Tag Archives: writing fiction

From My Bookshelf: Lorna Barrett

Cozy mysteries, anyone? Sometimes it’s good to sit down with a book that’s not moving at a blistering pace with graphic violence and brutal shocks. Sometimes, for me at least, a welcome alternative is a book that can tease my brain without making me feel I’ve walked in the shoes of a sadistic psychopath.

If you haven’t already encountered her, meet Lorna Barrett, aka L. L. Bartlett, aka Lorraine Bartlett, the prolific author of numerous snuggle-in-your-armchair-with-a-good-read novels.

A stroll past the mystery shelves at your local bookstore will yield up a plethora of subgenres: forensic mysteries, classic mysteries, traditional mysteries, historical mysteries, and the cozies. The latter stand out because they’re primarily published by Berkley, with a distinctive cover style and also because they have groaner-pun titles, such as Barrett’s Chapter and Hearse.

Within the cozy subgenre you will find food cozies, antiquing cozies, quilting cozies, thrift shop cozies, knitting cozies, decorating cozies, chocolate cozies, paranormal cozies, home renovation cozies, etc. If a reader has a hobby, there’s a cozy out there that panders to it.

These days, if you want to write a cozy mystery–meaning a small community, numerous quirky characters, and little if any blood–then you need to think series. You also need to create a lively setting as a reappearing character.

Barrett’s pretty good at coming up with interesting settings that hold up across more than one book. Her  cast of characters remain viable from book to book, and sometimes a repeated secondary character becomes the next victim just to put you on your toes. Her story people are distinctive without being so gol-darned quirky they’re too weird for words.

She’s had wonderful, bestselling success with her Booktown series. The tiny community revolves around downtown shops that are nearly all specialty used bookstores. The protagonist Tricia owns a mystery shop–which allows Barrett to throw in mention of current and classic mystery authors in the Carolyn Hart tradition.

Tricia’s sister Angelica owns a cookbook store, along with a lunch eatery. The two sisters have had a rocky sibling relationship in the past, but they’ve patched up many of their differences. Now there’s just enough of the old rivalry to keep up the flavor of conflict as a subplot to Tricia’s investigations.

I like that Tricia does get out and gumshoe. She has no official authority, but she’s curious and suspicious and thoughtful and active. Unlike some of the cozies that feature discovery of a body and then the characters pretty much putter along their everyday lives and chat about the victim from time to time with varying degrees of pity and/or sympathy, Barrett’s protagonist makes a real effort to uncover the culprit.

While I personally prefer the Victoria Square series written under her pseudonym Lorraine Bartlett, that’s primarily because I like its setting better than Booktown. But all her books deliver gentle entertainment that will keep you curious as to whodunnit without giving you nightmares thereafter.

 

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Dreaming of Pink

Well, as if the recent computer-purchase crisis wasn’t enough to send my blood pressure shooting to the moon, guess what?

It’s time to replace my university computer as well.

AHHHHHHHHHH!

Now the trauma truly is much, much less for several reasons:  1) I’m not emotionally attached to the university equipment–well, not much; 2) I have complete and competent IT support; 3) I don’t have to so much as plug in a cable because everything is unboxed, carried to my campus office, set up, and tested for me; and 4) I’m not paying for it.

Can you tell I should have been a princess?

Still, according to that old but trusty writing principle, change is threatening. I’ve really enjoyed my campus laptop. It’s tiny, lightweight, and cute. It’s easier to carry than a heavy briefcase, although I usually end up lugging both to and from my day job. So although Pippin is an Apple and there’s no right-click mouse command, leaving me frequently baffled, I’ve enjoyed it. Replacing it, when it seems perfectly fine, hadn’t crossed my mind.

However, it has to go and because it doesn’t belong to me I shan’t be clinging to it, weeping and pleading, when IT comes to take it away.

After notification came, I consoled myself immediately with the brilliant notion that I would ask for another one exactly like Pippin.

Except there have been changes. Nothing techy is ever left alone. Sigh. So my cute 11″ laptop that I could tuck under my arm is growing to a 13″ version. Which means I’ll have to go shopping for a new case to protect it. It will take up more room on my crowded desk when I bring it home, and New Guy (still officially unnamed) will feel even more cramped in my limited space.

Still, it is what it is. I was asked to look over the options and choose which version I wanted, and I was told there were two colors: “silver” and “space gray.” Woo.

So I was following links and watching the swanky product videos without, however, any delusion that I was conducting real product research, when suddenly there it was … a pink laptop.

Not garish magenta, not baby ballerina, but something luscious and tasteful and faintly metallic called “rose gold.” It is precisely that shade of soft pink with yellow undertones that I most love. Delight exploded in my heart. The world was suddenly a better place.

Now, I am admittedly picky. Finicky. Hard to please. A perfectionist. I am also champion among ditherers. I can agonize endlessly over choices, but that’s always when and because the available choices don’t suit me. But place the right thing in front of me, and BAM! I make a decision instantly.

BAM! I saw “rose gold” and knew immediately it was the color for me. Who said computers have to come in dreary colors? I don’t work in a bank. I’m not trying to reassure anxious customers that I won’t abscond with their life’s savings.

Remember those bright, kicky colors that Apple came out with a few years ago? Vivid blue, bold orange, and … um, maybe hot pink. They were fun and youthful, but then they went away. Presently, one of my graduate students carries a bold red laptop that I think is a Dell. So I know computer color is out there, but it’s so hidden, so oppressed, so hard to find.

With “rose gold” spinning in my mind, I eagerly reread my IT guy’s email. It said firmly, color choices are “silver” or “space gray.”

Bummer.

“Space gray” is dull, dark, dismal, and depressing. Granted, it fits the current color trend of gray, gray, drab, or gray that is our world. Gray cars on the road. Gray paint on our walls. Gray cats on gray sofas. Walk into any Restoration Hardware store and you might well ask yourself, “Does Chairman Mao live here?” When I was a child, I watched TV news images of people in China, all dressed alike in gray. Drab, uniform conformity where no one was allowed to stand out.

What’s with our current besottedness with gray?

Because it’s safe?

Because it’s neutral?

Phooey!

Give me color! Give me imagination, joy, life, spontaneity, and fun! How sad that opting for color costs more these days. An acquaintance of mine waited a week and spent an extra thousand to obtain a commercial van in red because he didn’t want to look like he was driving a utility company truck.

When I was a youngster, I remember my parents buying a car that they special ordered. After specifying all the options for the auto itself, like headlights that opened and electric windows, they sat in the dealership office with huge bundles of cloth samples spread out on the desk, and chose the seat upholstery they wanted. Mom eventually selected burgundy damask. The car proved to be a mechanical dud that the family hated, and the electric windows failed about every two or three weeks, but it looked beautiful. These days–no doubt to cut manufacturing costs–car interiors typically come in dark gray or light gray regardless of the exterior color. Mom’s burgundy upholstery exactly matched the rich burgundy hue of the car’s body paint. Before that vehicle, I think they owned a teal-green car with matching interior. Then there was the red car with the red seats. Oh yes, once upon a time car seats matched car colors. It was great.

But getting back to computers, I have to say that New Guy is pretty dashing (not!) because he’s two-toned: black enlivened by gunmetal gray. So boring. If my printers weren’t white I might run screaming from the desk. As it is, I’m frequently tempted to paint my home office walls red just to wake things up.

Are you thinking, yep there she is wailing about drab colors but she’s afraid to paint her office? Not at all! I’m too lazy to shift two tall wooden filing cabinets, a massive desk, two bookcases, and a long computer table that requires unbolting to move. Not to mention the fabulous solid-maple card catalogue plunked in the middle of the room that took me ages to acquire. But oh someday, when I have hired muscle to help and no book deadline, then look out. My home office is gonna achieve some verve.

Meanwhile, I have put in my official request to the IT guys on campus: “rose gold” please, please, please.

I am dreaming of pink. I am longing for pink.

But I may have to compromise with “silver.”

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Building Urban Fantasy — Part III

When it comes to plotting an urban fantasy story, keep in mind that you need more than just a weirdly cool setting and a character waving around sparkles of hocus-pocus.

Urban fantasy has roots that reach into both horror and film noir. Let’s deal with them separately:

Make It Criminal

Noir means dark and gritty, with shades of gray in the protagonist and shades of gray in the villain. Everyone has a dark past or has made mistakes or has weaknesses. No one is all good or all bad. If you’re still not clear about what noir is, then read the mysteries of Walter Mosley or Raymond Chandler. Watch some of the great film noir classics to get a feel for the flavoring your story needs. I recommend one of the best noir movies ever made–DOUBLE INDEMNITY from 1944. Written by Billy Wilder and Raymond Chandler, the film is based on a James M. Cain novel of the same title. It features an insurance agent seduced by a beautiful woman into helping her murder her husband so she can collect on a life insurance indemnity clause.

In crime plots, if the villain’s identity is known from the beginning and the plot is focused on stopping this individual from continuing evil deeds, then we call this type of story a thriller. And thrillers require lots of action and danger; in other words, chills and thrills.

On the other hand, if the identity of the villain is hidden and if the protagonist is trying to determine the identity of whoever is behind the crimes, then the story is a mystery. That means investigating the situation through the protagonist asking a lot of questions, checking information, thinking, reasoning, and deducing. Mysteries have less dramatized violence than thrillers. Crimes still happen, but off-stage.

Urban fantasies generally feature crime plots. Which is why you need to understand how mysteries and thrillers work if you’re going to write this type of fantasy. The chief difference will be found in the presence of magic and the occult. But there will be criminal activity. There will be a force of evil seeking to gain from those crimes. There will be victims–some deserving of disaster, others innocent. There will be someone determined to end the crimes and save the day, even if it’s only to personally survive.

Whether you shape the story as a mystery or a thriller–and choosing which approach you’ll take will help you determine the events you’ll include–there’s a third option if you feel adventurous. And that is to combine mystery and thriller elements together. Generally in a combo plot, the mystery investigation will come first until the villain is identified in the book’s center. Then the pace will pick up with exciting chases and thrilling fight scenes filling the second half of the story.

 

Bring on the Horror

Besides the crime-centered plot, urban fantasy needs to deliver the atmosphere and mood of horror. To do this, it can feature the following elements drawn from the horror genre:

Shock–This will come through surprises, threats, and/or plot twists.

Atmosphere–There should be a dark, brooding tone, which can be achieved through the setting details and coded language. Can we say Edgar Allen Poe?

Coded language–This means special vocabulary chosen to reflect the desired imagery. It is sometimes known in erudite circles as diction.

Most genres have their own coding, and such language will be familiar to their fans.

Here’s an example of description employing coded language:

Drake flitted from shadow to shadow along the deserted alley. Out in the street, most of the lights had been shot out long ago, leaving vast pools of night undisturbed. Spiky weeds grew through cracked, broken sidewalks. Rusted hulks of abandoned cars–wheels long since stolen–rotted where they’d been left. The air smelled lightly of sulfur.

Do you see how every adjective has been chosen to stick with a dominant image? Do you see how this description is laden with atmosphere and mood?

Is this passage subtle? Nope. Coded language isn’t supposed to be. Just ask Mr. Poe.

Danger–This element should pervade the story. It keeps the tension high and the outcome of the story less certain.

A sense of danger is established if threats to the protagonist or other characters are real. Victims are attacked, injured, and possibly killed. The protagonist is also in harm’s way. If the supernatural villain stays hidden, then its minions are actively attacking the protagonist or those the protagonist cares about.

Gore and violence–These go along with danger and real threats like tomatoes and basil, but generally in urban fantasy they are presented only as an aftermath to violence not shown.

Because urban fantasy isn’t as intense as horror, the gore will usually be presented obliquely through how a victim is found and what’s been done to it. The actual violence isn’t dramatized through scene action while it’s occurring.

In Jim Butcher’s novel, Storm Front, protagonist wizard Harry Dresden is called in by human homicide detectives as a consultant. Two victims have been found in a hotel room, apparently killed by supernatural means. Their chests have been cracked open and their hearts removed.

As a crime scene, it’s dreadful and shocking, but because readers do not see the crime committed in moment-by-moment story action, it is less horrifying than it might otherwise be.

What’s at Stake

The final aspect of urban fantasy that I want to address in this series of posts has to do with the scale of the stories.

In traditional, high, epic fantasy, the whole world may be at risk. Vast armies are often pitted against each other. It is Good (capital letters) versus Evil (capital letters). If the side of Good should fail or be vanquished, DOOM will encompass the world and all will be lost forevermore.

However, in urban fantasy, the scale of the story situation is smaller. A few people are endangered, but not everyone. We have a mostly good (lowercase letters) protagonist versus a pretty bad (lowercase letters) villain.

In other words, the protagonist–perhaps with a few companions or allies–is trying to stop the supernatural menace. If the protagonist should fail, he or she will probably die or be enslaved, but the entire world as we know it won’t end. It’ll just be a bit worse than before.

Lesser stakes than traditional fantasy doesn’t mean a lesser story. After all, the life-or-death struggle of a lone hero against the Houston vampire queen means a tremendous amount to that hero. And readers bonded with that protagonist will care deeply and intensely about what happens.

 

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Building Urban Fantasy–Part II

 

Supernatural Population

A necessary element for urban fantasy is its supernatural population. Certainly the villain is going to be supernatural, but there can be other enemies or allies to the protagonist from the magical or immortal creatures as well. And diversity of supernatural entities adds extra layers to your story.

M.H. Borosin’s novel, THE GIRL WITH GHOST EYES, features a San Francisco Chinatown that’s riddled with demons, ghosts, grotesque creatures, witches, sorcerers, and shapeshifting tigers.

Daniel Jose Older’s book, HALF-RESURRECTION BLUES, is set in New York City’s Puerto Rico district with ghosts and resurrected dead people walking the streets at night.

In JACK THE GIANT KILLER by Charles de Lint, modern-day Canada is populated by leprechauns and boggarts, to name just a few.

Beyond sprinkling supernatural characters into the story world, and beyond the goals of individual characters in primary and secondary roles, how will various supernatural types interact with each other? With humans? What are their societies? What are their customs? What are their special powers? How do they live? What do they wear? Where does their money come from? How are they governed?

Which leads us into the next point of consideration:

 

Politics

So how, exactly, are your supernatural beings organized? Do your were-leopards get along fine with with the vampires? Or are they at war? Or do they maintain territories and an uneasy peace?

Who rules the vampire hive? How many vampire hives, for that matter, are in the city of your choice? Or in the country? Do all vampires get along with each other? That seems unlikely, given that predators generally have trouble in that department. So who controls them? What are the consequences if a vampire breaks the rules?

Is there a fairy queen presiding over a court? What are her laws? Who are her enemies? Her allies? How does she govern the fae? How does she enforce her will over them?

Do all the wizards belong to a union? I can’t see Gandalf joining, but then he’s not a character in an urban story. But with the modern-day settings of urban fantasy, how can wizards fit in and operate within present-day America?

Butcher’s Harry Dresden character advertises in the phone book. He tries to obey human laws as much as practical. He also lives under the strictures of the White Council. And his ethics of confidentiality toward his clients can clash with the demands of the human police department.

Kim Harrison’s Cleveland is divided between the part of the city where humans live and work and the part of the city where the supernaturals are supposed to stay.

If you want to write about vampires, is vampirism legalized? Do vampires have rights of citizenship? Are they allowed to vote? And since they naturally tend to prey on humans, what laws govern that?

Maybe in your world, all supernatural creatures live in US cities illegally, in violation of immigration laws, and have no citizen rights at all. Does Immigration hunt and deport them?

Rules of Magic

Rule #1:  magic comes at a price. It should never be free because then magic makes getting out of difficult plot problems too easy. Story tension dissipates, and your plot will collapse.

Harry Potter can practice magic at Hogwarts, but he is forbidden to use his powers when he’s not at school.

In Robert Jordan’s WHEEL OF TIME series, the male wizards eventually go insane. How’s that for a future?

Rule #2:  magic must be limited. This is for the same reasons as stated in Rule #1. Unlimited use of magic destroys story tension because there can be no uncertainty as to the story’s outcome.

A sure thing kills fiction.

Rule #3:  obey the rules you establish. It’s fun to set up a system of magic at first, but then in the story’s climax when your protagonist is cornered and desperate you may feel tempted to cheat a little and let the protagonist use magic in violation of the rules just this once.

BOO! HISS! CHEAT, CHEAT, CHEAT!

Never fudge your rules to save your plot. That is the completely wrong thing to do.

Instead, you have a couple of options:

*You can rewrite your rules from the story’s beginning and give your hero an escape hatch.

Or

*You can force your protagonist to pay the price that magic requires.

The second choice is terrible and difficult. It may upset you. Certainly it will be tough on your character. But it will leave you with a stronger, more complex story. Isn’t that a good thing?

Rule #4:  magic and its use should have consequences and repercussions. Maybe this should be discussed under Rule #1, but the point here is that magic shouldn’t be thrown casually into a story without consideration of how it will affect the plot’s unfolding, the characters involved, and even everyday life.

I’m thinking of the old television show BEWITCHED, where the beautiful witch Samantha promised her human husband that she would not use magic in their home. So these sit-com plots would revolve around some domestic crisis, where she would wrestle with trying to use a human solution for a while and then she might wriggle her nose and use magic to solve it instead. Samantha always meant well and tried to honor her promise, but audiences were aware of her inner struggle and determination to go against her natural proclivities. However, it’s like leaving a dish of raw hamburger out on your kitchen counter and expecting the cat to ignore it when no one’s at home.

In the classic film comedy, I MARRIED A WITCH (starring Frederic March and Veronica Lake), the witch Jennifer is much less ethical. But her evil plan backfires and she becomes the victim of her own potion.

In the next post, I’ll continue with plotting.

 

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Building Urban Fantasy–Part I

Ready to construct the fantastical, the supernatural, and the magical?

Come with me as I list numerous elements that go into the creation of this subgenre. There’s no particular order to determining them. Whatever works for you and your imagination is fine.

 

Protagonist

Usually this character is mortal or human. The protagonist may possess some magical powers or be partially supernatural–think of Percy Jackson, demi-god, in Rick Riordan’s The Lightning Thief. The protagonist is often less powerful magically than the supernatural creatures he or she is dealing with.

The point is that whatever the protagonist is, or whatever the protagonist can do, he or she has to be vulnerable. In other words, capable of being killed.

Often, the protagonist is a hunter–e.g. Jim Butcher’s Harry Dresden is a wizard private investigator; Kim Harrison’s witch protagonist is a bounty hunter. Such occupations give the protagonist license to track and pursue rogue supernatural baddies.

Of course, sometimes the protagonist is involved through proximity and sympathy for a supernatural group. For example, in Patricia Briggs’s novels, the protagonist Mercy is a car mechanic who also happens to be a shapeshifter. Her other form is a coyote. Because of that, she is acquainted with several werewolves living in her community and sympathetic to them. As a coyote, she is no threat to the wolves, which also helps them accept her friendship and assistance when needed.

 

Villain

Let’s not be sensitive or PC about this. I’m not going to be nice and call this role the antagonist, as I do so often in my writing posts. In this genre, we need a villain, a foe that’s seriously, seriously bad beyond the bone.

Now, urban fantasy will often serve up antagonists for the hero to contend with in addition to the true bad guy, but there must always be a dangerous, nasty, evil, supernatural villain causing the primary trouble.

Because the villain is supernatural, this character possesses the advantages of possible immortality, very dangerous powers, and a lot of magical strength.

It’s important for the hero and villain to be unevenly matched–at least on the surface or initially. Give the advantage to the villain. Otherwise, what’s the danger for the protagonist?

City

If urban fantasy was going to take place in a meadow, why would it be called urban? Okay, goes without saying but I said it anyway.

While occasionally I encounter a modern fantasy located in the suburbs or a small town, for true urban fantasy the setting needs to be a large city. The larger it is, the more diverse its population will be, which lends itself to more types of conflict and trouble as cultures, goals, and misunderstandings collide.

The city needs to be old enough or financially stressed enough that it has some ghetto flavor, some inner-city decay, a collapsing infrastructure, and a lot of crime. This is much more useful for story purposes than a city that’s clean, renewed, bright, and upbeat.

Know Your Town

It’s one thing to pick a city by closing your eyes and pointing at a map, and another thing to know it well enough to present it as a character in your story. Because the setting matters. It will play a large role. It will color the plot and affect the cast. It will influence the tone you achieve.

So you have to know it, understand the pulse of it. You should know it well, or at least have visited it more than once.

Never pick a city that you’ve encountered only through film or television because you’ll never get the details right. Hollywood is notorious for shifting streets and combining landmarks to suit a director’s vision. Remember the films that supposedly take place in New York City but feature a Canadian skyline?

Even if you choose a setting that you’re very familiar with, do you know the inner city, the derelict dangerous parts of it? Do you know where the tenements are? Rusting, abandoned train tracks? Empty factories abandoned when labor went off-shore? I’m not suggesting that you venture into physically dangerous places where you might come to harm, but research them. Look at photos of them. Talk to the public information officers at your police station about the problematic areas and ask questions. Find safe ways to glean the details you need. They will bring your setting to life on the page.

I will continue with more elements in my next post.

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Story Genius: Agatha Christie and Billy Wilder

As many of you know, I’m a rabid old-movie buff. This week was exciting because I showed my students a 1957 courtroom thriller called WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION. Based on a play by Agatha Christie, the idea was subsequently translated to the screen by genius writer/director/producer Billy Wilder. Christie supplied the plot and the dynamite twists; Wilder fleshed out her characters. (I think I read somewhere that Christie was paid about $450,000 for the film rights. Not bad in 1950s-era money! Even today’s money would do.)

Over the years, whenever I have coached students wanting to write a courtroom drama, nine times out of ten they make the same mistake:  they establish the defendant as their protagonist. In theory, this should work. After all, the protagonist is supposed to have the most at stake and be at the heart of the story.

Well, the defendant has the most at stake, but otherwise is stuck passively in a jail cell, unable to drive the story action. Therefore, the defendant can not be an effective protagonist.

In WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION, the protagonist is Sir Wilfrid, an experienced and wily defense barrister considered to be the best in the Old Bailey, but he is recovering from a serious heart attack and his health remains uncertain. His doctors have forbidden him to conduct any more defense trials, yet he cannot resist taking on the case of Leonard Vole who has been accused of murder on circumstantial evidence.

Wilder, directing the film, is smart enough to take his time. We don’t meet the accused, Vole, right away. Instead, Sir Wilfrid is introduced first and shown pitted against his nurse who is determined to make him follow doctor’s orders to take it easy, get plenty of rest, and avoid cigars and brandy. Their conflict starts in the first movie frame and continues to arc over the entire duration of the movie. And that arc about whether Sir Wilfrid will achieve his goal of resuming his trial career is the spine of the story. The primary subplot centers on the trial itself and attempts to gather sufficient evidence to exonerate Sir Wilfrid’s client. And although the trial is gripping–not to mention twisty, thanks to the devious imagination of Dame Agatha–it is the characters that make this film stand out.

Therefore, it is these characters that I use as classroom examples of design, introduction, and revelation of true nature. They have vivid and distinctive entry actions, usually in plot conflict or in dramatic contradiction to audience expectation. They wave numerous distinctive tags–e.g. the nurse Miss Plimsoll in her uniform, carrying her small medical bag, wielding her syringe for Sir Wilfrid’s calcium injections; and Sir Wilfrid’s monocle, his wig, his thermos of coco, his pills, and his cigars. Each of them with possibly the exception of the murder victim is designed with complexity. True nature is revealed and concealed in various ways. At first we think of Sir Wilfrid as a sick old man long past his prime, even a bit of a mischievous buffoon who is rude and unnecessarily gruff, but then we learn how intelligent, how clever, how determined to save his client, how wily, and how caring he is. The characters’ clashing goals and motivations bring all of them to life.

Although several characters are introduced through characteristic entry action, some are brought in differently. One such alternative method is through discussion, whereby two characters are talking about a third character about to appear in the story for the first time. The introduction of the defendant’s wife is done through character discussion. Sir Wilfrid, before meeting her, makes an assumption about her that proves to be entirely erroneous the moment she first appears. His mistake emphasizes our dominant impression of her vividly and unforgettably.

The mystery clues are planted through dialogue and character behavior. In watching the film for the first time, you sense something is off and yet you find yourself doubting your judgment. Is it the actor’s performance? Is the character lying? What’s wrong? As Sir Wilfrid says in frustration, “It’s too symmetrical. Something is wrong, but I can’t put my finger on it!”

I love how the plot is put together. There is comedy and broad exaggeration. There is audience manipulation. There is the buildup of anticipation and the creation of suspense. The two ticking clocks–Sir Wilfrid’s worsening health and the trial’s verdict–keep your attention hooked to the finale. Even the flashback–always a risk to pacing–works beautifully in planting more clues and pointing to motivations.

I don’t know how many times I’ve watched this film. I don’t care, because every time I am struck anew with how well-written it is, how well-plotted and paced it is, how well-acted it is, and how well-directed it is without any reliance on fancy-schmancy special effects. The sets are limited and very tight–reflecting its origins as a play. I’ve read a modern-day review that pokes a hole in the storyline, criticizing it for allowing Vole to exclaim and interrupt during the trial, but I don’t know enough about British courtroom procedures in the 1950s to understand if this is a valid criticism or not. All I perceive as a writer is that Vole’s comments serve a specific plot purpose, and from that restricted perspective they work.

Beyond my enjoyment of the movie’s skillfully employed techniques, I love the reactions of my students. At first they’re delighted to watch a movie in class instead of sitting through a dull lecture. But then they realize it’s an old movie. Even worse, it’s in black and white. They’ve never heard of any of the actors–Charles Laughton, Marlene Dietrich, Tyrone Power, Elsa Lanchester–and the cars are weird, the clothes are weird, the setting is a London from an era they don’t recognize so it’s also weird. I watch them stiffen in their seats, rolling their eyes and sighing a little. The movie starts with the comedic bit they find cheesy. I can feel them wishing they could ditch class and check their text messages. I know they’re wondering how long this torture will take.

(This time, one brash young man actually asked me if we were going to watch the whole movie. “Yes,” I replied firmly. “You have to stay with it to the end.”)

And then, as always, there comes that moment when I sense a change in the room. The silent intensity in the class tells me they’re absorbed. I know the movie has grabbed my young students by their throats. They are captured by the story question. They want to know what will happen and how it will turn out. And that capture has nothing to do with technicolor, a soaring soundtrack, special effects, wild stunts, exploding buildings, or CGI. It has everything to do with plot and characters–with story.

And that is what writing should be about.

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Yearn and Burn

Character emotions bring fiction to life.

You can have a well-designed, logical, plausible plot and characters that look good in the abstract with useful backgrounds, skills, capabilities, and personality traits, but without injecting emotions into their reactions, they will remain as lifeless as ventriloquist dummies latched inside carry cases.

Here’s an example:

Jane looked up at him. “Bob, I’m sorry, but we can’t see each other anymore. My husband is growing suspicious. I can’t risk him finding out about us.”

Bob sighed and nodded. “I guess you’re right. I don’t like it, but I understand. I’ll never forget you though. Believe that.”

They hugged, and Bob watched her walk away.

Flat, isn’t it?

Or are you thinking that maybe this example just needs some context. Maybe if we’d read all that had happened between the couple up to this point, we’d know what Bob was feeling.

Perhaps. Perhaps not.

If a writer can flatten the breakup of a so-called passionate love affair to this extent, probably every encounter between this robo-couple will be equally ho-hum.

The only indication readers have that Bob experiences any feelings whatsoever comes through his sigh. And that sigh is too vague. It doesn’t convey whether he’s sad, relieved, miserable, exasperated, frustrated, or just clearing his throat.

Without emotional reaction to what’s happening in the story, Bob is boring. His lack of response and unfeeling acceptance trivializes what could be a strong, poignant moment.

What are the stakes for Bob? Is he devastated at losing Jane? Is she the love of his life? Is he afraid for her to return to her husband and desperate to persuade her to change her mind? Does he fear for her safety? Does he yearn to protect her? Does he burn to cherish her? Is he terrified of never seeing her again?

Or is Bob furious that she now wants to go back to her husband? Is he swept with jealousy and angry at the time and money he’s spent on her? Does he feel used and discarded?

Is Bob’s love about to morph into hatred?

From the passage above, we don’t know anything. And when the viewpoint character fails to feel, readers assume that the plot problem isn’t as important as it first appeared because the character didn’t react to it.

No character reaction = no importance.

Is that the effect you want? I hope not. Because why would you want to write about–much less design a scene around–something that’s unimportant or trivial?

Here are a few things that are awful about dealing with character emotions, at least from the writer’s perspective:

*They’re messy.

*They’re challenging to write.

*They’re exhausting.

*They’re hard to do well.

Many writers would rather dodge the whole business, but I’ve already explained the pitfalls of doing so. Your stories need characters, not automatons.

When I encounter a wannabe writer whining about the drawbacks of injecting emotions into characters, my response always boils down to a so what?

Never let yourself be dissuaded by how difficult some aspect of writing is. The degree of challenge you face is probably an indicator of how vital and necessary to your story that element will become.

Once writers grasp the necessity of including emotions, another area where they can stumble is by not writing them with sufficient intensity.

Try this:

Jane looked up at him. Tears swam in her eyes. “I’m sorry, but I can’t see you anymore. My husband is growing suspicious. I can’t risk him finding out about us.”

Bob sighed, feeling miserable, and nodded. “I guess you’re right. I don’t like it, but I understand. I’ll never forget you though. Believe that.”

Well, we’ve got emotion in our example now–from Jane the non-viewpoint character who is about to cry–and from Bob whom we’re told feels miserable. Won’t that do?

It’s better than nothing, but it’s too tepid. If the stakes are high enough for the moment to be dramatized, then make it compelling. Push those emotions past your comfort zone.

Does this mean you must create hysterical, histrionic, over-the-top characters? Does this mean you have to write the way William Shatner acts?

Uh … why not? Shatner knows how to deliver a quiet, nuanced, restrained performance, but doing so hasn’t kept him working all these years.

Okay, your characters don’t have to be hysterical and histrionic, but they need to be E-X-A-G-G-E-R-A-T-E-D. And if exaggeration puts them over the top, so let it be written; so let it be done. You can always tone down the draft later in revision if it’s too much. But in rough draft, push the emotions until you flinch. Then push them some more.

Let’s try one more time:

Jane looked up at him. Tears swam in her eyes. “I’m sorry, but I can’t see you anymore.”

“Wait! What? Darling, what are you saying?”

“I mean it. My husband is growing suspicious. You know I can’t risk him finding out about us.”

A sour, sick taste flooded Bob’s mouth. He curled his fists, wanting to drive down to the coffee shop and pound Eric Rankin to a pulp for what he’d put Jane through all these years. Still, for Jane’s sake, Bob tried to rein everything in. His stomach burned from the effort. It took all he had to speak normally, calmly. “I’d like for him to find out. I want him to know. Let me take you away. I can keep you safe from him. You know I can.”

Well, well. Look what’s happened to Bob. When I intensified his emotions, he came alive, and suddenly he has an ulcer, something of a violent temper, and he isn’t meekly agreeing with Jane’s decision. Instead, he’s arguing with her. He’s showing her (and readers) that he cares.

And maybe readers will start to care also.

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