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.
“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.
Jonathon Owen’s Arrant Pedantry blog is always great reading for writers, editors, and other word people, but this one might be especially interesting to writers of dialogue. It discusses the difference between direct speech, when you come right out and say something (“What time is it?”), and indirect speech, when you do it indirectly (“Do you know what time it is?”). The expected answer to “Do you know what time it is?” is not “Yes” or “No” — though you can be sure that one of your wiseass friends will occasionally respond with one or the other!
Indirect speech acts are often used to be polite or to save face. In the case of asking a child or subordinate to do something when they really don’t have a choice, it’s a way of downplaying the power imbalance in the relationship. By pretending to give someone a choice, we acknowledge that we’re imposing our will on them, which can make them feel better about having to do it. So while it’s easy to get annoyed at someone for implying that you have a choice when you really don’t, this reaction deliberately misses the point of indirectness, which is to lubricate social interaction.
How one character phrases something is often as important as what he or she is saying. How other characters hear and respond to it can show a lot about those characters.
Source: “Politeness and Pragmatics,” illocution | Arrant Pedantry
Every work, long or short, fiction or nonfiction, has to start somewhere, but lead paragraphs are a major cause of writerly angst and even writer’s block. No surprise there: every how-to-get-published book out there is telling you that if your lead paragraph doesn’t hook the agent or publisher of your dreams, your manuscript will wind up in the slush pile.
Perfectionista — the inner editor who insists that only perfection is good enough — thrives on situations like this: Your entire future is riding on your lead paragraph and you can’t even get the first sentence right.
Take a deep breath and keep going. It’s often not till you’re well into a second or third draft that you know where the story starts and what that lead paragraph has to do. Perfectionista isn’t doing you any favors by insisting you get the first paragraph right before you go on to the second.
Sooner or later you’ll have a lead paragraph that does want you want it to do: lead the reader into the story. That’s the time to refine it and then run it by your writers’ group, writer/reader friends, or other guinea pigs.
This is where Arvilla of the Alphabet Story blog is with her novel in progress. “Below is the first paragraph of my WIP,” she writes. “While I know not to start with the weather, it sets up the scene in which she has problems driving, including a stalled car. She does get rescued.”
The heaviest rainfall ever recorded for April almost prevented Maggie from attending Bertie’s book and supper club. What a night, forced to drive her dad’s car. His cherished Nash, temperamental even in good weather, gave her problems. Taught to drive behind its steering wheel, she knew its intricacies. Her dad had patiently explained the techniques of driving and went on to teach how to change a tire and replace spark plugs. Bought used in 1944, it was still running after ten years, because of her dad’s constant tinkering. That it had complications did not lessen its value in his eyes. As much as he loved the car, she disliked it, though she had to admit a bit of admiration for the way her dad handled the Nash.
A lead paragraph’s #1 job is to whet the reader’s appetite for more, and this one whetted mine. I’ve just met Maggie, but already she’s got an immediate goal — getting to Bertie’s book and supper club on time — and two adversaries blocking her way: the weather and a cranky car. I’ve got a strong hunch that Maggie’s ambivalent relationship with the old Nash mirrors her relationship with her dad, and that this will be an important theme in the novel.
This lead also fixes the story in time: 1944 + 10 years = 1954. This sets me to speculating: Maggie’s dad taught his daughter basic car maintenance, but she didn’t inherit his passion for tinkering. Does she live alone? Who’s Bertie, and what role does the book and supper club play in Maggie’s life?
And yes, conventional wisdom warns against leading with descriptions of weather, or landscape for that matter, but when weather or landscape is an active participant in the scene, I say “Go for it!” I would suggest tweaking the lead sentence, however:
The heaviest rainfall ever recorded for April almost prevented Maggie from attending Bertie’s book and supper club that night.
It’s not April’s total accumulated rainfall that’s blocking Maggie’s way: it’s the weather that particular evening. Show it to me, what it looks like, how it sounds, then keep it front and center as the scene unfolds. How would she get to Bertie’s if it weren’t raining? How far does she have to go? Give me some hints about the location.
Try distilling the rest of the paragraph to its essence. What does the reader need to know right now? That the old Nash is cranky, that Maggie’s father was devoted to it, and that Maggie, though competent behind the wheel, drives it only when she has to. I’d like to see her in the car and turning the key by end of the paragraph, maybe watching rain pour down the windows and windshield. Work the rest in once she’s en route.
Here’s a suggestion:
The heaviest rainfall ever recorded for April almost prevented Maggie from attending Bertie’s book and supper club that night.
What a night, forced to drive Her dad’s car. His cherished old Nash was temperamental even in good weather. , gave her problems. Taught She had learned to drive in it, even behind its steering wheel, she knew its intricacies. Her dad had patiently explained the techniques of driving and went on to teach how to changed its a tires and replaced its spark plugs the way her dad had taught her, but she had never learned to love it the way he did. He’d bought it used in 1944, and it was still running after ten years, because of her dad’s his constant tinkering had kept it going for ten years. [MENTION HOW LONG IT’S BEEN SINCE DAD DIED OR STOPPED TINKERING.] But on a night like this, walking to Bertie’s was out of the question. It was either drive or miss it altogether. [WHY IS THIS UNTHINKABLE?] That it had complications did not lessen its value in his eyes. As much as he loved the car, she disliked it, though she had to admit a bit of admiration for the way her dad handled the Nash.
With the mess cleaned up, it looks like this:
The heaviest rainfall ever recorded for April almost prevented Maggie from attending Bertie’s book and supper club that night. Her dad’s cherished old Nash was temperamental even in good weather. She had learned to drive in it, even changed its tires and replaced its spark plugs the way her dad had taught her, but she had never learned to love it the way he did. He’d bought it used in 1944, and his constant tinkering had kept it going for ten years. [MENTION HOW LONG IT’S BEEN SINCE DAD DIED OR STOPPED TINKERING.] But on a night like this, walking to Bertie’s was out of the question. It was either drive or miss it altogether. [WHY IS THIS UNTHINKABLE?]
Now you can have at it — tinker away! Often a reader’s suggestions will shake something loose and you’ll come up with a better alternative. Thanks so much for sharing your lead paragraph. Good luck with the novel. 🙂
Dear Write Through It readers: Do you have a question, a comment, a sentence that needs unsnarling? Send it along and we’ll see what we can come up with.
Opportunity soon came knocking. Wolfie, the novel in progress, needed a brand-new scene. When I add a scene in a later draft — the current draft is 3, or maybe 3 1/2, because after I take a scene from draft 3 to my writers’ group, I usually end up at least tweaking it and maybe revising more heavily — I have a pretty strong idea of what it needs to accomplish.
In this case Perfectionista and my internal editor teamed up and swore I’d never be able to pull it off. Since I was busy with the A–Z Challenge, several editing jobs, and revising earlier scenes in the novel, I managed to not-hear their ragging for several weeks.
Finally I was staring down the empty place where the missing scene had to go. I knew where it took place, I knew who was involved, and I had a pretty good idea of what had to happen.
What I didn’t know was whose point of view I wanted. Wolfie has two point-of-view characters: Glory, a sixth-grader, whose sections are all in third-person present; and Shannon, her fifty-something mentor from up the road, whose sections are all in third-person past. Perfectionista was full of advice about why neither one would work. The result was that I couldn’t get started.
If you can’t get started, your writing can’t teach you what you need to know. Haven’t we been here before? Yes, we have.
The way out of these jams is usually through writing in longhand, which is how I do virtually all my first-drafting. It takes the pressure off. Aha, thought I. An opportunity to play around with second-person POV!
The pressure was off: since this wasn’t “for real,” I could write the scene from both Glory’s POV and Shannon’s. I picked up my green-ink pen — green is Shannon’s color; plum is Glory’s. What flowed out of it was Shannon’s second-person POV in the present tense:
You’re apprehensive about this visit without knowing why. Foresight is notoriously unreliable — hindsight is always 20/20. What you’re seeing isn’t a red light, however. There’s no dread in the pit of your stomach warning that this is a really bad idea.
Glory has been looking forward to this all week. She’s got her portfolio tucked under her arm — she’s apprehensive too. “Do you think he’ll like them?” she asked in the car. “He’s a famous artist and I’m just a kid.”
It felt right. My hand kept moving across the page, and the next page, and the next — seven pages’ worth. When I got to the end, I had a scene that did all I wanted it to do, and more. It’s the “more” that tells me I was tapping into the heart of the story, reasonably free of my authorial expectations and inhibitions.
Why did it work? As Shannon says, “Foresight is notoriously unreliable. Hindsight is always 20/20.” Once I had my scene, I could see why Shannon’s was the right POV because the key interaction takes place between the other two characters, Glory, her young protegée; and Giles, her artist friend, whose studio they’re visiting.
And I could see why present was the right tense, even though all of Shannon’s sections are in past: In present tense Shannon watches the scene unfold and doesn’t interrupt, doesn’t try to steer Glory and Giles’s conversation away from possibly portentous revelations. In past tense, her penchant for mulling things over sometimes gets in the way. In present tense, it didn’t.
Where was I in all this? Right behind Shannon’s eyes. It was as if she were a camcorder and I were — not the operator, but the viewfinder. In third person I’m an invisible part of the scene. This was different.
I’ll almost certainly translate this scene into past tense for the actual manuscript. A sudden shift into second-person present for a character who’s otherwise in third-person past would be too jarring, too gimmicky. But the shift into second-person present made the scene happen. I’m not going to forget that lesson anytime soon.
Here’s what page 1 of the experiment looks like. Good luck if you can read it. 🙂
When you’re blogging A to Z about writing and editing, P, like C, offers a dizzying array of options: place, placement, paragraph, period, periodical, prose, poetry, parallelism, proofreading, page, point of view, parenthesis, person, persona, present tense, past tense, prize, production, project, projection, picture, photograph, pronoun, pseudonym . . .
I settled on point of view (POV) because it’s playing a significant role in Wolfie, my novel in progress. Wolfie has two POV characters: Shannon, an artist and graphic designer in her 50s; and Glory, an artistically gifted sixth-grader who loves dogs. I’m writing both in what’s called a limited or close third-person POV, meaning that each character’s scenes are shown through her eyes and first-person pronouns appear only in dialogue.
In omniscient third-person the usually disembodied narrator knows everything, including what’s going on in people’s heads. A couple of times while in Shannon’s head I’ve caught myself writing something that boils down to “Little did she know . . .” This suggests either some form of omniscience or that Shannon is looking back at these particular events from some point in the future.
In a previous draft I started to write Shannon’s first chapter as if she already knew what was going to happen, or at least most of it, but this didn’t ring true to me so I jettisoned this approach. In the novel, Shannon and eventually other characters are feeling their way toward a piece of knowledge — a secret or a mystery, if you will — and because of the nature of that knowledge they can’t afford to be wrong.
“Hindsight is always 20-20,” so the saying goes, and for Shannon to know too much too soon would undercut the uncertainty that is driving the story. The other thing is that I still don’t know how the story ends. If Shannon knows and is holding back on me, I’m going to be pissed.
Only one person knows the secret and he’s not speaking to me, Shannon, or Glory. What Glory knows is buried deep in her subconscious; she has no words for it. Shannon is growing uneasy, but in the absence of clear evidence she fears she is projecting from her own childhood experience and her work as an adult sheltering and advocating for abused women. So without words or clear evidence how do I figure it out and convey it all to my readers?
As it turns out, my two limited-POV characters were giving me clues before I caught on to what they were doing. In giving Glory an aptitude for drawing and an interest in web design, I was cleverer than I knew. Clues appear indirectly in the actions and occasionally words of the characters, but the most direct clues come in the form of images, some created by the characters and some drawn from the story. (For more about where images come from, see my 2014 blog post “Grow Your Images.”)
In writing it so often happens that limitations foster ingenuity. A length limit can impose focus on prose that wants to sprawl. The discipline of rhyme and meter forces the poet to pay attention to the sound and placement of each word, to make each word count. (Prose writers can learn a lot from writing and reading poetry.) And in Wolfie the limitations imposed by the incomplete knowledge of my two POV characters are stretching me as a writer and helping me find new ways to tell a story.
“Your writing will teach you what you need to know” is one of my mantras. (My other biggie is “The way out is through.”)
It will, too. It does. Sometimes, however, I’m a little slow on the uptake.
In my journey through draft #3 of novel #2 I’d reached what I thought of as the novel’s set-piece. Most of Wolfie takes place either outdoors or in the various characters’ kitchens, living rooms, and studios (two of them are artists). Most scenes involve only two or three characters. This set-piece happens in a public place, a restaurant, with a dance band playing and a cast of — well, not thousands, but definitely dozens. A couple hundred maybe.
Approaching this scene, I had some apprehensions. The scene was contrived — by me, truth to tell, but still contrived. Somehow my villain had to see that his two nemeses knew each other. One of them strongly suspects his villainy; the other is becoming suspicious.
My mind contrived A Scene: a retirement party for a woman who’s the mentor of one nemesis and a respected former colleague of the other. The connection I needed happened. The story moved on.
But I couldn’t get the honoree out of my mind. I’d invented her for the occasion. She wasn’t real. But then this:
Now Lorna [the honoree] leaned in close enough for Shannon [POV character] to smell her perfume and notice the tiny beads of sweat on her forehead: Lorna had been getting down with the youngsters. “The real wonder,” she said, “is that I’ve survived this long. Promise you’ll call on me one of these days?”
Finally I got it. Lorna’s got a piece of the puzzle, a role to play. I’m gonna call, Lorna. I promise.
Writing does take courage.
It takes courage to sit down (or stand up, if you use one of those newfangled standing desks) expecting words to appear on the screen or sheet of paper in front of you, hoping that those words will be worth keeping or will lead to something that is.
It takes courage to set out on a journey not knowing whether it’s worth making (probably yes, though maybe not in the ways you expect) and whether you’re equal to the task (probably not, but if you keep going you will very likely become so).
Revision is a key to this process, especially for those of us who don’t plan everything out in advance, and for those of us who do but are willing to go along when the material has other ideas. (More about planners, seat-of-the-pantsers, and improvisation in “Whatever Works,” “Notes and More Notes,” and “Backstory Happens.”)
With nonfiction, I usually know where I’m going at the start but often I don’t end up in quite that place. With fiction, my usual is to put a few actors onstage, give them a task, and see what they do with it. I write it all down and sometimes give direction, which sometimes the actors ignore.
In “When Chitchat Takes the Wheel” I blogged about critiques I did recently of two first-novel manuscripts. Both were full of promise — vivid settings, interesting characters — but both bogged down in dialogue that went on forever and didn’t develop the characters or move the plot forward.
In one case, several characters held differing views about issues crucial to them and to the plot, but they never discussed them with each other. You and I both know how that works, right? When you strenuously disagree with someone you want to get along with, you skirt the contested territory and talk about other things. This makes for amiable relations but it does not make for interesting fiction. Be brave, I told the writer. Let them go at it and see what happens.
In the other case, the endless chitchat had a different cause: the protagonist had no memories from before her mid-teens, but her traumatic early years were key to the plot. Survivors of traumatic events do repress their memories, but giving this character complete amnesia about her upbringing did not serve the novel well. Other people remembered what she did not, so (1) she was a sitting duck for the villain, and (2) she didn’t know enough to go in search of her own past. Be brave, I told this writer too. Let your protagonist have some of her life back.
I just finished reading a novel with a promising premise: a family’s determination to avoid dealing with a tragic event leads to problems down the road. This premise is common for good reason: it often happens in real life, and there’s so much a writer can do with it. But this writer made choice after choice that kept the tragic event at arm’s length, both for the characters and for the reader. For instance —
- Everyone affected by the event is warned not to talk about it, ostensibly to protect the one who is supposedly too fragile to handle it.
- They actually obey the warning.
- The novel’s sole point-of-view (POV) character is fearful and not given to thinking too hard about the past or anything else.
- The characters rarely interact on any but the most superficial level.
As a result, the characters don’t develop and neither does the plot. Each character has a shtick, and the dialogue is often clever, but the novel came across more as sitcom than as family drama. Not surprisingly, the writer had to resort to melodrama and last-minute surprises to tie everything together. The result is less than satisfying.
What would I have said if I’d been hired to critique this novel as a second or third draft? Let your characters have their memories and their voices back. Instead of one POV character, try it with three: the three who experience the tragic event as children and then grow up with the memories, the questions, and the silences. And don’t lock them in their closets, impervious to the world and each other. Challenge them! Challenge yourself!
Dialogue is a challenge. It’s got to sound real, but it can’t be too real because in real life people often go on at great length without saying much of anything. If your characters go on at great length without moving the plot forward in some way, your readers will zone out. (For some tips about writing dialogue, see “4 Ways to Write Better Dialogue” and “Monologue About Dialogue.“)
I recently critiqued two first-novel manuscripts. Both were rich with promising material, and both bogged down in endless stretches of what I can only call chitchat: the protagonist talking with friends, relatives, and casual acquaintances about things that had nothing to do with plot or subplot.
What to do when you come upon long rambling dialogue while revising your own work or critiquing someone else’s? Here’s an idea: Ask what the writer is avoiding. (The writer, need I say, can be you.)
In one of the manuscripts I was working on, the chitchat was occasionally interrupted by passionate monologues by different characters (rarely the protagonist). These monologues had plenty to do with the plot, but they read like position papers, not fiction.
These monologues did serve an important purpose, however: they made it clear that the characters disagreed with each other strenuously and eloquently on issues that were not only important in themselves but closely related to major themes in the novel. I knew that this material could fuel riveting, even dramatic dialogue — if only the writer would let the characters engage with each other.
It wasn’t hard to see why this writer was reluctant to do this. Both she and her protagonist are dealing with explosive issues that people have a hard time talking about without blowing up.
Writing takes courage. Often when we set out on a journey we don’t know how much will be asked of us. If we did know, we might not take the first step. But as we travel, we become braver, more willing to open closed doors and break new trail. Revision works the same way: in revision, we develop not only the skill but the courage to grapple with the questions we’re asking of ourselves and our characters.
In the other manuscript I was critiquing, the same symptom — endless chitchat on topics peripheral to the novel — had a different cause. The protagonist remembered nothing of her traumatic childhood and early adolescence, and she was so ashamed of her later adolescence and young womanhood that she wouldn’t talk about it even to her husband and closest friends. This gave her little to talk about besides chitchat.
Worse, because her repressive upbringing was key to the plot, it made her a sitting duck for the villain, who wasn’t hampered by amnesia or reticence.
Survivors of violent and traumatic events often repress memories of those events, but though it’s possible that someone might have no memories of her first 15 years, it’s certainly not inevitable. Most important, it wasn’t an interesting choice for this particular character in this particular novel. Interesting choices open up possibilities. This particular choice closed them off.
I suggested that this writer give her protagonist increased access to her own past and the willingness to share some of the grim details with those she trusts. At the very least, it will give the protagonist something to talk about, and greatly cut down on the chitchat.