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 one doing the walking, you’re not thinking about it. Unless you have suffered a bodily injury, you just walk—oh yeah, my legs are moving. Once that’s a given, you then rise to the level 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 something else.

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 paragraph 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 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.”

Copyright @ 2019, John Paine


Riven Apart

Many authors have experienced the phenomenon of not quite being in control of their own book. You may write notes before you start a scene, but by the time it’s completed, your main character didn’t do the assigned tasks. Your hand (your subconscious, really) just didn’t go in the “right” direction. Writing teachers say it’s the character telling you what to do.

On a small scale, such misdirection can lead with happy results. You can find out qualities about your characters that you didn’t know they had. What happens, though, when the plot takes a left turn? You were writing one book—set in present-day Oakland, say—and you become interested in the mother of a main character who has her own story to tell about a ranch in Idaho. So the cast of lead characters troupes up there and the climax is a white-water heart-stopper on the Snake River.

Such a novel might be called a tale of two books.. The first half is set in the Bay Area and the second in the wilds. If you can maintain two or three main characters throughout, that does provide some continuity from one half to the other. Yet think of all the relationships that you set up in Oakland. And how about all the later emphasis placed on the Idaho mom, whom the reader didn’t meet for the first 200 pages? How much should a reader be expected to invest in her?

Unless you want to save one of the two halves for another book, you have to stitch them together. In a novel, stitching equals coverage of characters. In order to make the mother more important all along, maybe she could visit Oakland early on, showing that earthy personality in the mean city, and maybe she swings back through before returning to Idaho. Better yet, maybe she alludes to, or the character feels she has, a mystery that requires going to Idaho to solve.

You can reverse the process as well. You have the hero pay a visit to Idaho on an unrelated matter early on. Now the setting you will use later appears hundreds of pages earlier. If we met dear ol’ mom in Oakland, now we can see her in her natural element. Then the stage is set without having to make all of the introductions to the new locale when the book gets to it.

Exercise: Review what happens in the first half with the events in the second. Are there common threads that you could use as through lines for the entire book? Besides a mystery, there might be a love interest, a talisman, a hobby. When you use the same objective in different settings, you bind the book together.

“The novel I am constantly writing is always the same one, and it might be described as a variously sliced-up or torn-apart book of myself.”
—Robert Walser

Copyright @ 2019, John Paine


Fulfilling Expectations

An author setting out in a new genre like fantasy can be delighted by the riches that it offers. Many authors dream of writing a tale populated by dragons, snarling or friendly. Hero worship, depending on the author being emulated, can be an instructive practice for a beginning writer. My own first (unpublished) novel was a fantasy, and its hero bore perhaps a slavish resemblance to Bilbo Baggins.

I mention that because I also brought an unfortunate ignorance to the writing experience. The Hobbit was about the only fantasy I had ever read, since my literary tastes back then ran more toward Heart of Darkness. Devising unexpected surprises for the reader—a boulder that contains a door!—was terrific fun to write. It was not until later, when I began to edit fantasies, that I realized the cardinal errors I had made.

The gambits I had employed were too timid for the genre. While I was being quasi-realistic about how such things could possibly happen, a Michael Moorcock was making giant leaps in credulity. The attitude of such a writer is: screw you if you don’t want to go along for the ride. You’re not my audience.

The cautious approach shows its rear end to the reader right away. That’s because, feeling that throwing up unbelievable stuff in the reader’s face will cause them to put the book down, the author does not introduce standard genre elements early. A hundred pages can pass before there is any whiff of magic. The writer may instead present copious research into the mythology from which the fantasy is drawn, such as ancient Ireland. The thought is: I’ll get the reader primed for the fantastic stuff that’s coming next.

The problem is, readers of the genre are hoping that stuff happens on page 1. If they have to wait too long before any cool stuff happens, that book is going back on the shelf. Why is that book called a fantasy? they wonder.

That error is compounded by not adding more magic consistently. If you have read the other books in the genre, you’d know that you’d better come up with fresh ideas. Dragons are so passé, even comic ones. The other authors in the genre have produced X and Y and Z; what do you got to top that?

Exercise: Before you even start, amass pages upon pages of details of what the world you are creating looks like. You should know 100 magic twists and where they’re located. If you’re borrowing a basic concept from someone else, how can you recast it to make it your own? You should already be able to walk through your kingdom—from the inside of the character—before writing the first line.

“All cartoon characters and fables must be exaggeration, caricatures. It is the very nature of fantasy and fable.”
—Walt Disney

Copyright @ 2019, John Paine


Switching Up

The narrative approach to writing a novel varies according to how much a character influences the interpretation of events. On one end of the spectrum lies the action-oriented tale, in which too much introspection gets in the way of the unfolding plot. On the other is the character-driven book, in which action is the occasional byproduct of thoughts. (I’ll leave aside experimental approaches in this discussion.)

A spectrum means that a book can lie anywhere along the arc from one pole to the other. That means no one except the most steely-eyed critic can tell what proportion of each a book contains. A number of critics pooh-pooh commercial novels, but the good ones have extremely well-drawn characters leading the charge. Just read any novel by Stephen King, among many others, and tell me characters don’t matter to them.

Because narrative approach is so variable, less experienced writers can be forgiven for not knowing what side of the line they’re on. Does this scene feature  more action or character interpretation of the action? Many scenes seem to have both. So that leads to other thorny questions like: should I have dialogue in an introspective scene? When is a past memory so filtered by a character’s view of it that the narrative no longer shows the event but tells about it?

When faced with such imponderable subjects, the author’s approach may vary according to mood and circumstance. If the scene contains an act of violence, and you become angry while writing it—damn right there’s a pool of blood!—the tone may be more action-oriented than the preceding quiet scene. It may be that the approach varies because writing a novel takes most people such a long time. How you were writing about the characters six months ago may not be how you’re writing about them now.

When you review the draft after completing it, you may despair about the swings in the narrative. How do the good writers achieve such consistency in tone? One guideline that may prove helpful is asking yourself: what is the tide in my book building toward? If you want the book to remain fairly flat, the choice is easy. That points toward a character-driven novel. If you want, however, a dramatic turning point that changes the protagonist’s life forever, that poses a tougher question. The gauge then becomes: how much do external forces create the change?

If those forces involve murder or the like, and you write a number of action scenes that portray it, that’s not a character-driven novel. If the murder occurs amid a fugue of internal thoughts, the thoughts are getting in the way of the action. You just need to remain true to the tone you set earlier.

Exercise: Review the book scene by scene. At the end of each one, make a rough decision: internally told or externally focused. By the time you get to the halfway point in the book, you’ll be able to determine how you want to pursue the second half.

“I'd buy myself a cabin on the beach, I'd put some glue in my navel, and I'd stick a flag in there. Then I'd wait to see which way the wind was blowing.”
—Albert Camus

Copyright @ 2019, John Paine


The Lightness of Strangers

Authors searching for a new way to create a unique character need look no further than someone who is disaffected from society. The nonconformist is willing to flout the rules. If pushed far enough, that character can drop out of society, eschewing the 9-to-5 in favor of noble poverty. For some, that opens the door for encountering the lower class, for whom nobility may be an entirely spurious term. So the hero can also make distinctions that way: unwashed but not unlovable.

While the character can remain in one place the entire novel, such a choice is more likely found on the road, turning the book into a journey novel. That rite of passage is routed through the underbelly of, let’s say, America, and that leads out West many times. Wide-open spaces, plenty of alone time for the maverick to think about how people in general are deplorable, or whatever the theme is.

The problem with a novel constructed this way, unless the author is able to write consistently well about the character’s thoughts, is that an isolated stranger ends up bouncing through a series of random encounters. He doesn’t know anybody; he doesn’t even like people. That creates a severe difficulty when we are a species that likes to congregate. No man is an island, if for no other reason that we measure ourselves against others. I’m a maverick precisely because I know what all those other jerks are doing—and I’m better than that.

The encounters with others prove to be superficial exercises. Even joining a gang of reprobates provides little warmth, because the newcomer is still an outsider on trial. The author is left with virtually only one choice: meeting another down-and-outer and falling in love. Such a bond, with neither character rooted, could bloom into a fragile gift, but the guy could just as likely go on a bender and the gal says, forget him.

If the romance road is not taken, the last remaining avenue is intermingling the skin-deep present with memories of the character’s past. That strategy has pitfalls of its own. For one, if the stories in the past are more involving, the reader won’t want to return to the aimless present. For another, we already know the outcome of all those memories: the drifter in the present. The worst possibility, however, is that the author may narrate the past stories more distantly, telling us in hindsight rather than showing us in the present. So the novel becomes more dominated by secondhand storytelling. It makes you long for the bounties of a tale set around the kitchen table.

Exercise: If you are finding the past more compelling than the present in your manuscript, see if you can devise ways to bring characters from the past, or their analogues, into the present during the second half of the book. At some point the present has to take over the reins in this construction, so you might as well lay the groundwork.

“The only difference between the saint and the sinner is that every saint has a past, and every sinner has a future.”
—Oscar Wilde

Copyright @ 2019, John Paine

Copyright © 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.