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.