People Just Don’t Do That

Every author straddles the line between realism and fantasy. In order to give a character depth, you’re better off staying close to your heart. What you feel strongly about communicates to the reader. When a writer strays too far into a personality he is only trying to simulate, the results can seem contrived.

This adherence to truth, however, can lead an author into the trap of being too common. If all fictional police detectives acted the way real detectives do, crime fiction would be a pretty dull world. If all therapists confined themselves to the limits set in their training, psychological suspense would be humdrum. Note that these are fairly exciting professions. What happens when an overworked banker with two kids sticks to her realistic routine? Two big yawns. 

As an editor, I’d like to point out an obstacle that many authors, both fledgling and experienced, have without even realizing it. That is: playing it safe. You want the action to be realistic, but that can also be a way of hiding from the reader. When I suggest to an author that his characters be outrageous, I also mean the author has to throw off the chains that everyday life imposes on us. You too need to be outrageous, to write stuff you’d never do in a million years. I’m reading T. C. Boyle’s short story “Balto” right now, and the lead character not only shares two bottles of wine with his lover for lunch, he then orders cognac. The reader knows that nothing good can come of such unseemly behavior. As a result, we’re intrigued. We want to find out what’s going to happen.

People can do anything you like in a story as long as you back it up with setup material and then dwell in the action to a depth that it seems ordinary—according to its own bizarre logic. But you have to commit to going for broke. If the stuff that pours out seems too outlandish, you can always rein it in afterward. But try to go extreme first, then judge.

Exercise: Review your manuscript for any scenes that strike you as rather dull. Maybe the scene should be struck altogether. But you should also consider if one of the characters could adopt an extreme attitude toward the subject. You might want to set her up before the scene so that she enters it on fire with anger—and she says things she later regrets. If you have a lot of scenes like this, it may be time to make her more eccentric on page 1.

“I put on such a good show, the story is outrageous, and people don't want to hear that I'm basically a reasonable human being. As long as it continues to get me print, I'll continue to perform in an exuberant manner.” 
—James Ellroy

Copyright @ 2017, John Paine 


Writing about Writing

Support is so important to a writer. Whether you are part of a writing group, taking a writing class, or espousing new ideas to a partner, you gain valuable insights either from others or from eureka moments while talking out a problem. The experiences feel so uplifting, it’s no surprise that such sessions appear to be good source material for your novel.

Craaaaannkk! The editor jams on the buzzer, waves his arms wildly. No! No, that isn’t a good idea. After such an obstreperous reaction, you have the right to ask: why not? The people in the writing group are all ears. The writing teacher loves classroom discussions. As for my husband, well, maybe he isn’t all ears all the time, but he enjoys talking about the book.

Discussion of writing belongs to the province of: you had to be there. Such environments encourage secondhand commentary. But that sort of material seems like remote storytelling in a novel. You’re trying to put the reader in a lead character’s shoes. The words you put on the page cast a spell. Yet the case holding your fictional world is made of gossamer. It is easily broken by the intrusion of commenting voices.

You also need to consider: what is the end result of such a discussion? Did the writer then go and change a sentence? A paragraph? Even a scene? Let’s go further and ask: what sort of plot stake is that? It hardly amounts to love and death in the American novel. It’s just a piece of somebody’s made-up stuff. Don’t get me wrong: I love a carefully constructed sentence. But I don’t pretend it’s a bloody knife.

Probably the worst aspect is: it’s tedious to read about other people writing. The same goes for people commenting about writing. Even if you develop characters over the course of repeated scenes, they will remain on that same arid plateau. Talk, talk, talk. There’s nothing at stake. Even if the writer in the novel is being pilloried, he can go back home and write something else. It’s hard to get excited about an issue that can be changed in Scrivener.

Exercise: If you have a series of scenes that discuss a person’s writing, pick one character to focus on. Follow the same dictum you would with any plot line: the character starts at base Point A and progresses through changes to arrive at ending Point Z. Maybe she has a nervous breakdown, maybe she attacks an especially cruel classmate. But make it about flesh and blood, not an intellecutal abstraction.

“Readers are not sheep, and not every pen tempts them.”
― Vladimir Nabokov

Copyright @ 2017, John Paine


Mystery Clues That Satisfy

The mystery/suspense bookcase is crowded with puzzles that readers love to solve. What makes these stand out from the hundreds of books written every year that remain unpublished? One element is the unique nature of the clues. While they separate the classic mysteries from the pack, they also aid a tale focused more on its suspense component.

Humdrum clues can make a manuscript less special altogether. The reason usually stems from the origin of an author’s impulse to write. He may be more interested in action, or she is more interested in personalities. Yet the deficiency emerges glaringly by the end of the draft. The action is good, yes, and the characters are fun. But why does the plot seem so ordinary?

The author may want to examine the physical evidence that provides the trail of clues. A professional writer knows that ambiguity and research are vital tools in her craft. You just need to take the time required to be fiendish.

Authors that research a topic can devise true puzzles to solve. Think of the wide variety of delightful connections made by Sherlock Holmes. Given a bell rope, odd hissing, and a victim’s dying words, “the speckled band,” Holmes deduces that a deadly snake from India (Britain’s largest colony in those days) was the agent of death. Research about an exotic creature from a faraway land ended devising a British bedroom murder.

More complex examples include an encrypted code, such as the cryptex used in The Da Vinci Code. Such clues entail specialized knowledge to solve, and thus the reader is taken into a little-known realm that is intriguing to read about. Yet one of the reasons for the book’s popularity is that Dan Brown uses famous realms to explore. One of the means to solve the clues is knowledge of Leonardo da Vinci and another is an encryption method used in the Dead Sea Scrolls.

Research into clues provides not only a fascinating trail of crumbs, however. It governs the plotting as a whole. This orientation is not clear to many readers, because the book’s investigator discovers only one link at a time. As a reader you enter a book looking for a lead character or a few that will lead you through the proceedings. But all of those steps must be devised beforehand. Your research literally determines the lie of the land.

Exercise: Research by itself is an amorphous blob. Once you discover an unusual field of research, you need to devise a concept. That makes you an active explorer: when you read about unusual facts, you assign them as different clues that are revealed at specific times. If you draw up a long list, you can then actively assign them to characters as they emerge in the story.

“Mysteries abound where most we seek for answers.”
—Ray Bradbury

Copyright @ 2017, John Paine


The Art of the Verb Choice

Among the struggles that authors have during the revision process, the most taxing is finding the right word in a specific sentence. The degree of difficulty an author experiences depends on the degree of perfection she demands from herself. Although I could write dozens of posts on this topic, I’ll start with a basic fix.

It concerns common verbs such as “move.” You want to describe a character moving through space. In that case, “move” is an umbrella term that comprises many more specific verbs. A profusion comes to mind: walk, advance, proceed, march, etc. How do you determine which one fits? 

The first consideration is frequency of usage. How many times have you used “walk,” for instance? Chances are, you have used it more than any other verb of moving. You don’t want to pile on, because those words become stale. That means your prose as a whole is more stale. 

You then advance to: shade of meaning. How is the character moving? A person who marches connotes perhaps a strict, upright individual. Yet it can also point out that the person is angry. Does that fit the context? Maybe you want to pick “advance,” because that can be made to seem threatening. Or, “proceed” is more utilitarian, performing a piece of business. When you stop to think about what you really mean, a more specific verb adds texture. A character would “circulate” at an art opening, for example.

If you try out a heap of words and you’re still dissatisfied, you may need to go beyond the concept of moving altogether. What is being accomplished by the act of moving, anyway? If he is circulating, that adds to a reader’s knowledge. If he feels he’s being watched as he walks down an alley, the act of movement could be crucial. Yet so many times the sentence is merely lazy thinking. You move the character from Point A to Z because you’re trying to picture the scene in your mind. Once you’ve written the scene, though, don’t you know what is happening?

The movement might be transformed into an act of desire. “She was so done with this place” could be followed by a paragraph starting with her pressing the ignition button in her car. Linked to the last thought, she could have another: “She felt like she could fly away forever.” You’re using paragraph structure to omit the need for transport.

Exercise: Review the manuscript looking for verbs. When you see one of the omnibus variety, such as “see,” stop to think through the options you have. If only a few come to mind, check a thesaurus. If nothing feels right still, the problem is the act of seeing. Chuck it altogether and convey the act a different way.

“Look for verbs of muscle, adjectives of exactitude.”
—Mary Oliver

Copyright @ 2017, John Paine


Expanding Your Evil Empire

A novel has competing dynamics as its plot builds. Most of the story consists of interactions between characters, occurring in one locale or another. Yet the implications of these interactions define the larger realm that an author has staked out. A common example is the struggle of a hero to stop a human devil from taking over the world.

Such wider implications are essential to certain genres such as thrillers, historical/political novels, and science fiction/fantasy. If the stakes are not large enough, the reader may feel that his participation in the elaborate game play involved in such works wasn’t worth the effort. Oh, so she only won the prize of dogcatcher of Idiota, Idaho? After all that?

Crafting a struggle with titanic overtones does not require much work. That’s because so much of the novel is taken up with private interactions. A hero still has to overcome a series of personal-size obstacles on his journey. Expanding the scope of ultimate ambitions can be fashioned via several methods.

One way is to craft a prism whereby the pervasive reach of the evil force is taken for granted by everyone. Readers will accept these reports as proof that the evil empire—that you have constructed out of whole cloth—should be feared. Any steps the protagonist takes need to factor in how it will disturb the evil force. Any military strategies by opposing forces need to include consideration of the evil force’s lethal capabilities. Everyone will go ahead and act in their local sphere—but you have added a looming shadow over the proceedings.

The heroine does not have to oppose this evil directly throughout the book. Yet at a minimum you do need to provide proof of concept occasionally. Merely bruiting the mention of evil goes only so far. Several overt acts, spaced periodically over the course of the book, can demonstrate the empire’s power. If their destruction escalates sequentially, the anticipation of the climax is augmented.

At the end, this building needs to culminate in some major conflagration, involving a large number of the enemy forces. The bigger they are, the harder they fall—but the reader needs to be immersed in the action. That is the payoff for all of his attention.

Exercise: If you have already written a draft, review the manuscript for any places that the evil force can be inserted, even if only in an ominous mention. Is there any one character whose life could be more affected by the evil? Proceed from mentions to incidents, and then have characters discuss the incidents fearfully. Soon the aura of evil will pervade the story.

“But it is the same with man as with the tree. The more he seeks to rise into the height and light, the more vigorously do his roots struggle earthward, downward, into the dark, the deep—into evil.”
—Friedrich Nietzsche

Copyright @2017, John Paine


Make Your Subplot Scenes Count

Each character attracts the reader’s attention. That is both a blessing and a curse for a writer. By the amount of coverage a character receives, you can develop cascading rhythms that favor her. That is a blessing if you want to build up to a peak at a given point in a novel. Yet it is a curse if you expect the reader to be as interested in another character merely because you place his scene in the middle of your cresting sequence devoted to her. Why should the reader be interested in that character (that not-her character)?

This problem can become acute when you are staging competing plot lines. Let's say Henrietta gets three chapters in a row, totalling 20 pages. Then Stan gets his turn—for a chapter that lasts 2 pages. Now stop at look at that math. As a reader, here’s my experience. I have to switch gears. Stan, not Henrietta, is the point-of-view character now. I first have to remember who Stan is. Don’t laugh, I frequently have to check the list of characters that I compile while reading a manuscript. Second, I have to get into Stan’s head. I have barely done that before, poof!, the scene is over. I’m left scratching my head: why did we bother switching away from Henrietta, whom I was enjoying, for this jokester who can’t even carry a decent-length scene?

Spending 20 pages with a character creates dominance. That’s who the reader wants to stay with now—because that’s what you’ve told the reader. Depending on how long a major character dominates a novel, you need to make sure that your subplot scenes have some heft to them. The reader needs to recalibrate his intellectual/emotional compass because of the long intervals in between the subplot scenes. That’s why I advise writers to consider a minimum length for a subplot scene. Depending on how long your normal chapters are, I would shoot for 5-10 pages. That not only allows the reader time to switch gears, but then become interested in whichever plot development you are laying out in that scene. Something with true dramatic weight has to happen if you’re spending five whole pages on it. That in turn will force you to do your duty by that subplot character: develop a substantial plot line for him. He shouldn’t be thrown in merely for a change of pace. He should be contributing enough to the book that we are rewarded by turning to him.

Exercise: Create a four-column chart and mark the name of a chosen subplot character at the top. Make the heading of the first column “Ch” for chapter number. The second column is “Pages” for the number of pages in the scene. The third is “Character” for the point-of-view character in the scene.  Finally, the fourth column is “Interval” or the number of pages that have elapsed since that character ran a scene. Compare Column 2 with Column 4. Do you think that character is really holding his own?

“The profession of book-writing makes horse racing seem like a solid, stable business.”
—John Steinbeck

Copyright @ 2017, John Paine


Skip the Announcement

Among the welter of influences that television scriptwriting has had on commercial fiction is the very short scene in which a character or two set up an event that will happen later. This sort of device works on the screen, because viewers are used to frequent jump-cutting among micro scenes. On paper, however, such scenes can clog up a novel. That’s because each scene is a story unit, and hopefully each unit is advancing either a character arc or a plot line. The narrative approaches of the two media don’t work the same way.

An announcement that such-and-such is about to do something is what I call a stepping-stone scene. It’s a scene on the way to the scene in which the story is advanced. The problem is, unless the upcoming event is so dramatic that you think you can squeeze anticipatory tension out of an announcement, the reader doesn’t need it. For example, take a six-line scene in which Harry calls Beth to set up a meeting. Why can’t we go directly to the meeting? If you think it’s necessary to provide a link to the previous sequence, you can explain in a passing sentence or two at the beginning of the meeting that Harry had called Beth. Mission accomplished, without the need for an extra scene.

The primary subject of a stepping-stone scene is a phone call (a less effective narrative device in itself), but another culprit is the micro scene set in a car. For instance, Ryan is depicted taking Rosey from the police station to her house. The conversation consists essentially of his asking where she’d like to go, and she says her house. Could the next chapter just start at Rosey’s? We assume that people use a motor vehicle to get from a police station to somebody’s house.

I am not a formalist; I don’t necessarily believe that every scene should have a beginning, middle, and end. Sometimes a one-page scene can emphasize the staccato pace of an action sequence. Yet most parts of a book are not so frantic.  Your scenes need to do the work of moving the story forward. So don’t bother with the announcements. Take us straight to the scene that is going to further our interest in what your characters are doing.

Exercise: Thumb through the manuscript (or, global-search “Chapter”). Do you have any very short scenes? Read what it contains and write a 1-2 sentence synopsis that captures the gist of it. Thumb ahead to the scene that the stepping-stone scene has announced. Look for a good place to drop in that sentence or two. You’ll usually find it within the first narrative paragraph (not dialogue). Then cut the stepping-stone scene and see how the story reads.

“The wastebasket is the writer's best friend.”
—Isaac Bashevis Singer

Copyright @ 2017, John Paine


Unexpected Opposites

Devising original characters is a challenge for an author. Stereotypes abound in every field of fiction, such as the strong, silent man or the chatty, sarcastic woman. When writing out scenes for a stock character, an author can find that the connection comes easily, but the results are same-same. Same as so many other books, screenplays, etc. It’s like a rock singer who turns the microphone toward the audience to sing the chorus of a familiar hit.

How can you reach beyond the tried and true? One way is to combine personality traits in novel ways. Let’s take the example of a shy person. The accompanying adjectives that come to mind are insecure, mumbling, or timorous. If you identify a quality that doesn’t fit the mold, though, you can broaden your approach. For instance, a shy person can still be confident. Such a character is underestimated, surprising, even threatening in his surges of power. That opens a lot of possibilities in both plotting and scene work.

Or take the opposite type: the extrovert. Ideas that come quickly to mind are articulate, commanding, or charismatic. Yet that assemblage too may lead, down the road in the manuscript, to boredom. You can almost hear echoes of a TV sitcom star. So, again, reach for the uncommon combination. What about an awkward extrovert? The woman was born with her foot in her mouth—and she won’t shut up. She keeps on plaguing those around her with her unwanted utterances.

Such basic contradictions are only a starting point. You can compose a character that essentially fits a predictable mold—because he needs to wield a gun, say—but then assign a drawback, along the lines of a tragic flaw. A married businessman, bored with his straight-ahead success, is lured by his pubescent fascination for dressing in women’s clothes. A prostitute is attracted to a far-right evangelical sect. An action-adventure actor starts quoting from Proust.

Beyond creating a character that stands out as different, you are also providing richness in the characterization. Inherent in opposition is tension. You juxtapose character qualities in the same way you juxtapose characters. Considering how much time we all spend fighting our compulsions, you are mirroring the complexity that makes life interesting.

Exercise: Once you have chosen two opposing character traits, try to think of the most extreme examples of where they could lead. What’s the worst thing an awkward extrovert could blurt out, under which circumstances? Who is the worst person to expose that cross-dresser? See if you can work up scenes and then judge whether the character can still hang together as a congruent whole.

“Our mind is capable of passing beyond the dividing line we have drawn for it. Beyond the pairs of opposites of which the world consists, other, new insights begin.”
—Hermann Hesse


Juggling Balls

More than any other genre, mystery writing involves deliberate craft. Mystery readers want to be fooled, and a mystery writer has to employ layers of deception in order to pull that off. The successful mystery engages in this process on a chapter-by-chapter basis, and every chapter ending provides a new clue. So how does the fledgling mystery or thriller writer manage to stage a novel so that it contains so much complexity?

The main technique is to provide a variety of suspects at all times. I have a term I use with authors: juggling balls. The “balls” in question are the suspects, and the juggling refers to the need for an author to keep a certain number of them revolving through the book so that the reader cannot settle on any one of them. I believe at least three suspects should remain active all the way up to the denouement. That is a large enough number that a reader cannot start picking the odds of one against the other.

Usually, one character is what I call the obvious suspect. That is the one that has opportunity and motive, and often one who is near and dear to the victim. This suspect is raised early on, and continues to be nasty or obnoxious until the end. Yet it is also the suspect that the reader hopes isn’t “it,” because he’s so obvious. That’s not how a twisty game is played.

What fledgling authors find harder is sustaining the secondary suspects. Appearing in a regular rotation of scenes is paramount in order to keep a suspect compelling in the reader’s mind. Yet that isn’t good enough. New revelations have to keep on turning up that give the secondary suspects true relevance. Considering how easy these are to fabricate—it turns out Caroline was lying about where she was that night (because she is trying to cover up an assignation)—I’m surprised that authors don’t have a ready store of tricks up their sleeve.

The list of suspects does not have to remain constant over the course of the novel. An early possibility can be shown positively to be innocent by halfway through. Plus, new suspects can be introduced in roughly the first third of the novel, and these can gain increasing prominence. If three balls are still being juggled up to the point that the climax sequence starts, you’re ready for the show.

Exercise: Draw up a list of circumstances surrounding the murder. A suspect’s relationship to the victim is paramount: when do you reveal what that truly is? The days leading up to the murder are another rich source of confusion, particularly if the victim was not well liked. The financial dealings with the victim can be another lode. Keep writing down different factors until you have filled up a page. Now assign those links to 3-4 main suspects so they compose a logical association. You now can plug in those clues at every chapter ending.

“If I didn't know the ending of a story, I wouldn't begin. I always write my last line, my last paragraph, my last page first.”
—Katherine Anne Porter

Copyright @ 2017, John Paine

Copyright © 2012 John Paine. All rights reserved.