Monday, October 31, 2005

Types of Premises

There are three types of premises:
  • Chain Reaction Premise
  • Opposing Forces Premise
  • Situational Premise
In a novel with a Chain Reaction Premise, something happens to a character that initiates a series of events leading to a climax and resolution. Examples of Chain Reaction Premises are:
  • Purity of heart achieves salvation.
  • Passionate love leads to death.
In a novel with an Opposing Forces Premise, two forces are pitted against each other, and one wins. Sometimes you can state the premise the same way you state a Chain Reaction Premise. Sometimes you can state it more descriptively as an equation of the form x versus y > z. Examples of Opposing Forces Premises are:
  • Cunning ambition defeats honor.
  • Alcoholism defeats love.
  • Cunning ambition v. honor leads to a travesty of justice.
  • Alcoholism v. love leads to desolation.
In a novel with a Situational Premise, a particular situation affects a group of characters, leading to a different outcome for each. The situation changes each character in a unique way. So, a situational story is actually a compound of many stories, each with its own premise. That premise will be a character premise. Typically these novels are stories about situations like war, natural disaster, life in prison, life in the ghetto, and so forth. Often the situation is a profession.

These stories show what being, say, a cop, a nun, or a politician does to people. Some are ennobled and some depraved.

The Poseidon Adventure is a good example of a story with a situational premise. In it a passenger ship capsizes. Most people choose to wait and hope for rescue. A few attempt the dangerous climb up to the bottom of the ship to escape. Along the way each makes choices that lead to his or her indiscriminate fate. Because of a cruel twist, those who make it cannot escape through openings near the propeller. Yet they are the only ones saved when rescuers hear them and use blow torches to get through the hull and free them.

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Saturday, October 29, 2005

Literary Fiction, Mainstream Fiction, and Genre Fiction

Publishers, critics, and academics classify fiction into three broad categories:
  • Literary/Academic Fiction
  • Mainstream/Popular Fiction
  • Genre Fiction
Literary fiction, or academic fiction, is supposed to be character driven and is regarded as "highbrow." It has few other conventions (i.e., no formula). The story is almost always a character story, because other types of stories are regarded as inferior.

In literary fiction the writing meets the highest standards of style, rhetoric, usage, and grammar. So the quality of the writing is impeccable and the writer's diction outstanding.

The type of literary fiction in vogue changes. Much is now published outside New York City by small presses and university presses. It is usually first published in hard cover and sold mainly through book stores.

Literary fiction is where the literary prizes are.

Mainstream fiction is popular fiction. It is often called "transient fiction" by literary critics and academics. Most is plot driven, rather than character driven, though the characters are three-dimensional. Much is never published in hard cover, but only as a mass-market paperback sold mainly through ubiquitous retail outlets.

Its quality varies. Some is as fine as literary fiction and can be regarded as both literary and mainstream fiction. On the other hand, some mainstream fiction is poor.

Mainstream fiction isn't formula fiction, though it does have conventions, which are more or less flexible. Various types of mainstream fiction pass in and out of vogue (e.g., the glitz novel, the immigrant-experience novel, and women's [relationship] fiction).

Mainstream fiction is where the money is.

Genre fiction is another type of fiction regarded as "transient fiction" by literary critics and academics. They also dubbed it "pulp fiction" (i.e., "cheap" fiction), because genre novels are traditionally marketed only as pocket-sized mass-market paperbacks sold everywhere. Needless to say, genre fiction is regarded by the literati as "lowbrow."

Genre fiction is where a successful author gets a steady job.



Thursday, October 27, 2005

Sympathetic Fictional Characters

Our human sensibilities can be turned on and off like a light switch. For the most part they are off for people we don't know. This is adaptive. Can you imagine what life would be like if we became as emotionally involved in the death of a stranger as in the death of our mother? What if you lived in Africa, where there are a thousand ways to die and by the time you're twenty, dozens of people you know have met untimely death? When you are flipping through television stations, scenes of mass havoc evoke no emotion from you, do they? Why? Because you don't care about those people.

So, every storyteller must get her audience to care about the characters. News photographers use art to get you care. As a writer you do this by gaining the reader's sympathy for your characters.

We more readily sympathize with some types of people than others. We more readily sympathize with the underdog in a sporting event. Charities, for example, focus on children because they know that we sympathize more readily with children than adults. So, all it takes is an artistic two-second shot of a poor child to elicit sympathy and win contributions. But only a masterful author can get people to sympathize with an imprisoned criminal. And sympathy for him must be earned the hard way: we must get to know him.

This is why your typical made-for-television movie begins with scenes of the happy family beginning another typical, happy day in their home . . . before the disaster befalls that is their story. In this way the scriptwriter lets the audience get to know the characters. She induces the audience to like them. Then, when disaster occurs, we care and we sympathize with their loss. Boom — when the experience thus takes on an emotional dimension, we become involved. Like any dream, at some level we know it's just a dream, but the emotion makes it seem so real. We want to see this family overcome catastrophe, and that is why we watch the movie.

This isn't the only way, or the best way, to get your readers emotionally involved in a story. In fact, this "happy-opening" device is overused, especially on TV. But it gets the job done efficiently.

Though you must elicit reader sympathy for your protagonist, you often cannot do so immediately. For example, you may have to set up the situation for him as Shakespeare does in the opening of Hamlet. Or, your protagonist may not be a character the reader will readily sympathise with. But, since you have only minutes to hook your reader (if that), touch his emotions immediately. In the opening plunge some character he can readily sympathize with into a situation that evokes emotion.

The essence of sympathy is favor. The surest way to get it is to make the reader feel sorry for this character. You can do this with any situation that makes the character suffer physically, mentally, or spiritually — such as humiliation, loneliness, oppression, danger, deprivation, or cruelty.

When your protagonist isn't a character the reader will readily sympathize with, open with a sympathetic character that you can transfer reader sympathy through. Mario Puzzo gives a masterful example of this device in The Godfather. Don Corleone, the Godfather, is anything but a character the reader can readily sympathize with. So, the story opens with a man who seeks justice from Corleone against men the courts let off for assaulting his daughter. Our sympathy (favor) is transferred through him to the Godfather with this noble cause.

A character needn't be admirable to be sympathetic. He may be downright reprehensible, as the Godfather, or pathetic and wretched.

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Monday, October 24, 2005

The Importance of Character

One important reason people read fiction is to read about people. Daily we encounter people saying, doing, and experiencing things we don't understand. Human nature puzzles and intrigues us. The desire to get into other people's heads is universal, and fiction is a portal. This desire is more than curiosity. It is true interest, programmed into us by our genes. For, understanding human nature is crucial to survival in our species.

In fact, readers are more interested in characters than action. They quickly lose interest in even the most exciting action if it doesn't involve characters they care about. Yet this doesn't mean that action is secondary. In fact, you can have a story without characters, but you cannot have a story without action.

There is no value in joining the age-old argument whether character creates plot or plot creates character. It is like the age-old question of which came first, the chicken or the egg. You cannot take the character out of the action any more than you can take the action out of the character.

There is really nothing wrong with either position on the question of which is more important, plot or character. It depends on whether you consider it from the audience's point of view or the author's. Moreover, in all honesty, like their disdain for science, much glorification of character and disdain for exciting plot-action is the vanity of artistes (pronounce ar-TEESTS) with delusions of being smarter than those whose more successful, popular writing they devalue.

You cannot have a story without action. But you can indeed have a story without characters, one that interests an audience. An example of such a story is a news story. So is history. Fairy tales, too, can hardly be said to have real characters. Aristotle merely acknowledged this fact. But he didn't say that such a story will be a blockbuster! It certainly couldn't hold a reader's interest for 400 pages.

Journalists know that, though unnecessary, characters do add interest. That is why fiction-writing techniques invaded journalism: they sell the news for maximum profit. So, thirty years ago you got the straight poop in a news story. Today you get the facts sprinkled among the bits of information in a human interest story. For example, thirty years ago, you read that 1,000 people in Smallville lost their jobs and that this event greatly affected the local economy. Today you read the story of one of those people. It is a story that evokes sympathy from you for him or her. The addition of this character to the story adds "human interest" (often a euphemism for drama) and sells much more news than a story without it. That's why fiction-writing techniques in journalism exaggerate a story's weight: the motive is profit, not altruism.

A great writer's characters tower above the rest much more than their plots do. But that doesn't make character more important than plot. Only great writers penetrate the facade over human nature to show us the human race as it really is, not as our collective illusions would have it be. Only F. Scott Fitzgerald shows how sickeningly nearly everybody treats the great Gatsby — not prime-time TV. Only Shakespeare shows the whole court of Denmark ignoring the elephant in the middle of the room, persecuting Hamlet as crazy for seeing it — not prime-time TV. TV is cozy; great literature, profound. So, though the hallmark of a great writer is ruthlessly true-to-life characters, a novel with a weak plot is at least as boring as a novel with weak characters.

You cannot create a plot without a general idea of the characters who will perform the actions that move it. And you cannot create a character without a general idea of what will happen to him. So, you start with a premise that establishes the rudiments of both.

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Saturday, October 22, 2005

Nonsexist Language: The Pronoun Problem

The problem is English's third-person-singular personal pronouns: there's no gender-neutral one, except it.
  • In the Nominative Case (when we use them as subjects), they are he, she, and it.
  • In the Objective Case (when we use them as the objects of verbs), they are him, her, and its.
  • In the Possessive Case, they are his, her(s), and its.
Other languages, like French, have this problem too. But in them nouns (i.e., the names of persons, places, and things) still have gender, too (inherited from Latin). So, gender hasn't such strong sexual connotations in these other languages as it does in English, where only pronouns referring to a human or animal still have gender. Because of these sexual connotations, the word gender, which originally meant "genus," has come to mean "sex."

You can avoid this sexual designation for an animal or infant by using "it." But you can't refer to a person as "it." We naturally refer to a newborn infant as "it" till it develops a personality. Parents are the first to see a personality in the baby. Similarly, we may refer to a stray dog as "it," but we never refer to our pet dog as "it."

So, for example, how do we talk about a hypothetical dog owner? We can say The owner must be ready to battle for dominance before he or she brings home a rescued Cairn Terrier. Fine, but if you've tried the "he or she" solution, you know what's wrong with it: you soon have a mess of he-or-she's, him-or-her's, his-or-hers's, and himself-or-herself's.

Eighteenth-century grammarians decided to just redefine he and its derivatives to mean "he or she." But nobody has the power to change what he, him, and his mean to the English-speaking people of the world. Words mean what we all use them to mean in everyday speech, and nobody can control that. So teachers defining them as "genderless" or "generic" is an exercise in futility. And putting a disclaimer in the front of your book, telling readers you mean them "genderlessly" or "generically" is an exercise in futility.

Therefore, if you write a sentence about the typical day of the average major league baseball player, say He takes batting practice before lunch. If you write a sentence about the duties of the average Girl Scout, say She sells cookies every spring. But if you write a sentence about how the average medical doctor works, don't say He runs tests before diagnosing.

Try —

  • They run tests before diagnosing.
  • The doctor runs tests before diagnosing.
  • Doctors run tests before diagnosing.
  • You have tests run before the diagnosis.
  • Tests are run before the diagnosis is made.
  • She or he runs tests before diagnosing.
From these examples we can see that, to avoid he, your options are:

  • Switch to the plural.
  • Substitute a noun for "he."
  • Switch to the second person (using you).
  • Write in the passive voice.
  • Substitute "he or she" for "he."
Prefer the first three methods, because the passive voice and he-or-she methods have drawbacks. Switching to the plural is the most versatile method, but you often must switch the surrounding sentences to the plural as well.

In the last example above, notice that I wrote "she or he" instead of "he or she." Using these expressions interchangeably is good, because it avoids the subliminal suggestion in always putting he first. But it has a drawback: we're so used to reading he or she that she or he seems unidiomatic and calls attention to the writing. But only the first time and only for the second it takes to interpret, so don't consider this little speed-bump a distraction.

Either way, the he-or-she method has limited use, because it can quickly lead to writing littered with he-or-she's, as in monstrosities like this —

He or she can't fulfill the second part of his or her mission if he or she doesn't see the opposing net player making his or her move on the ball.

He (a subject pronoun) is easier to avoid than him (an object pronoun), and both are easier to avoid than his (a possessive pronoun). But that's a subject for a future post.

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Thursday, October 20, 2005

Avoid sexist language.

Sexist language is language that gives priority to the male, usually disregarding the female. Since language is what we think with, and since language enters the brain to affect how we think, the widespread use of sexist language causes sexism. But notice the difference between using sexist language and being a sexist. By itself, writing in sexist language isn't sexism. Indeed, most writers using sexist language aren't sexists. Many use it inadvertently or because they were taught to. Including many women.

Yet, since the thirteenth century, in everyday speech, native speakers of English have customarily used nonsexist language. In fact, you don't hear sexist language used in face-to-face conversation with women or in mixed company. This is the way we learned to speak English from the moment we began learning to talk. This custom grows out of the very purpose of communication and common courtesy. So, don't treat your readers differently in writing than you would face-to-face.

Yes, this means that occasionally you will have to break a "rule" pontificated by grammar teachers. But grammarians don't own a language: the population of its native speakers do.

If you are writing a cover letter, synopsis, or book proposal, more than half your readers will be women. If you are writing a book or novel for a general audience, more than half your readers will be women. Many women and men notice sexist language. But nobody notices nonsexist language, because it's natural and easy to write.

Here are the reasons why you should use nonsexist language:
  • It's the standard, so you'll have to self-publish if you don't.
  • It doesn't pay to offend some customers, alienate some customers, or both with your product.
  • Even women not offended by sexist language are disengaged by it, so it's bad for business.
Notice that THIS IS NOT A MORAL ISSUE. If it upsets you, you're probably not cut out to be a professional writer, because your writing is all about your ego instead of about the reader.

Sexist language boils down to using the false generics, or "he/man" words, as though generic. These are the word he and its derivatives (him, his, himself) and the word man and its derivatives (such as workman, spokesman, chairman). These derivatives of the word man are a special case, because we have no choice but to use them unless a gender-neutral substitute is available. Also, in fiction, to avoid calling attention to the writing, you'll use a familiar old man-word instead of a new gender-neutral replacement -- till that new word has come into widespread usage.

But you should nearly always avoid sexist language in the use of man, he, him, his, and himself.

More on some easy ways to do this in later posts.

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Tuesday, October 18, 2005

The Fictive Dream

Though a novel is a commercial product, like a drug or the performance of a stage play, it provides a service. So, the writer should think of novel writing as a performing art and a service industry. The key to success in any service business is a keen sense of what the customer wants. What he really wants — which isn't necessarily what he says he wants. For example, a tennis pro knows that his clients want, not just help, but also praise and encouragement. A divorce lawyer knows that his client wants, not just a big settlement, but also to make the ex suffer. Television executives know that in Europe and North America most people watch the news, not for the facts, but rather for "interpretations" of the facts that support their belief that their politics/political party is good and the opposition is bad.

So, you must be as perceptive about your readers as you are about your characters. What is the service a novel performs for the reader? In a word, transportation. Or absorption. James M. Frey, in How to Write a Damn Good Novel II, says
As a fiction writer, you're expected to transport a reader. Readers are said to be transported when, while they are reading, they feel that they are actually living in the story world and the real world around them evaporates.
In this altered state of consciousness, the reader can become so absorbed that you must shake him to get his attention.

Absorption is probably the better word: the reader is absorbed/transported into the story world. This experience is often called the "Fictive Dream," and that is as good a name for it as any. It is like a daydream, except that the reader isn't its author. It occurs at a subconscious level. Your success as a novelist depends largely on your skill at inducing it.

How do you induce it? Through the power of suggestion.



Monday, October 17, 2005

The Power of Suggestion

The mysterious power of suggestion is the tool of the copywriter (ad writer), the con artist, the preacher, the propagandist, the magician, the hypnotist, and the fiction writer. The copywriter, the con artist, the preacher, and the propagandist or politician or fanatical pied piper use it ultimately to delude or persuade. The magician, the hypnotist, and the fiction writer use it merely to alter the audience's state of consciousness.

Magicians suggest through both words and actions. In fact, they are so good at suggesting through actions that many perform in silence. But the hypnotist and the fiction writer suggest through words. And they use them in the same way.

Hypnotism is the purer, simpler art, so let's see how the hypnotist uses the power of suggestion.

To prepare you, he has you get comfortable in a chair. He has you focus on some attention-getting thing, say, a shiny pocket watch. By doing so, he is not after your focus so much as he is after the other side of that coin — your unawareness of everything but that shiny thing. In other words, he lowers your state of consciousness by getting your brain to filter out 99.9% of what you are seeing, hearing, and feeling — everything except that watch. To hold your focus, he swings that shiny thing. Now he talks.

At first his suggestions just help the watch put you into a trance. He says your eyelids are getting heavy and that you are getting very relaxed. When he sees that you have tuned out everything but the drone of his voice and that nothing short of somebody yelling "Fire!" would rouse you, he knows that he has you in the state of a waking dream. Then he starts to create that dream with his suggestions. "You find yourself near a fountain in a beautiful garden. You feel the warmth of the sun on your skin and hear the wind gently moving among the trees. It is quiet here, with nothing but the sound of the wind and water. You smell the lilacs. It is peaceful here."

Notice the sensory detail. He suggests things to see, hear, feel, smell, taste, and touch. And, like magic, in your imagination you see, hear, feel, smell, taste, and touch them. But he goes farther. He makes this an emotional experience for you. The sensations he suggests contribute to the emotional state he also suggests.

In short, the hypnotist does with words the same thing a fiction writer does with them. The difference is that the hypnotist's story is about you, so that you experience it personally, whereas the fiction writer's story is about somebody else, so that you experience it vicariously. Also, the hypnotist uses the present tense, whereas the fiction writer normally uses the past tense. So, the experience created by the fiction writer is only less immediate than the experience created by the hypnotist.

By using words this way, the hypnotist informs your mind the way the real world does — not by telling, but rather by suggesting sensory and emotional information that induces a sensory and emotional experience. So, instead of telling you that it is spring and lilacs are blooming, he simply suggests that by getting you to smell them. Good fiction writing does the same.

To prepare you, the fiction writer has you get comfortable in a chair. He has you focus on some attention-getting thing — a book in your lap with a story that moves.



Friday, October 14, 2005

Keep It Simple

Prefer short, simple sentences and common words.

Your sentences should average 14 to 20 words. In fiction with many short lines of dialog, the average sentence length is deceptively low, so aim low.

This guideline doesn't mean that all long sentences are bad. In fact, you should vary sentence length. But long sentences should be infrequent and simply structured. For example, a long sentence comprised of a subject, verb, and a series -- in that order -- is easy to read and process. But a long sentence that contains several clauses, compound subjects or verbs, and strings of prepositional phrases is hard to read and process.

The natural word order in English is SUBJECT >>> VERB >>> OBJECT. This is the order the brain processes information. The closer you stick to this order, the easier your writing is to read. When, say, you invert the order of the subject and verb, the reader cannot process the sentence on the fly, and must wait till she reaches the subject. Therefore, be sure the subject comes near the beginning of any sentence more than a few words long.

Choose words for clarity and precision. Prefer everyday words when you have a choice. In fact, shorter words are usually more precise.



Thursday, October 13, 2005


In both criticism and ad copy, we often hear novels described as "compelling" and as "page turners." This is a novel's chief selling point. It promises readers a book they will not be able to put down.

What makes the reader unable to put a book down? The desire to know what happens.

So, your main goal is to arouse your readers' curiosity and anticipation and keep them aroused. You want to glue your readers to your story so that they can hardly tear themselves away for a trip to the bathroom. You do this through suspense, the most essential element of plotting.

Suspense comes from a Latin word that means "to suspend" or "to hold up" or "to hang." To be held in suspense is "to be left hanging." The moral effect is so excruciating that, historically, "death by suspension" on a gibbet was thought to be the most punishing form of capital punishment through torture and evolved into many methods of execution.

According to Webster's Dictionary, suspense can be used in either of two senses. In one sense suspense is the state of being undecided or undetermined. In the other sense suspense is uncertainty characterized by anxiety or apprehension. In the first sense the reader is curious about the outcome. In the second sense the reader is emotionally involved with the characters so she is vicariously interested in the outcome.

So, as Sol Stein advises, "Think of yourself as a hangman." Your job is to not be a nice person. Your job is to make the reader wonder and worry about the characters. So, leave your hero hanging by her finger nails from the edge of a cliff to exacerbate and prolong the reader's torture as long as possible. There is nothing the reader enjoys more.

In fact, suspense is so enjoyable that some readers can't get enough of it. Hence, novels that maximize suspense constitute a genre just for them.

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Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Don't smother verbs.

A buried, or smothered, verb is a nominalized verb. It buries the action of a sentence in a noun. The examples below show how to resurrect them, making the sentence less abstract and more concise.

We had a discussion about the matter with the staff director.
We discussed the matter with the staff director.

She issued an announcement that the program would begin at seven o'clock.
She announced that the program would begin at seven o'clock.

The company will not claim ownership of the stock.
The company will not own the stock.

We gave a report of the incident to the captain.
We reported the incident to the captain.

Most nominalized verbs are Latinate nouns. That is, they came into English from Latin (usually through the French) rather than from Anglo-Saxon. These words usually end in -tion, -ive, -ment, -ance, or -ence.

Nominalized verbs are often introduced by make, do, give, have, has, had, having, provide, or perform, so challenge these verbs to check for nominalizations smothering verbs.



Monday, October 10, 2005

The Rule That Your Main Character Must Change -- Part 2

As I said yesterday, what must change about your main character is his or her emotional state. This change is a natural result of rising conflict.

The hero decides on a course of action to fix his problem. Obstacles frustrate his efforts. Each intensifies the conflict, causing him to choose a new course of action. In other words, "the plot thickens." If he gave up, you would have no story. So, mounting obstacles test his desire. They up the ante, increasing his determination to achieve his goal.

That determination is what changes. That's what "grows from pole to pole." Think of it as mounting desire, a growing hunger and thirst. It grows from being relatively mild to the point of being desperate. This change readies your character for the final conflict.

And, as Shakespeare tells us through Hamlet, "The readiness is all."

In the end, Hamlet's determination has increased to the point that he is ready to do anything to achieve his goal. Ready to die. Suddenly all his inner conflict is gone.

Spielberg shows us the same thing in the Indiana Jones trilogy. When the bad guys throw an obstacle in his face, Indy just becomes more determined than ever to achieve his goal. He gets to the point that he will even swim in hot pursuit of a German submarine!

In all seriousness Shakespeare does likewise. Each of Hamlet's soliloquies shows increasing determination. Each shows what Hamlet is ready to do at that point. In the beginning Hamlet meekly takes Claudius' belittling sermon, willing only to demonstrate the passive resistance of refusing to break mourning for the dead king. When he is absolutely certain of Claudius' guilt and that the court is willfully blind to it, he becomes openly rebellious. In short, the mounting opposition he encounters, climaxing in the court's obdurate refusal to know what Claudius has done, drives him to keep seeing and raising the bet with bolder and bolder action. In the end he is ready to walk into an ambush for the evidence he needs to justify justice.

Claudius too grows from pole to pole this way. Before the beginning, he made an obvious mistake by not killing Prince Hamlet right along with King Hamlet. But he wasn't willing to risk losing the affection of the Queen. In the end, he has been driven to the point that he is willing to do anything. Rather than blow his plot to kill Hamlet, he lets the Queen drink the poison he intended for her son.

She too grows from pole to pole in determination to have things her way. In the beginning she was willing to overlook the betrayal and destruction of her husband but not her son. In the end, she will do anything to keep what she got, by covering her guilt. So she joins in discrediting Hamlet by the abysmal act of screaming that he was attempting to kill her. She thus caused Polonius' death. For, when Polonius, who could not see that she was in no danger, cried out in alarm, Hamlet justifiably killed the presumable assassin hiding behind the drapery in the Queen's bedroom. But she dumps her guilt for that on her son, too.

All Shakespeare's characters are thus driven by rising conflict. The ultimate example is Macbeth. In fact all characters in all good, dramatic stories are thus driven by mounting desire in the face of mounting opposition.

So, an essential change in the habits, beliefs, or attitudes of your character may occur, but need not occur. If your hero starts out a drunk, his mounting desire will make him ready to give up drinking, as a necessary step in achieving success. In the end he'll be sober, but that doesn't mean you must use a character who begins drunk. For example, from beginning to end, Hamlet is solicitous about his reputation. Though he does sacrifice it, his dying request is that Horatio salvage it for him. No change there. From beginning to end Hamlet is so dismayed and miserable that he'd rather be dead, but he fears death throughout, risks but tries to protect his life throughout, and holds suicide a sin. No essential "character change" there either. None whatsoever. Only an ever increasing hunger and thirst for justice.

Opposed by an ever increasing terror in Claudius and Gertrude that needs to escape justice.

Spielberg adds a profound postscript. In all three Indiana Jones stories, Indy is driven partly by a desire for "fortune and glory." In the end, however, he always avoids destruction by resisting desire. When the Ark of the Covenant is violated, he is as desirous of violating this privacy with his eyes as everybody else, but he shuts them tightly and avoids the wrath of God. When he acquires the prized Shankara Stone, he really wants to take it to a museum. But he returns it to where it belongs, where it has the power to bring life, instead. And, when the Holy Grail is an inch from his grasp -- well, that was a close one. His father had to bring him back to his senses by warning him to "Let it go."

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The Rule That Your Main Character Must Change

We often hear that characters are changed by the events of a story. James N. Frey holds that your characters must "grow from pole to pole." These are often misunderstood statements. By them, we do not mean that a character's "character" must change in the same way we would mean that a person's "character" changes. A behavioral or attitude change may occur, but that isn't necessary.

For example, in The Last Crusade, both Indiana Jones and his father change. In the beginning, neither understands the other. Indy resents his father for not paying more attention to him as a boy. His father, an intellectual with his head buried in ancient books, found his son "uninteresting." During the story they each learn some lessons. Indy learns that he shouldn't envy his friends who had doting parents, because they violated their children's privacy with as much control as attention. He learns that his upbringing thus respected him as a sovereign person and fostered his ability to make decisions and think for himself. It's what made him so well able to take care of himself. On the other hand, Indy's father learns that he is very ignorant of many things. He learns much from his son. He learns that Indy has valuable knowledge -- knowledge about the real world, knowledge not got from books -- and that his son is anything but dull and boring. Most important, he learns that you must show people you care about them. In the end they have grown into deep understanding and appreciation of each other. (Though Spielberg humorously makes you wonder how long this lesson will hold.)

In many great dramatic stories, however, no such fundamental change in the attitude, beliefs or behavior of a character occurs. Let alone one that goes "from pole to pole." Your character need not change from a coward to a hero, from sobriety to drunkenness, from simplicity to crookedness, or from brazenness to humility. Shakespeare's characters, for example, typically do not undergo such a transformation.

In fact, strict adherence to the myth that "character change" is necessary results in much contrived (and therefore weak) fiction that sacrifices meaning and drama to somehow teach the hero some lesson along the way.

As Frey says, what does change, and what must change, is the character's emotional state. This change is a natural result of rising conflict.

More on this tomorrow.

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Saturday, October 08, 2005

What exactly IS a premise?

A premise is simply a proposition that serves as the basis for doing something.
For example:
  • Science is based on the premise that we can understand the world without recourse to supernatural explanations.
  • You smile and greet a co-worker on the premise that doing so will win goodwill and regard in return.
Notice that a premise serves as a mission statement, a statement of purpose, an end:
  • The mission of science is to understand the world without recourse to supernatural explanations.
  • Your purpose in smiling and greeting your co-workers is to get friendliness back.
From another angle, a premise is just a path you take to get from Point A to Point B. For example, say you're standing in a field. That's Point A. You want to get to Chicago. That's Point B. You think, "If I walk due east, I'll get to Chicago." So, you head off, due east, on the premise that traveling due east will bring you to Chicago. If you get to Chicago, you will have proved your premise. If you get to Kansas City, you will have disproved it.

Science proves its premise every day, by successfully explaining the world without recourse to anything supernatural. In other words, it proves (demonstrates) that Scientific Method works. Theoretically, science could someday encounter a fact that cannot be so explained. That would disprove the premise on which science is founded. It would mean that science isn't a valid way of knowing.

Similarly, you prove your premise every day when you smile and greet your co-workers and they respond according to the Golden Rule. Theoretically, someday you might encounter a co-worker who reacts hostilely instead, frowning and pretending he doesn't see you. That would disprove your premise, the premise on which the Golden Rule is founded. It would mean that being nice to some people is counterproductive.

This result would suggest a revised premise — that you should give such people the opposite of what you want in return. You would have to test this revised premise to see whether it proves true.

So, keep in mind that, when we say you "prove your premise," we mean that you demonstrate it. That is, your story demonstrates it. But we don't mean that you prove it a universal truth. For example, traveling due east won't always bring you to Chicago. That premise proves true only if you're due west of Chicago.

If you prove a premise many times in many ways, we may be convinced that it's universally true. But you can never prove absolutely that a premise is universally true. That's because a premise is the product of inductive reasoning — reasoning from detailed facts to general principles. Only deductive reasoning (reasoning from general principles to detailed facts) can prove things universally true.

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Thursday, October 06, 2005

Why do I get asked what my story's premise is?

Writing fiction isn't just fiddling with imaginary characters in an imaginary world till you stop. Writing dramatic fiction, for example, is composing a narrative of consequential events involving authentic characters whose lives are affected by them. It therefore has a subtext. That subtext is . . .

Human nature is such that, with these characters
in this situation, one thing will lead to
another so that, overall, this will lead to that.

That subtext is the story's premise.

For example: Given the characters of Romeo and Juliet caught in the feud between their families, passionate love will lead to death. We usually just say Passionate love leads to death for short.

Every good story proves such a premise. Just as some enterprises do intuitively get the job done without a mission statement, some authors do intuitively write good stories without consciously aiming to prove its premise. Still, if you examine these good stories, you do find a proven premise in them. Also, you can often see how such a story could be improved to become better, tighter, and stronger if consciously tooled by its premise.

That's because we create fiction from a stream of reverie and fantasy. Unless focused on a strategic objective, the imagination wanders aimlessly, erratically propelled by the power of suggestion in words and images. Forming a premise and setting out to prove it orients your imagination, aims it at a target, and keeps it on track to produce a coherent sequence of events. A story.

So, your chances of success are much greater if you write and use that mission statement -- that is, if you methodically base your story on a premise. If you don't, you run the risk of writer's block or ending up in the middle of a narrative you can't finish, let alone hammer into a STORY.

Some writers resist this advice, saying they prefer to let their characters write the story. But, if your characters are authentic, they act in their own self interest, not yours. What they write won't amount to a story. Each has his or her own premise, which varies from moment to moment. The narrative you end up with will have no coherent premise and won't be a STORY.

You are the God of the story world, proving your premise by putting these particular characters in this particular situation to demonstrate what happens.

Indeed, writing a story is like carrying out a military operation. So, Job One is to identify the strategic objective of the operation. That is, establish the premise, or purpose. Only then can you plan the tactical steps necessary to achieve it.

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Tuesday, October 04, 2005

Write in the Active Voice

Good writing is concise. There are many techniques for achieving conciseness, but the most powerful is writing in the active voice. Use the passive voice only when a particular sentence calls for it.

For those of you who need it, here is a review of the active and passive voice:
  • Active Voice: The shopkeeper called the police.
  • Passive Voice: The police were called by the shopkeeper.
  • Passive Voice with agent omitted: The police were called.
In the active voice, the sentence's subject, the shopkeeper, performs the action, calling the police. In the passive voice, the sentence's subject, the police, is acted upon. The person or thing performing the action is introduced by the word by. But usually this agent is omitted so that we do not learn who called the police.

Notice that, in the active voice, the verb called does the job all by itself. But in the passive voice it needs a helper, were. That's one reason why sentences in the active voice are more concise.

Don't get the idea that the passive voice is "wrong." Some sentences call for it. When the agent is unknown or irrelevant, the passive voice is called for. It emphasizes the action. In fact, using the active voice to mention an irrelevant agent just steals emphasis from the action. Then the reader cannot tell what point you are trying to make. For example, in the example above, you could be trying to make one of two points: that the police were called or that it was the shopkeeper who called them. So, if you simply wish to make the point that the police were called, use the passive voice.

Nonetheless, most inexperienced writers use the passive voice far too often. Besides making a sentence wordy and harder for the brain to process, the passive voice can damage your credibility.

For example, if a woman says, "The police have been called," and you know that she must be the one who called them, her statement strikes you as a responsibility dodge. Honest people are upright and state things directly, as in "I called the police." Unfortunately, people often do things in writing that they instinctively avoid in speech. So, because they think it sounds more formal and intelligent, they write in the passive voice, thus unwittingly undermining their credibility. This is a big issue in business writing. In fiction, you can characterize a character as dishonest by writing his or her dialog lines in the passive voice.



Sunday, October 02, 2005

A Kind of Magic

Fiction is a kind of magic, and a fiction writer is a magician. He creates illusions on a stage in the reader's imagination. Like any magician, his skill is the skill of getting an audience to focus attention where he wants it. If he can control their attention, he can create any illusion.His chief trick is to make things appear. He must keep the audience from noticing what he's doing. So, his writing never calls attention to itself or to him. Indeed, by misdirection he keeps his audience from noticing he's there. He makes them equally unaware of the words on the page. Truly, he has them under a spell.In this semi-hypnotic state, he manipulates their perceptions and emotions without them being aware of what he's doing.Originally, magic served religion. Today it is an entertainment industry.