Tag Archives: hooking readers

How to Intimately Connect Character and Setting

10 Oct

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

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

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

How the Story Works

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

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

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

The Writing Exercise

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

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

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

Good luck.

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How to Help Readers Intimately Connect with Characters

26 Sep

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

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

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

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

How the Story Works

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Writing Exercise

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

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

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

Good luck.

How to 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.

How to Set Up a Story’s Hook

28 Feb
"The Key Bearer's Parents" by Siân Griffiths appeared online at American Short Fiction.

“The Key Bearer’s Parents” by Siân Griffiths appeared online at American Short Fiction.

A story must hook its readers. Everyone knows this. The problem is that a hook can sometimes feel as if it’s trying too hard. I remember once, when I was a reader for a literary journal, coming across a first line that was something like “He was walking down the freeway with a turd in a bucket.” It caught my eye, sure, but it also felt like something that wanted to be noticed—and that is fine as long as the writer is able to place the hook within a world and story. In this case, it was just a turd in a bucket. Nothing that followed was as interesting or compelling, which means the opening line was a failure.

A great example of a story that places its hook firmly in a story and world is “The Key Bearer’s Parents” by Siân Griffiths. It was published online at American Short Fiction, where you can read it now.

How the Story Works

Here is how Griffiths’ story opens:

We were good parents. We know people assume otherwise when they see our wide ties and honking red noses, but we were. We took that job seriously. We told our son that he could be anything he wanted to be, just like you’re supposed to. Yes, we could see his embarrassment when we showed up for Career Day, how he threw the basketball into the field as our tiny car pulled in so that his friends would look away. And though we were happy clowns, smiles broader and wider than any lips, the disappointment underneath our makeup was easy to read. “It’s fine,” we said, fitting on our over-sized shoes and adjusting the flowers in our hats. We told ourselves that he would get over it.

The hook is obvious: the shock of encountering “honking red noses” in a story that starts off seeming like a realistic story about two parents. It’s sometimes useful to imagine how else a story could have been written, and so here is another version of these opening lines:

When people saw our honking red noses, they thought we weren’t good parents, but we were.

The basic elements haven’t changed: parenting, red noses, and the expectations people have based on those noses. But the effect isn’t the same. This new version is trying too hard, in my view, like a teacher who tries to be cool and uses five-year-old slang. It’s focused entirely on how people will see it and, as a result, doesn’t come off as natural. Griffiths’ actual opening, on the other hand, starts inside the narrators’ heads, focusing on what they believe about themselves: We were good parents. This grounds us. No matter how many unexpected details the story throws at us, we know who these characters are because we know what they worry about.

As the paragraph continues, we get more clown stuff: makeup, over-sized shoes, flowers. These details are humorous and interesting, but we see through them to what matters: the parents’ conflicted feelings as they watch their kid be embarrassed of them.

As with all “rules” for writing, this one won’t hold true all of the time. Sometimes a story will need to start, from the first word, with how a character is viewed. That said, it’s probably a good idea to start a draft inside a character’s head, feelings, and desires. Establish the kernel of humanity—the conflict or desire that readers will intuitively recognize—and then add a honking red nose or turd in a bucket.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s set up a story’s hook using “The Key Bearer’s Parents” by Siân Griffiths as a model:

  1.  Start with the hook. Know what it is. If you’re not sure, tell the first part of the story to someone—anyone, someone you trust or a complete stranger. What detail makes their eyes open wider? If you can’t bring yourself to do this, do it in your head. Which detail surprises? To quote the wisdom of Sesame Street, which of your details is not like the other?
  2. Figure out your character’s self-affirmation. If you’re old enough to remember Al Franken’s Saturday Night Live character Stuart Smalley, you know what I’m talking about. Smalley would repeat to himself, “I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and, doggone it, people like me!” It didn’t matter if this was true or not. What mattered was that Smalley needed it to be true, the same as Griffiths’ narrators need to feel that they’re good parents. So, what does your character need to be true? How does your character need to be viewed?
  3. Place the self-affirmation before the hook. It doesn’t need to be as over the top as Stuart Smaller’s. Griffith’s first line seems like a basic statement of fact—but, of course, it’s not. It’s a matter of opinion, but it’s stated to plainly that it doesn’t jump out at us—until we read “honking red noses.” Ordering the sentence in this way can make the hook stand out more and also make the essential human need of the character stand out.
  4. Add action. When I was in college, I’d go to the rec center’s weight room, and there’d be enormous guys who’d grunt when they lifted and then drop the weights to the rack or the floor with a bang. They wanted to make sure that everyone saw them because they needed to be seen as strong. Desire always leads to action. Either the character acts, like the guys in the weight room, or the character becomes intensely aware of other people’s actions, like the narrators in “The Key Bearer’s Parents,” who notice every small thing their kid does when they show up. What action (acted or noticed) follows naturally from your character’s desire and self-affirmation?
  5. Don’t forget the hook. Keep it present in the reader’s mind. If you don’t, then it’s a gimmick. But if you commit to it, referencing it whenever possible, in the context of the action and desire, then you’ll create something readers haven’t seen before and they’ll keep reading.

The goal is to hook readers with something surprising and with an essential element of every story: character desire.

Good luck.

Make Readers Care about a Story’s Movie-Poster Elements

4 Oct
Christopher DeWan's story "Voodoo" is included in his new collection, Hoopty Time Machines.

Christopher DeWan’s story “Voodoo” is included in his new collection, Hoopty Time Machines.

I often teach a class about first pages and how to hook readers. There are some obvious strategies for this: introducing a gun, dead body, broken rule, or a moment with two possible outcomes. But none of these is enough to compel a reader to turn the page. After all, we’ve all seen these strategies put to use over and over again. Something else is needed. That something could be a bigger or more awful gun, more dead bodies, and a more taboo broken rule, but at a certain point you’re simply making another Saw movie. Shock value is a finite resource. But human emotion isn’t. For a first page to be truly compelling, it needs to make readers care about the gun or dead body or whatever.

A great example of making a reader care can be found in Christopher DeWan’s story, “Voodoo,” which was originally published in A cappella Zoo and is included in his new collection Hoopty Time Machines: Fairy Tales for Grownups.  You can read the story here.

How the Story Works

As the title makes clear, the story is playing with a well-known horror/supernatural trope. Any reader will have pretty clear expectations for what will follow: some version of a doll with pins and needles stuck in it. The problem facing DeWan is the same one facing most writers. The story is familiar, and so something is needed to make readers pay attention yet again. He could have used a more horrific doll or added bloodier consequences, but that wasn’t his approach. Instead, here is how the story begins:

You walk into your daughter’s room. You wouldn’t do this normally. You try very hard to respect her privacy, even when this sometimes causes you to wonder if you’re being a bad or neglectful parent. The fact that you wonder means that you probably are not a bad or neglectful parent. But everyone has better days and worse days.

There’s no mention of voodoo or a doll in this paragraph. Instead, we’re shown a relationship and a character who isn’t sure how to proceed, who means well but isn’t is faced with the possibility that good intentions might be insufficient. Or perhaps everything is just fine.

The uncertainty is important. As readers, we’re naturally drawn to situations in which a character is trying to discern the true nature of the world and circumstances. It’s why we’re drawn to conspiracy theories, magic, and Halloween. We love the idea that everything is not as it seems. But we also need to care, and that’s why the emotions in this first paragraph are so important. The character has feelings, and those feelings are tethered to concrete things (the welfare of his daughter) and abstractions (do we ever really know how someone is doing?).

The next paragraph makes good on the title’s promise:

Her alarm clock is going off and she’s nowhere to be found, so you walk into her room, and that’s when you see them: two little dolls. Voodoo dolls of you and your wife.

Now the story kicks into gear, but the reason we keep reading isn’t because of the dolls but because we care (and the character cares) what happens with those dolls.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s introduce emotional stakes to a story, using “Voodoo” by Christopher DeWan as a model:

  1. Decide what readers will care about. In other words, what’s the primary story element. In “Voodoo,” that element is voodoo. In monster stories (vampires, zombies, aliens, serial killers), the element is the monster. In detective fiction, it’s the pursuit of the criminal, and in romances, it’s the consummation of love and the struggle to maintain it in the face of difficulty. It’s the movie poster image for your story or novel. What is this element for your story?
  2. Create an emotional attachment to that element. Movies use a lot of the same emotional stakes—protecting a child or other loved one, finding true love or friendship, finding your best self—because they’re part of our lives in an essential way. Great literary works use the same emotional stakes. So, start by choosing something we all worry or dream about.
  3. Find an authentic entry to that emotion. The problem with blockbuster movies is they introduce the emotional stakes using some well-worn tricks (a child saying, “Why won’t you come to my ballgame, Mommy/Daddy?) but then abandon the stakes as soon as the movie-poster element shows up. After all, the filmmakers seem to think, who cares about that kid when the museum exhibits have come to life and are trying to kill you? They’re right some of the time. But in stories and novels, the writer usually needs to stick with the emotional stakes. Rather than using a shortcut, introduce the stakes with more uncertainty. So, find a simple action (walking into the daughter’s room) and then add a choice (should I or shouldn’t I?) and a larger emotional context (am I a good parent or not?).
  4. Lead with the emotion. Very often, as soon as the movie-poster element shows up, it sucks up a lot of the oxygen in the story. It’s hard to introduce emotion for the first time when stuff is blowing up. So, begin with the simple action, choice, and larger emotional context. Let it be the hook for the reader. The movie-poster element will arrive soon enough.

The goal is to make readers care about the big story elements rather than relying on those big elements to keep readers turning the page.

Good luck.

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