot of fight scenes. Yet I’ve found that writing similar scenes–or any action sequence, for that matter–often turns into a boring choreography of movement: hit, punch, kick, grunt, etc. Good fight scenes must do more. The key is to interpret or comment upon the actions. Kevin Grauke shows how in this excerpt from his story “Bullies,” published at FiveChapters:

He grabbed Mr. Shelley’s tie and gave it a quick yank. He meant this only to be a sign, a signal that this was over for now–a period, not an exclamation point–but he pulled harder than he’d meant to, and Mr. Shelley, caught off-guard, stumbled forward, knocking into him. Off balance, Dennis staggered backwards from the low height of the porch, pulling Mr. Shelley with him in an awkward dance, and as they fell together and rolled, he understood that there was no way to turn back now, or to end this peacefully, no matter how clownish and clumsy it had to look. (From “Bullies” by Kevin Grauke)

4. Build Suspense

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Manuel Gonzales is the author of the story collection, The Miniature Wife, and the forthcoming novel The Regional Office Is Under Attack!

In his famous essay “Psychology and Form,” Kenneth Burke explains how suspense is built by giving readers something to desire (“creation of an appetite,” he calls it) and then delaying the satisfaction of that desire. The easiest way to do this is with a distraction, or, as Burke writes, “a temporary set of frustrations.” In other words, promise the readers something and then wave something shiny to make them forget the thing you promised–so that when you finally produce what you originally promise, the readers are surprised. You can find a clear example of this strategy in Manuel Gonzales’ story “Farewell, Africa,” published at Guernica. If you read the entire story, you’ll see how long Gonzales is able to delay showing us what happened to the pool:

No one, apparently, had thought to test the pool before the party to see that it worked. The pool, which was the size of a comfortable Brooklyn or Queens apartment, had been designed by Harold Cornish and had been commissioned as a memorial installation for the Memorial Museum of Continents Lost. It was the centerpiece of the museum as well as the party celebrating the museum’s opening. In the center of the long, wide pool was a large, detailed model of the African continent. According to Cornish, the pool, an infinity pool, would be able to recreate the event of Africa sinking into the sea. “Not entirely accurately,” he told me early into the party, before anyone knew the installation wouldn’t work. “But enough to give a good idea of how it might have looked when it happened.” (From “Farewell, Africa” by Manuel Gonzales)

5. Use Dialogue to Create Conflict

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Rene Perez is the author of Along These Highways, a story collection that won the Alfredo Cisneros Del Moral Foundation prize.

Close your eyes and listen to people talk, and you’ll quickly realize that they have different speaking styles–their own particular diction and phrasing. Dig a little deeper and I suspect you’ll find that those differences are tied to differences of personality. Our diction and phrasing are integral to our conception of our identity. So, to create conflict in a story, trap together two characters who have different speaking styles. The personality differences will soon emerge. A good example of this can be found in Rene Pérez II’s story, “Lost Days,” published in The Acentos Review:

“I don’t mean to disparage the whole of Corpus as being ‘ghetto,’ because that connotes a certain socioeconomic status,” he said, trying to backpedal as delicately as he could out of a comment he’d made at the dinner table that offended Beto, her husband, his father. He had always spoken that way; Stanford didn’t do that to him. “It’s just that there’s a culture here which is such that one can’t be challenged or even stimulated intellectually. There’s no art, no progress toward it or high culture. It’s a city of… of… philistines.”It would have hurt less if he’d just stuck with calling the place ‘ghetto.’ Rose knew what she did and didn’t have, and that she raised her son where and how she and Beto could afford to. So their neighbors were a little shady. They were still good neighbors. So their neighborhood was down-run and their house a little small. It was still their home. (From “Lost Days” by Rene S. Perez II)

6. Avoid the Chronology Trap

Roxane Gay

Roxane Gay is the author of Ayiti and the forthcoming novel An Untamed State.

Stories and novels don’t move through time. Instead, they gather time into chunks, organizing minutes and hours into miniature stories within a story. Think of each paragraph as a stand-alone unit–with its own arc, theme, and organization. This should help avoid those tedious passages that plod minute-by-minute through chronology. To demonstrate how this works, check out this paragraph from Roxane Gay’s story “Contrapasso,” published at Mixed FruitThe story is formatted like a restaurant menu. Each paragraph is a description of a dish. Notice how much time is collapsed into one short passage:

Filet Mignon $51.95 They saw specialists. There were accusations. They tried treatments, all of which failed. They tried adoption but she had a past and they had no future. And then it was just the two of them in their big house straining at the seams with all the things she bought and all the things they would never have. One day she came home. All of it was gone. (From “Contrapasso” by Roxane Gay)

7. Write Short, Stylish Sentences

kelly luce

Kelly Luce is the author of the story collection, Three Scenarios In Which Hana Sasaki Grows a Trail.

People often claim that a story’s language is poetic. But what does that mean? Sometimes it means that the writer uses lush, lyric descriptions. But not always. Great sentences–and great lines of poetry–often work the same way. They strive for leaps in logic, for the unexpected juxtaposition of images. Readers are expected to keep up, to make the connections without the aid of explanation. Therefore, a stylish sentence often dashes forward. The best writers can do this in two words, as Vladimir Nabokov did in his famous parenthetical aside “(picnic, lightning).” Other writers, like Kelly Luce, leap from one short, direct sentence to the next. For example, here is the opening paragraph from her story “Rooey” in The Literary ReviewNotice how far and fast the story moves using phrases of less than ten words each:

Since Rooey died, I’m no longer myself. Foods I’ve hated my entire life, I crave. Different things are funny. I’ve stopped wearing a bra. I bet they’re thinking about firing me here at work, but they must feel bad, my brother so recently dead and all. Plus, I’m cheap labor, fresh out of college. And let’s face it, the Sweetwater Weekly doesn’t have the most demanding readership or publishing standards. (From “Rooey” by Kelly Luce)

How to Introduce Genre Elements into a Literary Story

17 Dec
Daniel José Older's story, "Victory Music" was first published in PANK 8.06 and republished as part of Necessary Fiction's RePrint series.

Daniel José Older’s story, “Victory Music” was first published in PANK 8.06 and republished as part of Necessary Fiction‘s RePrint series.

How do you introduce genre elements into a literary story without also feeling beholden to the genre’s usual structure? For instance, not every story with ghosts is a ghost story. Anyone reading the first lines of a ghost story has certain expectations for what will happen. But if that same person begins a story about a young woman who tells her parents that she’s no longer a girl, the expectations are different. It’s the old genre vs literary divide.

One way to handle this balancing act can be found in Daniel José Older’s story “Victory Music.” It was originally published in PANK 8.06, and was selected as a RePrint by Necessary Fiction Writer-in-Residence Ashley Ford. You can read it now at Necessary Fiction.

How the Story Works

Any story that wants to use genre elements but not genre structure must toe a fine line. If it drops the genre element (in this case, a ghost) into the story out of nowhere, the reader is likely to be confused or thrown for too much of a loop. But if the story introduces the genre element too firmly, the reader is going to expect a genre structure. The trick, then, is to hint at the genre element without settling too firmly into the structure. Let’s look at how Daniel José Older does this in “Victory Music.”

He hints at the genre element (the ghost) by letting the narrator address a dead person named Krys. The opening section ends this way:

I wanted to tell you that you’ve saved my life at least twice. And once was after you died.

Notice how the statement is vague enough to be read several ways, only one of which requires a ghost. But even that lack of specificity might be too much—which is why the story begins with a paragraph that has nothing to do with ghosts:

One of my favorite moments ever was when the boy called me an Arab and you said, “She’s Sikh, fucknut” and then when he said “Oh, like hide and go-“ you broke his nose. I heard music playing, I swear to God, and it was victory music, your music: A dusty, unflinching beat, lowdown and grinding. It didn’t matter that my family’s not even technically Sikh anymore since my parents went born-again and I’m just whatever. I smiled for days after that moment, Krys. Days.

The first section ends with a hint of a ghost but a lot of non-ghost potential conflict. The next section can go two ways: It can develop the “saved my life…after you died” idea or one of the non-ghost ideas from the first paragraph. Older chooses the latter, reintroducing the narrator’s parents:

[M]y dad sent the twins to bed with a growl and then said to me, “What do you mean you’re not a girl?”

Imagine how different the story would be if it began the first section with something ghostly. In order to continue to increase the suspense further, the story would have no choice but to further develop the ghost—and as the possibilities for development narrowed, that is when the story would likely adopt the usual structure of a genre ghost story.

Instead, because the story introduces the conflict around the narrator’s gender identity, the story is given a new conflict to develop—and, in this story, that conflict climaxes with the appearance of a ghost. To some extent, the difference between a story with ghosts and a ghost story is when the ghost appears. The earlier it appears, the more likely it becomes that the story adopts a genre structure. (I’ll admit that there are exceptions to this rule, as shown by this story about a monster.)

The Writing Exercise

Let’s introduce a genre element into our stories, experimenting with placement, using “Victory Music” as a model:

  1. Choose the genre element. Pick your favorite genre story and borrow something from it: ghosts, zombies, vampires, monsters, detectives, cowboys, aliens, giant squid, playboy millionaires, heiresses with squandered fortunes, wizards, middle-aged women looking for sex in a city, 20-something actors with entourages of hometown friends.
  2. Hint at the genre element. Write a sentence or two that suggests to the reader which genre element is coming. Don’t be too specific (“There were werewolves somewhere in this city.”) Instead, try to hint at the element in a way that lends itself to multiple interpretations. Remember Older’s line from “Victory Music”: “I wanted to tell you that you’ve saved my life at least twice. And once was after you died.”
  3. Lead up to your hint with something unrelated to the element. Keep in mind the writer Ron Carlson’s advice that every story contains two parts: the story and the world that the story enters. Create a character or world that exists independently of the genre element that you’re introducing. Give that character or world the seeds of a conflict(s) that have nothing to do with the genre element.
  4. Figure out the relationship between conflict and genre element. Your story is necessarily going to move between two elements: the character’s original conflict and the genre element. To make this move, it’s helpful to know where each is located. Do they exist in the same space? In Older’s story, the ghosts are in one place and the conflict with the father is in another place.
  5. Develop one of those conflicts. Keep in mind where you’re going. If the genre elements waits elsewhere, the conflict should develop so that the character is required to leave one place and go to another.
  6. Introduce the genre element. Remember that most transitions are not clean breaks. Make the character preoccupied with the conflict he/she just left. That way, when the genre element appears, it will come as a surprise to both the reader and the character.

Good luck!

How to Find a Story’s Tone

10 Dec
Benjamin Rosenbaum's story XXX appeared at Tor.com

Benjamin Rosenbaum’s zombie story “Feature Development for Social Networking” appeared at Tor.com. (Illustraton by Scott Bakal)

Some stories have been told countless times. Yet, as writers, we often feel compelled to take another crack at them. So how do we make our stories different? Sometimes the answer is to find an unexpected tone.

Benjamin Rosenbaum does exactly that in his zombie story “Feature Development for Social Networking.” I guarantee that even if you’ve read a thousand zombie stories, you’ve never read one like this. You can read it now at Tor.com.

How the Story Works

Playing with tone in a story is a bit like improvising in music. A simple melody is easier to improvise than one that requires concentration just to play straight. So, when you’re thinking about tone, it’s helpful to make everything else simple. Here’s the opening of “Feature Development for Social Networking.” Notice how simple it is. (If you haven’t read the story yet, it’s written as a series of Facebook posts and comments).

Marsha Shirksy Got bitten . . .

Roland Wu wtf? Are you kidding?

Buster Day that is so not funny

Emily Carter omg Marsha are you serious?

Marsha Shirksy I’m not kidding, you guys! There was a rager at the supermarket. I could tell he was acting weird & I know I was totally stupid not to just drop my stuff and run! I’d just been in line forever & they had this terrific local asparagus on sale. Yes, I may have just sacrificed myself for asparagus.

The first two words of the story (after the character’s name) provide everything the reader needs to know about the plot (“Got bitten…”). Anyone who’s ever read a zombie story knows how this one will end. So, instead of focusing on the plot, Rosenbaum can play with tone. He finds his tone by doing a couple of simple things:

  • He chooses a place with a particular style of communication. In this case, it’s Facebook, with its users’ tendency to exaggerate the emotion in all statements (omg, wtf, exclamation marks galore) in order to not be misunderstood.
  • He gives himself room to play with tone. The first line introduces the plot, but then that plot is not explained or developed in any way until Marsha Shirksy speaks up again. In that lull, there’s space to play with tone. Notice how Roland, Buster, and Emily all say basically the same thing in slightly different ways—but also in ways that reinforce a kind of philosophy toward communication (or tone): informal, intimate, and performative (wtf, omg).
  • He uses the tone to convey an important piece of story information. After the Facebook tone is set, Rosenbaum uses it to tell the story of the zombie attack. Notice how that paragraph uses all of the traits established in the previous three lines: it’s informal (the ampersand, “totally stupid”), intimate (“you guys”), and performative (“Yes, I may have just sacrificed myself for asparagus).

Once the tone is set, the story is off and running. If you read the entire piece, you’ll see how Rosenbaum introduces a second set of characters and a slightly different form of communication goes through this process all over again.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s play with tone, using “Feature Development for Social Networking” as a model:

  1. Choose the oft-told story that you want to tell. Make it as simple as possible: zombie attack, quest, boy/girl falls in love with boy/girl and has to woo him/her, ghostly apparition, relationship goes sour.
  2. Choose a place with a particular style of communication. Think about the places where characters code switch (adapt to a language that is particular to one group): a bar, a workplace, a church, a classroom, or the hallway or space immediately outside the classroom or church or office or bar, a dinner table, a restaurant.
  3. Introduce the plot immediately. I got bit. I had to find the key, document, Easter egg, baby. I had to make him love me. The ghost handed me the shampoo. I used to love her, but now I don’t.
  4. Give yourself room to play with tone. Establish the communication style. You can do this by putting your character into conversation, having him/her tell the story to someone else. Or, you can simply adopt the tone of the place/group and use it in what is essentially a monologue. Think about the language’s phrasings, idioms, approaches to emotion (exaggerated, muted), use or avoidance of literal or figures of speech, directness or roundabout-ness. Think about speed. How fast or slow do the character talk? Play with the voice until you begin to hear it in your head, almost as if the voice is speaking to you.
  5. Use the tone to convey an important piece of information. How I got bit. Why I need to find the key, document, Easter egg, baby. Why it’s not easy to make him love me, or why I love him. What the ghost looks like. Why I don’t love her anymore.

Once you find the tone, you may find that the most enjoyable part of writing the story is the tone itself. Keep playing with it. Drop in a plot clue or reference now and then to keep the story moving forward.

Have fun.

How to Make Dialogue Move Faster

26 Nov
X story "Paper Tiger" appeared in Fiddleblack.

Liz Warren-Pederson’s story “Paper Tiger” appeared in Fiddleblack.

Most dialogue is written with paragraph breaks every time the speaker changes. The result is clarity, but the downside is that even a short back-and-forth can fill up half a page. What if you want capture the speed of the conversation?

One way to make dialogue move faster is to write it in chunks that appear in a single paragraph. If you’re writing in first-person, you may find that this technique sends a jolt of electricity into the voice of your narrator.

To see how this works, check out Liz Warren-Pederson’s story “Paper Tiger.” It’s so good that you’ll read the first sentence and think, “That was great,” and then the next sentence will be even better. It was published at Fiddleblack, where you can read it now.

How the Story Works

Almost everyone has told (or heard) this story: “She said, then I said, then he said, then this total stranger jumped in and said, so I told him…” It’s one of the most natural storytelling methods in the world. It probably predates written language. Yet, it can’t be captured within the constraints of normal formatting rules for dialogue (paragraph breaks for every speaker change).

Here is how Liz Warren-Pederson captures that style of speaking in the first sentence of her story:

“I want to invite the kids for Thanksgiving this year,” Cynthia said, and I said, “What the fuck? Where will I eat,” and she said, “I was hoping you’d eat with me, next to me,” and I said, “What a fucking misery,” and she said, “That’s not what you said last night,” and I said, “Well, we weren’t under a microscope then,” and she said, “You worry too much,” which was so off-base that I didn’t bother to respond.

Imagine if this dialogue had been written in the usual way:

“I want to invite the kids for Thanksgiving this year,” Cynthia said.

“What the fuck? Where will I eat?” I said.

“I was hoping you’d eat with me, next to me.”

“What a fucking misery,” I said.

“That’s not what you said last night.”

“Well, we weren’t under a microscope then.”

“You worry too much,” she said.

That was so off-base that I didn’t bother to respond.

It doesn’t work—at all. In fact, some of the best lines from the original sentence become some of the weakest in the new version. For instance, “What a fucking misery” becomes plodding because it’s just another comeback. And, “You worry too much,” is stripped of all tension, as is the last line. Some things, like punk rocks and tit-for-tats, require speed to operate. Slow them down, and even if all the notes are the same, they fall apart.

The great advantage to chunking this dialogue into one paragraph is that it captures the narrator’s voice. Banter can tell you a lot about both characters and real people:

  • What tone does each person take?
  • What language does each person use?
  • How do they respond to negative (or positive) comments?
  • Who gets the last word?

While these questions can be answered by traditionally-structured dialogue, the compression of Warren-Pederson’s first sentence shoves the characters into a tight space, where they bump into each other. Any time you push characters into each other—in a room, on a street, in a sentence—the tension rises, and you’re bound to learn something about them.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s speed up dialogue by chunking part of a conversation into a single sentence or paragraph. We’ll use the first sentence of Liz Warren-Pederson’s “Paper Tiger” as a model. You can write new dialogue or rewrite dialogue that you’ve already written for a story-in-progress.

  1. Choose a speaker. Even though the dialogue will be between two people, it will be filtered through the perspective of a speaker, the person telling the story of what was said and done.
  2. Choose an argument. We almost always tell a story about a conversation because there was tension present, and an argument is the easiest way to find that tension. The argument can be about something simple: to go out or stay in, what to eat, where to sit, how to spend money, or how to spend the holidays (as in this story). It can be about an ongoing dispute: I always take out the trash, you never load the dishwasher, it’s always up to me to get the car fixed.
  3. Let the speaker relate what was said. Think about the knee-jerk ways that we tend to respond when we feel attacked, slighted, or insulted. It’s those sort of comebacks that make for quick conversation. The characters don’t think, just speak. The result will look something like this: “”She said___, then I said___, then she said___, and that was ___, so I said___, and then ____.” As you come to the end of the sentence, think about how the argument ends. Who ends it? Does it end with a white flag or with a devastating assault?

This is Thanksgiving Week, and you may find that you have plenty of inspiration for this exercise after Thursday’s family dinner. If you find yourself telling any stories about who said what, write them down. You can always find a story for the dialogue later.

Good luck!

An Interview with Charles Baxter

21 Nov
Charles Baxter's most recent book is Gryphon: New and Selected Stories. In her review of the book in The New York Times, Joyce Carol Oates wrote, "Beneath the shadowless equanimity of Norman Rockwell’s America, however, Baxter evokes something like the chilling starkness and human isolation of the work of Edward Hopper

Charles Baxter’s most recent book is Gryphon: New and Selected Stories. In her review of the book in The New York Times, Joyce Carol Oates wrote, “Beneath the shadowless equanimity of Norman Rockwell’s America, however, Baxter evokes something like the chilling starkness and human isolation of the work of Edward Hopper.”

Charles Baxter is probably as well known for his essays on craft as he is for his novels and stories, which is impressive given that his short story “Gryphon” is required reading for many students and his novel The Feast of Love was a finalist for the National Book Award and adapted as a film starring Morgan Freeman. His essays, though—especially the collection Burning Down the House—are a touchstone for almost everyone who has studied in a MFA program over the past 15 years.

Baxter’s most recent book of fiction is Gryphon: New and Selected Stories, which is now out in paperback.

In this interview, Baxter discusses entering the world of a wrongdoer, stumbling toward the write tone, and “rogue longings.”

(To read Baxter’s story “The Next Building I Plan to Bomb” and an exercise on raising the stakes in a story, click here.)

Michael Noll

The story is about a man who wants to be taken seriously, to be seen as someone with the potential to profoundly affect other people’s lives–essentially, to make his existence known and recognized. So, when he’s accused of being “harmless,” he sets out to prove that he isn’t. Here’s what I find fascinating about this story: The man wants to be recognized, but when he first walks into the police station to report the slip of paper he’s found, he chickens out. He fears that “if he showed what was in his pocket to the police he himself would become a prime suspect and an object of intense scrutiny, all privacy gone.” That’s a pretty serious contradiction. In some ways, it makes what follows seem less like a moral fable. The sequence of events is neatly laid out, but it’s less neat if we believe that the man at the center of it is unpredictable. Was this chickening out always part of the story?

Charles Baxter

Writers can’t always reconstruct what they were thinking while writing a story. Sometimes our thinking is so specific and so contextual and instinctive that we don’t know afterward why we did what we did. Anyway, here goes.

Many people in our society suffer from their own anonymity. This response is likely to occur in a culture built on celebrity, as ours is. Harry’s “harmlessness” is another word for a life that seems inconsequential, unimportant. But if you try to enter the world as a wrongdoer, or even someone who brings in the sign of wrongdoing (a slip of paper), you yourself may be judged, exposed. Think of Ted Kacynski. Notoriety is a double-edged sword. Everybody (or most people) carry around these contradictions in themselves. Fiction needs to point up those contradictions, to be honest to itself and its readers.

Michael Noll

After the man bristles at being called harmless, it’s not surprising that he acts out. But his preferred way to act out is unexpected. And then the scene proceeds through a series of unexpected moments: the kid’s guess at the drawing’s rendered location and the subsequent description of the kid as “slinky and warm, like a cat.” It would be so easy to write this scene toward what is expected, toward cliche: of course the societally-suffocated man is into boys. But in this case, the boy is not what we might expect, and the description is unexpectedly cuddly. Do you have, as you write, a kind of internal compass pointing you toward the unexpected, or do you stumble around a story, searching for the right detail?

Charles Baxter

Oh, I stumble. It’s all stumbling, all the time. But what you’re stumbling toward is a tone, an angle, that takes you by surprise. The slightly ‘wrong’ note in a scene is often the note that brings it to life. I keep listening for that note.

Michael Noll

I love this line of dialogue from the man’s wife: “You’re handsome and stable and you’re my sweetie, and I love you, and what else happened today?” The line clearly sets up the world that the man is acting out against. In other words, it’s a line that a literature teacher would pull out and read to students in order to illustrate the story’s theme, a word that probably makes makes most writers cringe. But it doesn’t seem theme-like on a first read because of the speed. Even on subsequent reads, it makes me laugh. I’m curious how you approached the line. Did you think, I need to have someone state the values of the world that the man is rebelling against–and then revise the line to achieve that speed? Or did it arise more accidentally?

Charles Baxter

I wasn’t thinking of the theme at all. I was just trying to imagine what Harry’s wife would say, in an effort to “normalize” everything within that marriage. Also, I like dialogue that changes direction within the same sentence–does a swerve–as that one did. So the line arose out of a combination of accident and calculation.

Michael Noll

As I write this, Tea Party politicians are shutting down the government and threatening to wreck the world’s economy so that the country will pay attention to them. In other words, they’re acting a bit like Harry Edmonds. The difference is that, unlike him, they’ve found a stage whose size is commensurate with the size of their fear of not being seen and heard. In your novels and stories, things generally don’t end well for these types of characters or for the people around them. Care to make any long-term predictions for our current set of characters? When people like Harry Edmonds begin to act out in order to be noticed–and when that need to be noticed stems from some internal deficit that can’t be filled with any amount of attention–are the only outcomes bad ones?

Charles Baxter

Someone, it may have been Christopher Lasch, once said that narcissists can’t negotiate. They suffer from insecurity and grandiosity simultaneously, a terrible combination. The other side of the Tea Party’s belligerence is fear, particularly a fear that the old world they knew is disappearing, and a world they don’t recognize is here. I didn’t think Harry Edmonds was a dangerous character, but just a guy who wanted to be more consequential than he actually was. Kafka would have recognized him. Standard married middle-class life is not enough for him. He has what I’d call “rogue subjectivity” or “rogue longings”–I think the Germans have a word for this: “sehnsucht.” Such people sometimes do free fall parachute jumping, or they do little protests against the settledness of their lives. You want a story to be “telling”–that is, to tell us about how people live now. And that was what I hoped that story would do.

November 2013

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Michael Noll is the editor of Read to Write Stories.

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