Characters

Make More of Beginnings: Falling in Love

As writers, we’re so often told that the beginning of our story is make or break. It’s what we show our critique groups, our workshops, and agents when we query. It’s the first thing that readers see; it’s the first chance that they have to fall in love.

I want to look at this idea of falling in love with a story literally. Structurally. Because if it’s true that we fall in love with stories, that can tell us a lot about how to make our beginnings work.

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The other night, I was watching the movie Music and Lyrics. As the two characters in this romcom got to know each other, they revealed little bits of their personalities and their pasts, leaving larger questions open. There were little mysteries, patterns, things that we knew would resurface. (Her current employment as a plant waterer had to have a backstory—right? He was definitely going to do the cute eighties dance move again—right?) These two wanted to know more about each other. They had to see each other again, to find out what happens next. Every time the characters talked to each other, they were building a relationship, and even within the neat timeline of a romcom, they couldn’t do it all at once. They were leading each other forward, step by step. That’s not just how we fall in love with each other. That’s how we fall into a fictional world.

At the beginning of a story, a writer can’t unload everything on the reader all at once. That results in dreaded info dumps. Instead of thinking of the beginning as the place where you have to makeeverythinghappenrightnow, try thinking of it as a first date. I think there are two elements of a successful first date that mirror the balance that we strive for in a story opening.

First—there’s what you put in to your beginning. That’s like the first date itself. The events (plot), the chemistry of the people involved (characters), the conversation, (voice), the physical attraction (maybe that’s about genre, or premise—I don’t know, but I could do this extended metaphor thing all day!)

How do we make the all-important decision of what to put in, though? This is where the individual story comes in, as well as writing style and taste. Often when we hear the “rules” of how you’re supposed to start a story, they feel flat, prescriptive. Imagine if you tried to follow the steps in a first date manual in order to find true love. The process has to be organic and personal—it’s about what you and your story bring to the table that no one else can. Focus on what makes your story unique. I’ve heard a hundred times never to start with a long description of setting in kidlit—and then there the opening of Tuck Everlasting. We’re often warned to get straight to the story, but there are so many great books that start with character-focused monologues. Anything can work—if it’s what makes your story special, what pulls the reader in and leaves them enchanted, delighted, a little bit in love.

And then there’s the second element of the date, which is a little more intangible. It’s what you’re leaving out. The more I read, the more I’m convinced that we are sucked into stories by little mysteries. This is the not the mystery genre I’m talking about—I mean any question that the narrative plants in our minds. The same is true with people. After the first date, we might like what we know—but we have to want to know more!

Recently, I read an interview with the YA author Laini Taylor, author of the Daughter of Smoke and Bone series. She admitted that when she started out writing about her main character, she knew that Karou had blue hair and hamsas on her hands, but she didn’t know why. She was writing to find out what happened next. The beginning was about what Taylor didn’t know—and now those same questions pull readers into her story in huge numbers. (And yes, get them to fall in love!)

Make More of Voice: Where Language Meets Character

Voice is one of the most difficult things to talk about in writing. We often hear that it is mysterious and impossible to define–a matter of instinct and intuition and writerly magic.

 And while that all sounds nice, it leaves us with the problem that voice is still very much a part of writing craft. I love coming up with the voice of a new story, and while it’s true that some of it does happen by instinct, there are also distinct choices that I make as I go.

I make word lists in my head. What words does my character love? What words would my character never use? A character who uses the word “eat” and one who would say “gorge” are not the same person.

Are there parts of speech that stick out as important? I’ve had characters whose verbs are always strong and active, characters who are very noun-driven, focused on what’s in front of them. Characters who have adjectives for everything in their pockets, and others whose language is stripped down to the barest essentials.

Making these decisions is not arbitrary—they’re hugely telling about who this person is, and how they see the world, how they interact with it. Does your character ask endless questions? Some are always declarative. Others need to wander a bit and look around at the scenery, taking a roundabout and metaphorical path before getting to the point.

Voice tells us about individual personality, but it also relates to groups and identities. There are anchors in where a person comes from, how old they are, what social class they’re a part of, how they were raised and educated. It’s an indicator of their interests, their obsessions.

It’s also a powerful way to reveal relationship. What words and rhythms of speech does this character use in dialogue? How does it shift when the person is the more powerful one in the exchange? The less powerful one? How does the language change when he or she is in love?

In the story I’m currently working on, there is an omniscient narrator, which throughout the story becomes inflected with different voices. MANY different voices. Whenever I drop into a scene, I need to remember how my character talks, how my character thinks and relates to others. I have one character who prefers short sentences. One who has a hard time not being vague. One who loves to swear and use brisk metaphors. Another who tends toward the lyrical, the lilting, the poetic. All of these things are more than just choices to keep them distinct in my head. They’re ways that I get to show character.

We always say this—show, don’t tell. But often, I think we forget that one of the easiest and most basic ways to show character is through the use of language. It’s right there on the page, whispering to the reader about who a person is.

Maybe voice IS a kind of magic. But it’s one that we get to control even as we channel it onto the page.

Banish Stick-Figure Writing: How Concrete Sensory Details Make All the Difference in Fiction

Thin, generic description is the literary equivalent of drawing with stick figures. That’s a problem—because your reader’s imagination will only engage if it’s convinced what’s happening is real. And if their imagination won’t engage, their emotions won’t engage, and they’ll puts the book down and find something fun to do.

So how do you flesh your stick figures out?

In 1979, a revolutionary book called Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain pinpointed why so many adults and older children can’t draw. It’s because they aren’t drawing what they see—they’re drawing what they know.

In other words, they’re drawing a category, rather than the thing itself.

I “know” a face is oval and has two eyes, a nose, and a mouth, so that’s what I draw. Then I’m surprised that it looks like a stick figure, not a human face. In reality, depending on the way a face is angled and the way the light falls across it, a real face may not be oval, may not have two (visible) eyes, may have only part of a nose, etc.

I “know” a tree has a thick trunk and at the top some branches and leaves—so I draw a stick-figure tree instead of the wild living thing flinging out arms and fingers in front of me.

The same thing can happen in writing. “A dog stood under a tree. A girl ran past.”  But “dog,” “tree,” and “girl” aren’t descriptions; they’re labels for abstract concepts. Was it a tiny mutt or a graceful Great Dane? An aspen or a cottonwood? A 6-year-old Latina or a willowy white teenager?

A few fleshier alternatives:

  • A twenty-foot cottonwood, heart-shaped leaves turning lazily in the breeze
  • A mutt with a smashed-in boxer’s face and lolling tongue
  • A small girl with tangled dark hair, wiping her nose on a dirty coat sleeve as she runs past.

Now a little of this kind of description goes a long way. Be judicious: you don’t want to force-feed your reader a whole box of chocolates. If I were editing myself here, I’d decide which was the most important element for the reader to focus on. Let’s say it was the dog:

“The mutt stood under a tall cottonwood. He turned his smashed-in boxer’s face, tongue lolling, to watch a small, dark-haired girl run past. He did not give chase.”

We’re humans, we live in bodies. That means our minds won’t believe, our imaginations won’t be convinced, without plenty of concrete sensory details. Banish the stick figure. Make your writing juicy with life, and allow the reader to fall in love with your book.

Don’t Give Me That Look! How to Improve the Emotional Cues in Your Manuscript

I’ve written blog posts about gesture before, but this particular one has been keeping me up at night! As I am about to embark on revisions for my upcoming novel (forthcoming in 2016), I keep thinking about how to capture the “looks” between two characters. It’s common to find “looks” within a manuscript. After all, how often does one character look or “gaze” at another in a moment of dramatic or even romantictension. Ooh La La!

I have a challenge for you, dear reader! Go to the story you’re working on, open the file, and do a word search. Find any incarnation of the word “look/looks/looking.”

Hurts, doesn’t it? YIKES.

In my WIP right now, I have 176 “looks.” I’m not sure how horrible that is as of yet because I’m still editing, but I know that I tend to overuse “looks” so I thought I would share some of my writing/revision process.

I keep wondering what it is that I hope to elicit from “a look” between characters. In cinema, we have the advantage of various zoomed in shots, savvy editing, camera angels, etc. On film, a look between two characters can say so much more than a line of dialogue ever could. Yet, in fiction, we have the hefty job of creating the cinematic experience in the mind of our readers. We need to create the camera angles and trigger an emotional response with our words.

We also need to ensure that a look will show us something about our characters and their world instead of just telling the readers that eyes are meeting. We can’t assume that the reader is going to understand what is being unsaid between two characters. It is up to us, the writers, to make the gaze mean more. As I revise and as you revise, I hope that these three tactics will help you make the most out of this kind of unspoken communication.

THREE WAYS TO MAKE “A LOOK” WORK HARDER (AKA I am trying to take my own advice):

1. Make sure that the look reveals something important/unknown about your character.

Who are the two people looking at one another? Why is the look important? If two characters make eye contact that doesn’t illuminate something about the characters or their relationship, then we don’t need it.

Now, I’m not saying that every single look in a manuscript has to carry weight. Generally, when you have two characters in a scene together and one looks at the other, you need to consider what is it you are trying to communicate. Here’s an example from my current WIP:

“Where are you going?” Mr. Hall says.

“You do what you want,” I say to Lila who meets my eyes and then quickly looks away. “Take the role. It’s yours. I don’t want any part of this.”

What I am trying to show there is that Lila is self-righteous. She’s hurt my character badly, but doesn’t want to make eye contact because she’s a jerk. Have I shown that? Nope. I need to make the moment work harder so that the reader understands Lila’s character through that shared gaze.

I don’t know if this is how I’ll ultimately end up revising but I could try something like this:

“Where are you going?” Mr. Hall says.

“You do what you want,” I say to Lila who snaps at her gum, eyes to her cell phone, and with a casual flip of her hand, tosses her hair over her shoulder. I’ve never hated the smell of bubble gum so much in my life. “Take the role,” I say to her smacking jaw. “It’s yours. I don’t want any part of this.”

I’ve added action, I’ve made Lila gesture differently, revealing her indifference and also employed sensory detail so that we know how my character feels about Lila’s behavior.

2. The “look”” needs to either be the focal point of the scene or it needs to push the plot forward in some way. Again, not every single “look” can matter but the ones that do should earn their place within the narrative.

Ask yourself: What can the look between your two characters change/reveal? If the answer is nothing, then think deeper and reveal the information between them in a new or varied away. This leads me to my last suggestion.

3. Deepen the gesture.  Is “looking” the only way that people interact with one another? No way!

Consider the emotional moment that is occurring between these two characters. Perhaps all of these “looks” are really a roadmap for you to go back and deepen the relationships between these two characters when you are ready to revise. As you draft, leave all the “looks” in as placeholders, but definitely go back.

When you do, ask yourself what other ways these two characters can interact? Sensory detail? Touch? Food? Action/Reaction? What is the look standing in for? What do your characters want to say?

Well, that’s it for me! I hope that I’ve illuminated some tactics to try to deepen the way your characters inhabit the pages of your story!

I wish I could go on and on about this! In fact, I probably could.

The Background Threat as Tension Builder

My last personal blog post played around with the idea of how I’ve grown to fear rain. This is becausewater has come into my house a couple of times in the past year during particularly heavy downpours. I only mention it because my recent drainage catastrophes have got me thinking about ways to establish and sustain tension in my WIP.

There are lots of tried and true ways of doing this. Most of which seem to be variations on the idea of putting some kind of countdown or deadline into the story: if the hero doesn’t complete his or her task within a certain window of opportunity, all is lost. The countdown is a great device, which is no doubt why it’s used so frequently across all genres. But I want to talk about another, perhaps more difficult tension building strategy, namely The Constant Low-Level, or Background, Threat.

I just finished Shana Burg’s A Thousand Never Evers which employs this latter type of tension building method. In it, the hero, a southern black pre-teen living in rural Mississippi in 1963, is forced to adapt to the growing racist reaction against the Civil Rights Movement. This threat sometimes seems to lessen, but it never goes away. And, most importantly, the white violence against her and her family escalates throughout the story, usually in a direct reaction to the choices the hero makes. Burg’s setting turns out to be her story’s greatest source of tension. It’s both elegant and compelling.

Which brings me back to my recent experiences with the flash flooding Central Texas is so famous for. If my household travails were a story, the opening scene (aka inciting event) would be me and my shovel last October ignorantly piling some dirt around the foundation at the back of my house where erosion has taken its toll. I’d probably have my “me” character look up at the threatening sky a couple of times as I unwittingly clogged the drain that allowed the rainwater to run off my patio.

From there I could go on to show that first night the water came in. Our frantic but futile reactions both inside and out. Our tearing out of the floor and the baseboards the next day. Me reinstalling them. Only to do it all over again nine months later.

After that I’d show my partner sewing the long thin sandbags we now deploy around the back of our house. And me digging and piling dirt in various configurations, mixed in with the increasingly brittle conversations we continue to have about the efficacy of my experiments in hydrodynamics. The mid-point of my tale would be a scene of the two of us watching the rain through our sliding glass door. Then, because I write fiction, I’d have the couple’s relationship begin to crumble under the stress of it all.

And that’s my point. Good low level, ever present threats in stories usually start off as just a vaguely menacing part of the setting. Like the sleeping dragon in The Hobbit, or the white racists in A Thousand Never Evers, it’s just a fact of the hero’s life. And it will probably remain a distant, passive threat so long as the hero doesn’t pick up her metaphorical stick and poke it in its eye. Of course, then it wouldn’t be much of a story.