Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Three Protagonists I Love and Worry About - The flaws will set you free

It is amazingly tough for writers to give heroes and heroines really big flaws because they love them and identify with them. (There are similar problems with creating real obstacles, genuine losses, and real pain.)

The argument that there is no big character arc if the protagonist only has peccadilloes and that villains can’t be as interesting unless the main character has a big sin to exploit is not heard by many writers I work with. In an earlier post, I recommended giving heroes and heroines a deadly sin, one of the classic ones (Greed, Wrath, Lust, Sloth, Envy, Gluttony, and Pride).

But with many writers, a trait like shyness becomes the “sin.” Usually, the response is usually along the lines of “my hero cares too much” or “my hero is too giving.” Fidelity, honor, respect, and so on are brought out as the major flaws. Hmm.

I hope this is clear:

Virtues are not vices, no matter how they get twisted.

They may need management and balance, but they are essentially good. With some exceptions (like revenge tales), few readers wants to see a hero or heroine jettison kindness or courage or loyalty or generosity or empathy or gentleness or self-sacrifice.

A good test is whether, in any context, the behavior caused by the flaw would be problematic. If not, maybe it’s not a useful flaw, storywise.

Let’s look at three flawed protagonists, beginning with the villains.

Singing’ in the Rain

Villain Lina Lamont wants Don Lockwood and to stay on top at the studio. Ultimately, by grabbing Kathy Seldon’s voice, she rescues her career and has a contract written so she can take the studio away if she’s crossed.

The hero, Don Lockwood, is prideful. He lies about his past. He holds onto the matinee image he hates because it is tied to success. He offers up Kathy’s voice as a way to save his career.
Until the end, he is willing to humiliate and sacrifice Kathy to spare himself failure.


Villain Jaws is a big shark, malevolent, eats people. The shark’s ally is the Mayor who keeps people in the water despite the dangers.

Hero Chief Brody faces problems like a terror of water and ignorance of the community and the environment, but — until the mother of a lost child slaps him in the face — he doesn’t own the responsibilities of his job. While the stink of cowardice about him is intense, I’d tag him as someone who is Slothful. (As I recall, in the book, he is a cuckold who just takes it.) He doesn’t see himself as someone who can take charge of dealing with the shark, either indirectly or directly. The Mayor seems to know this, and gives him “outs” to avoid taking charge and to back away from his decisions.

Working Girl

The villain, Katherine, has everything. Looks, education, and power. She wants to keep all of these, and is willing to connive and lie at the end.

Before she figures out what’s going on, this story's villains are people who are supposed to be the heroine's friends — Cyn and Mick. They know about all her bad choices (usually going along to get along) and use them to great effect to keep her in her place.

The main character, Tess, lies, steals (identity and possessions), and uses her sexuality to get ahead. Sloth (in the beginning, not standing up to others), Greed, and Dishonesty are essential parts of her behavior. The dishonesty is probably the worst of these, and that is what she gets entangled in at the end. Truth, truth, and more truth are what turns the ending for her.

I like all these protagonists, but they are all seriously flawed. I like them anyway. It is normal to like flawed protagonists. Heroes and heroines don’t need to be perfect.

More importantly, their flaws make me worry about them, and they give them plenty of room to grow and to sacrifice or act with courage in the end. I cheer when they finally find what they need to be all they can be by the end of the story. All of the stories above are big and memorable… and they all include serious growth for the main characters.

If you want to explore this further, analyze a favorite movie where you see a big character arc. Dare to name the flaws of your beloved protagonists. It will set you free to give the main characters of your own stories big flaws.

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Elevating the story experience - Creating moments that matter

We read stories for experiences. Some pieces of fiction deliver through an accumulation of images and dramatic action. But, occasionally, there are moments that connect with us. Hallmark used to do (and maybe still does) advertising that touched heartstrings by creating what seemed to be authentic moments in very brief commercials.

These could prompt genuine memories, similar experiences, and, when done most effectively, deep empathy for what we all, as humans, goes through. I actively work to achieve this in my writing – often in nonfiction as well as fiction. So, first let me define what I call a "moment." Then I'll discuss some ways such moments might be created. Finally, I'll talk about some things to consider when using moments in your work.

Moment — a brief, authentic, crystallized experience conveyed to others in a work of art.

A moment may occur in other than prose works. In fact, I was inspired to write this piece after having read a poem by a friend that brought back an experience I had in a museum. And I strongly suspect that the van Gogh featured was a moment captured and shared by the artist — one which touched both me and my poet friend. Music often conveys moments in its own way (and I think it can do so by prompting memories, even when the intention of the composer and the work's artistry is questionable). Photographs, scenes in movies, and an expressive sequence in dance — any of these can create moments for us.

By authentic, I don't mean factual. Art often tells the truth by re-composing, recontextualizing, adding to, or taking away from real experiences. Oh, and sometimes artists just make things up.

So, as a storyteller, how do you create moments?

Memories – There's a lot of power to drawing on your own experiences, the ones that really matter to you. The ones that provided insights and shaped you or that are connected to turning points, changing the direction of your life. These memories, I suspect, are just below the surface for much of our lives. One of the great things about being a writer is having a great reason to note them when they pop to the surface.

One caution about using memories is the challenge of taking a fresh experience and turning it into art. When the memories haven't had a chance to age, it's difficult to tell which elements matter and can be communicated to others.

Listening — As characters become more fully alive, they are more likely to transform scenes into moments. For me, this happens when I let the story deviate from the outline. When a character does something unexpected, it seems like it's often a challenge I don't want him or her to face (or that I don't want to face). I get pulled into the moment, but only if I allow that to happen. I have to cede some control, and I always have reasons not to.

Listening to characters comes up more easily and naturally for me during rewriting. This might be a jump away from the established plot, but it's more likely to be experiencing a deeper connection with a scene that is too sparse. When I come across a scene that is important and I don't feel fully immersed in it, that's an indicator. I need to slow down. I need to let the character live in that moment — which often creates a fiction moment that is organic and highly effective.

Art — Just as my friend created a poetic moment from van Gogh's painting, stories can be enhanced by referring to the works of others. This doesn't have to be so explicit it mentions the work you experienced. In fact, usually, capturing the response itself within a different context works best. Think of how sense memory works in acting. The point there is not to bring your memories to the audience, but to bring your authentic response to the experience of playwright's work evokes.

One way I actively work to improve scenes is to look for inspiration in the works of other writers. I have a catalog in my head of emotional moments in short stories and novels. When I want to create a similar moments in my stories, I read and analyze one of these reference scenes. I don't reproduce them directly. I worked to understand what the writer did. (Often, I'll look at three or four references when creating a moment that is important or difficult.) Once I see what the possibilities are, I can use my own approaches more effectively.

The main warning I have on creating moments is to make sure they serve the story. It's tempting to put in a moment that is powerful, but belongs in a different story. It's easy to give the character a moment that isn't right for him or for her. And there are moments that can disrupt the balance and the flow of the story. It's extremely difficult to cut a well realized moment, but if it doesn't fit, it needs to go.

Creating the right moments for your story may not be easy or feel natural. For me, it often requires a deliberate effort. And things don't always work out, even after I've invested time and imagination. Still, I resist the temptation to abandon my attempts to include moments in my stories. Why? Much of the delight I take from reading stories comes from the moments other writers have included. If they can take the trouble to do that, so can I.

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Set Your Stories Apart with Stark Differences - An argument for more positive moments

Contrast. It’s one of the great tools for writers and other artists. It’s one reason heroes have flaws and villains have virtues. It helps a monster stands out starkly in a placid suburban setting.

Following a long tradition of comedy teams, Sesame Street’s Bert and Ernie couldn’t be more different, which is why the are fascinating to watch. A generous act by a character who has been selfish can be poignant… or unsettling. A billionaire who hits the lottery isn’t much of a story. Make the winner a single mom who has trouble getting food on the table, and everything that follows is interesting.

Dystopias, horror stories, and disaster epics often lack contrast, and I think it weakens them. I am not a fan of Night of the Living Dead and its ilk. Not because they're gruesome (Tarantino outdoes Romero for blood), but because they are unrelenting.

This came home to me as I starting digging into contemporary horror. Though I have favorites like Alien, it’s not my genre to watch or to write. That’s why I’ve purposely been immersing myself in it, to get out of my comfort zone.

It is bleak. And, so often, there are few contrasts. This, to me, dulls even the sharpens images. Reading through script after script, it occurred to me that this lack goes beyond horror into other genres. It’s almost as if writers and directors are reluctant to include positive moments or characters who haven’t had the virtues drained out of them.

Going in the other direction is just as bad. Sappy, unrealistic stories that would gag anyone with two brain cells to rub together were in vogue when I was little, and I soon joined the revolt against these manipulative stories that left me unmoved.

Note: Frank Capra took the brunt of the rejection of happy stories, with his work referred to by critics and later generations as “Capracorn.” Pottersville in It’s a Wonderful Life is a nightmare. George Bailey is a flawed, reluctant hero who intends to commit suicide. For all its patriotism, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington ends well because a man blows his brains out. Sappy? Nope.

It’s Capra’s second-rate, would-be imitators that created the culture of happy stories of TV and movies made my teeth hurt. They were as unrelenting and lacking in contrast as many of today’s stories. The falseness of a greeting card world is not what I’ve advocating.

I do believe that it is both daring and powerful artistically to create contrasts by included basically good people in stories. Having successes for characters along the way. Including beauty. And, while I’m a sucker for dark humor, there is a place for heartfelt humor, too. And getting sentimental now and then? That’s okay, too.

Have the courage to bring the full palette of human situations to your work, and you can create more complexity and contrasts that will make your stories memorable.

Upcoming courses…

How To Write Fast  February 1 – February 28, 2018
Crank up the efficiency and get that novel, short story, article or script DONE. Through exercises, evaluations, tips and technologies, you can learn to write faster. Discover how to break through blocks, get ideas, develop plots, draft, and polish in less time without losing quality.

STORY BOOTCAMP  February 5 – March 2, 2018
Start fast! Keep it humming. End with authority. Polish, correct, and tighten the prose. Learn how to rewrite your story, whether fiction or nonfiction, so it entices, captivates, and delights readers. This course will explore the dimensions of your story and push them to the limits so you get the most from your premise and your readers get compelling experiences. No slackers! This is a highly interactive class that depends on commitment and participation.

Next week, I’ll send out issue four of my newsletter, Productive Writing. Want to subscribe? Just send a note to howtowritefast@gmail.com with Subscribe in the subject line.  I'll add you to the mailing list. And if you want any of the published issues, just let me know. I'm happy to send you copies.

Issue 4: Idea Discovery (Tasks 1)
Issue 3: Out of Your Comfort Zone
Issue 2: Speed Date Your Character
Issue 1: Plotting Help

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Writers, Try This at Home 15 – The power of selection

In my high school chemistry class, one of the first exercises was to write down our observations of a lit Bunsen burner. Most people's lists were small, as I recall. They concentrated on the colors in the flame and the shape of the flame itself. I filled more than a page with everything I took in — the smell, the sound, and even the distortion of visuals beyond the flame caused by what I came to know was the schlieren effect. All this was fine as far as being scientific, but the best literary descriptions are limited. By making the right choices, images can be conveyed that are vivid and convey emotion and mood without being exhaustive.

This is not to say that it's always important to be succinct. In moments of tension, stress, and high emotion, our real experiences tend to include more details. Time seems to slow down. And it's perfectly valid – indeed desirable – to emulate this in writing some of the more important and engrossing scenes in stories. Also, if you are writing something that is closer to poetry (Bradbury's Something Wicked This Way Comes is a great example), more complete descriptions can build and sustain experiences that are both more subtle and multidimensional.

In general, however, a writer who leans toward including everything will wear out his or her readers and drive them away. Not only does it lead to unbalanced storytelling, but it makes it more difficult for most readers to participate in creating fictional worlds. Usually, a better choice is to select a few evocative elements to include, possibly supplemented with an apt metaphor.

How do you make the selections? Primarily, you look toward who your audience is. You don't want to choose elements that are presented with words that force them to open up their dictionaries and care must be taken with going into territories that are unfamiliar.

By the way, it's fine to have descriptions that are good enough for you in early drafts. These can be setups for revisions, providing enough information to narrow the choices, establish the right mood, and fashion strong prose later on. (This deals with all descriptions – of locales, objects, characters, actions, and what goes on inside your characters' heads.)

So, when you are drafting your story don't feel compelled to make your selections immediately. Feel free to include as much as comes to mind without editing yourself. While your muse may help you to find elements that delight you and may end up in the final draft (and even presents you with good metaphors) don't expect it to. Just get the words down.

During revision, focus sharply on your audience and on the larger context for the description. This is particularly important if you are presenting material that must be remembered, such as clues.

Then, you might want to follow three principles:
  • Fix anything that doesn't feel fresh. One thing that usually happens during drafting is clich├ęs and "so what" elements come to mind quickly. Challenge these. Make the effort to think about other ways to convey what you want in your description so it can have the maximum impact.
  • Trust your gut. For those elements that matter most, your tastes and sense of what is most important is likely to provide the best guidance on what you should select.
  • Ruthlessly cut. Especially if you but down a lot of description, it may be tempting to keep it around. It's easy to get charmed by your own words. Keep the overall goal in mind, which is telling your story in a powerful way. My rule of thumb is to highlight three elements in a description and see if the rest can be cut. Often it can't, but striving for the minimum number of words will help you to add punch to your prose.
You might want to take a second look at your work to see if you have included all your descriptions for analysis and revision in this way. Many writers tend to have a limited view on what description is, focusing on describing locales or what strange (such as a monster or an unfamiliar device). But some of the most important descriptions are of what your characters are feeling or what they notice about another person or activities. So don't miss these.

What to try at home? I've included a photograph of Abraham Lincoln. As a first step, you might want to write as complete a description of the picture as you can. Include everything you notice. Feel free to add a metaphor or two.

Then step away from your description for a bit. When you come back, try to convey what you see in the image and what the image means to you in a few sentences. (You might try to describe Lincoln within the context of historical fiction from a specific point of view like a political rival. Or see what description would, if you wanted to presents your emotional response to the photograph. Or even consider how you would present Lincoln as the hero of a romance.)

When you've done this exercise, look to see what you left out and see if you can discover some of the reasons why you made your choices.

Even working with images, emotions, and activities in isolation can make your story stronger. But, if you find your way to consistency and description from scene to scene, making the best choices for your reader in terms of vocabulary, clarity, and emotional hooks, you can put your readers inside your stories in ways that make what you write more memorable.

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Writers, Try This at Home 14 - Anchoring your readers to your stories

I saw a short documentary about the creation of a music video. The special effects expert took a detour from all the celebrity gossip to talk about the key elements in drawing viewers in. He said reality was the biggest hook, which was why he had spent time creating just the right shadows for each segment so that the band – which had been reimagined as giants performing against different city backgrounds – would seem real.

This can be one of the great tricks for maintaining the suspension of disbelief for readers or viewers of any story. I think the best way to do this is to incorporate truth expressed in a novel way. When we recognize something the story as being authentic, and apt description as life as we know it, we tend to surrender to the dream being composed by the creator. Another approach, which works with mimetic fiction, is including details from real life. If, for instance, you can correctly describe a place where those in the audience have been, you can get them nodding their heads and looking for more.

What else can you do to stop your readers from escaping the artificial bounds of your story? It goes without saying that any errors – in language, and facts, or in internal consistencies – will pull them out the story. So avoiding mistakes is half the battle. A more subtle trick, which works especially well in the realms of fantasy (including science fiction and horror) is to use the credibility of a sympathetic character to make images and situations more credible.

Ultimately, I think the most powerful anchoring strategy is to choose a few details that connect with the reader through the point of view character. It isn't really necessary in most cases to provide a full description of a scene or a character the protagonist meets or a process – such as a sword fight. Selecting those things that matter to the viewpoint character, especially those that evoke emotion, is one of the most powerful ways to keep readers immersed in the scene you've created.

This is actually so powerful it can overwhelm problems and story logic and distortions in perceptions. Over and over again, I've noticed that readers will completely buy into the perspectives of unreliable narrators – which is a powerful proof of how identifying with a character creates its own reality. (This tends not to pay off for most readers. I found that the most difficult stories to sell are those with unreliable narrators — perhaps because it violates, or at least bends, the contract of trust between writer and reader. But it's not a bad thing to keep in mind when you need to finesse something your story to keep the plot moving forward.)

So what should you try at home this time? Here are three suggestions:
  • Find is scene you really love and a story and determine how the writer established credibility.
  • Take a scene you've written and see if an apt description will make it more credible. (Try this even if you believe the reality is already well-established. You might discover something useful.)
  • Consider one of your key scenes from the point of view of a different character. This is an exercise, so it doesn't have to be the best choice in terms of the full story. Rewrite the scene so that the details and factual elements would be true and compelling for a reader identifying with this alternative perspective.
There are other things worth exploring in terms of anchoring readers and the reality of your story. One powerful technique to look at is anything involving action, movement, or change. Just as it's easier to remember what a person looks like if you think about them doing something, it is more likely that a reader will put him or herself into a story if you can activate the mirror neurons that cause them to experience engaging in that activity.

Ultimately, the goal is to not just get your readers to lose themselves in the story, but to keep them as completely within the story world is as possible. It is this sort of attention to living within your narrative that makes readers want to go back to Middle Earth or Hammett's San Francisco or Scarlett O'Hara's Tara.

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Writers, Try This at Home 13 - Titles for your stories

Public Radio International recently ran a story about a literary hoax — Naked Came the Stranger. The broadcast related how about two dozen Newsday writers came together to create a sexy bestseller. It was interesting, in many ways, but a remark on how the title came to be — taking two words, "stranger" and "naked," from other bestseller titles — got me thinking.

What does make a good title? Certainly, grabbing words from works that are popular in your genre is a pretty good strategy from a sales point of view. It's great to play off of positive associations, as long as you don't disappoint your public... If there are cannibals in your title, there better be cannibals in your story. Unless the title is being used ironically (which is a risky practice).

The safest bet is to come up with something that tells people what the story is about. With Star Wars, you knew going in that you'd be watching a science fiction movie and that it would include battles in space. The original audience might not have known that Night of the Living Dead was about zombies, but only the clueless would have expected anything other than a horror movie. Speaking of Clueless, it had to be a comedy, right?
Some titles just sound wonderful. I don't think it's a coincidence that To Kill a Mockingbird, The Lord of the Rings, Pride and Prejudice, Huckleberry Finn, and A Tale of Two Cities are among my favorite works, ones that I've read and reread over the years. A title that sounds good and is immediately appealing promises, at the very least, above-average prose. In many cases, it seems to indicate that the author and I will be simpatico.

Just  to get past knowing too much about the story, I looked at the list of the New York Times Notable Books for 2015. Here are some wonderful titles that would tempt me to check out the books:

City on Fire

Dragon Fish

The First Bad Man

Preparation for the Next Life

The Sellout

Thirteen Ways of Looking

The Visiting Privilege

These are two or three key words each, and many of them raise questions. Just like my favorite works. (There can be longer titles that are effective. Harlan Ellison's "I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream" and "Repent, Harlequin, Said the Ticktock Man" are marvelous. Harlan is poetic and a risk taker. Among his works is the ironically titled "A Boy and His Dog." He also has the marvelously titled "Pretty Maggie Moneyeyes," which is two words and raises questions.

One of my practices of the years has been to collect titles. I love it when words seem to belong together. I love it when they can be taken another way or raise questions. I love words that evoke feelings and images. In many cases, I've carried around a title for years before I understood what the story had to be.

One benefit of a great title is it will capture attention. A handful of powerful words can act like the images advertisers have always looked for, those which would cause you to stop and take a second look.

But for me, as an author, titles do more. They help to provide a focus for the work, if I get them right. In fact, a good test that I don't really grasp what my story is about is when I can't come up with the title that sticks in my mind and feels right.

The worst sin of titling is not paying it off. Wrong title for the genre? You failed. Points to a trivial aspect of the work? No good. Never gets explained or isn't explained satisfactorily? Sorry. You lose.

Never disappoint. Of course, a lot of fulfilling expectations is dependent on the audience for the work. The meaning of To Kill a Mockingbird, which is such an evocative title, is explained within the work and deepens your understanding of the story. However, there is a great meme where a cat is frustrated because he's read the whole book and never gotten clear instructions on how to kill a mockingbird.


Try this at home. Collect a set of titles. (You may want to start with “The Greatest List of 100 Completely Random Movie Titles Ever Compiled in the History of Mankind.”  Creating your own list of twenty titles is a good start. Sort them from best to worst, and see if you can determine why the top ones work well. Then consider the bottom five. Try to create new titles for these. Make these titles consist of three important words each. Make them appropriate for the genre in which you write. (Do any of your retitles grab you? Consider writing the stories they deserve.)

Once you've done this, you might want to flex your muscles by looking at some of your work and see if you can give those stories with weak titles better titles.

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

Writers, Try This at Home 12 -- In-person research

So much is available online. Just google and you get all the answers, right? And it is amazing how much is available in terms of databases with primary documents, experts at hand to answer questions, and videos of places you never been.

It's all great, and I would say invaluable in terms of planning your investigations and digging into otherwise inaccessible realms (such as the past). However, too much dependence on the Web can rob your work of zest and immediacy. Obviously, the Internet does not serve all of your senses. If you want to describe the smell of incense at Midnight Mass, a Wikipedia entry won't do. The best virtual reality available won't give you the experience of shaking someone's hand and looking them in the eye. And while you might not seek out the feelings you get from riding a subway at two in the morning, doing so will make your skin crawl in ways that a video on YouTube never could.

Since you may be out of practice dealing with the real world, try to do one of these each week, even if you can't use them in your current work:
  •  If you find yourself waiting somewhere, pull out a pad to record your environment. Write in full sentences. Include all the senses. And pay attention to the people. See if a few can be captured in 50 words or less. If you can recreate the mood of the locale, that will pay dividends as you compose your fiction. By the way, you don't have to just record locations you end up in randomly, you can choose to go to a museum or a park or even a subway.
  • Interview an expert. I'll make this easy on you: Come up with a topic that intrigues you and create a series of questions that dig into the subject, and then talk to a librarian. (I haven't met a librarian yet who doesn't love this sort of thing, though you might want to make an appointment.) Or you can be more daring and arrange to interview someone who is directly related to your area of interest -- a doctor, scientist, politician, prison guard. It's likely you have a neighbor with an interesting job, so consider that option as well.
  • Do something that could be used in a story. I like things related to work. A ride-along with the local police, a tour of a brewery, or attending a band rehearsal might be good. Think crafts. Think courses that are hands-on. Or volunteer to do something useful in the community like cleaning up a park.
Get out there. Learn to record experiences. Then, when you have become proficient, make in-person research part of you writing process.

As for the practice above? Save your results. Though you may not have a use for this information now, you could in the future. One of my exercises aimed at writing anywhere was the first. Now I have a collection of notes to draw upon whenever I find myself in a locale that is relevant to a story.
I just sent out issue three of my newsletter, Productive Writing. Want to subscribe? Just send a note to howtowritefast@gmail.com with Subscribe in the subject line.  I'll add you to the mailing list. And if you want any of the published issues, just let me know. I'm happy to send you copies.

Issue 3: Out of Your Comfort Zone
Issue 2: Speed Date Your Character
Issue 1: Plotting Help