Avoiding Idle Hands

Before starting a draft, many writers sketch out what attributes they think their characters should have. Once the draft is begun, a common impulse is to dump all of those background notes in one spot. Yet if the notes are broken up into pieces, each piece of information can become active, driving the story forward. The technique has, at the least, the virtue of giving that character something to do as the book goes on.

The character who has outlived her (usually minor) purpose is a problem I see regularly. Let’s assume Darlene is the sister of a murder victim, Annika. You have several paragraphs of background notes that help fill out Annika’s role (her sister’s part in her upbringing). That was the limit of your interest in Darlene—because you know she didn’t do it. Yet she does need to show up several times later in the story. The problem is, the reader may not remember who she is, because she hasn’t done anything since her first appearance.

First, consider how she could link up with other characters. The notes might be broken up so that each piece becomes a source of conflict. If Detective O’Shea, call him that, is investigating the case, Darlene’s background info could become fodder during O’Shea’s questioning of Annika’s nearest and dearest. If Darlene had visited her sister the night of the murder, but at first tells the detective they merely talked on the phone, his finding out that was a lie would cause him to re-interview her. That passive piece of background has been transformed into the basis for a hostile exchange. Darlene has become a source of suspense.

The detective might also find out about another suspicious piece of background. Darlene might have let Annika’s estranged husband come to her house for an entirely innocent reason: to talk to him about Annika’s number one problem with the marriage—his drinking. Yet once she’s murdered, Darlene might neglect to admit the meeting ever happened. After all, he was a belligerent asshole about it anyway. But if Detective O’Shea finds out, he could come running. The exchange might include a nice tension-producing accusation like: “Your brother-in-law was visiting your house the night before the murder because you wanted to scold him about his drinking?”

What has happened is that you have taken passive background information, meant to be dumped in one spot, and broken it into pieces that then can be acted upon. Darlene is not a major character, but she can add some pop to the story along the way. That’s a lot better than being a character that shows up with a chunk of background and then ends up not having a way to contribute to the main plot.

Exercise: Check the background notes you have for a character. Now, rotating from one to the next, run through in your mind how each one of your major characters (do you have five?) might interact with those notes. Do you see any promising friction through this linkage?

“Creativity can solve almost any problem. The creative act, the defeat of habit by originality, overcomes everything.”
—George Lois

Copyright @ 2018, John Paine


The Statues

One of the delights in writing historical fiction is imagining how real-life figures might act in situations that you devise. An author in this genre loves history anyway, and the personage can be one of the targets of research. As anyone engaged in this pursuit knows, many legends do not have firmly known personality traits beyond, say, George Washington’s steadfastness. That gives an author the leeway to make it up as it goes, to a certain extent.

Exploring the man (or woman) behind the myth can lead to pitfalls, though. The first occurs when featuring the personage on a recurring basis. One dictum of storytelling is that a character who appears regularly should gain increasing depth in order to maintain the reader’s interest in her. If the person on the throne, for one example, keeps on benevolently smiling when the protagonist reports, the reader stops caring about the ruler, and may even get annoyed because the character isn’t doing anything new. Totems are tall and impressive, but they always look the same.

A more serious offense is trivializing the personage. Such a character possesses a magnetism merely by virtue of being well-known. If you think about it, that happens in real life too, such as meeting Ellen Degeneres in the grocery store. She’s just buying squash, but you tell all your friends about the chance encounter. In fiction, a reader’s antenna bristles upon the mention. Does the writer’s conception of the person match the historical facts the reader knows about him? If Grover Cleveland keeps showing up at a brothel, wanting to try a new position in the Kama Sutra, exposing his big old belly over and over again, the reader may well become offended. He was a president, after all.

The harder work is doing such extensive research that an author feels confident enough to imagine how the personage would react in a fictional situation. George Saunders’ Lincoln in the Bardo demonstrates the author’s brilliance, to be sure, but he also did a ton of research on Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln. In order to pull off even a lesser feat means that an author needs to commit the hours needed to comb through correspondence, memoranda, etc. That may not be such a daunting prospect, however, for someone who loves research anyway. If a famous person exerts an instant pull on readers, think of how thrilled you will be when inhabiting her from the inside.

Exercise: Review the manuscript for any historical figures. Read the scenes focusing solely on them. Do their reactions show any fruits of research? If so, are you adding anything to a general reader’s impression of them, based on their high school history lessons, or the like? You are using the personages to aid your cause, so they should possess at least as much individuality as your other characters.

“History will be kind to me for I intend to write it.”
—Winston Churchill

Copyright @ 2018, John Paine


The Overloaded Explanation

In a civilization that increasingly progresses through scientific advances, a person who easily assimilates a body of knowledge in a scientific field can experience difficulties when he then tries to explain what he is writing about to a layperson. Twenty-first century, please meet the cave dweller. Perhaps the less gifted among us aren’t that bad, but the experience of explaining scientific terms can be a struggle. While many times this problem arises in nonfiction writing, any thriller writer who would like to emulate Michael Crichton is in the same boat. How do you smoothly lay out a process in which a term like NK-kB is easily understood?

The first thing to understand is that non-scientific minds really don’t get it, no matter how nice you are. I have edited (read: translated) dozens of science-based books, and I still feel a wall rise up in my mind when I see a term I don’t immediately recognize. You know, like the doors in the underground labs of James Bond movies? Sealed off, like that, knowing I belong in the stupid room. Now, could we try that again?

What I do as an editor dumbing down science is maintain consistency in approach. It is not enough to explain what the endothelium is in a blood vessel. You have to keep reminding the reader that it is a thin lining. Don’t then assume the reader will understand the adjectival form. I may have vaguely grasped how the endothelium is injured by junk food, but if you then casually throw in “endothelial dysfunction,” my mind freezes up. Couldn’t that be “injury to the endothelium”? If you keep the number of terms limited, we can sail on that shaky raft.

The same principle hold for multiple scientific terms in the same sentence. The lay reader may understand each of the terms, because you have explained each one individually, but that does not mean we will understand an entire conglomeration of them. For example, I tremble at a sentence like: “Formed from the amino acid L-arginine, oxygen and enzymes, nitric oxide is produced in both the endothelium and the smooth muscle cells to regulate the tone of smooth muscle within the artery.” I don’t really understand what amino acids are, what role oxygen plays, how enzymes work in this case, and nitric oxide conjures up memories of being terrible in high school chem lab. So try to keep it simple. If you use only one or a few terms per sentence, the reader won’t quit.

Finally, if you are writing a novel, don’t explain scientific terms in dialogue. In the first place, people don’t talk like that. More to the point, though, dialogue isn’t as precise as narrative. If you explain to the reader directly what the concepts are, you can write exactly the explanations that are needed for comprehension. Summarize what the doctor is patiently explaining to the cop, and the reader will feel far smarter.

“There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.”
—Benjamin Disraeli

Copyright @ 2018, John Paine


Removing the Screen

A novice writer, trying so hard to inhabit a character, will often describe a piece of action taking place as seen by the character. The problem is, if you are truly inside your character’s head, everything is seen by her. Describing the act of seeing is a screen. Here’s an example: “When she looked up, she saw that he was easily making his way down, but when he landed, his foot slipped on a wet rock and he lurched forward.” On one level the narrative makes sense. If a character is contemplating her navel, and her attention is diverted by a more distant sight, she needs to look up. In addition, “she” controls the scene’s point-of-view, so she would be witnessing his clumsiness.

During the course of an edit, however, I usually take out all references to sight. It is possible that a character is so engrossed in something that she needs to physically turn her head to look up. Yet most of the time it is just lazy writing. More descriptive would be a phrase describing where the man is before he starts climbing down: a rocky bluff, a grassy dune, etc.

In particular, the phrase “she saw that” is hardly ever needed. If you’re inside the character, the point of view is assumed. A better strategy is to let the other character signal their presence first. Here is that sentence again, without the screens: “He called to her from the top of the rocky bluff. He easily made his way down, but when he landed, his foot slipped on a wet rock and he lurched forward.” She still is watching, but the actions of the other character are more immediate. The screen has been removed.

You can make the same implicit assumption for what a character thinks. The phrase “it seemed to her” is another one that I almost always delete. The entire book is filled with her thoughts, her opinions, etc. Everything that is narrated is the way it seems to her. Here’s an example, adding onto the beach example above: “It seemed to her that he had to stop trying to please her so much.” If she is the point-of-view character, you don’t need the screen. “He had to stop trying to please her so much” is more direct, allowing the reader to fully participate in her amusement and/or annoyance.

Exercise: Conducting a global search, key in any word related to sight, such as “look” or “see.” Judge whether the point-of-view character really needs to witness the event, or if it could just happen. Do the same with “seem.” This word rarely needs to be used in fiction. Everything is made up, so something is either real to the character or it isn’t.

“Vision is the art of seeing what is invisible to others.”
—Jonathan Swift

Copyright @ 2018, John Paine

Copyright © 2012 John Paine. All rights reserved.