Order and Chaos

In my post last Wednesday, I mentioned that, leading up to the climax of a story, every choice closes one door and opens three more.  That’s another of the things that makes The Middle the hardest part of a book to write – for me, anyway.  There are so many variables, an infinite number of ways to get the characters from Point A in the storyline to Point Z, and of course, any writer worth his/her salt wants to find The Best Way.

There is your first mistake.  Go with your instincts and don’t worry about whether it’s The Best Way or not.  If it isn’t, guess what?  You can rewrite it!  But often, I’ve written things in on impulse and trusted that there was some reason my brain wanted it in the story, only to find that the whole solution hinged on it or that it was the one thing that tied everything together in the end.  Also, many times I’ve written in something entirely useless and had to cut it, but the point is, you can cut something you don’t need, but if you don’t try anything out for fear it isn’t the right thing, you’ll stare at a screen all day and have no progress to show for it.

The difficulty in the middle of a story is that everything is in flux – as I mentioned last Wednesday, the beginning is a status quo and the end is a status quo, even if they’re vastly different.  In the middle, you have to create the chaos that demands change.  Except it can’t really be chaos.

It should seem messy to the characters, because when life gets demanding and we’re in transition, we feel like everything is up in the air, like things are beyond our control, and we don’t know what will happen next or how things will turn out or how best to rise to meet our challenges.  During times of major change, real people are plagued by these kinds of doubts and this sense of the unsure future.  Naturally, then, you want your characters to wonder what will become of them, how best to move forward, what’s really going on, etc.

But your plot cannot be chaos to you, the writer, obviously.  To you, there must be a clear direction at all times, at least one purpose for each scene, a reason behind every choice every character makes, and an overall structure to the “chaos” of the plot.  Simultaneously, you have to keep your characters in the dark, never forgetting that they don’t know what you know, letting them reach the conclusions that are logical to them based on the information you’ve provided them with through revelation, other characters, personal interests, or twists of fate.  They have to find everything out on their own, though – they can’t just Know to go to such-and-such place at such-and-such time to find the person they’re looking for…and you can’t get away with very many fortunate coincidences, either.  They have to make their decisions because those are the decisions this person you’ve written would make.

Dostoevsky’s character Dmitri Karamazov is the kind of guy who would lose his temper and humiliate a man in public, and he’s also the kind of guy who is sorry for it later, when he finds out how badly it’s affected the man’s little boy.  Thomas Hardy’s character Tess is the kind of woman who would suffer for her principles, in spite of an easy out.  Emily Bronte’s Heathcliff could’ve chosen to find happiness somewhere other than with Catherine, but he’s not that kind of person – he’s the kind of person who’d rather live in bitterness and spite and hatred for the rest of his life, as long as it meant everyone around him had to suffer for it, too.

Choose your characters’ basic personalities carefully – because even if you plan to transform a character, the choices they make before they change are going to be based on who they are to begin with.  A lot of the time, you need a character who is a certain way to carry off a certain plot.  I needed a stubborn, authority-hating, single-minded person to narrate my Erica Flynn novel – nobody else would’ve made the same choices.

Friday Exercise – WHAT Did You Just Say To Me?

Oh, misunderstandings!  You are the curse of the social animal.  Sometimes funny, sometimes tragic, from minor to life-changing, miscommunications happen all the time.  Write an exchange of dialogue in which 2 characters are completely missing what the other person is saying.

Maybe one is being completely straightforward and clear, and the other is assuming subliminal meanings or ulterior motives that aren’t there.  Maybe they’re both playing coy, but misunderstanding one another’s meaning because neither one is being clear.  Maybe one is taking what the other is saying the wrong way, or seeing a threat where none is intended.  Maybe one of them is flat hard of hearing, and literally can’t tell what in the world the other person is saying.  Maybe connotation is in the way – what’s offensive or insulting to one person isn’t always a bad thing at all to someone else.

There’s the prompt.  Now see where it takes you!

Pacing & Payoffs

On the subject of the middles of stories and novels, the foremost topic that comes to my mind is pacing.  The road of pacing is fraught with many perils, traps, meanderings, and pitfalls.  It’s one of the single hardest things to fix about any given part of a story, if it goes wrong to begin with.

Pacing, like most things, is a continuum with two extremes at either end.  Slow pacing is boring because the story drags out longer than necessary to get to any satisfying point(s) in the storyline.  Fast pacing is also boring, because too much is going on to take any satisfaction in the events of the storyline.  What’s the key in both cases?  A sense of satisfaction.

Before you can be satisfied with something, you have to start out by having a desire – take eating, for instance.  If you’re hungry, you eat something, and you feel satisfied if the meal is good.  If you’re not hungry, maybe you still have a craving for a certain food, and if you eat that certain food, your craving is satisfied.  If you’re not hungry and you don’t have any desire for a specific favorite taste, then eating is anything but satisfying – even if you eat compulsively, the whole point is that you are never satisfied.

So you have to make the reader want something from your story, to begin with.  That’s your series of narrative hooks, where you plant the seeds of interest, curiosity, questions that need answers, the wish for a character to excel or be crushed, etc.  Once you have that established, the trick is to give them payoffs along the way while simultaneously planting more hopes/wishes/questions in their brains for the story yet to unfold.

Some tips about middles, payoffs, and lead-ups:

  • Sufficient payoff for the amount of lead-up attached to the event or realization.  If you’ve spent the whole book leading up to this moment, then this scene is your climax, and you need to make it count.  If there’s been only a hint or two, this either needs to be an unexpected major turning point, or it needs to be okay that this scene is only a minor moment of satisfaction – a hint to your audience that you know what you’re doing and they can trust you to give them more.
  • If you’ve built this up as something important, it needs to alter the story and/or the characters in some way.  A big action sequence that leaves the characters and the story right where they were before the action is a waste of words and a waste of time.
  • A payoff scene should raise the stakes, change someone’s mind about something, reveal a new side of someone, alter the dynamics between two or more characters, move the plot or at least a subplot forward and/or link a subplot to the main storyline, and/or answer at least one question raised in the earlier part of the story.
  • Your protagonist must suffer to achieve his/her satisfaction.  There is no growth without pain, and there is no story without growth.  Readers want to root for someone who’s having a hard time and toughing through it the best they can.  The reader’s sense of satisfaction in the high points of your protagonist’s journey are only as strong as the severity of what the protagonist faces at the low points, and how well he or she bears that suffering.
  • Until you’re approaching your wrap-up, continue to raise questions, doubts, internal waverings, and so on as you write scenes to answer for the previous questions and doubts and so on.  Every choice closes one door and opens three more, as you head toward the climax.  The immediate lead-in to your climax is where that changes, where choices narrow and everything suddenly hinges on THE HERE AND NOW for your characters.
  • Give a moment, even just a line or two, of reflection after a big change, heavy action, heated dialogue, etc.  Make sure you give voice to the aftermath, the undertones of your characters’ feelings, etc.  After an argument with someone you’re close to, you may be angry, but there are raw vulnerabilities rattling around in your head that you normally ignore.  There’s emotional exhaustion.  There might be unexpected tenderness toward the person you’re at odds with.  There may be a battle in your head about whether to push the person away or whether to pull close to them again.  Bring this stuff out in your characters in these “aftermath” moments, and your pacing will be the better for it – your story will be deeper for it, too, and your characters more accessible and more “real” to the reader.

5 Tips on Dialogue

  1. If you haven’t heard yet, dialogue tags – he said’s and she said’s – are best kept minimal.  Use other methods of making it clear who’s talking:  distinct speech patterns, word choices, accents, etc.; gestures or actions; dialogue that only one character would say (you know the blunt one is the one who made the rude comment, the peacemaker character is the one apologizing for it, and the stranger is the one reacting, for example).
  2. Make it realistic.  I don’t care how dramatic it sounds, if it’s something no one would say in real life, don’t have someone say it in your book.  If it sounds like something out of a cheesy movie when you read it out loud to yourself, you need to rewrite it, unless you have a drama queen (or king) on your hands in the form of a character, in which case other characters need to roll their eyes so your readers don’t have to.
  3. Even in fantasy, science fiction, historical fiction, etc., bear the above in mind.  Yes, people speak differently at different time periods or imaginary representations of different time periods.  Regardless, stilted dialogue is a turn-off to most readers, and it’s all the more important to make it sound natural, even if the word choice is more formal or more slang-ridden than what you’d get in a mainstream novel.  Fantasy with cornball dialogue is a particular annoyance of mine, referred to as “forsoothly fantasy”, because it makes me embarrassed to associate any of my own work with the genre.  Don’t ruin it for me, okay?  I want to be proud of what I write.
  4. Always read your dialogue aloud to yourself at some point in your writing process.  Even if you have to mutter it under your breath because you write in a library or a coffee shop, you need to check out how your dialogue sounds.  You’ll catch phrases that no one would really say, sentences that are too long or complex for dialogue, dialogue that’s slipping into narration and needs to be broken up with interruptions or needs to be more conversationally phrased…all kinds of things that can slip by unnoticed if you’ve never read your dialogue aloud.
  5. Never forget that you can skim over the boring parts of an exchange between characters.  Yes, in real life, we greet and ask, “How are you,” back and forth a couple times and ask about basic stuff like the weather and so on to get a conversation started.  In a book, you can just say, They exchanged greetings, bantering about the heat of the summer before Bob finally said, “So, what’s the news on this ‘Rest Stop Killer?'” or whatever.  See, right to the point, and you got a little detail in there as well.

Friday Exercise – Compiling Conflicts

A crisis occurs in your story.  Doesn’t matter what kind of crisis; any crisis will do.  Obviously, that means there’s conflict occurring – but don’t stop at one conflict.  Dig a little deeper into the situation, and find at least 3 forms of conflict within this one event.

As an example, say one character is threatening another.  The obvious conflict here is one character vs. another.  But then there’s the threatened character’s response to account for – are anger and fear battling for dominance?  The desire to strike first vs. the fear of repercussion or vs. the desire to do the “right thing”?  What about other external factors?  Is another character pushing one of the others toward a certain decision, angling for a certain outcome?  Or is the threatener internally conflicted, too?  Or do the police get involved?  And are there legal considerations at odds with one another in this instance?

The more angles you have on any conflict you write about, the more depth you can put into it, the more you can make it count, the more your characters will come across as “real people”, and the more intriguing the events themselves will be.

Middles and Endings

I’m thinking of devoting my Wednesday posts to topics on middles and ends.  It seems only fair, since my Friday posts are exercises – and exercises are generally for the purpose of getting started.  Beginnings get all the glory, with writing, and in some ways that makes sense.  After all, nobody will get to the middle or end of your book if you don’t have a stand-out opening.  Readers and agents judge you by your first few pages, your first few paragraphs, your first few sentences.  I, myself, as a browser of books, have often put a book back after reading the first line.

However, there’s nothing more disappointing in the world of readership than a book that starts great and goes steadily (or abruptly) downhill from there.  It’s frustrating, because the writer has gotten you invested in the story, convinced you to care about the characters, and lured you into taking the time and attention to find out What Happens Next, only to let you down.  I hate it when I’m invested enough in a book that I can’t just stop reading it, but wish I could just stop reading it.

Like most avid readers, I have a hefty stack of titles I want to get around to, and if you hook me into reading your work, I expect something back for my investment.  If I don’t get it, I’ll be disgusted with you as a writer, resent you for wasting my time, and I’ll never buy or recommend another of your books…ever.  This is not the reader response an author wants, obviously.

The beginning’s job is to catch the attention of the reader and make them want to find out about the plot and the people in your story.  Once you do that, you have an obligation to follow through with a middle that does its job well – being the story.  That’s the middle’s job.

All the elements of being the story (questions raised and answered, intrigue and tension built and relieved, complications arising and being overcome (or not), downfalls suffered, redemptions achieved) have to work together to advance your plot in a way that holds the reader’s attention.  It isn’t enough to have an interesting plot.  You have to have the storytelling skills to tell it in an interesting way.  I’ve read a few books, actually, that I loved in spite of a weak plot simply because they were told in a way that kept me turning the pages, thirsty for more, curious about the characters’ next moves.

Which leaves, of course, the end.  Last but not least, dear ending.  You are just as important as the beginning, except during the slush pile years.  The ending’s job, then, is to be the payoff.  Yes, it’s there to wrap things up, but just tying up your loose ends or saying Happily Ever After may not be enough.

True, there are some genres we expect a certain type of ending from – horror usually ends with a twist or a final scare, sometimes the gruesome death of a character who thought he/she had gotten away; romance is often the happily-ever-after scenario; a series will sometimes set up the conflict for the next novel; etc.

Specifics aside, however, I think what makes for a truly great ending is this:

  • A sense of how things have changed, especially in the characters’ internal landscapes.  A sense of how far things have come or how far things have gone.
  • A sort of Zen acknowledgement that things began in a status quo and that things will return to a status quo, even if the new status quo is entirely different from the old.
  • A payoff worthy of the journey, whether your book is a wild adventure or an introspective/interpersonal struggle.  A payoff that suits the story, too.  Don’t get melodramatic if the rest of the book was low-key and subtle.  Don’t have a drawn-out, ho-hum ending to a book full of explosions and gunslinging.  Don’t kill someone off arbitrarily just to end on a poignant note if the rest of your book was light-hearted.

Stereotype Busting: The Token Chick

While I love a well-written strong female character, and appreciate that women get better roles in rip-roaring adventure stories these days than we used to, I’d rather have a story with no women than with badly written ones.  Most guys probably feel the same way about romance novel men.

Top 5 most annoying things in a token, stereotyped “strong female” character:

1.  She’s always right.  No way is anyone always right, and making a token strong female character always right just makes her annoying.

2.  She’s the only woman in the world, somehow.  All the men in the story are interested in her.  Sure, most people are attracted to confidence and strength, but if she’s the only confident, strong woman around, then she’s clearly just a token to equality and not a real person at all, which defeats the purpose of having a token to equality in the first place and gives you a lousy character.

3.  She’s got to be pretty.  Really?  Always?  We can have guy heroes who are scarred up, fat, or funny-looking yet somehow charming in spite of it, but our heroines have to be slim, young, and pretty?  Get over it.  Charlotte Bronte already proved you can have a good heroine without good looks with Jane Eyre, and that was in 1847.  Especially since it’s a book.  No one is going to see your heroine unless you hit it big and get movie rights, in which case they’ll have someone pretty play her, anyway, no matter what you wrote.

4.  She’s either 100% good and pure or

5.  She’s 100% ruthless and cruel.  Either way, she’s a lousy character, and I don’t know that being an aggressive, hateful person is the same thing as being a strong person.  Nor is being stupidly naive and just pretty enough to get away with it.

Friday Exercise – Pantheon

I feel like throwing out a purely-for-fun exercise today.  Maybe someone will get something out of it (maybe I will), or maybe it’ll just be fun.  Fun is never a bad thing, though, right?

If your main character were a member of some ancient pantheon of gods and goddesses, what would he/she be the god or goddess of?  Which pantheon would he fit best in – Greek, Hindu, Egyptian, or some made-up fusion…?  What symbols would her temple be decorated with?  What animal would represent him?

The character I’m currently working on, I’d probably put in a made-up pantheon, and he’d be a minor trickster god of luck, brotherhood, and woodlands.  A god you want to stay on the good side of, as he thinks he’s exceedingly funny when he’s bringing down bad luck on someone.  I’m calling the birch tree and the otter as his sacred symbol and animal representative, respectively.  Why an otter?  They’re clever, slick, deceptively charming, and adaptable.  That’s why!

An Oft-Neglected Element

It’s funny how easy it is to forget to mention certain sensory details, whereas others come out automatically.  Most of us go for visual description as our primary focus, with auditory details as a close second, touch being prominent mostly during scenes of sex or violence, with smell barely mentioned and taste almost forgotten.  Granted, it’s hard to separate taste and smell, since if one is mentioned the other is generally implied.

But even within the confines of visual and auditory elements, there is, in fiction in general, a woeful disregard for the atmospherics of weather.  It’s so much a part of our daily setting.  It can color our mood, affect our decisions for what to do with our day, change the dynamics of a conversation.  It changes the feel and flavor of the air, the smells that carry or get washed away, whether we listen to birdsong or rainfall all afternoon.  It can be soothing, frightening, frustrating, or blissful.

How the weather affects people can be anything from a home destroyed by a tornado or a flood to road rage from not having AC in the car, from draught affecting crops to seasonal depression.  A sudden thunderstorm could interrupt a lover’s spat, reuniting the couple as they run for cover together, forgetting their differences just long enough to realize the whole argument is unimportant compared to their mutual affection and respect for one another.  A hot summer day can sizzle away at a frustration until it festers into murderous rage.  A cool rain can bring relief and cleansing on a dusty, dry garden.  A snowstorm can trap a group of travelers, blocking their progress.  Torrential storms can force someone to pull off the highway, giving him time that maybe he’d rather not have to think about what he just said to his mother.  A clear, starry night can make a character feel small and insignificant and lost – or like she belongs to a larger whole, freeing her from the worries of the moment.

People talk about the weather, gripe about it, relish it, go out in it, stay in because of it, take shelter from it, survive it.  Writers, take note, and USE IT!