Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Writing Advice I’d Give My Younger Self — Preparation

What do I need as a writer? I decided it would be good to know, so I took the perspective of talking to my younger self. I did this in terms of Preparation (this post), Drafting (next week), and Revision (in two weeks), and I decided it might be worth sharing here.

As you look through, you may experience what I did. Some advice, I discovered, is already cooked into my writing habits. In a few cases, the gap between advice and practice needs some closing. Some is more honored in the breach than the observance. 

You might think of this as a menu of possibilities, with lots of opportunity to customize. (I actually printed the list out and annotated it as a step toward incorporating some of these into my practice.) For many, I've added links to provide more details than would fit here.
  • Understand what (4-7 things) you want most as a writer. (For now. These can change later.) Align your efforts to enable or achieve these desires.
  •  Create a short list (3-5) of doable objectives (enter a contest, not win a contest) for the following year in October. Fight through each to the end. Do not worry about missing other opportunities.
  • Build a network. Writing is solo, being a writer is a team activity.
     
  • Spend more time writing than talking about writing.
  • Budget at least twice the time you think you’ll need.
  • Aim education toward mastery. Own the aspects of craft, one piece at a time.
  • Challenge yourself. Do at least one project each year that scares the hell out of you. Know why is frightens you.
  • Write down ideas in full sentences. Unless applied the same week, sort these into categories. 
  • Choose a project and stick to it to the end.
  • Be exquisitely selective about projects to which time is devoted. Have explicit criteria for choosing these. Know that some of them will not work out, but try to complete them in some form anyway.

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Character Relationships 9 - High contrasts

Compare: The curtain goes up. Two middle-aged men in dark suits stand next to each other. Or… The curtain goes up. An ancient woman in a robe and a six-year-old boy stand next to each other.

Which engages your curiosity more? Probably the second. In general, differences and contrasts intrigue us. They promise more in terms of variety and conflict.

Consider: The curtain goes up. One character wears grubbies and a baseball cap. He chews a cigar as he builds a sandwich that spills over a plate. The other is dressed impeccably with a perfect haircut. He dons an apron and tends a Cornish hen in the oven.

You know the audience would already be interested. And you probably recognize this Odd Couple (sort of). Both middle-aged men, Oscar and Felix approach life from opposite perspectives. Which is why it was so much fun when Neil Simon bound them together.

When you create character relationships, especially those where the characters can’t simply move on and find someone less “weird,” you set up situations where conflict arises. It may be that accommodations will be made. Or one character might kill the other one to resolve the situation.

Note: It’s important to bind the character together in a way that the audience accepts. Danny Simon said The Phil Silvers Show worked because the characters could not escape the army, and it lasted for almost 200 shows. The New Phil Silvers Show put the characters to work together in a business, which any of them could escape. It lasted ten episodes.

The first examples demonstrates physical differences. The second, differences in interests and perspectives on life. Contrasts can also come from differences in power, wealth, values, morals, and skills. Flaws and virtues can also create engaging juxtapositions. In fact, powerful stories can be created by comparing these as world views (greedy Potter and generous George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life).

Dramatic opportunities are endless. The writer can have a character moderate a flaw (or a virtue) by taking on approaches of the contrasting character. Both characters might move toward each other. In An Officer and a Gentleman, secondary characters, one too generous and the other too selfish, flame out and that helps the main characters find middle paths. Or, one character can kill (or defeat) the other. 

If there is no contrast, dramatic possibilities are limited. If there is a big contrast, more possibilities arise. Good romances have always demonstrated this, with the guy and the gal separated by an important difference and held together by some plot device. For larger groups, types are often used. I haven’t researched it, but I think Hollywood figured out how to do this with war movies where each soldier in the troop had easily recognized traits. Cowboy movies (The Magnificent Seven, Silverado) created similar teams.

Probably the most recognizable and obviously diverse group in a shared relationship is Star Trek’s crew members. A still photo is enough to see their differences. But the variety of perspectives and concerns, once they move into a story, is impossible to miss. Note that they are all trapped together on a five-year mission, often confined to the bridge of the Enterprise. 

This is not to say that such stark differences are necessary to creating a good story. Think of The Dead Poets Society. Seven of the characters (the ones who comprise the Society) are male, intelligent, students at the same school, white, about the same age, and (eventually) absorbed by poetry. The even dress the same.

It had to have been a challenge to differentiate these characters early on and to find ways to highlight how they helped each other come of age. (Something similar is done with female students in the film, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie.) But the writer (who won the Oscar for is work) did it. The contrasts are there, and put to use for drama, but the subtle exposure of the differences is done with power and grace. It’s worth exploring. 

Tuesday, September 4, 2018

Character Relationships 8 - Grand gestures and sacrifices

I’ve written about betrayals in this series, but I haven’t looked at the opposite behaviors — grand gestures and sacrifices. As any fan of romances knows, a grand gesture is the sure proof of true love. The cliche is of the hero (or heroine) running through city streets (or an airport or a wedding party) to make a public declaration of love and commitment. Often, there is an element of humiliation or sacrifice.

A great example of this is Bridget Jones (in the film), who finds her diary open and her true love Mark missing. She runs through the streets in the snow to apologize for her diary entries. Note:  As much as I like that example, please no more running lovers. Provide another task at the ending. Do something fresh. At least have the hero or heroine parachute in as a Flying Elvis (Honeymoon in Vegas).

Sacrifices may appear even when romance isn’t the main point. War movies often include sacrifice sometimes with a soldier giving his life, but often including the loss of almost everyone (Saving Private Ryan) or  the whole team (Glory). Saints give up their lives for a greater good in films like A Man for All Seasons. In It’s a Wonderful Life, George Bailey gives up his dreams to tend to the needs of the community and face down a greedy villain on their behalf. And, of course, in a sort of reverse grand gesture, Rick sacrifices his love in Casablanca, watching Ilsa leave with her husband.

To bring power to a sacrifice or grand gesture, consider these:

Make it big - Though the smaller sacrifices, such as those in It’s a Wonderful Life and I Remember Mama can add up for emotional impact, coming up with something that really matters and shows how a character has grown (like Rick in Casablanca) can be more dramatic.

Articulate the human needs - All sacrifices involve a level of privation. Life itself is lost in many stories, but Bridget suffers cold and humiliation. George Bailey gives up his honeymoon and the experience both a special time with the woman he loves and a taste of life beyond Bedford Falls. The exact loss may be stated directly in the story (and often is since this shows it’s meaningful to the character). But, even if it isn’t made explicit to readers or audiences, the writer should be able to articulate it. Maslow’s pyramid can be useful in clarifying the unfulfilled need.

Choose between public and private - Witnesses may be valuable, especially when a declaration is involved. But some sacrifices are more noble if no one (except the reader) knows about them. Test to see which might have the greater impact.

Motivate - If it isn’t clear to a reader why a hero is making a sacrifice, it can be confusing or even appear to be done out of weakness or masochism. Don’t be shy about showing the motivation on no uncertain terms.

Set it up - Big moments in stories need good foundations. The factual information must be provided so they can be understood. They need the time, steps, and reasons. They also need to be presented in emotional depth, which may demand pacing, setting, and even devices like comic relief.

Explore a revelation - If Bridget Jones wrote her diary entries as a blog posts, the ending wouldn’t work. Instead, it’s secret. And it comes to bite her at the last second, forcing her to reveal her heart without reservation. That doesn’t always work in a story, but it’s worth exploring as a possibility.

Make it consequential - Yes, a sacrifice can fail to achieve anything (which might be used for ironic effect). Or it can be unrecognized. Or partially successful. But it has to matter to the character. It has to reflect something real and important in terms of self-understanding and connect with readers emotionally. It’s easier if there are big consequences (like winning a war) beyond the character, but a sacrifice means nothing if it doesn’t impact the character’s identity.

Tie it to the main plot - Most of the examples above do more than cause a shift in the character. They move the plot forward, provide turns, or even create the story’s climax. If you can do this AND tie in the emotional arc in the same scene, you’ll create something unforgettable.

Make it surprising but inevitable - Make a list of why the character could not possibly make the sacrifice in question. Make another list of why the sacrifice is unavoidable. Play with your lists to make the sacrifice come as a shock but be completely believable.

Lots of stories (usually in novels) attempt to transform or deepen relationships between characters through decisions or insights or realizations. That approach tends to fall flat. Sacrifice in a story is usually compelling and convincing. It makes it clear that the new relationship is earned.

I mentioned that sacrifices and grand gestures are the flip side of betrayals. The list above? You may find it useful to consider if you’re including a betrayal in your story.


Tuesday, August 28, 2018

Character Relationships 7 - Emotional arcs

Emotional arcs deepen our involvement with characters and their stories. When carefully constructed, we go through the emotions in an authentic, memorable way. But the construction is key. It must feel true, without jumps and reversals that we instinctively know are wrong. When a character arrives in a new emotional space in a way that doesn’t feel right, it’s as troublesome as a plot that defies logic or relies at a deus ex machina.

I recently participated in a workshop with author Mat Johnson. He spoke of providing a foundation of authenticity by exploring our own emotional arcs. Most of us can think of emotional events in our life, many of which point toward genuine emotional arcs, hearts at work.

A personal example, not a template, was provided in the workshop, but I played with abstracting it. I’m not sure I’ve got it right now. (I need to delve into some examples to improve it.) Nonetheless, this may be enough to spur some thought. And, just as your personal examples of emotional arcs will be the most powerful in your work, this unfinished series may help you create your own template that will support better emotional arcs for your stories.

Discomfort - Contentment or indifference is shifted into something that feels odd by the comments, actions, or even just the presence of another person. This could be a compliment, a slap in the face, or an attractive person sitting down at a nearby table. We have this experience all the time and let it pass, but the story begins to happen with the character does not let it pass.

Awareness - The incident with the other person registers in some way. It draws an acknowledgment through body language, comment, a gut feeling, or an action. If your character nods his or her head at an attractive stranger, that might signal awareness. What happens next in real life can be simple or complex. The arc may end with a middle finger response that sends a person away as a stranger, a meet cute fumble (like spilling a glass), a suave pickup line (accepted, rejected, or parried), and more. In a story, for an memorable arc, the relationship begins and/or begins to change.

Observation - We are always looking for cues. Think of the endless discussions of teens about slight (even imagined) clues about sexual interest. This is gathering data to assess and reassess the relationship. In this case, it is likely to lead to emotional shifts that may be small, but move back and forth, or may crash toward bigger possibilities (and more risks).

Testing - One of the revelations of the workshop was how — even when we have it all wrong or are barely aware of emotions on the other side — testing occurs in the arc. Chances are, one character will deploy an arsenal of tests to resolve the initial discomfort with an emotional understanding of the relationship (or a bid to change it). The other character may respond consciously or unconsciously.

Articulation - This may happen repeatedly from Awareness on. Often, it will be objectively incorrect or incomplete (complicating this arc). It can also be part of the culmination, with, for instance, a declaration of love or “Prepare to die!”

Choices - For a realistic arc, it’s always valuable to include choices along the way. These can be explicit or the options may only be obvious to the reader/audience (irony). Clearly, these can be choices about action/confrontation, but they also can be choices in terms of what might be explored, questions, alliances, and prioritization.

Culmination/Resolution - At some point, the emotional arc is completed. We should travel to the end with the protagonist, in my opinion. I understand there are artistic reasons to leave things open or complete the arc “off screen,” but usually that’s a mistake. I’d recommend at least writing it down before deciding to leave it out. 

The above is a relationship template — fitting the man vs. man conflict model. I have not explored man vs. nature (which could be a mountainside, an incomprehensible alien, or a disease). I have not explored man vs. himself, either. These might suggest more useful templates.

If you have trouble coming up with examples of emotional arcs from your own life, look toward moments in stories that touch you deeply. The likelihood is that these high emotion scenes that easily come to mind are parts of emotional arcs in the stories. Go back and re-experience them. (For a movie, you might want to look at the scripts.) Then look for changes in the emotions and see if you can name all the steps that helped make the emotions real to you. Don’t be afraid to look in both directions (earlier or later) in the story, even if it seems like the scene that captured you is the beginning or the end of an arc.

Once you’ve done this, you may find it easier to look more closely at your own emotional history, and that’s likely to show you why you responded so deeply to this story you care about. It also will provide you with something more fundamental to work with as you develop your stories.

One warning: The better you do your job, the more a character in your story will resist the presentation of the full emotional arc. Scenes are likely to remain incomplete, and the temptation will be to not use all the steps in your template. Look closely, and you may find the character is protecting himself or herself. Get out a microscope, and you’ll probably find you are protecting yourself. Press on. Get it all on paper. Even that which you don’t need or don’t want. You’ll end up with a deeper story.

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A (nearly) month-long e-course I teach begins on Monday. It's Flash Fiction, and includes lots of hands-on exercises.

Tuesday, August 21, 2018

Character Relationships 6 - The boldface setting

In Downton Abbey, the setting highlights the relationship between the aristocratic family and their servants. It’s used within the storytelling, notably by giving the servants more power downstairs than upstairs (and vice versa for the Crawleys). It leads for awkwardness and threat and humiliation at times. Of course, the effect of the house would not be as stark today, so the time periods of the series are also an important part of the setting.

Mister Roberts depends on its setting, a ship far away the action of World War II, crowded with anxious sailors. The dilemma for Charles (the Hugh Grant character) during his wedding in Four Weddings and a Funeral would not be as fraught if it were set at a county court house in front of a few witnesses. Putting it at a cathedral with everyone important to him and to his fiancee present raises the stakes to an intolerable level.

When you have the chance, go for a boldface setting that emphasizes power, increases jeopardy, and makes escape impossible. And set it up to irreversibly transform a relationship.

Here are a few things to consider:

What is the intrinsic cultural value of the setting? Is it owned by an important person? Is its history relevant (to everyone, like Downton Abbey? to one person, like Scrooge at his own grave?)

Who chose the setting? Did the character magnify his/her power, or choose a place that would benefit someone else? Whose comfort zone is it?

Who’s there? Allies? Foes? Witnesses?

Does time of day or weather matter? A summer evening might be peaceful and lull characters into a sense of security. People might be agitated if they are missing a meal. Blasts of thunder and torrents of rain might put characters on edge and make them more likely to expose their true feelings or just to be rude.

Does the context matter? The same words said in a restaurant or an office or in bed could have different meanings and with consequences severe or slight.

What holds the people there? People look for exits when scenes get too emotional. A writer needs to hold them together. The constraint could be as physical and obvious as a jail cell or as complicated and layered as loyalty.

Is everyone dressed appropriately? For many cultures, this can encourage acceptance (which may be unwarranted, as when a spy wears the uniform of the other side). Or it can lead to rejection. (I once had to go from casual research to the CEO’s office, where anything other than a red tie, a white button-down shirt, and a pinstripe suit was considered gauche. Memorable. I was wearing my relationship to everyone else present and putting myself and my boss at risk.)

Are social relationships intrinsic to the location and unavoidable? A female student at my all boys high school could not be missed. She’d be out of place.

Of course, there’s no requirement that the setting is planned. If you walk into a bar and see an old sweetheart, it may be a complete accident. And it can force interesting conflicts, like having to introduce your current lover to this person — who may have changed in disturbing ways, who may have broken up with you, who may still hold your heart.

It’s a valuable exercise to look through the scenes (especially the key ones) in your work and just focus on the settings. The most important question to ask is, could a different setting shift the relationship, even create a crisis? If this never happens. If, as I see often in manuscripts, scenes seem to take place in cliche places or, worse, what might as well be white rooms, this offers a great chance to revise the work to bring out more of the relationship between the characters. So go for the boldface settings.

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Character relationships 5 - Presenting relationships to readers

In my first character relationships post, I noted that, “Dialogue (including subtext), character reflection, action, and revealing shared history can also bring out why and how characters matter to each other and how is changes through experience.” I’ll deal with each in turn here.

Maya Angelou said, "When someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time." In a story, such a statement is in dialogue, and the relationship part is how it is taken by the other person. Most characters will not accept the statement if it calls for serious work — changing the way he or she acts toward that “someone,” recontextualizing an assumed truth (or part of their own narrative), or changes the stakes or the relationship (e.g., love to friendship). A simple statement is, in itself, not usually enough to create real change. Even one that demonstrates a big gap between the idea of the relationship and the reality of it is likely to be dismissed as a bad joke or a misunderstanding.

Subtext is even more of a challenge, since the person hearing the statement needs to be actively searching for meaning. If, for instance, there is a situation that implies threat or the hearer is looking for clarification of status (e.g., love or affection),  then the ambiguity — indeed, everything about the communication (tone of voice, accompanying gestures, where the statement is made) — will be explored and analyzed. Attentive readers are likely to be focussed on subtext, too, which can add power through irony — especially if a character does not pick up on the subtext.

In general, to be sure a person declaring something other than what is taken for granted, there must be more. To be heard, it helps if a connection is invoked. Recalling a similar experience or situation for the hearer can help. For instance: “I’ve become lonely around you. Do you remember when you lost your brother and he wasn’t there to hear about your day or to share a ballgame with anymore? That’s us now. I can tell you what happened on my walk, and your answer is ‘Uh huh.’ I’m not heard. Or I can bring a bottle of wine over and you’ll put it on the shelf. Save it for another time.”

Character reflection puts readers into someone’s mind, so it provides a way to present the evaluation and analysis of a relationship without a filter. However, it’s usually a mistake to just show the destination. Those sorts of thoughts usually begin, “I realized then…” Realization jumps in like a deus ex machina, excluding the reader. A struggle toward understanding, presented with evidence that comes to mind and is initially rejected, can be powerful. Pieces coming together invites reader participation. False steps along the way can add to the emotional investment and make truth, finally revealed, more compelling. Or you can anchor the reflection by making it about an action.

Action, if it is dramatic enough (a slap in the face, abandoning someone to danger), can cut past the sort of resistance even the clearest words can encounter. The more physical or consequential the action, the less likely it is to be doubted. On the other hand, a misunderstood action, because of the immediacy, can have amazing impact in a story. If, for instance, it seems like your best friend is leaving you to deal with the antagonist alone (say, to pay off a debt to Jabba the Hut) and then he comes back to save your life, that will have a lot of punch.

Shared history is not subject to change, but it can be subject to reinterpretation. The foundation here is all of us have shared history — on jobs, in schools, and in families. We instinctively know and appreciate social ties, and, when these are invoked, they place us right in the middle of the character relationships. Because this is so universal, dramatic engagement can suffer if the particulars of the social ties are not presented or if the relationship is static. Make the cultural rules just a little different, and there’s more interest (and concern about how things will turn out). Reveal a family secret, and the family in question is forced to realign. The shared history must be reevaluated. And, of course, nothing beats a good old-fashioned betrayal.

Tuesday, August 7, 2018

Character Relationships 4 - Putting the pressure on

Think of the main relationship in the story as another character. Like a protagonist, the relationship can be tried and tested. Maintaining a positive bond can twist characters as much as obstacles and tortures faced in pursuit of a goal. And the most interesting results are likely to come when pressure is applied to a flaw.

Individuals’ flaws are well illustrated by the Seven Deadly Sins. If you protagonist is vulnerable to Lust, Pride, Sloth, Gluttony, Envy, Wrath, or Greed, he or she has a serious flaw that can expose character and create a powerful arc in the story. But what’s a relationship flaw?

Though the flaws themselves may be rooted in the characters, it’s valuable to tease out whatever might seriously threaten the relationship if tested. This is not the full set, but it’s a good starting point for storytellers:

Secrets - These hide parts of a character that are essential but problematic. Look at almost any romantic comedy, and you’ll see the main plot revolves around a secret the audience (or reader) is well aware of but the protagonist struggles to hide.

Insecurity - When one character feels unworthy of the relationship, it can eat away at the bond. If someone is eternally looking for signs of rejection, they’ll be found (rightly or wrongly) and the response is likely to be disastrous.

Wounds - People come into relationships with baggage. Often, betrayal, rejection, and even physical harm from another relationship creates associations that can lead to over-the-top reactions that may put a current relationship into a death spiral. If an abusive partner called a woman “Angel,” the new partner better not use that endearment.

Control - Part of the fun of The Odd Couple is Felix’s need for order and how it is countered by Oscar’s need for autonomy. Outside forces (a dominating boss, the death of a parent, the appearance of an old boyfriend) can amplify needs for control and autonomy to the point where they tear apart connections between people.

Competition - Sometimes friends egg each other on, leading both to achieve more. That’s fine. At the other extreme, if competitiveness leads to one person in the relationship sabotaging the other, that’s a betrayal. Jealousy and ego are usually at the heart of a toxic attitude toward competition.

Differences in values - Friends and even lovers don’t need to have identical value systems, but, without enough commonality, the depth of the relationship is limited. It also matters which values are unaligned. When bit differences in values around money, work, and fidelity, the relationship is in trouble. If the difference in values — including how promises and honesty are viewed — destroys trust, it probably means the friendship is over.

Communication problems - Listening is probably a more common problem that speaking. When someone doesn’t hear or misunderstands. Miscommunication is at the heart of many of the funniest farces and most heartbreaking tragedies. But communications can extend beyond words. Empathy is essential for a healthy relationship, so whatever event reveals a character lacks empathy for a friend or lover creates insights and excruciating choices.

Of course, a character inclined toward any of the Seven Deadly Sins can jeopardize a relationship. A guy with a wandering eye may be unfaithful to his girl. That’s Lust. If seven pieces of silver induced Judas to betray Jesus, that’s an example of Greed messing up a relationship. Or an honor that increases one character’s status can make him or her wonder why he or she is hanging around a friend or lover who is of lower status. That’s Pride.

This last points to a powerful tool for putting pressure on a relationships. Change. It doesn’t matter if its good fortune or bad, change forces a reevaluation and renewal of a relationship. The birth of a child is one of the biggest stressors in a marriage. The death of a child is likely to end the relationship. Winning the lottery or going bankrupt — both force partners in a relationship (whether love or friendship) to deal with hidden flaws that can break the bond. A declaration of love can be as unsettling to a relationship as a “we’re just good friends” comment. Big changes force people to look at past assumptions and update rules and boundaries.

Putting pressure in relationships is wonderful for stories, but difficult to do. An empathic writer will suffer along with the characters, and it’s tempting to avoid or calm the troubled waters. After all, almost all these injuries to relationships are agonizing in real life. Dealing with them honestly in a story can trigger horrible memories. So, even though taking on this challenge is a great way to make a story more powerful, it may not be worth it for you.

But if you can take it and you have the courage to probe these wounds, it will deepen your story. And there are two points of good news. First, you might learn something that helps you as a person as well as a writer. Second, in fiction, you can transform the trial into a happy ending.