Chicks congregating around their feeder…what stories they might tell!
Why is it that in some books, characters stride into the story all alone, without parents, golfing buddies, neighbor kids peeking through their hedges as they sunbathe, or coworkers tossing paper planes at them over the cubicle wall? In real life, we inch our way along strands in a web of relations–some strands sticky, others smooth. So why do some characters blow into their worlds like spiders parachuting to a new location on a long silken strand, bereft of all relations?
This narrative pitfall happens more often with some genres than others. Science fiction and fantasy novels (the genre I both write and most often read) bristle with rugged individuals whose first and only social contacts seem to be their quest companions. I can’t imagine this problem happening in genres where the protagonist’s social interactions form the basis of the story, like romance novels or family sagas. But writing in a genre where interactions aren’t the primary focus doesn’t absolve you of responsibility for creating a family and friendship network for your characters. Neglecting to fashion a social world for them means you’re missing out on opportunities to deepen their characterization.
People’s desire for company may range from the solitude-seeking wilderness ranger who stays for two weeks in a remote fire tower, contented not to see another person the whole time, to the party animal who chafes at being stuck alone for a whole afternoon. Most of us fall somewhere in between, or vacillate from one end of the continuum to another day by day, moment to moment. This tension in itself makes for interesting character exploration. But when two or more characters meet, story potential sparks. One person’s words or actions nudge another toward a decision. They might argue. They might reconcile. Their give-and-take fuels your plot.
How a person behaves with friends and family reveals significant things about them. We may act formal or superficial when exchanging a few words with the grocery check-out clerk, but with friends and family, a deeper layer of self emerges. Interactions with these important others will give your character a past as well. A character might seem to be engaged in light banter with their sibling, but the words hint at a shared memory: a warm and loving connection, a trauma they survived together, a source of misunderstanding and resentment.
How do characters react to family friction? Do they quash their anger and flash a false smile? Do they rush off to retreat from an anticipated explosion? Are they the one to explode? Or do they take refuge in sarcasm, skewering their provoker with words turned to precision weapons? Do they get physical, smacking the aggressor upside the head? Are they the comforter, the one who picks up the pieces? The character’s reactions–the ones they choose and the knee-jerk reflexes family members can so easily elicit–encapsulate their overall responses to the world, their virtues and flaws. Perhaps subsequent events, whether they involve saving the world or saving a relationship, might give the character a chance to reflect on and change these responses.
The novel I’m shopping around now contains some classic fantasy elements–a quest, magic, and powerful immortals–but my characters also have families, friends, petty adversaries, bosses, and other relationships that both complicate the plot and enrich the characterization. One narrator has chosen to leave his homeland years before, and he returns home to visit an old friend and his family, who never understood, and are uncomfortable with, his departure. This family drama’s enfolded within a larger plot, but without his feelings of disconnection with his homeland and his family, he’d be a less layered and interesting character.
So, when you’re creating complications for your characters, don’t forget that these complications can begin at home. Remember: every hero has neighbors, and even the bad guy has a mother.
No, this little fellow isn’t the bad guy. The red glow is coming from his heating lamp, not his infernal chicken powers.
Nothing perturbs the system more beautifully than a hummingbird, as seen outside my clinic window.
At some point on the journey toward publication, aspiring writers get frustrated and ask themselves, “Why aren’t agents and publishers saying ‘Yes’ to my submission? I’ve revised it six times and now it all looks good to me. What’s going on?”
Often the problem lurks on the very first page.
One turn-off to these busy publishing professionals is the “winding country way” style of drawing readers into your imagined world. This gentle prose amble generates plenty of atmosphere, but atmosphere alone does not a story tell.
Imagine strolling down a country lane on a summer afternoon. The sky’s a crisp blue against the upturned leaves of a majestic white oak, planted three hundred or so years ago to mark the perimeter of a farmer’s land. In the field beyond, Queen Anne’s lace, timothy, and goldenrod plants ripple in a breeze. The balmy air offers a spiderweb’s caress to your bare arms. The temperature’s not scorching, just soft and warm. You smell cut grass and wildflowers. You hear crickets and cicadas. Horses peer over a stone fence. It’s a tranquil, beautiful, rapturous day for being, not doing.
My daughter Luthien trotting through a field at Champoeg State Park when she was a year and a half old, offering an expert demonstration of blissful being-doing.
The trouble is that what makes this summer afternoon in the country so special is also what makes it unsuitable for a novel’s opening scene. The very forces that create enriching life experiences can poison stories and rebuff readers. That’s because stories are about doing, not being. When the writer spends too much time writing in this “being” fashion, the story doesn’t sell.
To be sure, this fact troubles me. Being in the moment, leaving behind the constant scrambling “doings” of unmindful life, reveling in beauty without rushing to complete an agenda–these are all activities (being-tivities?) I cherish. I also wince when I read writing advice that seems to pander to the shortest attention spans out there. Are readers really so fickle that they won’t continue past the first page if they aren’t hooked and thrashing like a fish on the end of a line? Don’t readers long to immerse themselves in the sensory glories of the world you’ve created?
Then there’s the conflict thing. We use warlike terms for the dramatic tension that drives a story: conflict or struggle. This nomenclature dates back to classical Greek literature. Ancient Greeks–at least those who wielded temporal power and had the leisure time to compose tales–considered agon (struggle) the source of virtue. Whether it’s the muscular, one-on-one grappling of a wrestling match or the cerebral fencing of a debate, agon honed the self. This attitude has been perpetuated in societies shaped by ancient Greece and Rome. I’m perturbed by the way popular how-to-write advice has uncritically ingested this antique attitude by insisting that writers create endless conflict on every page. Not only does this approach reify fighting as the normative (or even ideal) state of human affairs, but constant conflict can be just as wearing on the reader as static description. The answer to that old comic-book question, “How much excitement and adventure can you stand, true believer?” is sometimes “No more!”
Undeniably, some power exists to attract readers’ attention and hold it. But this power arises as much from caring as from conflict. A writing critique-group friend used to ask the other participants, “Why should I, the reader, care?” Readers invest their time because the skilled writer causes the protagonist to matter to them. To get the reader to give their heart to this character, the protagonist needs to be plunged into a situation where their winning qualities shine, while their relatable flaws get them into trouble.
That’s what’s traditionally called conflict.
I prefer to think of it this way: the story starts when the protagonist’s life veers off balance.
Living in balance is a spiritual ideal, but in physics and biology, systems in perfect balance aren’t living systems. Rather, life occurs when a formerly closed and balanced system tips far from equilibrium. We experience inputs from our environment and react–that’s the case in life, as well as in a novel’s plot.
Returning to that country lane, what might happen to the protagonist that would generate momentum for the story, show their true nature (both gifts and flaws), and cause the reader to care what happens to them?
That classic traveler’s dilemma, according to Robert Frost: The Road Not Taken
The protagonist’s life can get nudged out of whack by an external cause. A drunk driver careens over the hill and hits them, leaving them critically injured at the side of the road. A door to an enchanted realm opens up in the stone wall before them. An old flame comes jogging by in the other direction and they recognize one another too late for either to change direction and pretend they hadn’t seen the other.
Or an internal upset may disturb the protagonist, something the rural beauty can’t drive away. They could be brooding over the divorce decree they’d just received when they didn’t even realize their marriage was failing. They could experience the first frightening signs of severe mental illness: a break with reality where the bucolic country scene turns bizarre and menacing.
The good news is that you don’t have to trash your wonderful country-road description–you just need to repurpose it so that it contributes to the story’s forward motion. Instead of ambling down the road, maybe the character’s running away from or toward something. Instead of being a backdrop, the scenery becomes a character in its own right, or a plot generator. What might come out of the field to pursue the character? What might threaten the character from within when they’re desperate for a moment of peace? That’s where their life careens off balance. That’s where the story begins.
Now that’s more like it: a hair-raising moment on a hike at Huashan Mountain in China (Lina D., “The World’s Most Dangerous Hiking Trail,” https://www.boredpanda.com/worlds-most-dangerous-hiking-trail-huashan-mountain-china/). Bye-bye, quiet country road!
The classic villain: the Wicked Witch of the West from the 1939 Wizard of Oz film
At an audition for my local community theater’s upcoming production of The Wizard of Oz, I observed some actors trying out to play the Wicked Witch of the West, each one ending the monologue, at the director’s request, with their own distinctive evil laugh. As I listened, I reflected on how the Wicked Witch is the archetypal Bad Guy: gleefully megalomaniacal, fiendishly delighted at her own nasty cleverness, and as bad-looking as she is badly-behaving.
Times have changed since The Wizard of Oz was published in the early 20th century. Contemporary readers expect antagonists to be as fully realized as any other character. Ideally, they don’t even consider themselves the “bad guy.” Like the protagonist, they’re the hero/ine of their own story. Many antagonists aren’t arch-villains anyway. An obnoxious supervisor, a beastly ex, an overbearing parent, and a rival for a love interest aren’t criminals or demons. They’re more like obstacles, but obstacles with minds and motives of their own.
As with anything else about the writer’s art and craft, there’s no foolproof formula for generating formidable foes. Wherever your antagonist falls along the continuum of annoyance to full-on monster, however, they must pose an active threat to the protagonist, generating the story’s tension.
An effective antagonist must represent a true challenge to the protagonist. This redoubtable opponent won’t let the protagonist get away with an easy, predictable victory. To do this, the antagonist requires a goal. It shouldn’t be just any goal. It must run counter to the protagonist’s goal. It’s not an idle fantasy either. The antagonist is consumed by their single-minded obsession with this goal. They’re tenacious enough to charge toward that goal like an 18-wheeler headed for the runaway-truck ramp, which happens to double as the protagonist’s driveway. In pursuit of that goal, the antagonist causes significant trouble to the protagonist, the equivalent of that 18-wheeler’s cab smashing through the living-room window and coming to rest in the wrecked bedroom.
Antagonists are as individual as protagonists, but if I could distill their motives down, I’d assign them to one of two different personality types: the deranged messiah (the “hot” villain) and the sociopath (the “cold” villain).
The deranged messiah pursues their goal because a compelling, all-encompassing belief pulls them along. This antagonist isn’t a simple believer. They’re full of fervor and fanaticism, whatever they’re espousing: religion, social cause, or personal vendetta. They’re rigid to the point of absolutism and ruthless in implementing their beliefs, convinced that the lofty end justifies the reprehensible means. Their conviction might be admirable in other circumstances, but their willingness to bend the ethical rules in service to their cause distinguishes them from the protagonist.
The sociopath, on the other hand, lacks the passion that motivates the believer gone bad, but their hallmark feature–lack of empathy–is chilling. The sociopathic antagonist also lacks a healthy person’s rich emotional life. They only experience feelings associated with basic drives: hunger, thirst, boredom, frustration. The unsettling thing about an antisocial person’s lack of empathy is that they can be excellent mimics of the very quality that’s absent from their psychological makeup. They can feign interest, caring, even love. Such individuals seek intense stimulation (thrill sports, intoxicants, murder and mayhem) because without feelings, their lives are bleak and empty. When you introduce your antagonist, their lack of empathy makes them both frightening, as it allows for cruelty and callousness that wreak damage on the lives around them, and pitiful. Readers are moved by villains they can feel sorry for, and the empty, vapid, bored life of an empathy-less person is a sorry thing indeed.
Here are some other negative personality traits that work well for antagonists.
Aggrieved entitlement. Difficult people I’ve encountered consider themselves both victimized and deserving of the best in life–in extreme cases, worship by us lesser mortals. They lack the insight to take responsibility for the difficulties they’ve created in their own lives, instead insisting that others–ex-partners, the legal system, family members–have taken unfair advantage of them. Whether they’re complaining about the job that should’ve been theirs or their terrible ex-partner, in the stories they tell, they’re the innocent victim. It’s not clear whether they believe this themselves or use such stories to win sympathy and assistance, but from what I’ve experienced, underneath the apparent yearning to be understood, real-life antagonists believe people are either chumps to cheat or users to put one over on before they do it to you. After all, when one lacks empathy, if someone shows you kindness, it must be a con.
Hostility. It’s not just antisocial people who think, feel, and behave in hostile ways. I recently read that as much as 25% of the U.S. population has hostile personality traits. The hostile person is reactive, with a hair-trigger temper. They are impulsive, not stopping to consider before acting on their emotional reactions. They don’t “check in,” with themselves or the other person, whether their initial impressions are correct or their initial impulse is appropriate. They just explode. They interpret anything the other person says or does in the worst possible light, justifying their angry response to themselves. Often they have a low sensory threshold. Bright lights, noise, uncomfortable materials, and other unpleasant sensory impressions register as assaults with them, so they simmer in a state of low-grade irritability, ready to erupt at the smallest provocation…which, according to their sensitive nervous systems, represents an attack and thus necessitates a violent response. They may view others as idiots and jerks. This is the person you’ll hear complaining about the “sheeple” all the time and assuming that they are one of the few smart folks. Some people are aware of their hostile tendencies and “keep a lid on it” when interacting with friends, family, and co-workers, only to spew forth when a stranger looks at them the wrong way.
Rigidity. Difficult people don’t roll with the punches. Instead of responding flexibly to difficult situations, they become frustrated at their own perceived helplessness and lash out at others in response. This pattern of thought and behavior might’ve gotten started in early childhood, in reaction to living with chaotic circumstances, devoid of safety and a reassuring parental figure. Without a safe home and a consistent, caring parent, their primal needs for security don’t get met, so they take refuge in restrictive thought patterns, authoritarianism, and undeviating ritual. You can get readers to pity and be creeped out by your antagonist, both at the same time, by giving them a habit or behavior pattern where, if they’re forced to act differently, they snap or fall apart.
Negativity. In order to avoid painful, dangerous situations, our body-minds are primed to remember negative experiences. In learning from these experiences, we often end up magnifying them. Hence, people can define themselves by illnesses or pain they’ve suffered and harrowing experiences they’ve had. Developing a positive attitude takes time and mindfulness; perceiving the negative in every situation can become a default reaction. So what does this have to do with antagonists? Isn’t this conundrum just part of human experience? First, the very universality of this tendency is one thing that reminds readers about your antagonist’s humanity and makes them relatable. It’s both uncomfortable and revelatory to recognize the antagonist as a human being like oneself and to empathize with them. Second, by giving the antagonist a traumatic past that has created a persistent negative pattern of thinking and responding, you create conflict–the character gets into trouble as a result of their assumption that the world is a nasty, brutal place and because of the choices they make as a result. Such experiences explain, although they don’t justify, the antagonist’s selfish, thoughtless meanness. If a protagonist has undergone similar experiences and has nevertheless chosen a path of kindness and mercy, you’ve got a dramatic contrast right there. Same experiences, different choices–they can make the difference between the character’s becoming friend and foe.
A fully-fleshed, multidimensional antagonist presents significant roadblocks to the protagonist’s progress, which may even help the protagonist grow…although that’s not the “bad guy’s” intention. They also offer the reader a figure to become mesmerized by, perhaps against their better judgment, an effect they might exert on the protagonist too. But what ultimately makes a well-drawn antagonist so memorable is the way they hold a mirror up to our own shadow side, the side we engage with at our peril.
Can you douse your own shadow side with water and expect it to melt?
Don’t let this imposing library at Yale University intimidate you! I attended an amazing session of the Rare Book School there in Summer 2016 and they didn’t boot me out.
Research: some folks love doing it, while for others, it’s up there with painful dental procedures. My professional background plants me in the “love it” category, but since I work with first-year college writers, I also understand the plight of the reticent researcher. I attended college in the pre-Internet 1980s and am grateful to the Web for making investigation, scholarly and otherwise, easier and more accessible to everyone. But for those who would rather be subjected to that nauseating regimen astronauts must endure to get ready for zero-gravity environments, please bear with me while I explain that research opportunities, like the Force in Star Wars, are “all around us.”
“But I’m a science-fiction (or fantasy) writer,” I hear you rumbling. “Why do I need to do research?” Maybe you’ve invented a new alien species. Or perhaps the technology you’re writing about is so far-future speculative that it doesn’t compare to anything available today. So why would you need to interview an expert, read mountains of technical material, or watch documentaries when you’re creating a world from raw materials wandering around your imagination?
Fantasy and science-fiction worlds may be imaginary, but they still operate according to rules. If your world behaves at variance with Earth-based Newtonian physics, the reader needs a good reason to suspend their disbelief. You don’t have to excel at mathematics to learn about the universe’s rules for the road…heck, there’s even a series of board books that distills the laws of physics into toddler-sized apothegms. Reading widely in your genre also gives you a sense of where you can flout physical laws, what’s a convention of the genre that you don’t have to explain, and which weird phenomena readers are more apt to believe. Lots of fun primers on physics, biology, chemistry, and other sciences are available for the general reader. You can also chat with scientists in your community–although busy, they’re usually excited to share what they’re researching with the non-specialist, especially when they learn that it’s for a book.
At the most recent Norwescon, I attended a session on alien biology, and a scientist reminded the audience that so many of the species that share the earth with us seem alien, from their life cycles to their reproductive activities. If you’ve created a Slug Queen from the Oort Cloud, doesn’t it make sense to learn about real slugs? Find a life form, or more than one, that shares features with your invented species and spend some time with them, by observing them in nature, watching a wildlife video, reading, etc. The information you gather about their growth and behavior will add realism to your portrayals of your alien characters. The reader will recognize, and enjoy, the depth of knowledge on which you’ve built your world.
Even monks fall asleep in the library, as this fellow did during my Advanced Medieval Manuscript Studies course at Yale, offered through the awesome Rare Book School.
But research isn’t just something you do in a library or archives or on your computer. Observation is the most natural research process, and it’s immersive. Sometimes this means going where the action is. If you’re trying to come up with a holiday celebration for your alien society, why not check out parades, festivals, and other public occasions to gather ideas? While you’re there, take note of not just the organizational part (what happens) but also the participants’ emotional state and behavior. Is this a formal, restrained occasion or a lively, no-holds-barred street party?
At other times, you don’t need to go anywhere or do anything special. You just need to pay keener attention to what’s going on around you. I hike with my family every week and like to spend time listening to the local sounds, feeling the air temperature, smelling the soil, flowers, snow, autumn leaves, or dried pine needles on the ground, and checking out the blend of light and shadow on the path. Often these impressions percolate in my mind and emerge as a description later on.
I also like to listen to conversations as I take my daily lunchtime walk down the beach from my office to pick up the mail. (Yes, I work two blocks from the beach. It’s wonderful.) I listen to people’s word choices, the structure of spoken syntax, the feelings that come through, the back-and-forth rhythm of dialogue. While taking care not to pilfer anything personal that I overhear, I find these real-world conversations an enriching inspiration for dialogue on the page…minus the circumlocutions and fillers of ordinary conversation.
Relationships with family and friends can also provide you with inspiration for your characters’ interactions and motivations. Of course, you must tread lightly and not expose your friends’ and family members’ secrets. The idea is to learn from your experiences and let that wisdom manifest on the page, not to fashion your characters as alter egos for your loved ones. Some incorporation of your own and your intimates’ traits into your story-world is inevitable. The key is to do so consciously, with compassion and sensitivity.
One way I do this is to listen to and watch others for some specific feature. For example, one of my characters has a brother who’s older than him by two years, and their relationship is by turns loving and stormy. I’m an older sibling, a sister rather than a brother, and my brother and me have a close, amiable, and uncomplicated relationship. What to do? I listened to and watched my male friends and their brothers interact. My intention wasn’t to “steal” a conversation and slap it onto the page. I took what I observed, applied it to the characters’ scenarios, and in one case, shared scenes with one of the brothers I’d been inspired by to check for verisimilitude. Would he treat his brother this way if he was my character? Did the interaction ring true? Was it off base?
I do authenticity checks when it comes to something I’ve researched but with which I have no personal experience. I run battle scenes by veteran friends, or hand-to-hand, one-on-one combat vignettes with a martial artist I know. I also block my scenes as an actor and a director would, in two dimensions or three. I draw battle maps, move miniatures around, create model buildings and other structures, and even work with more knowledgeable people, like my martial-artist friend, to choreograph a fight scene or a dance. Would the character really move like this? Could she get across the room that fast? Could he ride a horse and shoot an arrow at the same time? As much as I can, I test it out physically. I don’t want an expert reader to groan, “That’s impossible!”
Practicing ancient Roman infantry formations at Norwescon, April 2018.
I’ve been involved in community theater for decades, and the experience always enriches my writing. One of my favorite things, in acting as well as writing, is to play or write about a character who’s different from myself. Research can save your gluteus maximus when it comes to creating authenticity rather than something ridiculous in its unreality. My most challenging part, physically, was Martha in that wonderful, sinister classic comedy Arsenic and Old Lace. Martha is an elder. I played her when I was 42. I’m physically fit and, I hope, move fluidly. In order to create a realistic impression of someone at least 30 years older than me, I paid conscious attention to the way my 70- to 90-year-old patients move. My goal wasn’t to create a melodramatic, stereotypical hobbling old lady; I strove for subtler suggestions of age. I noticed that my patients took more time and care with getting up and sitting down, took shorter steps, and because they were starting to experience balance problems, they would put their hands on furniture and other objects as they made their way through a room. So I practiced shortening my stride, adding a shade of hesitancy to the way I lowered myself into a chair, and let my fingers skim over the furniture as I moved around onstage. I knew I’d succeeded when an audience member waited for the actors to emerge from backstage after the show and was startled to see that I wasn’t really 75.
Sooner or later in your writing life, you’ll come upon a fact you need to verify or a historical event you need to learn more about. Readers, and the publishing professionals who get your work into their hands, recognize and appreciate the time and care you put into doing your homework. And sometimes that homework is as accessible as your own home and the gadgets, people, and laws of physics at play inside it.
Research can be found right where you are.
A well at Storm King Mountain, New York (ooh, if it were only bottomless!)
As the poison Hamlet has swallowed starts to take its lethal effect, he gasps out his last words: “The rest is silence.” He won’t learn the outcome of events he’d helped set into motion, for death’s quietus has enfolded him.
Silence, too, is a tool in the wordsmith’s toolbox–perhaps the most potent of all in an art wrought by and from words. The caesura, a moment of silence in music and a metrical pause in poetry, allows readers (and musicians, and writers) to catch their breath. This pause also allows emotion to flow in: fear, compassion, love, transcendence. Moreover, it gives the reader the chance to co-create the writer’s world, filling in what the writer hasn’t said with one’s own imagination.
Leaving something unsaid is a mark of either artistry or ineptitude. Powerful moments sink into readers’ hearts when they’re delivered with a gentle exhalation rather than bludgeoned onto the page. On the other hand, a new writer might sketch in a scene with brief brush-strokes because their craft hasn’t matured enough to voice it all. The richest silences leave the reader awed, not scratching their head.
Three instances stand out for me where you can use silence to powerful effect: horror, passion, and revelation. It’s challenging to write about these “big three” without overdoing it, so why not imbue those moments with quiet grace–or disturbance?
People who never want to venture near the horror genre assume it piles up the guts ‘n gore hip-deep, like a cheesy slasher film or some heavy-metal album covers. Yet the genre’s best practitioners have mastered the art of silence, knowing when to be explicit and when to allow the reader to fill in the claw-torn gaps with their own nightmares.
Although Cormac McCarthy’s novel Blood Meridian gets classified as a Western rather than a horror novel, its famous outhouse scene exemplifies the skillful employment of caesurae. To avoid spoiling the ending for those who haven’t read it, suffice it to say that something dreadful (which McCarthy doesn’t explain) happens between the protagonist and the antagonist in an outhouse. When a character opens the outhouse door, all he says is “Good God almighty.” His companion questions him, doesn’t get an answer, and “Then he opened the door and looked in.”
That’s it. The scene shifts to a saloon. We’re left to imagine what terrible thing has transpired, leaving the characters and the author both dumbstruck. In the face of wordlessness, our own monstrous images swarm into the dreadful void. McCarthy doesn’t leave the loathsome thing unspoken from lack of skill, nor from squeamishness–the book contains enough explicit descriptions of cruelty to disabuse a reader of that idea. It’s a deliberate, artful omission, transfixing us with the idea of something so awful that witnesses, reader, and writer can’t name or describe it.
In passionate scenes–loving and fighting–stillness also sings. Unless you’re writing erotica, the reader is less interested in the lovers’ pubic plumbing than they are in what this coming-together says about the characters’ evolving relationship and how its consummation adds complications to the plot. The same thing goes for a fight scene. It’s not about itemizing every verbal barb or punch thrown. It’s about the combatants: what they’re fighting for/about, who they are (and how this changes after the altercation), and how this verbal or physical struggle snags up the story’s “works.”
Closing the bedroom door doesn’t have to be a prudish act. It’s hard to keep a love scene from devolving into either purple prose that makes the reader giggle (how much tumescence and wet roses can you stand, true believer?), or matter-of-fact detail that puts off rather than turns on. Pick out the details that speak to the characters’ personalities, unfolding relationship, and overall story arc and let the reader pull off the covers in their imagination.
At risk of wandering off into another topic for another time, also consider taking the scene in an unexpected direction. Maybe what starts as a love scene becomes a misunderstanding that ends in simmering silence rather than blissful fulfillment. Or the reverse: what starts out as a disagreement ends up with the characters in the sack, and regretting it afterwards. More simmering silence.
And finally, all but the simplest, most plot-driven stories involve some subtle undercurrent, a theme that’s best articulated through gestures and hints, not overt telling. The undercurrent comes welling up during the “Big Reveal”: the moment near the end where the mystery’s solved, the devastating secret breaks out into the open, the protagonist faces their sovereign challenge… Whatever form it takes, the protagonist stands on the edge of their personal abyss and jumps in, taking the reader down with them into the great unknown. This personal “mysterium tremendum et fascinans” can lead not just the character but also the reader face-to-face with the Ultimate, terror, ecstasy, and all (All?).
This moment to crown all moments transcends words. Words can render it trite and saccharine. There’s a reason why, in many languages and religious traditions, the words “sacred,” “holy,” and “awesome” convey both beauty and terror, things held separate and apart because they are both astonishing and forbidden.
Stories that outlast their time bring us down, or up, into this territory, and hence to our knees. There is no other right and proper response to life’s final mysteries.
The rest is silence.
Hmm, wonder what’s at the Portland Airport’s pet relief area? Say no more!
This is the old “agony of defeat” image from “Wide World of Sports,” courtesy of DayBreakDevotions.wordpress.com.
There’s a scene in the science-fiction TV series Babylon 5 where Morden, the affable emissary for an ancient, powerful, and sinister species called “Shadows,” pays a surprise visit to Londo Mollari, the tormented future ruler of the Centauri Empire. Londo assumed Morden had died after a thermonuclear detonation demolished the Shadows’ home planet. Formerly personable and presentable, with glossy hair and a shiny smile, Morden arrives wrapped in a cloak. Under the hood, Londo glimpses radiation-damaged skin and raw flesh beneath. As they converse, Morden peels dead skin flakes off his hand. He leaves after issuing a quiet threat, and the camera focuses on the skin flakes he’s left behind, blown across a tile floor by a breeze from an open window.
Those skin flakes haunted me.
Skin flakes under a microscope, courtesy of microlabgallery.com
They disturbed my dreams, and not just because of their creepiness. They fired my writer’s heart with the power a well-chosen image could wield.
That image crystallized what I’ve always wanted descriptions in my work to do: to capture a mood, a history, and/or a future threat, all in a single unforgettable image.
As I’d noted in a previous post, too often, developing writers assume descriptive passages need to read like laundry lists. A camera captures everything, from the decor in the room where Londo meets Morden to the clothes they’re wearing (opulent royal-court garments for Londo, plain, heavy cloak for Morden). Why shouldn’t a written description do the same? But written descriptions unfold in time differently from visual depictions. Our eyes can absorb all these visual details at once when we’re watching a film or TV show. When reading, however, the details appear in sequence rather than simultaneously. Densely descriptive passages slow the story’s pace–hence the need for well-chosen words to set the scene. Now here’s the magic: the reader’s imagination fills in the rest.
That’s why the disturbing image of those shed skin pieces on the floor would pack that much more potency in writing.
Before I started writing novels, I wrote poetry. Unless you write epic poetry, this is the most compressed literary form. A few lines can bear colossal weight–of feeling, of significance. A poem resembles a diamond: intense heat and pressure compacts carbon molecules into this glittering perfection, a substance both hard and brilliant. Replace the carbon molecules with words, add imagination’s heat and pressure, and you arrive at a poem: a word-jewel bright and flashing, but also strong enough to cut anything. It’s no wonder diamonds appear both in jewelry and in industrial cutting tools. Descriptions can do this double duty too: they can adorn, but they can also slice through the surface story to the depths where emotional power and meaning reside.
Imagery’s very power can also present irresistible temptation of the “if a little is good, then more is better” variety. (Think about children slathering ketchup on their fries and discovering that fries floating in ketchup soup aren’t as palatable as they’d hoped.) The “more” isn’t restricted to the laundry-list problem. It can also mean investing a metaphor with too much symbolic weight, or an unsuccessful example of extended metaphor (where the image shows up repeatedly in different situations). Descriptions are like superpowers: the writer takes an oath to use them wisely, for with great writing power comes great writing responsibility.
Here are a few examples of the descriptive power I’m trying to conjure.
Toni Morrison is one of my favorite writers, combining an arresting style with a paladin-physician’s bravery in exploring national wounds, past and present, to effect healing that’s both painful and purifying. This passage from her 1973 novel Sula haunted me–a whole world in a teaspoonful of ground glass:
“…a day so hot that pregnant wives leaned up against trees and cried, and women remembering some three-month-old hurt put ground glass in their lovers’ food, and the men looked at the food and wondered if there was glass in it and ate it anyway because it was too hot to resist eating it…”
What grievous hurt could your lover have done that you feel tempted, on a superheated day that brings out the rage and resentment along with the sweat, to grind up glass and dust his food with it? And it’s not just one woman scorned; it’s every woman whose partner has ever wounded her. And it gets worse: the men suspect their food has been laced with shards, perhaps lethal, and still they eat it because the heat (and the sizzling weight of oppression) has beaten the resistance out of them.
Wow, all that in a teaspoonful of glass powder.
Ernest Hemingway’s name has become a byword for terse, bare-bones writing, so for years I (as an unashamed descriptive maximalist) avoided reading his work for fear that I’d have to slog through sentences like “It was dark. Very dark. Super-dark. Yup.” Then I took a course in graduate school that included his short stories and a novel or two and was struck by the spare lyricism of the opening paragraph from A Farewell to Arms:
“In the late summer of that year we lived in a house in a village that looked across the river and the plain to the mountains. In the bed of the river there were pebbles and boulders, dry and white in the sun, and the water was clear and swiftly moving and blue in the channels. Troops went by the house and down the road and the dust they raised powdered the leaves of the trees. The trunks of the trees too were dusty and the leaves fell early that year and we saw the troops marching along the road and the dust rising and leaves, stirred by the breeze, falling and the soldiers marching and afterward the road bare and white except for the leaves.”
Hemingway’s prose is clear and direct, the word choices simple enough that a child can read this passage. And yet the clarity and lucidity allow the reader to peer down into the stream, the road, and the soldiers marching by and see the implications. How many will return up that road? How many will fall like the leaves and be washed away like the pebbles? Time passes, youth passes–or gets spent on old men’s wars. As with the sentence from Sula above, this paragraph carries so much: as the stream bed bears the weight of water, as the road bears the weight of young lives.
I used to hear sports coaches talking about having, or putting, “skin in the game”–that is, you’re not playing hard, with full awareness and dedication, unless you’ve gotten some of your flesh rubbed off during play. Powerful descriptions are your skin in the game, the pain and passion of the human experience that gets rubbed off your life and into your words.
Skin in the game; skin on the floor. They linger in the reader’s heart, raising your words to the level of resonant, disturbing, disruptive, and glorious truth.
All photographs of faces are from Pinterest collections.
When I kept collecting rejections for my novel, I decided to enlist a developmental editor to determine why the guards at the Portals of Publication kept crossing their spears when my work ambled up to them. At that point, I’d subjected the unfortunate beast to six revisions, with my writing critique group’s aid, and I was stumped. The editor furnished me with loads of helpful recommendations and a concept I’d never encountered before: “deep point-of-view.”
“Deep” is an adjective I’ve heard and read a lot recently: deep history, deep science, and now deep point-of-view. The editor explained that this approach to the narrating voice draws the reader into intimate contact with the protagonist, producing that coveted experience of being in somebody else’s head. You perceive surroundings and experience events while stuck like a burr in the main character’s brain.
So I rewrote my scenes using the vocabulary, the skill set and knowledge base, and the quirks and limitations belonging to each viewpoint character (I had several). This change brought new life to the novel, but then one final, radical step completed the transformation.
I identified the most important point-of-view character out of four speakers and gave her the chance to speak for herself, not as “she” but as “I.”
At first, I felt apprehensive. Not since I was a child had I written in first person in fiction. My journal and essays are full of “I”s; my fiction, safely distant third person. So I felt distinctly unsafe when I took this step, but at least in writing, risk can equal opportunity rather than a broken leg, a broken heart, or a broken life.
Wow! What a change! Just altering the pronouns deepened that point-of-view to a degree I hadn’t believed possible. As soon as “she” became “I,” that protagonist’s word choices, past history, unique perspective, fears and hopes, everything came into focus and flowed naturally. Speaking in the first person, this character revealed herself to me as she’d never done before. The word “deep” applies well: the whole story developed a more profound dimension once she stepped forward to speak for herself.
And the things she said! When I publish the book, I’ll give you before-and-after examples side by side to illustrate what I mean. For now, suffice it to say, until I gave this character her say, I hadn’t realized that “promises can give you frostbite.”
If you’d like to experiment with first-person narrative but you’d prefer ultimately to keep your story in third person, don’t worry, the treatment is reversible. Writers have good reasons for creating third-person narratives. They allow for a broader perspective, one that’s less “locked in” to the narrator’s experiences and attitudes. Why not try switching the pronouns when a point-of-view character first appears and watch what they start to say and do? You can always change back, leaving the new, more vivid voice intact even as you take a step back into the wider view of third person.
Sometimes we need to approach a problem from a fresh perspective, seeing with new eyes–or a new I.