Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Stories Off the Leash 3 - Worlds on edge

Interesting things happen at the fringes. A yeast cell takes water and sugar and trace amounts of other molecules from its environment and sends out alcohol and carbon dioxide. A border town trades with other communities, and that extends to more than goods. Music, ideas, customs, behaviors, and recipes are rejected, transformed, and accepted by people with different cultures, and then passed on to their larger societies.

Writer James Alan MacPherson, a Pulitzer Prize winner and MacArthur Fellow, understood the dramatic value of interfaces, consciously seeking out the conflicts and compromises of the edge. His ideas caught my imagination early in my career, prompting me to focus on where science and technology meet business, law, politics, nature, global challenges, and our daily lives.

Contrasts, struggles, and transformation belong at the heart of what you write, even if your focus is on small town romances. The differences between lovers, including the endless curiosity between sexes in traditional romances, forces endless adjustments and adaptations. We relate to stories where characters are simultaneously attracted and repelled, pulled together by circumstances and driven apart by the unacceptable.

Odd couple stories do this. So do stories of circumstance, where people are forced together. The stakes for diverse groups can be survival, as with The Poseidon Adventure or many Star Trek shows, where the right answer only emerges when a logical Vulcan and an intuitive human must find a middle path.

How do you find your edge?
  • Look for interesting differences, where neither is completely "right." Pull both ways so the values of each side get a fair shake.
  • Make it personal. Even a story of a fight to the death between aliens and humans needs to include individuals we can relate to who face challenges and impossible choices. And, if you can make it personal to you so you feel as if you are taking risks as you write the story, even better.
  • Make it external. Often writers who have found the opportunity to examine a rich story at the boundaries will get intellectual about it, turning a good tale into an essay. Enough with the reflection. No more talking. See what would happen if you presented the story as a silent movie without title cards.
  • Make it fresh. The reason I like science and technology in my stories is new concept emerge daily, and I can explore and share these. Other writers bring little known cultures and subcultures to the fore in their stories, including inside views of professions. One of the joys of Six Feet Under was how it detailed the funeral industry's interactions with people in extreme situations.
  • Make it eternal. Edge stories are engaging because they provide lots of details. That's the way to draft them. But once the draft is done, take the time to find the theme. If you dealt honestly with your material, it will be there. Then go back and use the details and trim the excess to illuminate your statement on the human condition.
  • Don't propagandize. Theme is not the same as message.
Working at the edge requires research. If you happen upon lesser known interface, you need to dig deeply and get it right. If you are privy to a cultural border town, you need to take yourself outside of it so you can see what you are inevitably missing and share with those outside your situation. If your world is as familiar as a 60s family sitcom, you need to uncover the strange and unexpected.

Never settle for the obvious.

Monday, August 15, 2016

Stories Off the Leash 2 - Crunch time

Time flows differently in a story, and you can use the freedom from real clocks and calendars to set your story free.

Most obviously, you can manipulate time and the reader experience by the use of flashbacks and flashforewards and parallel storytelling and fracturing. Many stories raise question that, if the story were told chronologically, would already be answered -- but withholding information is part of the fun of stories, leading to emotional payoffs as surely as putting a joke's punchline at the end. Secrets always add to fun.

On the opposite side, reordering important reveals, such as the death of the main character in Sunset Boulevard, expectations are set (so the audience does not expect a happy ending) and dread is increased.

A third reason for this kind of time is to assure rising conflict. The logic of a story may not take the protagonist along the path of worse and worse complications, but manipulating the order of scenes (and the protagonist's awareness of what has happened) can up the tension and avoid dramatic plateauing. Oedipus has murdered his father and married his mother long before he realizes his mistakes, long before they transform his story.

These composition choices don't match real time, but, unless the writer messes up, all of these approaches are apparent to readers. In fact, they usually are called out specifically by starting new chapters or, at least, sectioning with added white space.

There are less obvious choices. Compression (where we don't see every moment of a scene) happens in film so often, we probably don't notice it. (Those who first saw movies did notice.) It can be used in novels and short stories, too. Actions described are limited to those that are essential without destroying flow. Summation is used to present scenes that are needed for logic but don't have enough interesting going on to offer moment-to-moment.

Obsession represents another use of time. Real people are regularly distracted by and drawn away from their pursuits of even critical goals. We all need to deal with eating, sleeping, phone calls, headaches, itches, and wandering minds. These are limited in stories to the point of what would be syndromes or diseases for any of us. Protagonists, on the other hand, are monomaniacal about their goals. If they were real, we'd lock them up.

One way obsessions are hidden is through timeboxing. We all understand deadlines, and the ticking clocks in stories feel right for us and automatically add tension that both increases our enjoyment and keeps us from looking too closely at the artifice.

Everything can't have a deadline, or course. That can become tedious or exhausting. Usually, the big event has a deadline. Rocky has both a deadline for the beginning of the fight (when training ends) and the fight itself (with the limited number of rounds). There may be deadlines for some of the tasks that must be accomplished to succeed, but probably not all.

Deadlines for tasks can be flexible or end in failure, provided alternative task that make it possible to stay on the road to success are hinted at. The final deadline almost always must be firm, or readers will feel cheated. Villains can have deadlines, and these can turn out to be flexible if it messes up the protagonist. Supporting characters can have deadlines for subplots or that make the protagonist more miserable.

Irreversibility is another subtle use of time. The idea that a choice made provides no way for the protagonist to go back and resume his or her original life is essential to story drama. Time branches, and the road not taken can never be taken. Decisions matter. They have consequences. And the one-way nature of time enforces this.

Finally, there is subjective time. We feel this in our own lives, when things seem to speed up (often during a crisis) or slow down (when life gets dull). Controlling the expression of this in stories is one of the writer's most important jobs. Getting it right is intrinsically linked to pacing (something I covered in the Fast Reads series).

Time is stories is a mixture of emulating time in our own lives and choosing techniques we can master to manipulate tension, surprise, and emotion within a story. The many approaches are your toolbox as a writer to make your stories more engaging. It's good to experiment with using these tools so you can create the effects you want. One caution is to be careful about using them in ham-handed fashions that take readers out of stories. Pay attention when you notice in your reading that other writers have not succeeded. These are great lessons. (And, since readers change, you can often find what would be failures today in "classic" novels from earlier eras.)

When the use of time does not feel authentic, it's like seeing the wires used for improbable leaps in Hollywood action scenes. Get good at this. Readers are more and more likely to spot techniques with time, so special attention (often during revision) needs to be paid to hiding you tracks.

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Stories Off the Leash 1 - Characters in jeopardy

"When you're in combat, you're not fighting for your honor or a ribbon or even your country. You're fighting for the guy next to you. You're fighting for your buddy."

A retired marine told me this when I was in college. It's relevant to your writing if you think about it in terms of the stakes you create in your story. Certainly a macro view -- moving from a neighborhood at risk to a city at risk to a nation, planet, or galaxy -- can raise the stakes. It may even add to reader engagement, especially in a visual medium like the movies. But it can become abstract and distancing, too. To me, the death of Obi-Wan in Star Wars is more upsetting than the destruction of Alderaan. I know Obi-Wan, but my strongest connection to Alderaan is an indirect one, Princess Leia's reaction.

Good stories raise the stakes throughout. Great stories raise the personal stakes throughout because we experience stories through individual characters, not crowds. (Looking at this concept from the opposite direction, when a villain wipes out innocents, even in a movie, the experience becomes more visceral and important if the death of one individual is given attention.)

Raising the stakes is about the potential for bad things to happen. The emotional score goes up as you do the following:
  • Make it real. At some point, show that something really bad can actually happen. This makes readers/audience members worry.
  • Make it individual. When there's one character we care about at risk in means more than a busload. Unless it's a busload of kids.
  • Make it personal. Put the protagonist at risk or, better yet, his/her loved ones.
  • Make it public. When bad things happen publicly, there is potential for humiliation. And it's impossible to pretend it didn't happen.
  • Make it irreversible. If the bad thing that happens is easily fixed or the protagonist can do something that makes it feel as if the bad thing never happened, that lessens the stakes. If the harm cannot be fixed (like when the hero in Misery loses his foot), the reader can't imagine the harm away.
  • Make it unfair. Damage that comes to people who in no way deserve it hits a lot harder.
  • Add dilemma. When the protagonist faces two bad things and gets to choose which one, it's excruciating.
  • Make it a choice. A classic choice for a protagonist is between stopping an evil by committing an evil or doing nothing and allowing something horrible to happen. Honor or horror?
In addition to the above, it's worth exploring the potential for bad things up and down Maslow's Hierarcy of Needs. Survival is always engaging. As are threats to close relationships. And you can play these off each other.

Of course, stakes are all in the future. Within the story, some of these bad things must actually happen. And the bad things that happen need to put the screws to the protagonist and create change and growth. They shouldn't be bad just for the sake of being bad.

If you want to take emotions to a higher level, consider blending stakes in a way that is  uncomfortable, provocative, or ironic.

In Gone With the Wind, there's a scene where Scarlett is looking for a doctor for Melanie.  When the camera pulls back, her urgent need is put into a bigger perspective, as the screen fills with the wounded and the dying. Does Scarlett's lack of perspective make her seem less compassionate? Or more human? Or both?

In Casablanca, Rick reduces Ilsa to tears when he says, "I'm no good at being noble, but it doesn't take much to see that the problems of three little people don't amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world." He has put their love in perspective (and aside) for the sake of a higher cause.

This is how you go from effective... to memorable.

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Fast Reads = Better Stories 5 - Special tricks

The main tools for creating fast reads are clarity, emotional engagement, and raising questions. In this series, I've suggested some the dos and don'ts of backstory, dialogue, characters, and action for those who want to write page-turning stories.

Before I leave this topic, I'd like to present a few tricks for breaking things up and, sometimes, adding a little spice. These should not be overdone or they can wreck the continuity and even give a reader a comfortable place to put down the book. But, when a story that is otherwise working feels like it is slowing, these tricks can pick up the pace.

White space. The appearance on the page makes a difference. In our attention deficit society, when a paragraph fills a page, readers are likely to feel overwhelmed and move onto a video game or a TV show. Even when, formally, your paragraphs make sense, it is a good idea to scan your manuscript for long sections without much white space and break up the paragraphs.

Short scenes and chapters. Providing you are taking care to raise questions and propel readers forward, consider using shorter scenes from time to time and chapters that have fewer scenes. This can be especially valuable near the end of a novel where the reader may be feeling fatigued. Overall, with pages literally turning more quickly, it will feel as if the story is speeding up and the work of reading is all downhill. Just don't violate the sense of immersion or provide easy stopping points.

Artifacts. One of the joys of Dune is the use of quotes, essays, prayers, and other artifacts throughout (especially at the beginnings of chapters). These provide a different voice and hint at a bigger, unexplored world. Tolkien uses poetry and songs. Other authors use letters and even snatches of film scripts.

These add variety if you don't use them in a haphazard manner. I follow two rules of thumb when they are included in one of my manuscripts. The first is that they must not just be placeholders. If they don't add to the story and increase my interest in it, they get removed and replaced. The second is they need to come at about the same rate. Having a bunch of artifacts at the beginning of a story and not at the end, or vice versa, knocks things out of balance.

There's more you can do the create fast reads. You can take advantage of a distinctive voice (your own or a characters) that charms the reader. Or use the traditional tools, hooks and cliffhangers. And, of course, a rich premise that pays off in anticipated and surprising ways can keep readers engaged.

Monday, July 25, 2016

Fast Reads = Better Stories 4 - Action scenes that add zip

When it comes to action scenes, how can you miss? What could be more page-turning than a chase or fighting a fire or piloting a spacecraft through a meteor storm? Most action scenes, by their nature, have specific, tangible goals. Often these are connected with basic character needs we can identify with, whether it be surviving an attack by a bear or winning the basketball game for your school.

In addition, action is visual. We can see it happening. And a good action scene actually makes our brains think we are participants to the point where our muscles respond to a hero throwing (or taking) a punch.

Sadly, many writers still mess this up. The visceral action gets swamped out by a variety of problems including:
  • Point of view changes. We can really only participate as one character in an action scene, so even a subtle shift to what someone else is experiencing takes away from the reading. Action scenes (and let’s include love scenes) require deep point of view.
  • Too much description or reflection. Every sentence that does not convey the action risks taking the reader out of the scene. Yes. A sentence here or there during the action sequence can help to ground it and provide reminders of the emotional stakes. But too much of this destroys the physical response to what is being presented.
  • Lack of identification. This is the problem with MANY amateur works. They start out with action before we have any idea who the character is or what the stakes are. It happens a lot at the beginnings of manuscripts can also can confuse and bore readers further into the book. Why? Because we want to be fully involved in cheering for the hero and feeling the joy of success and the heartbreak of failure. It's harder to care for strangers.
  • Too much or too little moment-to-moment. In the first draft, it is often valuable to record every detail of an action scene. Writers need to fully imagine what is going on in the story. But readers don't need to be presented with everything. Leave the interesting things. Hang onto the minimum of the rest that is needed to avoid being confusion. Get rid of the rest.
  • Lack of purpose. While a good set piece can be excused (occasionally), the best scenes need to have an arc. They need to move the story forward, and readers need to know how the story will be changed by a success or failure. Action just for actions sake is cheap and gratuitous — sort of like pornography. 
  • Not playing fair. I just read a fight scene where the hero grabbed a chain and used it against the villain. Huh? Where did that chain come from? Sometimes the writer is so eager to get to the action he or she forgets to describe the setting. And when important details show up later, it's a cheat. Special skill and powers, essential knowledge, and weaknesses also need to be set up ahead of time. (It can be acceptable to have surprises that make things tougher for your hero, like having a villain pull a gun.) Give the reader the chance to be a full participant.
The scenes that read fastest are those we are immersed in, both in terms of our senses and in terms of our emotions. They are free of any distractions -- no unfair surprises or excess verbiage. 

That's what not to do. So what do you, as a writer do
  • Make sure the purpose of the scene and the challenges (including beats) are clear. This may require setting things up ahead of time, before the action begins. 
  • While some reflection cues are valuable, we should actually be able to guess what the point of view character is thinking at any time during the scene. So make description and reflection barebones
  • Cut anything that is not needed. 
  • Stay in the present, making sure things happen in real time and are understood as they happen. And edit this down as well so that not every decision and action is described. 
  • Use compression. A producer once explained this to me. If an athlete is preparing for a game, it isn’t necessary to show him putting all his gear on in real time. Pulling the jersey out of his locker, and then cutting to him tying his shoe, conveys all that’s needed.
  • Choose the RIGHT action. Consider extreme responses. Don’t make it reasonable if you don’t have to. An action scene is not a task, it’s a challenge. 
  • Begin as late as possible, end as early as possible.
  • Make it desperate.
  • Include (fair) surprises.
  • Payoff (emotion, values, clues) what you’ve set up, but don’t be afraid to make things harder on your character, even if he has prepared fully.
  • Set the scene and put the action in an interesting location. It should stress the main character, have meaning, and be intriguing.
One more thing to consider is dialogue. While dialogue usually speeds a read, it slows things down in action scenes. I often will imagine how the whole scene would play out as part of a silent movie. It forces a discipline that trims the action down to the essentials and allows it to proceed with limited use of dialogue (and reflection). Once I have that, I work to make sure that whatever characters say is quotable.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Fast Reads=Better Stories 3 - Thinking characters

Introspection is one of the great joys of novels. When characters let you inside of their heads, you get a different sense of who they are. You receive direct information on their motivations. In many ways, characters in novels allow themselves to be known by us more than the people around us.

However, introspection often turns out to be the most tedious part of storytelling. I think this is because writers, who have formed habits of editing in other parts of their stories, let things go in fluid, almost stream of consciousness way, when they get their characters thinking. Another common sin of writers is to use introspection as a way to toss in backstory and information readers "need to know."

And, perhaps the worst offense by writers as they create their characters reflection is paragraphs of indecision. Will I? Won't I? This sort of dithering shows up especially often in manuscripts by beginning romance writers. Something close to this also appears in genres with action, such as some science fiction, where characters get engaged in considering alternatives for their plans.

The first defense against bad introspection is understanding why it is in the story to begin with. The primary value should always be to expose aspects of the character. Readers give us permission to stretch reality so that they can get closer to our characters. Any introspection that doesn't lead to a better understanding of who this person is squanders an opportunity.

Of course, the character is revealed directly by what is valued and what is noticed. A heroine reflecting on lovemaking tells us a lot about herself by disclosing what the experience meant to her and what she considers worthy of deliberation. An important aspect of this is the emotional content. As with all scenes, a passage that includes introspection needs to have an emotional arc. This can be conveyed by the choice of words or the expression (often revealing surprising perspectives), but it's also valuable to break away from introspection to include physical responses, such as increase in heart rate.

In fact, often the best introspection is constantly being directed and redirected by action and dialogue within the scene. Making the introspection part of the general mix grounds it and keeps it from becoming overwhelming. There's a great example in this article by K.M. Weiland.

Special care needs to be taken with action scenes and love scenes. There's a tendency to interrupt and slow things down with introspection. Anyone who has ever been in a challenging fight knows that there's little time for reflection and most of this is not deep. Likewise, lovemaking is all about being present in the moment, not judging, remembering, and questioning.

But what about scenes that consists entirely of introspection? Rarely, these can enhance a story. At a key point, the protagonist may face a difficult choice before taking action, one that test him or her and requires everything the character has.When the character is approaching a turning point that requires important changes and includes key realizations before such action can be taken, a scene that is mostly introspection can add layers of understanding.

A good way to think about constructing such a scene is to imagine it as a monologue. The best monologues are addressed toward someone else or toward a resistant aspect of the speaker. "To be or not to be" in Hamlet is a conflict-ridden argument about suicide. Thinking in terms of persuasion can help to create a scene of introspection that reads quickly.

So, for faster reads, writers need to understand why they are writing introspection, have a bias toward interspersing it with action, dialogue, and other stimuli, and trimming it of all the "realistic" meandering that distracts from the purpose. And, within all of this, the introspection must pass the main test — does it reveal character? Keeping these rules of thumb in mind will help you take full advantage of the value of introspection while helping you to avoid the pitfalls that drive readers away.

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Fast Reads = Better Stories 2 - Dialogue cuts

Dialogue leavens a story. It lifts it up and opens new possibilities. On the page, it beckons you -- all that lovely white space. In fact, many people skip to read the dialogue.

Unlike backstory, it doesn't tend to be a focus area for writers looking to make their stories into page turners.

But sometimes characters get verbose, rattling on, saying "hi" and "bye," being clever without a point, and repeating each other. Or, worse, the characters become creatures of the plot, inserting information the reader needs. All of these slow things down and turn conversation on the page into tedium. This is a waste.

The best guide I ever got on dialogue writing was this: It should be so enticing, you'd eavesdrop to catch every word.

The "every word" part is important. It speaks to selection and economy. Ever read a transcript of a conversation? Deadly. How people really speak is fine for a draft, but not good enough for a story.

Here are some more things to think about:

Starts and stops. I've been reading radio scripts lately, and I've been struck by how often people are greeted. And how often characters speak each other's names. In radio, there is a reason for this. It provides an indication of who is present. For novels, movies, and stage plays, greetings and the use of names are less necessary and probably should be cut. The same thing is true for goodbyes. It's natural to include these in a draft, but a good rule for revision is start the scene (and dialogue) as late as possible and end it as early as possible.

How characters should talk like real people. For most characters, dialogue is less formal. (Villains, according to Stephen King, can be an exception.) Generally, it is less fun to listen to essays and speeches and to find vocabulary in dialogue that sends you to the dictionary. Contractions are more the rule than the exception in dialogue. People also let sentences trail off (...) and are cut off by others (--). Sentence fragments are common. With these in mind, dialogue reads faster if it is in the vernacular and the exchanges are in bursts. 

How characters shouldn't talk. If you've ever read a transcript, you've seen how meandering and repetitive real dialogue is. When people are talking, they get distracted and lose their ways. They constantly look for assurances that they've heard correctly and they've been heard. For the former, this should be avoided unless it serves the writer's purpose (for subtext or to set up beats). As for restating, this is usually excusable only if it is used for the poetic sound value. Removing these makes dialogue less "realistic," but less of a boring slog to read through.

Character, not narrative. A lot of writers think they can avoid the problems of delivering context and backstory by putting it into characters' mouths. Sometimes this works, but it's a device that should never be used in a false way. Older plays use minor characters to set up stories (butler and maid dialogue). While this may have been effective once, it seems creaky and obvious now. Sometimes, humor can make it work even today, but it's generally something that distances the audience. A worse failing for writers is having key characters step out of character to provide information. Damaging characters alienates audiences and readers in a lot of ways, but it also makes those who enjoy dialogue feel cheated.

Audience. When someone speaks, they are speaking to someone else. That provides focus and shading to the words that makes the story and its characters come alive. Even monologues should be aimed at someone specific. Make sure your characters are not just spouting off, talking to hear themselves talk.

Emotion and purpose. In real life, it's okay to ask someone to pass the salt or to ramble on in a stream of consciousness way or to talk at cross purposes. These can be used for effect by a writer, but most dialogue is stripped down to what is goal-oriented. Ideally, the characters speaking are at odds in some way, with maneuvering and conflict evident throughout their discussions. And, beyond the purposes of any discussion, the characters should be feeling something throughout. For us to be emotionally involved, they need to be emotionally involved. The best dialogue of all ends with an emotional punch that pulls the reader deeper into the story.

As you revise, attention to these thoughts on dialogue can make this, the most attractive part of the story for most readers, more engaging. The most important entry here is emotion and purpose. It can make up for failures in all the others. And it also is the one thing to think about most seriously before revision.

Anything can be fixed in a rewrite, but it is easier to identify with the feelings and what the characters want while drafting a story than it is to rework dialogue to express these after the fact. In fact, it is key to your getting inside your characters in the storytelling and making the experience more organic.