Tag Archives: creative writing prompts

How to Play “This I Believe” with Your Characters

25 Jul

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

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

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

How the Novel Works

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

I believed I believed nothing.

It wasn’t true.

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

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

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

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

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

The Writing Exercise 

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

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

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

Good luck.

How to Make and Thwart Plans

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

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

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

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

How the Story Works

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

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

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

Here is Clark’s solution:

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

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

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

Wrong. Instead, Clark adds to the plan:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Writing Exercise

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

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

Good luck!

How to Improve Narrative Pace on a Paragraph Level

28 Jun
Roxane Gay's story "Contrapasso" first appeared in Artifice Magazine and then in Mixed Fruit.

Roxane Gay’s story “Contrapasso” first appeared in Artifice Magazine and then in Mixed Fruit. The unique structure highlights the importance of paragraph structure.

When talking about structure in fiction, we tend to focus on large-scale issues (story arc and delayed gratification of suspense) and the fine detail of sentence crafting. What often gets neglected in the conversation is a structural unit that is, in some ways, the skeleton of all fiction: the paragraph.

An excellent example of the beauty and importance of the paragraph is Roxane Gay’s story “Contrapasso.” It was first published in Artifice Magazine, and you can read it here at Mixed Fruit.

How the Story Works

In any story, a character begins with infinite possibilities, and the writer’s job is to narrow those possibilities down to a few that the character must choose from. Choosing a theme is one way to narrow the possibilities. In this story, the menu headings provide those themes. Of course, it’s not necessary to stick to the theme in a strict sense, and Gay doesn’t, but her headings do provide a direction for each paragraph.

In this paragraph (from the “Life Maine Lobster” entry on the “Meat and Seafood” page), the theme or idea of boiling lobsters provides an entry into the character and her story about bondage. The heading allows her to write a sentence like this: “Now, in the wake of her divorce, she envied the lobster and the privilege of such pain.” The entire character development proceeds from the heading.

Focusing on paragraph structure can also help you move through time. Look at this section from the “Sauteed Spinach” entry on the “Sides and Accompaniments” page. For many writers, it’s easy to fall into the trap of chronology. So, this section could have been written this way: I followed her, I saw this, I did that, she saw me, we exchanged looks, she got out her phone, I went home, and there was a knock on my door late and the words, “Open up. It’s the police.”

But Gay skips all that unnecessary connecting tissue. Here, the theme doesn’t matter as much. Instead, the paragraph headings force each paragraph to have a point: what the narrator saw, what the cops said, what the narrator did next. As a result, the narrative moves more quickly because the reader doesn’t need to slog through needless detail. But the structure also slows the narrative down. Because each paragraph focuses on a single action or event, you can’t rush on to the next event. Instead, you investigate the action more deeply, which can lead to further character development.

In this story, paragraph structure cannot be separated from story structure.

The Writing Exercise

We’ll write two paragraphs, the first concentrating on character development and the second focusing on moving through time.

Paragraph 1 (Character Development)

  1. Make a list of your characters’ interests: hobbies, food preferences, career influences, regional or cultural influences, etc. For example, if the character is an accountant, he might view the world through accounting concepts. Or, if the character is a high school student who loves to read, she might view the world through the titles of novels, like the narrator of Special Topics in Calamity Physics by Marisha Pessl. Choose one of these interests for your theme.
  2. Write the theme as a paragraph heading.
  3. Let the character apply the theme to his or her world. For example, if your accountant character was asked how the whole world can be explained by common mistakes in basic math on tax returns, what would the character say? What if you let the character give an example from his or her life, something like this: “You’ve got two kinds of taxpayers, X and Y. Just the other day, a guy came into the office, and he was type X…”
  4. Tell the character’s story in a single paragraph. Stick to the theme you’ve given yourself.

Paragraph 2 (Moving Through Time)

  1. Same as Step 1 above. Choose a theme.
  2. Tell a story in 3 sentences: X happened. Then Y. Then Z.
  3. Build a paragraph around each of the three sentences. In each paragraph, focus less on advancing the narrative and more on describing in-depth some aspect of the action, for instance what the character sees or feels or thinks.

The goal is to move beyond what happened and moving characters around to doing the real, essential work of building a prose style and narrative sensibility.

Have fun.

How to Introduce a Character with Misdirection

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

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

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

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

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

How the Novel Works

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

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

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

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

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

So, what can we learn from this?

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

The Writing Exercise 

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

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

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

Good luck.

How to Make Setting Striking to All and Personal to One

7 Jun

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

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

You can read an excerpt of the novel here.

How the Novel Works

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Writing Exercise

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

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

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

Good luck.

How to Give Depth to Character Descriptions

23 May

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

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

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

How the Book Works

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

Louisiana, 1992

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

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

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

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

The Writing Exercise

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

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

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

Good luck.

How to Turn Emotions into an Existential Threat

16 May

Joseph Scapellato’s debut collection, Big Lonesome, was called “gobsmackingly original prophecy” by Claire Vaye Watkins.

Writing teachers have a lot of ways of saying basically one important thing about story beginnings: set the stakes and break the routine and put a gun on the wall and show your character’s desire. All of these instructions are trying to get you to give your story the sense, from the first lines, that something big is about to happen—the literary equivalent of basketball players setting up for an inbounds play with the game on the line, or sprinters lowering into their stances as the starting gun is raised. The audience knows something is about to happen, something intense and worth pausing everything else to watch. That’s the kind of opening a story needs. You can find plot ways to do this—putting a gun on the wall or starting in medias res during an airplane crash—but there are other methods as well.

A great example of one of them can be found in Joseph Scapellato’s story “One of the Days I Nearly Died.” It appears in his new collection Big Lonesome, and was first published in Green Mountains Review, where you can read it now.

How the Story Works

As the title indicates, the story is using the same sort of plot hook as, say, the television show Lost. Something really is about to happen. But that’s not really what draws us in—or, it’s not the only thing. Here is how the story begin:

When it was happening I was alone. I didn’t think of my wife, of how her and I suspected she was pregnant (she wasn’t, but by the time the period came we’d both said a brace of big ugly honest things that had made the other think, These big ugly honest things you’ve said are who you Really Are, when really the big ugly honest things were only who we’d clubbed each other into becoming for a one-month spell inside a six-year spell that up until then had us living on Logan Boulevard in Logan Square thinking we’d be local, organic, and happy right up until we died blissful simultaneous deaths in the final scene of the epic film of our active old age, or at least that’s how I remember it out loud when I apologize, and when I see my ring on my finger in a mirror, and when I slam dishwasher drawers and shout, Listen! You aren’t listening!), and I didn’t think of…

What the story really begins with is an argument, a bad one full of “big ugly honest things” and the word clubbed and slamming drawers. It’s an argument that gives its participants the sense that “These big ugly honest things you’ve said are who you Really Are,” which suggests that this newly discovered reality isn’t desirable. Maybe they’d be better off somewhere else, with someone else. In short, it’s an existential argument. The way that it’s resolved will determine basic, essential details about the characters’ lives. These emotions matter. This isn’t to say that some emotions don’t matter; of course they do—in life. But in stories (in narratives, no matter the genre), everything, whether it’s setting or plot or character, must be geared toward wrenching the story forward. This is why we immediately suspect happy characters of being like chickens who don’t see the farmer walking up with is axe. It’s why Tolstoy wrote his famous line about happy and unhappy families. One makes for a better story.

If you read all of “One of the Days I Nearly Died,” you’ll find that the entire story isn’t about that opening argument, at least not directly. It’s about a series of potentially life-changing moments. The opening argument sets the stage for them, telling the reader, “This is the mental space this story will inhabit.” Once that space is created, the story moves forward.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s create existential emotions using “One of the Days I Nearly Died” by Joseph Scapellato as a model:

  1.  Set up a particular moment. Scapellato’s a sophisticated writer, and so he actually does this in multiple ways. There’s the literal moment of the story (the day the character nearly died) and also the general frame of the thing he remembers (the potential pregnancy) and then the immediate moment of the argument. If that seems overwhelming to attempt, don’t. Instead, shoot for one moment. Start with a basic phrase like “It was the day that…” Or start general and move to the specific, like this: “It was those days when…and it all came to a head when…”
  2. Give the moment a particular conflict. Scapellato gives his character a potential pregnancy. It’s the reason they’re arguing. But the pregnancy isn’t actually the key issue; it’s simply the key that unlocks the door where they’ve been keeping all their troubles. So, give your characters a conflict, but the resolution of this conflict shouldn’t necessarily resolve the troubles they’re having.
  3. Move from the conflict into the bigger issue. This is what the characters are actually feeling emotional about. Notice that we don’t actually know what the characters say in this story. We only know that they say terrible things. You can keep it vague, as Scapellato does, or you can dig into the details. Either way, you’re aiming for a moment when a character is so wound up that he or she slams a drawer and says, “You know what?” and what follows is the sort of statement that is very difficult to take back, a statement that can change the course of a life. Of course, we all make these sorts of statements at some point or another and manage to recover, but there’s always a split second where you think, maybe this is it. Find the emotion—the stress, the trouble, the inner conflict—that would push your character into saying something that might be a deal breaker, whatever the deal is.

The goal is to hook your readers by showing them something that might be broken by the characters holding it.

Good luck.

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