Sunday, April 22, 2018

What's Driving Your Narrative Bus?

I'm still talking about how to make your piece more literary.  Think through what drives the literary novels you've read.  I mentioned this a couple of years ago, but it is such an important topic that it ought to be revisited.  A good novel is driven by something, or it just meanders and can fall apart.  According to Orson Scott Card, the most common narratives are driven by character, plot, question, or milieu.  The writer must continue that drive until the end of the story and satisfy reader expectation with that story, or it is incomplete.  A reader will not be satisfied.  Your story bus is stalled and stuck in the mud.

When a writer begins a story, he/she makes a contract with the reader.  If the reader starts a Sherlock Holmes book or other mystery narrative, the reader knows to expect a question-driven plot wherein a story is not finished until the primary question is answered: who done it?  If this question is not answered, the story is incomplete.  If Sherlock lives happily ever after with a newly-found significant other but never finds the murderer, the reader will feel gypped.  When a reader sits down to read a Jane Austen book, the reader expects a character-driven story.  If Lizzy solves a mystery, thereby answering a question, but never solves her dissatisfaction inside through marrying Darcy, the reader will feel unfulfilled.  When a reader sits down to a Alexandre Dumas adventure story, the darkness in the world around the character must be taken care of, or d'Artagnan or Edmond Dantes is not done with his story.  This kind of story is plot-driven.  When a reader sits down to a milieu-driven story, such as Gulliver's Travels, the reader is merely along for the ride, excited to learn everything there is to know about that world.  The characters are tour guides to such a universe.  The reader subconsciously expects the question, the issue with the character, the problem with the world, or full disclosure about the rules and features of this particular world when they sit down to read, or the story will feel incomplete.

Know your story and genre.  What kind of story are you telling?  Genres are automatically associated with one of these drives.  Mysteries, are by nature, question-driven, though other stories can be as well.  You can tell a historical or fantasy mystery story in which a dragon and a prince set out to solve a mystery, but just know some readers will find that unnerving or strange.  If you are telling a fantasy, science fiction, or adventure story, most often, you will need to introduce something wrong with the world, a darkness that has crept in and needs to be fought off, a false king that has been taken over, a curse on the characters, etc.  You can also tell a fantasy story that is character-driven.  This happens frequently.  Fantasy can also be milieu. Lord of the Rings makes the land of Middle Earth the main character, while the characters are just types.  However, milieu is the most difficult to pull off as the lone driver.  Unless your land is particularly exciting, a tour-guide story line is likely to grow thin fast.

The Harry Potter series is one that manages to juggle all of these drives.  The reader no sooner gets an answer to a question or mystery than Rowling presents another.  Harry starts out lonely and looking for family, dissatisfied in his own skin, and ends up finding a place to belong and making his own family.  There's also a darkness in the world that must be resolved before his story is complete.  And readers are endlessly fascinated by the Wizarding world.

It may be an interesting challenge to employ all the drives.  But if you have at least one that is done well, your reader will be content.  What drives your story?  Do you complete your contract? 

Sunday, April 8, 2018

Feeling the Rain

I have been talking about writing in a more literary fashion.  I talked a few weeks ago about when to use imagery and how to use color, but there is more to imagery than this.  One of the most important aspects of writing is helping the reader feel.  If you can get your reader to smile, to cry, to respond in a visceral and powerful way, they will likely come back for more.  One potent way to do this is through the senses. 

One of the first things you'll often notice about powerful and literary pieces is that they connect with the reader in a powerful way.  Otherwise, people don't keep reading them over the years.  If you've ever read The Great Gatsby, you'll remember that billboard of the glasses with eyes staring into the characters' corrupt souls.  When thinking of Jane Eyre, many readers will automatically bring to mind the raging fire on the bed and feel that moment.  Moby Dick brings us into the sensory imagery of the ocean, taste, smell, touch, etc.  The dust of the dust bowl invades noses and mouths as we contemplate Grapes of Wrath.  Its very title invades our senses as well. 

You, too, can capture this kind of power.  Go outside right now, at least after you finish this blog.  You can go to the woods, to the woods, to your front lawn, anywhere.  Look around.  What do you see?  Write it in as much detail as you can.  Now, close your eyes and listen to everything for a full minute or two.  Write what you heard, everything from the wind to the sound of voices, to the sounds of nature, birds or whatever there might be.  Do the same with smell.  Close your eyes to block out the most powerful image most of us experiences.  What do you smell?  Go to another area if you can.  Are there different smells?  Open your mouth.  What does the air taste like?  Touch things around you, air or the wall, or whatever.  What does it feel like?  Write it all down. 

Now, add that kind of detail to the important moments in your story.  Do a five senses check.  Count to five senses every time something important happens.  Do you have a moment of smell?  Taste?  Sight?  Touch?  Hearing?  It's better still if you can instill meaning with each image.  A red shirt can be just a red shirt.  But a red shirt can also amplify the image of the angry man shouting at his neighbor.  The image of that red shirt amplifies that anger since red is the color of passion.  Does he smell like whiskey?  That tells us what he's been doing and part of what's fueling his anger.  It may also associate something else going on in your story.  If your main character grew up getting beaten by his drunken father, that whiskey-laden man with a red shirt suddenly becomes, symbolically, his father.  If that whiskey odor is so strong, he can taste it, this moment becomes more intense.  Say the shouting man's voice sounds just like his dead, drunken father's.  Now, we're getting not just descriptive but emotionally visceral as well.  The senses tie to the meaning and emotion of the story and its protagonist. 

Now go and describe the five senses outside.  If you can take a laptop outside, figure out how to add those sensory moments into a story you've already written.  Otherwise, find key moments to do a five senses check.  Good luck. 

Monday, March 26, 2018

Deeper than a Puddle

I've been writing about how to write in a more literary fashion.  Once critical thing that sets stories that are more literary apart from those that aren't is characters.  As many have said, story IS character.  Without deep and fascinating characters, a story falls flat.  If it weren't for the flawed yet noble characters of Scout, her father, and Boo Radley, To Kill a Mockingbird would never have hit must-read status in English classrooms for decades.  If Emma and Eliza Bennett were just one-note, sappy Mary Sues, readers wouldn't be craving Jane Austen's novels so long after they were written.  I wrote my bachelor's thesis on The Scarlet Pimpernel and its sequels.  Baroness Orczy's novels straddle that edge between true literature and pop lit by incorporating several themes and issues that make literature work, yet avoiding, among other things, this one major item: depth of character.  As a consequence, most people don't even realize there were sequels, and few people will ever read them for an English class.  Most people's exposure to the stories springs from movies or the Broadway musical.  If you want to write in a literary fashion, it's critical to write characters that have depth and motivation.  

But what makes a character deep?  Whether you're thinking about your protagonist, a main character, a background character, an antagonist, or someone else, a deep character is one with clear yet complicated motivation.  If your hero only wants the good of all mankind and will stop at nothing to champion it, you're writing a Gary Stu or Mary Sue, a character so perfect, he/she's unrelatable and flat.  Whether I'm reading about a barbarian set on world domination or a little boy who wants to save his mom from disaster, I want it to be made clear at some point what drives him to want what he wants.  I want to feel for him on some level, even if I can't love or root for him.  

Many authors do this through a character system like the Enneagram.  It is a system used by many to understand themselves and humanity around them.  If it can be used to understand humanity, it can also be used to imitate humanity through characterization.  This typing system comes ready with motivations, relationships with others, and depth built in.  Say you know your character tends to be stuffy and rigid, but inside, she is only trying to control the chaos she feels constantly creeping in.  You go through the titles and realize she's a perfectionist, also called a reformer or one of several other versions of the same concept.  You can then find out what makes a perfectionist/reformer tick, what drives them, what scares them, what brings them joy, how they relate to other characters, etc.  You just figure out roughly what your character is like, and you let this system do the rest.  

A really brief and superficial thumbnail sketch is as follows: 1. A perfectionist/reformer is motivated by faithfulness to his internal rules; 2. A befriender/helper is motivated by being liked and needed; 3. A performer/ achiever is driven by the desire to impress and to seek success; 4. An artist/individualist is motivated by emotions and the desire to feel unique; 5. A thinker/investigator is motivated by a thirst for knowledge and their own inner world; 6. A loyalist is driven by their desire for security and comfort and their devotion to a person or a cause; 7. A thrillseeker/enthusiast is driven by their desire to stay busy and have fun; 8. A chief/challenger is driven by their desire to control others and the world around them; 9. A peacemaker is driven by their desire to get along and avoid change.  There is much more to it than these brief thumbnails.  To find out more, click on the link above.  One person is rarely just one type.  They usually share characteristics of the types around them, also called wings.  

Let's say you decide to create a businessman who yearns for success.  You say, "There he is!  He's clearly a 3, a performer/achiever.  You study up on that and decide if he's a helper achiever, one who likes to make personal connections and be friends with those around him as he fights his way to the top, or if he's more a reformer achiever, one who is ruled by his staunch code of ethics as he does so.  You then read up on both and see how the two types you choose affect each other.  This is an incredibly useful tool for characterization, even if you're just making a quick side character because those ought to have motivations as well if they are to have any impact on the story line.  

Now, you try it.  What is your main character like?  Which type fits him/her most?  Now, go find out more about what makes your character tick.  And what makes him/her different or special.  No two thinker artists will be exactly the same.  See if you can write a scene with two thinker artists who argue because they agree on nothing.  And enjoy.  

Sunday, March 11, 2018

Liar Liar Pages on Fire

I've been writing about ways any piece of writing can become more literary.  One literary technique some writers use to great effect is the unreliable narrator.  This is where the writer makes clear that the reader can't trust what the narrator says.  The Nownovel linked to in this paragraph points out that this is because "the point of view character is insane, lying, deluded or for any number of other reasons." It often works best with first-person narrators.  Since writing in a literary fashion is about making meaning, much meaning can be made in that gap between what the narrator says and reality. 

Many acclaimed novels have been written with a clear gap between the narrator's perspective and that of the author.  Gone Girl, for instance, won awards for using this technique to good effect.  The reader is forced to be the detective in a murder mystery to figure out what really happened, what the truth is.  As the Shmoop article linked to above says, in Gone Girl, "We (as readers) are positioned between two—or three—intensely unreliable narrators, and when they speak to us directly, we are implicated in their drama, dragged into the fight so it feels like our two main characters are fighting over us, desperately trying to get us to take sides."  Poe's Telltale Heart also monopolized on a narrator that could not be entirely trusted to describe reality as the reader may understand it since the narrator is clearly insane.  

My favorite unreliable narrator yarn I've read recently was Shannon Hale's Ever after High Book 3 in which the narrator, one who strives for an old-school 3rd person omniscient goes insane due to events of the story and has to be replaced by increasingly nutty and unreliable characters, first daughter of the Mad Hatter, who is clearly biased and somewhat silly, then daughter of the Cheshire Cat, who blatantly makes things up because she's bored.  I write my cat's blog with this kind of unreliable narrator, wherein other figures in the narration jump in to correct the narrator's exaggerated and self-aggrandizing descriptions.  

The Nownovel article linked to above also points out a danger in this kind of narrator.  "Readers do not always understand that a narrator is not the final voice of truth and authority. They may even confuse the narrator with the author." Be careful to cue the reader in either gradually or all at once to the fact that the narrator cannot be trusted.

You as an author can choose many techniques to show that gap.  One is to show the truth via other characters or events in the story.  If you show what happens then have the narrator describe it or have your narrator describe the events and another character or characters correct or react to the narrator in a way that cues the reader into the fact that the narrator cannot be trusted.  If a narrator is caught in their embellishments somehow, that's another way.  For instance, if the narrator somehow is forced to correct him/her self, that would show they're not very reliable.  Another way is simply to have the narrator be so over-the-top in his or her own descriptions, especially when it comes to something with which most readers would have experience, the reader would be cued into the fact that they can't take the narration at face value.  Now that you know this kind of narrator exists, try using it in a short piece to practice.  Where may you be able to use this elsewhere? 

Sunday, February 25, 2018

The Three Styles Challenge

I've been blogging on how to write in a more literary fashion.  I've heard about an art challenge to imitate the artistic styles of those one admires.  It's a common challenge found on YouTube.  However this challenge has been around for a very long time in multiple fields.  In art classes, I practiced emulating artistic styles of some of the greats as many have done before me.  I've also had been assigned essentially the same challenge but with writing styles.  If you want to learn how to write like the greats, it helps to consciously practice imitating those styles.  Assess what you like about that or those literary styles and do what they do. 

In high school, my English teacher ran out of time to work through both our Greek myth unit and our writing styles unit.  So she had us select three writing styles and three Greek myths.  We were to rewrite the Greek myths in those specific writing styles.  For "Cupid and Psyche," a tale related to the familiar "Beauty and the Beast," I imitated a specific children's book.  I took note of the repetition of the style, its simplicity, and its manner of addressing the reader and did likewise.  "Who was taken away by a mysterious being to become his wife?  Psyche!"  I took the Perseus myth with the Minotaur and rewrote it in the fashion of Joan D. Vinge's Psion.  I used the rough, angry first person prose of the sci fi juvenile dystopia and employed those techniques in the tale.  I took the intensely descriptive, almost purple, style of the Shannara series by Terry Brooks then rewrote yet a third tale.  This was a most fascinating writing exercise anyone can do.  Rick Riordan has made a career of rewriting myths of various origins with the Percy Jackson series and other series except he's invented his own style. 

You can do likewise, if only as an exercise.  Find a writing style you admire.  Does Bronte's Jane Eyre excite you?  Then study her Gothic romantic prose.  What about Austen's Pride and Prejudice?  Study her use of adjectives, adverbs, and dialogue.  Look at the description of each country ball.  Look at how she writes romantic scenes or the rejections of proposals.  What makes her style work?  Do you love Dumas's Count of Monte Cristo?  Look at how he builds suspense, how he illustrates his action scenes, and how the "count" plots revenge against those who destroyed his life.

Once you have done a careful analysis of the style of a literary author who impresses you, use those techniques to rewrite a Greek myth, a fairy tale, or some other simple story you know.  Tell the story of your first day in college in the manner of Shakespeare's Hamlet.  Retell yesterday's shopping trip in the manner of Twain or Hemingway or your favorite poet.  Tell about your most traumatic childhood experience through the dark and brooding tones of Poe.  This exercise may help you come up with something new or learn techniques to rewrite something that feels old and stale.  You obviously can't become that author.  But they're remembered for a reason.  What makes them tick?  What makes them memorable and beloved?  Figure it out and use those techniques for yourself. 

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Bad Guys with Depth

I've been writing about how to make any piece more literary.  Serious consideration ought to be given to the source of conflict, the antagonist, the monster, the bad guy, whatever it may be.  In nearly every piece, giving consideration to one's antagonist is just as important as to the protagonist.  I've read books and seen movies in which the antagonist is shallow, evil without subtlety, an easy straw man, or some other character  that is a one-dimensional character.  These are the stereotypical villains who are obviously evil.  These obvious villains undercut and trivialize your protagonist.  If your hero doesn't have a worthy and intriguing enemy, your hero, too, starts to fall flat. 

To figure out how to make a worthy enemy, carefully observe examples of such enemies.  Magneto from the X-men series is not literary, yet he exemplifies the villain who is more than just a man in black with a mustache and a maniacal laugh.  He sees himself as a hero, as someone worthy of emulation.  He sees the human race as the obstacle to world peace and, therefore, wants to eradicate it.  In his mind, he's the good guy.  He's flawed, but then, so are the heroes.  He's like Captain Nemo in Jules Vernes's novels, who seeks vengeance for what he deems justifiable reasons.  Such antagonists are not simply evil. 

In stories like Gregory Maguire's Wicked, the supposed villain actually becomes the protagonist.  As we get to know the witch Elphaba more, we see she never set out to be any kind of a villain but was portrayed as such by her society.  She was forced into the role of the villain, a role she never sought.  The Wizard, then, becomes the antagonist, and he doesn't view himself as a villain either but as someone doing good for society who is willing to destroy anything that stands in the way of his quest. 

The antagonist doesn't even have to be human or even humanoid to be complicated.  Moby Dick from the self-titled work is the antagonist of that piece.  He's a whale fighting for survival.  He's not a villain at all.  Captain Ahab can be seen as a villain, but he's on the side of the protagonist.  That work stands the test of time simply because it's not about simple bad guys and good guys. 

What makes the conflict in your piece work?  Who or what is the antagonist?  What is his/her/its motivation?  What makes your antagonist more than just a simple, shallow villain?  Spend as much time considering this character as you do the hero.  Are they foils, meaning opposites who have much in common?  If they are both equally complex, how does your villain highlight traits in your hero? 

Sunday, January 28, 2018

Colorful Writing

Color can be a meaningful tool when it comes to writing in a literary fashion.  All that takes is hinting to the reader how to read that color and then remaining hyper conscious of that color as a pattern.  A red shirt can be red just because you, as the author, likes red.  But this is a failure to use the tools available to you.  Color can be made to shape a message with which you can signal meaning to the reader. 

Colors can be used in obvious ways. In the common symbolism, red suggests anger, blue sadness, yellow cowardice, white innocence, and so on.  They often play into stereotypes.    Bad guys wear black, while good guys wear white.  However, shows like Star Wars plays with that.  Luke shows up in white when he's an innocent but then appears in black when he's a master, kind of like a black belt or a priest.  The good guys and bad guys wear black.  A close study of color in those movies can provide a rich bounty of meaning, little of which relates to conventional coloring systems.  You, as the writer, don't have to rely on accepted symbolism, either.  Think of the use of red in "Sixth Sense."  Every time an element of the supernatural shows up, red plays a heavy part in the scene.  Red has nothing to do with anger, evil, or anything known.  M. Night Shyamalan has created his own color system, as can you. 

Someone who is alert can catch onto that symbolism and catch more than they may otherwise do.  Wizard of Oz, both movie and book, rely heavily on color to instill meaning.  In his article "Color and Its Uses," Mike Nagle talks about the symbolism.  The good witch, Glinda, is described in colors of red, white, and blue to tie her to the American flag and to show her as a positive force.  Different countries and peoples are associated with different colors as Dorothy travels through a rainbow from yellow to green to blue. Yellow is associated with hope and optimism since that's what she's felling when she follows the yellow brick road.  The greens of the Emerald City in the movie seem to be associated with false power, illusion, money, and greed.  He creates his own color code and makes its meanings clear throughout the story. 

Decide if you want to use a conventional coloring system.  If not, what do you want your colors to mean?  What patterns of meaning can you weave throughout your story?  This is probably best built up in later drafts as you revise.