Monday, July 30, 2018
Now that we've demonstrated the process in the writing of my hypothetical autobiographic novel, The Higher Education of James Pressler, it’s time to introduce the next step – choosing fiction over reality.
Nothing is wrong with our autobiographic example as it stands. It has conflict and tension, some suspense depending on the writing, a proper hero’s journey, and plenty of opportunities for character growth that would engage the reader. And depending on the writing itself, it could be pretty involved. However, would a story from my life be more interesting to others with a little fiction thrown in?
Of course it would.
However, if we take this step, we need to make sure we no longer call it an autobiography, and just call it a fictionalized autobiography. And in doing so, it might be easier to no longer call the main character James Pressler, but my alter-ego, Tom Jurick. The story can still be loosely based on my life, but now Tom takes my beating… and more. Pat Conroy made a career out of fictionalizing his life, so why can’t we?
The beauty of a fictionalized autobiography is that it allows us to explore the alternate world of “what if” and peek behind a few curtains. Even if we can never truly know how things might’ve played out, we can toy with the idea of what might’ve happened, and even get some enjoyment about seeing how something could’ve been. Have you ever been driving home when you thought of the best comeback line ever to something someone said two hours ago, and you kick yourself for having not thought of it sooner? With a little fiction on your side, you get to say that perfect line and reap the rewards.
Looking at our original autobiography plan, we can see some things that it might lack, and areas where converting it to fiction can ramp up the challenge facing our hero. For example, my real-life story did not have an antagonist other than what the world did to me and what I did to myself. I grew up with parents who were neither abusive nor alcoholics, and I am not complaining. But maybe Tom Jurick wasn’t so lucky. Maybe his story had the setback of a troubled home life, and parents who didn’t believe in him. Now the story has a couple of antagonists, and Tom lives with them. That’s a complication that adds conflict to every page.
And as for all the setbacks and challenges to the story – those can be turned up, rearranged, or made to be even greater than anything real-life did. My car accident did wipe out my savings and I had to start from square one, but I still lived at home at that point. However, poor old Tom Jurick was living on his own when he trashed his car, and had to run up some debts and fall behind on the rent just trying to get back to square one. Also, maybe his car accident was worse than mine. Maybe? Guess what – I decided it was.
One of this blog's readers reminded me of a good example of this, so I thought I would give it mention. Tim O'Brien wrote an excellent fictionalized narrative of his time in Vietnam called, "The Things They Carried." He writes this based on his experiences from the war, and even uses his own name for the narrator, but creates a fog to obscure what was real and what wasn't. He wrote the book to accurately portray the emotional and psychological experience of the Vietnam War, but without making any personal claims about anything else, other than maybe himself. In this regard it is emotionally honest, but factually thin -- and intentionally so.
As you can see, fictionalizing a true story can give it a lot more intensity and draw in the reader that much more. The challenges become harder to overcome, the stakes are higher, the cost of failure more damaging than ever. Our alter-ego can go through things that we might have never survived, and it all makes for a good read. Just as long as we make sure that the hero’s journey is still believable and the reader isn’t so dejected that they give up on the story, we have the makings of a great novel.
And we can still proudly claim that some of it actually happened.
Friday, July 27, 2018
In continuing our process in writing the hypothetical best-selling novel, The Higher Education of James Pressler, we have our story arc, our twists and turns, the mood and the genre we will be using, and a good idea of the message. But as promised, there is one last thing that can make or break this. Actually – two things: Point of view and perspective (tense). And you can bet your manuscript that these need to work perfectly if you want to be published.
First, I recommend reading or re-reading an earlier post, “And So Begins the Process.” Looking at this again should serve as a checklist to make sure you have everything in order. And in that piece, you will notice the briefest of mentions about voice and tense. These are difficult to apply before a writer understands everything else about their story, but critical once the pieces all come together.
In an autobiographical story, it seems obvious to write the story in the first person, and in the past tense – that is how people sound when they narrate their life story. However, it is not the only option, and if you are feeling creative, the alternatives can offer a new look at the narrative.
Third-person autobiographies are written from the point of view of a narrator – possibly a supporting character or just an omnipresent entity – explaining the author’s story. This may seem like an odd approach, but it has advantages. Let’s say this story is still about my life, but told by the narrator. The narrator can discuss events that I never knew about at the time that would later influence my life – the reader can see the danger barreling toward me, and the suspense builds. In our hypothetical novel, the narrator could show me tucking away every nickel and dime to save for college, then break to a scene I never knew about – my father signing with a realtor to sell the house, knowing he could not afford to have me live with him once he relocated. The reader now sees two plot lines ready to collide, but I do not know what’s about to hit, just the reader. Try and turn away from that story.
However, choosing to remain in the first person can be an adventure as well. In explaining my adventure of trying to get to college, I could write it in the form of fifty-year-old me telling the story. Like our last example, this also has the advantage of offering information only discovered after-the-fact. The storytelling becomes more informed, though this narration can reduce the element of surprise. Tension can still be created, particularly if the novel starts with a story when I am at the lowest part of the adventure, then rewinds to the beginning so the decline can be experienced while the reader wonders how I can recover.
Conversely, the self-narrating style can be tweaked to go between present-day me setting the stage for the narrative, then switching to sections of my past, which would be written in the first-person present tense. This creates a change of voice that immediately tells the reader when the story is in the past or in the present, and the reader moves along with the narrative. This is particularly effective if present-day me has some big reveal at the end, because the reader will be thinking the real drama was in the sections covering the past, and hopefully be surprised by the new information.
(Editor’s note: If you write different sections in different tenses, make absolutely, positively, one-hundred-percent sure that you are consistent in your usage. It is very easy to confuse our tenses when writing our own stories, and it’s even easier for a publishing agent to see those mix-ups and throw away your manuscript.)
But all of this advice dwells in the autobiographic realm, and to be honest, there’s more to write about than ourselves. And if we ever do want to write a novel about a particular part of our lives, we might want to think about whether we want it to be autobiographic, or we want to really take the story to the next level – facts be damned. Turning a true-life story into fiction loosely based on true stories really opens up the playbook, but more rules come with it. The Higher Education of James Pressler could be an okay novel by sticking to the facts, but in the next post I will gladly show you what fiction can do to it.
Monday, July 23, 2018
In part one, I showcased how my personal process would apply in making the hypothetical autobiographical novel, “The Higher Education of James Pressler.” I built out the premise, laid out the basic plot arc, and demonstrated the three-act structure. And after all that, I showed how this wasn’t even close to being ready for writing. Not very nice, but let me continue.
Once we realize what direction the story is headed, we need to consider some of the basic story elements that we might not understand before we know the story arc. What is the story’s genre? Will this be written as a coming-of-age novel? A grown man’s reminiscence about past mistakes? A dark comedy? A thriller? A mystery? These all require certain structural techniques, and this will guide every word we type. This story would have to take on a totally different shape to be a thriller versus contemporary literature or the young adult genre.
Sometimes this does not become apparent until we are well into the process of writing, and it can just as easily change in mid-process. I admit that I have started writing personal stories under the idea that they were tragic tales of my past, but as the words came together, I saw the humor in them. I saw the innocent stupidity of someone thinking they could grab the world by the tail, only to get thrashed about. Life lessons can be painful, but sometimes the story lies past all that pain. Beyond all that anguish there’s a very funny story. Maybe not, but that’s why we write out these things – to discover what we are really getting into.
Once we consider the genre, we have to think about mood. Thrillers can be dark or energetic; stories from our past can be moody, confessional, lighthearted or truly sobering. In that regard, mood is different than genre just as the tempo of music is different than the style of music. Our mood should be the beat for this novel, and I personally think this current work should be serious but lighthearted, not taking itself too seriously. That’s how I write my personal stories, but there are plenty of directions to go.
One of my favorite authors, Pat Conroy (The Great Santini, The Lords of Discipline, and many more), wrote stories based on his earlier years. Some were only loosely tied to the past, but his deeper works explored family dysfunction with writing that could be as painful as self-surgery. However, for him this was a healing process, particularly considering he wrote about problems he had with family members who were in fact still alive. The Great Santini was a scathing novel about living under the parenting of a discipline-obsessed tyrant, based on his own father. Despite the friction it caused within the family, in the end he said the writing brought him and his father closer together.
However, not all self-reflection has to be so brutal. Frank McCourt wrote the excellently depressing Angela’s Ashes, but I often recommend a lesser-known work, Teacher Man. This is a very fascinating story based on his life as a teacher, prior to when Angela’s Ashes changed his life forever. It’s insightful and honest, but without the emotional gravity that makes Angela’s Ashes such a difficult read. It also has a very short but incredibly powerful last chapter, but that’s for another time.
(Side note: Frank McCourt published his first book, Angela's Ashes, at the age of 66. Never tell me you are too old to start writing)
So now that we at least want to try writing with a particular mood and for a particular genre, we look back to our three-act structure and consider just what the ideal ending is. As I suggested in the previous post, perhaps the best conclusion would take place on the first day of college – the goal achieved, the story concluded. But now we have to think about the realization that comes with this. Coming-of-age stories usually keep the finale clean and to-the-point – mission accomplished. A dark comedy can come with any bundle of endings, and it is not uncommon to leave the character with the realization, “What the hell have I gotten myself into?” Nothing is more satisfying in that genre than the person getting what they wished for, only to realize too late that it’s not what they wanted.
We also have to consider if the ending communicates the real message of the book. So many times in life, we pursue a goal but gain so much from the journey that the destination looks different once we reach it. My personal realization from the adventure that brought me to college was that I needed to go through all that pain and suffering beforehand in order to appreciate what college truly meant to me (that would also play to the title, The Higher Education of James Pressler). But if that is to be the final realization in act three, I better make sure that I don’t give that away in act one and I actually include important lessons throughout act two.
At this point, we are ready to write – almost. We only have a few simple writing decisions to make, but these can make or break how this story will play out
(to be concluded on Friday)
Friday, July 20, 2018
Everyone’s process is different, and the techniques can vary wildly from author to author. The only commonality is the end product – a story. Some people are very methodical, laying down outlines, mapping plot arcs, routing subplots and timelines until the structure for their novel looks like a Chicago subway map. Other authors are guided solely by instincts and a deep understanding of the story. Most everyone else lands somewhere in between those extremes.
Author Ron Bay Jr. (Lost Highway, The Boat) condensed his process to one simple sentence: “Once I know how the story will start and how it will end, all I need to do is fill in the 80,000 words in between.” He detests outlines, mostly because that is not how he tells stories. And that is ultimately how we develop our process.
The most important part of developing your process is understanding how you will address the issues we have mentioned in this blog. To explain this, I will demonstrate how I apply my process as I create a novel before your very eyes.
I will start with a simple adventure from my life – the point in my high school education where I decided I would go to college. We will call this book, “The Higher Education of James Pressler.” It sounds simple – probably way too simple. The idea for this story is something plenty of people do not care about or take for granted because they went through that adventure without a second thought. Therefore, the first thing I need to address is why this is different, and what immediate challenges make this worth reading.
First -- what sets things into motion, on to the adventure? Lots of people go to college because that's what is supposed to happen. In the case of my family, that was not so. Therefore, my call to action would be the realization that without a degree, life would never get easier. The immediate obstacle would be lack of money. Now we have the groundwork – the adventure does not start with applying to college, but with saving for school while barely making any money.
At this point, I might have an idea of where I want this story to end – the first day of college would be a pleasant finish. But a story about someone saving money sounds kind of boring. Now I have to consider what is holding the character back, what obstacles will he face, and what might distract the character from his journey.
Setbacks and obstacles can boil down to two categories – external and internal – and each comes with a different package of effects. External problems are beyond the character’s control, and can often be brutal because that's how the world works. Examples from our story would include:
- A car accident drains all my savings
- I unexpectedly have to move out on my own
- The company I work for goes under
These are excellent ways to add conflict to the story because they force a situation that demands a response. They put plans in disarray, they change the route toward the final goal, and can even challenge whether the mission is even worth it. Too many of these, however, and the story can feel like the character has no control over his life and is just a victim pushed around by the world.
Internal setbacks, however, are driven by the character’s own choices, and have to be believable to the reader to be effective. Any choice has to be justified by previous actions, and this is where the author starts thinking about whether a decision needs to be supported by previous actions. This is also usually the first source of rewriting chapters. For my story, the internal struggles can drive the story in many directions:
- Working extra hours for more money weighs on friendships
- Self-medicating (alcohol, smoking, pain pills) to address the stress of so much work
- Making more money challenges whether college is really necessary
While external challenges move the character around, internal decisions show the reader who the character is and what makes him tick. Bad decisions can humanize the character, difficult but necessary choices can win over the reader. Most importantly, the main character owns those actions, for better or worse. And in doing so, the reader is there with him, either agreeing or slapping their forehead in disgust.
When I prepare to write a novel, I know the route from plot point to plot point – I do not map it out before I start. However, as the story develops, things can change – and often do. At that point, I start taking notes and thinking about how the details of each chapter create potential obstacles that compound each other and can make for more engaging writing.
Let’s look at the first external problem listed above – the car accident. I know this part very well -- I lived through it. But now I recognize how the injuries factor into some of the internal challenges (self-medication in particular). This becomes an opportunity to emphasize the chronic pain from the accident and show how it weighs on future decisions. The different obstacles start compounding on each other and pulling away from that main goal – college.
Now, once all these problems are ganging up, I know there’s going to be a lot of tension and conflict. The reader can only wonder, “How will he ever reach his goal? Will he abandon that goal for something less satisfying?” And they will go through page after page, long into the night, wanting to find out what happens.
Oops – I put together so much tension that I forgot to map out what continues the hero’s journey. Right now, the story has me as a pill-popping workaholic who is losing sight of his goal of college, and there's a strong case to just give in and yield to the status quo. Unless a brilliant little bit of writing comes in, this might be a very disappointing book.
But we are still building our process.
(to be continued)
Monday, July 16, 2018
Before we get into structure, let me say this: The most important part of act three should be the reader turning pages furiously, unwilling to put the book down even though it’s well past two in the morning on a work night. If the reader isn’t desperate to see where this goes, act two might need a little more tension and build-up.
Therefore, the first part of act three should be the final conflict stage, where our main character becomes the hero by facing up to that final challenge. If she is seeking the reason behind her husband’s death, the final clue clicks into place to set act three into motion. If he has been looking for his long-lost birth parents, this is where the opportunity comes to meet them – or turn away. This is where the intrepid heroes confront the guardian at the gate, overcome their fears, and resolve the greatest obstacle of the book. But that’s not everything.
Most authors have no problem writing that final conflict – sometimes that’s the first scene they put to paper. But the third act is more than just a big emotional crescendo or battle to the death. For a novel to become a great novel, this is also the part where subplots are resolved and loose ends are tied up – the dénouement for you literary fiends.
Too often, attention goes to the big resolving moment but the supporting events are left to float. This leaves the reader screaming, “Did Jackie’s friend ever make up with them?” or “Aren’t they still suspects for that crime back on page 226?” This mistake can leave a reader very disappointed in the entire work simply because subplots were not resolved or addressed. As the saying goes, four-hundred brilliantly written pages can be ruined by twenty bad pages.
Lastly, a story will benefit by encapsulating how the character we know at the end has grown from the one we met in the first chapter. If their adventure took them on a different course than expected, does the character appreciate that new journey? What parts of their life are changed forever? Is this for better or worse? Action movies can get away with the good guy blowing up the bad guy and walking away from the fireball as the credits roll, but novels are far too in-depth and intimate to get away with that. After a few hundred pages, the reader will be parting ways with this character, and they will want to know how life will continue. At the very least, they want to know if the character is still conflicted.
In Jack Schaefer’s Western masterpiece, Shane, the story builds around the internal conflict of the title character, who is walking away from a life of violence. The tension builds externally as the characters around him fall prey to the notorious Luke Fletcher’s plans to grab all the land, which plays on Shane’s struggle to resist going back to the ways of his past. We learn about Shane in act one, and act two does an excellent job of bringing the situation to a boil. But act three isn't just about solving the external issue.
Act three brings us the final showdown between Shane against Fletcher and his men, but this is far from the concluding moment. This ends the source of external conflict in a pretty quick gunfight, but there's the internal battle. Shane loses his internal battle to put aside his violent ways. In his speech to the narrator, young Bob Starrett, he brings out the morality of the situation and explains how he must leave as a result of what happened. It’s far from a happy ending, but we feel satisfied that Shane has accepted what he did and could live with the consequences. (The movie version with Alan Ladd suggests a different ending, but that’s not for this blog.)
Probably the most difficult part of writing act three is making sure everything is tied up where it’s supposed to be, the plot lines are resolved, and the reader is satisfied (or intrigued if this is a series or a sequel is planned). Conclusions are difficult to write because the author already knows all the ins and outs of the story. In the author’s mind, everything is concluded, so why not on paper as well? That’s when the writing process becomes critical – the part where we take special care to note what we needed to say, where we remember all the things we wrote and rewrote, and take special care of our process.
Guess what the next post will be about…
Friday, July 13, 2018
Now that our protagonist has been called to action by the inciting event (all jargon from the last post), we now venture into act two. If you already know the arc of the story and the hero’s journey, then in all likelihood you know act two is easily the largest, most versatile, defining part of the story. This is the adventure, this is the journey that is far more important than the destination. Most importantly, this is where our character changes and grows, and endures all the trouble you can throw at them.
The formula for act two is far less certain than any other act because it is transitory. Since the character is now pursuing something, we know there is a goal. However, there are many routes to that, along with setbacks, surprises, and even the occasional change of plans. What might have started out as a pursuit of adventure may develop into a mission to save someone, to claim a great reward, or even to realize it was a big mistake and try to get back to safety – or all of the above. The route from A to B can sometimes go through the rest of the alphabet first.
What is important, however, is to ensure that each stage of the pursuit, each twist and turn, each plot development is critical to the character’s growth. Each stage of the story should have a quick, defining point that could easily be expressed. “Her attempt to help her friend creates tensions with other friends,” or “He tries to save the day but realizes he is driven by something other than noble intentions.” There has to be a cause and effect for each stage.
Furthermore, as we go through each stage, the events should raise the stakes in this mad pursuit. As one event leads to the next, the main character needs to have a greater investment in reaching the final conclusion, or a greater cost from failure. If we lack this, and the character just goes from moment to moment, is that really interesting? As I often tell developing writers, “I don’t want to read a story about someone just living day-to-day – I’m already living that.”
Our stories needs drama. Each event should somehow turn up the tension and make success not just a happy conclusion, but a necessary one. What if our main character goes on this mission, and loses his job because of it? What if there is the threat of his friends shunning him? His girlfriend leaving him? What if he chooses his pursuit and cancels his weekly visit with his mother, and she passes away shortly afterward? Not only does this raise the stakes on making this all work, but the reward better be worth all that he lost.
With each event and turn of the plot, we also need to offer a moment for our character to realize what is happening, or at least show the reader how our protagonist is moved by these events. Sometimes these moments are done in a very obvious fashion, like the character going to a bar and chatting up the bartender with a moment of awareness. Other times they are demonstrated, like when a character is faced with a choice he has made a thousand times, but now that he has grown from an experience, he chooses a different route. Even if the character does not learn the best lesson from the event, at least the reader can slap their forehead and say, “You totally missed the point!” The reader doesn’t agree, but is very much engaged with the character.
To make these events more effective, we should offer some kind of reason why the challenge is special. If a character has to cross a river gorge on a flimsy rope bridge, that provides suspense. However, if the reader was informed that the character is scared of heights, we now add tension to the moment because there is internal conflict of overcoming a fear along with the whole “I don’t want to die” thing. Does a character take his date to her favorite restaurant even though he has bad memories about that place? Or maybe our character realizes that someday he has to face that fear, but just can’t do it today. This usually requires some rewriting to build up our tension, but the payoff is always worth it.
Lastly, the conclusion of the second act is when everything has reached a boil. The author has to feel this moment; there is no clean way to describe it. But it is that moment where our character has been through all the trials, faced down their fears, prepared themselves to become the hero they were meant to be, and they now reach the critical moment. Whether this is some final fight, some moment of personal realization, or the major personal challenge, this is where all our suspense, tension and conflict reach critical mass. This can be an internal realization, but the more famous books have one defining event push things toward a final conclusion.
In Stephen King’s Cujo, the entire second act – the hero’s journey – takes place in a broken Ford Pinto parked out in the sun. The mother and her son are trapped inside, the monstrous, rabid Saint Bernard lurking nearby. Defenseless, the mother tries to figure out how to escape. Can she get to the garage and grab a weapon? Can she make it to the house and call for help? Should she run or can she sneak around? Will her son be safe if she fails? And all through this, it’s hot. There is no water in the car. No food. Her son is scared and showing signs of heat stroke. The temperature rises, the thirst grows, all while Cujo watches them. Tension, suspense, and the conditions getting so bad that inactivity is not an option.
Finally, the mother has to make the bravest, boldest of choices to save her son. And with that decision, she makes her move and rushes toward act three…
Monday, July 9, 2018
“In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.”
– Opening line, The Hobbit, J.R.R. Tolkien
As simple as a beginning this may be, it prompts the reader to move forward, to find out just what a hobbit is, why it lives in a hole, and so forth. For whatever may come next, if that first line does not convince the reader to move forward, they won’t read the rest of the book. This is how the opening act has to start. The first line needs to prompt the reader to move to the second, just as the first chapter has to prompt the reader to read the second chapter. But there’s more to the opening act than that.
In the classic three-act structure, the opening act has a few, very specific features. First and foremost, it needs to establish the setting and all the important elements required to get things rolling. We don’t need to know everything about our protagonist, but we need to discover the parts necessary in the run-up to the inciting event.
The inciting event? A critical element of the first act is the inciting event –the event that spurs our character’s journey. While the writer clearly knows what makes this the pivotal kickoff of the adventure, they need to inform the reader about why this is important to the character. If the inciting event is our protagonist’s wife leaving him, then the writer needs to offer elements that reveal why this is such a shock. If the main character saw his wife’s departure as inevitable, is this really an inciting event? The writer needs to show how the main character was deeply in love, how his world orbited around her, and he saw them together forever. That makes her sudden departure a big thing that catches the reader's attention. The writer can decide whether to show the reader if there were hints of an affair, if the husband had been blind to obvious signs of trouble, etc. But when the event hits, the reader should be left thinking, “Wow, that actually happened!” And they read forward.
The other critical element is the “call to action.” This is usually the event that puts the hero into motion, even if reluctantly. We see that the hero is taking a decision that will force them down a new road and an uncomfortable journey. As they take that step, we take it with them, marching proudly toward act two. This call to action does not have to send them heading directly toward the main arc, it only has to put the character into motion. Returning to the Tolkien theme (this time to the Lord of the Rings saga), Frodo’s call to action was not setting out to destroy the ring. His first step was a simple one – finding assistance for a mission he did not fully understand. And they marched into act two.
While the critical elements – introduction, the inciting event, and the call to action – are the bread and butter of act one, the order is not. Depending on the genre, the author’s desired mood, and all the supporting elements, we can play games with the order. In fact, some genres are defined by such tweaks.
In the classic thriller genre, tension and action are demanded as early as possible – from the first sentence if it’s a good one. Therefore, a thriller would kick off with the inciting event. In the above example, the first page could start with the main character coming home, bouquet of roses in hand, to find a farewell note on the table, or divorce papers and a half-empty house. Granted, a thriller usually has higher stakes than just divorce, but the point is still the same. The thriller should always have the reader thinking, “What will the main character do?”
However, works of suspense make the reader ask a different question – Why? Why did that happen? Why would such things happen? In our jilted husband case we have that same situation, but shifting the parts around. If we lead with our husband walking into a therapy session, trying to figure out how things went wrong, we see him at the call-to-action phase and ask “Why is he there?” Then we discover the inciting event and the blanks start filling in. Again, the main story doesn’t have to revolve around this man and his therapist – but this is the first step on his journey, and we follow it. And the suspense demands the reader to ask, “Why?”
And circling all of this is the information necessary to set the stage. Thrillers, suspense, whatever – information needs to be salted in throughout the beginning. With those genres that start with more pivotal plot elements, our information can be introduced through very targeted descriptions. In the thriller example, the bouquet of roses quickly and efficiently informs the reader about the man’s love, and that’s the most important piece of background information for that scene. We don’t need to worry about height, weight, eye color or any of that right now – we need to know his devotion and how his world has changed.
Once we have that information, and our protagonist is committed to the journey, we march toward act two… (which will be posted Friday)
Friday, July 6, 2018
Have you ever met someone who finds out you’re a writer and promptly reveals to you a great secret? This person has a great idea for the next best-selling book. The hero will be more popular than Harry Potter or Katniss Everdeen, and it’ll do more business than Harry, Kat, and the Twilight saga combined. This person has everything ready to go – all that needs to be done is the actual writing.
I hate that person.
However, hatred is not my style, so I just ask them to explain the story arc. They rarely know it. They talk about some cool fight scenes, and some great images in their head, and maybe one character they want to include who’s just like their hilarious college roommate, Pork Chop. But there’s no story. There never was a story. No epic saga. J. K. Rowling sleeps peacefully tonight.
Writing is a pretty empty tool if it can’t tell a story, and telling a story requires more than writing. It requires an understanding of what a story is, and how all those tools we’ve learned along the way can bring about this conclusion. This is where things really start to come together; where the tools meet the parts and we start putting together something powerful. This is where the rubber hits the road.
At the very least, every written piece should be written with the intent to say something, but size and style matter. A poem should express a mood, feeling, or sense of being, and that doesn’t take very many words (there will be a poetry post in a few weeks that I advise all writers look at). A poem creates a moment in isolation, so the structure is minimal and the demands are few. But as our works expand, so do the requirements of larger works, and we need more tools than just the written word.
A short story centers around the action-reaction of an event, usually with a situation-response-conclusion structure. This is a very early version of the complete three-act structure used in novels, and perfecting it strengthens all writing. However, short stories take advantage of their brevity to offer surprise third-act twists that come through the best in brief amounts. Edgar Allen Poe, O. Henry, Rod Serling and many other brilliant short-story writers used their limited space for sharp, surprising story-telling, often with ironic twists that have become hallmarks of writing.
In short stories we start using our tools of emotional description and scene-building, but only in ways that directly contribute to the story. We write with an economy of words, not an expanse. Foreshadowing is good as well, but kept limited and efficient because we are driving along a narrow path. Mood is important, but targeted. If there is a need for a subplot blended in with this story, we might want to think of a novella rather than a short story. However, plenty of short stories have become novels so feel free to change rhythm if that’s where the writing takes you.
Once we reach the level of a novel, we can consider the full story arc. The three-act structure mentioned with short stories can now grow to its full glory, with the individual acts now complex structures. Instead of the three steps of situation-response-conclusion, we now have the build-up to the call to action, the journey and its obstacles, and the resolving event. (don’t even get me started on five-act structure). And depending on our genre, these acts can each take on different shapes.
But the arc is never easy to see at first, and writing is worse if we don’t at least understand the structure. The three-act structure is by no means mandatory, but it is a natural fit for any situation (in or outside writing) where conflict resolution is involved. If you choose not to use it, at least understand how is doesn’t fit and what makes your approach the better one. A brilliant article by the writer, Emma Johnson, is an insightful breakdown of the three-act structure as it is used in the novel, The Hunger Games. It’s a highly recommended read, and hopefully an inspiration to get you writing that novel.
The next few posts will break down each act of the structure, and demonstrate the ways they have been applied in different writing genres. After learning those, you will have a pretty strong toolkit for working on your novel.
Then J. K. Rowling might lose some sleep.
Monday, July 2, 2018
“It is true that I have sent six bullets through the head of my best friend, and yet I hope to shew by this statement that I am not his murderer.”
– Opening line, The Thing on the Doorstep, H.P. Lovecraft, 1937
Horror may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but it is one of the best places to find examples of foreshadowing – particularly in the case of establishing mood. And while there is ample room for debate on who was the best, I place my money on H.P. Lovecraft. For all his faults in storytelling, he could set the stage with one sentence.
Mood, however, is not just saying or even showing, “this is horror” or “this is romance.” Hopefully, that part is a known factor before the story even starts. Mood is about the environment that sets up all the cues to prepare the reader for a particular experience. It can be as simple as the adverbs and adjectives used to fill out a scene, the attention to descriptive detail on the items that relate to the mood, or even the dialogue used. But it needs to fill in the emotional space to complete the experience, even if the experience is already expected.
When combined with narrative foreshadowing, the reader becomes firmly grounded in the story’s environment. Take the above quote as an example. From the first sentence, we are given warning of an upcoming event – a shooting – and yet so much more comes with. Someone confesses to killing their friend and doing so not with just one but rather six bullets, all while trying to convince us this was not so. It’s horror, but also confusion, a betrayed friendship, and at least some madness. The foreshadowing warns us of a friendship going south, but the mood here suggests the lead-up to the shooting will be a very dark and disturbing journey.
Grim indeed, but not the only application. This kind of description can also be used to create a very rich, real scene. Imagine a narrative about a jazz club. The first wave of description is immediate. A quintet is playing. Somewhere there should be an upright bass, a simple drum set-up, and a piano, with perhaps some brass in the back. A thick haze of tobacco smoke used to be common, but those days are long gone. But none of this (except maybe the smoke) is actually mood – it’s the setting. Mood is created with details that might not even add to the subject.
The mood comes in with the added features. How about the musicians? Are they dark-suited, heavy-set men buried under the shadow of porkpie hats, sweat pouring off their brows as thick hands squeeze soul from every instrument? Is there a silky-voiced woman atop the piano, long past her prime but still belting out every torch song in the book? Is the band just pasty-faced college students with flannels over pastel t-shirts, staring at their ankles as they drag Dave Brubeck into the Grunge era? Each of these creates more of a mood than a description of the music ever could. And once the reader feels that mood, their mind is now firmly grounded in that club.
Now, combining the mood with foreshadowing, you can set a very dramatic stage. If you want to set the stage for a tense, disturbing event, the details of the club can focus on the shadows, the unknowns. Musicians focused on their music but not seeing how they lost the crowd. The music played with a sense of urgency, as if the quintet wanted to end their set and get clear of the club as if a storm was coming that they didn't want to get caught in. This becomes a full, complete scene, established and filled out with merely a paragraph or two but creating a mood that will stick with the reader.
An appeal to the senses is always a good way to establish your setting, particularly if the description targets a particular sense and establishes mood around that feature. The jazz club example targeted visuals, but a more natural fit might be how everything sounded. And sound isn’t just restricted to the music. Sure, the musicians might be off-key, but were the instruments overwhelming the vocals? Was the crowd trying to talk with each other instead of listening? Was the place so empty that the few people in the crowd could hear the waitresses talking to each other by the bar? And if you want to appeal to smell, well… it’s a club. Most of the ones I went to smelled like someone put out a cheap cigar in a glass of gin and sweat. Take it from there.
I will just offer one last reminder about the purpose of mood. In a previous post, “The Emotional Description,” I discussed the importance of hitting the important details in a scene, of describing what mattered and what could be filled in by the reader. Now I add to that the contribution of mood. As we talk about those things that matter, we can now describe them in ways that contribute to our story. If we need to mention that a house is green, we can tweak that to enhance the mood. A good mood becomes, “The house was as green as summer itself, outshining all of nature’s splendor.” A dark mood uses the same color, but it becomes, “The bright green of the house was a distraction, a deception, drawing everyone’s eyes to the house’s siding and away from its windows and the secrets within.”
And now things are really rolling. It makes me wonder what could possibly make this writing any better? Well…