Sunday, August 13, 2017

When Dialogue Runs Deep

I've been suggesting how to make any piece of writing more literary.  A big part of this is making sure your piece is meaningful.  One thing that helps is when your dialogue works on more than one level, that it suggests more than it says.  It's important that your dialogue develops the story and/or character, that it's more than just an excuse to data dump on the reader.  It's also important that the purpose of each conversation is clear, that each character within that dialogue have an understandable motive for the things they say.  You don't want the characters to be talking heads or interchangeable with the narrator, or your reader is likely to take a nap sooner than read your book.  

Nap-worthy example: 

    "Did you see that ship?  It was a Morgan 2-26,  a new kind of battleship made with cutting edge technology."  
    "Yes, I noticed that.  Did you know Mega Dark, our greatest enemy loves those?"  
    "Oh, really?  I wonder if he's on this one.  If he is, that would be bad." 

Note:  There's no drama here.  The nightly news has more tension and suspense than this kind of dialogue. 

Better example: 
     "The Morgan 2-26 is upon us, Captain." 
     "No!  You swore that couldn't happen, that such technology was beyond their grasp!" 
     "Our agents assured me this could not be." 
     "I was a fool for buying into your false sense of security." 
     "We suspect Mega Dark is on it."  
     "Then we all die here."  

Note:  There is more suspense, tension, drama, and conflict here.  The same information is shared but it is shared as part of the storytelling.  

It's better yet when not all information is on the surface, when much of the meaning is shared through texts and subtexts, through suggestions and hints.  There can still be a lot of drama and tension but with fewer words.  The reader feels clever when he/she is able to feel what's under the surface and make the connections for themselves.  It also means more and is more memorable.  

Better example still:  

"What is it?" 
"The Morgan 2-26, Captain." 
"No!  It can't be his ship." 
"We're readying the cannons." 
"For all the good they'll do."

  More is suggested here than is said.  When everything is on the surface, it can be dull and uninteresting.  The more meaning your story suggests rather than spells out, the more powerful your story for the reader.  


Sunday, July 30, 2017

Shooting down Giant Space Fleas and Big-lipped Alligators with the Rifle on the Wall

I've been making suggestions about how to make any piece of writing more literary.  In this case, I will talk about story unity. Have you ever read a piece wherein events, characters, and even climaxes seem sort of tacked on, to come out of nowhere?  A good story is well-integrated, all events planned with foreshadowing and build-up.  As Anton Chekhov tells us, "If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter, it absolutely must go off. If it's not going to be fired, it shouldn't be hanging there."  In other words, if you're going to include some prominently displayed item, character, or symbol, it should be used somewhere in your story. It should be there for a reason, or you're wasting words and the reader's time.  Conversely, if you're going to have a major event like a rifle going off at the end, you should hint at the possibility somewhere earlier.    

There are several pitfalls to avoid, mainly with characters or events in the story that feel tacked on and poorly integrated.  The first two are often associated with video games or television. The Big Lipped Alligator Moment, or pointless and unrelated and often ridiculous side event or character, seems to exist to fill space or distract.  The name traces to a scene from "All Dogs Go to Heaven," wherein an alligator shows up for no reason in a scene unrelated to the plot.   Giant Space Fleas from Nowhere are simply major antagonists (major bosses in video game terms) that don't tie into the story.  There is no foreshadowing and no deeper meaning.  A big baddie shows up, makes things harder for one scene, then is never seen or remembered again.  Why are they there?  Often, not even the author can explain them.  If you can't justify major or minor events and characters in terms of your overarching plot, meaning, or character development, cut those scenes.

It is particularly important to build toward the climax of your story and to make meaning of it.  When an author does neither, he likely has either a Deus ex Machina or Diabolus ex Machina, which are more literary terms.  Deus ex Machina--God out of the machine--is when a literal or figurative hand of God shows up and fixes what's wrong.  Some crazy powerful new ability or character shows up and saves the day.  In The Stand miniseries, a literal big hand shows up and makes things better.  Meanwhile, Diabolus ex Machina, or devil from the machine, is where an overly powerful bad guy who has not been foreshadowed, hinted at, etc. appears and makes things much worse for the heroes.  The solution here is not necessarily to cut the character or event but to integrate it.  Hint at it in a way the reader won't necessarily catch.  If possible, make either good or bad relate to the main characters and/or come from the characters. Make it all seem possible within the world of the story.  Basically, set up for it and then make sure it enhances meaning, character, and plot in a way that makes sense.

Literary greats usually build up toward minor and major events and characters then use them to build on their deeper meaning, plot, and/or characters.  Yes, anything is possible in writing.  However, if your reader finds scenes and characters far-fetched, unrelated, ridiculous, or distracting, you've lost them.  They are thrown out of the world of the story and won't likely come back in a hurry.  Everything you do in your story should be carefully planned, integrated, and meaningful.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Yin and Yang

I've been writing about what makes a piece of writing literary.  This week, I'll address specifically part of what makes a piece meaningful.  I've watched some dark movies of late, ones that were just dark or angry or violent or whatever without a glimmer of humor, personality, joy, light, warmth, or anything that would redeem them from their merciless darkness.  They fell flat for me because they lacked what makes movies entertaining, meaningful, or fun.  I've also seen quite a few shows that are simply light fluff without any darkness, any abuse or trauma or loss or sadness, to make the characters in them feel human.  Dark without light or light without darkness lose their meaning.  They don't reflect the human experience.

A good writer needs to include both light and darkness since they define each other.  Finding the balance can be the hard part.  Part of this can be based on the genre the writer chooses.  A dark fantasy or horror writer would obviously spend more time in the dark with flashes of light to keep the reader going.  A humor, romance, or children's writer may spend longer in the light, using bits of darkness from past losses or trauma to give the characters meaning and human qualities.  This is likely a big part of why Disney writers always tend to tell stories of children who lose or have lost parents: to introduce a bit of tragedy that makes light moments in the present more meaningful and characters more sympathetic.

Shakespeare understood the need for this balance.  Hamlet is a dark piece.  It's a revenger's tragedy in which most of the characters die.  Shakespeare understood the need for the porter scene, the scene that introduced the knock knock joke in the middle of two much darker scenes.  The reader needs that kind of emotional release.  Meanwhile, in his comedy Twelfth Night, the main characters, a set of twins, start their stories in earnest mourning each other's supposed death after an accident.  Shakespeare understood even the lightest comedy needs the gravitas of loss and sadness, and even the heaviest tragedy needs moments of light.  One without the other is meaningless.

As a side note, remember to research and fully understand the kind of darkness or light you want to use.  If your story features a woman who has lost a child, but she doesn't act like a woman who has lost a child, your reader who has suffered that kind of loss can feel betrayed.  Also, if you're including a bit of light into the darkness, make sure the light doesn't fall flat with readers.  Light and dark both need to work together to create a seamless whole in order to shape your meaning.

Now, it is your turn.  Look over the pieces on which you're working.  Do you have enough light or darkness to balance out the other?  If not, look to the classics to figure out how to strike the yin yang balance.

Sunday, July 2, 2017

Pushing past Clichés

I've been writing about elevating the level of your writing, making any piece of writing more literary. One thing that can kill a piece of writing for the reader faster than most other things is to fill it full of clichés.  It doesn't matter if those clichés are characters everyone has seen hundreds of times before, subplots that seem lifted from a movie, or even turns of phrase people have read in every other tired piece of writing.  People want fresh writing, fresh characters, and fresh plotlines.  If your writing feels like every other fantasy novel, every other poem, every other anything they've read, your piece is dead in the water.  In other words, avoid clichés like the plague [pardon the clichés].  

When most people go to write, what they have to draw on is the standard list of phrases, characters, plotlines.  Good writers don't stop there.  You don't have to do this with draft one.  As the quotation from the writers' movie "Finding Forrester" goes, "You write your first draft with your heart, and you rewrite with your head."  When you write the first draft, you can fill your piece with whatever clichés come to mind first.   But when you go to rewrite, pinpoint the clichés.  Find them one by one and push past your initial impulses.

How can you do that?  One method is by brainstorming.  Say you've written a draft [or simply have first thoughts and some basic notes] in which your language is riddled with clichés.  Find synonyms.  Make nouns into verbs and vice versa.  Search for the perfect metaphors and similes.  Find a way to make the language fresh.  

Say you've done some preliminary work and found your main characters to be so familiar as to be dull.  Say he's a weak nerd who is bullied by a big kid.  You say to yourself, "I've lost count of the times I've read this story before."  So how can you make your particular nerd special?  How can your bully become something fresh and new?  You say to yourself, "Okay, how about I make the bully a super genius and the main kid an impish girl."  That starts to be a little different.  But you don't have to stop there, either.  Push it further until you've found something not just fresh but with more potential for drama.  You could change genres if you're at an early enough point to do so.  Would the bully and nerd be more interesting in space?  In a magical land?  Would it work in the future?  Or in a gothic horror story?

Whether or not you change your genre, it will be critical to spend more time developing the individual characters.  You could write the character's journal.  You could simply write more, draw more, plan more.  You could do a character interview in which you ask your character a series of questions that shed more light on him/her.

Do whatever it takes to turn your character, your story, your words into something new.  Don't settle for the first thing that comes to mind.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Personify This

I’ve been blogging about literary devices.  One that I haven’t talked about yet is personification.  Personification is where you as the author describe the environment with adjectives usually used to describe a person.  It suggests human-like motivation in inanimate objects. 
Personification can be used to make things around the character into active participants.  It can be employed for humorous purposes or to make the environment seem more dangerous or friendly or however than it otherwise might.  Using this technique, one can highlight the characters’ emotions through adjectives and word choice.  Using personification makes the world around your character come alive. 

For instance, you could write “A girl walked through scary trees, but she felt protected by her red hood.”  However, this stays flat on the page.  There’s nothing too interesting about that sentence.  Listen to the difference when I use personification: “The shadow of the tree reached its long fingers toward the little girl, who felt comforted in the protective arms of her crimson hood.”  Both objects have been personified in different ways.  The tree’s shadow can’t have fingers, and it certainly isn’t actively threatening her through any human-like intent any more than the inanimate hood is seeking to help her feel protected.  But her emotions are projected onto the world around her using the vivid imagery of personification.   

Like I said, personification can also be used for humor.  Here is a rough example: “My sister thinks I’m clumsy, but I say my house likes to throw me parties.  I was walking along, and the rug jumped up to trip me and send me flying. The lamp invited me to dance, and the coffee table hugged my legs.  I passed on those partners because the ground was much more insistent but not much of a dancer.  You know, the usual."  The narrator here is turning her clumsiness into a joke through self-deprecating humor.  

How can you use personification in your book?  Are there places your humor can be enhanced through personification?  Are there places where, rather than using straightforward language, you can use the figurative and descriptive language of personification?                                                                  

Sunday, June 4, 2017

Following Patterns that Work

Defining Patterns:

Over the last several months, I've been featuring ways to making any work of writing more literary.  A few weeks ago, I talked about allusion.  This is where you refer to some great work of literature as part of your essay, poem, short story, etc.  The use of allusion draws on the meaning, feeling, and cultural connections of the original piece.  Many authors go beyond allusion and, in fact, use such pieces as a model for their own works.

The most basic use of the literary patterns has become almost nearly universal among adventure stories: the hero's journey. Several decades ago, Joseph Campbell wrote several books explaining the concept of the hero a journey makes from normal world into the underworld and back, one from which he emerges master of both worlds.  Almost every adventure yarn you've read or seen recently from Pixar to Star Wars [Lucas actually had Campbell on the original set to make sure he got it right] to Harry Potter to any given Avengers story to Greek mythology follow the pattern of the hero's journey.  One of Campbell's most famous books was Hero with a Thousand Faces, based on the concept that this template is so universal that it can be placed on almost every traditional saga throughout human history.  Many of the least successful stories fall flat because they don't follow this pattern.  To learn more about this pattern, feel free to follow the link above or use Google.  You will find no shortage of explanations.  Most modern adventure stories that stand the test of time follow this format.  If you watch some of the older Disney and other movies, those that were written before Campbell's theory became so ingrained in the culture, you'll see they often meander without clear purpose.  They lack a definite model to follow and narratively fall apart.

Discovering Patterns: 

If this model is too vague for you or does not fit your genre, you can look around at classical literature and pick something that will not get you sued for copyright infringement.  Many authors turn to fairy tales since so many are familiar.  Successful authors sidestep Disney (since so much of the original tales is glossed over) and look to the older variations of tales to come up with a story that is fresh, new, and vibrant.  Say you love "Cinderella" but have something new to say about it.  You can dissect the tale, pick out the essential beats of what makes the tale work like Campbell did with mythology, and then rewrite it as a western with Cinderella as a poor farm girl coming to the big city and meeting a rancher at a hoedown.  Or you can set Cinderella in a fantasy, where the mages of the world are rich, and everyone else is poor.  She finds a way to borrow magic in order to show up at a mages' ball to woo the emperor of the land.  Or you could set her in steampunk, in post-apocalyptic America, in outer space, in the land of the mermaids, or anywhere else because you know the reader, unlike her evil stepsisters, will instinctively recognize Cinderella in whatever guise.  The magical and universal appeal of the poor, abused girl attracting the rich man at a party will carry its familiar power no matter the setting.  "Cinderella" and other tales like it have stood the test of time, through the centuries.  It will continue to stand and be recreated long after modern writers have laid down their pens.

Applying Patterns:

If fairy tales don't work for you, look to Shakespeare or Jane Austen or any other major author whose work has proven sticking power and see what makes their tale tick.  Take it apart.  Figure out what events have to happen for the reader to recognize the tale.  What characters do you need for the reader to understand what you're doing and for you to draw on the power of the original tale?  If you don't want to base your entire story on their model, pick a section of their story.  Your story may start out as Romeo and Juliet and end up as Pride and Prejudice or something entirely new.  This may sound like the formula for fanfiction for some people.  But fanfiction mostly uses someone else's tale, someone else's characters, and simply poses the question, "What if?" It is largely derivative.  Using a model transforms the basic pattern of the narrative into something familiar but new, something traditional but also uniquely your own.

If you have already started to write a tale, look carefully at what you have written.  Is there a section of your narrative that you can transform and make more powerful through use of a model like this?  If you haven't started a tale, look at your favorite classical works of literature.  What can you reshape and revitalize in your own voice?  Have fun with it.

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Choosing Point of View

Choosing your perspective:

I've been writing a series on how to make your writing more literary.  This particular step is critical no matter how literary you want your piece to be.  From personal experience, I can tell you that you want to choose a point of view from which to write your piece as early in the process as possible.  After I'd written two novels in one perspective, I was told by multiple people that it did not work and should be from another point of view.  Making the change with an entire manuscript is tedious and frustrating because it's one of those changes that can't be easily done with a "replace all" kind of option.  There are just too many I's and me's that have nothing to do with perspective.  It's, therefore, most critical that you make this decision quickly, preferably before one word appears on the page. 

Third-Person Omniscient:
The most archaic option--and one that very rarely works anymore--is 3rd-person omniscient.  This is where you write from outside the text and know everything about everyone.  If you read a book from twenty, thirty, forty, fifty years or more, chances are, that is the perspective the author is using.  This is the kind where the narrator can tell you about what this character is thinking then what another is thinking then what another is thinking with the detachment of someone who knows but isn't part of the story.  This has become increasingly rare in modern books.  Readers aren't used to it and tend not to like it.  It's fairly impersonal and emotionally distant.  A lot of great works of classical literature are written using this perspective, but I wouldn't recommend trying it now.  You may have a hard time getting published.  

Third-Person Limited:
The most common perspective is third-personal limited.  Think Harry Potter.  Your narrator follows one character around and tells you what he or she thinks, feels, and experiences.  Most modern literature is in either this perspective or first-person because it's personal, humanizing, and easy to relate to. There are two major options here.  You can either stick with one perspective only--like the Harry Potter books--or you can do what writers call "head hopping" from perspective to perspective.  If you're using third person limited with just one character, you have to find a way to show anything that goes on outside his immediate experience from his point of view.  J.K. Rowling does this by showing what Voldemort or others are doing via visions and dreams.  Harry doesn't personally view these events, but he knows what is going on through supernatural means.  If your story is not supernatural, you could use something like news, social media, phone calls, rumors, or some other device to show what is going on outside his immediate experience.  
If you're going to use limited perspective but through multiple character's eyes, you'll solve the problem of the limited knowledge but create a host of other things to consider.  You'll want to give careful consideration to how head hopping will occur and how many characters you want to use.  You're still showing each character's perspective, and only their perspective, at any given time.  A big no-no is to hop to someone else's head and back again in the same section, chapter, or--worse yet--paragraph or sentence, e.g. "She looked at him and saw how handsome he was, and he looked back and saw how beautiful she was."   It's a sure sign of a novice to hop heads in the middle of a paragraph.  It often takes away all sense of suspense when you know everything about everyone all the time.   I read a romance novel like that, and there was no mystery or romance to it.  I knew everything everyone was thinking all the time.  It's best to keep one chapter or section to one narrator.  Some people can successfully hop to stranger's heads for just one section then back to main characters' heads then off to some bystander's head.  However, it's usually clearest and most sensical to a reader if you choose a finite number of heads--two or three, maybe four--and just alternate sections, possibly chapters.   It's usually best as well to choose the character who has the most emotional stake in the events.  If it doesn't work one way, you can always rewrite that segment and see if another character's eyes improve an important segment. 

The last common point of view is first-person.  This can be even more emotionally charged and intense than even the most personal third-person narrative.  You're actually in that person's skull for the duration of the story.  Everything is through his/her eyes alone.  This limits the writer in the same way third-person limited with one narrator does but to a greater degree.  The reader only knows what the narrator knows.  It's possible to write this kind of perspective in such a way as to show your character is unreliable, but that can be tricky.  If successful, however, you can truly impress even the most discerning reader.  In order to figure out how it's done, it's usually best to read several first-person unreliable narrations to see how the author clues the reader in that the narrator can't be trusted.  Another limiting factor is this rarely works well if you have multiple protagonists.  I tried it, and it didn't work for me.  However, The Help pulls it off to critical acclaim.  Anything I say here has exceptions.  These are just rules of thumb.  

Before you launch fully into writing a novel, I'd experiment with perspectives.  Research which is the best match for your story and your characters.  Try one for a chapter.  If it's not working, rewrite that chapter.  Don't be me.  Figure out what works before it's too late.