Things eventually come to an end. I have enjoyed my first foray into this high-tech type of interview, and I hope those of you who have listened have gained some insight into the process of writing. This final podcast about THE FANTASY FICTION FORMULA offers a few tips about revision and critical feedback. Enjoy!
Today, a friend sent me this piece of doggerel:
“She danced a while and drank some wine before she rolled her eyes at me. I picked them up and rolled them back and then we swam into the sea.” (Source unknown.)
How well it illustrates yet another pitfall the unwary writer can fall into, such as the following:
Bob threw his hands in the air. (Did he catch them?)
Armand’s eyes roved over her body. (Did they tickle, or did she slap them off?)
Jane walked across the campus to the library and sat on the fountain. (Did it shoot her into the air or did she just get wet?)
Tim dropped his head into his hands. (Good catch, dude!)
I’m sure there’s a clever name for these phrases. Anyone out there know what it is? The point is that we need to be aware of the imagery we’re creating when we use such ludicrous phrases. Are we really writing what we mean, or are we reaching for a shortcut? Imagery is a tightrope on which we balance. We need it to bring our sentences to life, and yet it can be overdone, underplayed, skewed, silly, histrionic, absurd, or ineffective.
As a writer with my admittedly nerdy moments, I particularly enjoy the film THROW MAMA FROM THE TRAIN because of Billy Crystal’s struggle with his book’s opening sentence, “The night was ….”
Such a cliched beginning anyway, and then the adjectives (moist, wet, humid) he comes up with grow increasingly silly. But don’t we all do similar things when trying to be fresh and different?
Jessie’s face was as red as … what? Beet is overdone, dried up, and over. Yet what else works? Tomato? Spanish onion? Must we employ vegetables for this image?
If we leave the veggie patch behind, what should we do instead?
Jessie’s face was as red as the planet Mars.
Ahem … I don’t think so. In reaching for freshness, we’ve overdone it. Such an image is appalling, just plain wrong.
Jessie’s face was as red as the petunias in Mrs. Streck’s flowerbed. Ah … much better.
Albert’s eyes were as round as … Saucers–alas–are off the table. (Pun intended.) So here we go again. Round as … Coke bottle bottoms? Baseballs? Salad plates?
Of course the problem with dodging cliches is that the darned things convey the image so well. And a job well done leads to overuse, which is how cliches are created.
So maybe we should look at a character and find different ways to describe him or her besides a simile. Maybe we should be more precise in our narrative, so that when Jane walks to the library, she sits down on the fountain’s edge. Or there should be different reactions from our characters than head dropping, eye rolling, smirking, and hand throwing.
Maybe we should reach deeper into a character’s emotional state and pay more attention to what we might find there. Make your characters as complex as people, then consider their emotions. Why are they taking action? What are their reasons? Convey that information and don’t just reach for the first hackneyed phrase or reaction that comes to mind.
Podcast 5 is now live (dealing with a book’s dismal middle) and can be listened to here:
When you write long fiction, does it sag in the middle? Does it slow down, drag, stall, or hit a dead end? Do you feel lost, unable to figure out what to do next? Are you doubting your story idea, hating your characters, feeling tired, or are you simply bored and frustrated with a story that begin with such promise but has now become as heavy as cement boots pulling you to the bottom of the lake?
Been there, folks. And without trying to sound like a TV commercial for indigestion, there is a solution to the bleak, daunting, soggy, sagging middle. Give your story oomph!
Generally story oomph comes from a strong, focused plot, characters in direct opposition, high stakes, and fast pacing.
But specifically, you can add oomph by utilizing hooks, tossing in unpredictability, and boosting motivations.
Let’s examine these three methods separately:
- Hooks: When scenes are written effectively, each scene conclusion should end with some kind of setback or additional trouble for the protagonist. That means an automatic hook is created to draw readers forward. However, hooks can be set anywhere in your story. In chapter openings, in character introductions, in narrative, in scenes, in viewpoint changes … all sorts of places. If the zombies hadn’t been trying to kill me, I would have enjoyed seeing the Grand Canyon. Or, “Lucy Cuthbert, if you don’t find someone to marry by the end of this afternoon, I will cut you out of my will.” Or, When Bob opened the desk drawer in search of a paperclip, he didn’t expect to find a clear acrylic box filled with writhing, agitated scorpions. Or, Jane had expected her new stepmother to be small, fragile, blonde, and vicious. Instead, she walked outside to see a statuesque, bikini-clad Amazon poised on the pool’s diving board, holding a martini glass aloft and singing an aria from Carmen at the top of her lungs.
- Unpredictability: Plot twists and turns add zest to stories. If your protagonist carefully plans what he intends to do next and then executes that intention, your story is focused and easy to follow but predictable. Without the element of the unexpected, stories become dull, and dull stories bore their creator while guaranteeing a rapid loss of reader interest. So if you’re bored by a passage, scene, or chapter, imagine what your readers will feel! Shake your copy out of the doldrums. Add some zing. Set up a scene to go in a certain direction and then knock it sideways by a wily, ruthless villain. Think about a scene you’re about to write. Within the context of the story and the parameters of your protagonist’s objectives, what can you toss in that will be completely unexpected–yet not wholly illogical? When I was writing the manuscript that would become my first published book, I hit a dull spot in the story where my heroine was going on a picnic with the hero. Romantic? Yes. Lively? No. So I thought about it and let the imp of unpredictability loose. As a result, when my heroine opened the wicker food hamper, she discovered a dead rat inside. Needless to say, that livened up the scene considerably as she screamed and tossed the basket away. (The villain had bribed his lordship’s kitchen servants to put the nasty rodent in the basket.) It wasn’t great plotting, but it served its purpose. Of course, you don’t want to throw a carcass (or its equivalent) into every scene. That, in turn, would become predictable. But eschew timidity when you write. Be daring with characters and their actions. And don’t always follow the expected path.
- Boosting motivation: Often books lose steam because the characters involved don’t care enough about what they’re doing. Maybe the characters did care in the book’s opening chapters, but Amy Author has forgotten that she must strongly motivate her protagonist from start to finish. I’m not saying a protagonist who’s battered by a string of setbacks should never feel doubt, but the character must keep finding new, tougher determination to continue forward despite everything. In C.S. Forester’s The African Queen, Rose is motivated to destroy a German warship patrolling an African lake because of the brutal destruction of her brother and his life’s work by the German army. Her brother is an insignificant missionary, trying to bring Christianity to the native population. He is a harmless civilian, but he is so shocked and broken by the soldiers’ cruelty that he dies, and Rose wants revenge. To get it, she is willing to attempt the impossible. Vast distance, dangerous jungle, impassable rivers, rapids, clouds of vicious insects, and grueling physical hardship do not matter to her. She never gives up because her motivation is like a spear in her back, driving her forward. But not only the protagonist should have powerful motivations. Remember to give your villain motivations as well. Consider the complex villain Imhotep in the 1999 film The Mummy. Imhotep is a ruthless killer, but he is also sympathetic. He is driven by his desire to be reunited with the woman he loves. We can understand him, perhaps even feel sorry for him, while we disapprove of his extreme actions. Still, it is clear that he will stop at nothing to achieve his goal, and that powerful drive to succeed forces the good guys to become tougher and more determined to thwart him.
This week’s podcast from Manchester University Press is the third of a six-part series of interviews and centers on viewpoint.
Sooner or later, just about anyone seeking training in the fiction-writing craft is given the adage, “Show! Don’t tell.”
When starting out, newbies generally want to just tell their stories, much as we tell a friend what happened in a TV episode or a book we read recently. Our quick summation gets across the gist. However, the drawback to most narration is that it’s flat and less than involving for the recipient. The individual doing the telling may enjoy it immensely. After all, the story is clear in the teller’s head and imagination. But recipients are often unenthused by dull summations that go on and on.
How, then, do writers show a story? By dramatizing it in scenes–where the conflict that’s taking place between two opponents unfolds moment-by-moment, blow-by-blow, and in verbal exchange-by-verbal exchange. Also, by dramatizing it in sequels–where the viewpoint character hits a scene setback or meets momentary defeat and has to stagger back, react, process, and cook up a new plan of action. Getting the hang of writing dramatically takes time and practice. It requires considerable thought, and it’s a slower writing process than just dashing off a summary of what your characters are doing. But once you get the hang of it, it has the potential to bring stories to life.
Why, then, am I reversing all of that sound, solid writing advice in this post? Am I actually urging you to stop dramatizing and resume telling?
But only under certain conditions and for certain purposes that will benefit your story.
Narrative summary is a specialized tool. Consider the sculptor of metal. This artist uses hammers, tin snips, welders, etc. This artist may also have a small acetylene blowtorch used to create a patina or apply colorization to the finished piece. Does the artist use a flame-thrower all the time? Probably not. But to achieve a particular effect, flame is exactly the right tool.
Like fire, summary possesses some drawbacks, but it offers benefits as well, and sometimes it’s better to tell rather than show.
What if, for example, you’ve written a story that’s stretched longer than your intended market allows? Perhaps you’re writing a children’s fantasy story, and intend to launch a series with it, so you’ve filled it with numerous character introductions, bringing in story people that will span the series beyond this initial book. You’ve thrown in subplots for the same reason. You’ve built a quirky, enchanting (pun intended) world. All of those factors gobble manuscript space. And perhaps you’ve tightened and streamlined all you can, but the scenes just kept marching forward, and the manuscript grew to be much too long.
Do you throw out a subplot? But if you cut it from the midsection then won’t a later reference to it seem contrived? Do you omit some of your characters? But what if you’ve chosen them carefully and ensured you haven’t included anyone extraneous to the plot. In other words, your story is tight but just too long.
The best solution is to pick certain scenes and summarize them. Not because you don’t know better, but because you don’t want to lose their essential contribution to your plot even while you need to reduce page count.
Look at scenes that have been written for character, perhaps to demonstrate or reveal some important character trait or an aspect of a character’s past that will play a subsequent part in the manuscript. Otherwise the scene carries little conflict or dramatic impact. Preserve what’s important and summarize the event.
Look at small scenes that are perhaps amusing or quirky and reduce them to indirect dialogue and a few paragraphs of summary.
Perhaps you’ve written a scene where Igor and Natasha are teaching Pytor how to tame a fire-spider (and no you can’t really use a fire-spider in your fiction because author Jim Hines created the beast and it belongs to him). Pytor is reluctant to learn and the fire-spider is less than cooperative. Maybe the scene is funny, conveys a vivid sense of place, and you just by golly like it, but the only truly important aspect of it is that Pytor needs to be able to minimally handle or control the creature. So you may have to sacrifice all the sparkling dialogue and moment-by-moment account of Pytor getting his fingers scorched while trying to safely pick up the fire-spider and boil down a ten-page event to a paragraph:
It took most of the afternoon to persuade Pytor to even pick up the fire-spider. By the time he’d burned his fingers twice and hopped about, shaking his hands and swearing so vehemently the fire-spider hid under a rock and the ground trembled, Igor was finally able to persuade him to use the gloves. Natasha made certain he understood how necessary it was to handle the fire-spider gently and not crush it in his fist. Natasha also enticed the fire-spider from beneath the rock with bits of a Twinkie she’d brought just to reward it. And eventually Pytor was able to balance the creature on his palm and even remember to orient it so that its head faced any on-coming foes. It was, Igor said resignedly, the best they were going to get, given the approaching deadline and what they had to work with. Pytor by then was too tired to argue. He knew, after all, that Igor considered him unsuitable for the job.
Nothing critical has been lost; the pacing stays quick; and the story can advance with a few less pages.
Boiling down your copy this way, for a valid reason, is effective. It varies how you’re presenting story, which makes your plot seem less predictable to readers. Just keep in mind that you should do this kind of thing in revision and not when you’re writing a rough draft. Otherwise, you’ll backslide into old habits of just telling.
Show, then tell … if you must.