Friday, April 4, 2008

Flat Stanleys

When one of my nephews he was first learning to read , he fell in love with a book called Flat Stanley. Flat Stanley (the book) went everywhere my nephew went for months. Flat Stanley was something of a fixture in our lives. We were once stuck in a restaurant for hours while the bus boys dismantled a booth to recover Flat Stanley, which had fallen under the cushions and into the base of the booth. There were power tools involved. And tears. The child was seriously attached to the book.

Flat Stanley (the character) is a little boy who was crushed by a falling bulleting board while he was innocently sleeping. As a result of this dreadful accident, he is now four feet tall and one inch thick. You'd think this would pose a problem, but Flat Stanley gets to have lots of adventures that children of regular thickness don't get to have.

Quick writing exercise -- if you had a character of these dimensions, what would you do with him? Name three things Flat Stanley could do in your book that the other characters could not do.

In the book, Flat Stanley gets to slide under closed doors, and fly in the sky like a kite, and get mailed in an envelope to his vacation destination. Did any of these possibilities occur to you? Kid-lit authors tend to be very adept at taking a single notion and playing it out to extremes. I've always thought Flat Stanley was the perfect example of that. One attribute, flatness, is explored in an imaginative and (dare we say it?) in-depth manner. By the end of the book, you understand completely what effect flatness would have on a person's life.

Flat Stanley's Two Lessons For Adult Writers

Flat Stanley is not what adult readers would call a *cough*cough* well-rounded character. He has a single, central characteristic that governs his activities through the entire story. This is not to say the story is bad. It's excellent, in fact, and the characters are perfect for kid-lit. But adult readers have different expecations of characters.

Nevertheless, in Stanley's flatness are two lessons for us.

First, if you are going to give your character a unique or strong characteristic, you'd better exploit it. (Stanley doesn't look flat and act round.)

Second, exploit it in ways that are unexpected. (Stanley's flatness creates some surprising results.)

I can't tell you how many times I've read manuscripts that drew careful portraits of an important character, but never leveraged those portraits. Lord Sneerlip, we are told, is a villain of power and influence who can destroy entire families with a single cutting glance. Aha, we think gleefully, and settle in to see what kind of damage good old Sneerlip will do. And we read, and we wait. And read and wait some more. But Sneerlip never does anything to prove his power until the very last scene when he kidnaps the heroine and tries to force her to marry him. yawn

A smart writer knows that not only must she exploit the power and influence of Lord Sneerlip, but she must exercise it repeatedly, in unexpected ways, and at the worst possible moments. So if Sneerlip has a grudge against the family of Priscilla Bluestocking, and if Prissy's goal is to get vouchers to Almack's, what should Sneerlip do? (For those of you who don't read Regencies, Almack's was the place for a society debutante to go, and vouchers -- entry tickets -- were tightly controlled.)

The author with little control over the text will probably not let Sneerlip make trouble at all. After all, she reasons, the purpose of the scene at Almack's is to let Prissy Bluestocking meet His Grace, the Duke of Hotstuff, her ultimate hero, who scandalizes all of England by spiking the warm lemonade with vodka. Oh, Hotstuff, you dangerous rogue, you! But Sneerlip isn't necessary in this scene and doesn't appear until the end, when he kidnaps Prissy and forces Hotstuff into the role of rescuer.

A slightly more mindful author will have Sneerlip cancel the Almack's vouchers for Prissy Bluestocking and her entire family. After all, she reasons, if Sneerlip is the villain, and vouchers are the goal, then the villain should interfere with that goal. Right? Well...okay. It's better, but is that really the best we can do?

Of course not. An inventive author, an author who wins the hearts and minds of readers, starts wondering what else a villain of power and influence might do here. She gets creative. She starts thinking about how Sneerlip might screw up a night at Almack's for Prissy. Maybe he schedules a secret night of decadence so that no eligible men are at Almack's that night. Maybe everyone shows up, and Sneerlip cuts Prissy and her family, damaging her standing and marital prospects. Maybe he forces her to dance with him three times -- oh, the scandal! Maybe he feeds her several cups of vodka-spiked lemonade and invites her to declaim on the cultivation of marigolds to a group of bored and disgusted dandies. Really, the possibilities are endless.

And that's exactly the point. The possibilities are endless. Don't settle for simple, trite renditions of a character trait when the liveliness of your plot hinges on your inventiveness. Exploit what you've already set up.

What else might Sneerlip do to interfere with Prissy Bluestocking's success at Almack's? Come on now -- if Flat Stanley can fly like a kite, surely Sneerlip can do something inventive, too!



Dave Shaw said...

The following is something I'm using in my SF novel, set in the 26th century.

Sally is one of only 3 people who have been given a secret experimental genetic alteration called the 'Mindsplit mod' (the other 2 are her older sister and her younger first cousin, neither of whom is important in this book). With an experimental psychological conditioning set, some training, and lots of practice, she can, for short periods of time, divide her consciousness into what amounts to 2 separate egos (both still her), and determine which one gets any pre-existing emotions such as anger, worry, joy, etc. Sometimes she uses it to work on 2 problems at once, sometimes to allow 1 mind to concentrate while the other gets emotional, and sometimes just to talk things over with herself. She even argues with herself, especially if she stays split for too long (the 2 minds drift apart fairly rapidly). Her conditioning causes it to feel relaxing to merge back together, to help keep her from staying split for too long.

I've been trying to come up with other uses for it and consequences of it, because I feel like I'm only skimming the surface here. Am I on the right track?

Edittorrent said...

Yes, exactly! This has a real Jekyll and Hyde flavor, except that she's always aware of both her minds, right? And you are on the right track -- you're coming up with different ways she might use the two minds. But what about consequences? Think about that a bit. What would be the consequences of people witnessing her split? Or of demanding that she split at certain times? Or for certain purposes? Think about all the ways this could interfere with a normal life. I think what you have so far are mostly advantages.


CatherineBerlin said...

Hmmm...maybe Sneerlip can drop a large vase on Prissy and then fold her up and put her in his pocket with none the wiser...


Ian said...

One of the characters in my current WIP has a similar situation to Dave's character. In my book, the character is a cybernetic hacker who has had her mind "invaded" by an Artificial Intelligence. So now I've got two minds inhabiting one brain, each jockeying for position and dominance. She/they do have advantages of incredible hacking abilities and the most secure data storage in the world. But on the other hand, she/they occasionally lose control of her body, and she tends to lapse into speaking in hexadecimal, which is awkward in social situations. :)


PS: What do you all think about the Amazon/BookSurge power play going on right now? I've already weighed in on my blog...

Dave Shaw said...

Right, the second mind never quite goes away, even when she merges - gives new meaning to the 'little voice' concept. At the beginning of the book she doesn't know that she has the potential to split involuntarily, and the first time she does, all the anger she feels over being experimental comes out (after all, she didn't get a choice, and they screwed some things up, including her lifespan - only half of a 'Normal'). She finds out when some criminals try to abduct her and she kills 4 of them, 1 with her teeth (heavy worlder with genetic mods and berserker tendencies = pint-sized death machine when provoked). This causes her a host of problems, especially since the one whose throat she ripped out was an important politician's grandson. On top of that, although she's psych conditioned to not do it, she has the ability to 'turn herself off' - suicide by thought. But the 'other' doesn't always get the conditioning effect when it fires up, and guilt can have a bad effect on a person...

How's them consequences? ;-)

Ooo, a girl who speaks in hex - that could be the ultimate geek date, Ian. (I'm speaking in my daytime persona as a computer programmer now.) Do you have at least one character who finds that hexy? (Sorry, couldn't resist.)

Jody W. and Meankitty said...

For the ultimate revenge Sneerlip can overshadow the hero because he actually has a personality, causing readers to demand the author write HIS book... Hee!

Jody W.

Dave Shaw said...

Jody, that's just... EVIL! LOL

Anonymous said...

Why would Sneerlip care about Prissy? It seems to me that he's much more likely to try and ruin his old rival Hotstuff, and she'd be just a prawn.

Encouraging her to come to Almack's in an unsuitable dress would be a good start. *Someone* will have to explain the rules of society to the poor thing. Have him arrange it to be someone who can help her make a fool of herself. It probably won't need much.

What are Sneerlip's good sides? In which ways is he similar to Lord Hotstuff?

Those question might be the key to make her fall for him, find out what a cad he is, and then spurn *all* men displaying the same attributes - Hotstuff might be tall, dark and handsome, but if Sneerlip is, too, then getting Prissy to trust _him_ will be much more difficult.

And, of course, the romance will have a much harder time getting off the ground if Hotstuff arrrives drunk and bloody furious because he's just lost the ancestral home at the gaming table, which would never have happened if Sneerlip hadn't gotten him conveniently drunk.

One of my antagonists is working long-term revenge on an ex-teacher, and he does it by ruining his reputation as a teacher in a two-pronged attack - on the one hand, he tries to lure away students into a world of balls and dinners (It's not a Regency. I just borrow a little) and feeds them a narrative about how apprenticeships should be and how little Ilyakis measures up. On the other hand, he's bribed Ilyakis' housekeeper to make the stay of any student truly miserable. Anyone who starts an apprenticeship finds themselves with a long catalogue of overheated/damp rooms, early morning noises, badly-mended bedlinnen, ill seasoned food (just *their* plate, mind - how can you complain when your teacher praises his food and scoffs it down?) and, and, and. It takes my protagonist to cut through that, but at that point Ilyakis has several years of vanishing students and has almost lost faith in his abilities as a teacher...

Dave Shaw said...

Prissy would be a crustacean? LOL

Sorry, I get my jollies from typoes like that. ;-)

Seriously, I think you did that very well.

Tara Ryan said...

Flat Stanley was one of my favorite stories when I was going up. Well, if I'm being completely honest, I still have the book it was in and read it at least once a year. It's a regression thing. Probably why I reread my Nancy Drew books.
Glad to know I'm not the only one who remembers that story!