Take a passage of dialogue in which two characters are at odds (arguing, debating, or even just of differing opinions but being nice about it). Now set their dialogue within a tense situation (driving on icy roads, for example). See how the conversation goes under stressful conditions.
Friday is writing exercise day. Here’s a good one for conflict, characterization, and character dynamics. Inspired by my own lousy week:
Make three really crappy things happen to your character in the same week he or she has made a major life decision for the better. See how he/she reacts. More determined than ever for positive change, or ready to give up? Murderous rage by the third incident, or laughing at it by that time? Who’s around to help out, and who bolsters your character’s confidence when things look bad?
Fridays are now dedicated to writing exercises and other fun stuff related to the creative process, because, let’s face it, Fridays are supposed to be fun. Also, fun stuff is easier to come up with than real content, so this gives me a break at the end of the week. Ha!
In writing the Erica Flynn novel, I realized that I rely almost entirely on physically based reaction for conveying my characters’ feelings. “My heart thundered…” or “I felt myself flush…” or “I stood up shakily…” etc. Now, I think it’s good to lock emotion into a character’s body, because we DO have physical side effects to our feelings. It can be a good way to show a character’s own particular manifestation of an emotion, too – does she have a really strong grip because she constantly clenches her fists? Then anger is probably more than just a momentary feeling for her; it’s part of who she is. Does the character glare at other people when he’s mad, or look down at his hands? One of those tells me he’s aggressive (or at least confident!) and the other says he’s a guy who bottles stuff up and/or feels powerless for some reason or another.
There are a few problems with relying solely on physically based “tells” to convey your characters’ feelings, though. One, in the case of my novel, was that my characters were dead. Since part of the setup was the removal of the physical aspect of their emotions, I couldn’t use my own favorite tool. That’s what made me realize how much I used it.
Another problem is that it’s very easy to fall into cliché stuff about hearts pounding and the hair on the back of someone’s neck standing up and so on. Okay, so it’s something we all experience at one time or another and that’s WHY it’s a cliché, but a reader will skim over a phrase like that and get as much emotional impact from it as if you’d just left the line blank. I know I’ve caught some lame clichés like this in my writing, and had to work out a more original take to fix it.
The other problem, in my case, is simply that I lean on this particular tool so much that I’m baffled when I’m confronted with being unable to use it. Pushing past that for the Erica Flynn novel has been great for me as a writer, because the whole book was like a writing exercise to stretch my conveying-of-emotional-reaction muscle.
So my writing exercise for my beloved blog readers is this: write a scene or a story in which emotions run high, but only one indication of each character’s internal, physical sensation of his/her emotion is given. See how you can work around it!
So far, what I’ve picked up from my first NaNoWriMo is this: the hardest parts of any writing session are (a) getting started in the first place and (b) starting a new scene. Once I get rolling on a given scene, it’s easy – provided I don’t worry about researching anything and just put brackets with reminders to myself about where I need to fill in details later. Dialogue, especially involving any kind of disagreement, comes very easily, and inner turmoil fills out my word count faster than I even realize as I’m writing it.
Whether this says something about me as a person (confrontational, are we?) or whether it’s related to the fact that there is inherent conflict in those types of passages, I’m not sure. 😉
Another short post that’s more observation than anything else, but until the end of November, it seems this is all my brain is capable of blogging about.
I reread some of my own short stories this summer, and noticed that one of the running themes in my writing is isolation – which isn’t unusual. Isolation is addressed in tons of literature, art, and music. It’s an interesting concept to play around with, since it’s both universal and highly subjective, and it allows a writer to interweave internal and external conflicts with one fell swoop.
I say it’s highly subjective as well as universal because we all feel isolated by different situations from one another. Most of us feel isolated when we’re in an awkward social situation (alone in a crowd, as it were), but some people are comfortable with that feeling and others aren’t. Some people feel isolated when they’re alone, others feel more in tune with and connected to the world. Some people enjoy isolation. Others hate it. One person might feel terror and sadness at the idea of spending a night alone in the woods, away from civilization – someone else might feel pleasure at the idea of such an escape and revel in such isolation – someone else might not even feel isolated out in the woods by themselves. For some people, isolation and loneliness are the same thing, and for others, they’re two wholly different experiences of aloneness.
In terms of character dynamics, there’s a lot of emotion and depth to be mined and explored through these different takes on solitude. When does your character feel truly alone, and does he/she like that feeling, or dread it? Does he/she usually love being alone, but some specific situation triggers a completely opposite reaction from him/her – a reaction even he/she didn’t expect? A writer can get a lot of mileage out of that interplay between internal factors and external factors contributing to a character’s emotional state and reaction to his/her environment. We all need a sense of belonging, but we all also need a sense of freedom and individuality, and we all have to pit those needs against one another and balance them. Everyone does it a little differently, and that’s a pretty intense conflict to explore with your characters – it affects how they behave toward other characters and events, and how those characters and events, in turn, affect one another. And boy, can you really mess a character up by unbalancing their sense of belonging and their sense of freedom. Writing is a little sadistic, it’s true. Mess your characters up. Toy with their minds. Play on their weaknesses. Challenge them every chance you get.
Currently, I’m going through The Life & Death (But Mostly the Death) of Erica Flynn, working on polishing up the (hopefully) final draft. One of my missions is to tighten up the writing and trim the word count a bit–it stands at 105,000 words in its third draft. To make it more concise, I’m cutting unnecessary or generic words and phrases wherever I find them. In the first six chapters (it’s forty-something total) I’ve already cut a thousand words. A thousand unnecessary or generic words?!? How did I let that happen?!
Some of the generics that I over-used are “at the moment,” “just”, “kind of”, “sort of”, and “sometimes.” Qualifiers. Things that weaken the words around them. Now, in some cases, I kept these words and phrases in the text. The reason being, children, that Erica is a first person narrator, and consequently I have to keep the voice and style of the narration in keeping with her casual personality. It’s conversational, so the narrative almost becomes dialogue. I’m trying to keep enough of that in to maintain that tone without wasting the readers’ time or undermining the strength of what’s being conveyed.
The main culprit of word waste, however, is dialogue tags. Dialogue tags! Fie on ye!
He saids and she saids are killers of scenes. They drag at the dialogue they’re attached to, weighing it down. They’re repetitious and often distracting, especially if they come after every line. Every writer who’s ever been critiqued knows to try to work around them wherever possible. You put in actions and gestures instead. Facial expressions. Tone of voice. Use word choice and such to make it obvious who is speaking which lines even without tags.
I’m not generally bad about putting tags in where I don’t need to, but damn, have I caught a lot of them in the first six chapters of my book! O editor, edit thyself! The worst thing is, I even put in all that other stuff – action, gesture, expression, etc – to clearly indicate the speaker and then put the dialogue tags in anyway!!! So now I’m hacking them out again, and looking over it afterward, it reads so. much. better.
Learn, children, from my mistake. Do not do everything right to avoid overuse of dialogue tagging and then tag the damn dialogue anyway. You will save yourself hours of tedium by avoiding the fate that I have brought upon myself this day.
When it comes to creating well-balanced characters, one of the ways I like to think of it is that every character is a double-edged sword. Any trait in any character has its positive and its negative potential, which can be drawn out, played with, used to create internal conflict, and/or increase external tension between characters.
For example, let’s say you have a character with a lot of determination. Determination is good, right? But what do you call determination in someone who is determined to do something you would rather they didn’t do? You call it stubborn, hard-headed, contrary, or possibly stupid, depending on what the person is set on doing. Double-edged sword.
A character with a lot of confidence – confidence is good, right? It means charisma, leadership skills, self-assurance. That character better watch out, though. Confidence can become cockiness, and that opens up a lot of potential problems for your character. Even if he has a healthy sense of his own limitations, maybe other characters perceive him as cocky and dislike him for it – confidence in one character can lead to jealousy in other characters. Double-edged sword.
Turn the tables on your characters. The things you admire or hate about a character, try to see from another angle. What’s the opposing force in the equation? What extremes would pull an attribute toward being a flaw, or a flaw toward being an asset? A character’s greatest weakness can transform in to her greatest strength, or vice versa. If a character isn’t very self-aware, he’ll be in constant danger of losing himself to the negative side of his own personality. If he’s hyper-aware, that’s an issue in itself, and he’s going to question himself incessantly (hello, Dostoevsky).
Does your character have another trait that somehow keeps check on one of her double-edged aspects? She’s confident, but doesn’t get cocky because she also has a strong sense of humility. Uh-oh! Humility? That might slide into meekness if her confidence is down for some reason. Your character’s internal struggle and the external dynamics have even more potential now. This is great stuff for plot material, even if the story’s focus isn’t strictly about a character’s personal growth. Characters should grow in any story, for it to be truly good writing. Spy novel or literary fiction, science fiction or mainstream – a story will always be better for character development.
Let your heroes screw up. Let your villains always try to do the right thing. Let your characters be full, rounded people, in spite of labels like “hero”, “villain”, “protagonist”, or “antagonist”. We don’t have those labels in real life, and stories with characters who transcend those labels are the ones that keep me, at least, coming back for more.
In my last post, I wrote about getting details and subtleties across when your narrator doesn’t actually take note of them. It’s a much bigger issue for a novel or story written in the first person than a piece written in third person – which has me thinking about the pros and cons of writing in first person.
How do you decide what perspective to use for telling your story – especially a novel, where your commitment is long-term?
With The Life & Death (But Mostly the Death) of Erica Flynn, I had very strong reasons for telling the story directly from Erica Flynn’s point of view. With the novel I’m preparing for NaNoWriMo this November (working title as yet undecided), I have just as many reasons to write from third person perspective.
The first deciding factor, for me, is whether the main plot is one person’s story. Of course, each of your characters thinks it’s their own story, but you know better. You’re the writer. All your characters should have depth, and the more development you can show of a range of your characters, the better. If, at its core, though, the story is one character’s tale, then it can be told from a first person point of view. If the story hinges on multiple people, then you most likely don’t want to limit yourself to one person’s viewpoint.
First person’s advantages are many. It’s highly personal, and although you can do deep third person in which the characters thoughts and ideas and feelings are there in full detail (read Dostoevsky’s Crime & Punishment), there is something about a narration from your main character that just doesn’t come through any other way – like someone is telling the reader their own story. It gives your main character this quality of being a real person communicating directly to your reader. It also allows for characterization through the narration – your word choices, the details mentioned, the style of the writing, all contributes to your reader’s sense of your character. This was a huge part of writing my Erica Flynn novel – she’s a spunky, casual, humorous character, and I wanted that tone to color the whole book. It seemed only natural to have her tell it, and let the tone flow from the character herself. The personal nature of first person perspective was a factor, too – particularly since I kill Erica in the first chapter. It’s a bigger deal for the reader when the narrator tells you she’s going to be dead in a few pages than when it’s just some character – the assumption would be that this character won’t matter soon, and reader interest in that character therefore wanes. That’s just the opposite of what I needed the reader to feel at that point. I wanted the reader to be like, “Holy crap! I just met this girl, and now she’s telling me she’s going to die by the end of this chapter??”
I love anything that plays on unreliable narration (when your narrator lies, distorts the facts, omits details, or is oblivious to things that are obvious to the reader). Chuck Palahniuk uses unreliable first person narrators in most of his books, Wilkie Collins frequently uses a collection of first person narrators in his novels (each with very different takes on the facts!), and Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground is written from the point of view of a man who’s so twisted that he can barely tell when he’s lying and when he’s not anymore.
Obviously, first person has its limitations. It’s difficult to break to another point of view if you need to, it can be a real struggle to maintain voice and character consistency while still conveying the information necessary to the story, and it limits the focus of the story. Granted, sometimes that’s what you want (in the case of the Erica Flynn novel, I wanted to keep the scope narrow and simple). There’s no way I could tell my NaNoWriMo novel from a first person point of view because the scope is enormous and the characters’ development and decisions affect one another far too much for that kind of limitation of perspective.
Choose your point of view wisely, but don’t be afraid to play around with different perspectives or consider changing from one to another if the story isn’t flowing for you!
Over the weekend, I attended a convention for science fiction and fantasy writers. At one of the programs, a fellow audience member asked the panelists an excellent question: How do you convey important details to the reader through a narrative character who wouldn’t notice. If your narrator is a detective, s/he will probably be inherently observant, but not every character is attuned to every little thing that happens around them. In real life, people range from highly observant to completely oblivious. It’s no different with characters.
It was a question that particularly interested me, given the narrator of my novel The Life & Death (But Mostly the Death) of Erica Flynn. Erica is the first person narrator, and while she’s far from oblivious to details, within the context of the events of the book, she’s incredibly single-minded. Her own goal is the only thing that she’s focused on, and, to her, everything else is sort of just background noise and distraction.
But I still had to get information across to the reader. More is going on with the other characters than Erica is putting together, and it was important to convey that to make them full, rounded characters to the reader, as well as helping advance the main plot. It was a tricky at points – I didn’t want Erica to come across as dense, but I also wanted to convey her state of mind and intense focus.
I handled it (I hope, anyway – LOL) by having Erica see details that she didn’t necessarily think much of. She didn’t put things together, but she did take note of things that laid the groundwork for the bigger picture. Other characters (who were putting things together) reacted based on their understanding of the situations that Erica was ignoring because of her “blinders” and I tried to make a point of putting in the narration what it was that was on Erica’s mind instead of what was going on.
For example, she’d be in a conversation with two other characters, but in between the dialogue, she’s trying to work out a plan to reach her goal. While the reader is getting information from the dialogue and putting it together, Erica is also stating outright in her narrative, “I wasn’t really listening at that point, though. I was trying to gauge whether or not I could get away with…” etc. That allowed me to do a lot of work within the scene (setup for the bigger plot as well as conveying subplot information about the other characters in the dialogue), and also showed Erica’s thought process and calculation (so she’s clearly not stupid, just distracted) and made it clear why she missed hints that were right in front of her.
An example of a character who just doesn’t get most of what goes on around him would be Rusty James from the novel Rumblefish by S.E. Hinton (there’s also an excellent movie based on the book). Rusty James isn’t so much oblivious as…well…dumb, but he’s a great character, and Hinton conveys an incredible amount of subtle meaning, emotion, and character depth in the people and events around him, despite how little of it her narrator actually takes in and processes.
I’ve been thinking about the phrase “show, don’t tell” lately – the oft-given advice every writer hears at workshops, critique groups, on writers’ and editors’ blogs, and…pretty much everywhere, really.
It is good advice, on the whole. It’s much more powerful to be shown a character’s emotional reaction than told, “He felt sad.” Likewise, it’s better to have a tense dialogue interaction than simply the phrase, “The two sisters hadn’t been getting along lately,” or whatever.
On the other hand, on some level, writing is storytelling. It isn’t a film, where the action and dialogue all have to speak for themselves and no description is necessary because the audience can see the setting, the lighting and music can set the tone, and the actors’ expressions and inflections feed subtlety into the dialogue (if they’re talented actors).
To write, you must tell. The trick is to tell in such an engaging way that the audience believes you’re showing them. It’s a double-edged sword, because you don’t want to drone on and on about the setting or the way the characters look, but you also want to paint enough detail to peak the readers’ imaginations into visualizing the scenes you write. You have to walk a razor’s edge between conciseness and detail in order to immerse your reader in the story world.
One of the best ways to keep that balance is to choose your words carefully. There are many variants of a writing exercise that goes something like this: Write a scene from the point of view of a man grieving the loss of his son, without mentioning death, funerals, or the son. Now write the same scene from the same man’s point of view, in which his son is nearby, well, and healthy, again without mentioning the son. I’ve seen so many versions of this exercise, I have no idea of its origin, but it’s a great one to try the different variants of – it really gets you thinking about how to convey much with very little.
As for “telling” – well, you’ve got to tell something, or you won’t write anything down. Even if you use examples and body language to illustrate unnamed emotions or relationships, you have to tell the reader what that body language is, or what happened in that example event. At some point, you’ve got to tell your audience something!
And frankly, there are some things that should be skimmed over. You can’t be afraid to telescope when you need to, or you’ll end up writing down every damn step your character takes, like the scientist’s assistant from the Beatles movie, A Hard Day’s Night, who announces, “I am moving my right leg, I am moving my left leg. Now I am putting this down,” while everyone is standing there watching him, like they can’t see what he’s doing! You don’t want to do that in your book, and certainly not in your short story. If the details of an event aren’t relevant, but the fact that it happened is, then skip the details and just show me the results, the outcome, the ensuing dialogue between characters who were there, etc. Tell me about that instead, and by telling the reader those things, you will show the reader the relevance of mentioning the event.
Basically, it’s another of those fine lines that writers get to try and walk so often. Like many things in life, show & tell in fiction is just one more thing you have to learn to balance.