Tag Archives: Plot

How to Create Suspense in Any Story

13 Dec
John Pipkin's second novel, The Blind Astronomer's Daughter, "captures our own awe and sense of puniness as we look at the skies," according to a New York Times review.

John Pipkin’s second novel, The Blind Astronomer’s Daughter, “captures our own awe and sense of puniness as we look at the skies,” according to a New York Times review.

One of those hoary claims about writing that won’t go away is that genre fiction focuses on plot and literary fiction focuses on character and language. I suppose there are bits of truth in that statement, but all you need to do is read John Pipkin’s new novel The Blind Astronomer’s Daughter to realize that the distinction is mostly nonsense.

The novel is the sort of book that shouldn’t be as easy to read as it is. It’s big and ambitious, rich with metaphor and complex characters, and written in the language of its setting: late eighteenth-century Ireland. It’s a book about science and the ways that our understandings of the latest discoveries shape how we understand the people and world all around us. And, in the midst of all that high-literary business, it manages to leap nimbly from page to page because it uses some of the basic elements of creating suspense.

You can read the opening pages here.

How the Novel Works

The novel is, as you might expect, about a blind astronomer’s daughter. Pretty much every word of that title is complicated, though, since she’s not exactly his daughter, he’s not exactly blind, and not exactly an astronomer since astronomy in Ireland two hundred years ago wasn’t the academic science we know today. So, there’s plenty of intrigue in the book. But much of the page-to-page suspense comes from the sort of mechanical strategies we’re familiar with in genre fiction. For example, early in the book, there’s a scene in which the daughter, Caroline, has finally convinced her father, Arthur, to take her to his rooftop observatory. The scene begins like this:

He insists that she tie herself to him.

The short length of thick-braided hemp is already knotted at his waist when he holds the fretted end toward her in the cramped attic. She words her refusal in terms he will appreciate.

“While there is comfort in having you anchor my steps, if you were to falter, the fall would carry us both.” She considers adding that a larger object will ever hold a small in its sway, but decides that this would overstate the point.

He warns her that even now, in the light of midday, there are still shadows ready to deceive, and that she must heed the sharp angle of the roof and hold fast to the railing with her strong hand.

“And there will be wind,” he says.

Caroline has imagine this moment often—her first visit to the observatory—but it seems odd that her father has chosen to bring her here during the day when there is nothing to be seen but blue sky and white clouds. As usual he wears the patch over his left eye, and when she asks him if it is a hindrance in getting to the roof, he explains that he has grown accustomed to climbing the stairs half-blind, that he has learned to translate two dimensions into three, that preserving the eye for the telescope is worth incurring some unsteadiness in his step.

In this short passage, Pipkin has made something as basic as going onto the roof of a house into a riveting question of “What will happen?” First, he starts with a statement that demands explanation (“He insists that she tie herself to him.”) We don’t yet know what’s happening in the scene, and so we naturally think, “Huh?” Then, she refuses to do it. As a rule, refusal is good for tension (unless acceptance means going along with something we understand to be dangerous). Pipkin introduces several elements of danger: shadows, the sharp angle of the roof, and wind. He also writes the scene into a moment we don’t expect it. Astronomer’s work at night, but this is the middle of the day. Finally, Pipkin gives Arthur an eyepatch (as a rule, eyepatches=awesome) and uses the patch to further throw everything a bit off-kilter. It’s one thing to navigate a dangerous place, but it’s quite another to do it without the full faculty of your senses. It’s a trick that every magician understands: they’ll escape an underwater box or stand in front of knives, but first they’ll tie this blindfold over their eyes.

Each one of these is a strategy used every day by genre writers. The only difference is that Pipkin is using them on a rooftop observatory rather than, say, an intergalactic war.

The Writing Exercise 

Let’s create suspense, using The Blind Astronomer’s Daughter by John Pipkin as a model:

  1. Choose the scene you want to write. It doesn’t really matter what scene you choose. It can be one with obvious plot elements or one without. It should contain a kind of set piece: a particular thing happening in a particular place.
  2. Introduce the scene with an unexpected detail. Don’t “set the scene.” Don’t lay out the basic parameters of place and stakes. Instead, focus on one element that, stripped of its context, strikes the reader as unusual. Pipkin ties his characters together with a rope. You want to avoid cheap thrills, of course, and false innuendos. And you can’t do this in every scene. But it’s a great strategy now and then: state something about the characters or place or situation without context, a statement that demands explanation.
  3. Let a character refuse or or accept the premise of the situation. Refusal works because it leads to disagreement, which leads to tension. Acceptance works if the thing being accepted ought to be refused (jumping off that cliff your parents talked about, walking into Mordor). Again, this will require explanation.
  4. Use the explanation as an opportunity to introduce danger. Every scene should contain elements of danger. If there are none, what’s the point of the scene? In this case, the danger is falling off the roof. But the danger might also be saying the wrong word, doing the wrong thing, doing the right thing but getting the wrong reaction, etc. In your scene, what poses a risk to the characters. Let one of the characters enumerate those risks.
  5. Give the scene an element of the unexpected. Pipkin knows we’ll expect the scene to take place at night, so he sets it during the day. There are other ways to play with the basic elements of the scene: something expected that is subtracted or something unexpected that is added. Or, some element is changed: day for night, bedroom for kitchen, outside for inside, work for church, etc.
  6. Impair or heighten one of your characters’ senses. Pipkin makes Arthur wear an eyepatch. He’s used to it, but it’s clear that is increases the risk in the scene. Superhero and comic book movies do this all the time (special powers). War movies and action movies do this in the negative: the hero is always fighting without his weapon or with some grievous wound. How can you impair or heighten your own character’s senses or abilities?

The goal is use these basic strategies for increasing tension in any scene, no matter if the story is literary or genre.

Good luck.

How to Figure Out What Really Drives a Character to Act

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

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

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

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

How the Story Works

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Writing Exercise

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

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

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

Good luck.

How a Character’s Past Can Inform the Present Action

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

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

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

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

How the Story Works

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Writing Exercise

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

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

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

Good luck.

How to Turn Desire into Motivation and Plot

27 Sep
Rahul Kanakia's novel Enter Title Here has a main character that Barnes and Noble's Teen Blog called "a genuinely unique protagonist: unintentionally funny, often mean, and uncompromising in the lengths she’ll go to get what she wants."

Rahul Kanakia’s novel Enter Title Here has a main character that Barnes and Noble’s Teen Blog called “a genuinely unique protagonist: unintentionally funny, often mean, and uncompromising in the lengths she’ll go to get what she wants.”

Any writing teacher will tell you that one key to finding a plot is to find your character’s desire: the thing that the character wants badly and will fight for. It doesn’t matter, really, what the desire is (love, money, applesauce) as long as the reader believes it matters to the character. Simple, right?

The problem is that, at the beginning of a draft, we tend to think of characters in a vacuum, floating there waiting to feel and act. But desire has no effect on the world (on plot) when there is nothing around it.  So, one way to build a story is to put your character in the midst of other characters. Once one character begins to state beliefs and desires, it’s likely that your character will react. As in life, many of our desires and feelings are clarified once they’re contrasted with others.

A great example of this strategy can be found in Rahul Kanakia’s novel Enter Title Here. You can read the opening pages here.

How the Novel Works

The novel is about a high school student, Reshma Kapoor, who wants to be valedictorian but worries that someone might beat her. Her desire is clear, but it’s not enough to build a novel on. More is needed. In this passage, we see some of that more:

When I first told Mummy about the perfects, she laughed and said, “No one can be perfect.”

People say that all the time, as if it’s obvious.

But is it?

That’s the problem with people. They think perfection is about things you can’t control: your intelligence or your wealth or your beauty. But if they thought of it as avoiding mistakes, they’d understand how achievable it is.

We all know that it’s impossible to go one hour without making a mistake. And if that’s possible, then it must be possible to string together twenty-four consecutive mistake-free hours into a perfect day.

Having an entire mistake-free day is difficult, but it’s doable.

She lists the ways she didn’t make mistakes (studying, dieting, etc) and then says this:

And if I can have one mistake-free day, then I can have two, and three, and four, and eventually whole weeks and months and years will pass without mistakes. Is that so insane?

This is a nifty piece of writing. It starts with the idea that some girls are perfect, gives one character’s response (no one’s perfect), and then considers whether that’s really true. If perfection is possible, how would the narrator achieve it? She develops a plan.

Kanakia has used that basic desire (be valedictorian) to create plot. Take out the specifics, and you get this: “Main Character wants ____, and some characters seem to have an advantage in getting ____, but So-and-So says that’s not true. But if it is true, then here is how Main Character will beat those characters at their own game.”

The Writing Exercise 

Let’s use desire and community to create plot, using Enter Title Here by Rahul Kanakia as a model:

  1. Find something that your character wants. It can be anything, and there are a few usual suspects: love, money, success. Try using Maslow’s hierarchy of needs: food and water (and other basics required for human survival), safety and security, love and belonging, respect, and the ability to pursue happiness (self-actualization, American-style). In Enter Title Here, Reshma’s desire is a mixture of the last four. If she’s valedictorian, she’ll be assured of a successful career and the financial security it brings. She’ll feel as if she belongs with a group like the perfects. She’ll gain people’s respect and will be able to pursue the life she wants (or so she thinks). Your character’s desire doesn’t need to tap into all of these categories, but it should hit at least one of them. If it doesn’t, it’s probably too fleeting to drive plot forward.
  2. Give the character competition. Reshma wants to be valedictorian, but the perfects might beat her to it. Of course, competition doesn’t necessarily require other characters pursuing the same goal. They might have other goals that put them in the way of your character’s pursuit of her own desire. In the way is the key phrase. If nothing’s in the way, there’s no story: I wanted to be valedictorian, and so I did it.
  3. Create a philosophical framework. Resume’s mother doesn’t say, “You’ll never be as good as the perfects.” Instead, she says, “No one can be perfect.” She’s suggesting a way of seeing and understanding the world. Reshma doesn’t just reject her advice, she also rejects this philosophical framework for another: You can be perfect if you have the willpower. In your story, let a character comment on the competition. Is it possible to defeat it? To be like it? Is it desirable to try? We hear versions of this almost every day: when we fail to get something we want, someone will say, “It’s probably for the best.” Whether we agree or disagree with that statement determines what we do next.
  4. Let your main character disagree with this framework. Reshma decides to beat the perfects at their own game. She can be perfect. She’s saying, in effect, it’s not for the best. How can your character refuse to see the problem the same way as the philosophical character?
  5. Develop a plan. Once Reshma decides to do what seems impossible—be perfect—she creates a plan: be perfect for an hour, then a day, then a week, then for months and years. What is your character’s plan to outwit, outwork, or outperform the competition/obstacle?

The goal is use desire as a starting point for creating character motivation and plot.

Good luck.

How to Swim in the Narrative Stream

13 Sep
Tim Horvath's story, "Fuchsia Maroon Timberwolf," was published in Green Mountains Review.

Tim Horvath’s story, “Fuchsia Maroon Timberwolf,” was published in Green Mountains Review.

If you spend any time in writing classes, you’ll eventually encounter the term “fictive dream.” It was coined by John Gardner in The Art of Fiction and means, basically, the zone that writers sometimes hit when the world they’re writing seems more real to them than the room they’re actually sitting in. Rather than seeing words on a page, the writers are dreaming their characters to a life that gets translated on the page. It’s a great feeling, but talking about it has always struck as a bit like talking about “runner’s high.” It’s good to know it exists; when it happens, you think, “Oh, this is what everyone was talking about.” But knowing that a fictive dream is within our reach doesn’t help us find it.

So, let me suggest another term. Narrative stream: The swiftly moving current of a story, as opposed to the still water in stagnant pools along the shore. When you find the narrative stream, your story seems to really move. Writing it feels easy, and so finding it is an important part of the writing process—the process for getting into the fictive dream.

A good place to see the narrative stream at work is in Tim Horvath’s story “Fuchsia Maroon Timberwolf,” a brilliant piece of not-quite-flash fiction you can read now at Green Mountains Review.

How the Story Works

The story is about a man and his daughter. On its surface, the story is structurally complex, spanning years and using a hypnotic style in which almost every sentence begins with “How…” This style and the montage-like movement through time give it a naturally dreaming effect but also presents clear challenges, for instance, how to keep the story moving when every sentence begins the same way. It’s a story that, by its nature, could easily get stuck in the still pools along the shore. The fact that it doesn’t—and that it ends with an emotional punch to the gut—makes the story worth paying close attention to. How does Horvath find and stay in the narrative stream?

Here is a passage from early in the story:

How he brought her to museums during the days, tilting the carriage up on its rear wheels till she pointed. How even when he was working, he’d taken days off. How he kept calling them days off, though he was home for months on end. How they grew apart even before he’d moved out. How he watched her increasingly from afar, marveling at her growing aptitude for making pictures, as if he could see manual dexterity insinuating itself into her wrists like a creature moving through the ocean in a time-lapse film, fingers as fluid as anemone tendrils but also hypodermic-exact. How he encouraged her!

The movement through time is evident here: the daughter starts the passage in a carriage and ends with her old enough to have grown apart from her father. That’s the dreaminess of the story—its ability to drastically compress time in a way that makes sense in a dream but is impossible in real, waking life. But that dreaminess is secondary to the story itself:

  • We see the man’s connection with his daughter in the way he tilts her carriage at the museum and the fact that he takes days off to be with her.
  • We see the change in the man’s work status (change almost always being essential to story).
  • As a result, we see the connection with his daughter begin to change until, in the next-to-last sentence, it seems to be severed in all ways except a lingering emotional one for him.

The sentences span years and, thus, could focus on anything, but what they actually focus on is emotion and change: the foundation for basically every memorable plot going back to Homer. The man feels something, and then his circumstances change, which leads to a change in the way he’s able to feel the original emotion. As readers, we naturally want to know what happens. As writers, we feel compelled to keep writing in order to find out.

The passage continues:

Brought her brushes and joked that she herself was his little paintbrush, gripping her hair and tugging it ever-so-gently to the top of her head till it all pointed upward, how then he hoisted her aloft and angled her till it tumbled over like horsehair as if she was the world’s largest heaviest giggliest shriekingest paintbrush and he working up a masterpiece on the canvas that was their wall. How her mother worried because it was late and he was getting her riled up. How he ignored her and lifted her still higher. How often he did this, how heavy his brush got! How once he dropped her but she was okay. She hadn’t blacked out, she promised, and she hadn’t started crying until she woke up at 3:18, hyperventilating and clawing the air. How years later on the field hockey team she started getting dizzy spells. How he learned that she wasn’t going to practice any more and hadn’t for over a month.

Again, we’re shown emotion (“joked that she herself was his little paintbrush” and “largest heaviest giggliest shriekingest paintbrush“) and from more than his point of view (“How her mother worried because…”). Again, time moves with astonishing swiftness (“How years later…”), and yet the focus remains sharply on change (“How once he dropped her” and the results of that drop).

When a story stalls out, it’s often (though not always, of course) for a couple of reasons:

  • We’ve lost track of what’s going on. Our characters are simply emoting in place, feeling strong feelings and thinking big thoughts with nothing else going on. In short, we’ve got emotion without change.
  • We’ve lost track of how things feel. A lot is happening, reversal after reversal, but it makes no impact on the character. Or, the impact is cursory. We write sentences like “She was sad” but don’t make the emotion visceral, which means it’s not really felt. After all, what significant emotion have we ever felt theoretically?

Horvath stays in the narrative stream because he’s able to continually focus on change and emotion. Even amid some pretty spectacular craft fireworks, the story remains devastatingly clear and compelling.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s swim in the narrative stream, using “Fuchsia Maroon Timberwolf” by Tim Horvath as a model:

  1. Find an emotion. In any moment, what is the strongest emotional state felt by someone? It doesn’t need to be felt by everyone or returned (I love/hate you, and you love/hate me). It doesn’t even need to be directly tied to the moment at hand. A character could be reminded of something and feel strongly about whatever is in his/her head. What you don’t want is blankness. You don’t want the answer that all kids give when their parents ask, “How was school?” Fine is not interesting for anyone involved. So, if a moment is fine for everyone, go in search of a moment where it’s not, where it’s good or bad or happy or sad or whatever. The emotion doesn’t necessarily need to be clear. Often, we don’t know what we’re feeling, only that we’re feeling it. When does your character experience a moment like that? There will almost certainly be more than one.
  2. Change the circumstances. In Horvath’s story, the man’s work status changes. It’s not clear what exactly has happened, only that something has. There’s an element of mystery. This is important to keep in mind. You don’t need to fully explain everything that happens in a story. Instead, the change should impact what is important (the emotion). The change can have an external cause (getting laid off) or be self-caused (dropping a kid on her head). It could be big or small, connected to the emotion or simply in the same place at the same time. What changes occur in your character’s world?
  3. Let the change impact the emotion. Once the man’s work status changes, his connection with his daughter deteriorates—not necessarily on his end, it seems, but on her end or her mother’s. The emotional connection isn’t the same as it was at the beginning. This shift matters because that’s the nature of emotional changes. We want to fall in love and feel loved, and we dread and fear falling out of love or losing love. Emotions are difficult, maybe impossible, to separate from desire. If you find a moment when a character feels strong emotion, it’s probably also a moment when the character desires something—which is what clues readers into the story. As with all emotions, characters will naturally resist or embrace change (I want things to change so I don’t feel this way, or I don’t ever want this feeling to end). What impact does your story’s change have on the character’s emotion or the way that emotion is felt?
  4. Repeat. Don’t stop with one emotion and one change. Or, stay with an emotion but complicate it by introducing change after change. Those changes and the impact each one has on the emotion is the story’s narrative stream.

The goal is to find the current that carries a story forward by focusing on the emotion and changes within the story.

Good luck.

How to Use Conflict to Give Your Novel a Sense of Direction

23 Aug
Idea Novey's debut novel, Ways to Disappear, has been called a "tour de force" and "seared to perfection" by reviewers.

Idea Novey’s debut novel, Ways to Disappear, about the search for a vanished Brazilian writer has been called a “tour de force” and “seared to perfection” by reviewers.

Anyone with small kids is familiar with this situation: they argue over (take your pick). One says, “I want it.” The other says, “No, I do.” Or one says, “Let’s do ___,” and the other says, “No, let’s do ___.” As a parent, you can step in, which you often do. But sometimes you don’t. You think, “Let them figure it out.” You tell your partner, “They’ll either figure it out or they won’t.” Then, you listen to the fight continue and wait to see which way it will go. If the argument’s loud enough, you can feel your muscles tense as you wait for it to resolve itself—or not.

This is misery as a parent but a great strategy for fiction writers, and Idra Novey uses it to great effect in her novel Ways to Disappear. You can read the opening of the book here.

How the Novel Works

The novel is about a famous Brazilian novelist who vanishes and her American translator who sets out to find her. Early in the novel, we’re introduced to the translator’s conflicted relationship with her boyfriend:

Miles told her she spent too much time fretting over unanswered emails. His preferred subject of late was when they might get married, and whether they had to invite everyone in their Road Runners group. He said he was leaning toward an outside venue regardless.

Emma, on the other hand, was leaning toward never.

She had yet to express this.

In this passage, the conflict is as clear as when kids fight over a toy: he wants to get married and she doesn’t. Either they’ll figure it out (and get married), or they won’t. Not only is the conflict laid out clearly, but so are the possible resolutions. That’s step one: a map that shows the plot’s endpoint.

Novey doesn’t stop there. The passage continues with “She had yet to express this,” which introduces a stop along the way to the end of the plot. This is as important as the conflict itself; a novel needs stages, steps, obstacles (choose your preferred word). It needs stuff to fill out the pages between the beginning and the end, and that’s what Novey has done so concisely in these three short paragraphs: clearly laid out the beginning and end and one part of the middle.

As you read the entire novel, you’ll quickly see that it’s formally inventive, with pages devoted entirely to a single dictionary definition or a single email or a radio dispatch. At one point, a chapter is written in verse. It’s also a heady novel about translation and, as a critic in The New Yorker wrote, “the nature of personal agency in life and fiction.” And it’s a comic novel with real villains and dramatic twists and turns. In short, it’s a novel with a lot going on, and part of the reason that Novey is able to stuff so much into the pages is because of how clearly she lays out the conflict at the beginning.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s set up conflict and possible resolution, using Ways to Disappear as a model:

  1. Find a single issue on which two characters disagree. Novey uses marriage. One of her characters wants it, and the other doesn’t. Of course, the issue can be absolutely anything. Whatever you choose, try to state it as clearly as I was able to state the issue in Ways to Disappear: The issue is ___. One character wants ____, and the other character doesn’t or wants ___. You’re also laying out two possible resolutions. It’s a blunt, direct statement, and this may feel odd. As writers, it’s tempting to latch onto subtlety, to want the reader to figure things out. But it’s important to know which things ought to be subtle and which should be direct. Ways to Disappear contains all sorts of smart, subtle lines about translation and agency. But it lays out the plot clearly.
  2. Flesh out each of their stances. Novey does this with Miles in particular, describing his plans and anxieties about the wedding. She doesn’t just say, “Miles wanted to get married.” She shows him wanting it and assuming that it will happen. She does something different with Emma. Rather than showing us her thoughts, we’re shown her voice: leaning toward never. It’s a line that Emma might have said while confiding to a close friend over coffee. The line is understated, not bombastic or intense or meek or whatever. So, try both strategies. Show us one character working on the assumption that his or her stance will win out. For the other character, try writing a line that sounds as if it has been spoken to a confidant. You can even write it as such: She told her friend…
  3. Create an unknown. Novey does this by revealing that Emma hasn’t yet told Miles that she doesn’t want to get married. The unknown, then, has two parts: Miles doesn’t know something, and the reader doesn’t know when he’ll find out. That’s a great way to approach plot: one character knows more than the other, and the plot is built, at least in part, around when the other character finds out or catches up. So, what information might one of your characters keep in reserve? It might be his or her stance on the issue. Or, it could be a plan that is related to that stance. It could be an emotion or memory. In essence, it’s a secret. 

The goal is to chart out a general direction and plot point for your story or novel by introducing a point of conflict, two possible resolutions, and a piece of information that one character knows but the other doesn’t.

Good luck.

How to Use Plot Spoilers in a Story

7 Jun
Sean Ennis' debut story collection, Chase Us, follows the lives of boys living on the outskirts of Philadelphia.

Sean Ennis’ debut story collection, Chase Us, follows two boys through skateboarding, drugs, crime, and stolen school busses on the outskirts of Philadelphia.

Every writer will likely at some point begin a story by giving away a major plot point. Paul Murray even did this with his novel’s title: Skippy Dies. The reader wants to know what happened—how did Skippy die? It’s not so different from film titles like Snakes on a Plane or The Empire Strikes Back. Both reveal the general direction of the story and make viewers want to know the specifics. This strategy might sound easy, but it can also be a surprisingly difficult to pull off. You can give away too much, or you can reveal an ending that the reader isn’t interested in. So, how do you make it work?

Sean Ennis does an excellent job of using a plot spoiler in his story, “Saint Roger of Fox Chase.” It was included in his collection Chase Us, which is a finalist for the 2016 Saroyan Prize. You can read it now at The Good Men Project.

How the Story Works

The first seven words of the story give away the ending: “The night Roger was beaten to death.” That’s the plot spoiler. A lesser story might depend on that spoiler alone to generate suspense. After all, it’s a powerful statement: Roger wasn’t killed but beaten to death. It’s natural for the reader to want to know what happened. Who was Roger? How did he arrive at such an awful ending?

But those seven words are just the beginning of passage that build suspense in a variety of ways. Here are the first two paragraphs in their entirety:

The night Roger was beaten to death, I was out there running, too. For weeks, he had been trying to convince Clip and me to hang out at the Fox Chase playground on Friday nights. The older kids were buying beer and selling cups for a buck. The girls that came were getting wild, dancing to the music blasting out of car stereos, and flashing their chests.

I was skeptical. The guys that hung around the playground at night were not my friends; they got in fights, smoked. I knew some of them from soccer, and we had a tenuous truce because I could play, but I didn’t want to tempt things and didn’t care much about drinking beer. Seventh grade is a tenuous time.

The initial pulse of suspense comes from “beaten to death,” but that suspense is heightened by the incongruity and mystery of what comes next: “I was out there running, too.” What does this mean? Running away? But what about that word too? He was running with Roger? The sentence makes perfect grammatical sense but leaves a great deal unclear in terms of the scene and what was happening. So, now the reader not only wants to know how and why Roger died but also what was going on in the background. Then, the next sentence introduces the word playground, which we don’t normally associate with beaten to death or beer and wild nudity. Again, it’s important to note that there is nothing literally  confusing about the paragraph. The sentences are not purposefully obscuring the facts. The confusion or mystery comes from not seeing only a glimpse of the entire picture. The narrator cannot explain everything in a few words, in part because it is first-person and therefore imperfect in the ways that all people are imperfect, rather than third-person and capable of omniscience.

The second paragraph continues the incongruity of playground/beaten to death by stringing together kids who “got in fights, smoked” with soccer and the idea that “Seventh grade is a tenuous time.” These are just kids, we realize. They’re playing at being adults but still stuck with the trappings of childhood—playgrounds and soccer.

So, even though the first sentence contains an enormous plot spoiler, the rest of the opening two paragraphs introduce a complexity and confusion that the reader wants to unravel and understand. If you read the entire story (which you most definitely should), you’ll likely find that the plot point of Roger’s death is less important than everything that was going on around it. In other words, the spoiler isn’t really a spoiler at all but a way of directing the reader’s attention toward what is truly important.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s introduce a plot spoiler into the beginning of a story using “Saint Roger of Fox Chase” by Sean Ennis as a model:

  1. Identify the most important thing that happens in your story. There are, of course, likely several important points, and the biggest of them might be internal—but internal plot points don’t really work as spoilers. Part of the problem is that even the deepest moments of realization for a character can sound, when distilled to a sentence, like the sentiments of a Hallmark card (“The Things They Carried”: Don’t let grief get you down.). To make a spoiler work, you need plot, which almost always means action and often means the external consequence of some internal turning point. So, identify the biggest plot point in the story.
  2. Write a sentence that states the spoiler plainly. You can’t get much plainer than “The night Roger was beaten to death.” But notice what else that sentence does: it suggest that other things are happening. It’s even a good idea to use Ennis’ first sentence as a template: On the _____ that ____ happened… You want to hint to the reader that though you’re revealing some parts of the story, there are others yet to be found out.
  3. Surround the plot spoiler with incongruities. Some spoilers aren’t really spoiler (A man went to war and died. A couple met in Vegas and got married and a year later they were divorced.) No one is going to wonder how those things happened because of course they happened. You want to provide details that make the spoiler not quite make sense. Ennis pairs “beaten to death” with a playground and wild parties and, eventually, seventh grade. These are things that don’t usually appear alongside a brutal murder. So, fill your first paragraph with details that one wouldn’t normally expect to find alongside the plot point that you’ve revealed. Keep in mind, though, that you’re not searching for opposites. Don’t be blatantly thematic (He died in a maternity ward). Be weird. Be unexpected. Here’s a sentence from the first paragraph of Stuart Dybek’s famous story “We Didn’t”: “We didn’t in your room on the canopy bed you slept in, the bed you’d slept in as a child, or in the backseat of my father’s rusted Rambler, which smelled of the smoked chubs and kielbasa he delivered on weekends from my uncle Vincent’s meat market.” Nobody expects to find smoked chubs in a sentence about sex. Allow your imagination to roam. What detail would make the reader sit up and say, “Huh?”
  4. Run with those details. Once you’ve got the plot spoiler in the story (and if it’s a good one), then there’s no doubt that you’ll return to it eventually. It’s also almost inevitable that it will press its face against the pane of your story over and over again. You won’t be able to get rid of it. So don’t feel the need to remind your readers that it’s there. Instead, elaborate on the incongruous details you’ve discovered. Ennis puts a playground and soccer in a paragraph with murder, and it’s the playground and the soccer that the story focuses on for a very long time—except that they’re not just soccer and a playground. They’re soccer and a playground that are accessories to murder. As a result, we pay attention. We want to know how the incongruous details will be brought together.

Good luck and have fun!

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