Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Lewis and Clark, backstory, agreement, and stuff

Lewis (Meriwether) and Clark(William)--two army officers selected by Thomas Jefferson to lead an 1803 discovery, mapping, and ethnography expedition through the northwestern corridor of North America. Although they did not specifically "discover" or encounter a supposed Northwest Passage, they returned with an inspirational amount of useful materials as well as a splendid written record of their travels, in the process becoming an inspiration for writers. A story teller sets forth through a particular landscape, often with a particular goal in mind. 

 Never mind that more often than not, the writer does not achieve the intended goal; mind instead the ancillary discoveries made by the writer, discoveries about the landscape, the characters, and the human condition. Setting forth on a story, even one well-plotted in advance, may lead to unanticipated discoveries that inform the final result to its betterment.

With Capt. Lewis and Lt. Clark in metaphoric mind, the writer sets forth in anticipation of some discovery. Similarly, readers embark on a story, being led by clues and events to expect in the payoff a satisfying discovery.

backstory--the relevant personal history shaping the behavior, outlook, and expectations of each character in a story; the relevant events and understanding inherent in a character before that character steps into a scene. In some cases, the character may be unaware of backstory events, have a flawed or romanticised vision of them, thus leading the character to search for the truth. 

 In yet other cases, the character may be in a state of denial over events which may have taken place. And in what has become a sub-genre, the major goal of discovery for a character suffering from amnesia is the search for his or her own backstory. (Check Richard Powers' remarkable The Echo Maker for an investigation of how backstory informs identity.)

For conventional and practical purposes, a story is deemed to be taking place in the immediate present. In the case of historically based narrative, the story is seen as transporting the reader back to that specified time, then taking place as though in the immediate present. In both cases, back story is the past information the reader needs to know about the life of one or more characters. As an extreme example, even the reference, Mary and Kitty had been roommates as undergraduates at Smith, qualifies as backstory.

Additional convention: Based on the construct of backstory being past history, a story should be more than fifty percent in the present, otherwise the writer is well advised to begin and possibly to end the narrative in a different place.

Not all narratives require backstory as a necessary condition, but just as we assume every person we meet has a backstory, we will assume that every character, even the unfortunate protagonist in Jack London's short story, "To Build a Fire," has emerged on the page with a backstory.

agreement--a dramatic condition in which characters appear to hold the same opinion, the opperant word here being "appear." Conventionally, the appearance of agreement between characters is a signal to expect the conflict of disagreement, exacerbated perhaps by the "I changed my mind" defense. Similarly, characters who are comfortable with situations in which they find themselves, thus in agreement with the status quo, are seen by the reader as a ticking time bomb, prior to the explosion of rebellion. In stories where leadership and loyalty are significant issues, a protagonist may come to suspect too much agreement from his or her underlings.

Agreement is a force that brings dramatic narrative to a screeching halt unless it is used in a manner that provokes tension, as in how long the agreement will continue. Agreement also provokes irony as a result of some characters seeing it as a much desired goal, only to discover later how being in a relationship of any sort that relies too heavily on it provokes suspicion of unrest or tension.

In any case, when characters agree, watch out.

canary in the mineshaft, the--a sacrificial testing device used to warn against gasses potentially injurious to humans, thus a character involved in a tenuous or perilous situation, used to signal similar danger to front-rank characters. If the reader sees the canary character falling victim to a danger, the reader will become apprehensive when a front-rank character appears to be placed in a similar spot.

subtext--the space between what a character says in a situation and what the character actually feels about the situation; a means of importing irony into a situation; a condition of implication by which the reader is able to discern the true feeling of one character at the expense of another.

There are myriad motivations for subtext, including the stretching of the truth to avoid hurting someone's feelings, transgressing the boundaries of propriety, not wanting to be caught disagreeing with a potential benefactor, seduction, and salesmanship. Some of these motives are noble, others ignoble, thus a character shown being noble in his or her subtextual commentary will convey to the reader added dimension of that character.

One of the more memorable examples of subtext resonates through John Lardner's reminiscence of his famed writer-father, Ring Lardner, noted as well for his tippling and thus frequent hangovers. Describing a Sunday morning family outing in the family car when the elder Lardner, obviously suffering from the previous night's carouse, was having difficulty finding his way. John Lardner recalls one of his siblings asking, "Are we lost, Daddy?" perhaps one time too many. Then Lardner Pere's reply. "Shut up," he explained.

A remarkable example of the terrain where subtext may blend into theme is found in the Annie Proulx novel, The Shipping News. In a published interview, Ms. Proulx spoke of having been drawn to a book being offered among the items of a garage sale. The book, long out of print and in the public domain, described how to tie various knots, their very names and uses a wrenching pull of nostalgia for the days when securing meant using rope, twine, or string. 

 After considerable thought, Ms. Proulx used brief descriptions of the knots as chapter epigrams for The Shipping News. She did not, however, refer to the knots or their names in the text, nor did her characters make reference to knots or knot tieing. Nevertheless, having read these intriguing epigrams, the reader was drawn into the game of looking closely at the text of each chapter to see if the particular knot opening the chapter had any subtext reference to the portrayed events. Human relationships frequently take on the design complexity of knots, an awareness that encourages the reader to thoughtful reflection about subtext and theme.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Conflict of Interests

conflict--the clash of agendas between two or more forces within a story; thus the internal argument of conscience versus desires raging within one character as well as the differing views of appropriate behavior among opposing sides. Conflict is opposition writ large, the duel between dream and reality, between age and youth, between conservative and liberal. Conflict emerges from two wellsprings, the desire of an individual to survive, and the sense in story that every character believes he is right. Conditions that stand in the way of survival represent conflict. Conditions that emerge when opposing forces insist on the aptness and correctness of their positions are representations of conflict. Since its appearance and subsequent evolution, the human species has struggled against the conflicts of weather, starvation, illness. Since its reemergence in the middle of the twentieth century, Israel has been in one form or another of conflict with its neighbors, each side convinced of the validity of its position.

Story often begins with a character being propelled by a goal. The character collides with one or more obstacles, reversals that cause frustration and possible humiliation. These obstacles are often other characters with contrary agendas, but the obstacles may be emotional or philosophical forces within the principal character. In either case, the principle character must seek a way through or around the labyrinth of obstacle to some degree of settling the claims of the original goal.

Real life characters who identify their goals, then set methodically forth to achieve them are admirable, often becoming role models for emulation. They represent progression, but they do not represent story. A woman setting methodically forth to accomplish something rarely achieved by a woman is story because of the presence of obstacle, which in story becomes personified, even objectified.

Conflict begins in story with an individual who wants something to come to pass or who wants something not to come to pass. The conflict is engaged when the individual acts on his goal. The conflict becomes tangible and irreversible when a person or persons reacts to the individual acting on his goal.

Conflict always has consequences (if it does not, the narrative effect becomes reminiscent of the boy hollering wolf).

tension--a sense of potential menace, vulnerability, humiliation, conflict, or reversal hovering over characters as they pursue their agendas; a radiant quality of apprehension affecting readers who have come to have concerns about characters; a dramatic shading valued by some writers to a greater degree than actual conflict, tension is the flashing warning light, the buzzing smoke detector that warns of the consequences of conflict.

One instructive way to look at tension is as an atmosphere of dramatic tentativeness, of characters attempting to behave as though nothing is wrong, trying not to recognize the elephant in the living room. Thus by the indirection of subtext the reader will become apprehensive for the appropriate characters.

Another way of instruction: Tension is the tightening of hopes, anticipation, of thinking nothing more could go wrong, just before one more thing goes wrong. Tension is being in bed in a cheap hotel, awaiting the comforting presence of sleep, then hearing a shoe drop onto the floor in the room above, then waiting for the other shoe to drop. At length, the shoe does drop. But a moment later, one more shoe drops...

style--the appearance and expression of written personality; often enhanced by an adjective to connote spareness, flourish, orotundity, even baroque complexity. Style is the physical fingerprint of the writer, demonstrated by such traits as length of sentence, cadence, length of paragraph, use of adjectives and adverbs, punctuation; style may emerge as formal or informal, depending on such idiosyncrasies as "one" instead of "you."

Most writers have a pronounced style, making it possible to identify their work without signposts (Hemingway comes to mind as a prime example.) while other writers are said to write in a particular style, say journalistic or scholarly or discursive. Some styles, such as material appearing in The National Geographic, are so focused on clarity and accuracy that authorial presence tends to retreat into the background.

Style is what remains of a manuscript after it has been revised by the writer, winnowed to achieve for the author a sense of comfort, which is to say that all self-consciousness has been edited out. If the writer is not comfortable or happy with his style, happier results may be found by examining writers with agreeable styles, looking for things to include or remove from one's own work.

The difference between style and voice has its origins in the author's intent in writing the work; voice comes from an emotional and/or philosophical atmosphere. Style relates to the way the writer dots i's and crosses t's; voice is a direct reflection of the author's attitude.

Monday, December 29, 2008


multiple point of view--a narrative design by which the details of a story are seen and reacted to by more than one observer; a pattern of the same dramatic event or subsequent events seen from the perspective of numerous witnesses. For a longer work (novel,novella, novelette) multiple point of view may be the most felicitous, allowing the writer to include widely differing variations on the theme, extending tension and suspense through the mere fact of the various narrators having differing opinions about the events the reader has seen and of the characters' opinions of what they mean. A significant advantage to the multiple approach is the potential for various of the narrators to be unreliable or naive, the reader being left to discover the results.

One of the oldest extant versions of multiple point of view, the so-called Rashomon Stories, relates an incident as seen from the point of view of several of the participants and close witnesses, complete with a trial presided over by judges bent on getting at the truth and including the summons of one of the witnesses (who had subsequently died) from the spirit world to testify. A splendid, more modern version of the multiple point of view as a source of fresh perspective may be found in Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried.

Although multiple point of view is most commonly presented with a number of narrators represented by the use of the pronouns he or she, there is no convention or edict against using the pronoun I or, indeed, mixing the she, I, he. The major concern associated with the use of multiple view is that the reader always be able to identify the immediate narrator. Wilkie Collins has provided a substantial role model for this in The Moonstone, in which the differing points of view each get a separate chapter.

Point of time--the moment when any given moment of the story is taking place. It is represented by verb tenses. The preterit or immediate past tense is conventionally represented as now. “John woke up early this morning” is used to convey to the reader, Here is John, waking up now. If we want to suggest that John has already been up for a while, we’d introduce the auxiliary verb had and say, “John had been up earlier than usual this morning.” Using the “had” form indicates action completed in the past. The so-called present-tense form of narrative renders action through the lens of the “now” of all characters, thus “John gets up early this morning,” used to convey, Here is John, waking up now. Using the present-tense approach, you’d indicate past action with the direct past tense. “John got up early, remembering he has to be at work before the Boss, but even so, he has to rush to get ready.”

All point of view filters (persons) may be rendered in the present tense now or the conventional past tense now.

Whatever verb tense the author chooses, the contemporary narrative convention requires more than fifty percent to take place in the now; upwards of forty percent (backstory, past influences, memories) may take place in the past.

reliable narrator--a story teller who can largely be trusted to render a fair version of the events within a story, possibly extending to judgments about the behavior of other characters and the implications of their actions as well as his own. The reliable narrator is one for whom the reader is most likely to be concerned. The danger for the writer who has decided on the most reliable of his narrators is to then kick the unreliable or naive narrators with adjectives, adverbs, and verbs portraying them in the glare of a biased spotlight.

naive narrator--inexperienced, innocent, or impaired filters through which dramatic accounts are revealed. Their naivete often has no effect on their being likable to the reader. The presence of a naive narrator is often a signal of ironic intent on the part of the author; in the case of Don Quixote, the naivete and irony are declarations of satiric intent; in the cases of Huckleberry Finn in the eponymous novel, or Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird, their naivete about slavery leads each character to a moral evaluation of that practice and an opportunity to change--an opportunity each takes. Sam, the naive narrator of Bobbie Ann Mason's In Country, is old enough to be sexually aware. Her growth comes from her attempts to learn more about her father,who was killed in the Viet Nam war; in so doing, she discovers things about herself, her conscience, and her country, just as Huck Finn and Scout learned to leave their inexperience and innocence behind them. Benjy Compson, in Falukner's The Sound and the Fury, cannot change or learn; his brain has limited capacity. Nevertheless, his vision of events in the novel compels the reader to make comparison between Benjy and less intellectually challenged characters in the narrative, raising significant questions for the reader to ask and comparisons for the reader to make.

The real irony with naive narration appears when the beginning or intermediate writer uses the device to pursue a story about their belief that daddy and mommy must be doing a lot of wrestling at night because of the grunts and groans that come from their room; this trope compared with the seasoned writer using the naive narrator to take on a serious moral issue that has a grip on the human condition.

For more approaches yet to the naive narrator, consider George Orwell's Animal Farm, in which the narrator refuses to accept the implications of the fable being presented; consider also the narrator of Ring Lardner's extraordinary short story, "Haircut."

Sunday, December 28, 2008

"They're staying away in crowds." Sam Goldwyn

zeitgeist--literally spirit of the time, a physical, emotional, and historical sense of a time and place; a personality ironed on to the t-shirt of setting. A writer's job--among others--is to convey through dramatization the feel of a particular place at a particular time, among a particular group of people. Characters, whether directly or not, reflect the zeitgeist of their setting, whether at a family reunion, a school reunion, an application for a job, or the angst of delivering parents to a senior living facility. Some zeitgeists are gay, ebullient, filled with optimism; others reflect uncertainty or a the-sky-is-falling terror of things unseen and the uncertainty of the future. Every story has a zeitgeist, but it does not have to be expressed directly, rather being allowed to refract through the behavior of the characters. Hint: at some point during the construction of a story, pinpoint the spirit of the time in which the story was set, then use that awareness as a pole star to guide the spoken and unspoken behavior of major characters.

third person narration--a story told from the point of view of a character rendered variously by the character's name and the pronoun he or the pronoun she. "Mary wanted for today what she'd come to want every day--a day without stress." "Jack Jones waited patiently for the sun to sink below the horizon before making up his mind. He knew his history of daytime decisions had been remarkably poor." Third person point of view shares popularity with the first person or I-centered narration, its choice being idiosyncratic, often reflecting the writer's unthinking preference. One of the technical problems associated with third person narration is the need for the narrator to be on stage in every scene in order to lend plausibility to the sense of awareness or knowledge being filtered through that character. There are quick fixes for this problem; the character overhears other individuals talking about an incident that occurred off stage, or the character discovers a letter, journal entry, blog post, or newspaper article discussing the off-stage material.

As in all narration modes except the authorial intervention approach, the material being ingested and commented upon must appear to come from the character, reflecting the character's experiences, prejudices, social standing, self-image, and agenda. The narrative will also reflect the observing character's vocabulary and any relevant mental or physical deviations from the norm.

A splendid example of numerous third person narratives being linked in one tale is Wilkie Collins' The Moonstone. One example demonstrating the amusing consequences that may ensue when third person narration appears to have lost control is found in Mario Vargas Llosa's Aunt Julia and the Script Writer. David Lodge's estimable Deaf Sentences reflects the difficulties of a protagonist who is suffering among other things the increasing loss of his hearing.

Arguments critical and academic abound about which point of view "seems" of "feels" the most intimate; the goal of any point of view is to cause the reader to forget the presence of the author and invest in the realness of the character.

unreliable narrator--a story-freighting character whose dramatic account seems at first reasonable, interesting, even fair-minded, only to slowly emerge as biased, flawed, possibly to the point of nursing a grudge or hidden agenda. The main questions for the reader are: Whom do we trust? and Why? The main questions for the writer are: What purpose does the unreliability serve? Can and should the narrator's unreliability be extended over a greater arc before the reader "gets" the concept? Has the author gone too far? In the final analysis, is any narrator completely reliable?

The danger with any too-unreliable narrator rests with the reader's sense of belief. While not strictly speaking a narrator, the characters of Dogberry in Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing, and Mrs. Malaprop in Sheridan's The Rivals were used to create the comic effect of what a character said being blunders that produced contrary or absurd meanings. Archie Bunker often shot himself in the metaphoric foot, comically undermining his bigotry with a malapropism, In a less comedic sense, an unreliable narrator may not reflect malice so much as pragmatism in the event of Becky Sharp in Thackeray's Vanity Fair. The unreliable narrator may be revealed at length as the antagonist, to be rooted against in growing fear that the antagonist will best the goals of the protagonist.

In real life and fiction, readers and audiences will, through their choices of relative reliability in narrators, reveal facets of their own personality and belief system. Spot quiz. Rank the following news commentators in terms of reliability: Sean Hannity, Rush Limbaugh, Anderson Cooper, Tom Brokaw, Rachel Maddow, Keith Olbermann, Michelle Malkin. On the other hand, when we hear the likes of Yogi Berra say, "It's not the heat, it's the humility," our next best hope is that he goes on to say something else.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

You Really Mean It

second person narrative--a dramatic vision of narrative that addresses the reader directly as you, putting the reader in the position of assuming the role of the protagonist; story in which the protagonist is you, a narrative device that gives the appearance of intensifying focus on the principal character by making events seem as though they are happening in the immediate present. One of the most prevalent criticisms of the second person narrative is its seeming inability to maintain plausibility beyond the length of a short story. (Try telling that to Jay McInerney, author of Bright Lights, Big City, or William Faulkner in re his Absalom, Absalom, or Richard Powers for Ploughing the Dark, to name a few. ) Short story uses abound, notably Dennis Lehane's "Until Sylvia," and Lorrie Moore's collection, Self-Help, in which six of the nine short stories were second person renditions.

One of the reasons second person narrative is thought not to be as substantial as first or third or multiple points of view has to do with its restricted use for fear of editorial reprisal (a rejection slip); another reason for its relative lack of popularity has its roots in tradition--writers of fiction did not take to expansive use until well into the twentieth century. So what? As with the other pronouns, you is perfectly able to freight a story; while you are doing so with the second person form, you will discover the small but valuable secret that you can pack in more reader feeder information than you could have done with the first or third or multiple point of view. Example: You are not the kind of person to be bound by conventions; it was only natural that you experimented with second person.

copyedit--a process of checking a manuscript for consistency in usage conventions; a mechanical intervention made on a manuscript, usually by a person other than the author or content editor, to insure standardized use in matters of abbreviations, use of numbers, acronyms, punctuation, etc. The avowed intent of copyediting is consistency of use, the ultimate goal of which is to suggest authorial and publisher accuracy and reliability. Most trade book publishers in the U.S. follow the conventions set forth in The Chicago Manual of Style (latest edition), published by the University of Chicago Press; magazines, journals, and newspapers are more eclectic in their usage or style guides, The New York Times Style Guide and The Associated Press Style Guide being basic models on which most in-house guides are based.

Much is made of a fictional character's reliability to the point where unreliable narrators are regularly exposed by critics and in classes. It is not a great leap to consider poorly copyedited manuscripts as unreliable narrators because of the reflection such a manuscript casts on the author.

In the usual procession of publishing events, an accepted manuscript is subjected first to content editing, which relates to meaning and clarity of authorial intent. After author approval and revision (if any), the manuscript is sent to the copyeditor who may have queries which are fact-related but not content-related. Even though many publishers employ in house or freelance copyeditors, the process still conventionally assumes the primary responsibility is with the author.

The Modern Language Association Style Manual and Guide to Scholarly Publishing is a key copyediting information source for schools, academic publications, and universities.

Simply put, copyediting, which has to do with the manner in which content is set in electronic or paper format, is a major step toward publication; you might even call it a trampoline.

surprise--unanticipated dramatic behavior or circumstances in a story; events that cause characters to do things they would not normally do; unplanned turns of events within a drama that nevertheless have feet firmly planted in plausibility. Impulsive behavior erupting within a least likely to rebel character, surprise is a contrived device, intended to catch the reader unaware, but it is also a means by which a writer may learn surprising, unintended things about himself. More often than not, surprise comes from character-driven stories, but it is neither unheard of or unwelcome in plot oriented narratives.

The best foundation for surprise is a deep understanding and knowledge of the front-rank characters, by which means the characters will appear to behave in an unanticipated-but-plausible way that may push the story in an entirely original and yet satisfying manner, neither seeming contrived nor accidental. An unanticipated consequence of surprise is the fact of it causing tension or suspense, two of the major elements of story. After one or two surprises, the reader becomes aware of the potential, then begins to wonder where and to whom it will appear next.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Three Ways of Looking at a Character

first person--a form of dramatic narrative in which an individual using the pronoun I becomes the filter through whom the events of the drama are filtered; not necessarily Adam, as implied in some texts, but rather a presence who becomes the author's appointed agent to relate the details of a fictional history. The first person narrative became popular at a time when it was believed that the narrator was relating actual events in actual settings, a belief that resurfaced during the middle years of the twentieth century when a confession-romance literature of I-narratives found massmarket magazine audiences.

The first person narrator may play a direct role in the story being related, in which case he or she becomes the individual in whom the reader invests emotional and psychological capital, a notable example being the eponymous narrator of Saul Bellow's The Adventures of Augie March. The first person narrator may also play an ancillary role in the story such as Nick Caraway in F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, a presence used to good example by the author as it became apparent that Caraway was being exploited by the major focus, Gatsby.

As with all other points of view, the writer must endow the first person narrator with enough quirks, obstacles, relevant background, and goals to provide a distinct personality, including but not limited to vocabulary, a place on the optimism/pessimism scale, prejudices and antipathies, and a history with some relevance to the story at hand.

Having constructed the platform of attitudes and goals for the first person narrator, the writer must then quantify a place for the character on the naive scale, in which the writer assesses how relatively naive or realistic the character is. The naive narrator does not see individuals and events the same way as cynical or realistic narrators might, thus does interpretation become an important factor in the forces driving the first person narrator.

One of the stated technical disadvantages for having a first person narrator is the need for that individual to appear in every scene in order to be able with plausibility to relate the scene to the reader. With a little thought, the writer will quickly see through this limitation by, for example, allowing the narrator to be "off stage" at a particular event, the hear the details of the event from one or more other characters. This limitation may also extend well into the past by having the first person narrator encounter diaries journals, or newspaper accounts of an event that took place earlier. A greater technical obstacle still apparent is the overuse of the pronoun I, which stands just a tad more virulent than obvious and ungainly locutions used to avoid the obvious repetitions of the I.

Two splendid examples of first person narrative are Charles Dickens' Great Expectations and Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn, each of which has survived the Still Readable and Inspiring After A Hundred Years in Print test, and one of the most enduring first person narratives, "Call me Ishmael," had to have bee written in first person because Ishmael was the only survivor of the ill-fated Pequod.

About the appropriateness of first person narrative, critics, editors, and teachers are divided; it is an idiosyncratic call best answered by listening to the characters, who should have a hand in the decision of their being rendered as I or he or she. The true test to be applied to a character is the plausibility that character presents to the reader.

synecdoche--a figure of speech that is first-cousin to the metaphor, it posits the whole being greater than the sum of its parts or the parts representing the whole, or the parts of one thing relating to the whole or parts of another thing. A gifted surgeon, for example, may be referred to and represented by her hands. Similarly, there is the synecdochal long arm of the law; a crew, particularly of a ship, being referred to as hands; plastic being used as a symbol for credit cards, which of course obviate the need for carrying around sums of paper, or money. Knowing the synecdoche may result in a higher SAT score and be good for points in a literary criticism course, but it may also have the unwanted effect of becoming an albatross or weight about the neck (or any other part) of a story, so much so that its over abundance will cause editors and readers to defect.

When the subject of metaphorical writing comes up, it should be regarded in the same way as weather reports and landscapes are regarded--with extreme caution. For writers such as Raymond Chandler, they--the metaphors and synecdoches--arrived as appropriate devices that shed shorthand light on a situation, an attitude, a condition, a character--not as a blinking neon sign calling attention to the writer's cleverness. By all means, note and admire them when they are found in the work of other writers, but do not try to get them into your own work through some sense of literary nepotism. If they are to come in your work, they will come of their own, and even then should be subject to critical scrutiny. Do they make things better, or do they in negative synecdoche become the literary equivalent of an energetic kid, showing off in class?

bigger than life--a quality often attributed to characters after the fact of their having been read; a sense of an individual having a combination of traits, qualities, goals, and strategies that make him or her memorable for individuality while at the same time representing a particular type, thus, for example the adjective quixotic as it represents Don Quixote, who left an indelible reference guide on a segment of society. Not to be confused with implausible behavior, the concept of bigger than life reflects a vision of an individual that radiates either a single quality or warring internal qualities. Consider Pat Conroy's bigger than life Lieutenant Bull Meecham, from his novel The Great Santini. By all accounts an argumentative, bigoted, bullying sort, Meecham was a dazzling aviator, a man who metaphorically was king of the clouds, a man who, when the choice unexpectedly fell on him, risked then gave his life to save others, causing readers to feel shock and grief at his death. Another bigger than life character for splendid example is The Wife of Bath from The Canterbury Tales, a portrait of a woman with attitude, goals, and grace who has remained an out-of-the-ordinary paradigm for five hundred years.

It is possible to track bigger than life individuals from the distant past, when characters were either of noble rank or forged on the field of battle, or in the castle drawing room, or otherworldly, but effective drama now is about remarkable men and women from more modest stations in life, performing in ways that belie the limitations that go with their situations; men and women who sense talents and obligations which they--not being able to afford horses or cars--walk to greatness.

Bigger than life characters are made of the clay of ambition, responsibility, love, devotion, and vision necessary to seek and then effect change. To render them, the writer needs to know who his characters are, what his characters want, what they are willing to endure to get what they want.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Been There, Done That, Got Rained on

weather report--descriptions, often found at beginnings of novels and short stories, but also in chapter beginnings, where writers describe weather conditions with such profundity and eclat as to undercut the presence of characters and story; an attempt to convince readers that they are in the presence of an author who truly knows how to write; an authorial attempt to infuse thematic content into a narrative.

Weather can and often does have demonstrable effect on story and the characters within it, but--to use a pathetic fallacy--appreciates a moderate, unhyperbolic hand in the rendering. Storm clouds may indeed gather ominously if they are harbingers of meteorological events; they are not needed to symbolize difficulties in the lives of the characters.

landscape--descriptions of locales, settings, and geographical phenomena which are included in dramatic narrative as evidence that the reader is in the presence of a writer who is familiar with travel writing and/or metaphor. With the advent of Google, Wikipedia, and other Internet search engine-type sources, as well as a flourishing industry in hard copy travel guides, readers are often familiar with most geographical settings, have had numerous occasions to read of the experiences and insights characters have when looking down from an airplane at metropolitan, polar, desert, and ocean vistas.

In similar fashion, many readers have experienced visits to hospitals, motels, hotels, lawyer's offices, super markets, criminal courts, shopping malls, and similar institutions, precluding detailed descriptions. One good reason for detailed description of such places is when the opposite to the expectation of them obtains: "it was a remarkably low-key setting for such a high-price attorney," "for a cheap motel, there was a radiant cleanliness and not a trace of a cockroach."

Writing description about such places, the author is well advised to select one memorable detail that convinces him of the authenticity of the landscape. Even in description of landscape, significant individual detail evokes a sense of the narrator's actual presence in the locale, yet another reminder that evocation trumps description in fiction.

occupation--conveying with plausibility the profession, occupation, artistry, and state of career development in a character. In many novels of mystery or suspense, private investigators or security persons have had some career as sworn police officers, sheriffs, or as federal agents, others still have come to their work with a history in military police. Lawyers have attended various types of law schools and have been admitted to practice in specific locales through the gatekeeper of the bar exam. Hairdressers, barbers, manicurists, and stylists are required to obtain licenses before they can perform in many states. A head chef, interviewing a subordinate, will probably want to see the subordinate's knives and how they are cared for. Before assigning a profession, occupation, artistry, and experience to a character, the writer is well advised to check plausible standards the character must possess before setting the character to work. This understanding may provide the writer with an entire dimension of behavior for the character, having a direct effect on how that character thinks, feels, and behaves. As an exaggerated extreme, imagine a butcher, having gone through apprenticeship and risen through the ranks in a high-profile market chain, developing an aversion to the meat and organs he or she must deal with, to the point of becoming a vegan. For further exaggerated extremes, imagine all minor characters who are service oriented (wait persons, delivery persons, janitorial persons) with walk-on roles in stories as wannabe actors, photographers, painters. Imagine possible conflicts between psychologists (with PhD.D. degree) and psychiatrists (with M.D. degree). Imagine potential rivalry between a psychiatrist with Freudian orientation and a psychiatrist with Jungian orientation. If you needed cosmetic surgery, would you consult a "mere" surgeon or one who was board certified in cosmetic surgery? If your character is a classically trained musician, for whom did she audition and fail to please? If your character is a jazz musician whose instrument is a reed, how did he keep his reeds moist before appearing?

Actors carefully research the working habits of characters they are to portray, often learning such arcane things as how to throw a curve ball in baseball, how to get a tone out of a bag pipe, how to do things as a doctor or nurse would do them; their researches bringing a quality of reality and plausibility to their performance. Writers need to do no less than study the job for the details that will bring the job to the page.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008


genre promise--the set of expectations a reader has when selecting a work from a particular category of dramatic narrative; the circumstances and arrangement of plot devices a reader anticipates (and a writer delivers) when choosing a particular story. Thus a reader embarking on a romance expects to root for a youngish woman who is often not aware of how attractive she is, rushing to an appointment of some consequence to her, when she is literally bowled over by a man who seems to be rude and unthinking. Thus a reader embarking on a mystery expects to be confronted with a corpse or threat of death, followed by investigation, pursuit, clues, and unraveling of the motives leading to the corpse and/or threat of death. Thus a reader of fantasy will expect a narrative tale in which magic, quests or chores to be performed, and the possibility of a portal through which characters from another time or place may enter will provide major structural moments. Thus science fiction promises the reader an extrapolation on an already established scientific principal to provide a quest, contest, or dramatic struggle. Science fiction may also promise extrapolations or variations on such "soft" or social sciences as anthropology, political science, psychology, and sociology. Thus do young adult and younger reader genres confront individuals of a particular age with moral, ethical, and physical challenges, the resolutions of which lead them to an understanding of how to cope with adult life. Thus do readers of horror fiction expect to be led on a fearful journey, where they are frequently confronted with such scary events as persons, places, phenomena, and thing. Thus do readers of historical fiction expect immediate and evocative transportation to an historical time and place where the details, politics, and social atmosphere play integral parts in the development and resolution of the story.

Genre promise in the twenty-first century has gone fusion, at least to the point where historical fiction has merged with such other genera as romance, mystery, suspense, Gothic, horror,YA, young reader; other doors remain open, limited only by the collective imagination of the writing community.

To instill one's self with the sense of reader expectations in a particular genre, read at least five of the first generation works in that field, verifiable from virtual reference librarians or that quintessentially knowledgeable reference librarian, Google. Then read another twenty published since 2005, focusing where possible on prolific authors. Clue: The verso of the title page of a book is called The Card Page or Author's Card Page, listing previous works from the same author. Additional Clue: The writer's mantra is "Never take the reader where the reader wants to go," which means to keep the genre promise in mind but deliver it later rather than sooner. If the young woman in a romance realizes immediately that the rude sort who bumped into her was Mr. Right, the story would be over. The late delivery of a pizza may cause the pizza to lose some of its warmth but the lateness will enhance the hunger for it. If the delivery is late because of some misadventure or whim on the part of the delivery person, story becomes another ingredient from the dramatic menu.

roman a clef--a novel in which the reader assumes the characters to represent actual, historical persons. Somerset Maugham, a well-known employer of romans a clef, is universally regarded to have intended his character, Charles Strickland, in The Moon and Six Pence, serve as a substitute for the painter, Paul Gauguin. Not so well known was Maugham's work, Cakes and Ale, which is thought to be a roman a clef take-off on the widow of the nineteenth century novelist and poet, Thomas Hardy, and her subsequent liaison with Horace Walpole, a writer who was the Tom Clancy of his day. Not true, said Maugham of the accusations, although there was also a character named Ashenden, a name Maugham used later in a novel. Indeed, Ashenden was a former doctor, as was Maugham, walked with a limp, as did Maugham,

A roman a clef provides a tingle of excitement for those given to seeking and recognizing the real life counterpart of the characters and situations portrayed. The character of Mark Rampion in Aldous Huxley's novel, Point Counter Point, could easily have been D. H. Lawrence; the character Jem in Harper Lee's To Kill a Mocking Bird is thought to have been Truman Capote, and Robert Penn Warren's novel, All the King's Men, is a fanciful-but-plausible substitution of the character Willie Stark for the noted Louisiana political figure, Huey Long.

Romans a clef provide the opportunity to satirize persons, places, things, customs, thus Pride and Prejudice. One of the ironies resident in the use of the roman a clef is the belief that it is more truthful in its depiction of character and event than a nonfiction rendition.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Four More

order of awareness--the order in which a character takes in the details of locales, surroundings, and other characters. Differing personalities will consistently notice appearances in individualized ways, according to preferences, experience, and background. Basketball coaches, male or female, are likely to notice persons of height before noticing anything else about them. Teen-aged boys will notice and rate women on the basis of sexual viability. Interior decorators will notice harmonious or clashing settings. Taking note of a character's preference in order of awareness is another way of extending that character's personality and influence as a narrator; does he or she first notice another person's height, weight, hair color, posture, manner of dress? Would a woman character be more likely to notice first about another woman her style of dress or her height or..?

Much of the effect of the order of awareness will register subliminally on a reader, but a writer's awareness of it and consistent use adds to the reader's sense that the characters are dimensional as well as plausible.

kicking a character while he or she is down--authorial judgment and intervention in describing a character's attitude or fortune; usually an adjectival or adverbial attribution accorded a character in narrative, as in "he stood miserably while awaiting his fate," or "he whined piteously when confronted with evidence of his misdeeds," or "she sneaked away from the gathering, shamed by her selfish motives." All characters have some flaws which, if set forth in a non-judgmental manner, will have the better result of allowing the reader to decide who is strong, who is weak, who is worth rooting for, who is opposing the protagonist. Word choice in the depiction of a character's behavior can betray authorial animosity, which is a step toward undermining the authenticity of a character. It is wise to avoid such verbs as slinked, slithered, cringed, snorted, barked, sneered, mocked, and all other negatively charged choices, and further to shun attributions in which the writer may be seen as trying unduly to influence the reader with narrative argument rather than allowing behavior to speak for itself.

In real life, depending on our index of tolerance, we will eventually call a halt to an argument ad hominem directed against an individual we know at first hand or by reputation alone. If a writer transgresses this index of tolerance, directing it against a character he wants the reader to dislike, the reader may very well take up the cudgel on the character's behalf and as payment begin to dislike the writer or characters the writer appears to admire.

character-driven story--a narrative in which events progress because of the effects of characters on one another; dramatic entities where behavior appears to generate from responses and reactions as opposed to the scavenger-hunt mentality of the plot-driven story. In real life, parties and gatherings, particularly sit-down dinners, are planned on the basis of comfort and familiarity between individuals or at least in the sincere belief that guests who are strangers will have friends, interests, and talents in common. In stories, characters are invited to gather with the understanding that there are already manifest differences of background, opinion, goals and morals; equally possible is the understanding that dramatic differences will soon emerge, sending these characters into a defensive mode, a combative mode, or a combination of the two. Character-driven stories are predicated on the notion of disagreement, literal or perhaps figurative strange bedfellows. Agreement causes stories to screech to a halt unless the reader is led to understand that the parties in the story have agreed to things that do not obtain.

moment--an instant of fixed or indeterminate time within a story, a cross-section of a scene, a point in which character forces react in one way or another, which is to say they may react by each standing ground and refusing to give or, conversely, exchanging the warmth of shared goals and purpose, or openly addressing antagonism, or pretending to be in accord while seething with resentment. All stories have an arc of elapsed time; a moment is a segment of that elapsed time which, however brief, should earn its way into the story, either through narrative recitation or the more specific focus of an exchange of dialogue. Thus there should be one or more reasons for including a particular moment in a story, yet other reasons for allowing the moment to achieve its merited significance--and of course the significance is found in the overall emotion achieved by the story and the hint of emotion inherent in a particular moment.

A moment in a dramatic narrative is like a note in an etude or concerto or symphony; it is to be experienced at a particular speed which the writer may control by description, confrontation, intimidation, or resolution. The pace of a story is determined by the length of its moments and the pace at which these moments occur.

Monday, December 22, 2008

A Little Fear, a Little Plot, a Good Deal of Chemistry

fear--an essential presence needed to effect the needed vision in writing, acting, music, and visual renditions. Fear comes after the idea begins to emerge, precisely when the executor is poised and ready to execute the words or performance or visions; it is the fear of having overreached this time, not having suitable technique to accomplish the vision. Without fear, the resulting performance would be variously rote, boring, and deadly safe. Without fear there can be no discovery. Without discovery, writing becomes reportage, acting becomes mimicry, music becomes mechanical, visual renditions become parody.

In Pat Conroy's remarkable novel, The Great Santini, the young protagonist asks his Marine Corps fighter pilot father,"Are you ever afraid of anything when you fly?" The father, Lt. Col. Bull Meecham, replies, "Yeah. I'm always a little afraid when I fly. That's what makes me so damn good. I've seen pilots who weren't afraid of anything, who would forget about checking their instruments, who flew by instinct as though they were immortal. I've pissed on the graves of those poor bastards too. The pilot who isn't afraid always screws up..."

Be afraid. Fear is a good thing; it encourages writing about unsafe things.

plot--a design or floor plan for the placement of dramatic furniture; a feng shui of emotional obstacles, arranged to produce stress, action, and either some degree of solution or recovery. In order to qualify as story, the most opaque and elliptical of narrative arcs requires some plot design to give the reader the sense of having entered at one point and being transported to another. Equally, the narrative arc must draw two or more characters into a situation where such events as choice, humiliation, understanding, exultation, frustration, or successful achievement are within sight. Plot means someone is vulnerable to something, whether the ticking clock of time elapsing, romantic or artistic rejection, or the awareness of failure looming like the marine layers of mist and fog off the California and Oregon coastlines. For a writer to use plot as a verb means to arrange a plausible set of obstacles for one or more characters, then track them as they attempt to work themselves free. For characters to feel that others are plotting against them, they must be aware of an intent to frustrate their stated goals. Not all antagonistic plotting has malicious intent; it may be merely a doctrinal or philosophical placement of obstacle. When a character senses that the plotting against him is malicious, the reader senses an enhanced dramatic presence.

Most memorable plots are wound about the armature of a single basic emotion such as revenge, fear, love, ambition,and jealousy. These emotions are widely recognized across cultures and time, powerful enough, each in its way, to hold the most determined character in a stubborn grip.

plot-driven story--a narrative experience in which the intricacy and persistence of plot appears to take charge of the behavior exhibited by characters; a story in which the domino theory of scene and event holds priority over behavior by individuals. In plot-driven stories, characters are more likely to respond to the placement and removal of obstacles than they are to respond to their feelings about another character or their reactions to events. Some plot-driven stories approach high levels of character revelation and investigation; yet other plot-driven stories are so artful as to make the reader overlook the plot-driven nature of events. One such example is Richard Powers' unsettling novel, The Echo Maker. On close examination, Richard Price's novel, Lush Life, fits the definition of plot-driven, both examples being offered as refutation of the belief that plot-driven stories and longer works are necessarily inferior to stories in which characters and their responses seem to dictate behavior.

The plot-driven story serves as a challenge to the mature writer who is able to moderate between the mechanics of goals and obstacles and the inventive discovery of dimensional characters.

chemistry--a symbiotic, often unplanned relationship between characters in a story; a force or attraction that draws a writer to a dramatic situation or concept. By allowing characters full rein to interact and respond to one another, unintended relationships may flourish as the story progresses. To be open to such thunderstorms of chemistry, the writer must scrupulously avoid cliche or any other convenient shorthand, allow characters to respond with honesty to one another, whether they act on that honesty or not. If a writer is attracted to a dramatic situation where the conclusion appears already forgone, rather than rely on plot, the writer needs to investigate the characters involved, looking for the chemistry that provokes the creative energy necessary for closure.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Four Thought

irony--a condition created when a character says one thing while feeling an opposing urge; a deliberate, emphatic expression made by a character in the explicit belief that the recipient will conclude the exact opposite meaning; any lurking space between what is said and what is meant.

Irony is the stage manager for most human drama; it is the genome of crossed purposes, misinterpretation, and expressions of things being taken as other than what we intended. The marvelous prank letter inflicted on Malvolio in Twelfth Night demonstrates irony in a never-to-be-forgotten manner. Through a ruse, Malvolio, the steward of the attractive young Countess Olivia, is led to believe Countess Olivia has a romantic interest in him. When Malvolio appears before Olivia, dressed as the prank letter suggested, the disconnect plays forth, with irony taking the winning hand, one on which the writer double downs when Olivia finds herself drawn to a handsome young man, Cesario, who has undertaken the job of commending to her the interest of Orsino. But of course the reader will already know the irony of Cesario not really being Cesario, but rather Viola, who wishes nothing more than the affections of Orsino. Irony truly trumps in this exemplary drama.

As its inherent condition of a person, place, or thing being opposite to our expectations makes itself known, irony causes us to understand that we are in a rigged game, a drama called Life in which we are now cast in a Road Runner cartoon, then informed by the director that we have been cast as Wile E. Coyote.

Omar Little--a front-rank character in the HBO novel-for-television, The Wire; a gritty, magnetic character who is openly gay, whose major source of income is robbery, a man who has in fact killed in defense of his beliefs, Omar Little never robs from people who are not directly involved in the drug trade, has a strict code of ethics which follows it, emerges as one of the few uncorrupted characters in the mise en scene, remains likable, admirable throughout his tenure in the sixty-episode series. When presented with moral quandaries, Little can be seen considering them as a prelude to determining his course of action. His senses of humor and irony are manifest; he is the only front-rank character who does not use profanity nor does he in any way suffer from not doing so. On occasion, Omar Little's purposeful focus is reminiscent of Wile E. Coyote, although Little is more likely to use irony instead of becoming its victim; Little and Coyote represent polarities in character force that merit study. Omar Little is a reminder that dignity is a major factor to consider in the creation of character.

Where would they rather be?--a question to ask of characters before introducing them into any scene. It is quite possible for them to want to be in the current scene, agendas and ambitions burning brightly or fearful of potential consequences. Also it is likely they would prefer to be elsewhere, doing things other than those required of them in the instant moment.

The answer to the question informs what the character thinks, says, does, keeps the character on track moment to moment. The action or overwhelming needs of a scene may mercifully prevent the writer from listing too much detail about the character, but nevertheless will influence the choice of words used in rendering the character and the pace with which the character performs.

It is important to realize that the character's preference does not operate on a right-wrong basis but rather on an opportunity-providing basis. The waiter working the dinner shift may want instead to be attending an acting class or, better still, be a character in a performance, providing the temptation for that waiter to behave at the present task of serving cheap or expensive meals to pensioners or CEOs in ways that produce a chemistry to the scene and perhaps even a consequence.

backpack--the tools, history, emotions, and baggage a character carries when setting forth into a new scene. Characters may or may not behave like tourists in a new setting, craning their necks to look at the sights or, contrarily, being blase to a fault. An actor may show up for a performance, thinking he knew his lines, but this time, in this scene, there is doubt. A housewife may return home from grocery shopping, thinking she has three hours of free time to work on a short story before her son returns from school, then notices her husband's car in the driveway. Or an ambulance. An actor leaves her afternoon AA meeting to attend a cast party at which she knows there will be several bottles of champagne.

Saturday, December 20, 2008


causality--a force in fiction even more primal than conflict, in which events are triggered by previous events; a quality by which things happen as a consequence of previous actions, events, or purposeful lack of action; the literary equivalent of the Newtonian law about actions and reactions. Without causality there would only be separate, unlinked events. Causality is also the literary effect of karma--stories are propelled by the consequences of things characters have done or have notably not done; the compelling reason characters behave as they do or interpret life as they do The bulk of Thomas Hardy's novel, The Mayor of Casterbridge, happens as a consequence of chapter one in which Michael Henchard sells his wife and daughter to a sailor.

Commonly referred to as The Domino Effect because a row of closely placed dominoes falls in such a demonstrably vivid way, causality is a series of linked dramatic events that produce a memorable result which, by its very nature, produces an emotion.

raisins in the matzoh—an unnecessary elaboration; a good idea taken too far by an unnecessary element or refinement; the literary equivalent of preparing enough food for twelve guests when you’ve only invited six to dinner.

A matzoh is unleavened bread, eaten at the time of Passover to commemorate the flight from Egypt, when there was no time to use yeast and leavening. Matzoh was and is perfectly good for its purpose. It doesn’t need raisins to make it work. First articulated by the writer-painter-saloon keeper, teacher Barnaby Conrad, ritm is a kissing cousin of anticlimax, thanks to the way it undermines a perfectly good idea by adding embellishments that will distract the reader’s attention for no good reason and a good many bad ones. Ritm is a sure sign of the writer being uncertain, of an abandonment to an If less is more, more is even more approach. Accordingly, watch all descriptions for unnecessary detail, but also watch those perfectly wonderful observations you made and then spoiled by adding another, distracting element. Remember Conrad’s observation, the twenty-first century version of the wisdom of William of Occam (1285—1347): “Universes must not be unnecessarily expanded.” You could also say Keep it simple. You really could.

deus ex machina--a too convenient solution for a dramatic problem; a way of removing an obstacle that seems to have come from an independent, even unrelated source such as mere chance. Originally a device in ancient Greek drama where gods were thought to have a hand in determining the outcomes of human affairs, the name now evokes the presence of any dramatic resolution that creaks and groans its way to a mechanical-seeming outcome.

Hint in ancient Greek drama, competition and jealousies among gods and goddesses was assumed, thus even at that level, personality and motive informed godly activities. In modern stories, personalities, differing agendas, and cultural squabbles produce the best mechanisms for resolving plot complications.

Further hint: it is acceptable for obstacles to grow larger, complexities to grow more intense by accident, but their resolutions must be more convincing in their engineering.

concept--a pattern of situations, episodes, or ideas that wants to be a story but doesn't yet know how. A concept is an amalgamation of character, motive, and event, but be sure to read the label closely. When, for instance, you see food labels advising that protein is contained herein, the first question that comes to mind should be, Is it a complete protein?which is to say, does it contain all the essential amino acids known to reside in a complete protein? Then ask what the source of the protein is. Soy protein may well be a complete protein, but it is plant based. If you want plant protei, no biggie, but if you don't get what you want, you're going to be disappointed, perhaps evn feeling betrayed when you discover what you did get. The analogy holds for concept, which is the literary equivalent of protein without all the essential amino acids.

A concept lacks some catalytic agent which would transform it into a story. A private detective sitting his/her office, waiting for a client, is not yet a story it is a premise, which is one step down the food chain from concept. A woman who has been dating three men, all of whom suddenly propose marriage to her, is a concept because we know something based in history or action about the woman in question.

However intriguing it is to see a dog sniffing appreciatively at a steak that has just been removed from the grill, then set aside for a moment's cooling, that intrigue is only a potential for some great mischief to follow, which is to say there is concept sizzling away but no story yet.

So okay then, concept is resident potential for story.

One way to turn the private detective premise into a concept is to introduce a character who may not be a potential client. The detective, avid of income, persuades the newcomer to allow some investigative or bodyguard work done on his behalf. Now, we have a concept. To turn a concept into a story, let's introduce a character who offer the detective $5000 not to take the assignment that will be offered by a lady claiming to be from Pittsburgh, who will arrive within the next half hour.

Story can be made from the concept of the woman with the three suitors by having the woman remove herself with no advance notice to another locale, where she takes a job under an assumed name and begins to lead a completely different lifestyle. We could enhance this story by having the woman, within the net week or ten days of her arrival in her new home, be asked out by three different men.

The dog with an appreciative interest in the freshly grilled steak can cause story to erupt by nudging a chair close to the table on which the steak now resides.

In all three examples, concept is transformed into story when the ootagonist is forcd to take some action or make sme choice.

Friday, December 19, 2008

If It Sounds Familiar

frame--the placing of a story or episode within a larger, organized or thematic format such as The Decameron or The Canterbury Tales, where it becomes a segment of a whole; to base a new story on the characters and plot of a previously published work. The framed tale concept is an advertisement for a multiple point of view narration.

James Thurber's memorable short story, "The Man in the Cat Bird Seat," is framed on the revenge concept that inspired Poe's "A Cask of Amontillado." Motion picture director and novelist Paul Mazursky framed an imaginative modern version of Shakespeare's play, The Tempest, while yet another version of that play was framed for television, casting the dramatic events at the time of the American Civil War. Katherine Anne Porter's novel, Ship of Fools, bears comparison to The Canterbury Tales in its use of a broad segment of national, social, and moral types, bound together in transit from one destination to another.

Any work of reputation is fair game for framing; Mark Twain's A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court can be seen as being framed on the Arthurian legend, while James Joyce's Ulysses is scrupulously framed on the tales of Odysseus, returning home from the Trojan Wars and The Iliad, in which he played a major part. The major cautionary note for framing is that the framed version must stand on its own with interesting individuals engaged in arresting and enlightening story, even if the reader happens not to be aware of the original source. Another cautionary note: it is helpful for the reader to know the genesis of the framed work.

Some writers and critics would include the story-within-a-story concept (the play within Hamlet, for instance) as an adjunct of framing.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Last Chapter on Revision

The next item on the Revision Laundry List to be checked off has to do with the basic unit of dramatic writing, The Scene, whence the following questions need to be considered:
1. Are they all necessary?
2. Are you sure; which is to say, were there any in which you were merely showing off, trying to outdo the likes of Noel Coward or Elmore Leonard or Annie Proulx for pithy dialogue?
3. Are there any duplications? Be serious about this. For instance, it may be successfully argued that after a point, most mysteries are simply a series of interviews. Has the manuscript under revision taken steps to insure that the interviews have some sense of freshness and divergence from the others?
4. Does each scene develop the reader's understanding of characters and the issues they are facing?
5. Are the characters actually interacting and reacting?
6. Do the scenes contain suspense, tension, or ominous foreshadowing?
7. Do the scenes end on a note of unresolved conflict or anticipation or do they linger like the last guest at a party?
8. Most important of all, do they leave an emotional impact?

From which we move to the divisions and sections of a work, mindful that in shorter works such as stories, scenes are separated by a two-line space break, advancing to the long form where, after the scene break, the most significant division is the chapter. A constructive way to look at the chapter is as a collection of relevant scenes, meaning the rudder could be the simple matter of chronology or point of view or theme. It may help to regard a chapter as a mini three-act play, in which there is a beginning, a middle, and a resolution; the presentation of a problem and or goal, a muddle of clangorous expectations, and an apparent goal in hand which results in a significant abeyance (which causes the reader to look at yet another chapter before setting the story down for the night. Chapters are often presented with a number, which serves no real dramatic purpose and is little more than the literary equivalent of a mile marker on a map. Chapters are just as often presented with a date line, much as newspaper stories, followed by a city. Los Angeles, September 1985. Chapters in multiple point of view novels often begin with a tag line reminding the reader who the narrative focus of the following events will be. Fred, for example.

The next potential division is the Book, a collection of relevant chapters in which the rudder could be chronological or, back to Fred, a particular point of view. Some books have been given the book subtitle for the geographical locale in which they take place, other still use the name of a character or family.

Getting down to the end of the revision tour: make a complete pass in which you become a heat-seeking missile trained on spotting and knocking out cliche of all sort, whether it is racial, occupational, or narrative. The question often arises in writing groups and beginning classes, Suppose one of my characters has as a trait the speaking or thinking in cliche? The answer of course is that such a character is a fine example of a cliche. If you must have such a character, render that person's linguistic tropes in as deliberately fresh a manner as possible in order that the cliches emerge as original as possible, so that the critic will say of you in all sincerity, even this author's cliches are original. A good standard to follow is: If you have to ask if a figure of speech or character or situation is a cliche; it probably is.

The last but one thing to look at is the title, which can and should pose some relevant enigma, pun, double entendre, or even an irony. Clever titles often attract favorable attention, but the irony here is that titles obviously intending to be clever attract negative attention. Sometimes a phrase from the text will suggest a title, sometimes a pun on a well-known situation or condition will fit the writer's purpose. The old standby is the straightforward declarative description as in, say, John Steinbeck's The Red Pony.

Another question often asked in writers' groups and beginner classes: How do I know when I've finished revising?

Answer: When you make changes no one will recognize.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008


character--individuals in stories who want things, cause things to happen, have things happen to them, have expectations and attitudes. A character's passport into a story is issued on the basis of the things wanted and expected as well as that character's special abilities. A thorough baggage search is indicated against the possibility that the character may be passive.

Characters may be classified into four major groups, protagonist, antagonist, messenger and examples, and pivotal. Protagonists have agendas which they attempt to realize; antagonists attempt to stop protagonists from realizing their goals. These are the front-rank characters. Messenger characters bring news from other characters onto the page, while exemplary characters demonstrate to the other characters and readers conditions and circumstances that might befall front-rank characters. Pivotal characters are those whose allegiances may shift from one side or group to another because of events within the story.

Things to remember about characters during the revision process:

1. They want to act and react.
2. They do not appear in a scene in order to emote.
3. They may lie to themselves.
4. They may lie to each other.
5. They may lie to the reader. (Notable example: Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen. "It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife." It is no such thing.)
6. A character in a story is to a real person as dialogue is to real speech. A character acts and then thinks; a person thinks ad then acts.
7. Characters are the causal instruments by which events take place.
8. Character represents a critical mass of:
9. Characters are defined by the ways in which they respond to and cope with obstacles.
10. Characters enter every scene with some expectation
11. Characters enter every scene having come from doing something else.
12. Even reflective characters such as Hamlet are essentially persons of action.

Questions to ask of your dramatis personae during revision:

1. Are there any duplications? Could two similar-sounding individuals be combined into one
2. Do they truly advance or complicate the story?
3. Do they earn their keep in other ways such as providing obstacles or temptations or even opportunities for the protagonist or antagonist to discuss plot issues with?
4. Do they have dimension?
5. Do they have a weak spot?
6. Might they be tempted to change loyalties?
7. Do the front-rank characters undergo change and/or an awareness of a previously unrecognized moral choice or issue?
8. Do you, the writer, beat up on the antagonists with adjectives and adverbs; do other characters treat them as though they were lepers? Any chance they have become evil for evil's sake?

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Revision.2 Narrative

Back with the laundry list of questions one asks self/ms of recently completed work, the goal being to have the most dramatic, articulate work possible, related in the optimal voice.

7. Is the dialogue too conversational and chatty? The intent in rendering dialogue is to have the exchanges sound like plausible exchanges between individuals, remembering as well that dialogue prods, pokes, nudges story forward while simultaneously extending the personality of the speaker, possibly even revealing things the speaker did not intend to reveal.

8. Is the dialogue too literal, falling beyond mere literalness into reader feeder. "As you know, Fred, I have not been feeling myself lately, overcome as I am by the loss of my job, the empty-nest syndrome as my three wonderful children, Manny, Moe, and Jack, have left home to pursue their own lives, and my ongoing struggle with my addiction to gambling."

9. Does the dialogue drive the story forward? "You're either with us or you're against us?" "Yo, Macbeth; you gonna whack King Malcolm or what?"

10. Does the dialogue adequately and accurately reflect:
a--the attitude of the characters
b--the gap between what they say and what they feel
c--their biases or preferences
d--their goals
e--their familiarity, degree of intimacy
f--the social, racial, sexual, and professional coding inherent in their character
g--their inner conflicts?

11. How about attribution? Does the reader know who's talking, how the talking is being done (she said in a sing-songy chirp)?

12. Does the reader have any clue how what one character says is being received by other characters?

13. Does the dialogue unnecessarily employ adverbial support, he asked nervously?

14. Will the dialogue actually profit from adverbial support? (NB: In spite of heavy lobbying from the National Adverb Association for unrestricted use of adverbs, some adverb control is worthwhile, particularly occasionally when they are tacked on to one another.)

15. Does the dialogue feature talking heads, individuals the reader does not know, having long conversations?

A natural focus after dialogue is narrative, which is all non-dialogue dramatic momentum, thus the framework of the story, evoking the personality of the point of view carrying the narrative. (Post-it Note: Unless the narrative structure comes from the author, is should reflect being related by a designated character.)

16. Is the narrative stylistically and psychologically consistent with the point of view?

17. Does it become heavy-handed and obtrusive?

18. Does it lapse into being overly descriptive?

19. Are there places where it becomes redundant?

20. Does it make appropriate summary of complex events (best exemplified in mystery fiction when a detective sums up the alibi/suspect scorecard)?

21. Does is artfully embed information?

22. Does the narrative produce the mainstays of drama, suspense or tension?

Having thoroughly debriefed the manuscript in terms of what in the story is said and what is told, we may proceed to usher into the revision interrogation the individuals who do the talking and telling--the characters.

Monday, December 15, 2008


revision--a systematic review and examination of raw thematic material; a process of searching for the optimal form and deployment of a story (also applies to nonfiction). A final and emphatic editorial vision of a project, reflecting as nearly as possible a unified editorial tone, vibrant characters with uneasy choices, and a satisfying, plausible resolution.

Writers have been advised for some time by instructors, literary agents, and editors to revise a recently completed work. Often those same instructors, literary agents, and editors have an inchoate vision of what they mean by the term "revision," adding an entire layer of confusion to a process than can be a joy.

Thus three important revision rules for writers at the outset: (1) Unless a literary agent or editor offers a specific quid pro quo offer to represent or publish the work if specified revisions are made, their suggestions are worthless; (2) Unless the instructor, literary agent, or editor cannot articulate a specific list of revisions --change the point of view, change the verb tense from past to present, remove fifty percent of the physical description, etc--their suggestions are not nearly as valuable as rereading the material yourself; (3) If the revision suggestions from the instructor, literary agent, or editor do not resonate as appropriate, ignore them.

These basic questions follow for the individual essaying the revision:

1. Is the work complete? A significant way to determine this is to set the work aside for between one day and a week, then return to read it afresh, hopeful of not discovering any "How could I have forgotten that?" moments. Accordingly put in any forgotten that.

2. Does it begin in the right place? Always a tricky call, especially if the present opening circumstances were the cause for the work congealing as an idea to pursue. Reread the work specifically for another place where there is a greater sense of opening velocity and character involvement. Stories need not be set in strict chronology; a perfect place for the beginning may be the penultimate or even final scene. Remember beginnings are not places where much in the way of background is set forth; beginnings are more likely to be eighty percent movement and twenty percent description. Quirky, interesting people doing quirky interesting things make the most engaging beginnings.

3. Does the reader have someone to root for? Sure, the manuscript has a protagonist, but is the protagonist invested enough in his or her agenda to make readers want to become emotionally involved as the characters tread their paths? American readers for instance, would not seem likely fans of Mr. Stevens, the protagonist of Kazuo Ishiguro's The Remains of the Day. After all, what's the big deal about wanting to be a butler? But of course, Mr. Stevens didn't want to be an ordinary butler. And who among us could root for Fast Eddie Felson, a kid who wanted to be a pool hustler? Not just any pool hustler. Thinking about the dramatic strengths of Carrie Bradshaw and her ultimate goals, we begin to get an interesting perspective on both sides of the coin as it were, rooting for her in Sex in the City and rooting as well for the eponymous Pamela to retain her chastity in her own dramatic venture.

4. Does it end in the right place? Does it,we must ask, end by explaining itself too strenuously or defensively? Does it bury emotional effect in a welter of logical details to the point of producing anticlimax? And since we're on a questioning jag, does the ending take the reader well beyond closure? Do the characters and situations have life off the page? Does the current ending foreclose on that delicious sense of aftertaste that appears after the last page has been turned and a final effect appears? Does it usurp reader participation by not allowing the reader to get a word or thought in edgewise, thanks to the control-freak nature of the author?

5. Not forgetting that some types of stories require descriptions of places, clothing, food, local customs and politics, is this story too descriptive, too heavy handed with theme and atmosphere?

6. Is the story told in the most effective point of view? Could someone have told it better? Think about it In this case better relates to more tension, more suspense, more irony, more naivete. Ah, naivete as in a naive narrator instead of a worldly or trustworthy one, which takes us back to Mr. Stevens in The Remains of the Day, and makes us question the benefits of a trustworthy narrator. Doctors and lawyers frequently complain that they cannot trust their respective patients and clients; should readers be able to trust narrators?

7. Is there a better narrative effect to be had than the present one; is it perhaps too literal? Could the narrative be enhanced with an edgier voice?

These last questions are of particular importance because the answers to them will have a direct effect on the first item in the next installment: Dialogue--the things characters say to attack stasis.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

The Fourth Ammendment

obstacle--an attitude, force, or condition that prevents a character from completing an agenda- or goal-related task. In plot-driven fiction, obstacles are best friends of the construction, adding to the readers' sense of conspiracy theory. Will the mystery be solved? Will justice be done? Will the good guys win? In character-driven fiction, obstacles are the best friends of the characters because they allow the character wiggle room via memories, self-doubt, sucking it (whatever it may be) up, and the greatest luxury of all--action. The manner in which a character deals with obstacles becomes a truer definition of that character than any descriptive narrative; it allows the reader and the other characters to witness this individual at work.

In his last, unfinished novel, The Last Tycoon, F. Scott Fitzgerald noted in capital letters, action is character, by which he meant that the reader is called into judgmental play by being given the power to assess the depth and stature of individuals through observation of their behavior.

This observed response is particularly valuable to actors, who speak openly of being to work off one another, a condition that translates to chemistry or synergy. Such chemistry defines the difference between modern drama and the earlier, more emotive drama. Characters in modern fiction seem increasingly focused on "playing off of" one another, uniting against common obstacles or regarding one another as obstacles to be coped with on an immediate and ongoing basis.

Obstacles may be internal or external, a pang of conscience (as in Macbeth, losing his resolve to murder Malcolm) or a tangible disappointment (the eponymous statue in The Maltese Falcon proving to have been case in lead rather than gold). An immutable truth is that obstacles appear with regularity in reality, earning them appropriate venue in story. One such obstacle is time-related; there is ever enough time. Another obstacle is money; there is never enough. Room is often an obstacle as are crying babies, noisy neighbors, allergies to cats, sullen teenagers, vegan relatives, visiting relatives, romantic exes, in-laws, stinginess, and departmental meetings.

Obstacles stalk us, cling to us like limpets, slip ransom notes under the door, insist on having the last word.

truth--a perception of reality held by a character; the sense of the accuracy inherent in a transaction; a vision of events and their outcomes considered to be actual and unbiased.

Truth is a fertile medium for writers who lack confidence in their ability to plot or create plausible story. Put two or more characters into a setting, all of them carrying a vision of a past event or circumstances which each considers to be accurate. Have these characters enter a conversation.

Truth may also be described as the battleground between what a character says and what that character means.

emotive gloss--description, often narrative, that tells the reader what to feel; attributions to dialogue or character description that emerge as unintended footnotes. Emotive gloss is the unnecessary wrapping intended to make sure the reader understands how wonderful or awful a person, place, or thing really is; it quickly becomes an albatross that drags the story into bathos. The Latins have a mantra for materials intended to convey emotion or judgment: res ipsa loquitir. The thing speaks for itself. "If you come any closer, I'll shoot," she said menacingly.

reader feeder--information the writer wants the reader to know and which indeed may be vital to the story, but which the writer is too lazy to dramatize; long chunks of background or character information shoved into the story at inappropriate places; the literary equivalent of dancing with a writer who steps on your foot.

The overall effect from experiencing reader feeder is the sense of the author, not trusting the characters to disclose the material, wrenching point of view away from the characters to make a statement about the content and intent of the story, then patting the characters on the head before telling them to go ahead with what they were doing.

Dialogue becomes a particularly vulnerable target for reader feeder, beyond such obvious giveaways as "As you know perfectly well, Fred, I was saving that for later." to a convenient forgetfulness about the degrees of intimacy between lovers, friends, and family as opposed to, say, office workers, classmates, and complete strangers. In such cases, repetition of information plausibly known by both parties is reader feeder.

Reader feeder also includes detailed repetition to other characters of information we have seen dramatized earlier.