Tag Archives: creative writing exercises

How to Write Moments of High Emotion

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

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

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

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

How the Story Works

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

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

“Whose feet are they?”

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

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

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

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

The Writing Exercise

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

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

Good luck.

How to End a Story

7 Feb
Óscar Martínez spent two years traveling with Central American migrants through Mexico on their way to the United States. His essays about the migrants were published in the Salvadoran online newspaper El Faro and collected in The Beast: Riding the Rails and Dodging Narcos on the Migrants Trail.

Óscar Martínez’s essays about traveling with Central American migrants were published in the Salvadoran online newspaper El Faro and collected in The Beast: Riding the Rails and Dodging Narcos on the Migrants Trail.

The easiest part of writing any story ought to be finding the beginning, middle, and end. So why is it often so hard? And why does so much ride on making the right choices?

The Salvadoran journalist Óscar Martínez has written one of the best story endings I’ve ever read in his nonfiction book The Beast: Riding the Rails and Dodging Narcos on the Migrant Trail. Martínez spent two years traveling with Central American migrants through Mexico on their way to the United States. The essays were originally published as dispatches in the Salvadoran online newspaper, El Faro, and translated in this collection from Verso Books. You can read the first chapter at Dazed.

How the Essay Works

Martínez tells stories about many different migrants in the book, and one of them is about a teenager named Saúl, who was born in El Salvador but raised in Los Angeles, where he joined the M18 gang. He was deported after robbing a convenience store. The problem was that he didn’t know anything about El Salvador—hadn’t been there since he was four years old—and so he started walking and searching for the man who was supposed to be his father:

And what happened to him is what happens to any kid who doesn’t know what he’s doing in Central America, who thinks any neighborhood is just any neighborhood. A group of thugs turned out of an alleyway and beat him straight to hell.

So, the beginning of the story is pretty simple. The thugs, members of the Mara Salvatrucha gang, take Saúl to their leader, who, in turns out, is his father. Now, watch how Martínez sets up the story’s ending—and how he wraps it up:

“I’m Saúl,” Saúl said, breathless, “I just got deported. And, I swear it, I’m your son.”

The man, as Saúl recounted it to me on top of the hurtling train, opened his eyes as wide as possible. And then he exhaled, long and loud. And then a look of anger swept over his face. “I don’t have any kids, you punk,” his father said.

But in the days following, the man gave Saúl a gift. The only gift Saul would ever receive from his father. He publicly recognized him as his son, and so bestowed to him a single thread of life. “We’re not going to kill this punk,” Guerrero announced in front of Saúl and a few of his gang members. “We’re just going to give him the boot.” And then he turned to Saúl. “If I ever see you in this neighborhood again, you better believe me, I’m going to kill you myself.”

They left him in his underwear in another Mara Salvatrucha neighborhood. He only got out alive by covering himself (and the 18 tattooed on his back) in mud and pretending to be insane.

In short, a gang member has been captured by a rival gang in a foreign country, and it turns out the rival gang’s leader is his father. What incredible tension, right? And how does Martínez handle that tension? He could have given us a moment-by-moment account of arguments, beatings, and who stared down who. Instead he almost everything that happens: “But in the days following.” Why?

To answer that question, it’s useful to ask what those skipped moments could have added to the story. Saúl has already been beaten “straight to hell.” He’s already had a stunning encounter with his father (go back and look at how well the father’s shifting emotions are handled). Whatever comes next must advance this conflict. The problem is that you can’t advance severe beatings and familial rejection. More violence is just more of the same. So, when Martínez skips to the father’s pronouncement, he’s simply finding the moment where something new and different happens. The father changes his mind and doesn’t kill Saúl.

Sometimes condensing scenes—or a series of scenes—of high action actually increases the story’s tension. This is exactly what happens in that final paragraph, the story’s ending. It’d be tempting to describe what happens to Saúl in that other neighborhood minute-by-minute. But nothing Martínez could have written would have been better than the weird, surreal, stunning way that he summarizes the action: “He only got out alive by covering himself (and the 18 tattooed on his back) in mud and pretending to be insane.”

When closing out a story, sometimes one conflict-filled sentence is better than several less tense paragraphs.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s write a story ending by summarizing action and scenes, using the passage from Óscar Martínez’s The Beast as a model:

  1. Summarize the situation and how the character entered it. The point is to get into the story as quickly as possible. The summary should highlight factors that will appear later. If read the entire story from Martínez’s essay, you’ll see how he highlights Saúl’s gang membership and lack of knowledge about El Salvador. Then he skips past everything that happened to Saúl before he ran into the gang members who beat him up. So, you should focus on drawing the shape of the conflict: why your particular person/character is an especially bad match for the situation. (Bad matches in life make for good matches for stories.) Then, find the first significant action that results from that poor match.
  2. Make an outline of everything that happens next. Simply list all of the noteworthy moments from beginning to end. You don’t even need to use complete sentences. It’s an outline.
  3. Mark the moments of highest tension or action. They might be the most tense because of what information is revealed or because of the extremity of what happens.
  4. Are the remaining moments different or similar? Now that you know what your most tense moments are, you can begin carving away at the rest of the moments so that the best ones stand out. To do this, ask yourself if what is left is any different from those tense moments. If not, you can either cut them completely or group them together into a quick summary (a sentence or two) that sets up whatever tense moment comes next.
  5. Offer an escape valve in a sentence or two that restate the conflict. This strategy of summarizing and highlighting can be carried through until the very end. A great way to finish a story is by pivoting sharply. One way to do this is to restate or remind the reader of the conflict that you first presented at the beginning. You can do this with an actual reminder or by finding a moment that distills the conflict (“They left him in his underwear in another Mara Salvatrucha neighborhood.”) Then, offer an escape valve, a way to leave the conflict. Releases tend to be quick (think of a needle and a balloon). Once the reader knows an escape will occur, the writer’s work is mostly done. The tension has been broken. As a result, there’s no need to draw the release out. The quickest version is often the most interesting, as Martínez illustrates: “He only got out alive by covering himself (and the 18 tattooed on his back) in mud and pretending to be insane.”

Good luck!

How to Give the Ending Away Without the Reader Knowing

31 Jan
Shannon Perri's story "The Resurrection Act" was published in Joyland.

Shannon Perri’s story “The Resurrection Act” was published in Joyland.

The best endings feel both surprising and inevitable at the same time, but in early drafts of stories, we tend to focus on one or the other: surprising or inevitable. We throw in a crazy twist, shocking readers but making them feel as if we were holding something back. Or, we set things too clearly and neatly so that the ending feels like a letdown. We need to do both, which requires showing readers the elements of the twist or final drama without them knowing recognizing what they’re seeing.

This is what Shannon Perri does in her story, “The Resurrection Act.” It was published at Joyland, where you can read it now.

How the Story Works

The story is about a locksmith who performs as an amateur magician at night. As the story begins, the first thing we’re shown are keys:

Earl set the keys to the ash-colored minivan on the motel room’s nightstand. He moved the keys to the desk made of fiberboard, and then proceeded to place them on the dresser near the door, with a prominent jingle.

It’s a weird detail to focus on right away, but we see him focusing on other small objects not long after:

He’d never performed for more than fifteen people, and he was told this audience could be upwards of a hundred. Clipped to his lapel, he felt the weight of his gold American Magician Association pin. A glossy picture of his wife in a red sweater from when they first met hid in his pocket, along with a lock pick.

We eventually learn that the trick he will perform for this unusually large crowd is an escape act. He will be handcuffed and buried alive in a coffin. Naturally, the story returns to the pick:

He slipped his fingers into his pocket and felt around for the lock pick. His fingers frantically searched around the waxy photograph of his wife, which felt strangely sticky, but the lock pick wasn’t there.

We’re shown the pick again, but I won’t tell you how because it would ruin the story and the ending. Their exact whereabouts is pretty dramatic. I also didn’t see it coming (but I also had no idea what would happen in The Sixth Sense). But even if I was blindsided, I was able to go back and see where I’ should have seen it coming. We literally see the lock pick before it’s important. And we know that he’s a locksmith. And the beginning starts with keys and his concern in where they’re placed. The keys are thematic, which is useful, setting the stage for what is to come. That thematic move works because it’s tied so closely to character and an impulse we all understand very well: not wanting to misplace our keys. Through practical strategies, Perri sets up a killer ending.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s lay the groundwork for a great ending, using “The Resurrection Act” by Shannon Perri as a model:

  1. Know your ending. This exercise works best if you know where your story is going. For some writers, that’s easy. They know right away. Other writers don’t know the ending until they write it at the very end of the final draft. If you’re the latter, go walk your dog or rake some leave. (I live in Texas, and we rake leaves in January.) But if you have some sense for where the story is headed, write it down. Be clear. What particular items are involved in the ending? Anton Chekhov wrote that a gun on the wall in the first act must go off by the third. This applies to all explosive elements in endings. What proves to be important?
  2. Show readers that element early on. Be practical about it. If it’s present at the end, it’s probably present earlier. Let us readers see it—sitting on a table or in a pocket. Show it in the most benign way, just something that’s present because it’s required.
  3. Connect an emotion to that element. Now, you’re hinting to the reader why the detail is important. Earl obviously cares a great deal about the lock. One, he’s a locksmith. Two, he can feel it in his pocket. Notice how both of these elements create an emotional attachment to the object. It’s part of his professional gear, and his mind is drawn to it, even when it’s thinking about other things. How can you show both a professional or practical need for your object and a kind of obsession with it?
  4. Hint at it thematically. Earl doesn’t use keys to open his cuffs, but keys serve as a pretty clear metaphor. What objects might your character be attracted to because they serve a similar purpose (literally or in the character’s mind) as the object you’ve chosen? Force your character to interact with that object.

The goal is to set up an ending by showing readers objects that are part of it before they’re relevant. You can do this both practically and thematically.

Good luck.

How to Ground Your Villains

17 Jan
Steph Post's crime novel, Lightwood, tells the story of a released convict who, upon his release, must face his powerful family, a vicious Pentecostal con artist, and a biker gang.

Steph Post’s crime novel, Lightwood, tells the story of a released convict who, upon his release, must face his powerful family, a vicious Pentecostal con artist, and a biker gang.

My 7-year-old is obsessed with Percy Jackson and the stories of the Greek gods and heroes, which means that I’ve gotten obsessed as well. One thing you quickly learn—or relearn, as the case may be—about these stories is that the villains are often far more memorable than the heroes. I’m willing to bet that almost everyone knows about Medusa and the Minotaur but not the guys who killed them. In both cases, the heroes had their own interesting, compelling backgrounds, but they became memorialized because of the monsters they played. The villains defined the greatness of the heroes. This continues to be true, which is why the best and greatest character in Star Wars was—and continues to be—Darth Vader, not Luke Skywalker.

Lightwood, the new crime novel by Steph Post, continues in the tradition of creating great, memorable villains. You can be introduced to her in the opening pages here.

How the Novel Works

If we use Medusa and the Minotaur as models for villains, we discover a couple of essential qualities that villains possess. First, their very identity is memorable. We all know that Medusa had snakes for hair and that looking at her would turn you to stone. We also all know that the Minotaur was half man, half bull. You cannot overstate the importance of catchy, easily-described characteristics. It’s true of pretty much every great villain, but cool details aren’t enough on their own.

You also need a backstory, even if that backstory isn’t known yet or ever learned. For example, Darth Vader looks cool (check), but we don’t ever learn his complete backstory in the original three films—but we’re given glimpses at it: the fact that he once studied under Obi-Wan Kenobi, that he turned to the Dark Side, and that he’s Luke’s father. The same is true of Medusa and the Minotaur. Medusa started out beautiful but made the mistake of ticking off the wrong god, and her punishment was to be transformed into a monster. The Minotaur was the result of god-induced royal bestiality and then was trained to be a killing machine the way that some people train dogs to fight. These backstories matter because they ground the villain in the world of the story. Without them, you get stories like the ones I used to tell in third grade. Ninjas or aliens were always showing up, no matter the world or story, because they were cool. The problem was that they didn’t make any sense in the stories where they appeared. So, it’s crucial to ground the character in the narrative world.

Post does both of these things with her villain. We’re introduced to Sister Tulah in the first chapter. We find her standing outside her Pentecostal church, staring at the sky and listening to her followers sing as she waits to make her grand entrance:

Sister Tulah took one last look up at the black, gaping vastness overhead and decided that if she was ready, God must be also. She straightened the lace collar on her long, flower print dress and smoothed back her hair, once dishwater blond, but now a sharp steel gray, making sure that it was pinned in all the right places. She rubbed her pudgy, age-spotted hands together and then licked her lips before pursing them tightly together. Without turning to look over her shoulder at the awaiting sliver of light, Sister Tulah replied. “It’s time.”

We don’t yet know that she’s one of the novel’s villains, but I suspect that most readers will sense that she is. Why? Because she’s a tough woman preacher with great descriptive lines (“pudgy, age-spotted hands”) who clearly wields a lot of power. Though we sense that we’ll learn some unsavory things about her, we don’t actually see them yet. Instead, we see her as a part of the world: working class, rough-and-tumble Florida, a place with bars and ex-cons and motorcycles and Pentecostal churches. She becomes an even greater villain because we buy into her existence in the first place.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s ground a villain, using Lightwood by Steph Post as a model:

  1. Give the villain cool details. Go crazy with it. The Greeks gave a woman snakes for hair and a guy a bull head and torso, and those stories have lasted for a few thousand years, so it’s safe to say that subtlety is not necessarily a virtue when it comes to villains. The same goes for more realistic stories. The best character in the TV show The Wire was Omar, the whistling, shotgun-wielding Robin Hood of drug corners in Baltimore. Release your inner third grader. To do so, you might try two different strategies. First, take a normal character and add something weird: snake hair or an unusual weapon or weird habit. Second, start with the wild detail and attach it to a realistic motivation and behavior. Before we learn why Darth Vader wears the cool suit, we see him wanting something simple (to capture the droids and the plans to his weapon) and behaving in understandable ways (getting frustrated in a meeting and choking a guy to death).
  2. Give the character a backstory. In short, how did Medusa, the Minotaur, and Darth Vader become the characters they are? For all three, there was a transformation. They weren’t always evil monsters—or, their evil and monstrosity was not always their dominant feature. What happened to your character and transformed him or her?
  3. Locate that backstory in your fictional world. Think about the character pre-transformation. What was he or she doing before things got wild? Or, find a moment post-transformation when the character is just living life, not being evil—or, at least, not immediately evil. This is the approach used by Post. We don’t yet know Sister Tulah’s backstory, but we see her standing outside her church while her flock sings. It’s a moment portrayed as part of the Florida landscape. How can you make your villain part of your story’s fictional landscape? Which details about the villain are noteworthy or possible only in your particular setting?

The goal is both to create a memorable villain and make readers buy into the villain’s existence.

Good luck.

How to Create a Rhetorical Touchstone

10 Jan
In his essay, "The Rebirth of Black Rage," Mychal Denzel Smith uses Kanye West's statement, "George Bush doesn't care about black people," as a touchstone for discussing black political rhetoric.

In his essay, “The Rebirth of Black Rage,” Mychal Denzel Smith uses Kanye West’s statement, “George Bush doesn’t care about black people,” as a touchstone for discussing black political rhetoric.

When making an argument, it’s useful to be able to hold up something as an example that everyone recognizes and whose nature everyone agrees upon—to be able to call a spade a spade. In our current political moment, this is difficult, often impossible. I’m hardly the first person to point this out. The Internet is full of articles about “post-truth” or “truthiness” or, as one Donald Trump surrogate said, “There’s no such thing as facts.” Facts do exist, of course, and if you doubt it, stick your finger in an electrical socket and your uncertainty will be cleared right up. But it’s certainly the case that our partisanship has made it difficult to agree upon anything, even when their reality is staring us right in the face.

I don’t know how to ultimately solve this problem. But I encountered one possible solution in Mychal Denzel Smith’s new memoir Invisible Man, Got the Whole World Watching: A Young Black Man’s Education. It was an essay on Kanye West, originally published at “The Rebirth of Black Rage” in The Nation, where you can read it now.

How the Essay Works

In the essay, Smith argues that, in his lifetime, black rage had ceased to be an option for politicians (and even for regular people). In its place, at least politically, was electoral politics, in which electability is strategically chosen over anger. For anyone born after, say, 1980, this new political discourse was the only discourse. However, as the essay’s title suggests, Smith wants to show that black rage has returned, challenging electability and, in many ways, presaging the Black Lives Matter movement. To make this argument, Smith must establish both terms in specific, recognizable ways; we need to know black rage and electability politics when we see them.

Smith begins with black rage. He finds a perfect example of it in a speech by Kanye West during a televised fundraiser for the victims of Hurricane Katrina:

Speaking as if he were reading from the teleprompter, his cadence straddling the line between stiff and natural, he looked straight into the camera and said, “George Bush doesn’t care about black people.”

Mychal Denzel Smith's memoir, Invisible Man, Got the Whole World Watching, is being promoted by Books Are Not a Luxury, a project that aims to turn book-buying into social activism. To learn more, click here.

Mychal Denzel Smith’s memoir, Invisible Man, Got the Whole World Watching, is being promoted by Books Are Not a Luxury, a project that aims to turn book-buying into social activism. To learn more, click here.

This moment is well-chosen for a couple of reasons. First, it was a primetime event that received exhaustive news coverage. Everyone saw it or heard about it. Second, West’s statement is clearly made in anger. Third, it came from an unlikely source. West had talked about race before this speech, but he wasn’t known for it, at least not in a broad, public way, not like Cornell West or Jesse Jackson.  The speech by Kanye was important because it made people pay attention. It was something that seemed new.

Once Smith sets up this standard for black rage, he uses it to show how different electability sounds. As a primary example, he discusses President Obama’s Philadelphia speech, the now-famous speech in which then-candidate Obama addressed the inflammatory remarks of Reverend Wright, the preacher at the church the Obama family attended in Chicago. In the speech, Obama specifically addressed black rage and said this:

That anger is not always productive; indeed, all too often it distracts attention from solving real problems; it keeps us from squarely facing our own complicity within the African-American community in our own condition; it prevents the African-American community from forging the alliances it needs to bring about real change.

This excerpt can’t be farther from the Kanye West statement. The phrase “forging the alliances it needs” is pure electability politics. He goes on to give a second example:

When Henry Louis Gates Jr. was arrested in front of his own home, Obama’s response was to call him to the White House garden for a beer summit with the arresting officer, thereby sending the message that racial profiling is, meh, not that big a deal.

At the time, President Obama’s speech in Philadelphia was roundly applauded. In it, he even went out of his way to explain that many poor white people in the Rust Belt and rural places did not feel that they had benefited from racial privilege. And, the beer summit also received positive media attention. Even when President Obama forcefully spoke out against racism and violence against black people, as he did after the murder of Trayvon Martin, he continued to offer olive branches to certain groups of white voters, as when he said, “I think the African-American community is also not naive in understanding that, statistically, somebody like Trayvon Martin was probably statistically more likely to be shot by a peer than he was by somebody else.”

Because Smith juxtaposes these statements and actions with the off-script remarks of Kanye West, he’s able to draw clear distinctions. President Obama was working within one frame of thought (Smith calls it respectability politics), and Kanye West was working under another (Smith calls it black rage).

When your audience can’t agree upon facts, it becomes part of the writer’s job to define the pertinent facts to his or her point so convincingly that they they’re difficult to dispute. (That doesn’t mean that everyone will accept them, of course.) If certain politicians are bent on destroying a common set of basic beliefs, then writers can have a crucial role to play in pushing back and creating standards that people recognize and can refer to in their own discussions and arguments. This is what Smith does in “The Rebirth of Black Rage” and Invisible Man, Got the Whole World Watching: A Young Black Man’s Education.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s define facts and create a rhetorical touchstone, using “The Rebirth of Black Rage” by Mychal Denzel Smith as a model:

  1. Decide what your point is. This goes for fiction as well as nonfiction. In an essay, your point is likely an argument, usually some version of this is how the world works, or this is what exists. You’re pointing to something and telling the reader to take a second, closer look. In fiction, your point is more likely to be connected to experience: this is crazy, this is funny, this is sad, this is sweet, this is big or small or rich or poor. This often applies to character and setting descriptions.
  2. Figure out what is noteworthy about your point. In his essay, Smith nails what is noteworthy in a single word: rage. So, think about your point in terms of adjectives: size, color, normality, intensity.
  3. Choose a touchstone. The original touchstones were pieces of jasper used for testing whether something was gold or not. In writing, a touchstone plays a similar role. You’re looking for something that clarifies or reveals or highlights your point. In comedies, we accept this strategy without thinking; it’s called the “straight man.” In procedural police dramas, there is almost always a good cop and a bad cop. The point of the bad cop is to make the person being interrogated realize what a sweet deal the good cop is offering. In his essay, Smith uses Kanye West’s statement about Bush to the same effect. That statement clearly doesn’t care what people think; it’s simply expressing his anger. When juxtaposed with other statements, it will reveal even the slightest effort at rage-minimization, the least bit of trying to get along. In fiction, we put big characters into tight spaces and outlandish characters into serious situations, neat freaks with slobs, and sweet employees with horrible bosses. So, try to find a character or setting that will highlight whatever you’re trying to show the reader.
  4. Prove that your touchstone is a good one. This is the tricky part. In fiction, we often use descriptions to prove things. If something is small, we show how small it is. Smith uses a slightly different approach. He introduces something we’re all familiar with (Kanye West’s live-TV statement) and then makes an argument that seems so obvious that it’s not even an argument: Kanye West was angry. Because we can all agree upon this point, he’s able to make a claim based on it (the rebirth of black rage) and hold it up against a statement that he believes exemplifies a different approach. The key, then, is finding something that is obvious on its face—to almost everyone. This isn’t easy, as climate scientists will tell you. But it you can find it, you’ll be able to build a complex argument upon it.

The goal is to establish facts for your essay or fiction in order to get readers to buy in to the fundamentals of your argument.

Good luck.

10 Exercises for Creating Characters

3 Jan

Happy new year! To celebrate the arrival of 2017, let’s look back at ten exercises on creating, describing, and developing characters from 2016.

1. Introduce Characters through Misdirection

Kaitlyn Greenidge is the author of We Love You, Charlie Freeman, has been called "auspicious," "complex," and "caustically funny."

Kaitlyn Greenidge is the author of We Love You, Charlie Freeman.

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

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

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

2. Describe Characters Without Relying On Mirrors

Kelli Jo Ford is a former Dobie Paisano fellow and recent winner of the Elizabeth George Foundation Emerging Artist Grant.

Kelli Jo Ford is a winner of the Elizabeth George Foundation Emerging Artist Grant.

We’ve all written this type of character description: the character walks past a mirror, stops, and examines the face and person it reveals. It’s a simple strategy that allows the story to tell the reader, “Here is what this person looks like.” The problem is that it’s overused. People really do look in mirrors, of course, and sometimes it’s necessary in fiction. I’m not suggesting that mirrors should never appear in our writing. But they shouldn’t be used as a crutch. There are other ways to describe characters, and some of them can feel so active that we don’t even realize a description has occurred.

An excellent example of an active character description can be found in Kelli Jo Ford’s story, “You Will Miss Me When I Burn.” You can read an exercise based on it here.

3. Add Physical Description to Dialogue

Saslow

Eli Saslow is a Pulitzer-Prize winning journalist for the Washington Post.

A key difference between beginning and experienced writers is the ability to handle the attributions and descriptions within dialogue. As we improve our craft, we work from “he said with glittering eyes” to “he guffawed” to “he said” to “he said, looking hard at her” to, finally, something better. Well-written dialogue uses carefully chosen physical details to push forward or expand the dramatic moment and the reader’s understanding of it.

An excellent example of this skill (and, frankly, an excellent example of pretty much every type of good writing) is “A Survivor’s Life,” Eli Saslow’s article about a 16-year-old girl who survived the mass shooting in Roseburg, Oregon. It was published in The Washington Post. Find an exercise based on it here.

4. Create an Emotional Backdrop for Characters

Hannah Petard's latest novel, Listen to Me, has

Hannah Pittard’s latest novel is Listen to Me.

Most of us have had this experience: we’re upset about something and chew it over in our minds, over and over, becoming dead certain about the rightness of our feelings and thoughts—and then we share them with someone. Suddenly, we understand how wrong and ugly our thoughts have become, perhaps as soon as they leave our mouths or maybe not until the other person puts us in our place. If we’re lucky, our ugly thoughts are about someone or something not present, and we feel relieved: “Whew, I’m glad I said this here instead of out in public.” If we’re not lucky, our ugly thoughts are directed at the person we’re talking to. In that case, our lives are about to get unpleasant. When it happens in fiction though, the drama is about to get interesting.

This is exactly what Hannah Pittard does in her novel, Listen to Me. Find an exercise based on it here.

5. Give Characters a Frame of Reference

Tom Hart

Tom Hart is the author of the graphic memoir Rosalie Lightning.

When people face tragedy, they rely upon the philosophical framework they’ve built their entire lives. You can hear this framework in the stories they tell, the rituals they follow, and the words of wisdom they recall. Our characters should be no different, yet it’s easy to think only in terms of the questions a character must grapple with in the aftermath of something life-changing: where to live, who to be with, how to cope with what they’re feeling. But all of these questions are answered within a frame of reference. Characters, like us, do not invent every feeling and bit of knowledge or instinct from scratch. Instead, they build their experience of the world hand-in-hand with the books, art, religions, and stories that exist around them.

An excellent—and heartbreakingly beautiful—example of this essential human practice can be found in Tom Hart’s new graphic memoir, Rosalie Lightning. You can read an exercise based on it here.

6. Describe a Character from the Perspective of Others

Unknown

Tristan Ahtone is a journalist and Vice President for the Native American Journalists Association.

The easiest and most common way to describe a character is directly, like this: She’s tall and loves Adele but believes people who sing along with the music are disrespecting the artist. The first part of that description (she’s tall) can be deduced from observation, and perhaps the second part (loves Adele) can be as well if the music is audible. But the final part (disrespecting the artist) requires knowing her thoughts, which means that she speaks them aloud. For most characters, this isn’t a big deal. But what about characters who can’t or won’t speak?

A good example of using every  available resource to describe a character can be found in a recent series, “The United States of Bus Travel,” from Al Jazeera America. Journalist Tristan Ahtone traveled the United States by Greyhound bus and wrote short vignettes about the people he encountered. You can find an exercise based on it here.

7. Manipulate Chronology to Build Character

Chinelo Okparanta is the author of the novel Under the Udala Trees and the story collection Happiness, Like Water

Chinelo Okparanta is the author of the novel Under the Udala Trees.

Chronology is something most writers and readers take for granted. Time moves forward, and so does narrative. There are exceptions, of course. Memory isn’t constrained by the inexorable march of time. It can leap backward at will, or against it—and can even get stuck in the past. But we understand memory to be unusual, unlike the rest of our lives, which move forward. This fact highlights the extraordinary achievement of fictions that move differently. Charles Baxter’s novel First Light, for example, starts at the end and moves toward the beginning. And Nicholson Baker’s novel The Mezzanine takes place completely within the time required to ride an escalator. Most writers will never attempt such ambitious structures. But it can be useful to try them in miniature.

An  example of this kind of chronological experiment can be found in Chinelo Okparanta’s novel Under the Udala Trees. You can find an exercise based on it here.

8. Reveal Tension Between Characters Indirectly

Daniel Oppenheimer's book Exit Right has received glowing reviews, like this one from the Washington Post: "This book proves so satisfying precisely because it leaves you wanting much more."

Daniel Oppenheimer is the author of Exit Right: The People Who Left the Left and Reshaped the American Century.

One of the most famous writing exercises is John Gardner’s barn assignment from The Art of Fiction: “Describe a barn as seen by a man whose son has just been killed in a war. Do not mention the son, or war, or death.” The goal is to write a passage that does not address its main subject directly, head on. In some ways, the exercise is the ultimate statement about the purpose of craft. In first drafts, we attempt to figure out what we want to write (a man’s son died in the war), but in revision, we find the best way to write it (by describing a barn, with no reference to anything on the man’s mind).

Indirectness isn’t only important in description. The best writers can surprise us at any moment, in any type of passage. A terrific example of artful indirectness can be found in Daniel Oppenheimer’s new book Exit Right: The People Who Left the Left and Reshaped the American Century. You can find an exercise based on it here.

9. Build Character within Action Scenes

Manuel Gonzales is the author of The Regional Office Is Under Attack!, which the New York Times called "rollicking good fun on the surface, action-packed and shiny in all the right places" and also "thoughtful and well considered."

Manuel Gonzales is the author of The Regional Office Is Under Attack!

The most boring prose is often supposed to be the most exciting: action scenes. No matter how exquisitely detailed and choreographed a scene’s punches, kicks, shouts, commands, charges, and retreats, the reader can bear only so much. After more than a few sentences—or perhaps a paragraph or two at most—it simply washes over us, unseen. Our eyes glaze over. So, good writers will mix something into their action sequences, and usually that somethingbuilds character.

One of the best at this strategy is Manuel Gonzales, who does it again and again in his weird and wonderful new novel The Regional Office Is Under Attack! Read an exercise on how he does it here.

10. Create Stand-Ins for Characters

Katie Chase is the author of Man and Wife, a story collection that Edan Lepucki calls "comic and horrific."

Katie Chase is the author of the story collection Man and Wife.

For my money, one of the most intense scenes in any film is the moment in Ridley Scott’s Alien when a character goes into an air duct with the goal of pushing the Alien toward an air lock so it can be sucked out into space. (If you’ve seen the film, you know the scene; it’s everybody’s favorite.) We barely see the Alien. Instead, we track it with a motion sensor which registers both the man in the air duct and the Alien as dots on a grid. One dot draws closer to the other. It’s terrifying—as suspenseful or more than if we saw the actual Alien racing toward the man.

A lot has been written about the scene, in particular how it resulted from Ridley’s small budget. He couldn’t afford crazy special effects. In prose, writers often work under similar restrictions. Every word costs the same, but they aren’t always equally available. So, it’s useful to keep the dots from Alien in mind. A stand-in for the real thing is often as effective or more than the thing itself.

A great example of this approach can be found in Katie Chase’s story “Man and Wife.” You can read an exercise on how she does it here.

How to Not Over-Explain a Character’s Behavior

20 Dec
Sam Allingham's collection The Great American Songbook has been called "hilarious and deeply unnerving" by Dan Chaon.

Sam Allingham’s collection The Great American Songbook has been called “hilarious and deeply unnerving” by Dan Chaon.

When you sit through enough writing workshops, you begin to recognize certain patterns to how students respond to stories. For example, in almost every workshop, someone will say about a story, “I want more.” A good instructor will push back: “More what?” And that’s usually where the critique begins to break down. “I don’t know, just more,” the student might say. For the person whose story it is, this can be incredibly frustrating. But it’s also a necessary part of learning to diagnose what isn’t working in a piece of fiction. The person saying, “I want more,” senses that there’s a problem but doesn’t know what it is. The problem could be almost anything, but the solution is almost never simply writing more. In fact, more can often ruin whatever is most compelling about the story.

A good example of how less-is-more can drive a story forward can be found in Sam Allingham’s story, “Stockholm Syndrome.” It was originally published in Epoch and is included in his debut collection The Great American Songbook.

How the Story Works

The story is about a woman, Betty, who has come out of an abusive relationship with a man named Will. Most of the story takes place after the relationship has ended, when she works in a coffee shop with a magnetic, mysterious barista, Thomas, that she has a crush on. The foundation for how she interacts with this new guy and what happens next is that early relationship. Here’s one scene from that backstory:

But then there was the rest stop, just after they crossed into Idaho. When they passed through the double doors and passed the crane machine to Roy Rogers, he grabbed her arm and held her close, as if he was afraid of losing her—as if she might disappear into the crowd and leave him behind. She remembers wanting to whisper, You don’t need to hold so tight. He looked so sad in those days, pale and skinny in his Smiths T-shirt. You could see in his eyes this overwhelming need for love.

When she went to pay, she found that her wallet was missing.

“You dropped it on the floor of the car,” he spoke from behind her shoulder. “Lucky I picked it up.”

He took out her money and paid for them both.

It’s good I have Will around to remember things, she often told people. I’m so absent-minded.

The end of this scene packs a punch because we, the readers, understand the flaw in her thinking. We know she’s being manipulated. We’re worried about his “overwhelming need for love” and pick up on the gross detail about him paying for them both with her money. Naturally, we wonder why she doesn’t pick up on these things, too. After all, it’s her story. We get inside her head. We trust her perspective. If this story was being workshopped, someone might ask, “Why doesn’t she see what he’s doing?” and then trot out that dreaded statement: “I want to see more of this relationship.”

The problem is that showing more of the relationship won’t explain why Betty didn’t recognize what Will was doing (or didn’t admit to herself that she recognized it). It’s like when I’m searching the refrigerator for something and can’t find it. Then, my wife comes over and finds it immediately. “How did you not see it?” she’ll ask. I don’t know. I just didn’t. There’s no explaining it.

In “Stockholm Syndrome,” explaining why Betty doesn’t see through Will would ruin the story. So, Allingham doesn’t try. Instead, he does something much more interesting. Here’s the beginning of the next scene (after a space break):

Betty doesn’t really know Thomas’ girlfriend, Leigh Anne. Nobody at the shop does. She never comes in; when she does come to meet Thomas, she calls in advance and has him meet her in a health food store a few blocks away, where Thomas says she buys her tinctures and herbal supplements. Leigh Anne has a number of health problems that Thomas can never quite explain, problems that make it difficult for her to get out of bed in the morning.

Taken on its own, without context, this description of Thomas and Leigh Anne’s relationship might sound a little off, but coming as it does after Will’s manipulation of Betty, this passage rings some pretty clear warning bells. Allingham drives this home with a bit of dialogue from another coffee shop worker:

It’s sweet of Thomas to take care of Leigh Anne like that,” Valerie says. “A lot of people would have let somebody like that drop.”

Instead of explaining Betty’s own relationship, Allingham drops her into a situation where something similar seems to be happening. The question becomes, “What will she do?” In short, the important question to answer is not “Why did she do that?” but “What will she do next?”

The Writing Exercise

Let’s make the reader ask “What will she do next?” using “Stockholm Syndrome” by Sam Allingham as a model:

  1.  Give your character a blind spot. What does the character not see that others recognize? Betty doesn’t see (or doesn’t admit) that she’s being manipulated by Will. Shakespeare did this constantly: Othello and Macbeth don’t see some pretty significant things. For them, this blindness is a so-called fatal flaw, but the blind spot doesn’t necessarily need to lead to a bad ending. Most romantic comedies are also built around blind spots: everyone knows the two characters are meant to be—except the two characters. What does your character not recognize?
  2. Juxtapose the thing and the blindness. Allingham does this with the wallet scene, following Will’s manipulative actions immediately with Betty’s thoughts: It’s good I have Will around to remember things…I’m so absent-minded. Putting these so closely together highlights the blind spot. So, find a clear scene that contains both the thing that is not seen and the character not seeing it.
  3. Don’t belabor this juxtaposition. Drop it on the reader and then get out. Allingham literally gets out of the scene with a space break.
  4. Put the blind character in a situation with someone else who is blind in the same way. Betty sees a similar situation in Thomas and Leigh Anne’s relationship, but she’s not blind to it because it’s not happening to her. The trick to making this work is laying out the situation clearly so that everyone understands the connections. Don’t be subtle or sly. In fact, don’t be afraid to drive home the connection, as Allingham does with Valerie’s dialogue. He makes Valerie blind in the same way that Betty was blind in the earlier scene—or so it seems.

The goal is to create an opportunity for a character to act. It’s like the saying, “Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.” If a character has been fooled or blinded in the past, he or she will naturally want to get it right the next time around. The question becomes, what will the character do this time—and is the character actually seeing things more clearly now?

Good luck.

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