Tag Archives: fiction

Bland versus Vivid Settings

Bland settings occur when writers do the following:

-write in generalities

-avoid specific details

-supply only vague information

-forget to use a viewpoint character’s physical senses.

Vivid settings are achieved when writers do this:

-utilize specifics

-feature dominant impressions in passages of description

-employ physical senses where and when appropriate.

Now, let’s consider some examples.

Bland: Jane sipped her coffee while she pondered how to ask her sister a question. She wished her sis made a better brew. She wished she’d hadn’t accepted her sister’s invitation to stay here. They weren’t getting anywhere in deciding what to do about their father.

Do you see the problems with this paragraph? While it shows Jane doing an activity and worrying about her situation, the general vagueness creates a dull, uninteresting effect. There’s nothing here to excite a reader, nothing to intrigue or compel a reader to continue.

Let’s revise Jane and bring her to life.

Vivid: Jane’s first sip of the coffee scalded her mouth. Too hot and far too bitter. She spit it back into her cup and banged the mug too hard on the worn kitchen table without worrying about denting the top. Why did Erika buy such cheap blends? Why did she over brew the coffee until it was so scorched that drinking it became an ordeal? Since Jane’s arrival for this ghastly visit at her sister’s shabby apartment, Jane had offered twice now to make the coffee, even to buy hand-ground Hawaiian Kona beans, but Erika was such a skinflint and control freak. She refused to let Jane buy organic, quality groceries despite Jane’s offer of asking only for a fifty percent reimbursement. As for Dad–the whole point of this sisterly reunion–Erika insisted they needed to put him in senior care, but so far Jane couldn’t persuade her to wheedle him into signing a power of attorney. With that vital document, they could seize control of his finances and have a chance of saving some of their inheritance.

Okay. The original four insipid sentences have expanded into a much longer paragraph. I’m not sure I care for Jane. She’s rude, critical, aggressive, bossy, scornful, and impatient. If I were reading this, my sympathies might slant toward Erika, especially as Jane’s introspection continues to find fault with her. As a reader, I might have no interest in this scenario of adult siblings dealing with an aging, possibly incompetent parent. On the other hand, I now have a dominant impression of Jane. I now grasp the bare bones of the situation. I’m not certain whether Erika’s lack of cooperation over the power of attorney indicates a basic misunderstanding or an attempt to protect dear old dad from the more aggressive Jane; however, I see the inherent conflict in this situation.

Let’s look at another example.

Bland: Jimmy, late for class, hurried down the school hallway.

We’ve all been in this situation at some time or the other, yet this sentence offers nothing else. Have classes already started? Is the hallway ominously empty? Jimmy’s in a hurry, but I don’t know his state of mind. Maybe he’s anxious. Maybe being late wasn’t his fault. Or maybe he’s habitually never on time. What class is he late for? How old is he? What, in this meager sentence, can make a reader care?

Vivid: Late again! Jimmy slammed shut his locker and hurried for algebra class upstairs in the old annex building. This time if the hall proctor caught him before the second class bell rang, it meant detention in the basement study hall and death at home. Jimmy juked around the knots of girls giggling together, collided with a scrawny seventh-grader with thick glasses and a cowlick, and trampled the gleaming new sneaker of Arnie Bixmaster, football bruiser and overlord of the senior class. “Sorry,” Jimmy squeaked and tried to push past this wall of brawn, but Arnie’s paw thudded into Jimmy’s chest, nearly caving it in.

In this revamped example, we still don’t know why Jimmy is late or why he’s not allowing himself ample time to make it to algebra class. However, the setting is now populated. Anyone reading this will understand the stakes. We’ve all scurried to class through crowded high school hallways. Although this example doesn’t mention squeaking sneakers on tile floors or that smell old school buildings all seem to have, enough memories from the details mentioned will conjure up sufficient sense of place. Even more importantly, will Arnie allow him to go by or beat him to a pulp?

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Setting and Atmosphere

For this one, let’s take a page–pun intended, ha ha–from Edgar Allen Poe.

In his fiction, he demonstrated the effectiveness of imagery, atmosphere, and even the weather on a story’s impact. Poe focused on themes of despair, decay, rot, death, and madness. He did not confuse his readers, therefore, by tossing in a charming little cottage backdrop with bunnies cavorting amidst its flowers. Instead, he set his tales in crumbling palaces, isolated old houses, and prisons. These are the intrinsic settings for gloom and disaster. His characters prowl secret passages by night–not the happy sunshine of day. They lurk in underground crypts and break their hearts among coffins and tombs. No one in a Poe story is going to trill song. The ravens may gather like ominous omens silhouetted against a darkening sky, but bluebirds of happiness will not twitter. The lashing wind of a winter’s gale can batter a house. Within, there will be insufficient candlelight and no cheer burning merrily on the hearth.

Consider the tropes of your chosen genre. Think about the plot you’ve outlined. Plan the tone and mood of your story with as much attention as you’ve organized your plot events. Let setting contribute to that mood through active participation in those tropes, whatever they may be.

For example, let’s examine the mood and location of a romantic story. Both should enhance the tone you’re trying to evoke.

In the 1952 John Ford film, The Quiet Man, Sean sees Mary Kate for the very first time as she’s leading a flock of sheep across a verdant Irish pasture with the sun shining on her red hair. He’s instantly attracted by her beauty and wants to get acquainted. If I recall correctly, in the 1933 short story by Maurice Walsh that the film’s based on, the author depicts Sean in church, sitting behind Mary Kate and being struck by how the hair on the back of her neck swirls in delicate tendrils. One version works best for a movie while the other version takes advantage of viewpoint in prose. Both approaches are incredibly romantic. They convey the same plot event, and they are both using setting to enhance this man’s first attraction for the woman he’ll court and eventually marry.

On the other hand, if your story is a gritty thriller, using the lush natural beauty of Ireland as a backdrop and having your protagonist stop in the middle of dangerous action to notice a woman’s fiery hair will only make him appear stupid or super lousy at his job. Of course, he can notice her hair if he has her under surveillance and its bright color makes it easier for him to follow her. But in that situation, he’s going to focus on the hue rather than how a tendril curls on the back of her neck.

If you’re writing comedy, you can use a dungeon as contrast, but it will be a place your characters want to avoid or escape as soon as physically possible. The setting then becomes a locale for mishaps, pratfalls, exaggerated terror of axes and spears, or playing cat-and-mouse chases up and down dark staircases. The photo below comes from the 1948 comedy-horror film, Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein. As you can see, the two comics are trapped on a rickety staircase between Count Dracula and Frankenstein’s monster. The set’s image shows rot and decay, but the lighting is bright, and the staging is not scary.

Comedy, however, will not in a serious way depict a dark torture pit beneath a rotting castle with the viewpoint character suffering dramatic, grim, joint-breaking, moment-by-moment sessions on the medieval rack. Comedy will instead gloss over the nightmare suffering and focus on other story elements, much as the Pit of Despair is handled in the 1987 film, The Princess Bride.

Contrast the comedic use of underground chambers with a serious one as depicted in the 1955 thriller, Night of the Hunter, where two children are hiding in the cellar from the psychotic that’s murdered their mother. Here, the darkness and the earthy baskets of stored potatoes serve as inadequate concealment for these frightened children.

It’s always a matter of appropriately choosing the details on which to focus. How well you employ them to conjure up atmosphere that will support your plot rather than detract from it will determine how useful your setting can be.

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Go Big!

One piece of frequently given writing advice is to make your characters vivid. It’s a valid suggestion and has been proven consistently to be successful.

Why, then, do we fear to implement it?

What makes us conjure up a bright, vivacious character in our imagination, then draw back in the typing? Why do we limit our character to just lines of flat dialogue coming from her mouth? Why do we retreat to a few tepid details of description?

Are we afraid?

Of what? Creating a ridiculous character, one that readers will jeer at?

Are we oblivious?

Do we think that because our character is vivid in our imagination that readers can somehow telepathically envision that individual without our making further effort?

Are we unskilled?

Maybe we know what kind of character we want to present in our fiction, but we just don’t understand how to design or construct that story person.

Maybe any or all of those reasons lie behind our general timidity.

Fear of possible ridicule can be a huge barrier to any writer who feels unsure of an idea or premise. As writers, we tend to be introverted to a slight or massive degree. It’s hard enough for us to find the courage to begin a new story, let alone risk having someone criticize or sneer at it.

Gaining confidence in yourself, in your story sense, and in your abilities happens through practicing and mastering the writing craft. Acquiring writing skills and honing them constantly will help you tackle new methods and more complex stories. Understanding what you’re doing is the best way I know to push yourself to go bigger with your character designs.

Sometimes you have to try it until you can do it. Just as we form habits by performing an action repeatedly and regularly for many days until it becomes an ingrained part of our routine, so can we push ourselves beyond our writer’s cave to try whatever seems intimidating.

A vivid character needs to be large, bold, colorful, unrestrained, and active.

Let’s examine these separately, starting with the last adjective.

An active character is up and doing, not sitting on the sofa as an observer. An active character has opinions and isn’t afraid to express them. An active character enters confrontations, faces opposition, and attempts solutions even if they don’t work out as planned.

An unrestrained character does and says things that we may wish we dared in real life. An unrestrained character butts in. An unrestrained character gets involved. An unrestrained character may have few scruples, low ethics, and act impulsively. An unrestrained character will fall into trouble, but can probably climb right back out of it. An unrestrained character is daring, unpredictable, and jolly fun to write about.

A colorful character is so busy and uninhibited that he or she can’t help but jump off the page. A colorful character will be hard for readers to forget, whether it’s because she always wears purple socks and orange sneakers or because he drives a silver Lotus or because she dons a blue cape and can fly like the superhero she is.

A bold character is all of the above. A bold character refuses to be put in a corner. A bold character will see someone lurking in a corner and make him come out of there. A bold character takes the chances others won’t and seizes opportunities no one else has noticed. A bold character is the one that shows up, steps up, and stands up. A bold character may be a rebel or a natural leader. A bold character sweeps past while others hesitate.

A large character is exaggerated. A large character is every quality you want him or her to have–only bigger. A large character can be heard in the back row. A large character is unforgettable.

With this in mind, you must put these qualities on the page. Remember that readers can’t read your mind. They’ll never know what you don’t provide. And even if they decide your big, bold, colorful, unrestrained, active character is wild–chances are they’ll laugh or gasp first with amazement, and then fall in love with your vivid creation.

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Explain the Game

The sibling genres of Fantasy and Science Fiction feature unknown worlds, unusual inhabitants, and extraordinary adventures. They carry readers into lands of enchantment or embed them into a matrix of the fantastic.

Although this holds tremendous appeal and draws readers like bees to honey, it presents writers with the challenge of how to make the unknown knowable without getting in the story’s way.

After all, description and exposition are the two slowest-paced modes of discourse in writing. If allowed to continue too long, they bog down the story or stop it altogether. Traditional fantasy is especially prone to the awful explanatory info-dump at a story’s opening, where the hapless but eager writer shoves page after page after page after page of background, mythology, history, and foretellings of the as-yet-unborn protagonist’s destiny at readers.

Writers can’t toss aside description altogether. That leaves readers disoriented, with next-to-no way of imagining the settings or characters.

Background–if pertinent–can’t be dodged either. There’s so much to learn if readers are to understand what’s happening and why.

Fortunately, there are solutions. Here are a few:

  1. Take your time. You don’t have to explain everything in a single, twenty-page passage. Inject a paragraph here and there as you go, supplying the bare minimum of information to help readers understand ramifications or context of what’s happening in the story action.
  2. Explain immediately before or after an exciting scene. This will help position your characters for an upcoming conflict or, immediately following a scene, it will help your viewpoint character–and readers–process what just happened.
  3. Avoid long explanations during slow spots in your story. Are you becoming bogged down in the middle of your story, where your characters are slogging along on their quest to the fabled caverns of Mitharia and have nothing to do except choke on road dust and explain to each other why it’s so important to go there, defeat the demons now guarding the ancient treasure, and solve the riddles an oracle will ask before letting them inside? You might suppose, given that no action is happening, that this would be the perfect place to inject lots and lots of background information. WRONG! Do not place slow informational passages in a plot’s slowest spots. (Use Suggestion #2.)
  4. Dialogue of information is bad. No one is forbidding your characters from discussing their situation. Dialogue of information, however, is where two characters who already fully know and understand a story problem are discussing it solely to inform readers. It comes across as hokey and stilted and artificial.
  5. Let your characters USE their props and gadgets instead of marveling at them. No matter how fantastic such items might be to readers, the characters should treat them as part of everyday life without pausing the story for descriptive admiration. After all, do you admire the sleekness of your iPhone each time you pick it up to check your inbox, Instagram feed, or weather report? (Only if you just bought a new phone, perhaps.)
  6. Make description as vivid and specific as possible. This will not only strengthen your writing, but it will help you keep necessary description short and effective. Consider the following: The dagger was ornate and shiny. It was long with a curved point. It had obviously been designed for use in ceremonies since it was too fancy for any common purpose. The hilt seemed heavy, but that’s because it was ornamented with many jewels and probably made of solid gold. Now compare it with this: Johan picked up the heavy ceremonial dagger, glittering from its jeweled hilt down to the wickedly sharp point of its curved silver blade. “How many sacrificial throats have you sliced, my beauty?” he murmured.
  7. Improve your verbs. Avoiding the flabby weakness of to-be verbs not only strengthens writing but also serves a descriptive purpose. For example: The door dilated open. That conveys an immediate image in a reader’s mind of a round orifice spiraling open. It also shows readers a glimpse of the setting’s unique architecture.
  8. Put nomenclature to work. All of the places, plants, animals, geographical features, cities, etc. that writers invent will require names. While it’s fun to generate exotic ones, make them descriptive to help readers comprehend the object quickly. For example: stingfly instead of jornak.

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From My Bookshelf: Ellery Queen

Last week I pulled a book with acid-brown pages from my precarious stack of to-be-reads. I had found it at a thrift store earlier this year before the world tilted on its axis and we all fell down a rabbit hole. I grabbed it because it was written by Ellery Queen, a classic whodunnit mystery author I fell in love with as a teenager.

Last week, having whipped through the latest John Sandford crime thriller and at loose ends for something to follow it, I thought, why not? and decided to reacquaint myself with this classic detective story. I remembered the title–TEN DAYS’ WONDER–and vaguely recalled that I hadn’t much cared for it when I read it in the 1970s. But that was all I remembered. I started reading, and nothing about the story came back to me except that the protagonist Ellery is a novelist + amateur detective and his father Inspector Queen works for the NYC police department.

The first two chapters of TEN DAYS’ WONDER (1948) barely held me. They were strange, and the characters seemed talky and static. However, the story quickly got better and better as it went. Before long, I was caught by the smooth, well-written prose. The characters were intricately drawn. No one was a stereotype. Time was taken to set up the crime to come and for me to get to know the players involved. The murder, surprisingly, didn’t occur until the third act of the story.

Reading it as an adult, however, I kept wondering what had drawn me to this kind of writer so long ago. I remember that as a kid I read just about anything and everything, and at that age I thought I had to finish every book I started. I grew up in a pleasant little southern town with an economy based on factories and agriculture. We had no bookstore, and I practically lived in the public library. It stocked only a handful of Queen mysteries. Every few weeks my parents and I would drive twenty miles to a larger, college town, and I would pounce on the spinning paperback racks in search of more Queen. They had semi-lurid covers in the go-go-girl style of the late ’60s/early ’70s. I thought they looked silly, and fortunately no one forbade me reading them.

ellery queen 3

Because, based on the book I reread this week, Ellery Queen is worthwhile. I think perhaps it’s the characterization that enthralled me so long ago. I know at that age I tried to read Agatha Christie and loathed her because I found her stories to be merely puzzles with next to no characterization. Now, I appreciate Christie very much. I can see past the superficial simplicity to her nuances and layers. And I want to find the rest of Queen’s stories now and read them anew.

Before I sat down to write this post, I looked up the author, who was actually two male cousins–Frederic Dannay and Manfred Bennington Lee–who created Ellery Queen as a series character and decided to write under his name as their pseudonym. The first Ellery Queen mystery appeared in 1929 and the books ran until 1971. The ELLERY QUEEN MYSTERY MAGAZINE–for years a strong competitor to the ALFRED HITCHCOCK MYSTERY MAGAZINE until they became sister publications under the same owner–was founded in 1941. I think it’s incredible that this magazine still continues today. There are over thirty EQ novels plus short story collections written by the cousins. Additionally there are some EQ novels written by hired ghosts, including science fiction authors Jack Vance and Theodore Sturgeon. There are juvenile Ellery Queen books, and the cousins also wrote mysteries under another pen name, Barnaby Ross.

ellery queen 2

I am intrigued that I no longer have my used copies of EQ mysteries. I remember only two plot events from two different stories. Were they that forgettable? And yet, mysteries from the Golden Age of the 1930s and ’40s so seldom are. Last year, I sat down and read my first Mickey Spillane book, and it was a page-turner. For the past two or three years, I’ve been devouring as many Erle Stanley Gardner books as I can dig out of musty estate sales and antiques stores. Today I started reading a Leslie Ford mystery–the second by this author that I’ve come across. And although she has a very dated style, Mary Roberts Rinehart’s books still give me a tingle every time I stumble across one. Ngaio Marsh and Patricia Wentworth … ah, bliss.

In January, trying to find new mystery authors, I browsed the shelves. My local Barnes & Noble’s mystery section is overrun with cozies. While I’m not adverse to cozies by any means, I find all the punster titles a bit too twee, as the British might say. In desperation, I dug into the small row of offerings at Walmart, only to find the trendy Ruth Ware kind of stories where the protagonist is a hot mess psychologically and is fashionably unreliable. No thank you.

And even if books are currently considered non-essential and slow to ship, I’m still eager to see what EQ offerings Amazon has in stock. It’s time for Mr. Queen and me to resume our former acquaintance.

ellery queen 1

P.S. If you notice, two of the book covers featured in this post are for the same novel. The first version is a pulp cover, albeit a very tame one. The second version is from the 1960s and slightly more upscale, if that adjective can ever be applied to a paperback mystery. 🙂

 

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Catharsis Time

Whatever happened to good story endings? Have you seen them lately? Sightings seem increasingly rare in the market push for series novels and movies with sequel after sequel.

Last week, I was reading THE OYSTERVILLE SEWING CIRCLE by Susan Wiggs as a potential candidate for my fall class on genre fiction at the University of Oklahoma, and–without giving away the ending–I found myself suddenly reading a classic, properly designed story climax. The transition into it was a bit bumpy, but by golly it was there.

oysterville Wiggs

Some modern authors still write this way, I thought to myself. It’s not completely extinct. Yay!

It’s unfortunate that I momentarily dropped from suspension of disbelief to notice the story construction, but I was so surprised that my inner teacher clicked on. It gave me heart. It gave me hope that maybe the pendulum is swinging back to good plotting. Or maybe I’m clinging to this example a bit too tightly, like a drowning swimmer clutching a piece of flotsam.

So what, exactly, am I nattering about?

Story climax, that’s what. Of ending a story instead of merely stopping it. The framework of building story suspense in such a way that readers are provided with an emotional catharsis.

This is all about answering whatever story question was posed at the book’s opening, rather than simply planting a big fat hook in the final sentence and leaving readers dangling–possibly bewildered, certainly unsure, and indubitably annoyed. I hate it when a book stops this way. Don’t you?

Maybe you’re thinking a series installment can’t be concluded with the first book, but while the series needs to go on, the first book has to end. Which means there’s the book’s question to answer while suspending the series’ question.

One is answered definitively and emotionally. The other continues to beckon. If this writing principle is not understood, then all is left hanging with a messy muddle of events and abandoned characters.

My local PBS station recently aired a BBC adaptation of Jane Austen’s unfinished novel, SANDITON. I love Austen’s stories with their complex, quirky characters, witty banter, and romantic plots. Eagerly I settled in for a light, charming costume drama and wondered how the scriptwriter would tie up Austen’s story line.

Spoiler alert!

He didn’t.

sanditon cast

Now, in all fairness, this was intended to be a multi-season television series. However, it was canceled, leaving viewers without any satisfying, completed, cathartic finale. We took the time and trouble to tune in for eight weeks, only to be left with a gaping wound in the plot. There’s no poetic justice, no satisfaction, no happy ending. Subplots are left dangling like severed arteries. When I called a friend to ask for her reaction, her reply was simply, “It’ll be on next week.”

“I don’t think so,” I replied.

“It has to be!” she insisted.

But it wasn’t. And now I find that it set a big hook to draw us onward to Season 2, only there won’t be one.

Such are the uncertain vagaries of the television industry. I liked TV better when weekly shows were episodic, tying up that evening’s story problem in twenty-four or fifty minutes, depending on its time slot. In the 1990s, television began to mirror novel construction with long subplots and story lines that arced over an entire season or multiple seasons. Very risky in a business where ratings can end everything with a chop of the ax.

My training in writing principles is that you never, never, never leave your readers thinking their book is missing a chapter at the end. Austen, ill at the time, could not help an incomplete manuscript. The modern scriptwriter for BBC, could, but chose–or was contracted–to take a huge gamble that failed to pay off.

In that sense, I suppose, he followed Austen more closely than any of us expected. However, it’s still, from the audience’s side of the fence, a cheat.

And while I could wade into theories as to why the drama failed to enchant American viewers sufficiently to save it, that’s not the point of this post, so I’ll refrain.

A story’s conclusion should bring the two primary roles of protagonist and antagonist together, face to face, in what French theater calls the (allow me to provide the translated term) obligatory scene and what American westerns refer to as the showdown. The problem between them has to be settled, unless the story is continuing in a series, in which case the problem between them has to be settled partially.

Consider, if you will, J.K. Rowling’s HARRY POTTER series. In each book, Harry grapples with the series problem, stemming from his antagonist Voldemort. He also struggles with a different story question in each separate book, which is resolved as it concludes. Rowling handles this dual responsibility beautifully across the seven-volume plot.

harry potter books

Per the actual catharsis, readers need to be manipulated–or enticed, if you prefer a less blunt term–into believing all is lost for the protagonist. The final cost of achieving the story’s goal is too high. Perhaps it demands the sacrifice of a friend or loved one, or perhaps it asks the protagonist to violate her inner code. Whatever that barrier is, at the end of the story the protagonist either backs away from an unethical solution or stands for what is right, despite threatened personal cost.

Therefore, the key to a compelling story climax lies in making readers believe–or fear–that the story goal is lost and the protagonist is defeated. Once a writer achieves this, then there comes a reversal of expectations, and the protagonist succeeds after all. It is all smoke and mirrors. We writers are wizards within the kingdom of Oz. We create an illusion of defeat in order to make victory that much sweeter and more enjoyable.

If the apparent defeat is skipped over, then the reversal will seem contrived and cheap. If there is only defeat without reversal, then readers are left disappointed and unhappy because poetic justice is not served.

Fiction, unlike some aspects of real life, should provide the protagonist with what is fair and right at the denouement or closing of the story.

Stripped down like this to its pieces and parts, climax catharsis can sound contrived and cheesy. But all story construction is contrived by writers. What’s key is to write in such a compelling and entertaining way that readers forget we are pulling the strings behind a curtain.

 

 

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Finding the Positive

As I type this, it’s the close of Day 1 of my local community’s lock down. The world has not seen anything like this pandemic since the influenza outbreak of 1918. We are modern. We have prescription insurance and anti-bacterial hand soaps. We shouldn’t have to fear plagues, so what is this? What happened?

In a culture that a few weeks ago was overscheduled, hectic, stressed, busy, and addicted to social media, with nothing more exciting going on than political debates and watching Prince Harry of Great Britain repeating the actions of his ancestor, King Edward VIII, who abdicated royal responsibilities so he could spend his life with the divorced American woman he loved–suddenly, bam, pandemic.

As disruptive and frightening as it is, this health crisis–once and if we and our loved ones get through it–will eventually serve as fascinating fodder for future stories. We have plummeted into changes we could never have foreseen, and our emotional confusion is nearly overwhelming.

A writer’s chief stock in trade is character emotion. It fuels characters. It motivates characters. It drives them to smoulder and plan and weigh options and take action. It makes them seethe, resent, fret, lash out, worry, agonize, fear, flee, and panic.

This month, I have witnessed fear and panic. I have seen empty store shelves–and never before have I ever seen a huge supermarket wiped out of meat in a day. I have seen hoarding of supplies. I have seen generosity and kindness from strangers. I have seen people shaken from their self-absorption in their families and/or their social media friends to instead reach out and speak kindly to people they don’t know. I have seen the good in people, and I have seen barbarous indifference as shown in the Spring Break news feeds. At the latter, we shake our heads, yet it takes time to slow down a country and stop its wheels. We are a nation on the go, and yet now we sit on a side railing, waiting. We aren’t used to sitting idle. It’s unAmerican. It’s weird. We’re supposed to work, to go to school. We’re supposed to be busy and productive. We’re not supposed to sit in our homes, afraid when we venture out to move past the six-foot line. We’re not supposed to stay away from our workplaces or our houses of worship. We don’t quite believe this can be happening to us.

We’re in a situation that can certainly be called a lulu. If you ever needed to study human nature to gain insights into motivation, reaction, true nature, and capacity to act, here is opportunity. We are just over a century from WWI, just over a century from the deadly flu epidemic, just over a century from the sinking of the Titanic. History does repeat. It cycles around, and disaster strikes us when we aren’t paying attention. Disaster also forges us into something better than we were, or it shatters us.

I don’t want to belittle the gravity of what we’re facing now. But it’s a chance to observe, to gain insight into deepening our stories.

The point of plots is to put a protagonist through a stress test to see what this individual is made of. How much can the protagonist take? What does the protagonist fear? What secrets does the protagonist harbor? What is holding the protagonist back, and how can the story events push him or her into changing?

It is typical human nature to resist change. Change is perceived on a psychological level as threatening, and some people dig in so stubbornly to avoid change that they would rather remain in an unsafe situation than do anything differently. Consider the 58-year-old man that’s 250 pounds overweight and at risk for a coronary. His doctor tells him he has to exercise by taking daily walks and eat a healthier diet. Frightened, the guy heads straight to the grocery store and loads up on broccoli, kale, flaxseed meal, and salmon fillets. He struggles his way through a week of power-walking, then skips a day because of work issues, then never catches back up. It’s too hard. It’s boring. He gets too hot. His shoes rub blisters on his toes. He’ll exercise on the weekends. He’ll exercise later. And kale tastes like cardboard. Flaxseed meal makes him itch. The fish doesn’t agree with him. He hates broccoli unless it’s smothered in cheese sauce with bacon bits sprinkled on top. Hey, he can order pepperoni pizza with broccoli on it, right? Sure. And what has he changed within a month of his doctor’s warning? Nothing.

Let’s hammer this point with another example:  the elderly individual that won’t leave her house despite widespread flooding and an evacuation order. She has nowhere else to go. No family to take her in. She’s terrified of being put in an old folks’ home. Her cat has disappeared in the rain and if she leaves her cat won’t have anyone to come home to. So the water rises, and every day the woman climbs higher in her house, until she’s trapped in the attic. Finally her little house is swept off its foundation and goes bobbing along in the torrential waters, necessitating rescue personnel to risk their lives to save her.

Or consider the person that stays in an abusive relationship, afraid to leave for the children’s sake. Never mind what this toxic home life is doing to the kids. They deserve parents that stick together. They deserve the nice house, their own cell phones, laptops, and tablets, the pool, and their generous allowances. Such things will more than make up for the emotional misery and psychological/verbal abuse that poisons everything in this dysfunctional family day after day. Right? Otherwise, what’s it all been for?

How about the writer that sweats to complete a novel manuscript, but won’t submit it to a publisher because it needs just a bit more polish? It could be self-published digitally, but no it really needs a third-act rewrite. Despite the fact that it’s been written and rewritten six times in eight years, it really isn’t quite ready because the writer is afraid to expose it to any potential criticism. After all, it might be published and what would be so bad about that? Well, the writer would have to change by working on a new and different project. On the other hand, if it bombs, the writer will have to face that it’s no good and then change by working on a new and different project.

Change–good or bad–is threatening because it upsets the status quo. It makes things different. It jolts us from our ruts, our routines, our habits. While in real life we dodge change as much as possible, in fiction we need it. We should use it to jump-start our stories at the beginning, then let it pressure and challenge our protagonist into a steady arc of evolving in order to win, to succeed, to survive, to become better. Or, if you’re channeling Mario Puzo and design your protagonist to devolve, the arc of change will end in disaster and defeat.

And all the while, our protagonist is battling not just an antagonist, not just physical or emotional danger, but fear. Fear of the story situation, fear of the antagonist, fear of the mission going wrong, fear of the unknown, fear of a worsening spiral of trouble, fear of failure, fear of daring to leave the box and leap for a risk never attempted before.

Change and emotion. They force character action. They ignite the sparks of conflict. They push the protagonist into doing something, into taking risks, into leaving what’s familiar and known to try what’s different.

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New Publication

Announcing the publication of my latest fiction endeavor, a western novella called JUSTICE AT PERCHA CREEK under the pseudonym Lewis Kern.

It’s set in the 1880s New Mexico Territory and features a young woman who takes a huge risk to gain a new life and the deputy sheriff assigned to catch her. I’ve thrown in some outlaws, silver mines, and shoot-’em-up action as well.

Scottiegirl_JUSTICE AT PERCHA CREEK

Available now on the Kindle platform through Amazon.

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Exploding Plot

“Plot is people. Human emotions and desires founded on the realities of life, working at cross purposes, getting hotter and fiercer as they strike against each other until finally there’s an explosion–that’s Plot.”

–Leigh Brackett

Have you outlined a tidy, well-organized, and logical plot for your story? Are your characters busy being civil, well-educated human beings going about their lives and work, sighing now and then over a lost dream or one of life’s disappointments? Are they angst-ridden mopers propped up on bar stools, feeling sorry for their failures and delivering beer-sodden soliloquies that are your insights to life?

Are you typing and typing and typing, compiling a ever-growing page count while in the back of your mind you worry whether your story is actually going anywhere and how will you end this thing anyway?

And if you have a reader that’s honest with feedback instead of simply an ego-supporter, and that person is quiet after perusing your sample pages and hasn’t much to say in reaction, then it’s time to face reality:

Your work-in-progress could well be a self-indulgent, staid, lackluster, sanitized bore.

As Winnie the Pooh would say, “Oh, bother.”

Where, I ask you, is the fire?

A book, a story, a yarn intended for the commercial market isn’t a collection of words, or character speeches, or passages of description, or self-conscious style, or even a slice-of-life duplication of life’s most mundane moments.

Instead, it should be alive, with vivid characters bursting with emotion. It should be messy, because human beings are squalid, and tender, and ferocious, and petty, and heroic, and gentle, and greedy, and contradictory messes themselves.

Your characters should be in trouble. Not just suffering from a bad day. Not simply afflicted with the choice of whether to purchase a white car or a blue one. Not concerned with how to afford those Starbucks lattes while paying little Jimmy’s private school tuition. When I say trouble, I mean plagued with worry so intense the stress is eating them alive. Blighted with jealousy so white-hot it sears them every time they look at the person they believe is their spouse’s lover. Terrified in mind-numbed paralysis by the stalker that leaves eerie messages and gifts inside their apartment while they sleep. Raging with the grief and frustration of being falsely accused and convicted of a crime they didn’t commit. Horrified by the cruelty of cyber-bullies that have been secretly grinding their once-happy daughter into a withdrawn, bulimic, isolated, social outcast.

At its essential core, a story is what pits one character against another. It’s how those characters clash in struggle against each other, how they grow fiercer in striving to win–or survive–and how they overcome the biggest challenges of all at the end to achieve poetic justice.

You cannot generate a successful, emotionally satisfying plot that comes alive in reader imaginations unless you’re willing as a writer to get your hands dirty. By that, I mean willing to step right into the intense emotional quagmires within your protagonist and antagonist. Until you do that, you will never fully understand their motivations, and of course without motivation the actions a character takes will always seem contrived and artificial.

In other words, you can’t write at a distance from your characters. You can’t remain tidy and detached. You must be willing to crack open a sleek character’s facade and look at what’s seething beneath the mask.

More than that, you must be willing to apply more pressure to a protagonist already in tremendous trouble. This is done by not protecting or safeguarding your lead character. This is done by allowing the antagonist to hit the hero where he or she is most vulnerable–and hit that person hard.

Until we push a character hard enough, how will we–let alone readers–ever know what that story person is really made of?

Until we push a character hard enough, that character will not take action, will not take risks, will not dare to strike at another individual, will continue to hide or stay safe, and will remain dull and boring on the page.

Think about the best mysteries you’ve read. Often–in cozies anyway–the first victim is a sly, wicked, conniving, ruthless, immoral blackguard so rotten every suspect has a solid reason to wish him dead.

Think about your favorite thriller where the protagonist is swept up in the sudden terror of an ordeal so dangerous and horrific the suspense is tightened to an almost unbearable degree. The danger forces the protagonist to flee whatever comfort zone she has always known and attempt the unthinkable in order to survive.

Think about those romances where sparks fly between hero and heroine who stand on opposite sides of an issue yet are pulled together by a physical attraction so potent they are nearly powerless against it.

Think about the fantasy where magic is the only way to save the person the protagonist most cherishes, yet using that magic will extol a terrible price the protagonist fears to pay.

Do you see how, in each of these genre examples, I’ve set up a situation that puts the protagonist inside an emotional or ethical pressure cooker? Yes, some of these examples are stereotypical, and the tropes are well worn, but they work to illustrate my point.

Brackett’s quote says that explosion creates plot. If so, then you need intense emotion, conflict between characters in active opposition to each other, and situations that demand frequent clashes. They are your dry tinder. Additional pressure and/or stress is the spark.

Result?

Conflagration … and a plot that comes alive.

 

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Rules of Magic: IV

Willful Writer is back at his keyboard. Although frustrated by his writing teacher’s lack of appreciation for his efforts, he’s determined to succeed by writing the best fantasy story e-v-e-r.

He creates entirely new characters–a heroine, Fran Fantastica, and her magical pink cat, Angora. Fran Fantastica is a popular fan-dancer summoned to the palace to perform for the king. She is given a tour of the throne room, dining hall, and treasury. Each time Fran admires something she sees, Angora’s pink fur lights up with a puff of smoke.

“What’s that for?” Fran’s guide asks.

Fran shrugs. “Nothing. Angora enjoys doing that.”

Puff! goes Angora, sending pink smoke wafting through the air. Poof!

After dinner, Fran dances for the king and his magician adviser Warlo Wizard. Both men enjoy her act immensely. The king applauds enthusiastically. Warlo sets sparks sparkling from his magician’s robe and wand.

“Wow!” he says to the king. “When she dropped her fan, I sure wish her pink cat hadn’t puffed all that pink smoke.”

“Amazing timing,” the king agrees. “What a shame.”

“Most decidedly a shame,” Warlo says.

And although Warlo’s fallen deeply in love with Fran, despite being allergic to cats–pink ones being particularly conducive to sneezes–he finds that the king has moved more quickly by proposing to Fran and offering to make her his queen.

Poof! from Angora in delight. Puff! Puff!

“Oh!” says Fran in astonishment. “I do. I will. I’d love to.”

“Blast!” mutters Warlo and sets his beard on fire before stalking from the throne room in a very bad temper.

“So there,” Willful Writer announces while typing THE END. “I have written something that incorporates plenty of magic from start to finish, with a heart-filled love story as a bonus. If Ms. Sagacious doesn’t like this one, I’ll quit writing.”

“Willful, you should quit writing,” Ms. Sagacious says.

“But why?” Willful asks, forgetting his vow. “I included a lot of magic. Angora–ha, ha–is charming.”

Ms. Sagacious doesn’t laugh. “You included the cat’s magic to what purpose? What are its consequences?”

“Well, Fran’s going to become a beautiful queen. And Warlo will shave off his beard and pine from unrequited love.” Willful thumps his chest proudly. “But all that will happen in the sequel.”

“What about the magic?”

“I didn’t forget that magic should have a price. I’ll include that in the sequel, too.”

“No sequel!” Ms. Sagacious shouts, growing red in the face. “What are the consequences of it now?”

Willful, bewildered, ponders the question a moment before he looks up. “She drops a larger fan?”

I have a feeling that Ms. Sagacious is about to demonstrate the consequences of a bad answer to Willful right now. Let’s leave him to his doom.

Under this fourth rule, magic–if present–must affect the plot. It shouldn’t be only part of the backdrop. It shouldn’t be random, like Angora’s puffs of pink smoke. Its use needs to bring results–whether that’s what is intended or it’s disastrously unexpected.

In Disney’s animated film, Sleeping Beauty, Beauty’s fairy guardians are preparing for her birthday party. They disagree on what color her dress should be, and in the course of their squabble, they forget they aren’t supposed to use magic. They fall into a duel of blue versus pink. Puffs of colored magical smoke rise from the cottage chimney and betray Beauty’s location to the evil fairy Maleficent. Thus, their use of magic has consequences–dangerous ones–to the story.

When writing about magic, the consequences or results may link to the price the user will pay or they may not. But they must connect to the plot by affecting what happens next.

Without that direct connection, magic is simply a prop that will fail to achieve its full dramatic potential and lose what makes it special.

 

 

 

 

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