Sunday, May 31, 2009

What's Your Discovery Rate?

rate of discovery--the pace and rate in which dramatic information is conveyed to the story; appearance to the characters and readers of story issues, deadlines, potentials for added disaster, needs for stop-gap or more permanent solutions; introduction of surprise, new menace, and potential disturbance.

The rate of discovery is influenced by the pace at which seeming stasis is beset by complications. A story usually begins on some emotional cusp, where a character may not yet have made up her mind or where an on-going agenda has become subsumed by a distraction, possibly one the reader can guess but, as yet, the character cannot. Then comes the discovery of adjunct dramatic information, waiting for an opportunity to catch the characters in moments of vulnerability. Closely following the discovery is some price to be paid, some awareness of down-the-line consequences, which lead the character to recall relevant events from the past.

How much have we really discovered about Romeo and Juliet within the thirty-six-hour time frame of their acquaintance? We have learned the details of the Montague-Capulet feud. We have learned, and from a Capulet, that Romeo is not such a bad kid. And we have learned from watching Romeo and Juliet together that they share a considerable, even consuming attraction? Is it really love? If they'd met under less combustive circumstances, would they have evolved into an enduring partnership? Best not to ask too many questions. Best to take the rate of discovery we've been given and see it for what it is, a romance of the best intentions teen-aged hormones can afford, running headlong into the dramatic opposition of social combustion. In a sense, the story is almost larger than the two principals, played out in subsequent forms against backdrops of feuding families, differing ethnicity, differing religions, opening the doors beyond the Arthur Laurents, Leonard Bernstein, Stephen Sondheim collaboration of 1957, West-Side Story, yearning to be recast in its gay version.

If we provide too much background information at once, the risk increases that the reader will begin skimming, thus the warning to slow down the rate of discovery to the point where the reader is not only tolerant and willing to accept but rather impatient, demanding to know. The analogy between cholesterol and discovery, if somewhat a reach, may help: Cholesterol tends to produce plaque in the arteries, discovery tends to clog up a story, yet each under control is a necessity to its respective system.

As always, the question of How much is the right amount? arises, and as always, the answer sounds political and evasive: It is better to withhold, to delay information than it is to pile it on as though it were food portions at a truck stop restaurant. The same observation must be made for dramatized moments of complication. Too much action in too short a time imparts a heavily plot-driven atmosphere to the story. Equally political and evasive at first blush is the rhetorical question, Would Moby-Dick have been more accessible if a first-rate editor had removed forty to fifty percent of the material about whales and whaling? (Probably not.)

Hint: Given the universal story nature of the mystery, select one mystery novel by Frank Morrison "Mickey" Spilaine, and one by Kenneth Millar writing as Ross Macdonald. I, the Jury, and The Zebra-Striped Hearse are good models, each accessible used from Amazon. Compare the rate at which the two detectives, Mike Hammer and Lew Archer, discover things (including things about themselves), then select your place within that spectrum and discover away. For short fiction, try "Good Country People" by Flannery O'Connor, and "The Housebreaker of Shady Hill" by John Cheever.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Says Who?

point of view--the character or characters in a story through whose eyes and other senses the reader learns and intuits the dramatic action; the teller of the tale; the biased, human filter through which the dramatic information is transmitted.

The writer achieves a significant part of willing suspension of belief from the reader when dramatic forces cause the reader to forget that the story is emerging directly from the writer and that, in fact, the story is pure artifice. This WSOB is well achieved by artful introduction of one or more characters who are telling the story, ASAP. As in:

"My father's family name being Pirrip, and my christian name Philip, my infant tongue could make of both names nothing longer or more explicit than Pip. So, I called myself Pip, and came to be called Pip."

The first sentence would actually fit as a Twitter entry. The second sentence pretty well nails the character and his point of view in place, where it remains, a resoundingly successful example of a writer assuming a persona and that individual's traits and experiences in order to relate the details of his encounters variously with his snarky sister, her jewel of a man-for-husband, with an escaped convict, a cantankerous old lady, and a spoiled-if-beguiling young woman named Estella. So gifted a public speaker was Pip's creator that he could have chosen to tell the story of Great Expectations in his own voice. You could profit from asking yourself why he did not, then consider your answer.

There is often some practical reason for a particular character or set of characters having been chosen to narrate a story, sometimes as simplistic as Ahab's case in his selection to be narrator of Moby-Dick; he was the only one who survived the events of the novel. Mr. Stephens was chosen to narrate The Remains of the Day because of his resume as head butler, but also because of his not getting 'it," which is to say because of his naivete. Thus was the writer, Kazuo Ishiguro, constrained to keep Stevens's naivete in mind at all times and to constantly be aware of the need to render it plausibly.

Who is telling your story, and why?

Benjy Compson was chosen to narrate a portion of The Sound and the Fury because the wiring of his intellectual and reasoning processes were some degrees away from the intellectual and emotional outlook of other POV characters. No doubt about it, at some point during his writing of the story, William Faulkner recalled the Shakespearean line from Macbeth" is a tale/Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury/Signifying nothing." But Faulkner new the need to have larger fish to fry than the mere perception of Benjy as an idiot; Faulkner wished the reader to compare Benjy's vision of reality with that of the other characters in the novel. Benjy is then by no means a case of a writer thinking, Aha, I'll tell a story from the point of view of an idiot. The novel is a complex comparison of attitudes, sensitivities, and behavior in which Benjy emerges as an ironic symbol of the most admirable sort.

Once again, why have you selected a particular person or combination of persons to relate your narrative? What effect will your choice have on the other characters? What effect will your choice have on the reader?

Friday, May 29, 2009

How Do We Get Out of Here?

exit strategy--a dramatic design for concluding a scene in a novel or short story, a chapter in a novel, or an entire novel; a purposeful building of event, discovery/revelation, and surprise that will lead to a resolution in a longer work of fiction, or a significant, reflective pause in a short story.

The two key words for exit strategy are suspense and resolution. Ending a scene without one or the other tempts the reader to set the work down with limited need or intent to return. Ending a scene or chapter with suspense leaves the dramatic outcome unresolved, tempting the reader to remain, hopeful of experiencing further dramatic event, which is to say, how "things" turn out. If "things" turn out well enough to have resolved the major thrust of the story or novel, then the story or novel is ended and there is no pressing need to inject additional suspense.

In eighteenth- and nineteenth-century novels, the easy-way-out exit strategy was the trope "...and they all lived happily ever after." A notable exception, perhaps even a trend-setter exit strategy, was Huck Finn who, unwilling to be civilized, lit out for the territory ahead. This strategy was employed midway through the twentieth century when Joseph Heller had his determined bombardier, Yossarian, in a hegira similar to Huck, this one toward the neutral country of Sweden.

For a time in the twentieth century, it seemed that all novels moved to some highly structured resolution where the murderer was revealed and justice restored, where true love was finally allowed back on track, and where all teen-aged rebellions gravitated toward a sensible maturity. Simultaneously, all short stories ended with a punch line, heavy irony, or a trick. But the effects of writers such as Anton Chekhov, Guy de Maupassant, James Joyce, and in later years, Eudora Welty, John O'Hara, John Cheever, and Alice Munro forged the exit strategy where resolution meant something less finite, more reflective of how individuals in daily life behave as opposed to moral finality.

Thus does another burden fall on the writer, the burden of articulating a life philosophy that attends the characters and story of a given narrative, then structuring the ending to approximate as close-to-plausible-as-possible a payoff before leaving the reader with the unspoken implication that, soon enough, these characters will become involved in yet another story.

Lord Byron, the poet, observed that tragedies end with death, comedies end with marriage. Modern stories begin with the tragedy of death as it evolves into the next step in the lives of the survivors. Modern stories also begin with the humor of the romantic energy of marriage, then evolve to such mile posts as developing relationships, children, career, and aging, to name only a few. The purpose of a well-thought-out exit strategy in any story is to leave the dramatic quality of aftertaste, the recurring appearance of characters after the story is ended, haunting the hallways and battlements of the readers' mind with add-on possibilities for new stories.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

English as a First Language

vernacular--the local or native language of a time and place as opposed to the formal, academic, and literary usage of speech and text; a slang or patois of an area or group of individuals; a stylistic rendition of an ethnic, geographic, or social milieu.

To impart a note of romanticism to vernacular, think of it as the voice of a particular people. To politicize, think of vernacular as the voice of a particular people under contentious circumstances. To dramatize, think of vernacular as the expression of one or more characters in a tense, confrontational setting.

Examples of vernacular speech:

1. Tom Joad, toward the end of The Grapes of Wrath. "I'll be all around in the dark. I'll be ever'-where - wherever you can look. Wherever there's a fight so hungry people can eat, I'll be there. Wherever there's a cop beatin' up a guy, I'll be there. I'll be in the way guys yell when they're mad - I'll be in the way kids laugh when they're hungry an' they know supper's ready. An' when the people are eatin' the stuff they raise, and livin' in the houses they build - I'll be there, too."

2. Huckleberry Finn, narrating the entirety of the eponymous novel, starting with the memorable: "You don't know about me without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer; but that ain't no matter. That book was made by Mr. Mark Twain, and he told the truth, mainly. There was things which he stretched, but mainly he told the truth. That is nothing. I never seen anybody but lied one time or another, without it was Aunt Polly, or the widow, or maybe Mary. Aunt Polly -- Tom's Aunt Polly, she is -- and Mary, and the Widow Douglas is all told about in that book, which is mostly a true book, with some stretchers, as I said before.

3. Doyle Redmond, narrator of Daniel Woodrell's Give Us a Kiss, on the drift from a failed marriage and a floundering life, driving a stolen Volvo: "I had a family errand to run, that's all, but I decided to take a pistol. It was just a little black thirty-two ladystinger and I tucked it into the blue pillowcase that held my traveling clothes. The pillowcase sat on the driver's seat, because you never know when you'll need to slide a hand in there, all of a sudden, somewhere along the road."

There is an infinitude of additional vernacular examples available, not the least of whom include Annie Proulx, Louise Erdrich, and Elmore Leonard, bringing to the page an evocation of carpentry so tight and exacting that it requires neither nail nor glue. relying instead on a particular cadence of language as it is thought and spoken and, indeed, a seemingly digitally recorded core sampling of a conversation. Thus do Tim Gautreaux's characters abide with the Cajun drawl of New Orleans while Luis Alberto Urrea's Mexican characters reach for American words and concepts as though they were the last taco on the plate.

It is not enough to believe vernacular is rendered by removing terminal g's from gerunds or having a character observe how him and me, we went to the movies. It is more in the order of looking at contemporary records for long-since abandoned word usage, checking carefully the dates and notes in the (the venerable OED), and listening if possible to live sources of individuals speaking the language you are trying to suggest on paper. It is, as novelist Monte Schulz discovered, a need to do close hand research to find out whether the likes of peachy, as in That was peachy with me,was favored before swell, as in She was sure a swell lady. Or was girl used in context with swell as in She was sure a swell girl.

There is little doubt that Dennis Lehane has captured the vernacular of a particular social strata in his novels to the point where readers can virtually hear his characters thinking in the working class Irish and Italian cadences of the greater Boston area, where khakis is not pants but rather what you need to start an automobile, and where key ow is the bovine who produces the milk for our latte. But what of the well-received Boston attorney, George V. Higgins, (especially The Friends of Eddie Coyle)who produced his own vernacular, which was so effective and convincing that Gringo readers (readers outside Boston) believed this was the way Boston working class persons spoke?

There are any number of reasons why a writer will try to adhere to Received Standard English (let's think the newscasters and commentators on NPR for the American standard), including having come forth from an MFA program in Creative Writing. The English writer, Ian McEwan, in comparison with all the writers mentioned above, appears to write in the Received Standard English of the BBC. Fair being fair, writers to the immediate north of McEwan, which is to say Scotland, writers such as Ian Rankin or Denise Mina, have evolved a plausible vernacular. Nevertheless, a writer needs to develop voice as well as other dramatic and structural tools, and one way of becoming aware of the vernacular voice is to read writers who speak in them.

"You are not the kind of guy who would be at a place like this at this time of the morning." Jay McInerney begins his heavily 1980s vernacular novel, Bright Lights, Big City. "How did you get here? It was your friend Tad Allagash. Your brain is rushing with Brazilian marching powder. You are talking to a girl with a shaved head. You want to meet the kind of girl who isn't going to be here. You want to read the kind of fiction this isn't. You give the girl some powder. She still doesn't want you. Things were fine once. Then you got married.

"Monday arrives on schedule. You are late for work. You buy the Post and read the Coma Baby story. Are you the Coma Baby? Of course you are. It's just a fucking metaphor. You reach the lobby of the famous New York magazine for which you work, take the elevator to the Department of Factual Verification and say hi to Megan. You hope your boss Ms Clara Tillinghast aka the Clinger doesn't want the French piece as they'll find out you lied about your fluency in your resume. You want to be a writer, not a fact-checker."

Hint: As the trope of an actor preparing for a role must increasingly conflate with a writer looking for voice in which to cast, then present a story, so must the writer consider how the work will sound over all. One way to find out is to read the work aloud until there are no moments of stumble.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

A Chicken Sandwich on Wheat Toast, Hold the Lettuce, Hold the Tomato, Hold the Mayo, Hold the Chicken

withholding dramatic information--a strategy for creating narrative tension and/or suspense; keeping information from the reader or one or more characters; using the curiosity or lack thereof in a character to influence agenda; creating awareness in the reader and/or characters of secrets relating to the theme or actual outcome of a story.

Story, however ambiguous in nature or elliptical in orbit, is an outgrowth of a natural inclination to assign narrative to events, whether they are as complex and intertwined as generational family history (and thus a search for unifying theme) or as seemingly random as boy-meets-girl, boy-meets-boy, or girl-meets girl. Story is implicitly and sometimes explicitly a tale told to provide evidence that life has a meaning, that certain events were ordained if not pre-ordained, that human behavior and destiny is not merely a series of random events, atomic particles spinning about in a reactor or collider that has been turned off for the night. Thus the domino theory (see), causality (see), and determinism; thus the parallel between story and the precedent-setting direction of many forms of legal evolution.

The skilled writer accordingly has learned to withhold vital information, making the reader curious about it, avid for more. Thus curiosity ranks just below tension and suspense as an important mortar, holding the isolated bricks of dramatic detail together. Until the reader has become interested to the point of empathy, details about a particular character often bore more than they illustrate. Some of the background material, for instance, about Eilis Lacey, Colm Toibin's protagonist in his 2009 novel, Brooklyn, is inconsequential until the reader has seen Eilis performing in social situations, at which point they become poignant to the point of being heart wrenching: this information has been artfully manipulated so that it appears to emerge from the character rather than Post-It notes from the author.

"Never tell the reader more than the reader wants to know" is an effective restraint for the reader to keep in mind: Withhold, then pay out in slow, incident-related doses. The downside of too much withholding can be seen in fiction such as the novels of Ian McEwan (see Saturday; The Innocent;The Child in Time), where the secrets to be discovered and the defining moments present on closer consideration the image of a highly skilled dealer at a casino rather than, however bravura his technique, a story teller such as Michael Chabon (see The Wonder Boys; Secrets of Pittsburgh; and The Yiddish Policeman's Union).

What is the right balance between withholding and being manipulative? First of all, forget any stigma attached to the word "manipulative;" all story tellers manipulate, having chosen the beginning point of the story and the ending payoff at the very least. Secondly, write from your own point of curiosity, playing to your own rate of discovery. Third, try not to attach too complex a meaning to things deliberately held in secret, traumas from past events that were completely or semi-occluded, or repressed memories suddenly unloosed on the consciousness.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Under no circumstances...

circumstances--conditions motivating or surrounding persons, places, things, and events in story; the status of behavior related to a character, that character's agenda and/or vulnerability, and the likelihood of a predictable behavior manifest in the actions or failure to act in a particular character.

Mysterious or ambiguous circumstances surrounding a character impart an atmosphere of menace and uncertainty. The suspense grows as the circumstances become volatile, leading to the growing apprehension that such a mysterious or ambiguous character will be driven to the point of combustion, whereupon he or she will reveal a true self of incredible awfulness.

Familiar, even predictable circumstances advertise a growing sense that a surprise explosion is building, some unanticipated demonstration that will ruin the stasis, nudge it unceremoniously over the edge into chaos and discomfort.

Thus the mysterious and the familiar combine to frame events and the persons who participate in them, raising suspicions wherever possible. These suspicions translate to tension which, lacking actual suspense, is an excellent glue for holding story together. Readers wonder what new circumstances will bring to the equation of characters, bent on pursuing an agenda, meeting frustration and reversal.

All a protagonist or antagonist needs in order to set a story in motion is to hear the repetition of the familiar mantra "Under no circumstances..."

Monday, May 25, 2009

I'd Never Have Guessed

negative clauses--facts and feelings attributed to one or more characters as information or feelings they could not have known or felt at a particular moment in a story; information or feelings a character was unaware of, then proceeded to act, producing unfortunate consequences.

Laundry list:

Little did she know...
He could not have known it at the time...
He had no way of knowing...
It never occurred to her...
Unknown to him...
She never noticed...

These and others like them, along with their first cousin HIBK (Had I but known) are to be avoided because they represent an intrusive author, elbowing onto the page to bring forth information that should have come from the characters. These tropes are also straw men to be set up merely to be knocked down.

How can a character be held accountable for something she didn't know? Do we resent as an artifice the nameless protagonist of Daphne DuMaurier's Rebecca because she married a man she did not really know? Because the entire order of awareness was so well orchestrated, we identify completely with her, our suspicions growing in direct proportion to hers.

A character may have a premonition, then berate himself later on for failing to act on it? A character may judge something to be unsafe or risky and then proceed, later to express regret, but it falls just short of cheating to expect the reader to buy into information the author has withheld from the reader and not, upon discovery, feel manipulated.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

I Got Mine at Zappo's

process--a sequence of idiosyncratic events and stimuli that leads a writer to visualize, orchestrate, and revise a story; the notional warp and weft of threads the individual writer requires in order to tell a story; the tools, techniques, compulsions, and possible superstitions a writer uses in the act of generating material.

Writers come to their craft by accidental discovery, from genetic inheritance, from a desire for revenge, from a childhood illness that had them away from school for a prolonged period, from one or more stories that tipped them over into imitation then originality; and from the growing awareness that nothing else is quite as much fun. There are, to be sure, other processes in which real or imagined pain is an ingredient. Grown men and women confess they would rather do anything but write and then, as a part of their process, trudge dramatically to their work area, radiating martyrdom as they settle into the task at hand.

Beginning writers, most of whom are known to have no sense of humor, or who are likely to take everything seriously, begin to wonder if they have the necessary ingredients to tell stories because they do not abuse alcohol or drugs or sex, do not particularly care for driving fast cars, seldom vote in elections, and do not believe they are able to withstand or understand rejection. To them, any income under $100,000 a year derived from writing means failure, and reading the works of other writers means time wrenched away from their own creative efforts. These are all strands of the beginning writer's process, which undergoes subtle and individualizing shifts as the process of their own writing continues.

The process of some writers, a tenth of the way into the twenty-first century, involves first and second drafts written in ink before being transferred to the computer. The process of other writers is to keep a daily journal in which the goal is to evoke at least one emotion. Yet other writers believe implicitly in the process of halting a day's work in the middle of a sentence, thus to confront the next day's work with a direct link to work in progress. A considerable number of writers outline furiously and do not consider beginning text until they have a complete design before them, while an equally considerable number enjoy the high of striking out with no plot or plan to hinder their imagination.

All of these processes work for some and if anything shut others down completely. The key is to discover from yourself whence the process comes. Is it anger, politics, a desire to tell cautionary tales, an urge to revise historical outcomes, project futures based on worst-case scenarios? Are you advocating equality for women, same sex marriage, evangelism, creationism, irony, adventure? What is your natural gestalt? Are you an optimist? Is the glass already half empty? Shall we carpe the freaking diem?

The individual writer's process is a string of stimuli that may have emerged without the knots of culture, family, schooling, or writing books being added. There are those who seem to hear their process speaking to them early on, without having to unlearn things that were painfully acquired in the first place. No sentences that begin with And or But. No one-line paragraphs. A subject for every sentence. A topic sentence in every paragraph.


These are not processes; these are rules. The consequence of disregarding rules should be considered before continuing, but if your process dictates a break, then break away.

A writer's process is much like a pair of shoes one sees in an ad, seemingly a perfect statement of personality, shape, and color. There is a disconnect between the vision of the shoe in the ad and the visit to the shoe store or the arrival of the shoes from Zappo's. No matter how good the shoe looks in the ad, it is of no value if it pinches at the sides or cramps the toes. You do not take the shoes, hoping to "break them in." The writer's process needs to fit, and the best fit is always hand-made.

Saturday, May 23, 2009


euphemism--the substitution of a word or meaning and the subsequent substitution of it with a word, phrase, or concept that sounds more agreeable and polite; abduction of a word or meaning by inferring a less bold, graphic, or socially acceptable meaning.

Perhaps the most common euphemisms in Western culture are those connected with death. Passing, passing on, passing away, and passing over join company with expired, gone to his/her reward, called home, pushing up daisies, the latter of which at least appears to be making fun of itself, and croaked, also far from polite, seems to draw on death rattle for an ironic trope.

There are euphemisms for the three widely touted taboos, sex, religion, and politics, as well, just as split-up is used as a euphemism for divorce or a broken long-term arrangement of any sort. In sports, being sent down to the minors may be literally true but it is also a cover-up for being demoted, just as being held back is a euphemism for flunked.

In much of the world, the infamous n-word has become replaced with Negro, black, Black, and if appropriate, African-American, almost all the euphemisms (including person of color) enjoying a cycle of popularity before falling off the radar (not a euphemism, but a definite cliche). Thus also does midget or dwarf become person of challenged height, which opens yet other doors for vulgar, demeaning conditions manifest in individuals suffering from neurological disorders.

What to do? Of course some characters, by their nature, will use the n-word or any other word that suits their purpose when dealing with a person or trait out of the mainstream, and it is appropriate to show them in full, non-euphemistic action as, say, Ernest Hemingway did when referring to certain of his characters as a rummy, which lets us know that person has a strong attachment to spiritus fermenti or, if you will, booze. Other characters, whom you intend as an embodiment of PC (not a euphemism for personal computer) will pour on the euphemisms, and other still, characters you conceive of as covert bigots, will reveal themselves with their broadcast liberalism by wanting to introduce you to "my Chinese wife." You would be within your rights to say how much you look forward to meeting his Japanese wife and perhaps his Polynesian wife, but you hold your tongue.

Others still of your characters will use euphemisms to deliniate for friends and acquaintances alike the sexual orientation of other characters, including such euphemisms as light in the loafers, walks with a notable limp, and wears pink handkerchiefs as well as the one euphemism most of us use, gay. Some characters will refer to bisexuals in baseball terms as in he/she swings from both sides of the plate or switch hitter, and to women homosexuals as holding passports from the Isle of Lesbos and the one-size-fits-all lesbo, or perhaps dyke or the throw-away observation, "she tends to ride the clutch on her Harley."

There are risks in using PC euphemisms just as there are risks in using vulgar, hurtfully intended ones, and thus the question arises about whether to call characters out in stories that have nothing to do with their sexual, religious, or political orientations, using this information only as it relates to the development of a story.

The answers (for there are more than one) reside within your characters and their intent. If a character brags of having friends who are Jewish, LDS, Catholic, and, say, Lutheran, as well as friends who are Republican and even some who are gay, what does this say of your character. If a character is constantly reminding other characters that little people are not to be called midgets and that the "correct" designation for an Oriental person is Asian, what does this say of her>

And what does it say to readers, literary agents, and editors if the writer writes, "Dennis yanked the Glock from his waistband, squeezed off three shots at point-blank range, then bent down to see if his assailant had crossed over."

Friday, May 22, 2009

Timing Is Everything

time frame--time scheme in which events in a novel or short story take place; a narrative paradigm that helps readers see the relative position of events in a dramatic narrative; verb tenses used as identifiers to help readers orient to dramatic sequence of events.

Although there is no organized lobby to establish a convention of a strict chronology in a story, there is the tradition of a dramatic unity in which a drama shall proceed in real time from start to finish, hence questions about the "legality" of flashback or other interruptions of time sequence.

It is a rare twenty-first century story that trudges forward from A to Z without some pause for reflection about past events or an actual shift back to events that took place before the story at hand began. Although his novels are set largely at the time of Elizabeth I, twentieth- and twenty-first century crime writer Leonard Tourney frequently begins his mysteries with what he calls "a slice of the crime," in which the novel begins with an out-of-sequence scene in which the reader sees a crime being committed, a crime being contemplated, or a crime being discovered. Other crime writers (Richard Price, George Pelecanos, P.D. James) begin with some provocative event as a preface to the story at hand. Yet other writers (John D. McDonald, for example, in his non-Travis McGee novels)use a combination of a shift in time sequence and a shift in point of view to create a cliffhanger effect. Tim Gautreaux's 2009 novel, Missing, begins at the tail end of World War II, moves forward a few years to a major defining moment, then reverts back in time well before the beginning scenes.

One of the most extreme examples of time bending appears in the opening of James Joyce's Finnegan's Wake, which begins with a fragment of a sentence, "... riverrun, past Eve and Adam’s, from swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us by a commodius vicus of recirculation back to Howth Castle and Environs." A few hundred pages later, the novel ends with "A way a lone a last a loved a long the..." which, were you to connect it with the opening fragment, would form a complete sentence, setting forth in some degree Joyce's intent of an unending circularity.

A simple recipe for use of time line in the short story or the novel: at least sixty percent of the action takes place in the present. Two-line space breaks separate all scenes, but when jumping from time to time and POV to POV, the writer must let the reader know who, when, and where ASAP.

See also backstory, flashback

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Hanging in There

cliffhanger--a suspense-generating device in which the immediate welfare (if not the life) of an individual hangs in the balance; a ticking-clock artifice at the end of which a character runs the risk of death; severe jeopardy left unresolved at chapter's end.

Most long term readers are aware of the concept of The Tales of Scheherazade in One Thousand and One Nights, in which a young queen extended her life for yet another day by telling her executioner/husband stories which left individuals in peril so great that the husband, driven by curiosity, had to hear the outcome. This was suspense with a vengence. Newspapers and magazines picked on this technique for telling stories in installments, each one ending with an impending disaster of considerable impact. Giving the device its name, Thomas Hardy, in 1873, published a novel, A Pair of Blue Eyes, which had been serialized in Tinsley's Magazine.

Against a background of restoring truly ancient church architecture on the craggy, desolate southwest coast of England, A Pair of Blue Eyes features young Elfride, a vicar's daughter, secretly engaged to a young architect, the young architect himself, and Henry Knight, older, unaware of Elfride's secret engagement, palpably interested in Elfride, himself.

Sitting on a high cliff above the Bristol Channel with Henry, hopeful of a telescope view of the ship returning the young architect from India, they are pelted by a gust of wind, which blows Henry's hat toward the edge. He scrambles for it, but finds himself unable to scramble back to the spot where he sat with Elfride. Trying to help him, Elfride makes things progressively worse. "From the fact that the cliff formed the inner face of the segment of a hollow cylinder," Hardy wrot, "having the sky for a top and the sea for a bottom, which enclosed the bay to the extent of nearly a semicircle, [Henry] could see the vertical face curving round on each side of him. He looked far down the facade, and realized more thoroughly how it threatened him."

Henry Knight is suspended by his arms from the side of a cliff where, "opposite [his] eyes was an embedded fossil, standing forth in low relief from the rock. It was a creature with eyes. The eyes, dead and turned to stone, were even now regarding him. It was one of the early crustaceans called Trilobites. Separated by millions of years in their lives, [Henry] and this underling seemed to have met in their place of death."

Readers of Tinsley's Magazine had to wait a month to see how Hardy would extricate Henry from this place where the Trilobite was the single instance within reach of his vision of anything that had ever been alive and had a body to save, as he himself had now."

Well, you argue, Elfride could go for help. But where, and how long could Henry hold on?

Thus was the cliffhanger born.

Particularly in a novel, a cliffhanger ending of one chapter presents a splendid opportunity to shift to another point of view, another time frame, another situation, playing the waiting game of suspense, where so much hangs in the balance.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

What Is This Thing Called, Love?

inevitability--the story-governing certainty that something will go wrong; a presentiment that circumstances surrounding one or more characters will worsen; the likelihood that a character who is given a menu of choices will select the one most probable course for disaster.

Fred has decided to attend a ten-year reunion of his college graduating class. Still smarting from the painful break-up of his marriage, Fred is thinking the reunion might be a place to reenter the relationship market. By the time the evening is over, Fred has been given four email addresses of former classmates, all of whom he considers attractive, all of whom have hinted their willingness to let him take her home. They are all attractive, each in a different way. They are all bright, each according to her particular interests. Aroused and lonely, Fred makes his choice. Most readers will recognize the landmine Fred will have stepped on as a consequence of his choice. Most readers will know that the one Fred chose will be afflicted with a rusted-out Honda and have at home a cat with a urinary infection. Moreover, she will cry loudly at unexpected times, and want to know from Fred why people cannot learn to be more respectful to one another. Not that any of these qualities are of themselves disastrous, but to Fred, they are complications he does not think he needs. As such inevitability goes, Fred will have subsequent contact with the other three former classmates who signaled their availability, finding each in her own way borderline remarkable. But the added inevitability is that Fred is drawn to his first choice and is last seen advancing to her apartment with a large container of rust remover and a copy of Cat Care For Dummies.

Inevitability makes no distinction in gender. Nicole, herself still uneasy from a painful break-up with a man who was compulsive to the point of arguing with her about the only proper way to allow toilet paper to spool, has gone to the same reunion as Fred. She has urged herself to go, thinking the experience will be good for her, even though she knows in advance that she will leave that night with the one man in the entire gathering who will be the most disastrous. Indeed, the individual Nicole chooses can't wait to get her to his place in order to show her his collection of breakfast cereal boxes, including his prized Wheaties box with the still florid image of Duke Snyder smiling forth. The evening ends with her moodily watching him as he pours bowls of corn flakes for both of them.

Although inevitability takes human psychology well into consideration, dealing as it does with such tropes as victims, compulsions, ego, avocations, and the very nature of individual identity, inevitability is causality and consequence writ large. It is the dramatic distillation of forces observed in reality but often buried under an array of distracting signs and misinterpreted biological responses to stimuli. All it takes to trigger in the reader the awareness of inevitability is for one character to ask another, "You'll wait for me, right? We'll be married as soon as I finish grad school." Not to mention one of the most famous of all story tropes, the all-purpose, one-size-fits-all "Is this safe?" which could relate to robbing a bank, a sexual encounter, crossing the street in the middle of a block, risking savings on a business venture. Yet another inevitability catcher: "I'll be right back," and not to forget: "I'll call you."

Why, oh why did Colm Toibin's character Tony, so deeply in love with Eilish in Brooklyn, plead with her to marry him in a secret civil ceremony before returning to Ireland for a funeral? Why, he did it to add considerable depth to both characters, and to introduce the worm of inevitability into the apple. Who among Toibin's readers did not suspect that Eilish would experience a heavy pang of temptation while away from Tony.

Inevitability is like the black keys and the white keys on the piano; the composer knows which to designate and when to produce the most plangent results.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009


ambiguity--an essential ingredient in character-driven fiction in which intent and outcome are left purposefully vague; motives and subtexts which may be interpreted variously by a given group of readers; a quality of meaning in dramatic writing where the reader is allowed some say in the interpretation.

Was the Billy Budd of the eponymous novella a naive narrator or, to use contemporary PC tropes, intellectually challenged?  Surely Herman Melville had had enough seafaring experience to open the possibility of the unspoken subtext of a sexual hang-up by Clagett over Billy, but did he intend the reader to infer a sexual conflict between the two characters?  

Was the governess of The Turn of the Screw seeing the ghosts of Miss Jessel and her lover, Peter Quint? Or was she merely delusional, and if that were the case, how does that explain the fact that the governess's young charges, Flora and Miles, may have been seeing the ghostly appearances?  You might also ask, as some readers and critics have asked, if the most recent governess had frightened Miles to death.

Was Spencer Brydon merely delusional in "The Jolly Corner," or was he in fact being confronted with a ghost.  In even more mischievous fact, Has Brydon dies at the end of the story, whereupon, because the story continues for a bit, was he experiencing a moment in the afterlife from which point he could look back at his earthly self, just as he had in fact done at the beginning of the story when returning to his old family home?

Did Jane Eyre actually hear or sense Rochester as he called to her across the moors in his moments of need and peril, or was her awareness merely the intuitive process of a woman hopelessly in love with Rochester?

Did Hamlet actually see his father's ghost on the battlements of Elsinore Castle or was Shakespeare merely anticipating the arrival of Sigmund Freud?

It is a lovely feeling to have readers arguing over the plausibility and possibility of events in one's work, to know that readers have taken one's work away with them, off the page, after the work had been completed.  One such way to achieve this status is through the process of ambiguity.  Call it Chekhovian if you wish, the process involves not spelling things out too clearly, not explaining too much, removing from one's work the same sorts of details humans are likely to remove.

Call it ambiguity.  It is a friendly, welcoming country with no officious border guards or entry restrictions, although it does have a suspicious nature when it comes to the excess baggage of explanation and no sense of humor.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Epiphanies, Dire Straits, and Loose Ends

comes to realize--a type of short story or novel in which a front-rank character is affected by events or an insight to the point of becoming aware of something not previously known to that character before; a dramatic point, often the denouement, in which a character experiences an apiphany that guides subsequent, story-related behavior.

One such epiphany or coming to realize visits Gabriel Conroy toward the payoff of James Joyce's short story, "The Dead." Events at a gathering earlier in the evening have prompted Conroy's wife to revisit a long-ago romance with a young man now dead, causing Conroy to realize there were things about his wife he'd never considered, causing him also to reflect almost in an aphorism about the nature of life and death.

Nearly all other fourteen of the stories in Joyce's collection, Dubliners, has some form of epiphany, making for a convenient source of comes-to-realize narratives. Although originally a religious/mystical insight, the epiphany or comes to realize is a discovery of the solution to a puzzle, the answer to an enigma that has been troubling a character and is now made clear to the character because of some intent or inertia on the part of the character.

Beware the sudden appearance of a character gaining awareness or insight without having had to work for it or experience some significant blast of emotion; sudden appearances of such dramatic material have the deus ex machina effect of being a cheap convenience. Even if the epiphany experienced by a character brings painful awareness, it must be relevant to the theme of the story or the character's goal for it to have resonance with the reader.

Some twenty-first century epiphanies or arrivals at understanding come as the protagonist is about to achieve some sought after goal, status, or discovery, only for the character to realize it is no longer of any consequence.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Concealed Humor?

deadpan--a form of narration or delivery in which a character relating opinions and material appears to be neutral and nonjudgmental; a means of conveying material bound to have some effect on the audience without betraying any hint of its implications or explosive nature.

Deadpan delivery is an enormous play on the role of the naive narrator, a pretense that what is being revealed is nothing out of the ordinary. One of the more legendary deadpan deliverers in American letters is Samuel Langhorn Clemens, who recast himself as the storyteller Mark Twain, and who used himself as an apparent butt in order to bring down sundry targets of his outrage. 

 Twain often affected the role of the bumpkin or, as he referred to himself in the title of one of his books, an innocent. (See The Innocents Abroad for a classic example of deadpan travel writing.) After achieving one or two laughs at his own expense, Twain strode forth, his overall intent becoming increasingly apparent (See the opening pages of his Christian Science).

Another style of deadpan writing is seen in the work of an individual whose life span extended a scant fifteen years beyond Twain's--Franz Kafka. His mordant settings were the backdrops for individuals who at first blush represent victims of conspiracy or repressive social mechanisms, extending into bureaucracies and families. 

 In some of his works (See The Trial), Kafka seemed to be saying that the individual had no choice, was at the mercy of whatever Fates happened to be in power at the moment, had no hope for raising his status. Seen as a deliberate invoker of the understated and a sly precursor to Woody Allen, Kafka and his work take on a richer meaning that a more literal reading would provide. Thus may Kafka be thought to join Twain as charter members of The Satirists' Club.

Yet another, more nuanced gloss on the deadpan approach to the release or revelation of dramatic material comes from the mind and pen of Steven Colbert, who often seems to provoke the support of his actual targets. 

 Like Twain and Kafka, Colbert can be experienced on a literal basis, from which a set of assumptions may be made. Thus each of these three deadpanners and all those who chose to provide individualized paths of their own are asking the reader to look under the surface for hidden intent. 

 Twain, Kafka, and Colbert arguably have mischievous senses of humor for those who look for the truly serious intent lurking beneath the apparent serious intent. Imagine the greater effect Ayn Rand would have enjoyed had she regulated her rant to the point where it became more deadpan.

Warning: one of the consequences of deadpan delivery, in live performance or in writing, is to limit the audience, and, in the case of the actor, Sasha Baron Cohen, who presented himself as the entity Borat, to not only limit the audience but as well to seriously offend it. Thus does deadpan as a prism of dispensing information become partners with irony, which by its own nature implies conspiracy (often of the sort Kafka write about), and irony's hard-to-manage cousin, sarcasm. Deadpan also relies heavily on a not-too distant relative, ambiguity, as in "What did the writer really mean?"

Don't forget: In many of the visual and performing arts, the intent of the composer is to disturb. Disturb from what? Disturb from complacency.

For extra credit: Read the opening two pages of Twain's Life on the Mississippi, his love letter to the great American river, which had captured so big a place in his heart. After reading those two pages with their straightforward sincerity and offering of statistics, can you say for an absolute certainty that Twain was dead serious and not having us on?

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Order of Awareness, The

order of awareness, the--impressions received by a character upon entering a scene; sensual priority list of a character in a dramatic situation.

Depending on the age, gender, social rank, and purposeful agenda of a given character, that person will tend to notice conditions, surroundings, and individual traits in a ranking related to the type of story being told. A member of Gang X, for instance, on discovering he is out of his turf, is going to be particularly watchful for males who are potential members or allies of Gang Y; a racially prejudiced white male might find himself looking for possible escape routes when he notices an approaching group of young blacks on the same side of a narrow street. A young man out on the prowl for meeting women will, upon entering a bistro or neighborhood tavern, will be struck by the presence of nubile females. A group of women friends, out for dinner and a movie, will be likely to note the bothersome presence of a group of predatory males.

Men or women, already located in a setting, will probably classify newcomers in terms of their gender, height, and clothing, but not necessarily in that order. Knowing your characters will make it easy to have a director's feel for what they notice and when they notice it. Some men, for instance, note the sexual viability of every woman who enters the place, age being a third- or fourth-place factor in that calculus, behind body type, height, and hair color. Women are more likely to note the posture, height, and dress of a new male addition to a room.

What are your characters going to notice first when they enter a room? Decor? Airiness? Number of persons present? Their height? Perhaps their age. How do your characters enter scenes? What are they looking for? What qualities or presences set them ill at ease? How do these responses help define who the character is?

Hint: A character's individual reaction to persons, places, and things speaks directly to who they are and how the reader may expect them to behave. Added hint: an endangered character is more likely to focus directly on the immediate source of danger rather than what tune is playing in the background or what two other characters in the background are arguing about.

Characters are in a sense like the Hubbel Telescope, sent out to gather images of events. Understanding the psychology of each character along with his or her strong and weak points of observation helps to render them as individuals rather than types, and we know what F. Scott Fitzgerald said about characters and types (opening paragraphs of "The Rich Boy.")

Friday, May 15, 2009

Sexual Tension? moi?

sexual tension--the charged atmosphere present when certain characters appear together in a scene; at-a-distance thoughts and feelings of one character for another; a potential source of hidden agenda; a lurking subtext between characters or between the reader and certain characters.

Sexual tension is the elephant in the living room, an elephant that is often not recognized much less spoken about. Powerful enough when the involved characters are aware of it's presence and actually preparing to act on it, sexual tension is often the force that drives seemingly comfortable, secure characters over the edge, from their comfort to a combustion that produces consequences.

Obvious instances of sexual tension in story must include that between Dolores Haze, aka Lolita, and Humbert Humbert. Don't forget, Humbert married Lolita's mother as a subterfuge whereby he could have access to Lolita. Don't forget, however young Lolita was, she was neither innocent of Humbert's intent nor did she wish to blunt it. Don't forget, Humbert was aware of a ticking clock in that Lolita would be growing beyond his area of interest.

Look back into the chemistry sparking between Jane and Rochester in Jane Eyre. Did that not create a powerful incentive for the reader to continue, hopeful of more glances and touches of the hand. And what about Charlotte's kid sister, Emily, so far as Wuthering Heights is concerned? Was there not profound unresolved sexual tension between Cathy and Heathcliffe, made even more agonizing when Cathy agrees to marry Edgar Linton? On a more contemporary level, many of the John Cheever short stories were larded with it, "The Country Husband" being a notable example of its magnetic power.

Shakespeare knew a few things about sexual tension, evident in Twelfth Night, where Viola feels it for her "boss" Orsino, and has it felt for her by Olivia. In Much Ado About Nothing, the audience is given a pretty strong signal in the tease and banter between Beatrice and Benedick, and the sexual tension between Romeo and Juliet is so powerful from the moment of their first encounter that they are figuratively if not literally screwed, because they are both dead within thirty-six hours.

Observation: When sexual tension is resolved, the story flattens until something comes along--jealousy, guilt, discovery--to lift it upward again. Thus observable, smoldering sexual tension becomes a prime mover, a powerful engine for causing characters to take steps either to consummate or to flee from temptation.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Matchmaker, Matchmaker, Make Me a Match. Okay--You're a Match.

matchmaker--a reader of a novel or short story; an individual who becomes interested in one or more characters in a narrative to the point of becoming invested in their activities.

A matchmaker is on the lookout for your characters, regardless of age or gender. The matchmaker surveys likely romantic interests, possible friends, co-conspirators, colleagues. You may have your own agenda for your characters, which is not only a good thing, it is a vital thing, but the reader will also have plans as well. This, too, is not only a good thing, it is a vital thing. The reader must care, otherwise the characters you have created will seem as substantial as artificially formed breakfast cereal.

What then to do about this seeming conflict of interest? Suppose your down-the-road plans for Character A involve a comfortable hook-up with Character B, but the reader is thinking maybe Character D or E is a better candidate? Answer: nothing; let it happen because you can't stop it and because it will add the pleasure of involvement to the reader's experience with your work. Somewhere in every generation of readers, there are those who root for the eponymous protagonist of Ivanhoe to cast his romantic lot with Rebecca rather than the fair-haired Rowena. Similarly, readers will consider Anne Shirley of the Green Gables series a natural for Gilbert; other still will be rooting for her to pair up with the mischievous Royal.

However vexing it may be for the writer, readers will not only attempt to broker relationships the writer never intended, readers will also become involved with so-called Fan-Lit, in which they compose entire episodes of a work that the writer never intended, sharing these Fan-Lit tropes on blogs and in virtual editions. They are, it is to be emphasized, the product of respect, admiration and--matchmaking.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009


withhold--a narrative strategy for delaying the presentation of vital dramatic information; a dramatic device for creating tension if not outright suspense in a story by means of causing the reader to wonder about a detail, event, or meaning.

Readers are natural matchmakers; they will speculate on the potential embers of romantic attraction bursting into flames when characters exchange glances or respond edgily to one another, seeing sexual tension everywhere, whether intended by the writer or not. Readers will wonder and make outrageous assumptions. Let them. They will suspect the suspects in a mystery for reasons other than those intended by the writer. Let them.

Writers who read their work in classes or writers' groups will frequently be enjoined to bring the story to a screeching halt by injecting physical descriptions and details of attitudes and beliefs. This is done in the spirit of wanting to be helpful, in pointing out to the writer the need for details that humanize the characters. Trouble is, such details are irrelevant and actual albatrosses until the reader is made curious about them in the first place. The proof of the reading resides in the curiosity itching away at these literal minds who ask for details. Most habitual readers can and will continue reading a story without knowing what color a character's eyes are or what she is wearing. Particularly if the character is involved in some activity such as arguing or asserting her independence or difference of opinion.

Some accomplished writers never describe characters, wanting readers to supply their own vision; their use of description and/or explanation is limited, conveyed by indirection rather than description. Prolific writers often limit their descriptions of characters and of settings to elements that reveal qualities by implication. Denise Mina, for instance, is at greater pains to describe her protagonist Paddy Meehan's attempts at dietary precautions than she is to provide actual references to body configuration, and as a result, when Paddy overindulges, the reader feels a sympathy for her interior climate.

Nor are detailed reasons for a character's behavior likely to impart greater gravity or conviction to a that character's behavior. Often such descriptions are the first things that can be removed in the revision process.

Hint: Make them want it, which they will if it is not presented too soon.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

It's a Mystery to Me

mystery--an enigma to be solved in literary fiction; a puzzle to be coped with by a single character or team of characters in a genre novel; an attempt by a writer to solve a perplexing condition or circumstance.

Lima, Peru: Friday, June 12, in the year of our Lord 1714. A bridge across a gaping chasm, woven perhaps a hundred years earlier by heathen Incas, collapses, sending five individuals to their death. Brother Juniper, a Franciscan monk who was about to set foot on the bridge at the moment of its collapse, wonders why he was spared and why the five individuals who were on the bridge at the time of its collapse were allowed to proceed to their death. He is, in a sense, investigating what could be variously seen as God's purpose, the nature of God, the meaning of life, and mysteries of the universe. Thus The Bridge of San Luis Rey by the American novelist and dramatist Thornton Wilder. In an interview conducted some twenty years after the publication of the novel, Wilder was asked if he would have reached different conclusions or ended the novel differently at this later date, to which Wilder observed that he had moved beyond his personal state of curiosity about the elements of the story that had intrigued him earlier. In other words, he had moved beyond his need to write that novel, perhaps even having "discovered" the answers or answerability to his prompting questions.

Dashiell Hammett set forth another kind of existential mystery in his novel The Maltese Falcon, where the major issues were who killed Spade's partner, Miles Archer, where was the "real" Maltese falcon, and was there in reality such a prize as there had been in urban myth.

Antonia S.Byatt has set forth an academic mystery in her novel Possession. Did a noted Victorian poet enter an adulterous affair with another poet? Had there, in fact, been a child born of that relationship? In the present day, an obscure American scholar, eager to forge his own reputation, makes a discovery in the London Library that leads him to suspect the connection between the two Victorian-era poets. His discovery leads him into a meeting with and then a competition with an attractive and well-regarded scholar, a distant relative of one of the two Victorian poets. Among the mysteries unearthed, literally and figuratively, is the nuanced one imparted to the reader: will the modern scholars find a mutual romantic connection.

Mystery is an essential subtext or direct theme for all fiction, making the reading of at least one such work a necessity for every storyteller. The throughline of a mystery novel is its introduction of one or more murders, the discovery of clues, and the use of clues as an avenue to the solution, at which point the story is over, with scant room--perhaps a paragraph or two--for an epigram in which some ironic or instructive commentary is hinted.

Hint: Before undertaking the revision of a novel-length work, read at least one mystery from the time period between Wilkie Collins's The Moonstone and a Tony Hillerman Joe Leaphorn/Jim Chee mystery, and one mystery from the twenty-first century.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Will the Real Reality Please Stand Up?

reality--a place and condition writers attempt to replicate in their work; a representative fabric of plausible setting, physical, moral, and social conditions of a particular time in a circumstance intended to be conflated with the physical, moral, and social conditions of a specific place or in an imaginary place which is intended nevertheless to be taken by the reader as a plausible, real place.

Reality is a condition that surrounds events, living things, institutions, traditions, and conventions. The Salem Witch Trials of 1692 were surrounded by a reality that still affects individuals and institutions of the twenty-first century, the attitudes prevalent at that time have evolved just as some aspects of civilized society have evolved since then, but there still exists Taliban and other forms of evangelical extremism that inform our contemporary choices and have an impact on our ability to chose.

Reality effects characters in stories in direct proportion to the attitudes of writers writing at a given time about their own time or previous times and as well their individual projections of future realities. No matter where a story is set, it is in effect an alternate universe story because it is filtered through a specific writer's prism of reality, even that writer's vision of an imaginary reality. In some universes there are planets and physical conditions that do not obtain in stories set in this universe or on planet Earth.

It is the writer's job to visualize and then convey a plausible reality with conventions and physical properties most readers will accept as valid, perhaps even as rational. It is also the writer's job to present individual characters with individual attitudes toward the reality in which they live, all the better to convey these characters as being plausible individuals whose behavior is taken as a given, not as a philosophical tenet. Robert Heinlein is excellent at presenting such alternate realities and plausible characters within these realities (The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress, Have Space Suit--Will Travel, A Stranger in a Strange Land). So too is Theodore Sturgeon (See More Than Human) and Ray Bradbury (Fahrenheit 451, The Martian Chronicles). But so too was Anthony Trollope (The Way We Live Now) and so too is William Faulkner (As I Lay Dying and A Light in August.)

Story is vital, but it needs the steady plinth of reality on which to perch.

How to convey reality: Believe in the characters and their goals, believe in the effectiveness of the constraints placed upon these believable characters by their cultures, their families, and their own abilities. Believe in the notion of the need for a character to reach beyond the constraints of his or her reality, by which action he or she brings us into sympathy with the reality of the story.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Spare me the details

details--one or more portions of a larger vision of a character, a place, system, institution, or thing; a discreet, identifying trait; pieces of a defining trait; traces of emotional elements in a story.

In order to be effective as ingredients in a story, details must have embedded in them a feeling or the power to evoke a feeling. Details are the useful adjectives and adverbs, humming about a narrative like mosquitoes on a summer afternoon, looking for a landing site. Details may also contain facts but they are best presented as though they also bore emotions, which is to say that facts presented only as empirical sources will lead to boredom. Readers want accuracy in their details but when they turn to story, the facts they are after are insights and revelations about human and animal behavior.

There is a relationship between the degree of confidence a writer has and the control with which that writer deploys details, the more confident the less the need for details. The more comfortable with the reach of the story, the less likely the writer will feel the need to defend rather than merely tell the story.

Hint: Avoid laundry lists. Use only those details that relate to the narrative point of view (as opposed to the need for the author to intervene). Each character will have thresholds of awareness, sensitivity, tolerance. A character who is a painter or photographer will have an eye for nuances of light. A musician will be more likely to not details of a voice or sound. A chef might have a nose for the subtle smells and flavors of an atmosphere. A prepubescent child will experience details of time in a different manner than a septuagenarian. As the writer "becomes" and takes on the sensitivity of his own characters, the writer will experience a sense of the right impressions and details for each character. More than any use of physical details in her portrayal of her character Patricia "Paddy" Meehan, author Denise Mina focuses on Paddy's frustrating encounters with diet, the extreme measures she sometimes takes, how she falls off the dietary wagon, and how she dresses, hopeful of effecting a camouflage.

In his novel Brooklyn, Colm Toibin allows his Irish characters a differing set of awareness than his Italian characters, allowing readers of neither ethnicity a richer vision into their respective cultures. He is similarly apt in his depiction of sports fans, and the feel of commercial and domestic settings. In her novel The Shipping News, Annie Proulx uses detail to produce the sense of cold in the Newfoundland setting with stunning effect. More to the point, neither Toibin nor Proulx over detail; each uses excellent choice in the amount and the way the detail is brought into context.

At one time--the 1940s and 50's--writers of the so-called Naturalist inclination thought to define their characters through lists of products they used, types of clothing they wore, specific foods they enjoyed or detested. For all their sincerity and devotion to their approach, their characters stood out for readers in the details of their actions and attitudes.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

cutting remarks

cutting--an activity writers fear from literary agents and editors; a process in which writers are asked to pare words, sentences, even scenes from their mss; removal of detail that does not contribute directly to the overall effect of a story.

The writer begins work on a story in one of two ways, with a detailed outline or with a concept that has been stewing for some while to the point where the characters have names and vague shapes, agendas, and attitudes. In either approach, this is the fiction writer's equivalent of a nonfiction writer doing research. The first intent is to get everything down. What pleasure to writers of a particular age to see photographs of a first draft by such a gifted storyteller as Colm Toibin, done in ink in a bound composition book. What a sense of intimacy to see the spidery handwriting of Rachel Maddux for the spine of her magnum opus, The Green Kingdom. Nevertheless. What a pleasure to see the direct-to-computer-screen mss of Leonard Tourney's mysteries set in the times of Elizabeth I and, later, of James the VI of Scotland as he became James I of England. In some form or another, the writer must get the material down in some manageable format, then begin the process of revision (one result of which is that the work may not begin where the writer imagined nor end where the writer supposed it would).

Into this calculus comes variously the literary equivalent of moving furniture, expansion of some innocent aside remarks, combining of two characters into one, and reformatting exchanges of dialogue into narrative. Perhaps none of these is enough, singularly or in aggregate. Now comes surgery. Cutting. Removal of repetitions, of the obvious, of the overly descriptive.

It is the nature of some writers to resent any suggestions for cutting, even when these suggestions are made by the writer's literary agent, who sees the pared manuscript as a better candidate for publication, even when these suggestions are made by an editor who agrees to issue a contract if the suggested surgery is made.

Then there are writers such as Tobias Wolff who believe in removing from the early drafts of the manuscript any details that would prevent most enlightened readers from making decisions on their own, without authorial nudge.

When is enough? Better still, when is too much? It is no comfort to answer that both questions will obtain with each new work. There is no formula, no rule. Some literary flare-ups, as persistent as fires in Southern California, leave the public with implications that a particular writer might not have been published in the first place if a particular editor had not weilded the scalpel in the second place.

One reasonable approach to the matter of how much to cut from early drafts and where to do the cutting: Trust the characters. Do not describe what a key character already knows unless it is to show how he or she is presented with new information that warrants change now, in the immediate present.

Another reasonable approach: Don't tell the reader what the reader already knows, either from inference, direct experience, or information from other characters. Thus if Bill and Roger both report to Fred that Phil is not reliable in repaying his loans and yet Fred loans Phil money, readers are going to make a number of assumptions--whether the author gets in on the discussion or not.

MTIWTK--more than I wanted to know--is the reader's complaint. Readers who complain too often and too loudly about such matters might resort to putting the book down, then forgetting about it. Or, as Dorothy Parker once wrote in a book review, "This is not a book to be set aside lightly. It should be thrown across the room with great force."

Get it all down in early drafts, then begin to regard it as a child ready to go out into the world on its own, without thinking of it as a thesis to be argued and defended but rather on the merits of its characters, its revelations of the human condition, and the confrontations it must face.

Friday, May 8, 2009

Ambiguity: The definite maybe

ambiguity--a vagueness of meaning or outcome; uncertain attributions of meaning and/or quality; dramatic conditions in which the intent of characters and consequential resolutions are uncertain.

Ambiguity hovers over much twenty-first century short fiction and, to a slightly lesser extent, the novel in much the same way the June marine layer visits the California Coast of an evening. Everyone in the neighborhood is aware of a presence, often a thick, gloomy presence, other times merely dense enough to obfuscate immediate details. Truth is, things--details--can and do gt lost in there, leaving the reader to speculate. Thus one of the unspoken goals of modern fiction--keeping the reader closely enough involved to speculate on the ways things could turn out and, later, on the way things actually did turn out.

One recurrent theme in short and longform fiction is the possibility of mischief in the interpretation of one character of the intent or behavior of another. Another recurrent theme is the fact that long-term relationships are just as vulnerable to this mischief as the exchanges of information among recently introduced characters.

A significant existential question of the human condition has always been: "But what does it mean?" The modern writer asks that question with some frequency, invariably in italics to emphasize the implied intensity. This is not a carte blanche for the writer to steer away from definitions or from resolutions, but rather a nudge to remind the writer of the irony inherent in overemphasis; the more characters insist on openness and clarity, the more suspicious they become. A useful trope to help the twenty-first-century writer grasp the importance of ambiguity in a story is found in the character who asks, possibly of the Fates, possibly of him or herself, "But what do I mean?"

Some helpful guidelines may be found on a first-come--first-served basis in the stories of William Trevor, Alice Munro, Charles d'Ambrosio, Tobias Wolff, Francine Prose, Lorrie Moore. As much as it is possible for characters to know who they are and what they want, the characters of these writers have some answers. Not to forget that the reasons for liking characters have become increasingly more--well, ambiguous.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Kafka's Metamorphosis as Yiddish Theater

Kafkaesque--murky, conspiratorial circumstances or conditions applied to characters without any apparent reason or motive; an adjectival gloss on life coined from the name of the Czech writer Franz Kafka (1883--1924); intended to reflect mordant, irreconcilable life forces.

Kafka's own writings contain numerous events in which characters appear to be persecuted by unnamed social or political forces or in which characters feel isolated, even alienated. 

 The adjective derived from his name has become part of a greater language, describing existential events which are useful for actors and writers in their definitions of characters. To be Kafkaesque in the twenty-first century, a character may well be female, experiencing the cultural gravity of her chronological and social age. 

 A Kafkaesque character or circumstance has come to be for the reader an occasion to question the reliability and/or complicity in victimhood of the character or circumstance.

In his lifetime, Kafka was an ardent follower of the Yiddish theater, which had a strong satiric and irreverent bent, particularly in its hybrid gloss on conventional mores and conventional dramatic icons. 

 Many American writers and actors came from this tradition. Given some of Kafka's own penchant for the dead-pan or understated humor, it is wise to see such attributes of the Kafkaesque as conspiratorial, alienation, and convention determinism in the context of satire, subtext, and the painful revelations of humor.

Hint: Read of Gregor Samsa's plight in Metamorphosis for its more obvious payoff of discomfort and alienation, then reread it in the context of it being a burlesque or a more sophisticated satire on family life. 

 Read The Trial under the same circumstances. In both cases, note the potential for difference between the first impression, in which the author Kafka emerges as mordant, dour, and possibly paranoid. Then consider Kafkaesque as having the same enlightened cynicism of so many of the great ethnic senses of humor. Then consider the delicious irony of a contemporary writer/performer such as Stephen Colbert, being taken with dead seriousness by the very targets of his satire.

The dramatic link between Yiddish theater--which had to be performed outside the synagogue because of its potential for profanity and double entendre--and the theater of the absurd is as evident as contemporary stretches of Route 66. From this connection comes such credible off-ramps to Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Don DeLilo, and Joseph Heller.

The old advertising slogan once proclaimed, "You don't have to be Jewish to enjoy Levy's Rye Bread," nor do you have to be ethnic to be Kafkaesque. But a little understatement, a little dead-pan, it couldn't hurt.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

I need, you need, he, she, or it needs

needs--the personal, professional, intellectual, artistic, spiritual, and financial items a character requires or believes he requires; motivating forces that drive a character to attempt to acquire attitudes, information, relationships, goods, or a combination of these things; perceived powers, understanding, or techniques a character assesses as being necessary.

As a consequence of extraordinary needs, a character's ego and or conscience may be impacted. The simple, unalterable point is that a character without needs is not likely to produce viable story elements. Another unalterable point: a character enters any given scene with expectations, with intent, and with needs. Any time a particular character in a particular scene is not pulling his or her weight, the writer is well advised to examine the consequences of any or all these traits for vital clues leading to the discovery of what that character will do next, and to whom.

Even in plot-driven stories, this examination merits consideration because it helps provide plausible reasons for the character's behavior because the knowledgeable reader will have come to expect that the interaction of characters with intent and purpose is a better fuel for story than mere plot points.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

A Bubble or Two off Plumb

elliptical--an oval orbit rather than a circular one; a lengthening of or deviation from a conventional path taken by a formulaic novel or short story; behavior of one or more characters that is plausibly off orbit.

A character, scene, situation, or story may vary from the predictable. So far as endings are concerned, the adjective named after the renowned Russian short story writer and dramatist, Anton Chekhov, tells it all: Chekhov enjoyed and used elliptical endings in which the terms of the resolution were neither certain nor spelled out. It wasn't so much a matter of the good causes losing out to the bad ones as it was a blurring of the lines between good and bad, between happy and unhappy, fulfilled and unfulfilled.

In an elliptical story, a reader can come to the ending, there to experience feelings of dissatisfaction or frustration, but these feelings would be reflective of what the characters were feeling at the moment of conclusion. See the ending of James Joyce's short story, "Araby." See also "A Painful Case" and "A Little Cloud." None of the fifteen stories in the collection, Dubliners, is particularly circular in orbit nor, like many of the Chekhov stories, do they push a reader to a conclusion but rather let the events speak to the individual reader.

William Sidney Porter, writing as O. Henry, is one of the least elliptical of storytellers, relying on a formulaic ending framed on some reversal of logic or morality for its payoff. Such stories of his as "The Gift of the Magii," charming and warming in their intent, contain no hint of the ambiguity resident in the elliptical story or in the elliptical motive of a character such as, say, Bartleby in Herman Melville's "Bartleby the Scrivener."

A twenty-first century writer interested in a more uniform orbit and less ambiguity in his or her work would do well to compare stories of Joyce, and that other iconic Irish writer, William Trevor,with such commercially oriented short stories of F. Scott Fitzgerald as "Bernice Bobs Her Hair." Modern readers are less forgiving of being led by the author toward a conclusion than readers of genre magazines. Even then, modern readers expect an eliptical approach such as found in the works of Alice Munro, Margaret Atwood, and Raymond Carver.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Talking Heads

talking heads--two or more characters in a scene/setting, exchanging dialogue with only minimal accompanying gesture or inflection; characters seen by the reader as exchanging dramatic information which is little more than narrative encased in quotation marks; by implication, characters who fail to demonstrate significant dramatic force within a story.

Individuals converse in real life. Characters use dialogue and agenda as though each were a volleyball being batted back and forth over a net. "Characters" in an oratorio sit in some pew-like arrangement, singing while reading directly from a musical score. Characters in an opera exchange dialogue, sing, and move about on the stage, providing dramatic action while they sing.

Some writers use talking heads in the belief that they are showing rather than telling, indulging their characters in long exchanges of information framed by quotation marks, but giving no sense whatsoever of what the speaker is seeing, tasting, feeling, or any other drama-based activity. Such exchanges, because they are notably lacking in subtext, add a weight of consequence to the narrative that is often fatal, providing the reader with an excellent opportunity to set the book or story down without intention of return.

Get your characters into a reaction process with one or more of the other characters in a scene as quickly as possible. Avoid the temptation to have characters utter speeches or, for that matter, anything else. Dialogue is spoken, even shouted, perhaps sputtered. Imagine a cast of characters in a play or film, not using their body, certainly not their face or eyes--only their voice. But remember, even radio drama has sound effects, noises the characters would plausibly make in their time within a scene.

All right, you ask, how do I go about getting important information into the awareness of the reader? Have one or more characters interrupt or draw the wrong conclusions, or cause an immediate digression. The reader will become frustrated, which is considerably more positive than if the reader were to experience boredom.

Even when you are giving the impression of making things easy for the characters, your best approach is to make it as difficult as possible. In one of Graham Greene's undeservedly neglected thrillers, The Confidential Agent, the protagonist is sent to a foreign city where he is to meet a fellow spy, who is working as an instructor in a language school. They must observe the convention of speaking in an artificial language called Intrenaciono, a take-off on Esperanto. Thus the protagonist must wade through his instructions in this artificial language and not only make sense of it but translate his own reports. A great deal is at stake during the transaction, but if the two are to avoid detection, they must play by these artificial rules.

Talking heads represent missed opportunities at genuine story telling.

And now, it will not do you any good to complain about the laxity of enforcing such exchanges in already published work. They have all had the effect of causing literary agents and editors to be more determined than ever that you not be allowed to get away with having your characters emerge as talking heads.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Lit Fic and the Literary Nebula

lit fic--the nickname given to literary fiction; stories and novels with an emphasis on characters as they cope with moral questions rather than following plots dictated by genre fiction conventions.

The arena of literary fiction is a confusing but worthwhile one to enter, leaving the writer to make individual choices as the ideas arrive, or leaving the bookstore manager to decide where to shelve it and the writer to write it. Colm Toibin's 2009 novel Brooklyn could be classified as lit fic because of the respect with which he portrays a mother and her two daughters; it could also be classified as a bildungsroman because the youngest daughter, the protagonist, does "come of age" and in the process gets an aching sense of which life would be best for her, the small-town Irish town of her birth, or the Brooklyn her sister has arranged for her to move to.

Any number of literary writers have been attracted to genre fiction, adapting literary techniques to help them explore the potential of genre fiction. Joyce Carol Oates, for instance, has written romances and mysteries along with her literary work. John Banville has undertaken a mystery series after having finished a novel that won the Mann Booker Prize, and Denis Johnson, after having won the 2007 National Book Award, has published Nobody Move, a mischievous take on the noir, hardboiled crime novels of the 1940s and '50s. And remember Graham Greene, who called certain of his novels "thrillers," as though he were abdicating some literary kingship.

Add to the mixture the fact of the increased number of graduate-level writing programs, and the effects on readers, writers, and publishers of so-called YA or young adult fiction, factors that may seem unrelated but which contain similar degrees of investigation and honesty in their depictions of humanity at work.

Lit fic, accordingly, is the result of the writer carefully and deliberately choosing characters who best represent the issues the writer wishes to deal with, then peeling with care the onion of discovery.