This article may be aimed primarily at screenwriters, but it’s great advice for fiction writers as well. “As human beings we are created with unique and differentiating perspectives; characters should be created with that same concept in mind.” Etc. (NB for the copyeditors among you: If you’re anything like me, you’ll wish you got your hands on this before it was posted, but read it anyway. Please.)
I’m forever saying, chanting, and otherwise reminding myself that “the way out is through.” This is true, but often it’s distilled down to “Just do it!,” which can be useful but sometimes isn’t.
Sometimes the way through is circuitous. Sometimes it’s so circuitous that it looks like procrastination, like when you give up in frustration, go for a walk, and come back with an insight that eluded you while you were staring at the screen, or when you take an entire week’s break from the work in progress to do something else, maybe writing-related or maybe not.
So one of my characters — Felicia, the mother of one of my viewpoint characters, Glory — just made a momentous and unexpected discovery. With each draft, Felicia is becoming more crucial to the plot, but she started off as a bit player and I still didn’t know her very well. My hunch was that she’d call Shannon, the other viewpoint character, but I didn’t know what she’d say. So I left a note to myself at that point in the file and went on.
Plenty of writers do this regularly: When a scene isn’t jelling or they need to do more research, they skip over that part and come back to it later. This is far better than getting stalled at the troublesome spot, but I’m not all that good at it. When I leave gaps behind, I feel like I’m balancing on a rickety ladder. Nevertheless, I kept climbing, looking uneasily down at the ground from time to time.
A little while later Shannon was about to fill her friend Jay in on a totally different story and what came out of her mouth was a sketch of a post-midnight call from Felicia. It turns out Felicia was furious, she and Shannon reached a détente, but at the end of the conversation her trust in Shannon was still shaken.
The actual phone conversation remains to be written, but now I know Felicia better than I did before. One reason that the first two drafts of this novel didn’t reach a climax is that much depends on what Felicia does when a major secret is revealed and I didn’t know Felicia well enough to hazard a guess. But now that I know what went on in that phone conversation, the end is getting closer.
Sometimes you can move characters around like pieces on a chessboard. Other times they want a say in the matter. In those cases the way through may be to let them have it, even if you have to wait a bit before you hear what they’re saying.
Mired in the thickets of writing and editing, we sometimes lose sight of why we do what we do. We’re creating stuff — fiction and nonfiction, stories, poems, essays, and whole books — that will get people to read. Here’s a reminder. Thanks to Charles French for his blog post calling this to my attention.
There is no doubt in my mind that modern society traps its subjects in an unhealthy and unsuitable environment. That stark realization motivates many of my stories (see here and here, for example). The most disturbing symptom of how toxic our culture has become is the increasingly acerbic mutual distrust evident in current politics. Little wonder so many feel depressed, powerless, and alienated.
Rather than utilizing technology to better our lives, we let it rule us. Distracted by smart phones, buffeted by inescapable sensory overload, and hobbling our discourse in 140-character outbursts at each other, we’re incapable of understanding our own inner selves, much less that of others.
Fortunately, the tonic for the condition we find ourselves in is close at hand — if only we would use it, as this eye-opening piece in big think proclaims:
Research shows that reading not only helps with fluid intelligence, but with…
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“You’d think that basing a novel on real-life people and real-life events would be easier than making it all up from scratch — but it isn’t. Strange but true, the fact that you knew at least some of these people makes it harder, not easier. You’ve got to bring them to life for the reader. To do this you might have to rearrange, fudge, or add details. You might have to make up some new characters. And that’s OK: this is fiction, after all. If you want to turn it into a novel, you’ve got to make effective use of the novelist’s tools: plot, characterization, point of view, narrative, dialogue, and all the rest of it.”
This past summer a client asked me to critique the current draft of his novel in progress. It was based on the life of a lifelong friend who died some time ago. The first-person narrator was clearly based on the author himself.
I opened my critique with the paragraph above. “But that’s how it happened!” is a common cry among novice writers. It’s not a bad place to start, but it’s never enough.
An early clue that this manuscript hadn’t jelled yet was the dialogue. It sprawled. My first question for dialogue, my own or any other writer’s, is “Would you sit still for this if it were played out onstage or onscreen?” Most of this dialogue would have had audience members nodding off or walking out. How long will you watch minor characters chat on and on about their daily routines without ever making an observation that’s important to the story?
Sometimes, however, these endless conversations yielded valuable nuggets, an insight into character or a memory of a past event. You know the writer’s mantra “Show, don’t tell”? Some telling is fine and necessary in any work of fiction or nonfiction, but some of what these characters were telling could be more effectively shown in a scene.
This is what early drafts do: give you clues about what needs to be developed further in the next draft. I do a lot of freewriting in early drafts, often letting characters talk on and on or ponder what they’re going to do next. Often it takes a while to get to the revelation or epiphany that reveals character and/or moves the plot. It’s your job as the writer to wait for it, recognize it, then prune all the verbiage away from it so your readers will see it too.
When characters don’t drive a story’s plot, the writer has to do it, often by conjuring a new character or an unexpected event out of the blue. New characters show up, of course, and unexpected events happen, but in this case the story was completely dependent on them: unbelievable successes, terrible accidents, a treacherous colleague, and a series of women too good to be true. Quite possibly all these things happened and all these people existed in real life, but unless they’re integrated into the story they come across as plot devices introduced to make up for the lack of momentum in the story.
Sitting in the center of this particular story is the main character’s mother. She’s horrible. We see her being horrible, everyone agrees she’s horrible; she’s so horrible that I couldn’t stop wondering how she got to be so horrible. We see her being cruel to her son, but we rarely see him or his best friend trying to come to terms with her cruelty. The horrible mother’s husband is suspiciously saintly, and so is her older sister . . .
Then, near the end of the ms., one character drops the bombshell that saintly husband and saintly older sister were having a long-term affair while the boys were growing up. Whoa! Saintly husband, it seems, had wanted to marry saintly older sister in the first place, but for implausible reasons had married the horrible mother instead. Now there’s a development that could help sustain a plot and deepen our understanding of all the main characters.
And here is the big challenge for writers who want to turn events they participated in or witnessed and people they knew into convincing fiction or memoir: You’ve got to achieve enough distance from the characters to see things from their various perspectives. That goes double for the character with your own name or the fictionalized version of you. This can be scary: What if heroes aren’t as heroic and the villains not as villainous as they seemed when you were living the story the first time round?
If you’re driven to put all that work into writing draft after draft of a story, it may be because the story just won’t let you rest till you come to the heart of it. Writing the story will change you. You’ll probably see things and consider possibilities that you didn’t before. We write to understand the story, and ourselves, better. “But that’s how it happened” is just the beginning.