Tuesday, June 25, 2019

Creating a Revision Punch List for Your Story - Taking action on critiques

Though it can be harrowing, getting expert criticism (from development editors, agents, qualified peers, mentors, and industry people) on your work can be one of the most valuable steps in taking a good story and bringing it to a higher level. Since I want to get the most out of their time, I don’t hand off first drafts to experts. In most cases, what they get has been revised using every step of my process. Basically that means going from big picture to small.

I have a detailed task list (which is constantly updated). Here it is, greatly simplified:

    1.    Print and make general notes on the whole manuscript, listening to it via text-to-speech. In particular, pay attention to how the concept plays out, the pacing and consistency of tone, problems with clarity, and the soundness of the story logic. I also note where my attention lags.
    2.    Analyze to determine if any scenes can be removed or any might need to be added. Make those fixes.
    3.    Look at individual scenes. Check for conflict. See if any need more or fewer beats. Or description. Take a hard look for beginnings that hook and endings that pop.
    4.    Check characters for motivation and consistency. Make sure I worry about the protagonist more and more throughout. Mark all points of decision and make them harder if possible.
    5.    Read the whole thing aloud for language and sound.
    6.    Fix inconsistencies, spelling, grammar, and word choice.

Note that this is a step-by-step process. Though I always have to do some cycling back I don’t bounce around or try to do more than one step in a single pass.

The punch list becomes something different. When I’ve completed handwritten notes during an oral critique, I type everything out as soon as I can, without prejudice. (It can be tempting to skip some criticism because “they didn’t get it.” That may be right, but maybe it’s just me who doesn’t get it. There’s even a chance that the criticism triggered my defense mechanisms. Eliminating certain criticism is a decision for later on. 

For a written critique, I highlight notes in the document and do what ever I need to do to ensure I’ve got them captured for later with no loss.

For each of these, my records must become full sentences, even if that’s not what’s in my initial notes. And I make sure I capture the nuances (bold and asterisks, for their emphases and mine, respectively).

Then I let things marinate. For a month, if I can. This gives me a measure of distance that helps me to get the most out of what the critics meant (vs. what I heard or interpreted).

When I return to the criticism, it’s now time to strike out or modify what I suspect isn’t right. It’s also time to consider whether there are any problems that doom the project. (Yes, that can happen, and it means abandoning the work.)

Concerns about clarity always are kept, even if I think I’ve provided a map with highlights, complete descriptions, and Orson Welles talking in their heads. Questions of plot logic are tested, using more than one tool. Critic “solutions” are almost always challenged, and I have a strong detector for instances where the story the critic sees is clear and valid, but not mine.

I also allow myself to make notes in the moment. Sometimes, this is ideas for fixes. Sometimes, it’s new ideas to make the story better. Sometimes, images, paragraphs, dialogue, story twists, and even whole scenes fall out of my brain and need to be captured immediately.

With every critique go-through, I pull out questions and areas for research.

Except in the case of research, it’s best to get this part done quickly. Get it roughly right. I try to complete the work of capturing the essence of each item in forty-eight hours or fewer.

Then I begin to formulate a draft punch list.

I don’t worry about creating sterling prose or the best possible solutions to story problems at this stage. Why? Because this work is done out of context. It’s likely to change in the face of the needs of the whole work.

Research is different because it helps to build my knowledge base and generate options. Unless I mess up and go down a rabbit hole or slip into creating a different story, research will have a natural end point. There are no natural end points for story solutions and perfectly written scenes.

The next job is to organize the punch list. You can do this according to your needs and preferences. If  an acquisitions editor or a producer waiting, this may force triage in terms of available time and the power of the person who provided notes. If something on the list is calling to be taken care of or acted upon first, I remove the distraction by taking on that task. (At this point, I often will get irritated by misspellings and grammatical errors—which tend to be limited since the submitted manuscript was proofed—so I clean them up.)

Everything else being equal, I combine items from all critics into one list and use the same big picture to small approach I follow when I’m rewriting before submission.

There are a few differences. For instance, inserting a new character or radically changing one has to be be done early, well before step 4 above. The big picture changes probably need to be inserted without polish, with the cleanup being left to step 6.

Since the action items came from other people, there are likely to be a few that don’t neatly fit into my revision model. That’s okay. I drop these in where they may make sense to me, knowing my choice might be less than optimal. Sometimes, this leads to valuable changes in my revision model.

Once the punch list is completed, going through it is efficient and straightforward. Step by step, the manuscript gets fixed, usually without my having to circle back. And the story tends to maintain its integrity, avoiding the revision problem of losing its distinctive voice.





Tuesday, June 11, 2019

Five Ways to Make Your Story Better

I suspect most people know about serious problems with their stories, even though it may take a few questions or comments from critique partners to accept the verdict.

Do we also know what could make our stories better? Not serious problems, but those tasks that would have the biggest impact on improving the stories we feel pretty good about? I challenged myself to list five activities each for six of my stories and see what would come up. I liked this so much, I ended up writing down tasks for 8 of my fully drafted works and 3 that are unfinished. For each of these works, nothing feels seriously wrong, and I’m confident I’m on the right track, but listing tasks provided me with a powerful a combination of reminders, quick checks, and experiments.

Here are eleven notes that come up frequently or struck me as especially valuable:

    1.    Read the work aloud. Pretty simple and obvious, eh? In fact, in each case, I had read the stories aloud, but, for the ones that jumped out at me, it had been several revisions ago. I don’t know, but I suspect things have changed enough so the act of speaking the words will provide opportunities to find omissions and points of confusion and to smooth the language.
    2.    Lengthen five scenes. I tend to write very short, and my check on that is making sure each scene has three to five beats (turns, reveals, power shifts). Choosing five scenes in a completed work doesn’t seem onerous, and I’m betting (based on revisions on another work) this will make a couple of scenes better and lead to a few surprises.
    3.    Challenge the dialogue. I’m taking a course on fiction podcasts where the instructor said dialogue has no images to lean on, so it better be compelling from moment to moment. I’m also taking an acting course, and the instructor demonstrated maintaining attention by standing as I worked through a monologue and walking toward the door every time I bored him. I’ll see him and use that awful feeling as I work to set the bar higher for myself.
    4.    Check for strong conflict. The need to provide backstory and to set things up can be so acute that it’s easy to write a scene with weak or no conflict. It feels okay because so much is presented—and the AUTHOR’S problems are solved. Not good enough. Find the conflict. Make sure it provides a knock-out punch.
    5.    Leave them eager for more. Every scene needs to have a strong reason for being in the story. Finding that reason is already a challenge. Deciding what to include can be missed, and that can lead to a scene with complete resolution. That can work at the end of a story, but it might be a problem anywhere else. It invites readers to put the book down.
    6.    Question the point of view. Head hopping is one of the real sins of writing. If the point of view within a scene becomes inconsistent, readers can be confused and are almost certainly going to lose emotional connection. But the care taken for point of view can lead to a loss of opportunities to create more energy by changing point of view in different scenes. A good rule of thumb is determining who has the most to lose in a scene and at least trying to write the scene from that perspective. It might not always work.
           For instance, the expectation in most romances is the story will be told from the heroine’s point of view all the way through or alternate between the heroine and the hero. Violating that expectation can be problematic. Similarly, many mysteries depend upon holding to the detective’s point of view from start to finish so information is present is a fair way to solve the puzzle. In most scenes, the detective in not the one who has the most to lose in a scene. But many stories come alive when more attention is paid to which character should have the point of view.
    7.    Make it more visual. According to common knowledge, Nicola Tesla imagined machines in his head so completely, he often didn’t know whether they had ever been built. I will not claim that the visual in all the scenes reach that level in my head, but it’s all too easy for me to leave out descriptions my readers need to share the experiences I have when I read my stories. I make the stories better when I review what’s actually on the page for readers to see.
    8.    Make me worry. My characters often don’t get into enough trouble as they could. The challenges don’t always exact a price. The stakes of failure can be higher. In my heart of hearts, I am a bit too reluctant to torture them. Going through scenes and looking at what happens through the eyes of those who can’t stand them is a painful but valuable exercise.
    9.    Identify five highly emotional scenes. If I can’t do this in a novel or a screenplay, something’s wrong. In fact, if I can’t figure out what they are without looking at the manuscript, I’m probably in trouble. Most readers show up for emotion, not fine ideas and arguments. Even if the emotional scenes pop out without hesitation, I may not be okay. My next step is always to read each one, to see if they are all they can be. Sometimes, oddly enough, that means going back to a less emotional scene and reworking it. Like jokes, emotions benefit from powerful setups.
    10.    Check the pacing. This is likely to become evident when reading aloud, but it may be necessary to look to the story logic to make sure every scene is necessary. And that there is escalation along the way. Challenges need to get tougher. Stakes need to rise. It’s all too easy to have the energy plateau, often at exactly the wrong time. When that happens, it’s an invitation to put the book down.
    11.    Make the theme perfect. This is a big one. The whole story pivots on it, and this is often expressed fully in one critical scene. I have to know what that scene is. I have to articulate the theme in a way that is clear, concise, and resonant. A great theme is a snatch of poetry, once the story is written. It may not sound like it to someone who hasn’t experienced the whole work, but it should open up someone who has. And, once the scene and the theme statement are indisputable, the whole story needs to be reviewed with these in mind.

You can ignore all of these tasks and still have a good story. But these activities may point to ways to make that story better, maybe as good as it can be. None of my stories will benefit greatly from all of them. I'm confident the right five tasks will do the job, and my recommendation to you is that you explore this list, and choose the five (or three) that seem to be most valuable. It’s YOUR five ways that matter. Before getting to work, feel free to add ones that are not on this list. (I did.) Don’t worry if not everything raises the level of the story. If one does, you win.

Tuesday, June 4, 2019

Scenes That Demand to Be in Your Stories 5: Interesting choices

One person runs toward a burning building while another gets as far away as possible. When the heroine says, “I love you,” the hero responds in kind. Or changes the subject. One boy gets knocked to the ground and stays put. Another stands up and goes after his attacker, no matter how big.

In stories, choices define the characters. And they don’t have to be diametrically opposed choices, like the ones above. Often the best choices are surprises. A man might step into the street to direct traffic away from the inferno. Han Solo might respond to “I love you” with “I know.” The boy on the ground might rise with a knife in his hand.

This series has been about dropping new scenes in when they are needed by the story. I’ve made suggestions on investigating possibilities by defining the purpose of the scene, examining the power dynamics of characters, assessing the challenges characters face, and, in conclusion with this post, exploring possible choices. You may not need all these steps to create a terrific scene that will elevate the quality of your story, so don’t feel obliged to go through all of them. But, if you’re not sure you’ve found the best answer, this process can take you where your gut alone can’t.

So how do you decide which choice is the most powerful? For me, when I get lucky, the muse tells me. I begin to visualize the whole scene, and it’s like taking dictation.

Unfortunately, that is not my typical experience. When I don’t get help, I need to rely on a process. Here’s my approach:

Capture, specify, combine, compare, assess, contextualize, write the first sentences, and choose.

Capture. Chances are, you already have ideas for scenes. List those that come to mind, even if they are awful and impossible. Don’t reject any of them yet. Feel free to begin with single words or sentence fragments. I try to get twenty distinct options down, but I never stop with fewer than ten. I work hard to include one that is a verbal showdown and one that is all action and would come across clearly in a silent movie.

Those captured phrases need to be put into full sentences now.  As an example of that, here’s a great summary of Jaws. Some scenes are done in one sentence. Some in a few. The point is to clearly state what happens in the scene. Focus on what’s essential.

Specify. Here’s something I got from George Gurthridge’s wonderful book, The Kids from Nowhere. If an idea is not original, it might become more original with what Gutheridge calls “funneling.” Taking the options you’ve listed, especially those that aren’t obviously original, and adding more details and specificity make reveal more imaginative approaches to them.

Combine. Can any of the options be put together to create something stronger? If so, now’s a good time to experiment with that.

Compare. If you still have twenty choices, that’s a lot to deal with. It might be wise to force rank them. I usually proceed with about five at this point, though I never force a tough decision. More is okay.

Assess. This is a serious part. What do you believe makes a good idea for a scene? I like originality (obviously). Surprise is usually a good clue. A scene that both increases jeopardy and reveals a secret can be powerful. Visual qualities or humor can sell me on a scene (depending on the story). One thing I always include is twists or turns. These are usually power shifts, and, if a scene cannot deliver three to five I care about, it’s hard for me to see it as viable. That’s not absolute, but it’s a good guideline.

My most critical assessment has to do with difficulty. Will this scene present my character with the toughest choice I can imagine? Will it torture my protagonist? And, will it be difficult for me, calling up truth, emotion, and the best I can do as a writer?

Contextualize. At this point, it’s good to still have three choices, even if one is beginning to look like the winner. Why? Because that really great scene might not fit into your story. In fact, it might destroy much of what you’ve been working toward. There are set pieces that are so memorable and have such emotional content, you can stick them in without regret. But do that intentionally. Choose them after putting them into the context of the scenes before and after (or the sequence or the act or the whole story).

Write the first sentence. Or paragraph. Or lines of dialogue (especially for a script). The purpose here is to bring together analysis, gut feelings, and language in something that might become part of your story. It’s like seeing if a phrase of music might contribute to a symphonic work, and it’s a wonderful test. Often, I get surprised and my least favorite choice comes alive by doing this. As an added benefit, this small bit of writing can help propel you into writing the whole scene. You are no longer facing a blank page.

Choose. At this point, you probably can see which option will do everything you hope for to enhance your story. If the answer still isn’t clear, you can write out your choices in full, from what seems to be the most likely to one that seems like a long shot. For me, my first choice usually provides a happy solution. In my worst cases, I’ve written three scenes to get what I needed.

This series is about solving a problem that comes up in revision. I would not use it during drafting because that’s the part of writing l like best. I’m not interested in taking the fun out of my efforts. But I have done full, detailed outlines for several of my works that seemed to need that approach, and it may be that hardcore plotters will be able to adapt this approach to their drafting needs. If so, I’ve got no problem with that.

Wednesday, May 29, 2019

Scenes That Demand to Be in Your Stories 4: Character challenges

People hate to change and so do characters. People may stand still for long periods of time, but characters—if they are taking an active role—are challenged to change in virtually every scene of a story. That’s where the energy, power, and reader engagement come from. (I suspect we get hooked because change often is agonizing for us. There may be the same urge keeping us watching as coming across a disaster. When change is in the balance, we can’t look away.)

I wrote earlier that the way characters are challenged is by knocking them out of equilibrium. Specifically, something vital to them is put into jeopardy. And it is so threatened, they need to act, make a decision, say something publicly (which is really a kind of act), and/or reevaluate their position on something.

What are those “somethings that are vital to them”?

Here’s my list:
  • Status. How do I rank among others and what privileges does my rank give me? What responsibilities must I fulfill to keep my rank?
  • Identity. Who do I see myself being in terms of my moral code, my roles, and, most of all, how I am valuable (or valued)? What is the story I tell myself about myself?
  • Plans. This is not my to-do list. This is what I see myself achieving that matters to me. This is who I see myself (or those I care about) in the future.
  • Hopes. This reaches beyond concrete plans. Often hopes are unexpressed, longings that might be within reach. Expectations I might not dare to expect.
  • Opportunities. Where is the door open? More importantly, where might doors close permanently? Impending loss, even for things that might have been claimed (and weren’t) years ago, can drive change. Think of what happens with couples who’ve lived together for years when one of the pair says it’s time to get married.
  • Relationships. Both the ability to form (or deepen) a valued tie and the possibility a connection might break require responses.
  • Survival. Get through this ordeal or life-or-death moment or there won’t be any more moments ahead of you.
Note that I don’t have power on the list. I’ve covered it [] , but it’s also already present here at a higher level, weaving its way through each of these. This list also has Maslow’s hierarchy of needS lurking beneath it, but I’ve already explored that earlier.

I began this series with four scenes I was developing. Here’s one I’ll look at this time:

The heroine must listen to the confession of her best friend about how she betrayed her.
Jane’s best friend, Mary, has posted her picture and a cooked-up bio to a dating site. This was done without permission in the face of Jane’s losing someone she cared about. Mary just wanted to end Jane’s loneliness.

Unfortunately, Mary didn’t know that site had evolved to be THE place for kinky hookups. Something Jane is not into. Now Jane, who’s made-up bio had unintended double entendres, is being swamped with requests. Some of the online folks are invading her real life, causing her embarrassment and wrecking her reputation. Since Mary has control of the post, she must confess so the two of them can fix this.

It’s already a fun scene (I hope), but let’s see what pops up with the seven dimensions above. I’ll focus on Mary, since, even though she’s not the protagonist, she is the one facing the most pressure.
  • Status. Though Mary is treated as an equal by Jane, her friend is a wealthy celebrity. And her boss. Mary has gone to a lot of fun parties and gotten good tables at restaurants by having Jane along or mentioning her name. Losing Jane would cut a lot of glamor out of her life and possibly lead to her losing a job she loves and needs. If she really messes up with the confession, Jane could strike back and make her life miserable.
  • Identity. Mary sees herself as helpful and kind. What she did was not helpful. Accepting that she overstepped to the point of causing harm means maybe she isn’t as kind as she thought she was. Maybe her ego got in the way. Or, perhaps, beneath it all, jealousy.
  • Plans. The life Mary assumes for herself is staying close to her friend, maybe getting a bit more of the glitter to rub off on her. Certainly, she hasn’t worried about basic needs since she entered the celebrity orbit.
  • Hopes. Could Mary become a celebrity in her own right? A Gayle to her version of Oprah? Or at least marry one of the men who ends up on the cover of People? This mistake won’t help.
  • Opportunities. A whole lot of possibilities could be closed off. It’s hard to visualize this conversation ending with more opportunities. The pressure is on to create as little havoc as possible. (Of course, as a writer, I’m looking for havoc.)
  • Relationships. Clearly, the friendship will take a hit. Will it emerge stronger? Will Jane ever be able see Mary’s good intentions as she lives in that special hell Mary consigned her to? Oh, and what will Mary’s mom and friends think if they find out about what she did. Will anyone ever trust her again?
  • Survival. Okay. Mary is lucky Jane is not a mobster. No one will rub her out. They won’t even break her legs.
I could dig deeper on these. It’s also likely that diving into composing the scene will create connections with the other scenes in the story and among these possibilities. Getting them out there has created a fresh deck of cards for me to play this hand. I’m excited to write the scene and to see what my characters do.

This is what I want when I write, especially when new scenes need to be inserted into a long work that is already drafted. Being reconnected with renewed passion for the project? I’ll take that.
I could just write immediately, and that might be best. But, if I think it will help, my process offers for one more step: generating character choices. That’s what next week’s post will be about.

Tuesday, May 21, 2019

Scenes That Demand to Be in Your Stories 3: Undermining your hero

The scenario from the first in this series where power dynamics made the most difference in my scenes  was this one.

The protagonist’s main rival invites her to discuss her current project.

Because the analysis this confrontation was so fruitful, I’ll cover that here. (A detailed treatment of power dynamics begins with an earlier post.)

I’ll begin by explaining the title. Why would you undermine the hero of your story? Because making the situation more difficult for your protagonist provides more drama and pushes the character toward growth and change. Writers have to be cruel to be kind (to readers and, often, the main characters).

The exploration of the power in the scene has three stages:
  1. A review of how power is important to the point of the scene.
  2. Listing the powers of the characters in the scene.
  3. Exploring how the elements of the scene might be manipulated to facilitate a power shift and add more drama.
The point of the confrontation. This scene gives the villain knowledge of the heroine’s weakness (her love for the man who is her “project.” The ruthlessness of the villain makes it clear something very bad is about to happen.  It also forces a dilemma because the choice for the heroine is sacrificing her business and career or sacrificing the man she loves. Both of these are deeply personal, and she knows she won’t escape unscathed. The heroine must feel her power diminish in the face of high stakes.

Listing the powers of the characters in the scene. I went through all the forms of power for each character, but I’ll just present a few highlights of the analysis here.
  • The antagonist has money and authority. She's part of the 0.1 percent.
  • The protagonist has analytical skills. In fact, she can go deep and create equations and graphs related to situations.
  • The antagonist has resources for advice (when she listens) and action.
  • The protagonist is able to adjust plans and come up with new options in the moment.
Exploring how the elements of the scene might be manipulated to facilitate a power shift and add more drama. There are a lot of strategies here. If the main character has physical power, handcuff him or her. If the power is by authority, undercut that authority (say with a threat of revealing a change in the organization’s structure. If power comes from flexibility, make it clear some options have disappeared. Here are three I chose:

Secret revealed. Hero(ine) loses power. Part of the heroine’s power comes from not revealing her love belongs the the “project.” Even her typical reference to him as My Project portrays distance and lack of vulnerability. So when the mask slips and she knows her adversary has discovered the truth, she’s sad and frightened (so much so, she fails to realize how her own power rises once she knows the villain is ruthless and cares nothing for the “project.”

Home field advantage. Antagonist gains power. I purposely moved the confrontation to the antagonist’s apartment. And not just any apartment, but a personal space that the heroine had never seen or imagined before. Everything in it is designed to make it easy for the antagonist and difficult for the “climber” heroine. You are up against powers you can never defeat. Quit while you’re ahead.

Knowledge. Hero(ine) loses power. The heroine naively tells an amusing anecdote about her “project.” At the beginning of the scene, it seems like fun between people who would never betray the poor guy. By the end it’s clear the she has put a weapon into a dangerous adversary’s hands—one that could be used against her and the man she loves.

In each instance, more power to the antagonist or weakening the hero(ine) leads readers to worry more about the hero(ine). And makes the goal more elusive. Of course, it’s possible to go in the opposite direction. In many love stories, disparities in power are increased and control is shifted favoring one, and then the other, lover. And a (legitimate and earned) twist the puts the hero(ine) into the power position at the end often works and can be explored by using this undermining strategy in reverse.

Tuesday, May 14, 2019

Scenes That Demand to Be in Your Stories 2: Knowing the point of the scene

Usually, when I add a scene to a drafted story, it's for one of three reasons: a reader comment, a character nudge, or a vague feeling that something is missing. None of these, of course, tell me what the purpose of the scene is, and that's vital to correctly fitting it in so it feels as if it has always been there.

The most common reader comment that causes me to go back and make changes is "my attention lagged here." (People are usually so rude as to phrase it that way, but I actually explicitly seek that feedback.) Most often, lacking attention is caused by the "darlings." These are the parts of the story where characters make clever speeches or I get rhapsodic about nature or something technical. But holes in the story can also cause readers to disengage and "darling" scenes may be more than just author intrusion. They can be patches over the holes.

When a character nudges me, it's usually because his or her (or its) story is incomplete. I've forgotten to say what happened to a secondary character. I haven't really provided the reason why so-and-so did something so drastic. Or the character just wants to share something interesting. Characters never asked me to cut their lines for their scenes. When they tapped me on the shoulder, it's because they want more attention.

Those vague feelings? My gut knows when the scene is wrong, and also knows when I need to do something more dangerous or even create a new character, a new incident, or uncover a secret that has remained hidden from me. Often this feels like a piece of music has dropped out of a song or one musician missed his cue. I'd say missing scenes that are indicated by discomfort pushed me to the point where they are unavoidable most often when I read the work out loud. It is not unusual for me to begin adding sentences right then, or to put the manuscript down and pace around until I find an answer or commit to a lot of hard work.

What's missing? What's the point of the scene that needs to be added? It may be a face-to-face confrontation between two major characters. It may be a quiet scene that sets up drama. It may be a scene that provides relief for the reader, a break in the tension.

Often, omitted scenes are those that feel too personal or too on the nose. The work in these cases is to probe a wound or write something flat and then use my understanding of the characters to create real dialogue.

You may have noticed that many of the scenes that are both essential and left out are problem children. They include work that is challenging, seemingly beyond my capabilities. (Certainly beyond my feelings of competence.) They may force me to relive painful moments in my life. Or they may just promise a lot of hours at the keyboard working the prose, fixing other parts the manuscript, or collecting the full story from a gabby character, knowing I'll need to chop down 10 pages to three.

So, for one of the scenes I just reworked, the starting point was the reader's request for an action scene. Fair enough. My heroes tended to stumble across problems that led to pursuits, attacks, captures, traps, and impossible dilemmas. I certainly know how to brainstorm material like that. But I couldn't just drop it in. It had to have a point. And I went through using this to reveal hidden dimensions of my protagonists, to underline the conflicting values of the characters, and to bring readers more thoroughly into the odd world I'd created. All good purposes for a scene.

But what I settled on — which dictated exactly where this scene would fit in and showed me beats that were missing in the scenes on either side — was a recommitment to the quest by the protagonist. He had to do this, and I'm not sure why I didn't see that as I was drafting the story. Because, at about this time, things get really tough. It becomes clear that it takes more than a promise or dedication to honor to go forward when your life will be put into jeopardy and your best friend might die.

Knowing what the scene needed to do helped me go forward to the next step in creating the best scene for that part of the story. And that next step was looking at the power dynamics which is what will be the subject of my next post.

Tuesday, May 7, 2019

Scenes That Demand to Be in Your Stories 1: Purpose, power dynamics, character challenges, and choices

My works in progress provide laboratories for this blog. Often, what I'm writing – especially if I'm facing difficulties — will find its way into approaches I recognize as worth sharing, or I'll be forced into experimenting and end up documenting the experience.

Recently, I've been involved in developmental revisions on a few stories. It occurred to me that this effort was worth analyzing and this would be a good place to offer what I've learned. While I have several ways that I go about adding scenes, in each of these cases, I used the same method.

1. Purpose — Write a sentence that states why this scene is needed in the story. What's the point? What does it accomplish?

2. Power dynamics — Survey all the characters in the scene (and as needed, characters who overshadow the same) and look at what powers they had. Minimally, determine who begins the scene in the strongest position. (Often, that person sees a power shift before the scene is over.)

3. Character challenges — How the character's status, identity, plans, hopes, opportunities, etc. were knocked out of equilibrium during the scene? What might push the character into taking action, making a decision, saying something publicly, or reevaluating a position?

4. Choices — What are the options the character will have during the scene? As a result of the scene? Think in terms of who the character is, motivations, current state of mind (especially in terms of what most recently happened), and what traumatic triggers might need to be handled. In addition, experiment with the character just accepting what he or she has been given or what would happen if he or she made a decision without consideration were thinking. One choice the author should always investigate is one that would have the worst consequences.

I'll go through each of these in future posts. For today, I'll touch on some of what happened with one of my scenes. Here are the four scenes I had in front of me:
  • The protagonist’s main rival invites her to discuss her current project.
  • The main character must avoid capture by law enforcement while attending a party with someone he cares about.
  • The heroine must listen to the confession of her best friend about how she betrayed her.
  • A secondary character abandons the project, leaving wreckage in her wake.
Those sitting down and actually writing the scenes in ways that are true to the character and fit elegantly into the rest of the story isn't easy, each of these offers fun opportunities. A roll in the ditch, and escape, a betrayal, and a messy exit? There's built-in drama no matter which you choose. Let's look at the third scene.

1. Purpose – The point of this scene is to reveal information to the protagonist. Fundamentally, she needs to understand that she was humiliated because of a deliberate act by someone she trusted. It wasn't a mistake. And she hadn't caused it herself.

Now it’s possible to elaborate on this. The friend was not being cruel. She was acting in a way she thought would be helpful. The friend, in confessing, relieves herself of a secret, but she takes the chance of ending the friendship, facing revenge, and (in this story) losing her job.

2. Power dynamics — In terms of wealth, authority, and reputation, the main character has advantages over her friend. The friend's advantages are softer. She has better social skills. She is dependent upon by the main character as a confidant and emotional support. Overall, the decisions following the revelation are in the main character's hands, but both characters face important consequences.

3. Character challenges — With the revelation, the main character could become a victim and lose status. She will definitely be forced to change her relationship with her friend, which is frightening to her. The friend has already broken trust and must accept moving into a relationship where she will be doubted, at best. A likely beat in the scene is an explanation for the betrayal. How it is expressed and received will probably determine the emotional texture and shape subsequent scenes.

4. Choices — 1) cool: betrayal? That's no big deal. It's over. Let's move on. 2) warmer: betrayal? How could you? I was protecting you. Okay, thanks. 3) still warmer: betrayal? You scoundrel! I did it for your own good. You had no right. 4) hot: betrayal? You rat!! It was payback, and I'm glad I did it! We'll see how glad you are when I finish eviscerating you in public!

Okay, I hope you get the idea. In practical terms, I found that I was revisiting each of these four steps as I worked. I also wasn't afraid to jump ahead. And the choices? About 20 were explored before I was done.

Note, this isn't a scene writing machine. The details are all contingent on what else is going on in the story. The choices are somewhat constrained by who these characters are (although my inclination was to push hard to make a choice work before it was rejected. I actually ended up drafting half pages of three choices before I made a decision and completed the scene. (At times, I've experimented with writing the same scene as humor or melodrama or from a different perspective. When I got really stuck once, I wrote a scene in the voices of half-dozen favorite authors.)

One reason why I made such an investment in the scenes is because each of them provides the opportunity to really elevate the stories in which they take place. In addition, I hate the idea of anyone's noticing they were added in revision. When fixes and addenda are too obvious in the story, they can wreck the whole experience. On the other hand, when they feel like they belong, they can become the best parts of stories.

Tuesday, April 30, 2019

The Last Word - How to end scenes so readers stay engaged

Ending a scene well is a way you keep readers turning pages or reward them (especially in the final scene). I've talked in the past about cliffhangers, questions, and reveals. These are all valid, but this post will take a deeper dive on ending scenes.

Much of this comes from what I've been learning this year working in a writers’ room for a Web series. In particular, the director is sensitive to making the endings effective even if it means cutting material. Two key criteria have come to the fore: emotion and character choice. The emotional response for the reader (in this case, the viewer) needs to be strong. Whatever comes out of the draft needs to be questioned. With regard to the character, there's power in who has the last word. This is both in terms of where the emotion belongs and in story emphasis.

Okay, that's the basics. Time to dig deeper.

Cliffhangers raise questions. Minimally, that means they should get readers curious. But Hitchcock says curiosity is not a strong emotion. Stakes create concerns. We worry about the characters we identify with. So the ideal cliffhangers either put characters we care about in serious jeopardy or threaten goals we hope they achieve (or push goals we don't want them to achieve toward success).

Cliffhangers often and best with the action or statement of the person who opposes the viewpoint character. And, naturally, actions and words – especially promises and strong statements of intent — by the hero or heroine can create anxiety and anticipation in readers. Since the protagonist often is in the dark about important implications of choices, I like to bring in a secondary character to end the same, often with a question that implies unexamined consequences.

Sometimes a reminder can have power at the end of the scene, shifting the perspective on what has gone before. Similarly, a reveal, especially one that has been set up well, can reorient readers in ways that make them wanting to find out things they didn't know that they wanted to know.

A good joke can make readers turn the page. Because we want to get to another joke that will give us a laugh. This is true even if the humor isn't intrinsic to the plot of the story question. Sometimes, it's just a reminder that we like a character (and this could be a secondary character) and we want to spend more time with him or her. Of course, this can be accomplished with an interesting action or poetic language as well. Anything that makes us reluctant to say goodbye to a character will be engaging.

While visuals are always part of the primary tools of those working on films and videos, they can be neglected in prose works. The power of ending a scene with a compelling image can work in a novel, or short story, or any other medium that has scenes. In particular, a powerful final image for work can move readers in ways nothing else can and make the whole work memorable. So, though it may not always be effective, choosing an image to close the scene should be considered often. In fact, for a longer work, it's worth looking just and how scenes end throughout the work and making sure opportunities for images have not been missed that can elevate that whole work.

I'll end with a lesson I got in the writer's room that delights me. The director seem to look each time — even when the scene ended well – for the moment of emotion that came before it. If that one could make a better ending, his bias was toward either cutting or moving the words that followed it. The only things that could prevents his making that choice were loss of information needed by the viewer (as, for instance, a set up), something that would mess up the beginning of the next scene (such as what might appear as a jump cut with the speaking or acting character), a harmful shift in tone, or problems with emphasis that took away from the main story. When the "weaker" ending had to be kept, the momentum that came from analyzing a different potential ending seemed to inspire the writers’ room to raise the quality from weaker to stronger.

I've taken what I've learned here and brought it to my other works. It turns out that the payoff, in terms of making the writing difficult to put down is more than worth the time invested in questioning endings that are basically solid, but hold the promise to be better.

Tuesday, April 23, 2019

How to Bring Emotional Immediacy to Your Stories — Including important moments

According to Joss Whedon (Buffy, Firefly, Dollhouse), writers should “fall in love with moments, not moves.” Moves are easy enough to identify. They are the big plot points, often involving actions that propel the story forward. Or payoffs for high concepts. Moves are more subtle. Again from Whedon “some extremely relatable thing that everyone has gone through… that’s your moment.” (Both quotes from Showrunners by Tara Bennett.)

When I read this, I think I immediately connected it to my blog series on Pivotal Scenes, probably because away from this blog I had used those questions to mine personal moments in my own life. All of these present a high bar for emotional content, and many make me feel vulnerable. And I think the moments in movies that deal authentically with breakups and realizing a power or a flaw and terrible dangers or losses and wonder all live just beneath the story moments Whedon wants to protect, to hold onto with both hands.

I think it also links to dealing honestly with the deep themes of your stories. Stand by Me (adapted from Stephen King’s The Body) takes an unflinching look at how our real identities fit in with our social identities. Gordie can never be his brother, but he doesn’t have to live the disappointment of his parents and the neighbors. Chris does not have to be a no-good Chambers boy like the others in his family. He is allowed to open his heart and use his mind.

Both King’s characters share moments of pain that feel real and daring. Neither of them can voice their greatest betrayals (Gordie’s being emotionally abandoned by his parents, Chris’s being used by a teacher he trusts). I have to believe King found moments like these in his own heart.

That’s the job. Not the whole job. Stories need the big events and the structure and everything that creates contexts for moments. But finding these moments in your own heart, and having the courage to write them, is how moment that matter end up in your own stories.

How do you find moments?

The muse offers them from time to time. When you show up often enough to tell stories, you’ll hear a whisper. And the trick will be to capture what you hear without making it save (or making yourself safe). A poorly formed moment can be fixed in a rewrite. One that is reshaped by the editor in your head before it is fully captured is likely to have its value carved out and disposed of before it hits the paper.

A diary or journal entry, cooled by time, may provide the kernel of a moment. Its truth can inspire. The wisdom of experience can reveal its essence. And the right character in the right story can allow its full expression. The same can be true for old memories that come rushing back. Sometimes they may be prompted by a smell or an evocative image or pattern. Often, for me, they come back when I’m trying to explain something or provide an example that clarifies a problem or opportunity. This can be an explanation for myself, but it is more likely to be for someone else. The one constant with these memories that become moments is that they come back to me meaning something different and new in some important way. They arrive with insights.

Moments are also prompted by articulating and exploring themes in works I’ve drafted. Getting a handle on what a story is about leads to realizations, discoveries of possibilities within the work so far, and illumination of wrong turns that can be righted. Looking more closely and making fixes, especially over time, leads me to moments. Often, I wake up with them after having put in a lot of work the day before. And, once again, I have to have the courage to welcome them. It’s very easy to cheat or dismiss moments. Because it feels more reasonable. And safer.

At this point, personalizing answers to the questions from my pivotal scenes post has been the biggest recent source for me of moments. There is no How to Write Fast post that I’ve returned to more often. I’m not sure how long my luck will hold, but that particular slot machine keeps paying off. I’m not putting quarters in. Its currency is blood and tears most of the time. Laughter, joy, and wonder can also makes those cylinders come up jackpot, but that currency is harder for me to come by.

Tuesday, April 16, 2019

Putting Holes in Your Stories - Making space for reader engagement

When you leave things out, you provide openings for your readers to enter your stories. An important example I've offered in the past has been using clues and secrets. Obviously, mysteries rely on these, but they are fundamental to most storytelling because readers like seeing the spaces where they can imagine completing the puzzle.

Another example is loss, especially when it creates a sense of nostalgia. When someone from the future uncovers an artifact from our own time (or one we know well), our knowledge of its context and our ability to understand and regret what has been destroyed makes that moment in the story more personal. The Statue of Liberty at the end of the original Planet of the Apes may be the most famous example, but I still remember when I read Stephen Vincent Benét's By the Waters of Babylon and the main character's discovery of post-apocalypse New York. Philip K. Dick provides examples that indicate a twisted past, as when a character shows off the cigarette lighter Franklin Roosevelt was carrying when he was assassinated.


Irony is a classic way to gain reader participation. When readers have information, especially contextual information, that the point of view character does not, the reader is forced into the position of seeing bad choices and having no way to advise a character with whom he or she identifies. Movies love to do this, perhaps most famously in those directed by Hitchcock. In fact, his description of suspense is all about the audience knowing a bomb is present when the characters don't. The sort of "Get out! Get out!" reaction is delicious. It's why a lot of people at horror movies advise characters (often shouting) not open the door the monster is behind.

When a historical person is depicted as the opposite of what we expect, that can also create a kind of ironic recognition that puts the reader into a space that's both uncomfortable and familiar. I think part of the appeal of stories that include Nicola Tesla as the hero is the way they challenge myths that Edison was a great benefactor who invented much of the modern world (though the mythos seems to be shifting enough, so the Edison switch may be losing its punch). Taking someone who is part of the contemporary Pantheon, like Einstein or Lincoln or Mark Twain, and exploring their dark sides at a distance through a naïve character who only sees the bad is a (somewhat dangerous) way to get under a reader's skin.

Antiheroes take things further. How can we both want Walter White or Tony Soprano to succeed and be horrified when they do? Certainly, empathy and identification with the protagonist is elegantly established in the best antihero stories. But there's more. The writer must be willing to follow through on the antisocial behaviors, often taking them further than readers or audiences might anticipate. Strangely enough, I believe antiheroes who go too far and evaporate excuses we might make for what they do draw us more deeply into the stories because we are forced to re-create our emotional landscapes.

And, though many readers are offended by ambiguous or bittersweet endings (much less tragedies), these are often among the most memorable. The spinning top at the end of Christopher Nolan's Inception forces audiences to write many endings. And if Rhett Butler had said, after Scarlet's pleading, "Okay, I'll stay," I suspect Gone with the Wind would have lost much of its power and its ability to capture the imaginations of generations of moviegoers.

Suggest things. Leave things out. Create questions. Turn things upside down. Surprise. Startle. Don't be afraid to challenge, discomfort, and even irritate your readers. Purposely create invitations throughout your stories so readers are encouraged to participate and stay engaged.

Tuesday, April 9, 2019

Drawing Readers In — Elements that will make your story's scenes more compelling

My brain has been throwing ideas at me that make my scenes more vivid and memorable. I listen to the muse and obey, but the analytical part of my mind tends to ask questions. So I started ranking what perks up scenes, and I put these into a larger context.

The first rule is don’t undercut yourself. This can happen when what you write is unclear or distracting. Get the facts right, keep in logical (without confusing non sequiturs), use words that are correct but don’t send your readers to the dictionary, and never have characters act out of character. The best protection here is having someone else read your work, asking them if anything was unclear or confusing or took them out of the story, and listening to what they say. Most writers will take this kind of correction unless it means killing something they love. Beware: Such self-indulgence gets in the way.

Often fun facts and fancy prose need to be cut, especially if they stick out. But they can actually keep readers engaged if they are slipped in smoothly enough and support the story. My model for doing this right was author Charles Sheffield. He is the only person I’ve ever spoken with regularly who could toss in a few lines of poetry or an analogy explaining an arcane concept in physics and never sound pretentious. Elegance personified.

Curiosity can hold readers. Most stories raise questions people want answers to. Big question. Little questions. Time them right, pay them off, and make sure they sit in readers’ memories with just the right emphasis. It’s a critical part of story telling. I just did an analysis of a Web series I’m working on, and the biggest concerns I ended up with were questions paid off too early and questions forgotten. I think the temptation to reveal rather than to withhold is driven by writer enthusiasm for the answer—they can’t wait to share it—and concern that if they withhold it too long, impact will be lost. But if you study your favorite stories, almost all of them withhold until readers are clamoring for the answers.

The questions forgotten thing is easier to deal with. Creative minds tend to raise more questions and throw up more options than a story can handle. In revision, it’s to cut those that don’t contribute and to pay off those that were overlooked.

Similar to questions are surprises and humor. Twists and turns add novelty, force readers to take fresh looks at what went earlier, and lead to new questions. Clues, misfortunes (for sympathetic characters, not villains), and secrets uncovered make stories fresh and unpredictable.

And, if you give your readers a good laugh, they’ll keep coming back for more. Humor may be the best way to pull things together and comic relief can amplify emotional engagement. But it doesn’t have to. Humor is so highly valued, it is one of the few elements that can be kept without harm when it doesn’t really fit. As the experts say, never cut funny. The biggest concern is audience. What’s funny often doesn’t translate to different cultures. And taste can become an issue.

One of the best tools is escalation. If there is a pattern, making it more intense with each instance promises more and keeps readers hooked. For instance, someone’s car breaks down. Then the character is robbed. Then he trips and twists his ankle. Then there’s a city-wide blackout.

Stakes and consequences can be part of this. What if the character is on his way to give blood for emergency surgery. And his blood type is rare. And the patient is his younger brother. Who is the only witness who can testify against the city’s corrupt mayor.

The most powerful tool for reader involvement is empathy for the character. The more we identify with the hero or heroine, the more intensely engaged we’ll be. We have to make sure they’ll be all right or succeed. Damon Knight said empathy could be turned on by making the character funny, skilled, or wronged (or some combination of these).

I don’t think that exhausts the possibilities. For instance, familiar situations often can trigger me as a reader to keep turning pages just because the protagonist is going through something I’ve gone through. If a character’s voice is distinctive enough, I may be drawn into his or her life and discover touchstones that matter. And care. That’s the main thing. Whatever you can do to make me care about your character and keep me caring is likely to succeed.

This list is not complete. Images can hold readers. Sex and violence may act for some (most?) readers in ways similar to humor. I just bought a book because the whole story takes place at my alma mater, and I’ve done the same when I’ve found stories about cities I’ve visited or lived in, about people I’ve known, and about organizations I’ve been a member of. I’m the natural audience for those stories, and, chances are, if your story has recognizable specifics, there’s an audience for it. And often the specifics illustrate the universal, as with Fiddler on the Roof and My Big Fat Greek Wedding. You don’t have to be Jewish or Greek to enjoy those stories.

As I said, my path to this list was looking at the elements that were inveigling their ways into my scenes. When the muse goes to work, just say yes. When he/she doesn’t, it’s great to have a tool for revision that provides the same kinds of elements, which is why I looked at my experience and wrote this as a way to explore my already drafted scenes and make them more vivid.

Tuesday, April 2, 2019

Authenticity Sets Your Work Apart 6 - Trusting the storyteller

Good news. Readers are on your side (or at least they start out that way). Suspension of disbelief, which is critical for works of speculative fiction, is also available for other storytellers. The default is trust, so your first job, if you want to bring authenticity to your work, is to maintain that trust.

Now there are ways to gain the trust of people who have not even picked up your work. You may have credentials that are relevant or a reputation for truth or a track record as someone who delivers what readers want. Any of those can give you standing with the reading community (or audiences). Equally, you can arrive in front of them in ways that create doubts — shaky or faked credentials, a history of being deceptive, or simply having your byline on disappointing works.

If you have nothing for you or against you, there is a reason someone picked up your story. It could be a great book cover, a recommendation from a peer or an admired writer, a review, a blurb, or the title. Perhaps, the first page drew the reader in. Of all of these, the only ones really in the writer's control are the title and the first page. That's why even rookie writers are aware of the value of titles, hooks, and strong, clear prose. Chances are, you've read a new writer just because they convinced you within the first few paragraphs that they knew what they were doing and could offer you wondrous language or a compelling situation or a marvelous character or wisdom or a combination of these (including all of the above).

So being a good writer makes a difference, provided your work reaches the right audience. You get to decide who you are writing your story for, and the more dead on you are as far as understanding them and what keeps their attention, the better chance you will have of holding onto credibility.

Some people will accept charm and allow it to paper over all the story holes and inconsistencies. Others will appreciate logic and events chained together so firmly, it's impossible to put the book down. Some readers expect writers to use the exact, best words, and others prefer prose that is more down-to-earth and folksy.

These readers usually are not interchangeable, so writers who seek to gain attention and communicate effectively need to make good estimates of who their audiences are and what they are looking for. Someone who comes for an educated and clinical approach and finds a story that is full of slang or characters who lack erudition, will not appreciate the authenticity the work offers. On the other hand, if your reader is interested in getting lost in a story and doesn’t want to be pulled away to refer to dictionaries and encyclopedias, the work may come off as pretentious and fake.

Of course, deviations — in facts, logic, details (such as how far a horse can travel in a day), and conventional wisdom — sow doubt and can cause readers to lose their faith in a writer. And put the book down.

Losing readers is your fault if you make errors. If you deviate from conventional wisdom, it may or may not be. It is your fault if your excuse is “but that’s what really happened.” The “truth is stranger than fiction” defense may make you feel good, but it will not win the argument. Strange is the operative word here. Reality can present a series of low probability events, but, since (on one level) we come to stories for life lessons, anomalies are not useful. The only real exception is when a hero suffers statistically rare misfortune, but is able to overcome it.

Deviating from conventional wisdom may be the point of a story and can be a wonderful way to share insights with readers. But it isn’t easy. Readers will resist. If you take on conventional wisdom, the argument you make must be compelling and free of any holes or flaws that allow it to be dismissed.

I’ll note that what people “know,” conventional wisdom, and the familiar can be used against some readers successfully. With a setup that, retrospectively, supports an alternative to what readers are assuming throughout the story, a reveal can be a delight. Having the most unlikely person turn out to be the murderer at the end is a convention for mystery readers, provided the clues add up to that conclusion when seen from a new perspective.

Tuesday, March 26, 2019

Authenticity Sets Your Work Apart 5 - So true you feel it

Hitchcock said in Psycho, after the shower scene, the audience did all the work. People scared themselves.

The master of suspense had already created a world that was more terrifying than viewers had ever seen, where the apparent female lead was dead, the stolen money didn’t matter, the world was cut off from help and normal rules, and the last major character(s) standing made no sense in terms of anything they’d seen before.

Classic horror movies often skipped special effects and worked to engage the audience’s imagination. The monster was never shown in the film or only shown very late in the story. But no one had ever created a monster as spooky and dependent on audience expectations as Norman Bates’s mother.

So one powerful way to add credibility to a story is to brilliantly set up the story and then dramatically reverse expectations. Pull the rug out from under them, and doubt loses its footing.

More often another technique based on emotion is put to work to make a story believable. The author uses a sympathetic character’s interpretation of incidents. By creating a protagonist people deeply identify with, writers can support that character’s selection of information, how it is ordered in its presentation, and the contexts for each bit to feelings build confidence in the legitimacy of what is observed, even though it might have logical inconsistencies. Once a character gains trust, his or her perspective is more easily accepted. Essentially, this a subtle (and presumably benign) form of spinning.

There’s one way any character (including the villain) can convince an audience (or at least get them to suspend disbelief). A monologue that is self-revealing can create an unquestioned feeling in people viewing a film or stage presentation. The requirements are that the monologue must be aimed at a specific character who is part of the story (and to whom a disclosure would make sense), the monologist must have a powerful and clear motivation for sharing something that matters deeply, and there should be an indication that a sacrifice is being made. For a monologue to be vital, it needs to be presented at a price.

Many times I’ve seen important truths included in a story and discovered that other people seem to miss them. I think this is not surprising when information is presented within the context of humor (and sneaks in under defenses) or where the story works at multiple levels (as often happens with the best children’s stories). But sometimes what the writer presents gets missed because of distractions or the way it is framed. In general, revelations need to be featured in some way. Get the audience’s attention first, then share the truth.

Respect is another important consideration. No audience wants to be talked down to or held in contempt. Unless the audience believes the writer sees them as an equal, those hard-earned treasures being offered will be rejected. We listen to people who have our best interests at heart, who care about us.

Tuesday, March 19, 2019

Authenticity Sets Your Work Apart 4 - The opportunities of genre

One thing to watch for, in terms of gaining and maintaining reader or audience confidence is expectations set by genre. Work will be accepted within the context of how it is categorized and the precedents that have been established.

Obviously, a documentary or something explicitly categorized as nonfiction is best treated journalistically. However, there can be variations based on other information, such as the reputation of the work's creator. For instance, ever since Michael Moore produced Roger and Me, the expectation has been his facts will be shaped for a specific perspective (his argument) and much of what is presented will be there to provide humor.

There are many works that are "based on a true story," and these are assumed to be truthful about most of the elements.  They often borrow credibility from the audience’s recognition of accepted facts, places, and incidents. The writers who take their stories away from what's documented may tag their works as "inspired by" true stories, which keeps the audience by providing that designation as a caveat. It's worth noting that some people can't tolerate any playful or dramatic responses to reality, but I suspect most people can. No one wants to be deceived, but most people are willing to make allowances for a tale well told. I love the interweaving of fact and fiction in Doctorow’s Ragtime, but I know people who find experiencing it (as a book, a movie, or play) frustrating.

Closely akin to nonfiction is the roman à clef, a genre where characters and incidents parallel those in real life, often with the implication that a straight, nonfiction treatment would lead to a lawsuit. I remember when the movie Seven Days in May came out how people in Washington DC speculated about who the characters might represent in real life. That was part of the fun.

Hard science fiction builds a case for using facts and extrapolating them with as much logic andveracity as its authors can manage. The joy for readers comes from creating a future that  both evokes wonder and seems possible, given current knowledge. The Andromeda Strain goes so far as to provide footnotes throughout for journal articles and other references, many of which actually exists.

Film provides an interesting way to pull the viewer in – including real footage. This can be as simple as showing a city. (I love the way West Side Story opens with the view from above of New York.) Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan provides an interesting use of sources by incorporating the visual style (though not the actual shots) of Omaha Beach newsreel footage into its D-Day landing scene.

There are inside story works that purport to show unknown details of our world or culture. Arthur Hailey's novel, Hotel, presents the inner workings of the administration, management, and goals of the hotel. He did a whole series like this, e.g., Wheels and Airport. James Michener’s novels often took this to the limit, sometimes beginning with the geology of a region before finally settling into characters and story.

Similarly, there is a de facto genre around what I call first testimonies. As the culture has opened up to silence their voices – different genders, ethnic groups, classes, religions, etc. — novels that explore the experiences of people pushed out of the mainstream or forced into hiding have presented views taken to be authentic. Often, the credence comes from a level of courage that seems to be present in works that risk disparagement or rejection. Anyone "outing" him or herself is likely to be believed.

In an odd way, commonly can have an authenticity created by its not being taken seriously. My cousin comedian Barry Crimmins said humor was a way to "smuggle in truth." Credibility slips in sideways.

Things can be turned in another direction where facts may evolve into something unexpected, a kind of a con game. If you haven't seen Orson Welles's film, F for Fake, check it out. It's entertaining and provides insights with such wit I can't bring myself to spoil it here.

For me, the most effective path to authenticity has always been presenting a familiar and easy to identify with world with nothing outsized, and managing to presents truth through the characters (sometimes called “kitchen sink dramas”). From the very beginning Paddy Chayefsky's Marty quietly endears me to its characters, and it presents challenges that are completely believable and resonant.

The above examples rely on a variety of touch points for authenticity – journalism, common knowledge, characters that ring true, logic, sharing the secrets, the standing of the creator, and more. As with all genres, the secret to a writer's success is doing the homework. Reading through novels or watching films that are comparable to the work in progress and looking to see how authenticity is achieved (or what leads to artistic failure) is vital. So, analyzing work that's out there and noting the tools that bring credibility, along with how much deviation an audience might tolerate, is a great way to bring authenticity to your work.

Tuesday, March 12, 2019

Authenticity Sets Your Work Apart 3 - Characters who reveal themselves

I can be completely charmed by a good romantic comedy. The twists and turns, the humor, and the love story can entertain me so thoroughly, I'll watch the movie repeatedly over the years. But sometimes promising stories in genres that rely on the relationships between the main characters don't work. It may be the writing, but usually it's the acting, or, more correctly, the chemistry between the lovers in the story. There's no spark. It doesn't seem real. And I can't get engaged with it no matter how clever the premise or how funny the jokes.

Relationships in a story provide the most powerful way to deliver authentic characters. But when there's something false about the relationship, the ability of readers to engage is diminished. So, if you want to improve the authenticity of your characters, the most important thing to focus on is bringing truth to the relationships between the characters.

How to create authentic characters by building authentic relationships:

Goals – Whenever you have two important characters in the scene, they should want something. They should be working to achieve a result that brings them closer to their goals. Ideally, the goals of the characters are in conflict because otherwise it's difficult to show who they are. People (and characters) reveal their inner selves through their choices and emotions, and success without struggles tend to make them stereotypes.

It is possible for characters to have a common goal and for that to be revealing, but only if it requires cooperation. Two people in a survival situation who work together and agree on what needs to be done and how to do it will be flat characters who are difficult to believe in.

Flaws – Real people are messed up, including your heroes. They’re also wonderful and inspiring and memorable. A deeply flawed character can still be likable, and even if he or she is not, readers are likely to stay engaged.

One of the most common (and for me frustrating) mistakes my students make is creating characters who are good through and through. Or characters who have the slightest flaws (usually, just virtues pretending to be flaws). Even when pressed, students who do this usually can't get themselves to include anything "bad" about the hero or heroine of the story. The excuse is that no one will like their character if he or she is flawed. I suspect the real reason is that adding a flaw to a character with whom the writer identifies feels too risky. The shame is that really wonderful stories get ruined because the characters are too nice.

The flaws, of course, get interesting and reveal truths when they challenge relationships. If you take any of the Seven Deadly Sins and give that Sin to your protagonist, it will impact friends, enemies, and lovers. The Sin will need to be resolved or managed in the story or the relationships will probably become abusive or broken. That is truth. That is engaging. That is storytelling.

Subtext — You can have the most complex character in the world, and, if he or she answers every question directly, exposes all secrets, and explains what and why he or she is going to do something, that potentially intriguing character becomes a bore. Truth makes you vulnerable. As Elvis Costello said, "it's easier to say I love you than yours sincerely."

So, ironically, authentic characters are deceptive. They don't answer questions directly. They speak the truth through what they say between the lines. They hide their purposes.

It can be very difficult to write subtext. For me, a lot of this kind of writing happens in revision. I actually print out the story, mark the "on the nose” dialogue and fix it line by line. Sometimes this means rewriting whole scenes. What makes it authentic is knowing the characters (which usually has been achieved by the time I'm rewriting), and allowing them to evade in their own idiosyncratic ways, dependent on how they see the other character (mostly the level of trust).

Acting techniques — Whether you use the traditional approach of creating a character from the outside in or the Method approach, which creates characters from the inside out, effort must be made in finding the truth of your principle characters.

I have friends who work from the outside in creating back stories, collecting pictures, and rigorously going through details from eye color to where they went to school to birth order. Some people use astrological signs and others create psychological profiles (like Myers-Briggs). Personally, I write until I begin to have questions. Then I interview my characters. I think because I’ve worked for so many years as a speechwriter, it's hearing the character’s voice that tells me what I need to know about the truth. In most cases.

Reality — About half the successful writers I know base their main characters on real people. These may be people they know intimately. They may be people they met briefly (usually in an intense situation that leaves them questions). Or they may be historical characters.

When a character is based on a real person, there are clear reference points. The writer has anchors in facts, if not truth. There is, however, a risk of getting caught up in the reality. When I worked on a historical novel, it was difficult for me to move away from the real events. It was only when I gave myself permission to provide a happier ending for my character (in real life, she died in childbirth) that the work came alive for me. But I think most experienced writers don't have too much trouble leaving the facts behind if it permits them to tell a more entertaining and authentic story.

I’ll note that in my story, it was the relationship between the protagonist and her father (well-established in the historical record) that revealed what most appealed to me, her cunning. And I was delighted to share how she got around his restrictions and the limits society imposed on her.

Freedom — Authentic characters rarely can't call their plot points the way the writer asks them to. Those who are manipulated were forced to follow a rigorous outline are less likely to come to life on the page.

I had this experience outside of writing recently. An actor took a character I had created, who was somewhat self-absorbed on paper, and turned him into the most sympathetic character in the story. He did this without changing one line of dialogue. The director did not rein him in to fit the intent of the script, and the result was a deeper and more complex story.

It happens on the page, too, and can make for some strange writing experiences. But when a character makes a break for freedom, the result can be delightful for the writer and the readers.


Tuesday, March 5, 2019

Authenticity Sets Your Work Apart 2 - Bringing truth to scenes in your story

I read a novel recently where every scene was acutely, painfully authentic. I’ve met the writer, and he is warm and funny in person, but he does not spare his readers. I admire that, but I’m not eager to read such a relentless book again. For my own taste, there should be truth throughout and the story as a whole needs to be authentic, but it’s okay to have most of the book be entertaining and to have mercilessly truthful scenes in key moments. Like rhetorical devices, a little bit goes a long way.

Pivotal scenes often benefit from an adherence to honesty that may feel like an invasion of privacy. It must be set correctly. It can’t stand out as if it came from a different manuscript (or even a different author), but it should be memorable. In practice, you may write a whole novel without considering entertainment (or even the audience). Then, if you wish, you can revise to add fun later on. My preference is to write only select scenes—those that feel critical to me—with more attention to a heightened fidelity than to my perfect reader. And all of the scenes chosen matter greatly to one of the characters in the story.

To be clear, I am not saying there is a problem with writing with only entertainment in mind. Those stories have value, and they may be what you were made to write. And the writer may not always know where truth is hidden. Conan Doyle thought is other works were superior to Sherlock Holmes. A lot of readers would disagree.

So, how do you create an authentic scene? I don’t know. But I can share how I write and authentic scene and I hope that will provide some guidance.

Preparation—While sometimes these scenes sneak up on me, I generally take the notes on story events and highlight scenes that may need the authenticity treatment before much composition is done. I purposely choose too many, knowing I can tone down scenes knock the story out of balance later on. When it comes time to write the scene, I try to leave the perfect reader and the editor behind. I come armed with my research, my sense of story theme, and research that includes keen observations. I use music and method acting techniques to open myself up.

Often, I will write a first sentence for the scene the day before, and I try to write one that makes me uncomfortable without straying from what feel like the core truth of the scene. When I can do that, the next day is easier. I reserve the time to avoid interruptions and distractions (and this may mean that it is scheduled to be written out of sequence). I may jot down notes before I begin to compose, especially if I wrote the sentence the day before. Often, my brain will deliver a lot of material right after I wake up.

Composition—Once I sit down to write (or, better yet, dictate), the only interruption is pacing. I don’t look up any words or do any research. I don’t change anything once it’s written, though I may [bracket] a bit that I realize needs to be embedded in text that’s already written. I listen my characters unless they want me to be more polite or judicious. All the way through, I mangle sentence if it means more truth is captured. I offend myself if that’s where honesty takes me. I go where the scene must go, even if it disrupts the plot. I allow myself to be distressed and surprised.

The biggest danger in composing an authentic scene is composing one that pretends to be authentic. If it’s easy or a cliche, that’s a good sign that I’ve taken a wrong turn. If I drift into generalities, especially in dialogue, I probably am avoiding the hard work, pain, and discomfort that is often required for an authentic scene.

Revision—The temptation to revise prematurely is biggest with these scenes. In part, this is because they tend to be important and other parts of the story depend on them being right. I’ve learned, if they are mostly right, they won’t mess up the rest of the story for me. Rewriting right away isn’t really necessary, it just feels that way. And the urge to fix these scenes, in my experience, is not related to better writing. Instead, it’s about stepping back from the truth. So I leave it alone. Ideally, though I may make notes, I won’t even correct spelling until the whole manuscript is done and has had a chance to cool down (for about a month, if I can do that).

As with any scene, things can go wrong, and these can undercut even the most honest scenes. It can be unclear. It must have a goal. It must have a beginning, middle, and end. The logic can fail, or a fact may be wrong. Luck can only go in the antagonist’s favor (no jammed guns for villains). A development may violate something readers “know.”

These scenes need a fresh look in terms of how they fit in, and that may need special attention to the language and the mood. Some of these scenes end up in the wrong place or must be so close to another authentic scene that I need to shift them more into the entertainment space (or into a different story). The perfect reader who lives in my head is brought back in to help, followed by the editor in my head.

Authentic scenes in particular need to play out. In general, this means there will be three to five turns or beats (which generally indicate power changes, often through revelations). While it can be effective to have shorts scenes (I’ve read great one sentence scenes) elsewhere, these scenes need to be given their due.

In revision of these scenes, I like to include emotional validation. This is when the viewpoint character (usually) response in a way that indicates the emotion the reader is intended to feel. It doesn’t always work, but when it does it can lock the scene in the reader’s mind.

Authentic scenes are fresh, so I always ask if it it feels too familiar. Have I seen this before?

Authentic scenes are especially vulnerable to any part where the character acts “out of character.” I think this is because if it seems as if the characters are being manipulated, especially in a scene that may create discomfort, the readers will suspect they are being manipulated. That is a sure way to destroy authenticity.

I have one more thing to check at this point. Was this scene earned? Did I pay a price for its authenticity? Will the reader sacrifice (at least comfort) to gain its truth?

Next week, we’ll look at how to make characters more authentic. With a character who comes alive and has his/her own reality, a lot of scenes approached as entertainment will automatically be deeper, more memorable, and more authentic.

Tuesday, February 26, 2019

Authenticity Sets Your Work Apart 1 — Paying the price

I’ve been researching Gracie Allen for a sliver of a story I’m working on. She was part of the hugely popular Burns & Allen comedy team. They conquered vaudeville, radio, television, and film.

George Burns later won an Oscar for his work in The Sunshine Boys, but Gracie was the star. She was famous for her illogical logic. She saw herself as an actress, not a comedienne. She never told a joke (even privately), but she delivered her lines with perfect timing. And authenticity. She believed every word. She has been described as a method actor before there were method actors.

If a line seemed wrong to her, she wouldn’t say it. When a director asked her to “cheat” the camera as she was eating in a scene, she couldn’t do it. In fact, direction for her was superfluous. Wherever Gracie the character came from was never revealed, but the truth of Gracie (character and actress) was indisputable.

This is not to say that there isn’t room for classical acting or self-aware, break the third wall characters (for which Burns was famous). Style can triumph gloriously, but truth gets under people’s skin. It is undeniable. Sometimes, even painful.

Facts are not enough. Data, dates, and historical details? Good, but insufficient. Emotion needs to be included, but not the zeal of a preacher or the personality of a salesman or the promises of a politician. Authenticity comes from a deeper place. As a writer, you need to believe in what you’re saying and care about it. The truth you are communicating must be vital.

Risk is everything. While you can fool some of the people some the time, especially those who An essential proof for a truth that really connects is how unsettling it is. Bromides can be wise, can remind us of how things should work, and can sustain us as we work to maintain the benefits of our society. But they don’t often ring the bell of authenticity. When truth challenges, when it requires discomfort and sacrifice (for writers and readers), a price is paid that may point to its authenticity. Truth that matters enough to be authentic makes us take a chance.

Too easy. Passion usually goes hand in hand with authenticity. But it is possible to be very passionate about lies we tell ourselves. For me, the symptom of this is when all of the story (not just pieces) comes rushing out. Is it the muse speaking truth? Or someone else’s charming folly? Or something sweetly aligned with society’s norms? Or a deception protecting part of me from a devastating truth? When the piece as a whole does not raise doubts or require any struggle, alarms go off.

So, you’ve done your due diligence. You’ve gotten past glib and glamorous. You’ve made yourself vulnerable, exposing a piece of your soul. It’s authentic, and, if you’re lucky, readers (including editors) recognize and appreciate that.

And your fears come true, too. The haters descend on you. It’s not fun. It makes people uncomfortable. It breaks taboos. The ending is bittersweet or tragic. Go away.

Or, the truth is felt, but people don’t want the full truth. There’s some good stuff here. No question, it’s well done. But cut that scene that’s bleak. Make the hero a little nicer. Could you, maybe, give it a really happy ending?

You have a decision to make. Make the one that’s right for you. That’s true to who you are.

Tuesday, February 19, 2019

How to Get Readers to Turn the Page

I’ve known three priests who have had nervous breakdowns. One showed me the men in cassocks were fallible. One was a living lesson in dignity balanced by empathy. One turned me into a writer.

The last is relevant here. He showed me I was good enough. He measured out crucial tips at a rate that allowed me to master them. And he taught me that the one thing a writer could not do was bore the reader.

Keeping readers engaged is harder than ever. Between on-click-away distraction and shrinking attention spans, it feels impossible at times. This is especially true if your storytelling is stripped down to text, unsupported by CGI monsters or immersive technologies like virtual reality. The toolbox has expanded in terms of whose stories can be told and how explicit these stories can be, but approaches to hook, surprise, worry, provoke, and build anticipation haven’t changed much in hundreds of years.

Tool What can go wrong One way to master

When I was a kid, The Wizard of Oz played on TV one a year. Without fail, when Dorothy opened the door of her black and white world to reveal Munchkin Land, the network would cut to commercial. They got away with it for a lot of reasons:

We knew and cared about Dorothy. She had spunk, standing up to Miss Gulch (whom her Aunt and Uncle bowed down to). She had been wronged. (There was no good reason to take her dog away.) Oh, and she could sing. Her well-being (harm or her heart’s desire) mattered to us.

The palette included real danger. Ferocious pigs, a tornado, and a witch who cackled at he as she flew by the uprooted homestead let us knew this could be life or death. The stakes were high.

Special places had been foreshadowed. Professor Marvel talked about his fantastic travels. Dorothy sang about a place over the rainbow. And we had a glimpse (in full color!). This created positive anticipation, attracting us to visit Oz.

The glimpse of Oz promised novelty, too. It made us curious. Certainly, we’d see a place and experience situations we never would meet in our mundane world (already established and exaggerated in the story’s version of Kansas).

Character, danger, stakes, anticipation, and curiosity will keep you watching dancing cigarette packs and teens singing about cola for five minutes. These are all emotional, not just intellectual. There can be visceral reasons to stay put (depending on the audience) and this can include images that promise horror or sex. Questions can be highly intellectual. Clarke’s science fiction novel Rendezvous with Rama is left-brain dominant aimed at understanding the what and the who of an alien artifact. Many mysteries lean heavily on gathering evidence to assemble a puzzle, often relying on questions and reveals power the story engine.

You can probably come up with a few more reasons for readers to keep turning the pages. Mastering these in particular (like planting clues or raising questions) and globally (like managing pacing, alternating viewpoint) is a lifetime job. I think, now more than ever, dedicating time and effort to observing, understanding, and practicing techniques of engagement makes the difference between creating stories people stay with and are moved by and creating stories that are good ideas, but are neglected by their audiences.

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

Ideas on Ideas—Catalyzing stories that catch attention

When you think of stories, the line between an idea and the premise is smudged. Shark. Shark attack. A shark terrorizing a beach. A sheriff who must stop a killer shark to save his beach community.

If you write by the seat-of-the-pants, shark may be enough. If you are someone who tends to sketch out your stories, and perhaps even outline them in detail, you need that last sentence to propel you forward. So, when a writer gets the classic question, "where do you get your ideas?" it isn’t always clear what a helpful answer will be. This is especially true if the person asking the question is someone who is a writer or aspires to be a writer.

I've written in detail on both capturing ideas and formulating your story's premise in previous posts. In this one, I'll focus on the smudged area to explore what might get you started on a story that's good enough to catch readers' attention.

I sure bet is taking a classic story and developing it for your audience from your point of view. It's popular lately to grab fairytales and folktales and reinvent them for today. Sweeney Todd, which has succeeded both as a play and as a movie, is derived from a well-worn tale that used to be best known as a Penny dreadful. And a large percentage of Shakespeare's plays have antecedents

So, while respecting intellectual property law, you may find that you can use a story you love to create something new. It's a Wonderful Life is based on A Christmas Carol, but turned inside out, with a generous man instead of a miser as the protagonists. One of my favorite stories is Poe's Cask of Amontillado. It got under my skin so thoroughly that I had to write an inverted version of it. I found as I wrote it, I never got lost, the passion did not diminish, and readers (including an editor) enjoyed it.

That's a "something went right" approach. "Something went wrong" (or didn't go far enough) is another way to attack the idea/premise space and get something that begins with vitality. How many times have you gone to a film or read a book and been disappointed by the ending? In such cases, you might actually begin to imagine something better. (In the case of the movie, Se7en, I anticipated and ending I like better than the one I got.) If you have a great ending in mind, that's a wonderful starting point for developing a story. Great endings are hard, so a big chunk of your work is already done.

Even though I loved We Can Remember It for You Wholesale – Philip K. Dick's short story that became the basis for Total Recall— it felt to me as if he had missed the most promising opportunity for implanted/erased memories. I wrote and sold a short story about a man to habitually erased memories of bad love affairs, which made it almost impossible for him to learn the lessons. (This was years before Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.) The story practically wrote itself.

Those experiences that touch us emotionally and maybe even transform us often become good starting points for deep, personal, and emotionally engaging works. Sharing these stories is both courageous and generous. However, many people attempt to tell these stories too early. For most writers and other artists, the big things that happen in their lives need to be processed for a time before they can be presented artistically. They must be put into context not just in the story, but in our responses to life. Lessons must be learned. Powerful questions need to be asked (and maybe answered). Distance is helpful. A full heart is best served cold.

There are other ways that ideas can be discovered and developed to the point where they are story ideas. Some of them are very simple like lists (I like lists that disturb me) and prompts (for me, the weirder the better). Sometimes that notion that is teasing you comes to life if you think about presenting it to different audiences or within different genres. And, of course, I recommend collecting and sifting through questions that occur to you. There are few things more powerful for a storyteller than a list of powerful questions.

Your ultimate standard for whatever lands in your idea/premise space is the response it evokes — for you and for an imagined audience.

Tuesday, February 5, 2019

Getting Past Your Character’s Defenses — One way to find your deep story

I’m a big advocate of interviewing characters. I find it gets me closer to who they really are than answering descriptive questions or creating biographies. Some characters like to talk. They’ll tell you who they are and what they care about freely. Others are reluctant, but their resistance is telling. It often gives me a lot to work with as I read between the lines. And the bonus is that I can use their style of evasion in the stories. No one skirts the truth in exactly the same way.

Then there are the problem characters who often end up being the most interesting. These are the ones who appear to answer every question easily, without ever revealing the ground truth. They may have an alternate or nicely spun counter story. Or they may be expert and providing answers that are at only a few layers deep.

In every case, their actual stories are worth pursuing. Whatever is guarded and secret turns out to be the reason the story was written. The sprites, hidden in the back of my mind, set everything in motion. It is up to me to figure that out.

I don’t always succeed. I’ve gone back to look at completed works and discovered, too late in many cases, that I missed actions and statements that should have raised questions. Sometimes the faintest of hints point to possibilities that just never occurred to me.

Most of my successes have come from taking closer looks at actions that don’t quite add up. Or more reasonable choices that characters avoided. Or a connection I hopped past in the first reading of a draft.

I have discovered that my surest way to uncover hidden dimensions of my stories is to trust my gut. How that happens in practice is I listen (text-to-speech) to every draft of my stories, follow along in the text, and I mark every time something feels weird or raises questions or sparks my curiosity. This is a great way to find and consider what is hidden and improve the next draft.

It often necessitates a lot of rewriting, and it sometimes means only the kernel of a draft fits the higher level version. The results are good, but I’m experimenting with returning to the interviews so I can get to the essence of the secret designs and themes before so much time and effort is invested in the draft.

Note: Finding only 50 pages or deep value in a 350-page manuscript can be agonizing, but taking a step toward the story that was always meant to be and is better than you imagined is worthwhile. I’d prefer to avoid that sacrifice, but I’m willing to make it for quality.

Okay.

The problem — Clever characters with excellent (genius?) defenses.

The possible efficient solution — Probing interviews.

Preparation:
  • Always suspect the character won’t tell you the whole story, but accept what’s said as true. A good model is the improv approach of using whatever you’re given. Saying “yes.”
  • Be the good cop. Don’t try to browbeat anything out of your character.
  • Convince yourself that you have only the character’s best interests in mind. You want to tell his or her story as fully and authentically as possible.
  • Be curious. That will help you to really listen.
  • Create open questions. Many of these are in past posts, but 1) have your top ten listed and organized to get the best responses you can imagine, and 2) don’t get committed to how questions are expressed or ordered. Chances are you’ll have the adjust as the interview proceeds.
  • Consider including an icebreaker that will put your character at ease.
  • Imagine a good setting for the interview.
  • If it helps, write a letter to your character to request the interview and let him or her know the purpose.
For me, the character I’m interviewing is as real as a real-life person. Try to get close to that. If the character feels made-up, ask for an anecdote before questioning. I like to hear about birthday parties for some reason.

Execution:
  • Ask open ended questions. I usually develop no more than ten. I try to ask those that will (eventually) reveal relationships, motivations, and feelings.
  • Follow up on what piques your interest or prompts your intuition.
  • Be aware of shifts away from topic. These are great in a regular conversation, but they are likely to be designed in an interview to end a path of inquiry. The more intriguing the shift, the more probable it is that you got close to the truth you’re seeking.
  • Don’t challenge deceptions directly. Instead, ask for more if you can.
  • Never express your own interpretation of an answer. Discover the character’s interpretation.
  • Keep the character you’re interviewing interested. If answers seem stock and rehearsed, your questions aren’t good enough.
Afterward:
  • Read over the answers and mark anything that feels different or exciting.
  • Put a mark in a different color on anything that especially pleases you. Some of those answers will be valuable as written. Others will be appealing distractions, created by the character to hide the truth. The hidden truth probably will come to you as you explore what an honest answer might be.
There is a workaround that is an easier than an interview to get past defense. Use real people. When I wrote a historical novel, I got to know the characters from what they had written and what had been written about them. The “ahas” about secrets they’d never have shared came across during research.

I haven’t tried it, but I suspect direct observations can lead to a similar experience of character satori. Currently, I’m reading Neil Simon’s Memoirs, and it looks like basing characters he knew extremely well provided true north in his stories. (I think he based six characters, including Felix Unger, on his brother Danny.)

By all means, take the reality route if it doesn’t get in the way of storytelling. But, even if you use historical figures and the people around you for characters (more people claim to be Holly Golightly than claim to be the Fifth Beatle), you may find that probing questions provide better information for your stories.