Finding Your Way Forward

All of the preliminary notes in the world cannot prepare an author for the pull that a character will exert on a novel. Even a heavily plotted story needs a core of distinctive characters. The ability of an author to let go of the reins on those characters in large part determines whether they will be compelling to the reader.

As the notes gain life in actual scenes, the personality traits that the writer at first thought would govern a character’s actions are laid bare on the page. Let’s say the original intent was to create a young man who is given to fighting because he has to survive in a rough neighborhood. Environment produces trait: that makes sense. As a consequence the earliest scenes consists of different fights, as well as reactions by those around him to his fighting. 

Then out of nowhere you write a scene where the young man meets someone he likes, and she has no interest in such a thug. After you write it, you like it—you like the chemistry between them and know you can write it well going forward. But she won’t accept him the way you’ve written him. Does the character have to change from fighting to wearing flowers in his hair?

In the first place, it is not a yes/no question. Characters can have opposing thoughts at the same time. So maybe his being proud of hitting changes to his knowing he has to protect himself, but he becomes ashamed of himself when he loses his temper. Maybe he goes on fighting and tries to hide it from her, until she’s fed up and leaves him. Maybe her curtailing his fighting becomes a long-range plot line, until they finally move across the river to a nice town in New Jersey. 

No matter what you decide, the intent of the original character note has changed. Proto boxer has become more interesting. You have to figure out how to reconcile competing imperatives. In the process the character will also become more original, able to stand out in the teeming crowd of angry young men in other books. 

What may also change is the prominence of the new character. Maybe on that initial list of character notes she was buried way down on page 7. She was supposed to be merely a foil for the hero. But when you start writing about her, you realize you are connecting with her, in that strange alchemy that produces magic in writing. It may be time to take another look at your notes and think through how she will affect the assignments for more featured characters. 

Exercise: Notes are not graven in stone. They are supposed to be guidelines. It is a useful habit to set up a weekly time when you review your notes. Read them over and see what still pertains and what can be jettisoned. In the process, write new notes that better fit how the story is evolving. 

“The only thing I fear more than change is no change. The business of being static makes me nuts.” —Twyla Tharp

Copyright @ 2021 John Paine. All rights reserved.


Turning the Spoken Inward

Churning out dialogue is the easiest technique for a writer to master. Not surprisingly, that is also the way a first draft may come out of your head. You imagine a setting, so the descriptions come forth, but mostly the conversations are what pour out. To a large degree, you fill in the other scene pieces around the dialogue. 

Yet dialogue also is the most opaque of writing methods. The same line spoken by a different character may take on a wholly different meaning, and the line can be interpreted various ways even if spoken by the same character. If you are interested in fuller characterization, you have to accept that your rat-a-tat scene is only the first step toward the one that will appear in your final draft. You must convert dialogue into narrative.

How is that done? One way is to isolate a block of dialogue. Let’s say a homeowner and his son want to tar a driveway. After a trip to their friendly Home Deep for a barrel of tar and some brooms, the father instructs his boy on how to do the job. Lots of dialogue, some pithy adolescent snark, stern dad you know the way they get. That runs on for several pages. Your goal is to reduce that by half, maybe more.

The first step is picking the point of view. Whose thoughts are running through the scene? Let’s choose the son, since sarcasm is fun in thoughts as well. Rather than talking through all of the steps of tarring—are you writing a manual?—try to summarize the basic points and then apply the son’s feelings about the procedure in general. Does he want to help in the first place? Is he physically uncoordinated? Is a part of him secretly terrified that, at some point, he is going to accidentally tip over the entire barrel of tar? 

Now go further. When does this scene occur in the book? In other words, what has happened between father and son prior to the scene, and where do you project they will end up? The son’s thoughts are also a step along that continuum. What did dad do earlier that week, or even that morning, that really pissed him off? Has the son just learned a shocking revelation about his dad? Bring that into the proceedings while he’s sweeping out the stupid tar like dad says.  

At the same time, you want to modulate the tone to fit the stage in the book. Do you really want an explosion on page 40 that leads to days of petulant silence? You may need to have them talk during those days. Stalking off in anger after the son has ruined the lawn would allow the two to cool off by that evening. 

When you start writing out all of the feelings, you’ll find that the dialogue shrinks to merely prompts for the next string of thoughts. The two pages might be broken up into interludes of a few lines apiece. Now the scene has become an exploration of character. 

“Grave silence is far more powerful than the same old voices yapping away.”        —Carolyn Chute

Copyright @ 2021 John Paine. All rights reserved.


Designing Scenes from Notes

The dictum “Show, don’t tell” is solid in principle, but authors can stumble when trying to apply it in practice. Usually, the trouble stems from the distance between the author and the character narrating the scene. The author is merely pretending to be the character, and so when a new subject—most often a new character—comes up, the author tells what they “know” about it. 

Let’s use the example of a drunken father. The character shows up on the family doorstep looking to cadge money, and the scene is narrated by the son. The author writes a paragraph about how the father used to be a respectable butcher but hit his wife while drinking, to the point that she left with her two boys. She has an income, and she is contemptuous but also fearful of her former husband. 

So far what you’ve learned about the character are merely notes. The author is trying to devise who the heck the guy is. Once the basic premise is set, the notes have to be made active. You can start with easy stuff: descriptions. A man who drinks too much has it stamped on his face. He may smell like the liquor he drinks. How does he walk? Does he have a nervous tic because he needs a drink? All of that can be shown without any commentary needed. 

Now see if you can dig a little deeper. If the son answers the door—let’s say he’s 16—he has a long relationship with dear old dad. The son knows a good chunk of the marriage history, and he has likely been burned by his father before. How he interacts with Dad and what they say to each other can make all sorts of points about their relationship. Say, the father hates his wife for taking his children. He is going to try to persuade his son of the truth the way he sees it. But hasn’t the son heard his father complain dozens of times in the past about her? You construct the dialogue so the kid says, “Dad, you’ve told me this story a hundred times. I know she’s a terrible person.” Nuff said. You’ve made the point implicitly. Do you want to show that the son still needs his father’s love? Have the father, subtly or not, ask his son for money. Don’t you think that will bring tears to his son’s eyes, seeing his father stoop so low? 

Examine every sentence of your notes about a character and decide: is there a way to make this idea active? If you have to go further than you want to show a point, such as the son driving by the store the father used to own, maybe that is relegated to told history. But even there, it is not hard to devise a paragraph in which the son is being driven somewhere in town.

“Tell me and I forget. Teach me and I remember. Involve me and I learn.”          —Benjamin Franklin

Copyright @ 2021 John Paine. All rights reserved.  


Skimming for Riches

A good novel is stuffed full with details. Hundreds of narrative sentences contain a pinpoint observation or physical reference point for the characters occupying the setting. A casual reader may well wonder: how could the author come up with so much great minutia? While it is true that good writers are observers, you can avail yourself of a more practical method: actively minded research.

You can choose the topic you want to illuminate and then go hunting. Let’s say you want to write about life in Chicago during the Depression. Any number of history books and websites contain photos and drawings that you can peruse. You can flip through them, looking for a detail that catches your eye. In particular, you want details that cement that place and time. You won’t find anyone today carrying a sandwich board, for example. A Hooverville by the railroad tracks can pin the reader to the 1930s.

Such details can be amassed in several ways. The first one is jotting down items on a list. You see a detail, it looks evocative, and you write it down. Later on you may have to sift through dozens of pages, looking for it, but even that random process can be invigorating. As you read through the list, new ideas can be sparked in your mind, leading to more details.

A second variety consists of details you select for specific characters. You might be curious, for example, about what details of clothing separated a destitute woman from one unaffected by the Depression's economic fallout. As you file through photos or written accounts, you can target your specific concerns and then jot them down under a list for each character.

Another fruitful source comes from watching movies. Forget about the story lines; you want to pay attention to the scenery, the costumes. As long as you watch them on a streaming device, you can freeze frames when a telling detail leaps out at you. Your involvement in poor Nell’s pathos may be restricted, but you can write down that great image of the laundry being hung across the living room window. 

Throughout the process, you are not a passive note taker. By putting images and ideas into your own words, they are also crafting how you want to use the material. One writer might focus on the tattered hem of a dress, in the example above, while another contrasts a man’s pants with his child’s socks. In your accumulating embarrassment of riches, you can apply any interpretation you like.

Exercise: The process undergoes a second infusion of creativity once you place the detail in the manuscript. At that point you not only know which character is affected by the detail, but what they are doing in that specific scene. How the item is judged changes accordingly, and you may find that the end result is quite unlike what you originally wrote down.

“The truth is in the details.” —Stephen King

Copyright @ 2021 John Paine. All rights reserved.


All My Life

Many authors carry away from their studies in higher education, sometimes for decades, a disdain for commercial fiction. When they finally sit down to write that novel that has been brewing inside, they know one thing: they’re not writing any slam-bam piece of trash. What they might not realize is how far the gulf between a popular and literary novel really is.

The project begins the way they have read in countless great books: from inside the main character’s(-s’) head(s). They try to connect with their feelings while recording the supposed feelings of the character they have chosen. What emerges is heartfelt, strong enough swelling in the breast to command several read-throughs immediately afterward, even causing tears. Pages fly by this way until the author decides to review a chapter or several chapters. Given the distance of time, head scratching may follow. Yes, plenty of emotions but they seem so precious and . . . so ordinary.

A common reaction is to hone the writing. More exactitude will certainly help, but the key element in elevated prose is: perspective. Great writers have greater thoughts, greater insights, greater concentration. How can a mere mortal possibly reach that high? 

You can start with sweeping statements. “All my life . . .” is a useful way to think of the matter. Sharon didn’t just have a thought in reaction to what Lisa said; she has thought that way since she can ever remember. Take a thought that you think is suitable for such grandiloquent treatment, and make it into that sort of declaration. If you weren’t your vain self, would you believe it?  You may wince inside: man, that is disregarding so many qualifiers you could name. But that’s what great writers do. They put on their Norman Mailer hat and proclaim: There, that’s a universal truth. If you, reader, don’t like it, put down the book. I dare you.

When you start writing that way, you’ll find that you have to become a bigger thinker. A bold claim can’t be dopey, or at least not consistently. You may be forced to think all the time about your book, waiting for eureka moments to pop out of nowhere. That’s what I meant to say! Or you’ll be conducting research, and reading about one fact makes a connection subconsciously to a completely different part of the book. That’s because an author has to be larger in order to fashion a larger-than-life character.

Exercise: You can work to make the ordinary sublime. If you focus on a thought that you want to become larger, and carry it around in your head as you go about your day, you will find that variations will come to you. You can keep jotting them down, over a course of months if need be, until you reach the higher plane you desire.

“Great artists are people who find the way to be themselves in their art. Any sort of pretension induces mediocrity in art and life alike.”  —Margot Fonteyn

Copyright @ 2021 John Paine. All rights reserved. 


Too Much Personality

When writing nonfiction that has a historical aspect, many authors prefer to focus on a person as a narrative thread. This strategy makes sense for several reasons. First, it gives the book, or section of it, a focal point around which other material can align.  For instance, information on the growth of intercontinental missiles, or ICBMs, can be attached to an account about John F. Kennedy. Second, readers like to read about famous and/or heroic people. In the previous example, the draw of a historical figure like Kennedy is self-evident. 

Most nonfiction books also contain dominant themes, and in many cases the main theme is the new prism through which a historical period is viewed. To continue with JFK, think of all the books that have been written about Camelot. Each one has to contain a new prism, because the amount of new research any new author can uncover by now is fairly slight.  So, one new prism might be along the lines of “The Nuclear Strategy of John F. Kennedy.” 

The problem is, you can get lost in the details. Because material about your lead figure is often plentiful—since so many comments have been made about her—you can get lost in the minutia about the person. If she kept her cards close to the vest, say, instead of delegating responsibilities and contacting other players for points of agreement, then the narrative may get caught up in personal spats she had. While such altercations are entertaining, the theme of “she listened to too few people on nuclear arms policy” may get lost for pages at a time. Your new book is not so special now, particularly if you have used older books as a source for those spats.

Even worse, getting too involved in personalities can lead an author to make an unsupported case either for or against the historical figure. Plenty of examples can be found to make any argument. If you’re down at the level of spats, the failure to delegate starts to look like a real problem. But that’s not the point. The theme was: what was the impact on U.S. nuclear policy during that era? 

Journalists are known for finding opposite views for an article. While this in itself can create bias (e.g., giving scientists on either side of the global warming debate equal weight), it is a useful corrective for a nonfiction author. If you find you are  ganging up personal facts on one side, you have stop yourself. Don’t get carried away in your own tide. If you’re accenting the negative, deliberately look for positive examples. That will allow you rise up once again to more of the helicopter view, where you can see the entire landscape of your project.

Exercise: Write a list of the themes you want to emphasize. Now read through a chapter, keeping that list right next to your screen. Are your examples aligned with the themes, or are they burrowing down into personal trivia? Look in particular for personal interactions. Are you displaying theme or a personality trait?

“A bad review may spoil your breakfast, but you shouldn't allow it to spoil your lunch.” —Kingsley Amis

Copyright @ 2021 John Paine. All rights reserved.


Meshing Public with Private

Writing historical fiction entails blending what is real with what is made up. Because, even today, so much that happens in a historical figure’s private life is unknown, a writer has plenty of room for the imagination. One bedeviling issue that can arise early in a book’s plotting is: how much dramatic weight should a defining historical event have on the story?

I’ll throw out an example to put the matter in more concrete terms. Let’s pick the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. Let’s further postulate that your original story germ was a tale of two brothers who live on the big island of Hawaii: one for whom love goes good and the other where it goes bad. You were thinking it would happen in or around the 1930s because that’s a period in Hawaiian history you find intriguing. Yet Pearl Harbor is a draw for readers, who otherwise might shrug at a novel written during an obscure time in Hawaii. 

Once you decide to include it, a logical first impulse is to make the attack the climax of the book. I mean, how can you top Pearl Harbor as a plot event? You can’t get a more bang-up finale than that. Yet in your initial plot notes, you don’t have either of the brothers going to Oahu at all. Maybe one of the themes of the novel is the islanders’ resentment of the encroaching Americans. Do you really want to warp the entire book just so it includes an event that, admittedly, would be very attractive to readers of historical fiction?

You decide: one of the brothers could decide to sign up as a sailor in the summer of 1941. He’s rebellious, and he’s going to lose in love anyway. The more you mull over the consequences, though, the more you realize that you don’t want to research Honolulu, don’t want to research the requisite military history—heck, you hate that your tax dollars are wasted on the bloated military budget. So, does Pearl Harbor have to go in the trash can?

A marketing concern does not have to be a novel’s main concern. You could devise a scenario where the #3 male character in the book—say, a rival for one of the women—enlists only to be killed that day. The attack happens “offstage”—that is, not covered in a live scene. The fallout of public opinion would still wash over the book, but now the event is confined in the private sphere where you’d like the story to take place. 

Exercise: A good way to achieve both aims is to feature the selected character (the #3 in the example above) showing repeatedly their interest in your historical event. If that character talks in multiple scenes about proving himself as a man, or really hates the Japanese merchants in their Hawaiian town, you are guiding the reader toward the public aspect of the novel.

“What is history but a fable agreed upon?” —Napoleon Bonaparte

Copyright @ 2021 John Paine. All rights reserved. 


Past the Obvious

Any author who receives a rejection letter that says “I couldn’t connect with the characters” feels the bewilderment of what they’re supposed to do. While that stock response can refer to the lack of depth in the narrative voice, what about a novel that is filled with action? This type of book usually is written in the third person, and multiple points of view are used. So you’re not going to achieve that much depth with any one of them anyway. You can, however, make your characters more distinctive. 

When I suggest specific places where an author could better fill out a character from the inside, what I often find in response is a surface-level reaction. When, for instance, a detective reacts to the sudden appearance of a figure on a dark city street, the author's reaction might be: “He knew he had to steel himself for the worst.” While that might be fine, it is also typical. You can almost hear the trumpets blare before the two jousting knights charge toward each other. What was the agent’s/editor’s comment? Not connecting. Maybe it’s because of typical reactions like that. Right, what any male would think. Click to open a rejection notice.

To extend this example, you should try to go deeper than the noble guy.  Stop and shut your eyes, not looking at the character out there on the screen. Take a minute and sort out what you would feel. Write three separate options: one noble but one the opposite of noble, and then one that is a tangent of the opposite of noble. If the opposite is “He felt an urge to stain his pants,” then jump from there. One thought might be: “He was really offended . . .” 

Then choose one and keep writing for maybe another quarter page. How is that working out? Does it feel like a TV rerun? Then select another and write out a quarter page. If you feel you need to explore the third option, write out a quarter-page skein for that. 

As you’re writing each one, keep thinking about alternatives. What did the character do earlier in the novel? Say, he found he actually understood the problem his daughter had in her math homework. He is the same guy in both situations. Could the homework helper influence the thoughts of the tough detective? In other words, the way to be different is to reach for another gear, one that is unexpected but also makes sense, because we liked him when he was helping her with the homework. You may find, by the time you have finished the third alternative, that you have another idea altogether: one that’s truly unique. What you’re doing is bringing all parts of your character to bear on that moment. That’s depth.

“My literature is much more the result of a paradox than that of an implacable logic, typical of police novels. The paradox is the tension that exists in my soul.”  —Paulo Coelho

Copyright @ 2021 John Paine. All rights reserved.


Buddy Conflict

Most writers intuitively grasp the need for conflict in a novel, because strife between characters creates obstacles for the main character. Yet the logic often extends only to protagonist and antagonist, leaving gaps of tension strewn through the story. When plotting out a scene to be written, an author is better off looking for sharper edges among characters of all stripes. 

A common scene type that falls flat takes place between characters in a buddy pair, usually with the protagonist and a friend or relative. Such scenes can be filled with jokes or exchanges designed to show the personal side of the main character. Any danger posed by malign characters is forced to lie in wait, and any tension created before the scene fizzles out as shots of tequila or what have you are exchanged.

Somehow the most basic truth we know—everyone lives their life alone—melds into a sort of relationship glop that could only exist in a book. The lie in that artifice can be easily exposed. While you and your partner, say, are aligned on many issues, you also bicker constantly because you have differing views as well. If you are trying to create conflict, why are you writing kumbaya scenes? At the very least, doesn’t familiarity breed contempt?

Another factor should contribute to that feeling of being set apart. If Stanley Elkin is correct when he says, “I would never write about anyone who was not at the end of his rope,” how does your protagonist’s desperation look to others? If she commits a major faux pas, why would you think her friend would rush to her aid? Even if your sister does something embarrassing in public, your first reaction will be to join the crowd and shun her. Or, at a minimum, stay silent and leave her to dangle on her lonesome.

Recognizing when close binds fray can aid in devising scenes that show those tears. If the hero is acting so badly that even friends make themselves scarce, the reader realizes how unusual the situation is—and that adds tension. It also requires that you think through all of the characters’ personal agendas so that they don’t align. How can you set competing interests in play all through the book and still devise reasons for them to appear together?

You can go deeper into characterization as well. If the main character is going wrong, and that rubs a friend the wrong way, what is being rubbed? You have to think through  what the baseline of the character’s traits are. If he is shy, a hero’s insistence that he clear their name will cause resentment. I don’t do that stuff, so why are you asking? Then follow that thread—how can you keep rubbing that sore spot in new and interesting ways? Now you have friction abroad and friction at home.

“One loyal friend is worth ten thousand relatives.”  —Euripides

Copyright @ 2021 John Paine. All rights reserved.

Copyright © 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.