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



Assembling Pieces

An author looking for ideas that can fill a novel may have a background that includes forays into short fiction. Their most common form, short stories, have the virtue of being a more manageable prospect than a sprawling novel—20 pages as opposed to 200. If you have written short stories, the question then arises: could material you’ve already written be assembled into a novel?

I’ll first take a half-step and point out that a sub-genre already exists that combines related short stories into a larger whole. The idea for this post comes from reading Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing, a collection of tales that depict the history of African Americans. While each story jumps to another character, the anguish of slavery and its aftermath govern all of them. This style of assemblage resembles the construction of Tim O’Brien’s The Things We Carried, regarded as the finest novel of the Vietnam War. Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson tells the collective history of a small town.

It is probably apparent by now that a powerful unified theme can be the glue that holds disparate pieces together. If you think of a grand topic that interests you—coal mining, for instance—you might rewrite your present stories in a way that aligns them with a theme. You’ll also find, in the process, that the renewed immersion in them sparks off ideas for new related stories.

Another towering element that might be considered is a central character. The Beggar Maid by Alice Munro and Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout* are outstanding examples of this type of collection. If you have a character or core cast of characters who form the heart of several stories, you may be able to examine them with an eye toward: can I find a logic that would combine them into a satisfying whole? 

You can also take the further step of cracking open their shells and repurposing the material toward a larger aim. A short story often completes a circle it sets for itself, but within that logic are incidents that would work in a longer format. Aunt Moira would still be upset by the vandalism of the swing set, for instance. If you lift out the governing mood, plus the lead-in and lead-out bridges, the event is ready for use. 

Exercise: Anyone who has written a novella has an easier road to expansion, but usually that can’t be done merely by embroidering present material. You need a wholly new character or subplot to fill out a new stretch of 50-100 pages. You may find nascent buds for such work in any number of your present players.

“In a rough way the short story writer is to the novelist as a cabinetmaker is to a house carpenter.” —Annie Proulx

Copyright @ 2023, John Paine

*Thanks to Michael Knight and his fine list in a Publishers Weekly article for reminding me of these books.


First-Person Historical

Using the I-voice in narration can be a siren, as in Circe, for the unwary writer. Its intimacy seems like a shortcut to the type of engaging narrator used by skilled authors. What the novice doesn’t understand is that the narrative voice is merely a vehicle for telling a story. It doesn’t change the content of what is told.

This lack of understanding can hamper an author who decides to use first-person narration in order to better connect with the way people acted during a chosen historical era. In terms of content, how is historical drama broken down? You want to narrate plot events, historical research, and characters’ feelings. 

The I-voice can govern to some extent how plot events are told. Depending on how deeply inside a character’s mind you are while narrating, the actual event may be colored by emotions, to the point that the reader hardly can tell what is happening at all. Most beginning writers, however, do not have the ability to write this way. They will narrate plot events pretty much as they happen, with descriptions of physical movements, dialogue, etc. That limits the benefit of the I-voice.

This narrative voice fares worse when recording historical data. The wrong-headedness of this approach is revealed when ordinary facts are related. The description of a log cabin is the same whatever voice is being used. The spiritual beliefs of the Second Awakening are the same whatever voice is used. The I-voice actually does the author a disservice, because the distance created by cold, hard facts pushes the reader further from the person telling the story. I believe the only advantage offered is when the research is put, often literally, in the character’s hand, such as the leather reins to a horse. Note, however, that the character’s comment, which is flavored by emotion, is what makes the research intimate.

Which leads me to the best reason for choosing the first-person narrator: to record the characters’ feelings, particularly those of the protagonist. This happens to be the best reason for using a first-person narrator no matter what type of novel you’re writing. The immediacy of the voice makes emotions more vivid, and that is your main job. 

Exercise: Review the manuscript with an eye out for research passages. As you read them, ask yourself: could the point-of-view character possibly know this? Would he think about the historical data in such a dispassionate way? You may have to dumb down the research in order to make it fit within the qualities you have given the character. If you write the novel from the inside out, you will find that engaging narrator you seek.

“One of the strategies for doing first-person is to make the narrator very knowing, so that the reader is with somebody who has a take on everything they observe.” —Rachel Kushner

Copyright @ 2023, John Paine


Defining Traits

If your character feels flat, more like a plot engine than a real person, you need to devise ways to make him come alive on the page. At first the task may seem insurmountable. I have to create an entire personality and then think like him on the page? Yes, eventually you do. But keep in mind that a journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step. Or, in this case, I’ll suggest starting with three steps.

Everyone has defining qualities that set her apart as a person. Rather than trying to devise a barrage of subtle traits, why not try to define three outstanding ones? Is she passive or a go-getter? Is she a slob or OCD? Did something happen to her in childhood that has cast a shadow over her, or was growing up pleasant and bland? You want big-picture qualities like these. It’s likely that you’ve already written enough of the manuscript to tell what the character is like. 

The next step is crucial. You need ways to show those personality traits in action. Telling the reader what a character is like does not have the impact of seeing the traits emerge in the course of creating or overcoming an obstacle. Plus, telling is a one-time deal. You want an approach that keeps coming at the reader. That way the trait builds as the book goes on.

Draw up a list of events that show the character trait. Let’s posit that he is insecure, so he talks behind people’s backs. That’s an attractive idea for a novel, because it contains the tension inherent in getting caught. How do you devise an effective list? Think of the parameters that govern the character flaw. First, who is being discussed? If it’s some schmiel fellow secretary, that’s a low-level back-bite. Maybe no more lunches with that guy. If it’s the president of the company, though, exposure could have serious consequences. 

Also think through what you want the end goal to be. Is the back-biting a starting premise, and the character learns during the book to voice her opinions directly to a person’s face? Is the back-biting a tragic flaw, dooming an otherwise shy and kind person? Is the back-biting crucial to another character’s discovering a secret that helps him solve a mystery? Once you know the end result of this pernicious trait, you can draw a list of events that leads to the big blow-out.

Exercise: When you devise any quality, your first instinct should be: how does this impact the other characters? The first stage of penetrating the inner life of a character is giving him specific targets to think about. We care about what other people think of us, so ask yourself: how would the brother/sister/mother/etc., react? The more the person matters to the character, the more impact you will create.

“The historian records, but the novelist creates.” —E. M. Forster

Copyright @ 2023, John Paine



Around the Room to Within

A technique that helps brings an author inside a character’s head proceeds in a curious fashion: from outer to inner. The curiosity factor stems from where a writer usually starts a scene: from a chosen point of view. That is, from already inside the character’s head. So why would anyone consider going to another character’s thoughts? Won’t that disrupt the intimacy with the reader?

To explain, let’s examine how a scene is actually written. At the beginning, you don’t know exactly what will emerge from your pen. You know which characters will dominate the scene. You may have some notes sketching an intended plot advance, along with possible text pieces that you wrote previously, knowing they would fit somewhere in the book. But you still have to write out what happens in that scene.

Let’s assume that a young woman wants to ask permission from her father to go out with her best friend. She knows he thinks the friend is a bad influence. That is the first level of interior monologue. I know Dad is going to say no. How do I get him to yes, because I really want to go? You write out some dialogue, and sure enough, Daddy says no. The teenager then does some plot-related thinking that isn't very deep. So when you read over the scene, you feel it’s pedestrian, something out of a Nickelodeon show. How do you get deeper?

You add qualifying factors. One of the best sources for them lies with the father. What happy time might she remember when he was tickled by the best friend? What about her made him smile? What deed did he praise her for? What concern does he have, such as being really smart in math but not applying herself? When you jot down some of these memories, you give your chosen character some ammunition in her argument.

You can go beyond that, using the dad foil. When does she know he is most receptive to her asking a favor? After a few drinks or a bowl of chocolate ice cream? She might also consider using citing her mother as an ally, as in mentioning something she did that always raises his hackles? The anger gets directed onto the mother, and the daughter looks like an angel because she totally supports everything her father says. 

In other words, by considering the supplementary character’s views on subjects that will be raised in the scene, you can discover how the lead character will manipulate or react. You’re still writing from inside her head. You just took a detour to find out nuances that would never occur to you from the inside out.

“A lie does not consist in the indirect position of words, but in the desire and intention, by false speaking, to deceive and injure your neighbour.”                     —Jonathan Swift

Copyright @ 2023 John Paine. All rights reserved.


Tainted Memories

You can use various ways of delving deeper into the factors underpinning a background story. Recapturing it moment by moment from inside a character’s mind reaps greater benefits than a narrative summary cataloging the events. The same principle can be applied in the long range as well. What causes a character to think of a particular memory?

To examine this question, let’s look at how that process often works in fiction. A present-day event comes up, and afterward the character states the age-old source of their reaction to the event. The handoff from present to past may be as abrupt as inserting a line-space break (two returns on the keyboard) and launching directly into the flashback.

A more effective method is identifying the long-range patterns (you can call them neuroses) that lead to the memory. The same in-depth approach is used. You take the present-day event and ask: why am I raising this point about the character? You chose the event deliberately, so you must know. Just write out the reason as a note to yourself. To use the running example: “Elena explodes because her father yelled at her all the time when she was growing up.”

You can make that into a mental loop for the character. Consider first the direct links to the past. What is the present status of the father in her life? How did his relationship with her mother change over time? How does that affect Elena’s visits home? What has Elena told a friend or lover about how it impacted her? When you start to consider the issue in the long run, you can start telling a summary narrative about life-long traumatic effects.

Now turn the prism away from the past. Elena is certainly aware that her explosions aren’t normal. When has she exploded before and, more important, with which major characters in the novel? While in the midst of her yelling, how is she processing the reaction of the person under fire? That isn’t the same as dear old dad’s reaction. How does she feel about being wrong—with that person, considering their relationship? Has a past explosion changed the relationship? What were her practical consequences, such as going to a therapist for help? After all, most people want to avoid the shame that follows such an event.

Finally, consider how this loop changes over the course of the novel. If Elena’s explosions dig her into a deeper and deeper hole, that neurosis is going to break her. By contrast, if someone else helps her get over it, how does her thinking about the loop change step by step? You can insert other background stories, new ones that she can hold onto—her new image of herself—and become healed.

Exercise: Don’t forget that you can color memories to suit the character’s perspective. In a dark mood, you recall your own memories differently, adding a nasty snap to the other person’s motives. If you start off a character arc with negatively charged memories and end with ones that are more even-handed, the character’s very manner of recollection creates an emotional swell toward hope.

“I want to keep my dreams, even bad ones, because without them, I might have nothing all night long."     —Joseph Heller

Copyright @ 2023 John Paine. All rights reserved. 


Head of a Pin

One task that besets a debut author is: how can I make my novel different? Writing outstanding characters is hard work, developed over the course of long hours of trial by error. Devising a devilishly twisty plot requires its own load of head scratching, figuring how to plan what chess piece moves when. Writing clear descriptions provides an outlet for those gifted in creating word pictures. If, after all these avenues are tried and found wanting, for lack of the author’s time and/or skill, how can the book be given its own flavor?

For the deep thinkers among us, the answer is to give the lead character a philosophy in life. This attempt is different from writing from inside the head of a character, because the narrative style still remains more distant. Rather, the character, while still engaged in the book’s main plot, pursues detours that prompt more profound opinions. 

I have no objection to philosophy in novels. One of my favorite authors is Thomas Mann, and one of my favorite characters is Pierre Bezukhov of War and Peace. Who can ever forget his musings during the Battle of Borodino? When I think of it, I still believe Tolstoy’s theory of history—from the bottom up—is correct. 

Attempting such a difficult course, however, is rarely a good idea for a debut novelist. The main reason is the context in which such thoughts are placed. Most beginning writers are just trying to get an entertaining story down on paper. They wrestle with how to make the protagonist interesting. They advance the plot via steps that seem to fit the overall design, even when the characters make it go in unexpected directions. These are practical, and usually low-level, decisions. Harriet is determined to leave her old life behind . . . and so she attracts madcap Dennis   . . . and she’ll kill the mobster Guido by mistake . . . oh, and I want to reflect on how a variant of the Mob has existed throughout history.

There lies the problem. The fledgling author is juggling different imperatives. Character and plot are extremely important, so they have to be tackled. Philosophy, on the other hand, means to tell us how a life is lived. That’s deep and all-pervasive. Occasional ruminations prompted by plot events, or places the character happens to be, can sound like armchair quarterbacking. Worse, they can slow down a book that otherwise seems pretty gripping. You might be better off letting us judge your character by what they can do.

Exercise: If you have pieces of philosophy scattered among the manuscript, take a look at each of them in isolation. What is each one saying? Can you think of a way that your lead character could carry out that piece of philosophy in action? Can you make the plot events line up so they show the different facets of the life problem that must be resolved?

“There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide.”            —Albert Camus

Copyright @ 2023, John Paine


In or About

When is a narrative summary sufficient to relay information from a character’s past, and when should a flashback be employed? The question turns to some degree on the sort of novel you are writing. In a literary work, plotting tends to be less linear. In a genre novel, by contrast, the forward momentum of the main plot contributes far more to the entertainment value of the story. Since a flashback itself is a plot element, it stands to reason that the more of them you have, the less forward momentum you generate in the present-day plot.

However, as in so many other considerations in writing, narrative summary may not be the best vehicle for conveying all past plot events. That’s because the summary by its very nature is more distant storytelling. It also, because it sketches the reactions of the characters involved, can verge into telling, not showing, what they are like. Put that way, you can see why talking about characters is less effective than putting them into an active scene to show what they’re like.

How do you determine which device to use? Several parameters can be considered. The first is length of a flashback. If you are worried that they will slow up the main story too much, can you relate a key moment from a character’s past without unspooling an entire scene? For instance, a half page isn’t long; many narrative summaries run that length. Could you construct a series of flashbacks that involve the same time period, place, or key characters? That way you wouldn’t need to set up the circumstances each time. Merely by cueing the reader with a lead sentence—oh, right, that crucial semester freshman year—you could tell a number of shorter snippets, maybe with past events connected to each other.

The second guideline is: importance of the event to the present-day character. The more impact a past event has, the more you should lean toward covering it in a live scene. That plunges the reader directly into the circumstances that affected the character so powerfully—making them hit the reader head-on. Again, a full-length scene can be broken up into sequential pieces, like a mystery lure in which you find out the full truth piece by piece.

The last consideration is: where is it in the book? You usually will provide the setup for characters within the first third. That is where narrative summary can most easily fall into the error of telling about characters rather than showing—because the reader doesn’t know them very well and that info has to be filled in. When you’re in this part of the book, a full-length flashback or even a couple is not going to slow down a plot that hasn’t yet revved up that much momentum anyway. It also forces you to be strategic: how can you devise a scene that shows as much as possible about what the character is like?

“Some memories are realities, and are better than anything that can ever happen to one again.” —Willa Cather

Copyright @ 2023, John Paine


Compared to You

So many times when I ask an author to make a lead character more distinctive, the response in the ensuing draft is a series of new background stories. I look through the scenes from the previous draft and see no changes, in the way the character thinks about what’s happening or the way he talks. The background stories are lumps inserted into an unchanged story. 

How does a character stand out and grab a reader’s attention? By the way she tells her story.  Her prism as the book goes on. Writing new background stories is only a first step. Then you have to carry the process forward to how the past affects how the character reacts in the present. 

That is undoubtedly harder—because you have to depart further from yourself. In writing a background story, you’re still able to maintain a comfortable distance between you and the character. The back story too is about another person, not you.  It’s unlikely, for instance, that you lost a buddy in a car bomb in Fallujah. It’s unlikely that your mother killed herself when you were 12.

The new background stories need to inform how the character acts at every step of the way. Chances are, a character that needs to become more distinctive is merely carrying the plot’s action—your Energizer bunny finds the next clue, for instance. In order to add depth, you first need to examine any thoughts you’ve written for the character. Then ask yourself: is that thought merely related to the action? Or, is it what I would think if I was in that situation?

See, that sort of writing is maintaining a nice, safe distance. You need to challenge yourself. Stop to think of the background work you’ve done. Using the Fallujah example, warfare changes an individual. You know that. At the least, you’ve read newspaper accounts about veterans returning from war in a state of shock. They’re damaged. Picking up a MAC-10 on the streets of Houston is different for them. You need to define that, right at that moment. How damaged? How would you write about a damaged individual? Who do you know that is damaged?

Now you’re in a perilous position. You’re having crazy thoughts about how the character might react. That reaction is just not normal at all. That’s wrong. I wouldn’t do that. 

Now let’s return to the original question: how do you make the character stand out? By doing things that seem wrong in your comfortable life.

Exercise: As you review a manuscript, put your background notes on a separate screen, or visibly on your desktop. Don’t get caught up in the scene, because you’ll be too accepting of what you’ve written. When you see a character’s thought, stop and turn toward the notes. Are all of those great thoughts in the background notes being enacted right at this very moment?

“Forever is composed of nows.”  ―Emily Dickinson

Copyright @ 2023, John Paine



All the Comic Masks

One of the problems in writing a comic novel is using too few characters that are funny. A book is really long when viewed from the perspective of a single gag. You can have a gross slob, for example, with all the attendant crumb dropping, face smearing, and upchucking, but you will find that well will run dry a long way before the end of the book. You are better off establishing a host of comic characters.

While you can work up a group that interact, you’re better off starting with the question: who is leading my plot lines? Most books have a main plot and a subplot, so your second most important comic choice is the character who leads the subplot. You will have a number of scenes in which the main comedian will not appear—that’s partly the reason for a subplot. So if that second character is not out-and-out funny in their own way, you will have a number of scenes in which the humor sags. Every time a reader loses their smile, it is harder and harder to get them to smile again.

The same is true even in main plot scenes. You may have a run of scenes where, say, the boss’s secretary really runs the office. What is the secretary’s shtick? Who is receiving the orders, and how do they react when it’s not the boss speaking? If you don’t have subsidiary characters who have their own quirks, you will have the same problem of: funny scene, not funny scene, funny, not funny, until even the funny scenes are not that amusing anymore. 

For every outrageous extrovert you can match them up with what in a comic skit would be called a straight man. That character cannot merely react passively, being outraged every time, or you run into the same problem of repetition. Instead, develop a character arc of their own. For instance, a new boss might take increasing pride in their well-deserved perks of power: nicer apparel, nicer assistants, golf, etc. If the extrovert keeps barging in on such fastidious garnering of power, you gain not only new sources of laughs but also escalating humor because the character keeps having more pride in a new source of power before it is deflated. 

The idea of pairs works on multiple levels. A #3 character will lead a number of scenes, so who are they bouncing off in those scenes? How is the humor different from that generated in the scenes with #3 and #1? Again, you’re looking for variety. You keep showing the reader new tricks. That only works if you have an entire core cast who each is pursuing their own comic goals.

Exercise: You can use personality traits to help with plotting. Draw up a list of plot events you know you want. For each entry, consider how the event would strike each of your main characters. Would that boss-secretary scene be funnier, for instance, if your madcap #1 burst through the door? When you keep your mind open about who will appear, you may find the scene is funnier with a different combination.

“Comedy is simply a funny way of being serious.” —Peter Ustinov

Copyright @ 2023 John Paine. All rights reserved.


Can’t Say No

A parade of negative voices marches through our lives every day. We have neglected to fix the leaking refrigerator, or forgotten to call the gutter service yet again. Such concerns seem humdrum, yet they are revolving in the same subconscious swirl from which you pick out your bon mots. The process of creativity is opening yourself up to the entire bombardment of thoughts in the hopes of making order out of chaos.

Lurking on the underside of every sentence you write down is a negative opinion of that sentence. You have probably experienced the strange progression of beliefs we all entertain about our own work. At first you’re convinced it’s genius, the best thing you ever composed. The next day, while editing, it seems more pedestrian, and a flicker of doubt appears: how did I think that was so great? A month later, reading over a chapter, possibly because you’re in a negative head anyway and can’t get start on the new stuff you know you should be doing with that free time, you see the sentence and feel the urge to strike it out altogether. 

The same duality that allows perfectly harmless members of society to create the most vile serial killers in their thrillers also operates in this very small, private sphere. I know that scientists are making advances in parsing how the brain operates mechanically, but I don’t know how they mean to explain why a person can curse at having to stop short at a red light, and then beam with delight when a toddler carrying Tigger crosses in front of him. That paternal fondness exists within the same corporeal shell as the monster who wanted to rip out the stoplight by its roots. In finest Shakespearean style, our greatest strength, volatility, is also the source of our greatest weakess. I suppose writers should be glad that the only destruction they wreak is on their poor, defenseless words. I have, in fact, often evinced the opinion to friends that if everyone became creative, in some fashion, violence in society would cease. The volcanic eruptions would start and loop back on ourselves.

You must remain cognizant, however, that when you write, you are creating that feedback loop. The same voice that urges you to get up every morning at an ungodly hour can also turn on you and say, “You fool, give up. You can’t write.” You cannot give in to thoughts created at the low ebb of your subconscious cycle. They are going to happen. Creativity is atavistic to a certain extent, but you are a member of a highly evolved civilization in which you are trying to participate as a writer, one of the highest achievements any person can attain (at least in my book). So don’t do it. Don’t permit wholesale destruction of what you yourself have created. Just wait for the next toddler to walk by.

Exercise: Having made this plea, I am more aware than most that not everything an author writes is gold. When you feel doubt about what you’ve written, go granular. Examine a single sentence and ask yourself what you don’t like about it. Using the same words, try to invert the structure. That construction, such as placing an adjective first in the sentence, will probably look flowery and affected, but now ask yourself: have I made the right choice for that adjective? Or, is the adjective fine but the verb is inert? Could you convert the adjective into the verb? By the time you are finished resolving that small puzzle, the black cloud that descended over you earlier may have parted to allow a few rays to peep through.

“Writing is an act of creativity. You do it because it opens a wellspring of thoughts and feelings inside you that you didn’t know you were capable of expressing so well." —Albert Einstein 

Copyright @ 2023, John Paine


Diced and Spliced

The novel is an elastic artistic form. Because it consists of numerous scenes, its construction does not need to be linear. If the protagonist needs a flashback in order to explain a present-day aversion, for example, a scene out of chronological sequence can be dropped in. Because of its fragmented nature, novelists have extended its overall form in kaleidoscopic directions. 

An inexperienced writer tempted to use this freedom, however, can create a hodgepodge. If you are writing a continuous narrative and after a while it starts to seem boring to you, you can cut it up into chunks and distribute them throughout the book. If 4-5 time periods are alternated, you can set up a pattern that the reader can follow. 

From a structural viewpoint, what happens when this narrative strategy is adopted? Rather than a longer skein of narrative that builds cumulatively, you now have to make the chunks count. If there is no payoff at the end of a short skein, why did the reader bother reading it? In other words, you have multiplied the number of times that a reader reaches a break. If she comes to enough of these points feeling mystified, she may put the book down, forever.

In the hands of a skillful novelist, discontinuity is not a problem. Such a story is told so far within the mind(s) of its character(s) that plot is not as important. A person can have contradictory thoughts. If a series of plot events go in skewed directions, though, the result may be hopeless confusion. A scene of a father reading to his children in bed, for instance, seems less touching if it comes after he has murdered his wife. 

What can be done to make the pieces cohere? If outer events—plot—are placed in juxtaposition, you can use inner events—thoughts of a character—to provide glue. A mere sentence or two of the protagonist’s reflections about an earlier scene can make a connection between the two scenes. If the character spends a paragraph considering the long-range effects of, say, child abuse, any scenes featuring that abuse are linked to that scene in which the paragraph appears. Cause and effect may not be occurring in chronological sequence, but you can create bridges to make the jagged structure hang together.

Exercise: Review the manuscript with an eye out for scenes that seem incomplete, stranded by themselves. Can you find a topic, in dialogue or narrative, that is common with other scenes? You can insert in that spot a character’s thought which includes those scenes—and create linkage. 

“A well-thought-out story doesn’t need to resemble real life. Life itself tries with all its might to resemble a well-crafted story.” —Isaac Babel

Copyright @ 2023, John Paine

Copyright © 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.