Saturday, November 23, 2013

Story Power

When I was six, I read the story of Thumbelina in Andrew Lang’s Blue Fairy Book. When I got to the part where she finds her beloved bird frozen dead in the snow, I burst out crying. Then, in the middle of my heartache I had an epiphany: “A story did this to me!” In that moment I decided to read books the rest of my life.

Monday, November 11, 2013


As a fiction writer, no matter what story you are telling you are writing biography: an intimate and detailed exposition of your characters' lives and personalities. Your challenge is to portray each of the main characters in your story as a unique “real” person, rounded with distinctive details.
You’ve likely heard the advice, “Show, don’t tell.” In terms of characterization this means that merely describing a character’s disposition (f.g., “James was a lonely widower, unsure of himself when meeting new people, especially women”) is not a compelling way for your readers to discover that character. Rather, let your characters reveal themselves through their thoughts, words and actions. In this organic way, readers will feel that they get to know your fictional characters in the same way they learn the personalities of real people in their lives.

To enable your characters to divulge themselves you have to keep them active. Present all the important events on stage where your readers can experience them firsthand, and not just hear about absent scenes through the characters’ memories. (Well-written dialogue qualifies as dynamic action, but internal monologue quickly gets boring.). Fuel each of your main characters with concrete problems they must struggle to solve (or concrete goals they fight to obtain), rather than vague, abstract goals such as “searching for happiness.” Set each person (protagonist and antagonist) on a definite path of pursuit of what he or she desires. Their actions will show who they are, while driving the story forward and leading to its increasing complications, conflicts and tensions.

One of the most effective ways to reveal a character is to describe the setting through his or her senses and emotions, rather than neutrally, through objective narration. This technique shows the external and internal environments at the same time, giving the whole situation of the scene.
Below is a list I created for myself to help muse about my characters before writing the first page of a new story. I print out a copy for developing each main character, allowing room to jot down notes. I hope the list will help you to arrive at that euphoric moment when your characters come alive for you on the page. At that point, your fingers will race over the keys because the people inhabiting your imagination will begin to dictate their own story.

·        NAME. Does the character’s first and last name (or nickname) reflect his or her personality?

·        MOTIVES. What does this character badly want? How do events (each scene, as well as the whole story) directly relate to this character’s specific hopes and fears? What person(s) or forces does this character oppose?

·        SUSPENSE FACTOR. Is there a clear-cut, highly-charged, dramatic question (“Will she, or won’t she?”) that applies to this character’s goal(s)?

·        SURPRISES/OBSTACLES. What complication would pose the biggest threat or challenge to this particular character?

·        REPUTATION. Is this person known to have a short fuse? Known as a man of his word? Known as a pushover? A winner, a loser, etc.?

·        HABITS. Positive and negative habits. Any quirks or eccentricities?

·        ATTITUDES/LIFE VIEW. What disposition plays a role in this character’s past or present life? Is religion influential? Philosophy? Personal slogans? Family sayings?

·        FLAWS. Greed, pride, jealousy, anger, shame, etc.

·        TALENTS/KNOWLEDGE/SKILLS. Education, degrees, titles. Natural gifts. Special training, expertise. Military experience? Hobbies, sports. Which skill set plays a direct role in the story?

·        PAST/BACKSTORY. Place of birth. Childhood. Crucial life-shaping experience? Most painful event in life? Most wonderful event? Proud of what? Ashamed of what?

·        RELATIONSHIPS. Parents. Family members. Friends (best friend/sidekick?). Memberships. Pets—importance of pets. Is there a kinship or a prior relationship with the love interest or adversary?

·        PROMISES. Oaths, commitments to uphold or break?

·        SPEECH/DICTION. What is the sound quality of this character’s voice (reedy, sonorous, smoky, etc.)? Does she speak with street slang? An Oxford accent? Fast or slow talker? Chatterbox, terse? Oft-used expressions?

·        TASTES in food, clothing, music, literature, arts, etc. High-brow? Low-brow? Mixed tastes? Natural? Pretentious?

·        PHYSICAL APPEARANCE. Height, weight, eye color, hair color, race, body type, distinguishing features. Posture. How the character walks, sits, talks, eats, laughs. Tics? Mannerisms and typical gestures. How does character feel about her appearance?

·        STATUS OBJECTS: Everyday objects that reveal a range of things about a character’s level of income and education, materiality, attitude, and philosophy. (Does he wear a plastic sports watch, or a Rolex Oyster? Does she drive a Jaguar or a Jeep?)

·        HOME/NEIGHBORHOOD. Trailer, cabin, apartment, manor, etc. What is overall impression of the home? (Cluttered? Clean? Well-planned?) Is this home, sweet home, or would the character prefer to live elsewhere?

·        PREFERENCES. Enjoys shopping? For what? Favorite music, movies, books. Comfort food/favorite food? Eats burgers or alfalfa sprouts?

·        JOB/PROFESSION. Money history and attitudes (prudent, cautious, generous?). Debts?

·        EMOTIONAL TRAITS. How does the character react to an emergency? How does the character handle praise, criticism? Any emotional wounds?

·        HOW DOES THE CHARACTER CHANGE? What lessons have been learned by the story’s end?

Fine-Tuning Your Prose, PART I


Writing is rewriting. Reshaping early drafts to create a compelling tale that hurtles along may require major surgery. However, this month’s column is about the finer craft of microsurgery:  strengthening and accelerating your prose, word by word, and sentence by sentence.
To enliven your prose and eliminate drag, consider the following tips.

1.      Concentrate on Nouns and Verbs
A common mistake of novice writers is to doll-up drab prose by painting on colorful adjectives and adverbs. But overuse of adjectives and adverbs makes the writing flabby, and often leads to flowery or “purple” passages that are the sign of an amateur. The real key to intensifying your prose is to focus on nouns and verbs.
Nouns and verbs are the power words of language, the words that tell the story. That’s because our direct experience (before we interpret it) is simply of people, things and places (= nouns) interacting (= verbs). Nouns and verbs provide the clarity of detail and the drama of action. Consider newspaper headlines; generally, they consist only of nouns and verbs, yet they tell the essential facts: Python Attacks Baby; Mom Strangles Snake.
Vivid writing is concrete and specific. Readers can picture precise nouns easier than generic nouns. “A bug smashed against the windshield” is less specific (and less vivid) than “A dragonfly smashed against the windshield.”
This rule even applies to similes and metaphors, which are richer when you select specific nouns. “She eats like a bird” is not as easy to picture as “She eats like a sparrow.” (Or does she eat like a vulture?)
Of course these rules of thumb are not absolutes, but a matter of each writer’s personal art. Here are three versions of the same metaphor. Which do you prefer?
Deep in her brain, lives a reptile.”
“Deep in her brain, lives a crocodile.”
“In the basement of her brain, lives a crocodile.”
Perhaps you don’t like any of them. (That’s why the DELETE key is a writer’s best friend.) Nevertheless, the third version, with specific nouns, is the easiest to visualize.

2.      Turbocharge Verbs and Toss Out Adverbs
Weak verbs need the crutch of adverbs; strong verbs stride on their own.Stephen King wrote, “The road to hell is paved with adverbs,” and Gabriel Garcia Marquez (One Hundred Years of Solitude) was so opposed to adverbs that he managed to write an entire novel, Amor, without using them. Compare these two sentences (the second uses a stronger verb and no adverb):
·               She set down the phone angrily.
·               She slammed down the phone.

Now imagine a whole novel filled with adverbs propping up lazy verbs and you’ll understand how adverbs blunt the edge of your writing.
Adverbs aren’t needed in attributions; they provide an explanation that treats the reader as a dummy: “‘You’re the mango of my eye,’ he said, lovingly.” (This kind of flab is made fun of in a type of joke called a Tom Swifty: “I’ll have mustard on mine,” Tom said frankly.”)
By scrimping on adverbs, you eliminate “echo”—in which the adverb repeats the meaning already given by the verb. (The alarm blared loudly. The flames burned hotly. Her teeth clenched tightly.)

3.      Convert From Passive to Active Sentence Construction
When you use the “passive voice” the target of the action in your sentence gets promoted to the prominent position, where the doer belongs. For example, “Her house was burned down by the soldiers” is less vivid than “The soldiers burned down her house.” The first sentence is passive construction; the second, active. Stay on the alert for the prepositions “by” or “through”—which mark the passive voice.

4.      Convert Negative to Positive Statements.
Check to see if facts you have stated negatively (“the lines were not straight”) can be made more vivid by stating them positively (“the lines squiggled”).

5.      Replace Abstract Adjectives with Concrete Descriptions
 As with generic nouns, abstract adjectives (“beautiful,” “ugly,” “good,” “bad,” “young,” “old,” “small,” “big”) offer an imprecise image.
Ask yourself, “How ‘big’ is ‘big’”? If you mention “a big whale,” your reader can only vaguely picture its size. But if you write, “a whale the size of a school bus,” you’ve provided a concrete image.
Also, be wary of intensifier words, such as “very” and “quite,” which are used to bolster weak adjectives (“quite sad” does not convey the richness of “morose.”)

Reality check: No amount of fine-tuning individual words and sentences will revive a lifeless story. On the other hand, a first-rate story often can make up for second-rate prose (as seen in not a few blockbusters) because readers respond first and foremost to CHARACTERS and PLOT, the subjects of my two earlier posts. 

Fine-Tuning Your Prose, PART II

Perfect prose won’t resuscitate flat characters stuck in a dull story. But when you invent a fascinating tale about sympathetic people and their compelling struggle to win love, you’ll want to tell it like a pro. So let’s take one last look at some nitpicky prose details that experienced writers keep in mind.

            Place words you wish to emphasize at the start or end of each sentence or phrase. Read the next two sentences out loud. “Throw your sainthood away.” “Throw away your sainthood.” The second sentence places the more important word at the end. Hear the subtle difference? Following this rule both clarifies and intensifies the drama your words convey.

Don’t overuse or misuse attribution. A simple she said or he said suffices to keep readers on track as to who is speaking each line of dialogue—and that is the sole purpose of attribution. When attribution is not needed to follow the conversation, leave it out. And by all means, resist the urge to use attributions to explain the scene. Agents and editors roll their eyes at this kind of writing:
“I like it when you touch me like that,” she whispered throatily.
“That so?” he asked innocently.
“Come closer,” she purred.
“Guess I know what I’m doing,” he chuckled.

Skip the travelogue. If you show your characters moving from one setting/scene to another (on sidewalks, stairs, elevators, subways, taxis, and so forth), make sure the trip tells something important about the character or plot. If not, leave out “getting there.” Think of cuts between movie scenes: first we see two lovers chatting in a romantic restaurant; next we find them in bed. If it doesn’t matter to the story how they got from bistro to bedroom, the director does not waste a scene showing those irrelevant details.

Omit information that doesn’t add to the mood, character or plot. You’ve probably heard the rule, “Show, don’t tell.” But it’s not that simple. You must decide when to show, when to tell, and when to ignore. The two examples below are not “right” or “wrong,” but the second uses tighter prose, which drives a story forward in a faster pace.

·        The kitchen phone rang. Lara padded across the Mexican tile floor in her bare feet and snatched it from its wall cradle on the fourth ring. “Hello,” she said.
“Hello,” said a male voice with a nasal tone. She didn’t recognize it.

·        The kitchen phone rang. Some guy with a nasal voice Lara didn’t recognize.

Don’t overdo first impressions. Give character description to the reader in small doses. Mention only a few things about a character initially and move on with the action; you can insert more features along the way. “A lanky, red-haired kid with a firestorm of zits” is plenty of information for the first look. The character will go out of focus if you toss in too many descriptions at once (…and cobalt blue eyes, large-knuckled hands, with one shoulder lower than the other.)

Keep to a minimum as and -ing constructions. They make the depicted actions seem simultaneous, and the first move appears somehow less important than the second. In the examples below, the third reads best.
·        As she slipped out her dagger, she spun to face the soldier.  
·        Slipping out her dagger, she spun to face the soldier.
·        She slipped out her dagger and spun to face the soldier.

Purge stale language. It’s fine when your characters speak in occasional clichés, because we all talk like that. But aside from writing realistic dialogue, don’t grab the following phrases off the cliché shelf: an emotional rollercoaster, little did she know, better than ever, as fate would have it, needless to say, well in advance, in over her head, for some curious reason, a number of, as everybody knows, things got out of hand, it came as no surprise, it was beyond her, the time flew. Obviously, the list continues. Set your cliché alarm to buzz a warning.   

            Be wary of “very.” Modifiers (very, so, just, still, quite, somewhat, rather) muddy your prose. If the adjective needs the crutch of a modifier, replace it with a better descriptive word (“very weak” does not sound as feeble as “puny”).   

            Feeling intimidated by so many rules to bear in mind? Let me suggest a strategy many writers employ. When you first set your story to writing, switch off The Editor and let your wild heart roam. Only after you’ve captured words on the page—at the end of a day, or scene, or chapter—put your editor’s mind to task, analyzing and improving story structure and polishing your prose. And remember what Pablo Picasso said: “Learn the rules like a professional, so you can break them like an artist.”

Classic Story Structure

No untrained musician grabs a sax and makes it wail like “the Trane” (John Coltrane). Saxophonists, novelists—all artists—first need to learn the rudiments; only then can they riff.
Among the rudiments of storytelling is classic story structure—and I do mean “classic.” Aristotle first explained these plot elements in The Poetics (4th century B.C.E.), the earliest known work of literary theory. All the world’s literary masterpieces, as well as contemporary romances and thrillers, mysteries and fantasies, can be broken down to the same building blocks that Aristotle pointed out millennia ago.
Before you try experimenting with tricky story structures (stories that begin at the end and then reconstruct the beginning; stories where the narrator is deluded, or is a liar, or has no long-term memory, etc.) you would do well to learn the basic dramatic structure that has worked so well since ancient times.
You may worry that if you build a story using a time-worn formula your romantic tale will turn out to be one big cliché. Yet given the many far-ranging variables in character, motivation, setting, events—and the author’s unique voice—it is rare for well-written tales to end up as clones (though fans of romance and other genre literature will expect to encounter familiar themes, such as the redemptive power of love).
Here then, in minimalist form, is the classic story structure used by Aristophanes and Shakespeare and Nora Roberts.

·        Something dramatic happens to someone, creating a serious problem or provoking a deep desire for something she wants very badly.

·        The drama takes place within a specific, concrete setting (the setting should not be arbitrary, but an integral element of the story).

·        She fights back or pursues her goal, driven by a strong need created by her character and her past. Forces or persons try to stop her, but she keeps pressing forward because something critical to her heart is at stake.

·        Things get more complicated and she plunges ever deeper into difficulties and danger. These obstacles arise logically from her efforts to gain her goal.

·        Her troubles escalate, everything grows worse.

·        Troubles become monumental, and the protagonist is finally forced by the circumstances to discover a truth about herself or the world. This important lesson enables her to break through to make a critical decision or a personal change.

·        At last, she gains her goal and satisfies her need.  

Here is a slightly different look at this same classic story structure:

·        A person (The Protagonist)
·        In a place (The Setting)
·        Has a problem. (The Conflict/Antagonist. Look for specific characters and troubles tailored to hurt and challenge this particular character. Remember that an internal conflict often carries a story farther than external troubles.)
·        The person takes her best shot at solving the problem. (The Action)
·        Things get worse.(The Complications, full of surprises, twists, setbacks)
·        Troubles hit rock bottom. (The Pit—which usually awakens The Insight and then The Choice.)
·        The protagonist confronts her opposition (internal and/or external) in a showdown. (The Climax).
·        The story resolves—and in a romance, it typically resolves joyfully. (The End, with perhaps a brief denouement or epilogue).

Learn well this ancient, archetypal structure, which virtually all successful stories follow. Then improvise your heart out.

Story Questions

One can define a good plotline as “likable protagonists with sympathetic hopes and interesting problems, and how they deal with them.” As the late Marion Zimmer Bradley (The Mists of Avalon) defined plot: “Joe gets his ass caught in a bear trap and tries like hell to get it out.”
In effect, every successful story asks and then answers a “story question.” In the example above, the reader meets Joe, who is caught in a bear trap and struggling to get free. Obviously, the story’s question is, Will Joe be able to free himself and survive?  We read on, trusting the author will supply us with a satisfying answer.
If you are not clear on your story’s plot, it is likely because you do not know your story’s questions. Once you ask these questions, you will vividly see where the story’s action must lead to provide the answers. 

Here, then, are some basic story questions to consider when plotting your novel:

Whose story is it? (Who suffers most? Who changes most? Who is most active?) This is the protagonist.

What does this main character badly want?

Who or what gets in the way of her getting it?  This is the antagonist.
(Repeat this list of questions when fleshing out the antagonist.)

What is the internal conflict?
What are the main characters’ weaknesses (limitations, flaws, baggage)? Hint: internal conflict often pushes a story along better than external conflict.

What is the external conflict?
What are the confrontations? The setbacks? (What goes wrong with the plans?)
Are there any twists (unexpected obstacles that make things more complicated)?

How do things keep getting worse?
What is the worst thing that can happen to this particular character? (Not just any nightmare, but this specific character’s worst nightmare.) Is time running out?

What is the revelation? (The insight, the new understanding of self or world.)

What is the choice? (The revelation, above, leads to a decisionoften a change in character.)

What is the showdown?

How does it finally end? You may not know when you begin Chapter One. That’s okay. Some authors don’t want to know the end ahead of time. Trust that the resolution will come to you as you develop your characters and their tale comes alive.

The reader wants to learn the overall “story question” early in the tale, because this major question runs the length of the whole story, driving the action (and the reader’s interest). Additionally, the most compelling stories have minor questions embedded in every chapter or even every scene (“Will she grab his attention? Will she land the job?”). Stories that are impossible to put down delay answering the questions set up in one chapter until a later chapter—and by then, of course, the plot evokes more story questions that the reader longs to satisfy. (“How is she going to get out of this mess?”)

You need to consider your story’s questions prior to writing, during the plotting stage of your novel. It doesn’t mean you have to know exactly how the novel is going to unfold or end (and you may not want to know in advance). However, you need confidence the story has enough drive to sustain itself until the climax and final sentence. Musing about your story’s questions will lead you to have a strong sense of the story’s direction, and you will know most of the important consequences and complications that will unfold.