Tag Archives: depth in writing

Fundamentals of Writing: Character Depth – who do they think they are? #amwriting

Depth is a vast word, a sea of information created of layers. It is complex, intense, and profound. Characters with depth feel solid, alive, as real as your best friend.

depth-of-characterTo achieve a sense of depth, we begin with simplicity. Each character’s sub-story must be built upon who these characters think they are.

One of the most useful seminars I’ve ever attended was given by a Romance writer. He is a strong proponent of assigning verbs and nouns to each character at the outset as a way to get inside their heads.

If there is one thing Romance authors understand, it is how to create a strong impression of character.

When I plan a character, I make a simple word picture of them. The word picture is made of a verb and a noun, the two words that best describe each person. We want to know the good things about these characters, so we assign nouns that tell us how they see themselves at the story’s outset.

We also look at sub-nouns and synonyms, so put your thesaurus to work. In my book, Julian Lackland, I had four characters with significant roles, so I assigned them nouns that describe their principal defining quality.

This noun is the core characteristic thread that stays with them, is challenged by events, and either wins in the end or is their downfall.

Julian’s Noun is: Chivalry (Gallantry, Bravery, Daring, Courtliness, Valor, Love.) He sees himself as a good knight, a defender of innocence.

Beau’s Noun is: Bravery (Courage, Loyalty, Daring, Gallantry, Passion.) He aspires to chivalry but has a pragmatic side. He sees himself as a good knight but knows that good doesn’t always win.

Lady Mags’s Noun is: Audacity (Daring, Courage.) She is a good knight but is under no illusions about the people she defends. She is chivalrous but practical.

Bold Lora’s Noun is: Bravado (Boldness, Brashness.) She desires fame, is convinced that knights are defined by the celebrity their deeds bring them.

In real life, the way we see ourselves is the face we present to the world. Self-conceptions color how we react to events. We are gradually altered by events as life goes on. Our view of ourselves evolves, and our reactions are changed.

By the end of the story, the way our characters see themselves should have evolved. The circumstances you put them through must affect and remake them.

Once I know their nouns, I assign my characters a verb that describes their gut reactions. This word will shape the way they react to every situation that arises.

unreliable-narratorThey might think one thing about themselves, but this verb is the truth.

Julian has 2 Verbs. They are: Defend, Fight. Again, we also look at sub-verbs and synonyms: (Preserve, Uphold, Protect.)

Beau’s 2 Verbs are: Protect, Fight (Defend, Shield, Combat, Dare.)

Lady Mags’s 2 Verbs are: Fight, Defy (Compete, Combat, Resist.)

Bold Lora’s 2 Verbs are: Desire, Acquire (Own, Control, Imprison.)

When I wrote these characters, I knew how they believed they would react in a given situation and that knowledge drove the plot. Why was it so clear to me? Because I had drawn their portraits in a few descriptive words.

Julian must Fight for and Defend Chivalry. Julian’s commitment to defending innocents against inhumanity breaks his mind.

Beau must Fight for and Protect Bravery. Beau’s commitment to protecting Julian and concealing his madness breaks his health.

Lady Mags must Fight for and Defy Audacity. She’s at war with herself regarding her desire for a life with Julian and Beau. That war ruins her chance at happiness.

Bold Lora must Acquire Fame and Control Chivalry. Her thirst for notoriety destroys her.

When we uncover the nouns and verbs that describe who our characters think they are, we have a grip on creating characters who are alive to the reader.

How we phrase this when describing them in our outline is essential. Placing the verb before the noun describes a character’s core conflict. It lays bare their flaws and opens the way to building new strengths.

Knowing who our characters are before we meet them is important. Go ahead and make that personnel file detailing their backstory if you need to. Set that infodump aside because the real story will be built upon who they think they are on page one of this story.

Our characters’ preconceptions color their experience of events, which colors the readers’ view.

The characters we write are unreliable witnesses to the events that shape them. Their self-perception shades their reactions when they fail to live up to their own standards.

These are the watershed moments when our characters must examine their motives, and either face them or gloss over their failings.

Depth is instilled into to a scene where the characters prevail despite their flaws, succeeding against the odds. Or conversely, depth can be added when character flaws cause them to fail miserably at a point where they could have triumphed.

What two words describe the primary weaknesses of your characters, the factor that could be their ultimate ruin?

Julian Lackland: Obsession and Honor.

Beau Baker: Steadfast Loyalty.

Lady Mags De Leon: Stubbornness and Fear (of Entrapment).

Who are youKnowing the verb (action word) and the noun (object of the action) that best represented my characters made writing Julian Lackland easier. Their actions and reactions unfolded, and it was as if the story wrote itself.

So how do we get to know our characters and how they see themselves? Just as in real life, we meet and come to know them through conversations.

Conversations give shape to the story, turning what could be a wall of words into something personal.

Our next installment in this series will focus on revealing character through conversations.

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Fundamentals of Writing: Depth part 1 – identifying the weaknesses #amwriting

You have finished your first draft, successfully taken your characters from the opening pages through several disasters, and given them a smashing conclusion. You wrote “the end,” so now you’re finished! Time to upload it to Amazon and wait for the accolades to roll in.

depthPart1revisionsLIRF05252021STOP! If you value your reputation, you won’t rush to publish that mess just yet.

In my previous post, I outlined the stages of book construction using a traditional phased method of project management.

  1. The Concept. Make a note of that brilliant idea. Write it down, so you don’t forget it.
  2. The Planning Phase is where I create an outline. Some people don’t need this step, but I do.
  3. The Construction Phasewrite the first draft from beginning to the end.
  4. Monitoring and Controlling—For writers, this is actually a continuation of step three, a part of the construction phase. This is where you build quality into your product. If you are an outliner, this phase might go smoothly.
    • Create a style sheet as you go. See my post on style sheets here: Self-editing: Ensuring Consistency.
    • Find beta readers among your writing group and heed their concerns in the rewrites.
    • Take the manuscript through as many drafts as you must to have the novel you envisioned.
    • Employ a good line editor to ensure consistency in the quality of your product.
    • Find reliable proofreaders. (Your writing group is an invaluable resource.)
  5. Completion or Closing.

As you can see, when you write “the end” at the bottom of the last page, you have only completed the development and initial construction phase of this project.

800px-Singapore_Road_Signs_-_Temporary_Sign_-_Detour.svgNow you must set it aside, as you must gain a little distance from it to see it with a clear eye. This is where I seek an outside opinion on the strengths and weaknesses of my proto-novel. I am fortunate to have a local writing group of highly talented published authors. I also trade services with several editors. When the first draft of my manuscript is finished, I send it to a reader. While they are reading it, I work on something completely different.

You must ask your reader to look for and point out weaknesses. You need to know where you’ve over-explained, what needs to be expanded upon, and if the story has a satisfying conclusion. At this point, your manuscript needs line editing, but the first reader must understand that you aren’t at that stage yet. Beta readers must be able to look beyond those flaws and see the story as a whole.

Authors are thin-skinned. We are full of expectations that all readers will enjoy it and tell us how stellar it is. You must be prepared for your manuscript to come back with some critical observations. I have felt the sting and burn of honest criticism and was utterly crushed.

I had to put on my big-girl undies and grow up.

The real work begins when we get the first reader’s assessment back, and it isn’t what we thought we would hear.

If you had a conscientious reader, they noticed those massive info dumps. You know the ones, the long paragraphs of backstory we write to explain things.

Hopefully, your reader is familiar with your genre and knows about features such as horses, medicine, or police procedures. If so, they may tell you that more research is required.

Sometimes, the feedback we get means that we now have to completely rethink what we thought was the perfect novel.

Book- onstruction-sign copyAt this point, an amateur decides the beta reader missed the point and chooses to ignore their comments. Our unrealistic belief that our work is perfect as it falls from our minds is a failing that we must overcome if we want to engage readers.

When you have received your manuscript back with the reader’s comments, it’s time to begin the second draft. This is the area of construction where we straighten out confusing passages and make positive changes by adding or cutting scenes. We begin to add depth to our novel.

In my current manuscript, several areas were identified that needed attention.

First, my reader liked the overall story and found the characters engaging. However, she felt I hadn’t explored their relationships well enough to show their growing attraction. The eventual pairing seems to come out of nowhere. That relationship lacked depth.

Also, she pointed out where I had missed an excellent opportunity to inject real tension into the midpoint crisis. She also felt a lack of tension in the final pages.

In other words, the story lacks depth and tension at this point in its development. The work isn’t done; it’s only just begun.

This is where the intelligent author puts her reader’s observations to work. I took Alison’s comments to heart and considered the midpoint crisis. A solution presented itself, turning the story on its head. By doing that, an opportunity to make the final confrontation more perilous presented itself.

I added two chapters and trimmed back three. I slightly changed how the characters interact initially, making their mutual attraction a sub-thread that gradually grows from the moment when Character Two enters the story.

This novel tells the origin of an artifact that will be a strong thread in this series, but it is more focused on the internal battles we fight as part of the human condition. Each of us experiences emotional highs and lows in our daily lives. I must bring forward a specific layer of depth, the deep-rooted, personal reason for the emotions I want to portray.

Reactions must have a cause, something to react to. Depth can be instilled by adding a few well-chosen words, a sentence or two to show a flash of memory, a sensory prompt that a reader can empathize with.

But I'm not superstitious, LIRFIn my current work, the thoughts and motives of the characters are critical to the midpoint event and subsequent crisis of faith. Yes, who these people are, and their place in the story at the point where we meet them is crucial to the plot.

But the plot is only the surface. Below the surface, lending substance to the narrative, lies the layer of inference and implication. This layer conveys a sense of solidness, of complexity.

This layer must be handled deftly because you want the reader to feel like they have earned the information they are gaining. Yet, you must leave enough clues lying around that they can understand what you are implying. Readers can only extrapolate knowledge from information the author has offered them.

Depth is a vast word, considering that it consists of only five letters. Depth is complexity, intensity, and profoundness. These qualities are shown when each character’s sub-story is built upon who these characters think they are.

On Monday, we will take a closer look at some ways to build depth into the interactions of our characters.

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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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The Depths of the Word-Pond: Archetypes #amwriting

Down at the bottom, lodged in the mud of the Word-Pond we call Story are the foundations, the underpinnings. One of these foundations is archetype.

An archetype is an ancient pattern, describing a type of character that exists across different cultures and eras of human history. In ancient times, we had no communication with different cultures, yet our myths and legends share these common, recognizable characters we call archetypes.

I am a great fan of both Joseph Campbell and Christopher Vogler, and the hero’s journey is central to much of my work. In his book, The Hero With a Thousand Faces, Campbell discusses his theory of the journey of the archetypal hero found in world mythologies.

Quote from Wikipedia, the fount of all knowledge:

In his 1949 work, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Campbell described the basic narrative pattern as follows:

A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered, and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.

There are other archetypal characters that we find in all sorts of guises. Consider the “wise old man/woman/mentor.” This character exists in the stories of all ancient cultures, offering advice, and pushing the protagonist to achieve the goal. The mentor is Obi-Wan Kenobi, Glenda the Good Witch—or even a small, green dispenser of wisdom called Yoda.

Psychology says that an archetype is a recognizable behavioral pattern. In a story, the archetypal character is the embodiment/reflection of that familiar pattern of behavior.

The Writer’s Journey, Mythic Structure for Writers, by Christopher Vogler, details the various traditional archetypes that form the basis of most characters in our modern mythology, or literary canon.

The following is the list of character archetypes as described by Vogler:

  1. Hero: someone who is willing to sacrifice his own needs on behalf of others
  2. Mentor: all the characters who teach and protect heroes and give them gifts
  3. Threshold Guardian: a menacing face to the hero, but if understood, they can be overcome
  4. Herald: a force that brings a new challenge to the hero
  5. Shapeshifter: characters who constantly change from the hero’s point of view
  6. Shadow: a character who represents the energy of the dark side
  7. Ally: someone who travels with the hero through the journey, serving a variety of functions
  8. Trickster: embodies the energies of mischief and desire for change

Christopher Booker, author of The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories, tells us that the following basic archetypes underpin the plots of all stories:

  1. Overcoming the Monster
  2. Rags to Riches
  3. The Quest
  4. Voyage and Return
  5. Comedy
  6. Tragedy
  7. Rebirth

We feel comfortable with these basic recognizable plots, no matter how differently they are presented to us. They are peopled with characters we feel we know, friends who occupy the familiar traditional roles. Even in a non-heroic story, we have these archetypes:

Take The Maltese Falcon, by Dashiell Hammett. The archetype of the plot is a Quest.

On the surface, this is a detective novel, a thriller, nothing at all like The Hobbit, which is an obvious quest tale. However, The Maltese Falcon most definitely is a quest tale.

Yes, it’s a quest with a twist.

The object of the quest is a black statuette of significant value. However, the statue itself is a classic example of a MacGuffin. The MacGuffin’s importance to the plot is not the object or goal itself, but rather the effect it has on the characters and their motivations—in this case, the quest changes Sam’s life. The sole purpose of the MacGuffin is to move the plot forward.

The object of the quest was not the purported “Maltese Falcon” after all, despite the obvious quest to acquire it and the lengths the characters must go to in the process. The true core of the story is the internal journey of both Sam Spade (the hero) and Brigid O’Shaunessy (the shapeshifter/trickster), two people brought together by the quest, and whose lives are changed by it.

So, The Hobbit and The Maltese Falcon begin with the same character archetype of the unintentional hero. Bilbo (the hero) is hired to steal the Arkenstone back from a Dragon for Thorin (the trickster) and the dwarves, and Sam Spade is hired to obtain the Maltese Falcon for Brigid O’Shaunessy.

In both tales, another archetypal role that appears is that of the mentor: Bilbo has Gandalf the Wizard, and Sam Spade has Caspar Gutman. Despite their very different personalities and reasons for offering wisdom, both are mentors.

The fundamental stories are the same: the hero endures hardship to acquire an object (the Maltese Falcon or the Arkenstone) but finds that the object is no longer that important. Sam never acquires the true Maltese Falcon but finds out who really killed his business partner. He loses much in the process and emerges a different man.

Bilbo also loses his naïveté, and after all the work of finally finding it, he hides the Arkenstone because of Thorin’s uncharitable actions toward the Wood-elves and the Lake-men who have suffered from the Dragon’s depredations.

Despite the similarities on the level of archetypes, these are radically different novels.

And that is the beauty of the deeper level of the story. Something so fundamentally similar as plot archetypes and character archetypes can be written so differently that the same story emerges completely unique and wildly dissimilar from others based on that archetype.

I highly recommend this book for anyone interested in learning more of what archetypes are and how they fit into the story:

The Writer’s Journey, Mythic Structure for Writers, by Christopher Vogler


Credits and Attributions:

Wikipedia contributors, “Archetype,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Archetype&oldid=906671691 (accessed July 23, 2019).

Christopher Booker (2004). The seven basic plots: why we tell stories. London: Continuum. ISBN 978-0826452092. OCLC 57131450.

Wikipedia contributors, “The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=The_Writer%27s_Journey:_Mythic_Structure_for_Writers&oldid=804454608  (accessed July 23, 2019).

Wikipedia contributors, “Trickster,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Trickster&oldid=811022016  (accessed July 23, 2019).

 

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Creating Depth: Layers of the Word-Pond #amwriting

We often talk about the story arc and its component parts and features. But when we want to add depth to a story, we must look at it from a different angle. Yes, “Story” is an arc, but it is also like a pond. It is something vast and deep, set in an enclosed space.

We know it has a beginning and end, a top and bottom, with something murky and mysterious in the middle. We instinctively know the pond is made up of those three layers, although we may not consciously be aware of it or be able to explain it.

Today we will have an overview of Depth, a component of Story that we will be exploring over the next few posts. This is a part of the puzzle that eludes many authors as depth is an advanced concept requiring a great deal of thought to convey.

On our pond, Layer One, the surface layer, is the most obvious. When you look at the pond, it could be calm , or if a storm is brewing, it will be ruffled and moving.

First, we must understand that Story is an immense, unfathomable word-pond.

In Story, Layer One, the surface layer is the Literal Layer; the what-you-see-is-what-you-get layer.

This is the setting, the action, the visual/physical experience of the characters as they go about their lives.

On the surface of a story, when you see something, you immediately recognize what you think is there. You immediately believe you know what is going on. This is the surface meaning. A gun is drawn, the weapon is fired—what happened is clear and obvious.

The ways in which we play with the surface layer are by choosing either Realism or Surrealism, or a blend of the two.

Realism is serious, a depiction of what undisputedly is.

Surrealism seeks to release the creative potential of the unconscious mind, for example by the irrational juxtaposition of images. It takes what is real and warps it to convey a subtler meaning.

This will be a fun layer to explore, with lots of wonderful art to help us along the way.

Back to the pond. Beneath the surface is Layer Two: the middle, the area of unknown quantity where lives are lived, and events happen. Fish hatch, swim, and eat other fish. These are the creatures of the middle, entities who rarely breach the surface layer or see the bottom and who exist independently of them.

Yet their world has limits—they are confined, as we are confined by the sky above us and the soil beneath our feet.

In Story, Layer Two, the wide layer of unknown quantity is the Inferential Layer. This is the layer where Inference and Implication come into play.

We show why the gun is drawn. We imply reasons to show why the weapon was fired. We offer ideas to explain how the shooter comes to the place in the story where they squeezed the trigger.

We make these implications and let the reader draw their own conclusions.

In a good story, the path to the moment the trigger was pulled is complicated. Perhaps no one knows exactly what led to it, but your task is to fill the middle of the pond with clues, hints, and allegations. This is where INFER and IMPLY come into play.

You can only imply something to someone, in our case, the reader.

A speaker (author) implies. One meaning is displayed on the surface, but deeper down, you enclose the true meaning, a secret folded within the story. Take an envelope and write the word “murder” on it.  Then write one word, “avenger,” on a  note and slip it inside the envelope. The message (inference) inside the envelope (story) is conveyed to the listener (reader).

A listener (reader) infers. The listener (reader) deduces or catches the meaning of something that is not said directly. In reading the inferential layer of the story, they open the envelope and draw out the note and deduce the meaning of what is about to happen.

The layer of implication must be done well and deftly because you want the reader to feel as if they have earned the information they are gaining. They must be able to deduce what you imply. As a listener (reader) you can only extrapolate knowledge from information someone or something has offered you.

Serious readers want this layer to mean something on a level that isn’t obvious. They want to experience that feeling of triumph for having caught the meaning. That surge of endorphins keeps them involved and makes them want more of your work.

This layer will be shallower in Romance novels because the point of the book isn’t a deeper meaning—it’s interpersonal relationships on a surface level. However, there will still be some areas of mystery that aren’t spelled out completely because the interpersonal intrigues are the story.

Books for younger readers might also be less deep on this level because they don’t yet have the real-world experience to understand what is implied.

This middle layer is, in my opinion, the toughest layer for an author to get a grip on. We will go to popular literature to find examples that will lead us to draw our own conclusions about this layer.

Below the middle layer is Layer Three, the bottom of the pond. This is the finite layer: Whatever passes from the surface travels through the middle and comes to rest at the bottom.

In Story, Layer Three is the Interpretive Level:

  • Themes
  • Commentary
  • Message
  • Symbolism
  • Archetypes

This layer is sometimes the easiest for me to discuss because we are dealing with finite concepts. Theme is one of my favorite subjects to write about, as is symbolism. Commentary is something I haven’t gone into in depth, nor have I really discussed conveying messages. Archetype is another facet I haven’t gone into in detail, and yet it is a fundamental underpinning of Story.

I am looking forward to gaining more understanding of the subtler, more abstract aspects of writing as I do the research for this series. When I come across a book or website that has some good information, I will share it with you.

In the meantime, a good core textbook is “Story” by Robert McKee. If you haven’t already gotten it, get it.

Another excellent and more affordable textbook for this is “Damn Fine Story” by Chuck Wendig. Chuck delivers his wisdom in pithy, witty, concise packets. If you fear potty-mouth, don’t buy it. However, if you have the courage to be challenged, this is the book for you.

In my next post we will begin at the surface of the Word-Pond: realism and surrealism.


Credits and Attributions:

Photograph, McLain Pond in July, © 2018 by Connie J. Jasperson, from the author’s private photos.

Impression Sunrise, Claude Monet 1872 [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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Dramatic Irony: adding depth #amwriting

Creating depth in writing is an involved process. When we talk about adding depth to a scene, we are talking about many things, and over the next few weeks, we will explore the ideas and facets of depth more fully.

First of all, “depth” consists of a multitude of layers we add to a scene.

Even before we get into the deeper waters, writing fiction is a complex undertaking. We need a wide vocabulary, but we also need to be careful not to get too “high falutin’” with it. This requires an understanding of our chosen genre and the general expectations of our readers.

Also, the way we habitually structure our prose (our voice) can add to the feeling of depth. Of course, it’s important to have a fundamental understanding of basic mechanical skills:

  • Grammar
  • Punctuation

We don’t consciously think about this, but organizational skills are critical because we want the story to flow easily from scene to scene. How we plot a story requires a little thought and sometimes we cut or rearrange things.

If we are writing fiction, we need to be able to think critically and see a character’s thought processes from all sides. If we have tunnel vision in our writing, we only write what is directly in front of us. This can be one dimensional, boring. There is no surprise because we saw it coming all along, and no effort was made to counter it.

So how do we take that one-dimensional idea and make the reader believe we have (figuratively) plucked them from their comfortable existence and placed them in a real, three-dimensional world?

We do it layer by layer. Some layers are more abstract than others, but they add so much to a story. Take the unexpected. When you add something unexpected into the mix, the reader becomes interested in finding out more. They keep turning the pages.

One way to introduce the unexpected is to employ a literary device called Dramatic Irony. Employed deftly, irony inserted into the ordinary adds the element of surprise and a moment of “ah hah!” to a scene. The ordinary becomes extraordinary.

Let’s consider Romeo and Juliet. The way William Shakespeare wrote the play, we see layer after layer of irony, applied heavily.

First, the prologue announces that the  Capulets are at war with the Montagues and tells us that what happens to the star-crossed lovers at the end will bring about peace between the warring families. That the audience is aware of the situation from the outset, but the characters are not is one layer of irony. That “we know, but you don’t” factor was extraordinarily daring in its day and was one of the things Elizabethans loved most about the play.  

Now, the next layer is one that resonates with modern audiences. The second layer of irony is laid on when Romeo falls in love with his nemesis—the daughter of his family’s arch enemy. Again, the audience sees the irony there, but (third layer) Romeo pushes onward, trying to convince Juliet that her family won’t harm him, that her love will protect him. Alas, the ironic blindness of teenaged infatuation.

And at this point, despite the blatant warning the prologue gives us at the outset, we are all hoping for a happy ending, even though we’ve had 400 years of “we know how this will end, and it isn’t good.”

Mercutio and Benvolio discuss Romeo’s love-stricken behavior, assuming he is still pining for Rosalind (fourth layer of irony). The audience says, “We know something you don’t!”

Alas poor Romeo! he is already dead;

stabbed with a white wench’s black eye;

shot through the ear with a love-song;

“Shot through the ear with a love-song” is brilliant, ironic prose in any era. All through the play, from Tybalt’s murder to the suicides, the audience knows what is going on, but the characters don’t. That is dramatic irony taken to an extreme and was a contributing factor in the play’s success back in 1594-1595 when it first opened.

But tastes have changed over the 400+ years since that play was written. We can still inject irony into our work but don’t have to be quite so heavy-handed in our writing.

I’m just saying that nowadays it’s a bad idea to write a prologue explaining the end of the book, as that will encourage readers to put the book back on the shelf and purchase one where the outcome is more of a mystery.

Perhaps we have scene involving a committee’s conversation about what to do with a plot of land. Should we let it be developed commercially or make it playground? In itself, the topic might not be terribly interesting.

But what if in the opening paragraph a woman enters the empty conference room ahead of the meeting and places a backpack under the table. She makes an adjustment to its contents, sets the timer to go off at 14:25 (2:25 pm), and then leaves, being careful to leave no fingerprints.

Now every second that the conversation drags on ratchets up the tension. Each time a committee member gets up to get a glass of water, or make a phone call, and the clock on the wall ticks toward 2:25, you wonder: will they be the one to escape death?

Irony should be the backpack lurking under the table. It’s there; the reader knows it’s there but once it’s placed under the table we don’t have to mention it again until it is found or the clock ticks to 2:25.

Consider Fahrenheit 451, by Ray Bradbury. Bradbury uses irony to convey information. First of all, Bradbury challenges us by introducing “firemen” not as those brave people who put out house fires, but as men charged with starting fires and burning all books. The naming of that job title is subtle. The author never resorts to explaining the irony, but it packs a punch when you first read it. So, in that case, we have “situational irony” delivering information we need, in a way that packs a wallop and promises more to come.

In the 1948 short story, The Lottery, Shirley Jackson wrote about something we typically think of as good. After all, winning the lottery usually means we’ve won money or a wonderful prize. But in Jackson’s story, it’s not about what is won, but what is lost. The irony is that stoning someone to death yearly purges the town of the bad and makes way for the good.

Dramatic Irony adds depth to a story, especially when done in such a way that the reader understands it but hasn’t been told what to think. Readers like to think for themselves.

For a good speculative fiction story that is one long scene filled with dramatic irony that becomes humorous, you might want to read The Machine that Won the War, by Isaac Asimov. This story first appeared in the October 1961 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction and was reprinted in the collections Nightfall and Other Stories (1969) and Robot Dreams (1986).

 


Credits and Attributions:

Quote from Romeo and Juliet, William Shakespeare, 1594 – 1595 PD|100.

Cover for Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury, Artwork by Joseph Mugnaini Published October 19, 1953, by Ballantine Books. Fair Use.

Frank Dicksee, Romeo and Juliet, Wikimedia Commons contributors, “File:DickseeRomeoandJuliet.jpg,” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:DickseeRomeoandJuliet.jpg&oldid=354454367 (accessed June 25, 2019).

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