Thursday, December 30, 2010

On Coincidence

Some time ago, I edited a manuscript that was crammed with coincidences. If the characters were searching the wilderness and got lost, they would just happen to find what they had been looking for all along. Or they walked into a restaurant and spotted a person they needed to interview. Or they found a phone that just happened to belong to a long-lost and very important relative who held the clue to solve the whole mystery. On and on it went, one coincidence after another, until the whole felt like nothing but a series of accidental adventures.

And yet, when it came time to revise the plot, we didn't eliminate all of the coincidences. I thought long and hard about it, consulted some of my favorite writers handbooks, and ultimately came up with a rule of thumb that's proved useful -- and correct -- just about every time this has come up. So here's that rule:

If the coincidence creates a complication, it can remain in the plot.
Otherwise, get rid of it.

The way to evaluate this is with a simple cost-benefit type of analysis. What's the direct result of the coincidence? Is that result positive or negative? Does it solve a problem or create a problem? Does it answer a question or pose a question? It can stay only if it's a true negative, not a mixed blessing.

This might seem like a strange way to evaluate coincidences in a plot. You might think the better solution would be to justify the coincidence by explaining how it came to happen. "He found the lost phone because the phone's owner stopped for pie in that same cafe. He stopped for pie because he was hungry, and he was in the area because he was driving from Toledo to Dubuque to visit an ex-girlfriend." The thing is, you can spin that explanation out for hours, and all it really does is slow the pace of the story by cramming a lot of backstory and exposition into the text. This isn't going to do your plot any favors. Plus, it sounds like an awful lot of rationalization, maybe even an excuse.

The trick instead is to get the reader to accept the coincidence and keep moving forward through the plot. The reader is less likely to accept a coincidence that looks like nothing more than luck. Remember GMC? Goal, motivation, and conflict, the building blocks of a well-paced plot. The C doesn't stand for coincidence, and there's no L for luck. We want to read about characters who struggle to reach objectives and overcome obstacles. We want to read about characters who try to reach a goal and fail, and fail some more, until finally through tenacity and smarts and force of will, they succeed. Not about characters who try and fail and then get bailed out of their mess by a smile from heaven.

So, if a coincidence amounts to a complication, it fits into this pattern. It's an obstacle on the path, and it's what the reader wants, so its coincidental nature will be less troubling.

Keep in mind, though, that the coincidence must still fit into the plot as a whole. It must bear some logical relevance to everything else going on in the story. That is, you don't want the characters in a contemporary diamond heist plot to get kidnapped by aliens and beamed to another galaxy. That might complicate the plot, but it doesn't fit the plot. But that's a whole 'nother issue in plotting.


Wednesday, December 29, 2010

“That for which we find words is something already dead in our hearts. There is always a kind of contempt in the act of speaking.”


I think he's saying that when we can find words to express emotion, we're performing-- it's not true anymore. What do you think?

Alicia, who says, "Jane Austen, eat my dust! And Sherlock, I'm coming for you!"

To Alicia

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Depressing industry talk

More depressing year-end publishing roundup. You've been warned.


More Kindle

Someone told me I could email pdfs to my Kindle? How do I do that?

Hey, my book is available for free at the Kindle store. You don't need a kindle, as you can download a reader to your computer and then the book. Why is this important? Well, my book is #5 on the bestseller list for, uh, free books (which doesn't actually sound so awesome, does it? ), and if this keeps up, I might beat JANE AUSTEN! And Sherlock Holmes!

So everyone please go download it? It's free!


Kindle recs?

The dh gave me a Kindle for Christmas, and I'm looking for recommendations, for books and apps that make it more useable. Suggestions?


Monday, December 27, 2010

Interesting Review

This post on Daily Kos is ostensibly a movie review for the Drew Barrymore film, Going the Distance, but it had a lot of smart things to say about the current trends in romantic comedy and links to another great piece from the New Yorker a few years ago. Worth reading.


Friday, December 24, 2010

"Idiolect": Your voice, your word choice

I was reading a short book on Shakespeare by Bill Bryson, and he mentioned Shakespeare's "idiolect" as an indicator that Shakespeare himself wrote his plays. That is, now with computer analysis, we can quite accurately know what words and terms Shakespeare used and didn't use and how often. The distinguishing pattern of word choice in an author is the "idiolect," the person's idiosyncratic lexicon.

So, for example, Bryson says that Shakespeare seldom used the word "also". And he used the old-fashioned term "brethren" instead of the more common "brothers". He used many leather tanning terms (his father was a glover) and built new images and metaphors around the flowers of his rural youth. No one else is likely to get this combination of word choice, this idiolect-- it's sort of like a voice fingerprint.

Anyway, not that anyone's likely to run computer analysis of our own lexicon, but if someone did, what would be the markers of your idiolect?

I know mine would be kind of boring, because my most common words would be "just" and "then". What about yours?

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Myth and Paradox

"Every myth is driven by the obsessive need to solve a paradox that cannot be solved."
~ Wendy Doniger, in the Foreword to Myth and Meaning: Cracking the Code of Culture by Claude Levi-Strauss (emphasis in original)

Okay. So I've been reading a lot of cultural anthropology lately, particularly the mid-20th century structuralists. If you're a writer who came up in the era of the Disney memo and its aftermath, you've already been exposed to a subset of these ideas. Chris Voegler's book, The Hero's Journey, was basically a recodification of Joseph Campbell's The Hero With a Thousand Faces in screenwriting terms. I think technically Campbell would be classified a comparative mythologist rather than a true structuralist, but I think nobody would dispute that his work was related to what came later from the structuralists. Certainly, they were all looking for commonalities among groups of folkloric stories.

In any case, if you've read Voegler or Campbell, you've been exposed to one collective myth analysis. What I've been reading lately are similar studies about other kinds of collective myths -- that is, myths other than the hero's quest. Not all the work of the comparative mythologists and structuralists is relevant to writers, but some of it is. Levi-Strauss's studies of Pan-American myths have been particularly fascinating to me (especially the stuff on twinning and untwinning -- whoa dayumn), and Vladimir Propp's work on Russian folk tales has been a thought-provoking read. Highly recommended if you're interested in that sort of thing.

For something like the past ten years, I've been quietly proposing my own theory that genre romance novels are, at their core, an attempt to recast the woman's sociobiological paradox into a pleasant and easily digested story type with a guaranteed positive outcome. And Alicia has been saying for quite some time that romance novels are folkloric in nature. We didn't pull these ideas out of thin air -- for my part, I was strongly influenced by, again, an anthropological study I read some years ago, which I can no longer cite because I can't find it. (But why is it always the anthropologists who are making these bells chime?) The study was either commissioned or produced by a Harvard professor, and it made for fascinating reading. I wish I could tell you more than that, but all I ever had was a paper copy of the study and only heaven knows where I put it. I may have lost it in a move a few years ago.

In any case, the paper addressed the two sociobiological functions of both genders and how that has influenced gender roles. The female's two functions are to get pregnant and to feed the young. The male's are to inseminate females and to fight off predators.

It's that grouping, or that division of roles, if you prefer, that causes a paradox. The female needs a male to get pregnant, of course, but she also expects him to fight off predators. Except that sometimes the male himself is a predator. So she needs to bring a potential predator close in order to keep other potential predators away. The trick for the female is to find a man who is willing to fight others but not willing to fight her. She has to trigger his protective instincts rather than his battle instincts.

In romance novels, the hero almost never starts off as perfect hero material. He's an unreachable lone wolf, or a brooding wounded heart, or a charming rogue who's delightful to be around but can't be trusted in an emergency. The heroine recognizes this in him, this initial tendency in him to have traits that might not make him such a perfect partner. And she also generally recognizes traits in him that would make him a worthy partner, things like strength and size and power. The journey of the romance novel is one in which the heroine develops trust, the hero develops protectiveness, and both of them develop mutual love and passion.

We retell this story over and over in genre romance novels and other formats because it's an important myth. I don't mean "myth" in the sense of something that doesn't exist -- in fact, happy marriages and good partnerships do exist, and plenty of them. I mean "myth" in the anthropological sense of a story that is part of a cultural tradition or heritage. These are stories that contain a deeper meaning, something almost primal. These are stories that help us understand the world and our parts in it. For female readers of romance novels, these may be stories that help us understand the almost instinctive ways we identify and come to love good men.

In any case, all of this is just to say that I really got a kick out of the Doniger quote, and now you all know why. fwiw.


Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Danglers again

Came across a great dangler:

Twenty-five years after his death, essayist Paul Baron analyzes the seminal research of astronomer Rich Lewis.

That's an impressive feat, after-death analysis. Most of us plan on just lying in our graves and playing the harp, but this Paul Baron is spending his afterlife analyzing....

Oh! It's the astronomer who has been dead 25 years! Gee, in that case, you'd think the modifier (Twenty-five years after his death) would go right next to the identification of the dead person! Like:

Essayist Paul Baron analyzes the seminal research of astronomer Rich Lewis twenty-five years after his death.
Twenty-five years after his death, the research of astronomer Rich Lewis is still considered seminal by essayist Paul Baron.
Or what?

And I do NOT want to hear that "the reader will figure it out." It's not the reader's job to fix the writer's mistakes and make sense where the writer has written nonsense. If the reader pauses for a moment to figure out what we really meant to say, not only have we lost the "meaning momentum," but we've also lost credibility-- the reader can't trust what we're writing.

Write, but then read. Read as a reader.


Sunday, December 19, 2010

Conspiracy theory

Conspiracy theories make for great fiction and film. Many bestsellers posit conspiracies that would seem to take more infrastructure and organization than we expect in our own world... but that's why they fascinate us.

As I said, the worldview of a conspiracy-theory novelist is usually (for the time of writing the book), "Everything is connected." Some secret organization or subversive powerful interest group is controlling a series of seemingly disconnected events in order to achieve some hidden goal. This makes for fascinating reading, especially when it's coupled with important cultural objects (The DaVinci Code) or seminal historical events (Winter Kills, which derives, as so many fictional and non-fictional conspiracy theories do, from the JFK assassination). I think one reason we are intrigued by books like these is they bring order to what seem like random and usually negative events, and by positing a sort of single master villain, make it more possible to imagine correcting or preventing disaster. That is, a single big conspiracy, however scary, is easier to deal with than a bunch of random events, so the essential task of "social" popular fiction -- to disrupt then restore order-- seems more difficult and interesting, but ends up easier.

Anyway, a question I have is-- if you are going to have a sleuth or investigator discover the conspiracy and follow the clues through, do you want someone who believes in conspiracy, who is already of the mindset that "Everything is connected?" Or would you rather go with someone who is skeptical and might even have reason to reject the conspiracy and has to be convinced?

DaVinci Code uses a semiotician as a slueth, that is, someone academically trained to see connections and signs in everything. (In fact, when I was reading Chronic City, I realized that the conspiracy theorist/semiotician in the middle of that was almost schizophrenic-- there seems to be a fine line between the semiotician seeing signs in how Mother's Day cards are arranged, and the schizophrenic hearing radio transmission through his tooth fillings.) The advantage here is that he is trained to interpret and connect, and doesn't have to be taught. Also, I guess, he doesn't have to be convinced. He can get right into the investigation without having a lot of resistance to the notion of a conspiracy. He hits the ground running (literally).

But in Winter Kills, the disaffected young brother of the assassinated president has an incentive not to investigate. The whole world has accepted the conventional wisdom, and he quickly realizes that yanking at this loose thread (a deathbed confession) might lead to information he doesn't want (family involvement). He has to be drawn in to believing in the conspiracy.

So, two questions:
1) What characterizes a good opportunity for a conspiracy theory story? Why, for example, has the JFK assassination engendered so many conspiracy theory stories, and 9/11 (which probably has at least as much official secrecy and unanswered or misanswered questions, and inadequate answers) hasn't?

2) If you had to pick a protagonist/investigator for a conspiracy theory, would you choose one who already was open to such theories, or a skeptic, and why? For example, if you watch Law and Order, SVU, there's an odd couple-- Munch, who is probably a licensed paranoid, who never met a conspiracy theory he didn't accept-- and Finn, a real skeptic, who doesn't believe in God, apple pie, or any theory at all. If you had a conspiracy theory novel, which sort of protagonist would you choose, a Munch who was predisposed to believe it, or a Finn who is predisposed to disbelieve it and has to be persuaded?

And of course, why, and under what circumstances? And what do you see as the hallmarks of the conspiracy novel?

“Searching is half the fun: life is much more manageable when thought of as a scavenger hunt as opposed to a surprise party.”
Jimmy Buffett


Friday, December 17, 2010

Head Over to Romance University

Today at RU, I give a list of ten ways to add emotion to your story. Can you add to the list?


Subtext again

Frasier, as Robert McKee says, is the greatest British sitcom set in America. (I don't know what it means, but it sounds good.)

Anyway, I saw this "Bulldog proposes" episode and the ending is pretty amazing. One character tells the truth, and the other, to spare his feelings, misinterprets, and the first (Bulldog) graciously accedes to this interpretation, and while responding in the same vein, reveals even more what the truth is.

Great writing, and my point is, never assume that just telling the surface is sufficient. The important stuff is often subtextual, because humans are complicated creatures.

For that matter, so are cats. My cat's meows contain more subtext than an Ian McEwan novel.

Here's the Frasier episode, and it's all good (Frasier was the best written sitcom of its time, and best acted), but the scene I'm talking about starts at 15:10 or so).


Thursday, December 16, 2010

Online Style Guides

Yesterday as a result of a new story, I discovered that the Navy style guide is now online. If you write about SEALs or other sailors, this might be useful for dialogue and official jargon.

Here are some other links that might be useful if you're investigating questions of style.

AP Stylebook Online
AP advocates a style which is less formal than academic writing but not as casual as dialect. If you write for newspapers, magazines, or genre fiction publishers, you'll generally be safe with AP.

The Economist Style Guide
This concise guide is useful if you want a more thoughtful tone in your prose. Is your character highly educated? Is he a CEO or other money guy? This might come in handy.

The big three of academic style. Most of the ordinary manuscript format rules (double-spaced, one-inch margins, page numbers in corners, etc.) come from academic style.

Strunk & White
A general style guide aimed at ordinary writing. This is really basic stuff. No excuse for not knowing these rules. (I have special love for rule II.7, of course.)

Then there are the specialized style guides and online dictionaries. Is your character a doctor? Maybe you need to look at AMA style for that memo he writes in chapter six. Was he born and raised in London? Maybe you need this English slang dictionary. Is your hero a retired athlete? Here's a brief sports terms dictionary.

The point is that there are multiple layers to manuscript style. It needs an appropriate format to be ready for submission. It needs appropriate grammar and mechanics and usage within the text itself. And it needs characters who sound like the people the author intends them to be. Style guides can help the writer achieve all of these goals.


Wednesday, December 15, 2010


I've been seeing a lot of random errors in capitalization lately -- these things do tend to come in waves, though it's anyone's guess as to why. I deal with writers all over the world through an assortment of classroom, workshop, private coaching, and other settings. These folks sure aren't being exposed to the same ideas or instruction that would lead to these errors suddenly cropping up. Just something in the air, I guess.

Lately, it's been overuse of caps, rather than under-use. Random common nouns, in particular, are getting heavyweight status. It would be as though in this Sentence we chose to cap -- well, you see it. This might be a result of chatspeak trends where people use caps to emphasize words, but it's probably not something you want creeping into your fiction unless you're writing something highly stylized and tightly controlled.

Use a capital letter:

* At the beginning of a new sentence

* For names and other proper nouns (Mary Smith, France)

* For formal titles when used in conjunction with names (Lady Mary Smith, Chief Wiggam)

* For the titles of specific geographic locations (Lake Michigan, Ohio Street) and for designations related to these locations (Italian-American, New Yorker)

* For the proper names of institutions, organizations, businesses, and government bodies (English Department at the University of Chicago, League of Women Voters, Doolittle’s Bar and Grill, Internal Revenue Service)

* At the beginning of a direct quotation (Mary said, “Let’s go to Doolittle’s.”)

* For the pronoun I

* For calendar items (Tuesday, Christmas Eve)

* For words in the title of a book or other work of art, including the first and last word and all other words except articles, coordinating conjunctions, and short prepositions

* For the call letters of radio or television stations

If it's not on this list, don't cap it. Easy, right?


Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Introspection: Useless and useful

I think a lot of writers have been told to limit introspection (the narrative expression of a character's thoughts and feelings). This was in response to the tendency in writers writing in deep point of view to paragraph after paragraph that take place entirely in the character's mind. (Hmm. I used to write whole scenes in the character's mind. "But nothing happens!" would be the editorial response. :)

So of course, everyone swings to the opposite side, so there's action, dialogue, and description, but no introspection. I've been seeing this in submissions lately, scenes which are in a character's point of view but with very little thought/feeling-- it's all action and dialogue.

Okay, so let's talk about this. When is introspection useless, and what kind of introspection?
What's useful, and when? What about discussing how you handle this in your own scenes?

Let's say there's a scene of the heroine slipping into her boss's office while he's at lunch, to steal a file folder with some important evidence he's hiding, and the hunky IRS agent comes in and she has to tell him what she's doing in there (presumably not the truth). Where would you report her thoughts and feelings, and what would you NOT do?


Sunday, December 12, 2010

Self-deception-- Character/scene question

Question. Let's say you have a point-of-view character who is lying to himself. Example:
Tony grew up in a vagabond family, and never put down roots. Now he's grown and he's chosen his own path of stability. He bought a home, keeps the same job for years, even drinks at the same pub every Saturday evening. He's as settled as they come.

But his brother comes into town and suggests a grand adventure, "like the ones Mom and Dad used to take us on," taking a couple months to hike the entire Grand Canyon. Tony would probably have to quit work, but so what?

Now how would you do a scene where Tony tells himself and his brother that an adventure is the last thing he wants? He marshals all sorts of good reasons he can't join bro, and they're good reasons. But underneath, he so wants to go. Really. The old vagabond spirit has been reawakened. But he knows his life is here in Podunkville, and he wants to want it. He doesn't want to want to run off with his brother for adventure.

So... how would you show him-- internally and in dialogue-- saying that of course he can't go vagabonding, that his life is here, that he doesn't WANT to leave, that he's never been happier, that of course he's not bored, that he's not that rootless wanderer anymore and has no desire to return to that life.

And how, within that, would you let the reader know (if not Tony) that he really is itching to go with his brother, that part of him longs for adventure, that he's at least partly lying to himself when he says he's no longer a vagabond even at heart?

That is, how do you show what he thinks is the truth, while letting the reader know it's at least partly self-deception?

I mean in first-person or deep third point of view, no omniscient.


Friday, December 10, 2010

Romance Endings

Romance follows fairy tale structure. Not mythic quest structure. Can't say that often enough. Study Voegler, study Campbell, if you think it will give you something to think about or a point of comparison. But never forget, dear romance author, that you're actually writing a fairy tale.

Exhibit A

Say it with me now. Fill in the blanks.

"And they all lived ______ _______ _______."

This concept is so intrinsic to genre romance that authors have shorthanded it: HEA, for Happily Ever After, a/k/a the way the good romance novel ends.

There is some debate about the shape and form of that HEA ending. Vladimir Propp, the Russian formalist who studied thousands of local wonder tales and created a 31-step template for this type of folklore, held that the final step was a wedding. All other steps -- whether obstacles, challenges, triumphs, or meetings -- led inexorably to the wedding IF the protagonist was successful on the journey. Cinderella marries the Prince in the final moments of her story.

Now we're less inclined to view a formal wedding ceremony as essential to the HEA. Now we discuss this ingredient in terms of the promise of commitment or the proof of an enduring relationship. Regardless, the final moments of a romance novel will demonstrate to the reader that the pair-bond has been created and will not break. The form of that pair-bond can vary a little, but its presence is mandatory.

Or, as Leslie Wainger puts it in Writing a Romance Novel for Dummies (which is actually a damned smart book),

The final expectation every reader has when reading a romance novel is that it will end with the hero and heroine expecting to spend their lives together and face any future trials as one.

Compare this to the mythic quest structure, which ends with the hero recrossing a threshold and becoming the master of two worlds. Dorothy returns to Kansas in the end and is as comfortable there as in Oz. But she doesn't marry the wizard, does she? Of course not. Marriage can occur along the path of the hero's journey, but it's not the destination.

I'm going to keep this short -- there's more I could say on this subject, but my goal in this post is to make you think about the differences between fairy tale endings and mythic quest endings. A lot of you are going to resist these ideas because you've been taught quest structure as if there are no other options. There are. And we use them. We just don't always recognize them.


Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Define "Ordinary"

We periodically get interested around here in the concept of ordinary world in the mythic quest structure. I don't know why this happens. I don't know why this is a hot button topic for so many writers. Do you?

In any case, last week on our working retreat to San Francisco, Alicia and I found ourselves once again talking about ordinary world and some of the concepts and comments we've kicked around here over the years. One concept in particular kept recurring -- that is, the difference between ordinary environment and ordinary character. This kept recurring because of last month's Ask an Editor column at Romance University, where I answered some FAQs about ordinary world. In part, that column mentions an idea advanced by the folklorist Vladimir Propp, namely, that folklore structure begins with an ordinary (pure and virtuous) character in a treacherous or unsettled environment. This is almost the perfect reverse of the ordinary world familiar to students of Campbell and Voegler, in which (in at least some iterations) an extraordinary character is placed into an ordinary environment for safekeeping.

It's Harry Potter versus Cinderella.

In Harry Potter, which tracks the mythic structure almost perfectly, the character is not ordinary. He has special abilities and powers which have been largely dormant or ignored. The special outside world associated with those abilities has been hidden from his view. He has been placed for safekeeping in an "ordinary world" -- in this story, the term is quite literal because nothing non-ordinary or magical can intrude.

Special character, ordinary world.

Cinderella follows fairy tale structure, but whether it follows it perfectly depends on which Cinderella we discuss. There are many versions of this tale, and not all of them include stepsisters. But for those that do, the set-up generally references a few key points:
  1. Cinderella is an obedient girl with a sweet, unassuming temperament.
  2. But this virtuous nature is uncoupled with any special powers or attributes.
  3. Her existing world is threatening or dangerous thanks to the presence of evil people in the home. (Resulting from Propp's "Absentation" -- the death of the mother, which disrupts the existing world.)
The question we often hear asked of Cinderella is, "How does she manage to remain so pure in that house?" Because, let's be honest, sooner or later many of us would snap and pummel the stepsisters with that damn broom. But Cinderella never does, and that purity of virtue is precisely what constitutes the "ordinariness" of this character type. In other words, one of the central tenets of this type of wonder tale is that goodness is an ordinary quality for a hero or heroine, that even in an impure world, a heroic character remains pure. It's their nature.

Mythic = extraordinary character in an ordinary world
Folkloric = ordinary (heroic) character in a threatening world

From there, the two structures deviate in particular ways even as they reflect each other. For example, in mythic structure, there's a call to action which is initially ignored. In folkloric structure, there's an interdiction which is similarly ignored. But where the myth demands action, the folk tale prohibits it.

In any case, this might be very interesting in an academic sense, but what has it to do with writing actual books? A book is written in scenes. (Please, Gods of Literature, let most books be written in scenes.) Scenes, as we've discussed many times here before, are composed of three elements:
  1. A character
  2. In meaningful motion
  3. Against a background
The nature of the three elements varies somewhat depending on the scene itself, but that's the basic recipe. Character, action, setting. And depending on the story form you're incorporating, your "ordinary world" might not refer to the world/setting at all, but to the character. Think about the source of ordinariness before the story kicks into gear -- don't merely think about how much ordinary world you need, or how to transition out of it, but think about what is ordinary and what changes.

But probably "ordinary" won't refer to the action. Anyone care to take a stab at explaining why?


Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Sequence and emotion

Another post about why sequence is essential:

The conflict of the earlier scene guides the emotion of the next scene. The reader will assume (rightly, of course) that the first event will have some effect on the characters, and that they will show that effect, even if they try to hide it, in the immediately succeeding scene.

So if we have, say, Tony discovering that the mole has to be in his own department in Chapter 12, then the romantic interlude in Chapter 13 isn't going to be just playful and flirtatious, as it might have been earlier. He is going to be preoccupied with this dilemma, and perhaps this has made him wonder who else is betraying him. So while he might try to participate in her playful flirtation, the dark distrusting mood will out. He might suddenly demand what she meant by some flirtatious line, or lose focus. And she will notice, and become more hesitant, wary of giving offense. Or maybe he'll be even more flirtatious than ever, but with a hard edge that says something's changed.

At any rate, what might have been just an interlude in, say, Chapter 8, becomes a development of emotional complexity in the aftermath of the event. So even if we have something that -has to happen- right here that doesn't directly descend from the Big Event, there's going to be emotional residue, and if we want the readers to believe in these characters, we have to show them plausibly affected by the events we put them through.

So maybe Beth has to go to work in the morning and pretend she doesn't know what she just found out. Or maybe Lionel has to drop his kids off at school and not say a word about being laid off. But no matter what, if this scene happens after they experience an event, they will show some (however subtle) effect of that event in their emotion, their interaction, their dialogue.

It always helps me to -- before I write the second scene-- imagine myself in the character's body after The Big Event, and let the feeling wash through me. Then I know when I write his flirtation, the harder edge will come out; that when I show her chatting with her colleagues, she might lose focus on what they're saying. Everything in the scene might be the same in terms of what happens, but how the character feels and acts within the scene will be different.

So think of a scene sequence you have, where there's some big troubling event. How are you showing the "residue" in the immediate next scene?


Saturday, December 4, 2010

Deep art thought

Art is the lie that tells the truth.

What do you think?


Thursday, December 2, 2010

Question about character motivation and action

More sequence stuff.

Let's say your main character has some traits or is going to commit some actions that are likely to come across as unsympathetic to the reader.

For example, the heroine is a liar. Can't get around it. She resorts to puffing up her accomplishments whenever she feels inferior or is put on the spot.

Now assume that's essential to the plot, that one lie is going to get her in big trouble and thus pull her into the plot of political intrigue.

Also you see her deceptiveness as coming from her past, growing up with an alcoholic parent who required heroine to lie frequently in order to keep the family together ("My mother has bronchitis, Mr. Smith, and can't come to work," "Oh, don't worry, Ms. Social Worker. Daddy is still here and he's the one who gets us off to school in the morning."). That is, you have a scene with her mother planned, something that will show that in her childhood, lying was a defense mechanism.

So... anyway, you have three characterization revelators, and I'm wondering in what order you'd put them, and why, and what result different orders might create.

Here they are:
1) The backstory about the alcoholic mother and deserting father and the need to lie. (This could be revealed in a flashback or in the present, maybe a phone call or meeting with her mother or someone else in the past-- your choice.

2) The lie which drags her into the main external plot-- THE lie.

3) The pattern of lying that makes it clear that THE lie isn't just a one-time thing.

Imagine that each of these would be revealed in its own scene. (That isn't the only way to do this -- you could smush two into the same scene, or reveal one over several scenes-- but for the sake of simplicity, let's consider that you have three separate scenes.)

In what order would you have them and why? I don't mean they all have to be together, but if you have one a lot later than the others, tell us why?