Merely Strange

A good author knows that the outer limits, both of personality and of society, must be probed in order to make a novel original. Some writers come to this voyage of discovery more naturally, because that is where their own lives are spent. They may live in the world of the arts, where the unusual is expected, or conversely, on the midnight shift, where the losers in ordinary life can be found.

Accounts about freaks make for good storytelling, and such an author may grin as they write down an outlandish feat. Because a novel is a roomy abode, it can accommodate a panoply of misfit delights. The page count rises to the size of an actual book, and the writer can be forgiven for thinking that the end is in sight. Rollicking good yarns, all of them. Mix them up, making sure each major  character appears in a regular rotation, and the only question left is: who wants to publish this?

The problem with a collection of anecdotes, even exotic ones, is that the reading experience remains flat. That may accord with certain modern literary theories, but it can also be an excuse for a writer who has not yet learned how to write with true depth. In a hodgepodge, the only thread a reader follows is often chronology. Yet twenty years narrated at a distance may be less satisfying than a single day narrated intensely.  

Depth in writing requires winners and losers in the ranking of characters. Certain players appear more often, have a more complete life change. We’ll posit that the novel depicts a collection of roadies for a rock band. If Clarisse the sound mixer is a favorite of the author’s, she cannot be treated the same—i.e., given the same number of pages of coverage—as Chris the personal guitar tuner. Are Clarisse’s problems with her boyfriend, then husband, then estranged partner, more important than Chris’s heroin dabbling or not?

The odd and kooky tales become differentiated according to how important they are to the main characters. You don’t have to leave them out, but they cannot all be narrated with equal dramatic weight. If I don’t care about the character at the heart of the tale, his behavior will be merely bizarre. Maybe funny too, but the point is, his impact on the reader is less if he is only one among a collection of weirdos.

Exercise: When you are sorting through your war stories, divorce the real life models from the content. A story may have really happened to Elle, but if you want to feature Sarah more, it should be given to her. Life, in other words, is used in the employment of art. You may find, as a result, that Sarah’s reactions to what happens in that anecdote add texture to her character.

“One must be a little crazy to write a good novel.” —John Gardner

Copyright @ 2024, John Paine


The Endless Explanations

One of the advantages of the 1st-person narrative voice is the ability for a character to spill out thoughts and comments. The personal touches that this interior work adds can change pedestrian prose into a highly nuanced style. Since the narrator’s view of an event determines how the reader experiences it, you can make the most banal daily undertakings fresh and engaging. 

I am an advocate of the open-spigot approach when you are getting ideas out of your head onto the paper. When they remain whirling upstairs in your brain, their usefulness is compromised by the myriad other ideas you are planning to get into the story somewhere. They also can glow with a promise that often dims when set in the concrete of black type. So, get it down first in order to focus on what you actually have.

When you go back to edit, what you may find is a melange of striking thoughts—the keepers—and what I’ll call notes to yourself. Let’s take an extended example to illustrate. Say you want to capture the prickly interactions between a male teenager and his mother.  The barbs contained in the dialogue may have some sting, but you don’t want the exchange to sound like another show on Nickelodeon. So smart, and aren’t they from L.A.? You add commentary in between the lines of dialogue to define what makes this relationship different. In this case, maybe the boy’s father died a few years back.

During the editing, a primary objective should be to transform as much of the commentary into the dialogue as possible. That is, once you know the relationship, you can craft the lines of dialogue to make the ramifications of the father’s death implicit—both in what they say and how they react to statements. If the boy gave up sports to mind his younger siblings after school, that resentment frames what he says about his siblings when he talks to his mother. It frames how he reacts when she complains about never having a spare moment to herself. As you go through the manuscript, you can look at each sentence of narrative commentary on an issue and ask: “Can what he is saying assume they’re both aware of the issue?” Then you can delete the commentary.

When you winnow out such notes to yourself, what will remain are the more acute thoughts. He may make a sweeping remark to the reader that he knows he dares not say to his mother. He may vow to do something in the future. In this way the thoughts become just another dazzling means of attack.

Exercise: As you’re reviewing, separate out what happened in the past from the present. You can trim remarks about the past, for sure, but most of the notes to cut concern the present. That stuff is dynamic, which you should change it to become active.

“Don't tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.” —Anton Chekhov

Copyright @ 2024 John Paine. All rights reserved.


Framing the Issue

In our private thoughts we can dream up provocative ideas about our own lives that, later on, seem ideally suited for inserting in a novel. I’ll use one as a running example throughout this post. “Upon meeting new people, I seem to engender a common response. The person reacts like: I may be a loser, but I’m not so low that I need you as a friend.” 

On the face of it, that thought seems powerful. Oy, what a terrible thing to think about yourself. When inserted in a novel, put down in black and white, however, the thought may start to feel silly, especially after a few rounds of review. It’s so serious, so stark. You poor little worm, you. Rather than throwing it out, though, you may want to consider the context in which it appears.

The first option is to have the character make a joke out of it. He tells someone, “Sometimes, you know what I think? Upon meeting . . .” Now you’ve taken off the ponderous weight. The reader isn’t forced to feel solemn. Yet you’re still putting the character’s opinion out there. People can read between the lines. If you think that framing is too light, have the other character take it seriously. “Oh, Hal, you’re not that bad . . .”

A second possibility is attaching the notion to a character other than the one narrating the scene. That way the onus isn’t placed on the character that the reader is following—i.e., emotionally involved with. It’s some other poor sap. You can even reveal something about your main character by the way she reacts to the pronouncement. “You know, Hallie, I’m really getting sick of  . . .” 

If you feel you have the writing chops, a third option is to double-down. You surround that statement with a number of other self-deprecating thoughts the character has. When a stark idea is couched within fictional “facts,” such as the character narrating the events that led to being dumped by the love of his life, you’ve greased the skids in that direction. Now the thought is a final thump! That guy has got it bad. The sentiment rings true because you took the care to support it.

Exercise: As with so many other facets of writing, you should experiment with your approach. Try all three of the options and see which one strikes you as the most genuine. By way of analogy, think of the statement as a topic sentence in a paragraph (although you may run longer than that). How are you going to build the supplemental sentences around the nugget you really want? 

“A serious writer is not to be confounded with a solemn writer. A serious writer may be a hawk or a buzzard or even a popinjay, but a solemn writer is always a bloody owl.” —Ernest Hemingway

Copyright @ 2024, John Paine


Pushing for Stupid

Aspiring authors come to a writing session with the goal of greatness. Some wish to pen eloquent strands of prose. Others wish to emulate bestselling writers they enjoy. Whether the aim is high- or low-brow, the dream shining in their mind is the same. If I write well enough, readers will love me.

After finishing a chapter, or a first draft, that writer may become distressed if the words written don’t ring true. A high-flown description of a beloved beach doesn’t seem to work with the dead body found in the dunes. Or, the narrative prose doesn’t seem to match with the more pedestrian dialogue passages. You decide that the tone needs to be made more consistent. You work harder during the revision so that everything sparkles. Yet the revised draft may feel like merely a gilded version of the same uneven enterprise.

The question to ask yourself is: where are these strenuous efforts taking place? Presumably in the silence of a lonely room. Even if you prefer showing off at Starbucks, you need to block out what others are saying. And that turn inward may be precisely the problem.

The inattention to the way real people stumble through their lives was brought home to me while reading George Saunders’ Pastoralia. The characters that fill these short stories are nearly incoherent. Their dialogue is inexpressive, and their thinking runs in ruts that show the most limited of horizons. That is the human race: Cro-Magnon at heart, and the smartest try to advance civilization. 

Don’t leave out the messy parts. Unless you’re creating a utopia, you’re better off listening to what is said in Starbucks. Actually, that’s highfalutin itself. Eavesdrop in the supermarket aisle or hardware store. Read the responses to online articles. People are not shy about spouting off their versions of the truth. You just are not capturing what they say. You’re holed up in your figurative cabin in the woods, trying to imitate what real life is like.

Oddly, common parlance has a cadence that can propel your writing. The characters that you want to fill out themes can be more varied when you consider real-life models. When you’re not melding toward unity, variety can be the spice that fills your novel.

Exercise: Because dialogue tends to be opaque, not saying what the person is feeling, trying to sketch a type can easily lead to a stereotype. To counteract that, try to flip the coin and find the person’s possible sorrows. They don’t have to be deep. Being ugly as a teenager can leave scars that affect someone’s behavior for the rest of their life. Put the type on that balancing point.

“People are much deeper than stereotypes. That's the first place our minds go. Then you get to know them and you hear their stories, and you say, ‘I'd have never guessed.’” —Carson Kressley

Copyright @ 2024, John Paine



The Mythical Reader

The reading public has been dragged into all sorts of discussions about how to make a book better. An author can claim to know their readers better than an agent, or editor, or publisher—who all then watch the book sink like a stone once released to such readers. More commonly, the process works the other way around: an author is advised by said publishing professionals what will sell a book to readers—and often the book still sinks like a stone. 

By contrast, in my editing practice I have found that “the reader” is a very useful tool in enjoining an author to push themselves to greater efforts. That’s because an author is encased in a cocoon during the writing process. The made-up world gains definition in the author’s mind; characters start to develop beyond names on a page. That’s all fine, but the size of the cocoon is determined by both the writer’s ability and experience. When the author emerges from the gauzy sac, they often find that the reading public doesn’t care much for their butterfly. 

I use the paradigm of “the reader” to inculcate better efforts. That’s because so many authors in my earlier years would respond to my suggestions as though I was speaking only for myself. I have had more than one author respond to my suggestions (balloons in the right-hand margin) with their own balloons—and not a single changed word on the page. They seem to think I inhabit my own cocoon, barking out my personal opinions as I poke my head out of my little hole to communicate with them. 

That’s because criticism hurts. Writing is deeply personal. When I talk to an author for the first time, I hear so often: “You can say anything about the book you like. I want you to be honest with me.” Being the wily psychologist than any adviser must be in order to survive, I thereby take away the opposite meaning: this writer must be handled delicately.

“The reader” has become the megaphone I use to shatter the illusion. Rather than “I don’t understand why,” I write, “The reader may not understand why . . .” a character performs or reacts to a plot event. Same point, but without the threat of a personal attack. Better yet, it helps to break through the writer’s self-absorption. They may think they don’t want to please anyone, that they’re just writing for themselves. But as the merest child sitting on their parent’s lap could tell you, writing is the art of touching someone.

Exercise: As you review the draft, keep asking yourself one question: would the reader I imagine would like my book understand why this is happening? If you’re not sure, you probably need to make the point clearer. Don’t worry about pellucid prose. Make sure, even if the reader has to work harder, that the point can be grasped.

“What is grand is necessarily obscure to weak men. That which can be made explicit to the idiot is not worth my care.” —William Blake

Copyright @ 2024 John Paine. All rights reserved.


Lack of Attention

The days when family members would each curl up with a book for the evening seems as quaint as a Currier and Ives print. Broadcast technology, especially the ever expanding channels on television, provide the modern family with fodder that better suits the brain-dead torpor we often feel at the end of the day. The change in medium, however, does not alter the imperative to tell an entertaining story. 

Television scriptwriting has affected novel writing in so many ways. Reliance on dialogue, ultra-short scenes, and a narrative voice that follows the cadence of speech are only the most common among them. Yet the novel maintains its advantage of telling a more thorough, involving story, and all the artful jump-cuts in the world cannot mask that. 

In terms of intelligent television, many believe it reaches its apogee in the grand sweeps of British history. The costume dramas of Victoria and their ilk return us to a comforting world in which important personages all knew each other. Amid the swirling plot lines of these soap operas, however, still lies the imperative: how do we deliver the beginning, middle, and end of this week’s main story? 

This is where the diffracted attention span caused by a chopped and spun screenplay can plague both media. A viewer or reader can start wondering why a lead character keeps defending the villain of the day. Because the visual arts can dazzle our eyes in a variety of scenes, that technique can substitute for plot development. Luckily for TV, the thin ruse needs to maintained for only an hour, and then viewers will have a week to forget how dull the episode was.

A novel cannot rely on the same cold comfort. If the same stuff keeps happening over and over, the reader falls asleep. Oh my God, will he kiss her already? This is a reason why the movie version of a story is so much simpler. When I can look out over the stunning canyons of Utah, I don't need the riders of the purple sage to show up just yet. 

It is fitting that a number of authors I work with are writing both a novel and its screenplay simultaneously. When the work of filling up book pages with enough interesting material becomes too hard, they turn to the screenplay. Dialogue trips off the fingers nicely. The screenplay is written more quickly. The only problem lies at the end, when the writer finds that Hollywood is even more of a bastion to assail than New York.

Exercise: For every description of character or scenery, you can dig in deeper to find aspects about the issue that the reader doesn't know. If a character is defending a known villain, what does that indicate about the character? In the art of manipulation, for one idea, lies all sorts of fascinating scenarios that can be explored.

"I don’t think screenplay writing is the same as writing—I mean, I think it’s blueprinting." —Robert Altman

Copyright @ 2024, John Paine


Longing for a Relationship

The title of this post might make you think it’s going to be about romance novels. While I have edited or copyedited dozens of them, I am more interested in pointing out one of their key facets to other kinds of novelists. That is the romance author’s focus on a unique type of idealized relationship.

Sure, we all laugh at bodice rippers and the like, but you should consider another point. Romance novels remain the best-selling genre category. That means the average romance reader reads one after another. Romance writers know this—and they try to make the core of each novel different. The more original they are, the better they sell. 

You may not be writing a romance, but you should be aware of the power of unusual relationships. The obvious reasons are: the power of love in general and the tension generated by our desire to see a couple come together. What I see in a number of novels that feature a romance as a side issue is: the author’s disinterest. They may be uncomfortable writing about feelings, or more likely sex, and the relationship is the most plodding imaginable. It’s like picking outfits from a closet: sexy type, hidden-riches type, clinging type . . . yaw-w-wn.

Even if it’s a sideshow, you owe the reader some dazzle. To start, you need to dream about a relationship that would interest you personally. What attributes turn you on? What attributes, maybe of a parent’s, excite or repel you? Isn’t that where all that Freudian stuff comes from? Once you make a short list of these qualities, you then need to embroider them. A character might have a streak of purple hair, but she also has an entire attitude that goes along with it. What can you draw from people you know that helps define that attitude? Be outrageous. Remember, you’re trying to entertain the reader.

That’s what romance authors struggle with all the time. How can I make the stud more than just buff? So look at your partners. What do you got? Why in the world would I possibly be interested in the relationship in your book?

Exercise: You may want to read a romance novel to see how the lead characters are defined. Rebelliousness is a large part of what makes someone sexy. How do your partners defy the norm of their world? If one is more staid, what lives inside him that would make him want to participate in the craziness of the other?

“The desire to get married is a basic and primal instinct in women. It’s followed by another basic and primal instinct: the desire to be single again.” —Nora Ephron

Copyright @ 2023, John Paine


Weighted at the Back End

Where is the best place to put a background story? Part of the answer depends on the role that discoveries play in a novel. In a mystery, for example, the denouement may be a background story that explains the hidden link of the murderer to the victim. For the purposes of this post, I’ll refine the question to: what is the best place for a background story about a character?

One prevalent style front-loads the information. That is, as soon as a new character is introduced, a mini-bio of a half page or more immediately ensues. This style, like a pop-up window with an explanation, is used commonly in such genres as thrillers. While sometimes they are not intrusive, I generally dislike them for two reasons. First, they often clog up the momentum of an action-oriented scene. Second, and more important, as a reader I don’t know if I want to pay so much attention to a character I’ve barely met. 

The imperative to front-load information about a character affects more literary endeavors as well. The first 50 or so pages can be clogged up with background stories. The plot cannot gain any forward momentum because the story keeps on being dragged into the past. I get it. A great deal happened to the character before page 1. Yet so many background stories so early begs the question: why did you start the book where you did? Maybe it should have started earlier in the character’s life.

Now let’s flip over the script: front to back. Some authors keep on dropping in back stories all through the book. I’m not talking about pieces that bear on the developing plot. These are random stories, like the memory of a girl’s first horse. The problem here is that the plot usually has gained enough momentum in its later stages that the plot events are building steadily upon the plot events that have already occurred. The train is moving too fast, in other words, to stop the story dead in its tracks for an unrelated story.

So where is the best place? The answer is a variant of show, don’t tell. In this case it is show, then tell. In other words, the character should perform some interesting plot business first. Then we’ll want to know more about that interesting person. The monkey charms us and then we’ll want to learn about its terrible story of being abducted from Cameroon. 

Exercise: To put a number on it, the sweet spot for most background stories ranges from roughly page 50 through the first third of the book. That way the plot gets under way. You firmly establish why the reader should be interested in the story told within these pages. Yet the background work fills out portraits at a time when you are still setting up the characters we’ll be following all book long.

“Life is a hideous thing, and from the background behind what we know of it peer daemoniacal hints of truth which make it sometimes a thousandfold more hideous.” —H. P. Lovecraft

Copyright @ 2024, John Paine


Not Clumping Too Close

An author trying to write a novel that is more driven by characters than plot can make the mistake of believing that no planning is needed at all. Why should you bother, since you want the characters to tell you what they want? While I’m all for the idea in principle, in practice it can lead to early scenes that seem shallow, because you haven’t gotten to know the characters very well yet.

A better strategy may be setting guide posts out ahead of the writing. Let’s take, for example, a three-way love affair in which a man, call him Len, knows that Marge is a better marriage candidate, but he is fascinated by Sybil, who is much more fun. When you follow your nose, you may find that individual scenes sparkle: Len showing different sides of himself with both women. Yet when you reach a crucial plot point—he makes a decision about getting engaged—you find it hard to believe that Len, who’s been having so much fun with Sybil, would throw her over just because Marge is a more sensible choice. That makes Len boring, not to mention calculating. 

How is this situation rectified? Working backward, you can always write new Len-Sybil scenes. In them you can show how Sybil likes to have fun with other men, and although Len never sees anything overt, the jealousy leads him to make a choice for Marge. Still a calculation, but a reader could see why he’s gunshy.

Yet going back to insert scenes has knock-on effects. In building toward that one plot point, you may find the new scenes impinge on other points. So you have to read through the draft looking to alter those. You could have saved yourself the trouble if you had asked a plot question before you started: what would make Len choose Marge? You could quickly reach the same conclusion and then plot out the initial scenes with that basic objective in mind. 

What about listening to your characters? The fact is, when you start a draft, you don’t know the characters. You make them up as you go. Once you reach a critical mass of scenes, then they’ll start talking to you. You’re not sacrificing anything, because all they were at the beginning was nether matter.

Exercise: Even when you set out a long-range plot point, that doesn’t mean you’re bound to it. What Len, for example, feels before making the decision does not govern how he feels afterward, when he sees the reactions of both women. Or, it may be that he is confident he made the right choice at first and, over time, comes to regret it. By then your listening to your characters could take you in all sorts of directions.

“I tried to discover, in the rumor of forests and waves, words that other men could not hear, and I pricked up my ears to listen to the revelation of their harmony.”  ―Gustave Flaubert

Copyright @ 2024 John Paine. All rights reserved.


Keeping Your Balance

An author either starts with or accumulates a storehouse of information about their major characters. This can consist of sketched character notes early in the process, as you are feeling your way forward, or data gleaned from research into a particular profession. It is piled up, in an ancillary file, waiting to be unloaded into the manuscript. This holds true whether you wrote the notes months ago or during the last week, as you saw the need arise.

How much is used at any given time depends on how busy your character is. If a detective, to use a basic example, is tracking down clues for two linked murders—interviewing witnesses, sending material to a crime lab, etc.—you’re probably not going to stop for two pages to discuss her hyperactive father, even though you know it is crucial to understanding her ultra-calm personality. 

Now let’s flip to the other side of the ledger: the killer. He has already done his dirty deeds. He has to wait for the detective to make some progress before he reacts to her threat. So now is a great time to dump in those two pages of his mother and her adroit iron. Actually, since he has to spend maybe 100 pages for the detective to catch up, all of his early scenes might be background- or milieu-heavy. 

What is the effect on the reader? It’s like reading two books: one action-based, one rich with lore. The detective is kicking ass, while the increasingly boring murderer is sitting on his thumbs. On the other hand, the detective looks slight compared to the densely portrayed villain. She’s a hard worker but sort of a lightweight, you know?

The problem is the imbalance in plotting. A setup was arranged at the beginning whereby one force in the good-evil equation has already accomplished their initial plot business.  You want the reader to know what a horrible man he is—and hey, here are all these notes you wrote on him. I’ll also point out, by the way, the effect of placing the detective’s notes later in the book. She’ll still be running second-best to the richly portrayed villain—because you told the reader his characterization was so important, he should get his full coverage first. 

The solution is to run two levels of plotting. While the detective is busy with the past, the killer is moving on to new deeds. When you drop in information about one of them, you drop in info on the other. Action and info both in a chapter, keeping the dramatic weights evened out. 

Exercise: Review the manuscript with an eye out only for background or research passages. For each character, write down the length of each one and on which page it appears. Your protagonist should get the most coverage earliest. That will signal to the reader who is dominant.

“Character is like a tree and reputation like its shadow. The shadow is what we think of it; the tree is the real thing.” —Abraham Lincoln

Copyright @ 2024, John Paine


Cap the Gushing Well

Anyone with a modicum of experience in romantic attraction knows that devotion goes only so far. This is particularly true during the courtship phase of a relationship. If either party shows an inclination toward slavery to the other, the one being worshipped tends to edge away. This reluctance stems not so much from feeling unworthy of such adulation as the fact that faithfulness quickly becomes tiresome. 

I raise this point because in my profession, I am often exposed to a paradox. Most men I know in real life are akin to statues. You can say just about anything to them and they don’t flinch. That stoicism intrigues the opposite sex, who see mystery when most times it is a void. A guy just will not admit he has feelings, even to himself.

Now let’s look at books. I find myself frequently telling male authors not to make their romantic swains too steadfast. It’s a puzzling phenomenon, since I know how many books have been written about men’s inability to commit. I know guys are the reason we have the term “midlife crisis.” So I’m not sure why writing a novel brings out the tender side in my sex. 

Love at first sight may actually happen, but it is not interesting to read about. When I bring this to a male author’s attention, what tends to occur is the opposite of what I am advising. I use the word “fun” a lot: make the romance fun. You know, do a cartwheel on Fifth Avenue. Delight your new amour with your spontaneity and cheer. Yet the revised scene I get back is deathly serious. The author doubles down on the character’s fealty. Entire paragraphs are written about how incredibly sensitive the hero is—not like a statue at all. 

Do us all a favor. Develop a sense of humor. Lighten up. You’re in the business of entertainment. Rather than going inward, think of fun things your character can do outwardly. Have him buy ballet tickets on the spur of the moment. Have him suggest they go out for an ice cream cone. Heck, have him direct their walk past a local playground to watch all the little kids running around. But whatever you do, get him off his emoting ass.

Exercise: Guys are good at writing action scenes. If you know this is a strength of yours, pursue the course of romance this way. If a guy feels attracted to a gal, have him do something embarrassing to prove he isn’t. If he feels the gal is attracted to him, have him remark on it—and then write out her reaction. Don’t pine away for the reader’s benefit. We’re waiting for the fireworks.

“The only sin passion can commit is to be joyless.” —Dorothy L. Sayers

Copyright @ 2024, John Paine


Fresh Territory

I frequently liken a book to a new territory, with such analogies as the helicopter viewpoint, being anchored on the ground, and the like. Today I’d like to extend that metaphor into another realm: the work between the lines—of dialogue, that is. Most writers use physical business for this purpose, and it includes such descriptions as staring, nodding, and shrugging, to cite several of the most common fall-backs. An author that inserts such material has the right idea. Dialogue should be broken up in order to give the narrative more texture. Yet such attempts can be self-defeating in the long run if an author keeps hoeing the same rows.

I imagine that nothing annoys an editor, or a reader, more than repetitious physical biz. This sin is committed by an author who is writing too fast or can’t edit himself, or both. I suppose I am more fastidious about these matters than most, but I can’t believe they don’t pick up on the repetition when reading over the manuscript. One reason may be that we all perform according to certain habitual patterns, and for a writer a certain physical reaction just seems like what the character would do at that point. Another reason may be that the author believes certain repeated actions, such as cigarette smoking, define a specific character. The cumulative effect, however, is to try a reader’s patience. I actually used to smoke, but if I have to read twenty times about a character smoking, at some point I really wish that guy would get rid of his disgusting habit. 

Part of the joy of reading is pushing on into unknown territory. This notion encompasses a book’s concept, distinctive characters, unusual plot—but also simple word choices. Merely providing fresh vocabulary words can keep a reader entertained. Providing variations on a theme, such as scuffling a toe to imply anxiety, can alleviate the problem. Since so many authors are eye-centric, forcing yourself to insert any other sense-related activity can produce fruitful results.

After a certain point, though, you will exhaust the physical possibilities. You need to raise your sights one level above what a physical activity indicates about a character’s mental state. Instead, write directly about their mental state. For instance, “She could not believe he could lie so boldly.” Such a comment does not interrupt a dialogue passage unduly, but it sure tells us a lot about what she is really thinking about what is being said. You can go for an even higher plane: “She was so glad Peter showed up, because now she could hitch a ride out of this awful conversation.” The best part of this approach is that in these quick strokes, delivered between the lines of dialogue, we are learning more about the character. 

Exercise: The rise of the online, or dashboard, thesaurus makes providing fresh words easy. Yes, eight out of ten synonyms may be inappropriate for the level of diction you are employing, but several more may be down-to-earth enough (if that is the difficulty). This practice need not be done during the first burst of writing. Write the repetitious action, just to get it out so you can move on. I usually substitute fresh words during an editing pass, when I notice that a word or expression is being used too often. And if you can’t find the right synonym, why don’t you jettison the idea altogether and give that character a thought?

“The essence of the beautiful is unity in variety.” —W. Somerset Maugham

Copyright @ 2023, John Paine


Built-in Attitudes

What separates the wheat from the chaff in character portrayal? The sureness of the narrative voice. A good writer knows his characters so well, everything they do or say in a given scene rings true. You, as the reader, knew they would do that. How is such alchemy created? Does a writer require extraordinary gifts in communing with the Muse?

While genius helps, similar results can be achieved through hard work—off the manuscript page. You need to know your characters well enough so that by the very way they speak or think, a world of past interactions is implied. That cannot be accomplished solely through pausing, while writing a scene, and intuiting what a character would say. Those sorts of choices are safe. You don’t have to work too hard; the right thing just seems to come out, like a birthday surprise. Yet if something you grab lies close to the surface, guess how deep your character portrayals will be.

You can start by singling out your significant character relationships. The tangled web, for example, of two estranged sisters would benefit from soul searching. First, you need to examine their interactions during the course of the book. How do they develop? The opening salvos of mutual hostility seem easy enough to write, but are they really? From the very start you have to devise a reason why they would keep on interacting. It’s very easy to avoid a person, for instance, during the few days of mourning a parent and reading a will. Just stick a husband in between them.

You need to do the off-page searching through how both the protagonist and the counterpart feel about their interactions in the book. If the sisters converge fondly over seashell days, what was the relationship back then? One sister almost certainly ordered the other one around. If the protagonist is the little sister, how did she feel, over the years, about being ordered around? Equally as important, how did her sister feel about giving the orders? Then project ahead: how does that affect the causes of their eventual estrangement? 

You can proceed the same way with each plot event they share. Keep asking yourself: what is the history? You can write out entire scenes in the past that will aid in the discovery—ones that won’t appear in the book. The result is: when one of the sisters, draped in black, walks into the living room, she has a built-in attitude toward her sister. In every scene that follows, you know how that attitude is going to change. You know, because you took the time to find out.

Exercise: The baked-in knowledge about a character extends to his interactions with others. To continue the example, what has the protagonist been telling her husband during all those years of estrangement? He’s going to parrot, in his simplistic way (because he doesn’t understand the complex bond) what his wife has been telling him. So how would he react if the sisters start connecting?

“Easy reading is damn hard writing.” —Nathaniel Hawthorne

Copyright @ 2024, John Paine


Floating Icebergs

Because a novel is such a lengthy enterprise, it can agglomerate many stories, large and small. Most of the time these elements are background narratives and flashbacks. Each leads away from the main plot hopefully in a seamless fashion, inviting us down side alleys where we can explore one character or topic in greater detail. When we return to the main road, we can more richly appreciate what happens next.

Writing is a burrowing type of experience in general, and so it is not surprising to see such tangential forays expand and expand . . . and expand. In order to tell about a character’s past effectively, space is needed to provide the context in which the experience can be fully understood. For the neophyte writer, such ventures can turn into sinkholes. In pursuit of the one limited goal, the rest of the novel molders in neglect.

The problem is exacerbated by two factors. The first is the type of writing being employed. If an author writes at a level where most of a character’s focus is external—on what is happening—an exploration of background becomes just another action scene, only occurring in the past. Showing a character trait in action takes longer than showing it through a narrative summary. An entire sequence has to be set up in order to show the character’s reactions. So a demonstration of PTSD in Iraq might take 40 pages.

The second factor is the urgency demanded by the present-day plot. If a novel relies on suspense to generate momentum, time spent away from building the main plot results in a flattening of the suspense. Whatever happened before the long segue into the past loses its potency as the pages roll on, until it is a dull roar when the novel returns to the main story. The interpolation can be particularly wounding if it is placed later on. If you spend 100 pages in the past (Part 4, say), the reader will be starting from 0 mph as you ramp up the sequence leading to the climax.

When you have several large chunks of such material, you have to ask yourself: is the character at the heart of the enterprise worth all the effort? If the hero is a marial arts expert whose skills play an integral role in the drama, a look backward to China and temples with upturned-corner roofs might well be rewarding for the reader. If the unfortunate soldier with PTSD is a minor character, you probably should keep it in a separate computer file.

Exercise: When making the deliberation, keep in mind that you likely will be writing another book. The soldier’s story might be perfect if they became an important character in a future book. The calculus is always: how much length vs. how much importance. Think of it this way: with the new book, you already have a 40-page head start.

“You drown not by falling into a river, but by staying submerged in it.”                 —Paulo Coelho

Copyright @ 2024 John Paine. All rights reserved.


Collecting Butterflies

The greatest distance in a writer’s world is the space between their head and the computer screen (or the sheet of paper on the desk). All those thoughts that tumble endlessly inside our minds are not easily captured by the mechanical movements of our fingers. Even if you are diligent and carry an iPhone (or a pocket notebook) to record a train of thought that flashes unbidden in your mind, your chances of writing down more than a quarter of those fleeting thoughts are slim. You may recall a sentence or two, but by then the stroke of brilliance usually has receded behind the murky gray mental wall that is the writer’s bane. You’re not getting back in again, ever, to retrieve that one. The next time you see someone on the street talking to herself, that could be a writer trying to repeat a great thought—over and over until she can write the blessed thing down.

Now compare that simple task to the burden of staying inside a character’s head for hundreds of pages. That ability, more than any other, separates the accomplished author from the amateur. When you read a good novel, the plot events are almost secondary. You’re just enjoying the trip with the quirky narrator. 

Writers don’t begin on that exalted plane, however. They undergo a long process of training to develop several primary traits. First, they learn that writing actually does not capture thoughts verbatim. The process develops selected thoughts, subverting the usual progression to fit character, plot, or thematic demands. Even if you have only limited experience, you have no doubt experienced patches of this phenomenon. You sit in utter stillness on a quiet morning, letting a good sentence germinate. Once a felicitous idea unspools, you write it down. Yet even as you are writing, the idea is evolving—because your mind is now being stimulated by the physical act of writing. You may find a string of sentences unfolds, even a page or more. That is the first step toward plumbing inside the mind of your character. 

Exercise: To identify with a character, write a passage using the word I. This is true even if you are using the omniscient voice, because you can convert back to he or she easily. Start the passage with a quotation mark, and start having a conversation with your character. See if you can write a sentence that comments on the action. Now try to build on that sentence with another, and another. See if you can fill out an entire paragraph of that train of thought. 

“What is needed is, in the end, simply this: solitude, great inner solitude. Going into yourself and meeting no one for hours on end—that is what you must be able to attain.”  —Rainer Maria Rilke

Copyright @ 2024, John Paine


Making Discoveries

Many writers start a novel with a plot concept and a few character sketches. The characters are put in service of executing the demands of the unfolding plot. As they gain more definition, they move from enacting plot events to having  thoughts about said events. If those are the only thoughts they have, however, the novel had better feature an unending string of exciting events.

One method of deepening characterization derives its impetus from thinking about the plot. This is expanding the horizon first to thoughts about events that occurred much earlier in the book and then beyond. Let’s use a running example to see how this works.

The marriage of Henry and Eleanor breaks up shortly after the novel begins. Henry works late hours, and he’s tired of being nagged about it. A younger office associate sees midlife male with money, and Henry tumbles. As Eleanor reacts with outrage and vituperation, the thoughts of both partners are focused on the  successive sad steps of the divorce proceedings, guided by their hawk-eyed lawyers.

As a writer, this plotting can be entertaining at first, but at some point the black-robed process starts to feel dull. Isn’t this how divorces always go? The only way to achieve differentiation is through making the characters more individual. One way to do that is asking: what particular problems were Henry and Eleanor having before the breakup? You return to page 20, and sure enough, you wrote: “When he got home Friday night, he found a Post-It on the refrigerator informing him that she had taken the kids for the weekend to her parents’. She had been doing that a lot lately.”

If you’re on page 200, and Henry wakes up, feeling worn out by his energetic honey baby—who’s already left for work, of course, to impress Henry—he might think back to that evening, standing alone at the fridge. He was angry then, but reflecting back, how does he feel now? Regret that he didn’t make more time for the kids perhaps? Renewed anger at his wife for never telling him she felt neglected? Irritation with his carping mother-in-law? 

All of these thoughts have more depth because the reader too remembers his feelings at that time. They are part of Henry’s history. But you can go beyond that. Take the mother-in-law, for instance. Henry might compare her to his present good fortune. “At least honey baby’s parents lived in Idaho.” And how about his father-in-law, a beleaguered mouse that, thank God, Henry has never been like? You could go on in that vein for a few more sentences. The long-past thoughts, in other words, are a gateway for further discoveries about Henry.

Exercise: When you comb through the material you wrote early on to set up your characters, open a new file in which you can expand upon the “facts” you find. Each time you locate a character, sketch out anecdotes that show the qualities the lead character remembers. What, for instance, does the mother-in-law complain about? 

“Memory has always fascinated me. Think of it. You can recall at will your first day in high school, your first date, your first love.” —Eric Kandel

Copyright @ 2024, John Paine


Information Dump

When your novel features a world that is vastly different from our own, you have to supply enough details to show how people in that realm operate. This imperative appears most often in the historical and sci fi/fantasy genres, where old or new cultural norms represent a large portion of the book’s appeal. Inserting such explanations works well if you have an entire book in which to scatter them. What happens, though, when the main character(s) has to enter a new world, say, halfway through the book?

This problem appears most often in novels featuring a journey. While it’s fun to voyage to new lands, you also have to tell the reader how the joint runs. What were the people like in Atlantis? Who was fighting who in 19th-century Ceylon? Once you get started on a flight of fancy, you soon find that it must contain enough complexity to make it feel satisfying enough to the reader to bother going there. 

Not only does that add up to a lot of information, but you need to place most of it when you first cross that land’s threshold. That way the reader understands how different it is, or what the stakes are in this strange place. As a result the book slows down. A new character or two becomes a mouthpiece telling the newcomer everything that’s going on. The reader is overloaded with a new cache of information. None of that bodes well for the pacing of a story.

What can you do? One good idea is to break up the background dump into smaller chunks. This can be done in several ways. The first is to front-load material before the character ever gets to the world. For example, a gray-haired exile from that land could, upon learning where the character is going, tell a story about his former land. When a page or so is dropped in here and there, a good deal of background can be pre-told.

Second, you can determine which material needs to appear as soon as the new world appears. Maybe the reader only has to know right away that the Klingons and Metastis have been at war for hundreds of years. The stuff about the Klingon emperor can wait for another 30 pages, until the character reaches the palace. That way the reader can put her feet solidly on the ground, enjoy the view, but the pacing does not slow down.

Exercise: Review the manuscript for any long blocks of expository dialogue. Past a certain length, this device can strike a reader as artificial. Determine what needs to be said, because the main character interacts vocally with it, and what could be turned into narrative. All you have to is change it to indirect speech: She went on to relate how . . . 

“When we first broke into that forbidden box in the other dimension, we knew we had discovered something as surprising and powerful as the New World when Columbus came stumbling onto it.” —Ken Kesey

Copyright @ 2023, John Paine


Bending Real Life

Novelists follow the dictum “To thine own self be true” for good reason. When you are trying to compose a compelling plot event, what better source than something that really happened to you? If it blazes in your memory, you stand a good chance of capturing it vividly. What fledgling authors don’t understand as well is: writing one event lies on a different plane from the string of events that create the novel’s overall plot logic.

The one event requires concentration on minute details, particularly the feelings the person had at the time. You try your best to do that, with the slight twist that it is now happening to your characters, not you and your family or friends. Everything is specific: timing, locale, descriptions, in-the-moment thoughts.

When you finish writing the one experience, the tendency is to plunge into another well-recalled event. That makes intuitive sense to you. You’re writing about what you know. Yet what emerges from this collection of deeply felt moments? Quite often, a miscellaneous assortment of characters remembered from your life. They appear in a few scenes and then drop out over the long course of the book.

The difference between the specific scene and long-range scheme is the hinge between real life and a novel. In a novel, characters must follow a logic that is circumscribed by that portion of a life you can develop within a finite number of pages.  You can’t feature too many main characters, because a novel is too short for that. A reader’s interest, except for rare occasions, won’t last longer than 300-400 pages.

You need to elevate above the real life models. What story circle can you develop within that number of pages? That includes especially the character most like you. Your life can’t be enclosed within a novel, so why are you thinking every scene has to be about you? You’re confusing the local with the global. 

When you have written out a series of scenes, what matters now is the characters performing the acts. They have to keep building toward their end points. In real life, maybe the guy that jumped off the Verrazano Bridge was a friend of a friend. But for a novel, a suicide is a highly dramatic event. You want to give that piece of plot business to a major character. The logic you have been developing for that character now has to be bent to accommodate the harrowing end point. You combine the characters—because the events of the novel won’t allow you to do otherwise. 

Exercise: When you are revising, try to banish all thoughts of the characters’ models. Jill is that person you’ve made up. She can do anything you want—it’s fiction! Unless you elevate to that plane, the character will never be able to tell you what she wants. You’re too timid to believe she has that power over you.

“Sometimes the questions are complicated and the answers are simple.”              ― Dr. Seuss

Copyright @ 2023, John Paine


Finding a Way to Hope

Gritty realism occupies an honored place in fiction. Most readers want to explore the outcomes of evil, even when the causes are institutional in our society. The actors in such a drama, who are often victims, are not nice people. They scrape and claw for what they get, and if that means hurling a plate at the dinner table, the reader will accept that behavior.

Protagonists in these stories are usually hard-bitten, a failure in the eyes of others, even their family. They keep offending those around them in their blind groping to get ahead. An author may nod in satisfaction because their deeds keep the tension level high. Will George fall off the wagon? Will Helen take that high-risk bet? You bet they will. That’s just being realistic.

In the hands of a skilled writer, such a portrait can succeed even if the character is odious. The mental state of the character is fully explored, and what is revealed can be unpalatable. Yet the saving grace of this in-depth approach is that the character explains why their world looks the way it does. Horrid choices are justified—i.e., the better alternatives are explored and discarded, sometimes with savage humor. 

What happens through this constant process of mental sifting? Readers can see themselves in the character. You or I might never have considered murder, but the way the character explains why it is necessary, maybe it could be a good idea. The skilled author, in other words, appeals to the evil instincts in all of us. 

That balance of the right and wrong course, unfortunately, does not exist in a more plot-driven book. The blind lurching forward occurs for reasons that remain opaque to the reader. Repeated misdeeds have the effect of alienating those of us who obey society’s rules. After all, those rules are designed, at least in part, to protect those people subject to a malefactor’s designs. 

It is a hoary maxim that life is brutal and short. I don’t need to read a novel to realize that. I read in order to find reasons why my existence could possibly matter. You see, if I can better understand the nature of evil, I can go forth after putting down the book knowing more about how to correct that impulse in myself. Maybe George didn’t decide to take the path lying clearly before him, but I can.

Exercise: Review the novel with an eye out for evil deeds. Before each one occurs, look to see if the character has justified the step they’re taking. Why is evil preferable? What do you know about human nature that would make the reader agree with that choice? You may find, through this ongoing exploration, what makes your character unique.

“It is a man's own mind, not his enemy or foe, that lures him to evil ways.”          —Buddha

Copyright @ 2023, John Paine


Attaching Emotional Value

Authors cannot always count on snappy dialogue to mask flat prose. The writing style of the modern era is marked by simple prose, for the most part. Yet if you are not clever in making adroit juxtapositions of words, how do you rise above the pedestrian grinding out of word pictures?

The first and all-important step is, as the author, moving closer to the character narrating the scene. Forget about all stage directions, moving the character from here to there. That reduces the point-of-view character to an object in your mind: the one out there, walking or skipping or dancing or whatever motion you devise—as seen from the outside. 

If you are the person doing the walking, you’re not thinking about it. Unless you have suffered a bodily injury, you can assume your legs are moving. Once that’s a given, you then move up to the stage of intent. What is the objective you’re trying to reach by walking? How are you walking—in a threatening manner or ambling to waste time? In other words, by focusing on intention, you are adding value to the physical movement. By walking my character wants to accomplish . . . that.

Action performed by the character is complemented by action around the character. An object is neutral until the point-of-view voice gives an opinion about it. An army barracks might be impressive to one narrator, depressing to another. Nor does the character have to describe it in those terms. By assuming a reader understands the point of view—“It’s not surprising such a depressing place would lead to . . .”—the opinion is baked into a statement about a matter that is personal to the narrator. 

That level of chattiness in turn leads to thoughts not so closely connected to a physical object. The object can be a jumping-off point for a paragragh describing a memory of an object like the one at hand. A battered canteen could lead to remarks about a father who could never let go of his war days. An oak tree could lead to a rant about a neighbor’s oak tree back home that brings squirrels to her lawn every fall. A pincushion could set off a rumination on how sewing has become a relic of the past in an age when new pants can be bought so cheaply at Old Navy.

Merger with a character occurs on many different levels. You take the step of putting on the character’s clothes and declaring, “This is what X thinks about that.” Then watch your prose probe all sorts of interesting nooks and crannies.

Exercise: Examine your story for each neutral description. Could you infuse it with a character-derived value? Not all descriptions are important enough to do that, but you’d be surprised by how many are ripe for a humorous observation or point of irritation. Just stop and be the character—and then write.

“Persuasion is achieved by the speaker's personal character when the speech is so spoken as to make us think him credible.” —Aristotle

Copyright @ 2023, John Paine


Copyright © 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.