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!

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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.

The Bad Side

It’s easy to want to make your central characters the “good guys”, and therefore nice people; even if they aren’t perfect, per se, they can end up with nothing particularly “wrong” with them, no real flaws, just sort of humdrum, plain-vanilla people.  They’re okay.  They’re not offensive.  They seem like they’d be all right to have dinner with sometime, but you wouldn’t go out of your way to find out more about them.

Wait, these are your characters.  You need people to give a damn.  You need people to want to dig around in these people’s trash cans and browser histories, spy on them when they don’t know anyone’s looking, and draw them out so they’ll tell us crazy stories about their lives.  Let them be offensive sometimes, make the wrong decision, take the wrong side, make mistakes, act inappropriately defensive, and use messy logic to justify behavior that isn’t really justifiable or logical.

It can be tricky to balance flaws so that they don’t make readers dislike a character, but I’ve found that most of the time what carries the characters I like in spite of their bad sides is just that they are all-around strong personalities.  It’s pretty simple.  A little boldness, determination, or pluck in the face of hard times will make up for a fair bit of bad behavior.  Inner conflict and self-awareness will counter a few bad decisions or ill-chosen reactions.

The hard part, sometimes, is coming up with what flaws you want your character to have.  You don’t want to just tack them on like it’s Pin the Tail on the Donkey, either…they have to feel like they fit the character, like they stem from somewhere in their past or the side of themselves they keep hidden.  Anyway, here are some ways to choose flaws for your characters:

  • Take any of your character’s “good” traits and turn it into a flaw.  I’ve written entries about this before on this blog.  Make determination turn into stubbornness sometimes, or edge heroic deeds with a little narcissistic tendency.  Make a good sense of humor into a defense mechanism or courage into simply not thinking through consequences before acting.
  • You know those zodiac descriptions listing what your birth sign is supposed to mean about you?  Well, a lot of it is an ego-stroke about how cool you are if you’re this-or-that sign, but they do list negative traits, too.  Read for the bad stuff, and come up with a few things that fit for your character.
  • Plan ahead.  What character flaws would benefit the story?  If your protagonist is too cocky and makes mistakes early on, will that be a great way to land her in the bad circumstances you’ve got lined up for the middle of the book?  Great.  Make her cocky.  Think about why people do dumb stuff, make choices that are obviously not good for them, etc.  Some inner issue that person hasn’t overcome is often a contributing factor.
  • Balance characters against those closest to them.  You have a solid idea what one guy is like, what his hang-ups are, etc., but you’re not sure about his brother, who is another central character.  In the case of brothers, you’ve got a long history between them and the same household circumstances and family history growing up.  That’s a heck of a place to start from.  If one brother dealt with the family one way, how would that affect the other brother?  And if one brother has a particular strength, can that be an area of weakness for the other?  How do they compensate for one another, where do they clash, etc.?
  • Dialogue.  How does your character interact with other characters?  Is he funny?  Cutting?  Brusque?  Does he interrupt?  Does she take the lead in conversation?  Listen more than she talks?  This is what your character is putting out into the world of your story, how he or she is affecting the folks around him/her.  Pay attention.  What is your character giving away about the not-so-nice side of his personality?

Action!

Action scenes used to be the hardest thing for me to write.  I think partly I had trouble with them because I tend to work stories out visually first, almost daydreaming my scenes before or while I write them.  When the action is high, though, there’s too much happening too fast to write a play-by-play the same way I would with, say, a scene of dialogue between just two characters.  Bad enough to write a dialogue scene including six or seven people, which can get just as jumbled and messy as any climactic battle!

Over the years, though, I’ve gotten very comfortable with writing action sequences.  I still get anxious when I’m coming up on one, worrying if I’ll pull it off or if it’ll be a worthy payoff after a big lead-up – but once I get into the action, it’s almost always smooth sailing.

So how do you control the chaos of an action scene well enough to let the reader follow clearly what’s happening, but keep the feeling of chaos and speed?

Some of the things I try to do –

  • Keep your sentences simple and on the short side.  It doesn’t have to be Hemingway, but it just makes sense that it’s easier for people to keep up with complex action if your sentences are easy to follow.
  • Make your details count.  In fight-or-flight mode, our senses are heightened, but we also orient toward and lock onto the source of threat.  It’s built into our systems.  So with that in mind, are your characters going to notice the beautiful old oak trees in the background, or the tendons of an enemy’s arm clenching as he prepares to lunge forward with a knife?  Maybe there’s a vivid blur of green behind them, giving a sense of the lush forest surroundings, but a ‘vivid blur of green’ gives a lot more of a sense of (a) motion, speed, (b) heightened senses, and (c) the irrelevance of the world beyond the immediate confrontation.
  • Make your details COUNT.  Cliche details won’t get you anywhere with readers.  They’re already filling in stuff about the character’s heart pounding in her ears, because they’ve read it a million times.  So assume they know the character’s heart is pounding.  Great.  You get a freebie.  Now come up with something more personal, more telling, and use that as your detail.
  • If too much happens at once, let it be a little confusing.  Let the character or the narration describe the disorientation of being in that moment, but keep it in that moment.  You can explain what happened later.
  • Don’t spoil your action by telling every little step blow-by-blow.  Action scenes would be pretty boring if I had to read through every thrust and parry of a swordfight.  Give the highlights, the turning points, the moments of terror and the moments of hope, the instant the stakes get higher, and the moment of triumph or defeat.  Everything else is irrelevant, like having a vital exchange of dialogue interspersed with an unrelated conversation about so-and-so’s cute new shoes floating over from the next table.  Sure, maybe it would be there in real life, but that doesn’t mean it should be there in fiction.

Friday Exercise – Special Occasion

There’s an occasion or event of some kind – a holiday, a city-wide celebration, a party, etc.  Write an interaction between at least one character who’s excited about it and at least one character who’s dreading it.  No matter what they say aloud to one another about it, what are the real reasons they feel the way they do?  What’s under the surface for these people?  What associations do they each have with this occasion?

Good News, Bad News

I’m going to cheat again this Wednesday, and put up a writing prompt instead of a “proper” post:

Hit a character (or set of characters) with good news and bad news on the same day, but not about the same thing (i.e., not “The good news is, you don’t have tuberculosis.  The bad news is, you have emphysema.”)  How do the emotional reactions mix within the characters?  How do the characters interact with one another?  Who looks on the bright side, and who only sees the negative?  Who does your character go to first with either item of news?  Does he/she tell only the good news, and keep the bad to himself/herself, or vice versa?

Plot and Fundamental Human Needs

Characters have always been the easiest part of writing for me – they’re usually the first component of any story to occur to me, often the first to flesh out into something three-dimensional in my mind, and the primary source of conflict in most of my work stems from the characters and/or their own inner conflict(s).

However, I don’t like to limit too many of my plots (especially anything longer than a short story) to being purely character-driven.  It’s always harder for me to come up with external conflict I like that’s big enough for a book plot, so I use tools to brainstorm that kind of stuff.  One thing I turn to a lot is psychology/sociology.  Which sounds like it would lead straight back to internal stuff (which it does, sometimes).  But it gets me thinking about the external pressures people face, how different people react to the same circumstances in totally different ways, and how those varying reactions can become another external conflict in the story.

One thing I use to brainstorm is looking over basic human needs.  The precise wording, number, and definition varies from theory to theory, but it’s all pretty much the same stuff, just broken down differently.  There’s Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, in which the basic needs like sustenance and safety have to be fulfilled before the “higher” needs even matter to a given individual – which is an interesting point, in story terms.

There’s also a Wikipedia article on fundamental human needs with a nice little table with specific goals, actions, qualities, etc. related to each category of needs.  It defines fundamental needs as:

  • subsistence
  • protection
  • affection
  • understanding
  • participation
  • leisure
  • creation
  • identity
  • freedom

How do you make a plot out of fundamental human needs?  Well, as usual with writing, be sadistic to your characters.  Take some of these things away from them, or at least threaten to.  Or make them choose between two.  Or set two characters with two different problems with need fulfilment at odds with each other.  Or explore a community with an unfilfilled fundamental need, and how individuals’ reactions to the issue affect one another, making things worse for the others or better for the others.

To me, the best book plots often don’t have “bad guys” per se, just people who want different things, going about getting what they want in different ways, pulling at each other or pushing each other away, each one internally conflicted and each one affected by the events around them, as well.

Friday Exercise – Ordinary and Extraordinary

I pay a good deal of attention to the things I admire about the books I read and the movies I watch.  Last night I finally had the opportunity to watch No Country for Old Men.  I’ve always liked the Coen Brothers’ movies, back to Raising Arizona and, later, Fargo and O Brother, Where Art Thou?  Not only is the style of their humor absurdist and subtle, but there’s a kind of straightforwardly oddball quality to the very stories themselves, and yet the viewer is hopelessly drawn in to a cast of weird, illogical characters doing weird, illogical things, and about halfway through any of their movies, I’m so sucked in that I’d believe anything they put in front of me, regardless of how insane the circumstances had become.

One of the things that allows them to pull this off, and one of my favorite things about their films, is the combination of very ordinary folks with extraordinary circumstances and/or other characters who are somehow extraordinary.  And the way they present these “ordinary” people is beautiful – they aren’t boring, they’re not stereotypes, they’re not perfect…they’re quirky, they make jokes, they have hopes and fears and passions.  There is a beauty and a miraculousness to the ordinary people and their interactions with one another in the Coen Brothers’ movies, a sort of revelry in the simple and the everyday of decent, mostly-honest folks.  Which, of course, makes it all the more tense when these decent folks are up against psychotic killers.

So I actually have two writing exercises in mind in relation to these observations.  Do either, or do both.  It’s Friday, so you’ve got all weekend to do your homework assignments, children.  Haha!

1.  Write about two “normal” people in “normal” circumstances, but break away from stereotypes, and don’t let “normal” be boring.  Make some wisecracks in the dialogue, put some banter in, make one character uncomfortable and the other perfectly at ease.  Do they know each other, are they family, did they grow up in the same small town so they know all about each other even if they never talked much…?  It’s amazing how well people can know each other, and not know each other, at the same time when they’ve both lived in the same town for most (or all) of their lives.

2.  Throw some ordinary people in with some extraordinary people.  Your extraordinaries don’t necessarily have to be murderous lunatics (*cough* Fargo *cough* No Country for Old Men *cough*).  Make your ordinaries realistically full of enough personality to stand up as good characters even in the presence of flashier, more intense characters.

Choosing Curiosity

For the second week in a row, I’ve missed my Monday post – this time, because I was busy all weekend (thus, didn’t have time to write one in advance), and then started jury duty Monday morning.  So, like last Wednesday, I’m posting about writing instead of marketing with my Wednesday post.

To start with, here’s a little run-down of how my time has been spent lately:  last week (when I had the flu), over the course of this weekend (when I was out doing stuff, meeting and getting to know new people, hearing lots of memories and stories shared between friends, seeing new places and hearing the history these friends had there together, etc.), and so far this week (while waiting to be called from the jury pool room to trials, being questioned for possible selection to a jury, chatting with fellow jury pool members to pass the time, etc.).  All of this stuff is pretty much outside my normal routine, some of it understandably crappy (being sick, parking downtown, having to get up early (I’m a night person and an evening shift worker), sitting in a room for hours just waiting for something to happen), some of it understandably exciting and fun (my weekend), and some of it able to go either way (jury duty is very much all or nothing…either you’re just sitting around passing the time as best you can, or something important is happening).

That said, what’s been on my mind in terms of writing has been (a) the fact that breaking out of your normal routine does, indeed, get your brain going, (b) even if you don’t choose what breaks your routine and even if the break is unwanted and/or unpleasant, as a writer, you can use anything as an opportunity – any experience adds to what you know about life, and therefore what you can convincingly write about in your fiction, and (c)  anytime you’re stuck in a room full of other people, you’re sitting on a gold mine of observable material…characters, dialogue, quirks, mannerisms, backgrounds, story ideas….

One of the best things about being a writer, I think, is that we have the gift of being able to pull something positive out of any situation.  Whether it’s traumatic, aggravating, uncomfortable, or fantastically awesome, a writer can get at least a short story or a poem out of almost anything that happens.  At times in my life, that has been the one gleam of reassurance and positivity in the back of my mind – when things have been at the very depths of fear and trauma, I’ve had this calm, logical piece of myself that has told me, “This is going to be so good for your writing someday,” and patted me on the shoulder…it’s a soothing thought when you’re in a panic, a ray of hope in times of despair, a candle in the darkness.  Writers are lucky to have that.

In less dire circumstances, such as the aggravations of being in a jury pool (getting up ridiculously early and still being barely on time because of parking, monetary troubles, long lunch lines, chairs that make your butt hurt after 45 minutes, waiting around for stuff, not getting picked for a trial that sounded interesting, etc.) there’s still that happy little part of me that’s like, “Ooh, but shiny!  Now I know all this stuff about how this works that I didn’t know before!” and “Hey, this lady I’m sitting next to all damn day waiting to get pulled for a case knows an awful lot of cool stuff about [whatever]…wonder where that could lead?” and “Hm…this guy sure knows a lot about [historical event].  Has some good yarns to spin about the experience.  Let’s keep him talking!”

A writer can always choose to get curious – let yourself wonder about a system or a process you’re encountering for the first time, pay attention to what’s going on, listen to what other people are saying about it to you or to each other, watch the folks who’re on familiar ground and how they interact with one another and with the newbies, chat with people in waiting rooms, look around for anomalies, watch facial expressions.  It beats being bored anyday…and it’s good practise.  My theory is, the more you make it a habit to be observant and take note of your surroundings, the more generally inspired you’ll be, and the richer your details will become.

Interview

Send a character to a job interview.  You can start prior to the interview itself, with the character mentally preparing for it, or start with the actual exchange.

There’s a lot to be revealed here – why the character is switching jobs, what kind of job they have now and how they feel about it, what they’re striving for that this new job might offer (or may fail to offer), how the character feels about his/her life, how he/she deals with stress and his/her level of self-confidence, what his/her skills and qualifications are….  And that’s just the interviewee.

Your interviewer has a goal here too – what kind of person is he/she looking for, and why?  What will he/she like or dislike about another person?  What is a point of contention or a reason to pass judgement?  How does he/she feel about hiring someone new – maybe this person has never conducted an interview before, or maybe this is the millionth time in his/her career.  Maybe the vacant position belonged to a friend – or an enemy.

There are a million angles to approach this from, whole back stories the folks in this scene could bring to the table, and plenty of opportunity for conflict (both internal and external) to grow a story from.