Story as striptease

Despite being opposites–stories are additive; striptease is subtractive–one can still draw parallels. An ecdysiast (look it up) teases her (or his) audience by making them wonder how much farther she/he will go. Successful genre fiction does much the same thing, but it’s a question of what comes next, rather than what come off next.

17497765_ml-cutoutImagine a toddler waddling into your kitchen. She does that half stumble/half walk that propels all such kids, and she’s heading straight toward the stove. On the front burner rests a pan full of boiling water. It makes merry sounds, hissing and sizzling as water bubbles over the side and onto the burner. A steam cloud floats above it all. You’re standing at the front door watching the older kids play in the yard, and you momentarily forget the toddler. You don’t see her reaching up, directly over her head, to grab the handle of that pan. It’s so shiny and close. So… tempting. Her pudgy little fingers stretch up and up, closer and closer. All she has to do is stand on her tippy toes. And then….

20170218_105644On the next street over, a little spotted puppy–maybe eight or nine months old–races around at top speed, his little legs churning as he tries to catch the ball two boys toss back and forth. One of them is distracted just as he makes his throw, and the ball floats awkwardly, bounces off the curb and dribbles into the middle of the street. The ball doesn’t care about the pizza delivery guy zipping down the road. The driver is late; the pizza’s getting cold, and his boss becomes a total jerk whenever customers complain, and that’s a sure bet this time. He can’t find the house. Of course, that’s when the puppy races from the safety of the yard into the street. And then….

Despite only being in business a few months, young Gus has made great progress as an entrepreneur. His commercial painting business really took off when he cut his prices for work on multi-story buildings. Though he had to make do with crappy, used equipment, he’d soon be able to buy all new stuff. He’d also be able to afford insurance for his wife and three little kids. At this stage, cutting corners was just part of the process, exactly like hurrying to finish a job quicker than promised. That, more than anything, explained why Gus failed to notice the fraying ropes in his hanging scaffold. Sure, it was old and covered in paint drips from a thousand jobs, but he only needed it to last for one more: an ancient, ten-story building. He had just climbed in and begun lowering the scaffold from the roof when….

While the stripper removes a layer at a time, the storyteller adds one. But their goals are the same: keep the reader’s attention. The storyteller, however, has a gigantic advantage as the ending can vary drastically; the reader doesn’t want predictability. The stripper’s audience wants only the one posible outcome.

24-screenIt’s fairly easy to generate tension in a story, and readers not only expect it, they look forward to it. Consider the success of TV shows like “24” which first aired on the Fox network in 2001 and continued for eight seasons and 192 episodes. Viewers raved about it, and some, like my bride, watched it religiously even though she could never sit down except during commercial breaks. By the time it ended each week, she was worn out. The tension had been jacked up so high and so well, it took her a while just to settle down.

Imagine your readers doing the same thing! It requires some planning, but you don’t need to be a modern day Machiavelli or channel Torquemada to do it. You just have to be aware of the opportunities that pop up naturally in the telling of a tale. If your protagonist hasn’t tripped over a wheelbarrow yet, then give some thought to how you might best put such a thing in his way.

The thing to remember about all this is that it only works if you leave the reader hanging for a scene or two (or more). If, at the end of your scene, you have the toddler fall over without grabbing the pan of hot water, the tension instantly ends. There’s no need to read further. [Yawn] “Okay, Mildred, I’m turning out the light now.”

Ditto for the dog in the street or the guy on the scaffold–or any such scenario you construct. It helps if you have more than one point of view character so that switching to an alternative person and/or place is so easy it becomes second nature.

BUT, you must wrap up all these minor issues before you get to the end of the book. Leaving readers hanging at that point can work against you. It may be tempting to cast your tension net beyond the covers of your epic, but I’ve found you’re just as likely to anger a reader as you are to lure him to run out and buy your sequel. There are other techniques for that, and I’ll explore them in a future post.

–Josh

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The Spice Rule

45716708_ml-txtOne of the many things those who are new to novel writing fail to ask is, “How much is enough?” I’m not talking about length; I’m talking about specific kinds of content, something that impacts all writers in all genres, even those engaged in non-fiction (and not just memoir).

Writing “rules” can be worrisome for those who are compulsive about “doing things right.” So when they hear (from folks, like me, who profess to know something about the craft) that they should avoid using adverbs and stative verbs (is, was, were, etc.) they tend to go overboard, eradicating all such critters as if they were spraying a house for some sort of infestation.

This is nonsense.

As I’ve said so often before, the “rules” for writing are malleable. They’re not a one-size restricts all. They exist as guides, or suggestions, about what works well for most readers. An age-old maxim, with which I wholeheartedly agree, is that one should learn the rules before breaking them. And more specifically, before breaking them on purpose.

53191529_ml-txtIt’s at this point where the novice should employ the Spice Rule: “A little spice may save a dish; a lot may kill the diner.”

It’s true for many things one encounters in novels. Take dialog as an example. An occasional one-word sentence is fine; a steady stream of them isn’t. When using dialect with a character, be careful not to overload their speech with undecipherables like “you’ns” or “wud” or any other construction which reflects more on the writer than the character.

Southern accents, in particular, are often done in overkill mode, usually by Yankees and/or foreign transplants who simply don’t know any better. That’s not a valid excuse, however. For those of us who live in the South and have real Southern accents, dealing with such sloppy approximations is obnoxious and insulting. (Apparently, no one in Hollywood, and certainly, no speech coaches living there, have ever heard real Southerners speak. Thay nevah, evah, get it raht. Thay git this kine o’ she-it instay-yed. [snarl, heave])

When in doubt, don’t overdo it, whatever it is. Give the reader a break. To see the opposite of a practical application of this philosophy, spend some time on FaceBook. There you’ll be fed an unrelenting stream of cat videos and political rants, none of which interest anyone but the persons constantly posting the damn things. Where’s Emerson (“Moderation in all things”) when we need him?

Anyway, keep moderation in mind. Variety is the key–in dialog, sentence structure, subplots, characters, description, everything. Variety may well be the spice of life, but for everyone’s sake, don’t administer it with a shovel.

–Josh

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Chapters vs short stories

A writer friend of mine occasionally takes a chapter from one of her books and fashions it into a short story which she then puts on the market. She’s managed to sell several of those tales. And, since she has developed a following for her novels, it’s a great way to tease her readers about soon-to-be-released material. If only I could make it work for me, too. [Sigh]

Alas, I’ve had precisely no luck with this at all, despite spending a significant amount of time trying. I just can’t get it to work. My novel chapters typically weigh in at around four thousand words, so length isn’t usually a problem. Most magazines will consider up to 5K without too much hesitation.

The problem, I’m convinced, is that my novels typically have multiple storylines. So coming up with a single chunk of related material means carving scenes from various places and either sewing ’em, or just squishing them, together. The issue then becomes figuring out how to introduce characters and conflicts from scenes which haven’t been included. Snip, snip, paste, paste, and voila! The result is something snipped and pasted that has all the appeal of fresh poodle squeeze.

Obviously, it can be done. My friend’s efforts prove it. I just don’t think it’s possible with my own stuff. Which kinda makes me grumpy. In fact, it tends to make me think I should write in a simpler style, say one voice and one point of view. Maybe just one storyline. So, okay: Joe goes here, Joe goes there. Joe gets tangled up with some babe from the hood, maybe while he’s tracking down a bad guy for a suspicious client. But then the hot babe from the bad side of the tracks turns out to be an undercover agent who’s actually looking for him. And then….

See the problem? I already want to know more about the suspicious client and the undercover gal. And why would anyone be investigating Joe, my point of view character, who’s really a sweet guy and who wouldn’t even think of breaking a law, except for that one time when….

psycho1And suddenly my personal MAC (Motive, Action, Consequence) hamster wheel is off on a vision quest of its very own, and will soon be careening into the unknown and well beyond anyone’s control. Joe’s story will become the basis for book one of a new series; there will be all the usual novelish stuff: violence, revenge, outrage, passion, sex, mistaken identities, ice cream binges, misplaced trust, etc., and my dreams of turning a simple project into a simpler one will evaporate like manners at a food fight.

All of which is to say, that if I need to write a short story, I’ll just write a damned short story. It’ll take a whole lot less time and effort than writing a novel I can break into marketable pieces. Clearly, my female writer friend is a genius, and I should never again be tempted to duplicate her literary/surgical successes.

Instead, I’ll stick to doing my own thing. There’s probably an object lesson in there for all my other writer friends. If you’re one of ’em, I hope you can find it.

–Josh

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Trigger Words? Really? Oh hell yeah!

Relax. I’m not going to talk about words which might have deleterious effects on certain 12765916_ml-txtoverly coddled college students who hear them. (This is, generally speaking, a non-political website. I don’t care who you vote for as long as you have a reason for doing it. That doesn’t mean I’m interested in discussing your politics, or my own. I’m not, ever. I only do that over drinks–lots and lots of drinks.)

The kind of trigger words I’m talking about are those that convey a sense of place. F’rinstance, let’s say you’re writing a scene (or a memoir) that takes place in your imaginary grandmothers’s kitchen (or possibly your imaginary great-grandmother’s kitchen. With any luck, you’re younger than I am). For me, that’s a kitchen built in the 1930s. Also for me, it’s located somewhere in suburban Chicago. Your granny’s kitchen may have existed somewhere far, far away, in time and/or place.

Now, when we attempt to describe that kitchen, we have a vast array of descriptors to choose from. For me, it’s a gas stove with white enamel doors covering the oven. Stark, wooden shelves bedeck the walls around the appliance. A variety of cooking tools hang wood-stove-2beneath them; there are no cabinets, no windows, no wallpaper, no decorations. There’s a radio on the plain, laminate counter top. The only warmth in the room comes from the oven. The best part is the smell of freshly baked bread, an aroma that permeates my soul and leaves me with my mouth open.

Your granny’s kitchen is likely very different. It could have a black, cast iron, wood burning stove. There could be a spindle-legged table in the mix, too. Lengths of firewood might be stacked in one corner; an apron might hang from a peg on the wall. There could be a farm calendar on the wall, or a bit of cross-stitched wisdom, maybe a psalm or a prayer.

wood-stove-1On the other hand, your great-grandmother’s kitchen may have been far more up-to-date, the kind one might describe as mid-century urban sophisticate. It might’ve had brightly painted walls, finished cabinetry and a butcher block table at ground zero. Her stove might’ve been electric, and her counters may have been crowded with lesser appliances–a toaster, a blender, and/or a coffee maker.

The point is, as a writer, you can’t be satisfied thinking your readers will imagine your setting exactly the way you see it. You have to paint the scene for them, and you have to make sure you’re using the right trigger words–words that provide a specific feel. The trick is to measure out only as many as you need to get the picture painted. Too much description is just as bad as too little; either will disappoint the reader.

One of the best ways to gauge whether or not you’ve overdone it, is to examine the pacing of the work. Does it still move along? Will readers have to struggle to hang on to the thread? Does anything really happen there? If not, all the description in the world won’t save the scene.

truck-vs-houseIf you find yourself in such a situation, consider doing something to the location. If it’s important the way it is, do something to change it! A fire, an earthquake, or a plastic bag full of frozen human waste hurtling down through the ceiling after being accidentally discharged by a passing airliner might just do the trick. (I would be gratified to see this occur more often in fiction than in real life, but I doubt a new meme is in order.) A falling tree or a bread truck bursting into the room from outside will definitely change things.

Make the setting you envision work for you. If it doesn’t, change it. In the process you might just discover something even more interesting than what you originally planned.

–Josh

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Characters with… character. Part 3 of 3

We’re moving into the final lap of this character creation exercise. In case you missed the first two parts you can find them here and here. If you’ve been scribbling stuff down about your character, then this process will have been useful. If not, shame on you! Go quiver in the dark somewhere as the dreaded writing demons will surely be visiting you soon.

Eternity face CUYou’re scaring me!  Of course, because fright is good. It’s an amazingly effective element that can lay on your desk like a cattle prod, ready for use whenever you need to make life hell for your character. And never forget, that’s your job! What am I talking about? The one thing your player fears the most; the one thing they want to avoid at all costs: Disease. Pain. Loneliness. Sharks. Being trapped in an elevator. Crying babies. Anything! It doesn’t matter what it is. It’s yours; you can trot it out whenever you feel like it, or whenever things are just going too well for your protagonist. That’s the best time to administer a dose of pure, awful, meanness. [Cue evil laughter.] Don’t forget to add that fear to your notes!

What’s next? It’s time for a sketch (not a portrait).  When it comes to character descriptions, I’m firmly in the less-is-more camp. More often than not, physical characteristics aren’t important, and can even be distancing since many readers enjoy seeing themselves in the role of the folks they’re reading about. Unless you’re writing porn (hopefully under a pseudonym), there’s no need to go overboard detailing hair and eye color, height, weight, bra size or genital proportions.

Instead, write a description under 100 words. Remember the logline we started with: 140 characters or less. Don’t try to paint a word portrait; go for a quick sensory sketch. He’s 20785837_ml-txtthat dumpy poser who thinks he’s Swiss but smells like Limburger, or, she’s that emaciated teen who equates vamp with glam.

What you’re striving for is a short, evocative word blitz. Your best bet is to ignore the tired and typical and go for the bizarre and unusual. Those are the characters readers remember. Make them interesting to look at — and think about. Give them aspects, visual and otherwise, that others would find strange, dangerous, or even off-putting. Therein lies the fun. Don’t put it off; do it now. (Don’t fool around. There’s still time for me to dispatch the demons. I’m not kidding.)

Wphew. Now that you’ve got a tentative hold on your shiny new character, it’s time to see if he or she is really what you’re looking for. It’s time for a screen-test.

So, right now, sit down and write some flash fiction starring your newly revamped player. Get inside their soft and squishy gray matter. Run ’em through the grinder; force them into tough situations; toss in odd characters and expose them to their fears. See how they react, but more importantly, see how YOU react. Did they reveal something new? Do they live up to your expectations? Too bold? Too bland? Do you need to shape that wad of clay a little more? Here’s where you can find out, and possibly generate useable new material, too. Save what you write, it could come in handy later.

building-the-great-pyramid-txtBack to the top. Now it’s time to go back and rewrite the logline. Why? Because more than likely this process has changed something about your character, and updating the logline now will help you lock in the updates. Just as important, the logline rewrite is good exercise. If you’re writing a novel, you’ll have to do a great deal of revision, shaping, clarifying, modifying, motivating and improving every aspect of your work. Better start getting used to it now.

If you’re feeling really motivated, post your updated logline in the comment section below. I’d love to see what you come up with.

–Josh

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Characters with… character. part 2 of 3

Last time (click here if you missed it) we covered character loglines, the character’s problem, and his or her initial plan to solve it. But there’s much more to character building. Read on.

Next up is Conflict–the great provider. All that wonderful, malleable space between a character’s problem and solution is your natural, God-given playground. It’s yours to do with as you please. You can populate it with dragons, armies, space ships, or a seemingly endless stretch of nothing. It can harbor pitfalls, dead drops, mistakes, oversights, threats, attempts, triumphs, and disasters. It’s the land of the Try/Fail, the great and glorious Middle.

16456502 - two men break the rope hands competing. on a white background.You could find this section ridiculously easy to populate. Story stuff could spew out of you as the by-product of the Problem/Solution line up. In “Scorpion,” Walter can’t bring himself to ask Paige out on a date. But, when she’s threatened by something that happens as a result of a Scorpion project, Walter will always be the one to risk himself to save her.

Alas, that doesn’t always happen. What if the Problem/Solution combo fails to provide the sort of conflict needed for your epic? Then it’s time to add external conflict. In “Scorpion,” it comes as a result of the new challenge the team faces in each episode.

In the case of Gone With the Wind, the conflict appears in the guise of Ashley Wilkes, whom Scarlett adores. But he’s betrothed to Melanie, and this pushes a variety of Scarlett’s buttons, forcing her to make decisions and take actions that provide even more conflict.

24763825_ml-coverIn “Star Wars,” Luke Skywalker dreams of becoming a great Jedi warrior, but his tutor is a little green guy with big ears and an annoying set of speech mannerisms. There wouldn’t have been much of a movie if all Luke had to do was buy a copy of Jedi for Dummies.

The great thing about external conflicts is that they provide endless opportunities to develop the character and his/her abilities and/or shortcomings. Walter uses his stratospheric IQ to turn household objects into defensive weaponry. His mind is his principle asset, and the external conflict allows us to see it in action.

We all have LIMITS? Of course! A limitation is generally internal, something within the character as part of their nature. This limitation hobbles them in some way, altering their plans to solve the problem, also known as the “mission.”

In the case of Walter O’Brien, he doesn’t know how to deal with emotion, either his own or someone else’s. This constantly results in clumsy efforts at interaction with the woman he loves. Not only that, it constricts his ability to deal with others as anything but the alpha nerd. This limitation is a constant source of tension-generators and new plot twists.

Not all limitations are flaws or frailties. Instead, they could be positive traits that generate edges and angles, be it in plot or character.

  • 45840872_ml-txtScarlett O’Hara, while outwardly flighty and superficial, actually has a steely resolve. Her unyielding determination, whether focused on romance, appearance, or survival, forces her into situations other characters would never face.
  • Han Solo is an honorable guy when it comes to his friends, if not his business partners. His tough guy persona dissolves when someone he cares about is in trouble.
  • Imagine a character based on Joan of Arc. She can’t lie or be deceitful, even if those who depend on her need her to take the low road from time to time. She just can’t do it.

It’s complicated.  Complications tend to be external. They are entanglements outside the character that complicate their lives. These can be either character-based or plot-based depending on the aspect of the story you’re developing. In Gone With The Wind, for example, a major complication for Scarlett (to say nothing of the rest of the country) is the Civil War. Scarlett’s story isn’t about the war, it’s about how she copes, and the war provides a significant, and recurring, set of problems. Coming full circle, it turns out Scarlett’s unyielding determination proves to be the one thing which allows her to succeed, or at least persevere.

As in Scarlett’s case, the best outcomes — from a plot standpoint — occur when a player’s limitations and complications turn out to be the very issues which help them achieve their goals, even as they generate new and unusual difficulties.

Now, track down your notes from part one, and add to them some potential complications for your character to face. Then figure out at least one serious complication. Can you see where this is headed? There’s only one phase to go.

–Josh

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Characters with… character. part 1 of 3

For most readers, novels are judged by the degree to which readers care for the players in the story. Character-driven stories haven’t just evolved; they’re as old as storytelling itself. 36612546_mlAnd yet, far too many novice novelists concentrate more on plots than players. The truth is, good novels must excel at both. A further truth is that the complexity of the characters often generates complexities in the story line. They ought to be inextricably linked. If you think in terms of DNA strands, you’ll begin to get the picture.

So, how does one go about creating characters that matter? It takes time and patience. And maybe a few suggestions. Here’s one way that’s guaranteed to work, provided you follow all the steps.

A Character Logline? At the outset, most of us already have a character in mind, so let’s start with what we’ve got and use it to write a character logline. Sometimes called an “elevator pitch,” a logline is just a one-liner that sums up a character and his/her role in the story. Keep it to 140 characters or less. Like these:

  • “The Big Bad Wolf, an aging loner with an insatiable taste for pork, seeks survival in the form of three pigs living nearby.” (122 characters)
  • “Han Solo is a devil-may-care space jock with a hot rocket ship and too many enemies, who falls in with a princess and a wannabe hero.” (133 chars)
  • “Scarlett O’hara is a pampered Southern belle whose goals in life suddenly change from finding a proper husband to surviving the Civil War.” (138 chars)

If you’re struggling with your own character, try doing loglines for well-known players in existing books and movies.

What’s the PROBLEM? Remember, the character must have a problem. It’s why he/she exists, and it helps to generate plot(s). Figure out what the problem is, and spell it out as briefly as you can. If you’ve already included it in your logline, you’re ahead of the game. Use anything that stands in the way of the character reaching their goal. You want examples? We’ve got ’em. These are all perfectly valid fiction issues:

  • 63722024_ml-plusA girl can’t find a date.
  • A guy is pursued by a soul-eating monster escaped from Hades.
  • A woman deals in used souls but has lost her own.
  • A man longs to hear the symphony but is going deaf.

Consider poor, brilliant Walter O’Brien from the CBS TV show “Scorpion.” His problem isn’t the bad guys he encounters; it’s his inability to interact with “normal” people, primarily his love interest, Paige. Whatever gets in the way of their eventual connection is mere plot complication. The real driving force for Walter is his inability to connect with her.

In general terms, the problem is the immediate issue–why we’re here, watching this character, right now.

What good is a problem without a solution? Your character must think he has a solution to the problem. (No, not you, the writer; it must come from the character.) He or she must have a potential solution in mind, and it is precisely that which launches the tale.

  • 52010147_ml-txtThe gal who can’t find a date may decide her best bet is to rent a permanent booth in the trendiest singles bar in town.
  • The character who can’t duck the soul-eater from Hades may opt to join the space program in order to put some serious distance between himself and the boojum.
  • The dealer in dead souls may join a Buddhist order to find sanctuary in some remote mountain temple.
  • The guy who’s losing his hearing might seek out a faith healer or a witch doctor if he can’t afford traditional medical remedies.

If you haven’t been taking notes and/or writing down your responses to the questions, go back and do it now. You’ll need the answers when we get to part 2 next time around.

–Josh

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