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Setting & Research

Research is necessary for any successful setting although it can also be a quagmire from which the unwary writer may never emerge. While it’s tempting to use only invented settings or to confine your stories to a few locations that you feel you know well, this type of restriction may not be what’s best for your story. Furthermore, research–despite its potential hazards–shouldn’t be avoided.

In this post, I want to divide setting research into two main areas: actual locations and imaginary locations. Let’s deal with them separately.

Actual locations can be split further into actual contemporary settings and actual historical settings. You may think a contemporary setting is easy and needs no fact checks, but never assume your knowledge is correct or sufficiently thorough. Check and recheck your details. Get them right, and don’t hesitate to visit a street, neighborhood, or district just to look it over with a fresh perspective. Think about how your protagonist or viewpoint character might perceive the area. What would this character notice?

Above all, avoid doing your research by watching television. What looks good enough to “work” for television isn’t necessarily accurate. Prop masters on motion-picture sets have been known to attach the blade from one type of sword to the hilt of a different kind of sword just because it “looks better” onscreen.

Don’t fear to ask questions. People love it when you show interest in where they live or what they do. They’re flattered and usually eager to help. Before the existence of the Internet, a writer friend of mine once set a novel on a remote chain of largely unpopulated islands. She needed to describe the sound of the surf as the tide came in, and she finally called a weather research station on the island, explained what she was doing and what she needed, and then gained the assistance of the staff as they opened windows and held the phone receiver outside so she could “listen.”

Historical settings are dangerous in that researching them can lead you down a rabbit hole to infinity. Sometimes writers avoid doing any actual writing because they feel they should research every detail first. Before you know it, you’ve missed a deadline or you’re revising your plot outline in some weird way to fit a setting quirk that you think needs including. I love history. I love researching. I love details. I love discoveries. I’ve written many novels with historical or quasi-historical settings. Once I skewed my plot to include a piece of research that I found too cool to ignore. Let’s just say that after an uncomfortable conversation with my literary agent where he took me to task for those unnecessary 17,000 words and I subsequently missed a week’s vacation while I deleted them, I have not repeated that mistake.

Early in my career, I was given an invaluable piece of advice. It was to plot first and write the rough draft, and then do the research. That’s because you will know exactly what you should check. Because I have written so many historicals, I have amended that approach to doing minimal upfront research to make sure my plot outline is plausible and feasible. Then I write the rough draft and then I double-check my facts. This way, I’m not sucked into any black holes of no return. I keep the information under control. I don’t waste time exploring the bucolic delights of Welsh sheep country when all I need are two Welsh character names.

Imaginary locations are not an automatic free pass from doing any fact checking at all. Even if you’re creating a wholly invented world in a futuristic fantasy, you must still be plausible. That means as you construct your story world with its terrain, climate, cultures, societies, economies, government, level of civilization, and everyday life you must make sure all the details fit feasibly together.

If you’re creating an imaginary small town located northwest of an actual metropolis, you still need to know the distance they are from each other, whether the metropolis will be utilized or referred to, plus the climate, the smells, sounds, cultures, and populace of your made-up community. I have lived in small communities adjacent to big cities. I know what it’s like to need a part for repairs or an item from a store and be told it’s not in stock and I’ll have to get it from Big Town. I know what it’s like to live a hundred miles or more from the nearest city and how neighbors shun any suggestion of visiting the city because “it’s a whole different world.” Or, “we don’t understand people that live way up there at that end of the state.” I also find that the inhabitants of some major cities can occasionally be as insular and provincial as the folks in small towns.

Remember that your invented community isn’t isolated and should relate to what part of what state it’s located in.

If you choose instead to situate your story in an actual place but you want to invent only a street or neighborhood, then you’re running the risk of confusing readers and being misunderstood. People tend to plunge into books, eager to get into a story, without bothering to notice that it’s set, for example, in 1920s Bombay, India, or 1960s Detroit. They miss all the cues. They don’t read the back cover blurb, and they hit some statement or behavior in the story that throws them, jolts them, or confuses them. They tend to conclude that you, dear writer, haven’t done your research and don’t know this setting at all.

Unfair?

Yes!

Unnecessary and avoidable?

Yes!

Even if you write a paragraph of explanation inserted on the first page that tells readers this is an invented district, chances are some won’t see it.

My advice is either to use entirely accurate information in an actual locale or move to an entirely invented place near an actual locale.

Whatever you do, don’t settle for generic vagueness in which the backdrop is as lively as motel-room decor and could take place anywhere, anytime, and for any reason.

And finally, writers are constantly told to write about what they know. That advice–while absolutely sound–doesn’t mean you can’t use a location you’ve never visited or or that you can’t invent a backdrop entirely. You know a place through learning about it, observing it, talking to others who’ve been to it, running a Google search for images, and going there. If you can’t be there physically, at least travel there in your imagination.

By imagination, I don’t mean you invent or ignore details about an actual setting. Instead, you should mull over your research, think through all the details you’ve gathered, ask questions, and dig deeper. Remember that as you write a manuscript you’ll be checking your setting during prep, during the writing, and during revision. Also, be aware that no matter how much work you do, how many questions of the locals you ask, and how hard you try, it’s possible you can still get some niggling detail wrong. In that case, you apologize, shrug it off, avoid reading the irate reader review on Amazon, and do better next time.

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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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Setting and Character

The locale of a story should affect character design in how that character interacts with the setting or how this individual has been shaped by the place.

Setting isn’t separate from your other story elements. It’s not just a piece of scenery relegated to the background. Instead, it should be an inherent part of the situation and plot problem. After all, if your characters seem oblivious to their location, why did you choose it? Why not let it instead work for you and the needs of your story?

By all of this, I don’t mean you have to inject a raging typhoon into your plot scenario, but if–for example–you strand your characters in a life raft bobbing on the Pacific Ocean, what individual impact does that setting have on each of them?

Is your protagonist comfortable with the backdrop you’ve chosen? Is this person an intrinsic part of the locale? Does the hero know the lay of the land or the city streets? Is he or she prepared to handle things? Can this individual stay calm and competent in dealing with trouble? Will it be possible to maneuver without becoming lost? If so, then you as the writer will be plotting externally. Complications and story problems will be generated by other characters with whom the hero is in conflict.

On the other hand, if your protagonist is a fish out of water, then that person’s unfamiliarity with the setting can inject additional danger, misunderstandings, or even comedy into your story beyond what oppositional characters will bring. It enables you to present setting details to readers as your hero discovers them. This process of ongoing discovery and observation can allow you to avoid awkward information dumps that might otherwise stall story progress.

As an example, let’s consider the vintage film, Crocodile Dundee. It begins in the Australian outback, where civilization is basic and the setting is full of natural dangers. Dundee is an intrinsic part of the setting. He’s comfortable with poisonous snakes and vicious crocodiles. He knows how to survive in the brush. The girl, however, is a fish out of water. She’s in physical danger constantly because she doesn’t know the pitfalls to watch for and avoid. Halfway through the film, however, the setting shifts to New York City. Now the girl is comfortable with her urban setting, but Dundee becomes the fish out of water. His bewilderment and subsequent solutions inject comedy into the story. I might add that he adapts very quickly to his new environment–thus characterizing himself further.

Let’s also think about how a character is shaped by the place where she grew up. Let’s say she was kept isolated from others, home schooled, and lived on a remote sheep ranch in New Zealand. Those factors will affect in turn her personality, behavior, and reactions. She may be very self-reliant, independent, and resourceful. She may feel uneasy in social situations, avoid parties or crowds of people, and be a difficult co-worker. Conversely, she may move to the other extreme by seeking city life and parties. She may be a profligate spender to compensate for all the things she thinks she missed while growing up.

Children of military parents learn they’ll be uprooted every year or two. They aren’t going to form deep, close-knit friendships at school, but they may become gregarious and socialized enough to make friends anywhere. They can become highly adaptable people, or they may hate the constant moving and never feel like they belong.

If a character currently lives in a harsh desert climate, then does he ignore his environment by planting a lush lawn similar to what he knew in a different part of the world and irrigating it? Does he run an air conditioner lavishly? Or does he work with his setting by staying indoors during the hottest part of the day, never driving anywhere without a thermos of water, closing the house during the day and opening all the windows at night when the air is cooler, and foregoing a lawn? Such details alone don’t make a story, but if–for example–the plot deals with a runaway senior citizen suffering from dementia who has wandered into the brush away from all roads, then a desert-savvy protagonist will know to start the search at dawn, to find tracks in the sand and follow them, to carry plenty of water and a weapon in case he encounters rabid wildlife, and that he must find Granny before the intense noonday heat gives her sunstroke or she becomes dangerously dehydrated. The search alone is pitting man against the adversity of nature. Adversity alone doesn’t make a compelling novel. But if you add the brother that typically ignores desert conditions as stated above but who insists on joining the search, now your story can run on the conflict between brothers as one grimly notes how time is running out while the other complains constantly, slows down the hunt by doing the wrong things, and drinks all the water in their canteens.

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Setting and Plot

If you’re thinking you can plunk your action scene in any old gritty dark alley in Generic City, USA, then you’re shortchanging the dramatic potential of your story. For one thing, there are no generic cities in America–or anywhere else in the world. (I would love to plunge into the character of European cities, for example, but for the purposes of this post, I’m going to focus on the US.) Each major metropolis has its own unique vibe, character, and tempo whether it’s a planned retirement community in Miami, where the condos are sleek, modern, too manicured to look real, and the inhabitants wear Bermuda shorts and sweaters tied around their necks, or winding narrow streets and back ways in Baltimore, or avenues of abandoned old mansions in Detroit. Yes, there are elements common to nearly all large cities, but the atmospheres of New York City, Ft. Worth, and St. Louis are far from identical. What could be more divergent than New Orleans, El Paso, and San Diego? Are you dodging the selection of a big city because you don’t want to do the research? If so, why choose a location you don’t know?

Let’s move on to the dark alley as a scene locale:

While not all real alleys are dark–or even gloomy–writers of many genres find them to be practical places for various sorts of nefarious activities and/or danger. If you haven’t ventured into an alley lately, try it. Even in broad daylight, an alley can have a decidedly creepy, abandoned, utilitarian vibe that makes you feel surreptitious, as though you shouldn’t be there. Darkness, naturally, adds to dramatic tension and helps build suspense. After all, darkness hinders the physical sense of sight, which humans depend on. Darkness triggers primitive survival instincts. Darkness offers crime the opportunity to flourish. Therefore, alleys–both creepy and dark–are infinitely useful to fiction writers.

I am not taking dark alleys away from you. Instead, for this post, I want you to reason through an impulse to use a dark alley. We’ll take it one step at a time:

Why is this alley dark? Is it just because alleys are always dark and spooky? Or is it because Vinny the Villain is laying a trap and has shot out all the mercury vapor lights on the backs of the buildings? Aha, it’s a trap. Okay, good. Now we understand that Vinny is luring someone there. Why? For revenge? For a shakedown? For a kidnapping?

More importantly, who is Vinny after? The protagonist, perhaps? Is Vinny planning to ambush Henry Hero? What if Vinny is instead after Lucy Love, the light of Henry’s life?

What, specifically, is Vinny’s objective here, and what else besides breaking the lights has he done in preparation for his trap? Are henchmen or minions scattered around to put the odds in Vinny’s favor? Will Vinny be helped or hindered by the darkness? Will the confrontation go as planned? What if it doesn’t?

Such questions as these are designed to guide you through plotting in a logical and cohesive way. They serve to help you shape plot and visualize what your characters might encounter as they move into confrontations with each other. By mulling over questions like these, liking some of them and discarding others, you’re systematically planning your story instead of just jumping impulsively from one character action to another.

I have some additional questions:

Firstly, why this particular alley? A big city has many, so why choose this one? Did Vinny select it because of its proximity to the location where Henry Hero is expected to be? Or does he like it because it’s a dead end and Henry can be trapped into a shootout? Maybe, instead, this alley cuts through an area and provides a shortcut? No, wait. If Vinny is planning an ambush, then a shortcut doesn’t fit story needs. On the other hand, if Vinny is planning a shakedown instead of an assassination, then maybe an alley that goes somewhere is best for his purposes.

Plotting, you see, is always about making choices and weighing options that are in line with each other. Plotting is not really about plunking your characters into a bland, one-size-fits-all location and forcing them into haphazard confrontation.

Let’s ask some more questions:

What else is present in this metropolitan alley? Remember that alleys in Smalltown are different from those in Metropolis. Some alleys in Smalltown will be unpaved, muddy, full of broken glass. In Metropolis, some are designed to give people parking spaces off the street. Others are for the use of delivery or garbage trucks, so these byways are often filled with litter and feature Dumpsters and recycling receptacles, loading docks, ramps, and utility doors.

Do homeless people shelter in this alley? If so, what types of detritus, cardboard-box sleeping quarters, and trash are scattered around? Are there narrow side yards containing guard dogs that will snarl, bite, and bark? Are there security cameras? What does this alley look and smell like? Are there rats?

Okay, maybe my questions are starting to overwhelm you. You’re thinking I go way overboard with too many questions and details. But my alley is coming to life. It’s becoming vivid in my imagination. How’s your generic one doing?

Maybe you don’t want to deal with Vinny the Villain at all. Maybe you just need a corpse found in a dark alley so you can insert a crime scene into your story. No problem! Let’s consider this body and where it’s been dumped.

How did it end up in this alley? Was the victim killed here, or was the victim murdered elsewhere and brought to this place? If the latter, how was the body transported? What forensic evidence will be left? Were there any witnesses? If you’re writing about Smalltown and it’s a graveled alley where the trash cans are kept at the back of people’s yards, does anyone’s dog bark? Is the killer seen by a teenage girl sneaking into her house long after curfew? If your story is in Metropolis, is the killer observed by a homeless man? And if that scenario has worn too thin for you, is the killer seen by a well-dressed couple out walking after going to the theater? After all, in NYC’s Broadway district, that’s when cabs are hard to get. In San Diego, the couple might be walking because it’s a beautiful evening and they want to watch the moon shining over the bay.

Why was this particular alley chosen as a dumping point for the body, as opposed to any other alley in the community? Please don’t tell me it was just random, and the villain didn’t plan anything. Because if so, then why wasn’t the murder planned? And if not planned, what are the consequences for the killer who now must weigh options or else be caught immediately?

The more you think through the details involved in where your story action takes place, the more specific and non-generic you’ll be. The more specific you are, the more believable your setting becomes. And the more vivid and plausible your setting, the more your story comes alive.

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Plot Progression–Part 1

The second Swamp Survival Strategy is a lengthy one that will take more than one post to cover.

It deals with how to fill the central portion of a book manuscript by making things harder for the protagonist. Ending scenes always with setbacks/hooks is one way to tackle this, but a writer should have more methods than that to use.

When you complicate your story progressively, you should be generating increasing amounts of conflict for your protagonist through stronger and stronger forces of antagonism.

Each clash of conflict between the protagonist and antagonist should create points of no return.

For example, many novels open with a drastic change in the protagonist’s circumstances–some kind of change with consequences impossible to ignore. Although it’s human nature to resist change, fiction is all about forcing the protagonist to do exactly that.

Typically, your protagonist will take at first a conservative approach toward attempting to solve the story problem. That minimal action will, however, stir up opposition. They clash, and the protagonist’s cautious attempt fails. In effect, this is a point of no return because minimal effort will not work.

Realizing that minor actions must be abandoned, the protagonist gathers fresh determination and takes a new, somewhat more difficult course of action to solve the story problem.

This effort is met immediately with direct opposition and antagonism. It fails. Once more, we have a point of no return because neither minimal nor moderate effort has worked.

With risks increasing and circumstances worsening, the protagonist should be more desperate now and willing to take a bigger, more dangerous attempt–one that’s risky, dangerous, with more at stake, and harder to achieve. But once more, antagonism is there pushing back and thwarting this attempt also. Again, it’s a point of no return because extreme effort has not been successful.

These progressive, incremental attempts and setbacks show how plot progressively escalates. The harder the protagonist tries, the stronger the opposition becomes. That means the scene setbacks grow harsher, and the stakes go higher.

From the beginning to the ending, each story event should top the ones that occurred before it. Make sure you don’t lessen the problems besetting your protagonist. Find plausible ways to make the difficulties worse. The central antagonist wants to win at any cost and will not back off.

In the dismal swampy middle of a story, when it’s easy to bog down or lose your way, you may find that your story conflict is circling or stalling, rather than moving forward. If that’s happening, look at whether you’ve been building progressions or letting your story slow and falter.

Are you protecting your protagonist? Are you holding back this lead character from new or worsening trouble? It’s natural to want to safeguard your favorite story person, but you must not do it. Let the trouble roll forward. Imagine what your protagonist most fears or dreads. By the middle of the book, you should bring your protagonist face to face with that fear. It won’t be conquered in the mid-section of the story, but it should appear as a sort of preview. Doing so will raise the stakes higher also because readers know and expect this psychological issue to be dealt with fully at the climax.

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Swamp Survival Strategy #1: Juggling Plates

Here in the Professional Writing curriculum at the University of Oklahoma, we call this particular writing technique juggling plates after the type of juggling act involving spinning plates. We define a “plate” as a tiny question designed to pique reader curiosity or make readers worry. Plates are small bits of trouble or potential trouble for the characters.

If you examine published copy–choosing, say, a book chapter or even a scene–and comb through the sentences, chances are you’ll find many tiny little hooks or questions thrown into the narrative and dialogue.

The whisper of furtive footsteps came from behind Polly Protagonist. Was someone following her? Why hadn’t she noticed before? Who was it?

If she looks over her shoulder and recognizes the individual coming up behind her, the plate is said to have been brought down–i.e. the question it raised is answered.

If she looks over her shoulder and doesn’t recognize the individual coming up behind her, she may stop and confront the person, thus discovering identity and bringing down the plate.

She may decide not to look back. She may decide to look back but evade a confrontation by abruptly running across the street and catching a bus.

When a plate is brought down, new ones should be raised to replace it. Liken it to sprinkling a trail of breadcrumbs along a low wall to entice a wild bird to land and peck at the treat. We spin plates to entice readers to keep turning pages while we introduce characters or set up scenes of confrontation or have our viewpoint character mull over the story problem.

Plates are spinning usually from the opening pages of a story. Chances are, even if you’ve never heard of this technique before, you’re probably using it instinctively to some extent. After all, we can’t plop a single major story question in front of readers and expect them to concentrate on that alone for the duration of the plot. Instead, we remind them of the big question from time to time and then spin plates between setting chapter-ending hooks and chapter-opening hooks and raising the stakes and escalating the conflict.

Besides the curiosity that plates provoke, they also serve to generate anticipation in readers. Like an actual juggling act, plates are raised and lowered, spun again just as they’re about to wobble off their pole, but in no particular pattern that could become predictable and monotonous. As a result, readers never know when they’re going to find out something or when new little issues to worry about will appear.

While it would be fun to just keep raising plates and plates and more plates, writers have the responsibility of playing fair with readers. That means we can’t spin infinite numbers of these tiny questions without answering them. Each and every one has to be brought down at some point and not all at once.

Some plates get repeated to keep readers guessing and hold them in suspense. If, after you complete the rough draft of your story, you find that some plates were forgotten or never answered, address that or delete them completely.

Now, I introduced this technique as a middle-of-the-book strategy to keep the story from slowing down and becoming a soggy mess. While plates start spinning from the beginning of the plot, it’s advisable to answer the longest-spinning ones in the book’s second act. Immediately raise new ones and add more. A book’s midsection should be filled with new information, new questions, new suspicions, new worries, and lots of suspense.

In my next post, I’ll continue with Swamp Survival Strategy #2.

(Notice I didn’t mention what it is in the above sentence. See how I just spun a plate to make you wonder?)

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Swamp Strategies

I was driving recently atop a levee built to contain swamp land. It’s spring. The rains are falling in drizzles and torrents. The rivers and lakes are swelling, backing extra water into sludgy swampy places where varmints like snakes and alligators await the unwary who dare venture there.

Sounds fanciful, right? Well, the man who taught me most of the writing craft I know–Jack Bickham–had an apt term for what fancy book writers now tend to call the second act. Jack called it the “Great Swampy Middle.” In my books on writing craft, I refer to it as the “Dark Dismal Middle.” Neither term makes it sound appealing, but they are–I think–apt descriptors.

It’s the longest section of a book manuscript. It’s possibly the most challenging segment to write. It’s where a writer can become lost, flounder, and sometimes sink. It’s the perfect portion of a story to release plot twists that Jack used to call “alligators.”

Although ideally a novel should start in an intriguing or exciting way, escalate strategically through increasing trouble and conflict, and wind up the story problem in a smashing climax, all of that is easier said than done. Once the thrilling opening of your story loses momentum and you reach that section of your plot outline where everything becomes vague because you hoped you’d be inspired by the time you got there, it’s not uncommon to find yourself in a slump. The story’s not so fun anymore. It can seem bewildering and endless. It can become a flat, dull slog. Savvy writers equip themselves with multiple techniques of the writing craft to fend off such problems.

So in this blog series, I want to address what I call Seven Swamp Survival Strategies. They are as follows:

  1. Juggle plates
  2. Check plot progression
  3. Introduce subplots
  4. Use multiple viewpoints
  5. Execute a large or pivotal central story event
  6. Heighten plot suspense
  7. Reveal hidden and back story

They’re by no means all a writer can utilize to keep the middle from sagging or stalling, but in my career I have found them to be effective and useful. I’ll be explaining them one by one in the posts to come.

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Contradictions

My official stance on editing as you write your rough draft is don’t do it. I always say, keep going and don’t second-guess yourself until you’ve completed the draft.

Yet, how do you follow that sweeping advice if you honestly don’t know what you’re doing? What if you’ve never written fiction before, or are tackling your first novel? It’s like being trapped in a fun-house, with dead ends, distorted mirrors, and wobbly floors. Just as you think you see the path ahead of you in whatever scene you’re going to write next, the dialogue falls apart, or it doesn’t go as planned, or you hate it. How are you supposed to keep going while the whole structure of your premise is crumbling around you?

It’s next to impossible.

However, if you began your story with an ending in mind, you should keep floundering forward. You may have to rewrite certain passages or redesign certain scenes because your first effort flopped and the artist inside you is howling with frustration. But rewrite that troublesome character conversation once or twice and then–if you still dislike it–flag it for later and move on.

WHY?

QUESTION: If you’re rewriting chapter one for the fifteenth time and still not getting anywhere with it, what are you accomplishing?

ANSWER: A big case of writer’s block.

Grinding a problematic section over and over and over and over without having a clue how to fix it is only creating frustration. Meanwhile, the story isn’t advancing. And you aren’t making progress toward anything except the death of your idea.

I’m sure you’ve read or heard the adage about the best way to learn how to write is to write, but while that’s glib and seems wise superficially, it can’t be your sole mantra.

If you perpetually write in error, violating story principles you don’t know, and you hit one dead end after another, grind your story to death, then abandon it–all you’re accomplishing is the reinforcement of error. You’re creating bad habits and training yourself never to bring any story you attempt to completion.

It’s been said that it takes 30 days of repeating a task or action to form a habit. If you start a story, get stuck, and toss it aside–how long until that variety of non-production becomes a habit?

Conversely, skipping over problems every time you hit one carries the danger of creating another bad habit–one of never solving plot holes. It’s entirely possible to blithely disregard a technical flaw in the cause of forcing a story forward no matter what. I did exactly that early in my writing career because I had a book deadline and I wanted to take a small vacation, so I hurried along by hammering out my daily page quota and paid no attention to a scene I goofed up. I took the trip, did not enjoy it because my story sense was screaming by then, and–once home again–had to work many long, hard hours to rewrite over 100 pages of material to correct my mistake and still meet deadline.

Now, here I’ve told you to keep going, but I’ve also told you not to skip/disregard problems. Is that contradictory? Yes, I think it qualifies, so I’ll explain:

Keep going, but when you stumble over a problem or find yourself facing a scene you don’t know how to write, pause and think it over. Is it an issue of changing viewpoint but you’ve never written multiple viewpoint before and you aren’t sure this is the right thing to do? Is it a difficulty in that your scene is long and complicated with six characters to juggle, and nothing is coming out where you want it to?

Pause and seek technical assistance. Look up scene construction in your books on writing technique. Consult the rules of changing viewpoint. Then think about what you’ve read and consider how your problematic passage is meeting those technique rules or falling short. Think about how you might approach your material differently and how the consequences of such change might affect your story outline.

In the viewpoint example, ask yourself why you want to change viewpoint at this point in the story. Is it to follow the story action? Has your protagonist suddenly become sidelined and is no longer central to the exciting story events? Why has this happened? Have you lost focus? Is another character becoming more intriguing to you than your dull protagonist? Why did you let your central, lead player become boring? What could you do to enliven your star again?

If you really want to show the villain making plans to ambush your protagonist and you think switching viewpoint will heighten the suspense, that’s a sound dramatic reason for doing so. However, do you plan to use the villain’s viewpoint more than once in the novel, and if so, have you plotted that? Before you make a decision, weigh the pros and cons of heightening suspense with the risk of giving too much away versus the advantage of an unexpected plot twist striking your hero without warning. It’s a judgment call of anticipatory suspense versus an unpredictable jolt of danger.

As for the complicated scene example, juggling six characters who are all upset, angry, or distraught is a difficult challenge for the most seasoned writer. Generally, scene conflict works most efficiently and dramatically when it’s narrowed down to two characters. Could you possibly divide your conflict into three smaller scenes, with your protagonist confronting one or two irate characters at a time? Or, could you push five characters into the background while the most vocal among them becomes the spokesperson?

After you’ve researched and thought, write a correction. It may wobble and still fall short, but chances are it will be on track enough for you to continue forward.

If it still doesn’t work, ask yourself if your story needs it at all. Experience has taught me that one or two futile attempts means I need to cut that section. There’s nothing to be gained by stubbornly beating your head against an immovable wall.

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Quote for the Day

Amateurs practice until they get it right; professionals practice until they can’t get it wrong.

I stumbled across a variant of this saying a few weeks ago. I don’t recall now where I saw it. A niggling thought in my brain suggests I might have seen it on Instagram. Anyway, I scrawled it on a scrap of paper and promptly forgot about it. Yesterday, I came across the scrap of paper and tried to hunt down who said this.

Apparently no one and everyone. It’s so good people of various professions have used it, tweaked it, applied it, and shared it. I have no doubt you’ve encountered it or some variation of it as well.

It speaks to me for obvious reasons, chiefly because I make a living teaching college students how to change their status from amateur to professional. Of course, I help others besides students. Anytime I share writing craft or explain how a story is structured, I am focused on the professional approach, which is writing with the aim of being published and paid.

There are, of course, many who write for the sheer pleasure of self-expression. They fill journals with the joys and tribulations of their lives. (They may even make the journal itself.) Others sustain the fading art of letter writing. Some amuse themselves penning character sketches or generate blogs or share inspiration on Instagram. Countless individuals write stories for their children or grandchildren. And there are those who go about their lives and occupations with a yen to share the stories swimming in their imaginations but who are stymied by having no idea of how to express them.

When I chose writing as my dream, my life, and my profession, I focused my practicing toward one chief aim:  to have my novel on the public library shelf in my hometown. In my childhood, the library was the most magical place I knew. I daydreamed about living there among the towering shelves filled with books. I didn’t mind that it was housed in a ramshackle old building next to the railroad tracks, with brick walls, uneven floors, and large plate-glass front windows from the days when the building was a store. Those details added to the magical kingdom, and as a child I used to plot ways and means of being locked in by mistake so I could spend the night there.

So when I realized I wanted to be a writer I could think of no achievement higher than being shelved in that wondrous, shadowy place. I would choose an armload of books to check out and then go and stand next to the shelf in the “C” section, where someday my novel would belong.

But to reach that objective, I had to get published. And to get published, I had to submit my work. And to submit work that would be accepted by the editors that kindly, or curtly, or impatiently rejected what I sent to them, I had to write stories that were good. And to write good stories, I had to learn what I was doing. And to learn what I was doing, I had to practice. And to practice properly, I needed training.

Fortunately, I received training in the Professional Writing program at the University of Oklahoma. The objective there was not to write creatively, but instead professionally. Oh, the hours of practice I put in, trying to master scene conflict and moment-by-moment dramatization. I would write a scene, only to realize when I read it over that I’d left out some critical plot point. Inserting it would mess up the moment-by-moment/stimulus-response order of dialogue. Then I’d have to rip apart the scene and rewrite it.

I learned to place a small checklist of plot points next to my typewriter–yes, I started my career back then–so I wouldn’t forget key comments. I learned that even as I grew more adept at my craft I would still have to edit and edit and edit. I grew to understand that no matter how delicious breaking a rule of technique felt during the heat of composition, that in the cold light of revision it was far less effective than I’d believed. Of course that meant I had to go back and rewrite the section properly.

And finally, after so much trying, practice, writing, rewriting, and care–I found I didn’t need the checklist. I could park two opposing characters in the same locale and know they would go where they should.

I’m not boasting that I’m as polished and smooth as I’ve always wanted to be. I’m not bragging that I never feel the urge to toss the rules of good craft. I’m not saying that I don’t indulge that urge. I still check my copy. I still edit. I still go back and undo the rule-breaking for something better.

But I get the quote. I live the quote. After so many years of hard effort, it’s good to know this is how I roll.

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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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