Category Archives: writing

#PNWA2019 Conference Ramblings #amwriting

Those of you who regularly follow my ramblings may have noticed you received a “bonus” post yesterday. I was in the process of scheduling the post for today but hit the publish button before I set the calendar.

Oops.

Anyway, for those of you who are just happening by, the post is called Employing Polarity, and it deals with Shackleton’s expedition to Antarctica.

Or not. What I was riffing on yesterday is the use of opposites and contrast in your narrative. Check it out if you’re in the mood for writing craft.

So why was I so punch-drunk I misposted my post? The blurry photo at the top left shows my little piece of turf, and I wish I had thought to show my neighbor’s booths. They were amazing compared to my offering.

I just spent four jam-packed days in Seattle at the PNWA Writers’ Conference. My goodness, what a fun, educational experience it was.

I also had the honor of being the moderator for award-winning narrator, Brian Callanan’s seminar, Audiobooks: A New Chapter for Writers. Wow! Did I learn some stuff about the process or what!

Cat Rambo had some excellent words on world-building, of course, in her seminar The Realistic Fantastic. That woman has a real way with words, and trust me – if you get a chance to attend one of her seminars, you are in for a treat.

An author I was unfamiliar with prior to the conference, but who is now on my “Never Miss This Show” list is Romance author Damon Suede. What he had to say about Verbs was not only extremely hilarious, it was a look at action words from an angle I hadn’t considered—that of a person who writes screenplays.

Anyone who has ever heard Chris (C.C.) Humphreys speak knows what a hilarious and informative speaker he is. I’ve never enjoyed gagging down terrible food so much in my life as I did that final buffet breakfast on Sunday morning.

And last of all, thanks to the kind intervention of Indie author Ellen King Rice, who had a spare Square device that would fit my new phone, Grandma sold a few books.

I met a lot of old friends, made a great many more new friends, and on Sunday afternoon, after four days of partying like a rock star, Grandma was too tired to be scheduling blogposts.

Live and Learn!

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Employing polarity  #amwriting

When we have finished the first draft of our story and come back to revise it later, we find that in places, our characters seem two dimensional.

Certain passages stand out; the characters have life, intensity. Their emotions grab us, and we feel them come alive. We see them as sharply as the author intends.

In other passages, they are flat, lacking any sort of spark.

When we add contrast to the scenery – polarity – the setting comes alive. The imaginary world of the narrative becomes as real to the reader as the world of their living room.

The same is true for how we show our characters.

Word choice matters. How we phrase a passage makes an immersive experience or throws the reader out of the book.

Our goal is to make vivid sensory images for our readers.

John Keats used both polarities and similes in his work. The last stanza of To Autumn begins with this line:

“Or sinking as the light wind lives or dies;”

We see one obvious polarity in that line, and one sneaky one:

  • Lives or dies is an obvious polarity.
  • Sinking implies heaviness, and he contrasted it with light wind; a less weighty, gentler sensory experience opposite the weight of sinking.

Characters grow more distinct when portrayed with subtle contrasts. We all know opposites attract; it’s a fundamental law of physics. Contrast – polarity – supplies a needed missing component of the narrative, giving the important elements strength.

Polarity gives your theme dimension. Remember, the theme is the backbone of your story, the thread that binds the disparate parts together. Great themes are often polarized: good vs. evil or love vs. hate.

Think about the theme we call the circle of life. This epic concept explores birth, growth, degeneration, and death. Within that larger motif, we find subthemes. For example, young vs. old is a common polarity with many opportunities for conflict. Both sides of this age-old conflict tend to be arrogant and sure of their position in each skirmish.

Wealth vs. poverty offers an author the opportunity to delve into social issues and inequities. This polarity has great potential for conflict, which creates a deeper narrative.

What we must see beyond the obvious are the smaller, more subtle polarities we can instill into our work. Small, nearly subliminal conflicts support the main theme and add texture to the narrative.

  • Without injustice, there is no need for justice. Justice only exists because of injustice.
  • The absence of pain, emotional or physical, is only understood when someone has suffered pain. Until we have felt severe pain, we don’t even think about the lack of it. In literature, emotional pain can be a thread adding dimension to an otherwise stale relationship.
  • Truth and falsehood. The fundamental issue of trust adds drama to a plot and provides a logical way to underscore a larger theme.

Throughout the narrative, ease should be contrasted with difficulty. This is called pacing.

Many commonly used words have opposites, such as the word attractive, the opposite of which is repulsive. When you want to add texture to your narrative, look at how you could show the mood and the emotions of a scene by using antonyms, words with contrasting meanings.

  • create – destroy
  • crooked – straight/honorable
  • cruel – kind

Each polarity has many nuances. In daily life, cowardice is most often exhibited as a subtle, habitual evasion of the truth or as an avoidance mechanism. It can be shown in an act as mild as a fib. Or, it can be an event as large as an act of treason committed for personal gain.

Bravery can be as small as a person facing a silly fear, as large as a person not backing down when a strong personality attempts to assert authority over them, or as epic as a responder entering a burning building to rescue a victim.

When we have characters who contrast subtle acts of bravery with small acts of cowardice we add power to a scene.

In all its many forms, contrast is a catalyst for change when we wish to electrify an otherwise bland scene.

It’s the fertile soil from which conflict grows. Each small polarity pushes your characters a bit further and underscores your larger theme.

Here is a sample of words found in the “D” section of  the  Oxford Dictionary of Synonyms and Antonyms. This small selection is filled with opposites that create powerful mental images:

  • dangerous – safe
  • dark – light
  • decline – accept
  • deep – shallow
  • definite – indefinite
  • demand – supply
  • despair – hope
  • discourage – encourage
  • dreary – cheerful
  • dull – bright, shiny
  • dusk – dawn

Every time you employ polarities in your word selections, you show something about the world or a character without having to tell it.

You add a dimension of depth.

I love and regularly use the Oxford Dictionary of Synonyms and Antonyms to spur my creativity. It can be purchased in paperback, so it’s not too expensive. Often you can find these sorts of reference books second hand. The internet is also your friend. A large, comprehensive list of common antonyms can be found at Enchanted Learning. This website is a free resource.

Opposites add dimension and rhythm to our work. Polarity is an essential tool of world building.

Polarities, words that show contrast add dimension to an otherwise flat depiction, showing a written world that is as clear to the reader as the room they inhabit.

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Lichenwald, by Ellen King Rice #amreading

I always enjoy reading novels set in the Pacific Northwest, the part of the world where I live. I especially enjoy it when the author understands how the forests here really work. I read in all genres, and the most recent book was Lichenwald, the third book in Ellen King Rice’s Mushroom Thriller series.

A former wildlife biologist, Ellen King Rice knows her stuff. Her books are terrific novels to while away a rainy day with.

BUT FIRST, the blurb:

Lichenwald is the newest “mushroom thriller” by Ellen King Rice. This science-based adventure delves into the vibrant diversity of the Pacific Northwest with a story of the power in lichens and their relationships.

At the edge of exhaustion, lichenologist Zinnie Fazail struggles to maintain a professional life as her mother descends into dementia. Ursula Fazail insists on wandering the neighborhood, looking for a vaguely remembered blue mushroom while lapsing into the language of her childhood.

Zinnie is desperate for a health aide who can keep up with her mother’s excursions. When May Belle Pope moves in with promises to “Take care of things,” Zinnie learns that Evil can be a roommate with small barking dogs.

As Ursula bonds with a blind Cocker Spaniel, Zinnie realizes May Belle will exploit any situation to her advantage. Zinnie has to act before hearts and bodies are broken, especially once May Belle has access to the home computer and family accounts.

How can Zinnie protect her mother and her home when what she knows are lichens?

Lichenwald includes illustrations of local lichens by Olympia artist Duncan Sheffels.

Part adventure, part science class, and totally fungi and lichen friendly, Lichenwald takes the reader into a place of friendships and intertwining ecosystems.

My review:

I found Zinnie Fazail an immediately relatable character. The story opens in the fictional Summit College where she works. While much of the focus is on mushrooms, lichens, and fungi, the cast of characters, their problems, and their relationships are the heart of the story.

Ellen King Rice’s understanding of human nature is spot on. Laurel’s youthful insecurity, Marvin and Allie’s wary father-daughter relationship, and Zinnie’s frustrations are real.

German-born Ursula’s slipping into dementia is poignant and is shown with truth and sensitivity. New to the neighborhood, Allie was raised in Germany. Her immediate attachment to the German grandmother is genuine and well portrayed.

Things get complicated when a woman with suspect credentials accepted into Zinnie’s home and agrees to care for Ursula. May Belle Pope is a frightening woman even at her most ingratiating.

May Belle’s criminal sense of entitlement is boundless, and her casually callous behavior evokes real anger in the reader. The twists and turns of her nefarious plans are  both real and frightening. I kept thinking “This could happen to any family, even mine.”

The illustrations are really well done and informative. I enjoyed Lichenwald and found myself thinking about the events and the characters long after I finished it.

Each book in Ellen King Rice’s Mushroom Thriller series is a standalone novel featuring a different cast of characters, so you can start with any book and not be confused.

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Schadenfreude and Humor #amwriting

September is conference month for me. I just finished attending the Southwest Washington Writers’ Conference in Centralia, Washington. On Thursday the 12th of September, I will be in Seattle for four days at the Pacific Northwest Writers’ Association Conference.

I will be attending a masters’ class offered by Donald Maass, on exploring depth with The Emotional Craft of Fiction.

Writers’ conferences are great ways to connect with agents and publishers, but they are also excellent ways to connect with other writers. A good conference offers the best education a new and beginning author can get.

This last Saturday, while in a seminar on injecting humor into the narrative, I reconnected with an old word that is making a resurgence in the English language: Schadenfreude (shah-den-froid-deh) This word from our Germanic roots describes the experience of happiness or self-satisfaction that comes from witnessing or hearing about another person’s troubles, failures, or humiliation.

I discovered this lovely (Deutsch) German word years ago while in college and had forgotten it. However, we are all familiar with it, as we experience it on a personal level quite often.

About schadenfreude, Via Wikipedia:

Schadenfreude is a complex emotion, where rather than feeling sympathy towards someone’s misfortune, schadenfreude evokes joyful feelings that take pleasure from watching someone fail. This emotion is displayed more in children than adults; however, adults also experience schadenfreude, though generally concealed.

In other words, we know it’s an uncharitable emotion, and we don’t like it in others. But for many centuries, popular humor had an aspect of schadenfreude to it. Charlie Chaplin, The Three Stooges, and Jerry Lewis were all popular comedy acts of the 20th century who employed physical comedy that evoked a feeling of schadenfreude in the audience.

Since the ancient Greeks, Chinese, and Egyptians began writing plays, people have always enjoyed seeing other people’s missteps and pratfalls as long as the comedian recovers with a smile and “keeps on keepin’” on. Aristotle said that we are amused when we feel superior to others.

Dr. Adam Potthast, in his 2016 thesis on the Ethics of Slapstick Humor discussed how the recurring themes of clowns and idiots in popular slapstick comedy evoke a subtle feeling of superiority and also desensitizes us to violence. It makes bullying acceptable.

And, until recent years, dealing with bullying has been a common theme of childhood that teachers and parents, all former victims of bullying, weren’t equipped to deal with. According to Andy Luttrell in his post for Social Psych Online, psychologists believe we find something funny when it’s a “benign violation.” In other words, we are amused by things and incidents that violate the way we think things should work and which do so in a non-threatening manner.

In our current society, we don’t want to promote bullying or harassment as a positive thing in any form. But in the narrative, we do want to inspire that feeling of “payback” in the reader whenever roadblocks—instant karma—temporarily halt the Antagonist. If we can inject a little humor into a narrative, the reader feels an extra burst of endorphins and keeps turning the pages.

Exchanges of snarky dialogue (mocking irreverence and sarcasm) liven up regrouping scenes, transitions from one event to the next.

Humor and what is hilarious can vary widely from person to person. E. B. White wrote, “Humor can be dissected, as a frog can, but the thing dies in the process, and the innards are discouraging to any but the purely scientific mind.”

He was right. I can’t know what you find humorous, but I do know what makes me smile. I like snark and witty comments. I like things that surprise me, and which take a sudden detour from the expectations of normal.

Some of us have an earthy sense of humor, while others are more cerebral. For me, humor occurs when conventional rules are undercut or warped by incongruity. I have never liked slapstick as a visual comedy, but Horror authors often have it right: in the narrative, putting your characters through a little comedic disaster now and then can’t hurt.

When I was growing up, my family ran on “gallows humor” and still does, to a certain extent. We put the “fun” in dysfunctional.

That grim and ironic tendency to find humor in a desperate or hopeless situation is a fundamental human emotion.

This is why I often find myself writing gallows humor into my own work. We all need something to lighten up with now and then.

Adding a little humor can add both depth and pathos to the characters, humanizing them without your having to resort to an info dump. Each individual character’s sense of humor (or lack thereof) shows more of who they are and why the reader should care about them.

For many reasons, humor is an aspect of depth in the narrative that is impossible to fully define, but which adds a little fresh air at places where the story arc could otherwise stall.

Humor in literature occurs on an organic level, arising during the first draft before the critical mind has a chance to iron it out. Have you found yourself writing the occasional hilarity into your work? If not, why not? What holds you back from expressing this aspect of your personality in your work?

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Structure of the Word-Pond #amwriting

Today we’re winding down my summer blogpost series, The Word-Pond. We’ve explored the myriad aspects of ‘depth,’ the wide inferential layer of Story. Depth isn’t easy to categorize, nor can we point to one aspect and say, “Get this right, and you’ve got a story with depth.”

I’ve described Story as a pond filled with words and discussed the three layers:

Surface: The Literal Layer; the what-you-see-is-what-you-get layer. Characters live, and events happen. These are reflected in the surface of the story. The ways in which we play with the surface layer are by choosing either Realism or Surrealism, or a blend of the two.

Middle: The Inferential Layer, where Inference and Implication come into play. This is an area of unknown quantity filled with cause and effect: the reasons why these lives are portrayed, and why events happened. This is where emotions muddy the waters.

Bottom: The Interpretive Layer. This level is not only foundational; it contains and shapes the story:

  • Themes
  • Commentary
  • Messages
  • Symbolism
  • Archetypes

The words in this pond behave like the waters of a pond in nature. While close scrutiny reveals that the waters of a pond are separated into layers by temperature, salinity, microbial life, or by the sheer weight and pressure of the volume of water, the overall structure is one large, important thing: a hole filled with water.

Without water, a pond is a depression in the ground filled with possibilities only.

In our word pond, the one large thing containing our words is “story.” So now we want to form these layers into a coherent, meaningful story. We need a container for our words, the hole in the ground for the story to flow into.

This container is the story arc.

Many people say they have a book in them, one they’d love to write. They begin, get a chapter or so into it, and lose the thread. They can’t see how to get the story from the beginning, to the crisis, to the resolution.

This is where the skills I’ve developed through my years of participating in National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) has paid off.  If you want to write a novel, it’s best to sit down and get that first draft out of you while the story is fresh in your mind. You’ll spend a year or more rewriting it, but if you don’t get the original ideas down while they’re fresh, you’ll lose them.

A story begins with an idea for a character. That character usually comes to me along with a problem. This is the seed from which the story grows.

I sit down and draft a story plan in four acts. First, I tell myself how I believe the story will go. This only takes half an hour and gives me finite plot points to write to. Once I have the four acts, I know where the turning points are, and what should happen at each. This ensures there is an arc to both the overall story and to the characters’ growth.

I’m going to use the original plot idea for a work in progress as my example. My WIP is a short story, 5000 words in length, but you can plot any length of story.

The story: Our Protagonist is a courier, transporting a valuable artifact. This artifact brings her to the attention of the Antagonist who intends to seize it, no matter the cost.

You must know what the surface of the Story looks like before you can explore the depths. A good way to discover what you are writing is to “think out loud.” Divide the story into four acts:

Act 1: the beginning: We show the setting, the protagonist, and the opening situation.

  1. Setting: a village near a crossroads.
  2. The weather is unseasonably cold.
  3. The protagonist is carrying a jewel reputed to enable a mage to control the weather.
  4. The protagonist must travel alone, as her partner was killed.
  5. Unbeknownst to her, a traitor in her employer’s court has designs on the artifact. By possessing it, the Antagonist will have the power to usurp the throne.
  6. She is wary, knowing the danger of traveling alone. She conceals the artifact by sewing it inside her shirt.

Act 2: First plot point: The inciting incident.

  1. The Antagonist’s hired thugs capture her.
  2. She is thrown into prison.
  3. A fellow prisoner has overheard that her partner was murdered to ensure she would be traveling alone.
  4. This fellow prisoner believes he has a plan to enable their escape.
  5. The protagonist isn’t sure she should trust him but refuses to let the artifact fall into the Antagonist’s hands.

Act 3.: Mid-point: We show their dire condition and how they deal with it.

  1. Seeing no other way, our Protagonist agrees to the Sidekick’s plan.
  2. He is on the verge of managing an escape but needs help with one last thing.
  3. By working together for several days, they manage to complete the escape route.
  4. Timing the rotation of their guards is critical to the success of their plan.
  5. Just as they are about to make their escape, the Antagonist makes a surprise visit to the dungeon and roughs up our Protagonist. He batters her physically and mentally, attempting to force her to tell him the whereabouts of the jewel, but she manages to keep her secret. When he leaves, her shirt is torn, but the jewel is still safe.

Act 4: Resolution:

  1. They must wait for another rotation of the guards, giving the Protagonist a chance to rest. She is injured but can still do what she must.
  2. The two make their escape but find themselves emerging near the kennels.
  3. The Sidekick gives the watchdogs the food he had saved for their journey, distracting the dogs and allowing them to escape over the walls.
  4. The Protagonist and the Sidekick manage to keep ahead of their pursuers and arrive back at court, where she delivers the artifact and reveals the identity of the traitor.
  5. The Employer is grateful, and the Protagonist and her Sidekick are all set for another adventure—perhaps a novel.

You have an idea for a story. Take a moment to analyze and plan what needs to be said by what point in the story arc. This method works for me because I’m a linear thinker.

If you know the length of a book or story you intend to write, you know how many words each act should be. Once you have the map, you can get to the nitty-gritty of turning that far-fetched tale of woe into a good story.

As you write each event and connect the dots, the plot will evolve and change. You begin to explore the deeper aspects of the story. Emotions, both expressed and unexpressed, secrets withheld, truths discovered—all these details that emerge as you write will shape how the characters react to each other. In turn, these interactions will alter the shape of the larger story.

This is why we never really know how a story will go, even if we begin with a plan. The plan serves to keep us on track with length and to ensure the action doesn’t stall.

Draft a short plan for a 50,000 word manuscript. 50,000 words is the industry standard for a novel. Write 1,667 words a day that connect those events together, and in thirty days you will have written a 50,000 word first draft of your novel.

To see more of what National Novel Writing Month is all about, go to: www.nanowrimo.org

I am dragon_fangirl there. Look me up and become a writing buddy!

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Transitions #amwriting

We love reading dramatic stories. However, in order for the events of the drama to be meaningful, we need to see it in context to understand what is going on. We need just enough artfully inserted exposition to show us what is really going on.

Within the narrative, moments of transition are critical, yet they are often done clumsily. These linking scenes can be too long, conveying far too much unneeded information. Conversely, they can be nearly omitted.

Neither of  those well-meaning faux pas serves the story.

Good transitions establish many things. The opening paragraphs are a critical transition. They show us

  • the general location (Alternate world, London, Seattle, a space station, etc.)
  • the setting (the immediate environment),
  • the era (past, present, future) in which the narrative takes place.

These first paragraphs are the doors through which the reader takes the first tentative steps from their real world and enters our invented world.

When a reader opens the book, they are a visitor, but they’re searching for something, questing for a good story. They hope you have supplied whatever it is they are looking for in the pages of that book.

Good opening paragraphs sink the hook and suck your reader into your world.

As the narrative moves beyond the opening scene, more transitions come along. These are the places where we must end one dramatic scene and open another—and do it gracefully. Sometimes it’s a moment where we must show the passage of time between events. Whatever the case, with each transition, we want the reader to remain engaged.

Transitions are more doors for the reader, portals that open at the end of the dramatic scene. By moving through them, we arrive at the next event.

Transitions are critical. Without good transitions, dramatic scenes have no context. Instead of progressing in an arc, the narrative leaps and falls along to a conclusion that may make no sense.

But transitions can be fraught with danger for me as a writer because this is where the necessary information, the exposition, is offered to the reader. This is the “how much is too much” moment.

In my first draft, the narrative is sometimes almost entirely exposition. This is because I am telling myself the story, trying to get the events down before I forget them.

In the second draft, I look at words like “went.” In my personal writing habits, “went” is a code word for the transition. In fact, all passive phrasing is code for the author. It is the code laid down in the first draft that indicates to the author that the characters are in the process of transition. They, or their circumstances, are undergoing a change. Is this change something the reader must know?

For example, when I see the word “went,” I immediately know someone goes somewhere.

I ask myself, “How did they go?” Went can be changed to

  • they walked (to the next room, or down the street, or to Mordor.)
  • they drove (a car, a wagon, a space ship.)
  • they rode (a horse, donkey, motorcycle, or dragon.)
  • they took a plane (bus, ferry, space shuttle, or sleeping pill.)
  • they teleported (vanished into the ether)

You get the idea. I have to find the “telling” paragraphs that connect my dramatic scenes together and decide what will stay and what should be cut. If the necessary information requires a paragraph, I have to consider how to rewrite it so that it is interesting and not a mind-numbing wall of words.

Many times, a transition can be cut to only a sentence or two because the necessary information it imparts can be consolidated.

This is where being a part of a writing group is most beneficial. Within the writing group, you will find a person you can bounce ideas off, someone you can trust and who will say, “This is not needed as it doesn’t advance the story” or “this scene seems to come out of nowhere. It needs more foreshadowing.”

Consolidating the transition into a sentence or two is optimal but isn’t always possible.

If it takes more than a paragraph to make the transition, I must be vigilant in my revision, and if I must give information, I must find and change all the passive code words to active prose. To that end, I look for these codes:

  • All forms of To be (see my post on subjunctives)
  • basically
  • Too many emdashes
  • Exclamation points (usually not needed)
  • Finally
  • I think
  • -ing
  • Its / it’s
  • –ize –ization (global search)
  • just
  • Like
  • -ly (global search)
  • now
  • Okay
  • Only
  • Really
  • Said (decide if speech tags can be eliminated and shown by actions)
  • Seem
  • Still
  • Suddenly
  • That (often not needed)
  • The
  • Then (often not needed)
  • There was (a subjunctive)
  • –tion (global search)
  • Very (usually not needed)
  • Which (not a substitute for ‘that’)

We know that each scene can be a chapter, or a chapter can consist of several scenes. In this regard, each author constructs the layout of the story the way they feel works best. The reader gets into the swing of it and rarely notices the overall structure. Whether a chapter or a series of scenes, dramatic passages have universal commonalities:

  • All scenes have an arc to them: rising action, climax, reaction.
  • These arcs of action and reaction begin at transition point A and end at transition point B.
  • Each scene will end at a slightly higher point of the overall story arc.
  • Each scene must blend so smoothly to the one that follows that the reader doesn’t notice the transition.
  • Pacing is the rise and fall of the action, drama and transition, the ebb and flow of conversations.

Conversations make great transitions. Inserting the necessary information into conversations and then fading to black and beginning a new chapter/scene can be the key to making the transition unobtrusively.

When we rewrite something, we are making revisions. Think about that word, revision.

re vision = to envision again.

Transitions are small connections that are woven into the larger narrative. When we begin revising them, we are looking at small passages of our work with new eyes and seeing how they might be changed to better fit the story—usually condensed, but sometimes expanded.

On the surface, it’s a daunting task, but it’s one of the most important parts of the writing process.


Credits and Attributions

Tavern of the Crescent Moon by Jan Miense Molenaer [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Wikimedia Commons contributors, “File:Jan Miense Molenaer 003.jpg,” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:Jan_Miense_Molenaer_003.jpg&oldid=302686494 (accessed November 9, 2018

Wikimedia Commons contributors, “File:David Teniers de Jonge – Peasant Wedding (1650).jpg,” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:David_Teniers_de_Jonge_-_Peasant_Wedding_(1650).jpg&oldid=225700063 (accessed November 2, 2018).

Autumn on Greenwood Lake, ca. 1861, by Jasper Francis Cropsey [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

 

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The Inferential Layer: Drama #amwriting

Whether you are writing a screenplay, a short story, or a novel, you are writing something that you hope will resonate with the reader and move them. A lesson that screenwriters learn early on is that each scene must be viewed as a mini-story; a complete story within the larger story. They learn this early because they don’t have the luxury of space that we who write novels have. The entire story of a screenplay must be told within a finite framework of time, so the writer must wring the most emotional impact out of the least amount of words.

I’m still working on this, myself. But I’m getting there.

So, where do we start? We begin with the most fundamental reason people purchase books or go to plays and movies—drama. The inferential layer of the Word-Pond we call Story is all about the drama, and I’m not talking over-the-top hysterics here. We combine emotional highs and lows with action and reaction in each passage to create dramatic scenes that leave a mark on the reader.

Of course, we understand large, emotionally charged, outwardly noisy dramatic scenes. They impact us and leave us reeling. But the only way those events have power is if they have context. They must be balanced by quieter, more introspective moments.

Drama can happen in the mildest of scenes, places where it looks as if nothing important is happening. The follow-up/regrouping scenes are places where you have the opportunity to waylay the reader with something unexpected. This is where you show the reader what is happening beneath the surface, the inner demons and fears the characters now face.

Consider  The Two Towers by J.R.R.Tolkien. Let’s look at the emotional impact of the scene that takes place in Shelob’s Lair. Frodo and Sam have survived incredible hardships and have made it to Cirith Ungol.  The passage is an excellent example of the dramatic story within a story that advances the overall plot.

Drama is the hope we feel in the moment when Frodo faces Shelob with the Phial of Light. Drama is the moment Frodo fails, the moment he is stung.

It is the shock, the horror, the moment where Sam reluctantly takes up Frodo’s sword, Sting.

It is triumph when Shelob impales herself on Sting, a weapon made of Mithril and a sword in the hands of a hobbit. But really, Sting is only a long-knife, and despite its mythic properties, it is not long enough to kill the giant arachnid, Shelob.

Still, she is wounded and scuttles away.

Drama is in the despair, the quiet moment afterward, where Samwise realizes that everything they have just endured was for nothing.

Drama is the moment of sharp introspection, the internal conversation when Sam fears his own weakness; the moment when his faith is not just shaken—it is lost. It is that moment of profound despondency in Shelob’s Lair, the dark night of the soul where Sam believes the spider has killed Frodo.

What about love? Few emotions have as much dramatic potential as that of love. It has many shades, from friendship to affection, to desire, to passion, to obsession, to jealousy, to hate.

Let’s look at the Pulitzer Prize winning short story, Brokeback Mountain, by Annie Proulx (synopsis via Wikipedia):

In 1963, two young men, Ennis del Mar and Jack Twist, are hired for the summer to look after sheep at a seasonal grazing range on the fictional Brokeback Mountain in Wyoming. Unexpectedly, they form an intense emotional and sexual attachment, but have to part ways at the end of the summer. Over the next twenty years, as their separate lives play out with marriages, children, and jobs, they continue reuniting for brief liaisons on camping trips in remote settings.

Ennis and Jack are tied to each other, but they love their wives and children. They are products of their society, and their personal reactions to the intensity of their relationship are both hurtful and understandable in the context of their time and situation. People have love affairs in books all the time, and we often find them forgettable. It is the complexity of external societal pressure and deep, confusing emotion that makes Ennis and Jack’s attachment memorable.

Then there is the novel, Possession, by A.S. Byatt, winner of the 1990 Booker prize. This is a complex relationship that begins in a rather boring manner – it opens in a library when Roland Michell, a scholar and professional man of high morals commits a crime: he steals the original drafts of letters he has come across in his research. This act has the potential of becoming his professional suicide. The synopsis via Wikipedia:

(Roland Mitchell) begins to investigate. The trail leads him to Christabel LaMotte, a minor poet and contemporary of Ash, and to Dr. Maud Bailey, an established modern LaMotte scholar and distant relative of LaMotte. Protective of LaMotte, Bailey is drawn into helping Michell with the unfolding mystery. The two scholars find more letters and evidence of a love affair between the poets (with evidence of a holiday together during which – they suspect – the relationship may have been consummated); they become obsessed with discovering the truth. At the same time, their own personal romantic lives – neither of which is satisfactory – develop, and they become entwined in an echo of Ash and LaMotte. The stories of the two couples are told in parallel, with Byatt providing letters and poetry by both of the fictional poets.

Love, whether unacknowledged or returned, physical or platonic, is complicated. The sections of movies, books, and short stories where the arc of the scene showcases true emotional complexity stick with me. I find myself contemplating them long after the story has ended.

In all three literary examples, The Lord of the Rings, Brokeback Mountain, and Possession, it is the interpersonal relationships entwined with the action that illuminates the drama. Action scenes require some sort of emotion to give them context, to shape them into an arc:

  1. Opening, the linking point where we introduce our characters and their situation.
  2. Rising Action, where we introduce complications and emotional responses.
  3. Climax, the high point of the action, the turning point of the scene.
  4. Falling Action, the “what the hell just happened” moment where we regroup.
  5. Closing, in which the problems encountered by the protagonist are resolved as best as can be expected, and we move on to the next scene.

The resolution of one scene is the linking point to the next, the door that takes us further into the story. The dramatic arc of each scene ends at a higher point in the overall story arc.

The emotions surrounding the drama in our literature attracts us, captivates us, keeps us interested. In every story, drama is the moment you, the reader, realize you must take up the hero’s task; you must carry the evil One Ring to Mount Doom.

Drama done well can take the reader from joy to despair to resignation and back to hope within the arc of the scene. This is good pacing and urges the reader to keep turning the page to see what is coming next.


Credits and Attributions:

Wikipedia contributors, “Brokeback Mountain (short story),” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Brokeback_Mountain_(short_story)&oldid=902058091 (accessed August 24, 2019).

Wikipedia contributors, “Possession (Byatt novel),” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Possession_(Byatt_novel)&oldid=909067002 (accessed August 24, 2019).

The Two Towers, by J.R.R. Tolkien, first edition cover, Publisher George Allen & Unwin, © 11 November 1954, Fair Use.

Possession by A.S. Byatt, first edition cover, Publisher Chatto and Windus, © 1990, Fair Use.

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#FineArtFriday: View of Toledo by El Greco, ca. 1599

 

Title: View of Toledo

  • Artist: El Greco
  • Genre: landscape art
  • Date: between circa 1598 and circa 1599
  • Medium: oil on canvas
  • Dimensions: 47.7 × 42.7 ″ (121.2 × 108.5 cm)
  • Collection: Metropolitan Museum of Art

About this painting (via Wikipedia):

View of Toledo (c. 1596–1600, oil on canvas, 47.75 × 42.75 cm, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York) is one of the two surviving landscapes of Toledo painted by El Greco.

View of Toledo is among the best known depictions of the sky in Western art, along with Vincent van Gogh‘s The Starry Night and the landscapes of J. M. W. Turner and Claude Monet, among others. Most notable is the distinct color contrast between the dark and somber skies above and the glowing green hills below. While influenced by the Mannerist style, El Greco’s expressive handling of color and form is without parallel in the history of art. In this painting, he takes liberties with the actual layout of Toledo insofar as certain building locations are re-arranged. However, the location of the Castle of San Servando, on the left, is accurately depicted. El Greco’s signature appears in the lower-right corner.

About the Artist, via Wikipedia

Doménikos Theotokópoulos (Greek: Δομήνικος Θεοτοκόπουλος [ðoˈminikos θeotoˈkopulos]; October 1541 – 7 April 1614), most widely known as El Greco(“The Greek”), was a Greek painter, sculptor and architect of the Spanish Renaissance. “El Greco” was a nickname, a reference to his Greek origin, and the artist normally signed his paintings with his full birth name in Greek letters, Δομήνικος Θεοτοκόπουλος, Doménikos Theotokópoulos, often adding the word Κρής KrēsCretan.

El Greco was born in the Kingdom of Candia, which was at that time part of the Republic of Venice, and the center of Post-Byzantine art. He trained and became a master within that tradition before traveling at age 26 to Venice, as other Greek artists had done. In 1570 he moved to Rome, where he opened a workshop and executed a series of works. During his stay in Italy, El Greco enriched his style with elements of Mannerism and of the Venetian Renaissance taken from a number of great artists of the time, notably Tintoretto. In 1577, he moved to Toledo, Spain, where he lived and worked until his death. In Toledo, El Greco received several major commissions and produced his best-known paintings.

El Greco’s dramatic and expressionistic style was met with puzzlement by his contemporaries but found appreciation in the 20th century. El Greco is regarded as a precursor of both Expressionism and Cubism, while his personality and works were a source of inspiration for poets and writers such as Rainer Maria Rilke and Nikos Kazantzakis. El Greco has been characterized by modern scholars as an artist so individual that he belongs to no conventional school. He is best known for tortuously elongated figures and often fantastic or phantasmagorical pigmentation, marrying Byzantine traditions with those of Western painting.


Credits and Attributions:

Wikipedia contributors, “El Greco,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=El_Greco&oldid=911718617 (accessed August 23, 2019).

Wikipedia contributors, “View of Toledo,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=View_of_Toledo&oldid=873435033 (accessed August 23, 2019).

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The Inferential Layer: Motives #amwriting

We talk a lot about motivation, in rather general terms. We ask what the characters want most and what they’re willing to do to obtain it. As an overview, that’s a good place to start.

Motivation is sometimes defined as the overall quest. Motives are more intimate, secrets held closely by the characters.

Consider the quest to destroy the One Ring. Every person in the Fellowship is motivated by the need to keep the One Ring from falling into Sauron’s hands. This is the acknowledged reason for their accompanying Frodo and is the core plot point around which the story unfolds.

Yet they each have secret thoughts and desires, some of which are subconscious. Some have plans that are left unspoken.

Each member of the Fellowship has personal reasons for volunteering to accompany Frodo to Mordor. In the end, those secret motives are the undoing of some and the making of others.

Samwise is a loyal friend who refuses to leave Frodo’s side. Fear that Frodo will need him forces him to insist on being included. Pippin and Merry have similar but different reasons—they don’t want to be left out if Frodo and Sam are going to have an adventure. Their motives are simple at the outset but become more complicated as their stories diverge and unfold. Pippin and Merry are separated from Frodo and Sam at Amon Hen. In the process, these four young hobbits lose their youthful naiveté and become leaders, warriors to be counted on when the going is rough.

Boromir desires the ring for what he believes is a noble purpose, and intends to take it to Minas Tirith. This is evident at the beginning of the Council of Elrond, but he soon sees he won’t achieve his overall goal unless he agrees to join the quest to destroy it. He tells himself he wants it so he can preserve Gondor. In reality, he knows the power of the ring and believes that by his possessing it, Gondor will return to its former glory and be safe forever. He will rule the world with a just hand. His true motive is a quest for personal power.

When we design the story, we build it around a need that must be fulfilled—a quest of some sort. For the protagonist, the quest is the primary goal, but he/she also must have secret, underlying motives not specifically stated at the outset. Each of the supporting character’s involvement in that storyline is affected by their personal ambitions and desires.

The Antagonist must also have motives both stated and unstated. He/she has a deep desire to thwart the protagonist, but there are reasons for this, a history that goes beyond the obvious “they needed a bad-guy and I’m it” of the cartoon villain.

Motivation is a major current in the inferential layer of the story. The hints of backstory, combined with clues, information delivered via conversation, should show each character as an individual. They must have underlying personal reasons that have nothing to do with acquiring the object or achieving the goal. These secret motives may or may not be important enough to be stated.

The hints and clues can be divulged both in conversation with the character in question or about them. Either way, snippets of dialogue are a useful tool for offering the protagonist and the reader information as needed.

No one goes through life acting on impulses for no reason whatsoever. On the surface, an action may seem random and mindless. The person involved might claim there was no reason, or even be accused of it—but that is a fallacy, a lame excuse.

The fundamental laws of physics, the rules that govern the universe are in force here: Nothing that occurs happens for no reason whatsoever. There is always a causative factor. Without a cause, there is no effect. Cause is motivation. Effect becomes cause, which becomes motivation. Motivation is a chain reaction of cause and effect, which becomes the story.

And it’s all traceable back to the character’s first idea, their first secret desire to do or have something.

When we look at things this way, we see that motivation must be a multilayered thing if we are to have well-rounded characters, people the reader can believe in.

Characters that feel too shallow sometimes lack sufficient personal motivations for buying into the larger quest. If we have supplied each character with a secret backstory, those hinted-at motives can sometimes push the story into newer, more original waters.

And isn’t that what we readers are looking for? We read because we are searching for a story that feels new, offers us a fresh view of the world through the characters’ eyes.

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The Inferential Layer: Building Characters #amwriting

When a character pops into my head, it’s usually a brief glimpse at first. Sometimes the character arrives unannounced, and I must build a story around them. Other times, sometimes in the same story, the plot demands a character, and I must build them.

In the beginning stages, we see a large picture, and the details are not too clear. We have an overall idea of what the story could be.

Readers always pick up on mushy characterizations. Characters must be as individual as the people we know. Every now and then a manuscript comes to me for editing where the characters talk and sound the same. They ring false, and I know what happened.

The author became so involved with creating the plot and circumstances that characterizations were overlooked.

In your mind, you have the basics:

  • Sex and age
  • Physical description—coloring, clothes
  • Overall personality—light or dark, upbeat or a downer

You can tell me all these things, but unless I see it, I don’t believe it. Good characterization shows those things but also offers me hints of:

  • An individual’s speech habits.
  • An individual with history.
  • An individual’s personal style.
  • An individual with or without boundaries—things they will or will not do.
  • Someone with secrets they believe no one knows.
  • Someone with secrets they will admit to.
  • And someone with secrets they will deny to the grave.

This is a key component of the inferential layer of the Word-Pond we call Story. As the narrative progresses, we offer a few more clues about each character, maintaining the mystery, yet giving the reader a small reward.

We begin to see the details buried in the noise of the larger picture.

In real life, people who accost you and dump their whole life on you in a ten-minute monologue immediately lose your interest. In fact, you avoid them, fearing you will be subjected to more of their history.

Don’t make it too easy for the reader because the sense of reward is a ‘found’ thing. The ‘ah-hah!’ moment of discovery is what we readers want to experience. We enjoy the ‘oh, my god’ moment of shock when a deeply personal secret is hinted at, and only we, the reader, suspect the truth.

In the books I love and refer back to, great characters dominate. They behave and react to the inciting incident the way their established personality would. As each subsequent event unfolds, they continue to behave as individuals. No one acts out of character.

We want to read about characters with secrets because they are a mystery, and we love to work out puzzles.

Certain tricks of plotting work across all genres, from sci-fi to romance, no matter what the setting is:

  • One or more characters is a “fish out of water,” in that they are immediately thrust into an unknown and possibly dangerous environment.
  • Every character projects an obvious surface persona.
  • Early on, the reader sees glimpses of weaknesses and fears; the sorrows and guilts that lie beneath their exterior personas.
  • Each character has emotions and thoughts they conceal from the others. Perhaps they are angry and afraid, or jealous, or any number of emotions we are embarrassed to acknowledge.
  • Maybe they hope to gain something on a personal level—if so, what?

Our task is to ensure that each of our characters’ individual stories intersects seamlessly. In order to do that, motivations must be clearly defined.

  • You must know how the person thinks and reacts as an individual.
  • What need drives them?
  • What lengths will they go to in the effort to achieve their goal? Conversely, what will they NOT do?
  • What are their moral boundaries, and what is out of character for them?

Write nothing that seems out of character, unless there is a good, justified reason for that behavior or comment.

We know the obstacles our characters face and the choices they make in those situations are the story. In literary terms, agency is the power of an individual character to act independently, to choose their own path. When we give the protagonist/antagonist agency, we allow them to make their own free choices, and they will take the narrative in new directions, surprising even you, the author.

When they have unique personalities, it becomes easy to give our characters an active role. And yet they still harbor secrets that surprise and shock me. We see the smallest details hiding in the background, nearly obscured by the distractions in the foreground.

We see what is hidden in the shadows.

When I am first writing any story, giving my characters agency is difficult to do. At this point in the first draft of my manuscripts, the motives of my protagonist haven’t quite come into focus for me.

I tend to allow a character’s choices to push their personal growth, so I have to create a personnel file for them. I make each character known to me as an individual, down to their taste in clothing.

I am privy to what secrets they will consent to share with me. Those secrets propel their story-line. But they don’t tell me everything.

Within the plot outline, the individuality of the characters drives the story as a whole. Allowing them agency makes it unexpected. When characters are portrayed as truthfully as possible, they will feel real.

In real life, smart people reveal their secrets only at the right time, or they keep them forever. If they don’t, we will do anything to avoid those people, fearing they will spew too much information, stuff we don’t need or want to know. When they get on the bus, we avoid making eye contact and put our possessions on the seat beside us so they can’t sit there, pretending we don’t see them.

In a gripping story, characters keep their secrets close, revealing them only at the one moment when the protagonist and the reader must have the information.

Now, if only I can write this story that I woke up thinking about. If only I can pry loose who they are, learn their secrets. It’s easy to talk the talk, but walking the talk is the difficult part of writing. This is where writing become work.


Credits and Attributions:

Wikimedia Commons contributors, “File:George Henry Durrie – Winter Scene in New Haven, Connecticut – Google Art Project.jpg,” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:George_Henry_Durrie_-_Winter_Scene_in_New_Haven,_Connecticut_-_Google_Art_Project.jpg&oldid=249454341  (accessed December 14, 2017).

Details sections from Wikimedia Commons contributors, “File:George Henry Durrie – Winter Scene in New Haven, Connecticut – Google Art Project.jpg,” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:George_Henry_Durrie_-_Winter_Scene_in_New_Haven,_Connecticut_-_Google_Art_Project.jpg&oldid=249454341  (accessed December 14, 2017).

Don Quijote de La Mancha and Sancho Panza, 1863, Gustave Doré [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons (Accessed October 22, 2017).

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