Monday, February 27, 2006

Novel Forms

Novels currently take one of three main forms:
  • Narrative: a story told by a narrator, or storyteller.
  • Stream of Consciousness: immersion in the ruminations of a character's wandering mind. An example of a stream-of-consciousness novel is Franz Kafka's The Trial.
  • Documentary: somebody's story told indirectly through documentation. Document novels tell the story through letters, a journal, a diary, medical records, court records, government records, the contents of a data bank, and so forth.

In other words, there are three types of novels:
  • narrative novels
  • stream-of-consciousness novels
  • documentary novels

There are four types of narrative novels.

Types of Narrative Novels:
  • First-Person Novel: a narrative told by a character in it.
  • Viewpoint Novel: narrated in the third person from one character's viewpoint.
  • Multiple Viewpoint Novel (Shifting Viewpoint): narrated in the third person from varying character viewpoints.
  • Collection Novel: a series of short stories with a common denominator.



Friday, February 24, 2006

What Its Premise Does for Your Story

The story questions a novel poses make readers follow the plot of a story like bloodhounds follow a scent. They want the answers to those questions, and they get impatient with distractions. Consequently, they quickly lose interest in anything that doesn't contribute to proving the story's premise.

Your premise, then, is a tool to keep you in control of the story and your reader engaged.

What a premise does for your story:
  • It focuses the story.
  • It keeps the story tight, keeps it from getting bloated.
  • It gives the story dramatic impact.
  • It makes the story hold readers to the end.
  • A premise also serves as a test for (a) every plot complication, to see whether it's superfluous or necessary or at least contributes to proving the premise and (b) the entire story, to see whether it's whole (by whether the actions of the story prove its premise).



Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Creating Conflict in Character and Desire

To create conflict, you need three things: a main character, a goal for her or him, and opposition.

In carving out the characters of your protagonist and antagonist, connect each one's deepest desire to his fundamental difference from the other.

Shakespeare gives us an elegant example of this in Hamlet and his foil, Laertes. Hamlet is a man of honor — bona fide honor. Laertes is a man of seeming — for looks only, a fraud. If each were a note of currency, which would you honor? The bona fide one? or the counterfeit?

Let's see how this fundamental difference between these two characters plays out in how they behave.


Hamlet's honor is intact, so he needn't steal the semblance of it from others by dishonoring them. To the contrary, he liberally bestows honor on others. To preserve his honor he is modest, thoughtful, scrupulous, polite, gracious, humble, and obedient in all that he should be. His honor is so fine that he avoids being the cause of others doing something dishonorable, even against his own best interest. For example, he avoids causing the spies Rozencrantz and Guildenstern to betray the confidence of Claudius and Gertrude. His honor is so important to him that he accepts the semblance of dishonor rather than dishonor himself. In short, he is a man of respect.

Shakespeare shows us that Hamlet's honor manifests itself in all these ways to express itself as the character trait of respect — respect for God, his mother, himself, the throne, his office, the law, the bounds of morality, friendship, and all people, even the lowly. Above all, in sharp contrast to the rest of the court, Hamlet respects Truth. He does this by refusing to go along with the rest in acting out a fiction — namely that nobody knows everybody knows (a) that Claudius seduced the Queen and assassinated the king to get the throne and (b) that the royal marriage has disgraced the House of Denmark by violating a law — the one against incest (which the other characters act like they either don't know about or forgot about). In other words, Hamlet won't take part in this mass mockery of everybody offstage — the people of Denmark, the papacy, and the outside world.

In this way Shakespeare shows that respect is the outward sign of integrity. And he makes Hamlet's respect stand out in high relief against those occasions when he denies it to those enacting a mockery. Which is the antithesis of respect. Indeed, the perfection of respect for Truth expresses itself in Hamlet's courageous mocking contempt of those engaged in mockery.


Laertes just keeps up the appearances of being a man of honor. So, (a) he is a fraud and (b) being all for show, outward appearances are all that matter to him.

Though he loudly talks the talk of an honorable man, when nobody's looking, he doesn't walk the walk. Shakespeare warns us about this at the start: when Laertes is away in France, his angel-faced mask comes off. He is an impulsive, rash, loud and debauched phony who demonstrates extravagant disrespect for everyone and everything, even God.

The ultimate disrespect is to treat others as objects, not as human beings in their own right — to treat others as objects you own, objects you may use like a tool, with utter disregard for their rights and feelings and for the consequences to them of how you use them. And Laertes is a character who demonstrates this pathological personality at every turn:
  • The moment he sees that Hamlet doesn't contest Claudius' assumption of the throne and puts up with his belittling sermon before the court, Laertes shows that, to him, his sister is but an object to exploit. To free her for sale to some husband with a promising future, he busts her relationship with Hamlet by cruelly telling her that Hamlet doesn't love her and just wants to deflower her.
  • He shows that his extravagant display of love for his dead father is phony when it disappears the moment he gets what he wants from Claudius. Without a thought about the fatal consequences to his supporters, Laertes turns, thus betraying those he got to support him in his revolution.
  • He is so crass and devoid of human feeling for his sister that he even upstages her at her funeral to exploit her as but a tool yet again — this time as the pretext for a spectacularly melodramatic show of grief to get attention and look good before an audience.
In other words, in Laertes Shakespeare shows us the character of a pathological narcissist. He and Hamlet are the antitheses of each other at every point, standing out in sharp conflict of both character and desire.

Since Hamlet loved Ophelia, and since Laertes' grand-standing display of grief at her grave uses her, it sets him off like a firecracker. Thus, at her grave, Shakespeare has the personalities of Hamlet and Laertes clash, even before Laertes and Claudius have a chance to carry out their plot to kill Hamlet.

So, in great stories, it isn't only the desires that clash, it's the personalities they spring from. As Lajos Egri says, mix a skeptic with a militant believer and you have a conflict.

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Friday, February 17, 2006

It's All About the Reader

Publishing is a trade, and writing is a commercial product. It's a business. A service industry. People buy fiction to get an enjoyable experience in fantasy. Not to be guided, edified, informed, educated, changed, shamed, preached at, or persuaded of anything.

Many writers fail because they view writing as a way to get attention. They have a burning desire to express themselves and think the world cares to listen. They have something to say and think the world cares to hear it. They view a book as some sort of public address system. Unfortunately, everybody wants to get attention, but nobody wants to give it. Everybody wants to be heard, but nobody wants to listen. If you want to get something off your chest to the world, go find it in microcosm — some stranger — and try to tell him. You reply, "What do you think I am? nuts?" Nobody would dream of walking up to some stranger on the street and spamming him that way. Except wanna-be writers, who dream of doing it on a national scale.

Now, maybe if you pay that stranger for his attention he would give it. But you can't expect him to pay you for his attention. So, here's the best advice you'll ever get: Don't think you need to impress people by how you write. Writing for attention sabotages the hard work of many who would otherwise be fine, successful, and happy writers. Such a writer becomes the proverbial "talker," self-absorbed and oblivious to the person he's talking to. That's because, since it's all about him getting attention, it's all about HIM. Good writers know it's all about the reader.

That's why good writing never calls attention to itself, whereas poor writing does. Good writing evokes emotion, whereas poor writing expresses it.

Good writers know that reading fiction is primarily an emotional experience and that the writer's job is to manipulate the reader's emotions, not to vent his own. To manipulate the reader's emotions you must know your reader. Pay constant attention to her, and know the effect your words are having on her.

The trick is to attract no attention. For, the message is what counts, not the medium. Even in nonfiction, writing should be as transparent as possible. In fiction, the writing should disappear, absorbing the reader into the story as though she is experiencing it in the here and now. That's what impresses acquisitions editors.

Beautiful and elegant prose is never loud. In his works, Shakespeare sometimes has characters comment on other written works of his day. When he praises writing, he does so for two qualities: modesty and imagination. Though fame can go to a writer's head as easily as anybody else's, if you disregard all the really famous writers and consider all other successful writers, you'll be struck by how many are modest people.

So, just be yourself and tell a good story. Your job isn't to impress people, improve people, or express yourself: it's to deliver a reading experience enjoyable enough to be worth the reader's precious time.

Owning that fact is no more a "sellout" than selling any merchandise is. Indeed, selling oneself, instead of one's work, is hardly taking the high moral ground. And the need to entertain your reader doesn't mean that great writing has gone the way of the dinosaur, either. If a great heart and great thoughts are in you, they will out! But remember that you are just a storyteller.

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Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Teases 3

The afficiandos of literary fiction often look down their noses at the tease opening, preferring the classical opening that presents story questions about the core conflict. But don't let their PC tastes rule you. Here's a example of a fabulous tease opening by the Master himself. How about a play that opens this way . . .

At midnight a sentinel slowly paces before his castle post, looking all around as though he expects something to jump out of the dark at him. He steps softly, listening intently for the slightest sound. He is shivering. A soldier approaches, tip-toeing and looking around like a member of a S.W.A.T. team as he nears the sentinel's post. The sentinel makes a slight sound that scares the approaching soldier nearly out of his skin as he flattens himself against the wall in a corner crying "Who's there?" The cry, of course, scares the sentinel nearly out of his skin as he points his weapon and jumps into a combat stance. He is about to say something but stops, perplexed. Then he barks, "No! You identify yourself to me!" The soldier thinks and thinks and finally blurts, "God save the king!" Surely not the password, but the sentinel recognizes the soldier's voice. "Bernardo?" he asks shivering. The soldier steps out to where the sentinel can see him and says, "Yes, it's me." Bernardo is the sentinel's replacement. They are both embarrassed and quickly form an unspoken pact to act like it didn't happen. The sentinel, Francisco, just sarcastically grumbles with double entente that Bernardo comes "most carefully" upon his hour. Bernardo, his eyes still darting about distracted, doesn't get it and says that midnight has already struck. Francisco shakes his head and quickly leaves, excusing his shivering by claiming that it's cold and saying he is dis-eased at heart.

In this brilliant admixture of comedy and terror, the first story question planted in your head is What is the sentinel afraid of? Then the answer seems to appear. The second story question is What is the approaching soldier going to do to the sentinel? Then we are as perplexed as the two characters till we realize that they are both afraid of the same thing, something lurking in the dark. What is it? What are these two so afraid of? Why don't they acknowledge it?

They act like they're afraid of seeing a ghost, don't they? That's because they are afraid of seeing a ghost. The ghost of their recently assassinated king. This is the splendid opening of Shakespeare's Hamlet. Bernardo and Francisco aren't main characters, and the story questions aren't about the core conflict. But the author sinks his hooks into us much deeper this way, reeling us right into his story.

As for the core conflict, give him a minute. Now that he has arrested the groundlings' attention and has created suspense, he is about to start revealing it.

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Friday, February 10, 2006

The M.I.C.E. Quotient of a Story

All four elements of a story (milieu, idea, character, and events) are in all stories. They aren't all equally important in all stories, however. Depending on what the story is about, the relative amounts of each element should vary. That is, a story contains four types of information: information about the milieu, about the idea, about the characters, and about events.

To the extent that a story is about its milieu, the information in it should be about the milieu. In other words, the amount of information about milieu should be proportional to the importance of milieu in that story. In his excellent book, Characters and Viewpoint, Orson Scott Card calls the relative importance of each story element the story's M.I.C.E. Quotient -- its ratio of Milieu : Idea : Character : Events. And so, in a milieu story the milieu predominates. In an idea story the idea predominates. In a character story character predominates. And in an events story events predominate.

Often, it's a bit more complicated. A milieu story might also place a good deal of emphasis on events. In other words, its M.I.C.E. Quotient could be something like 4:1:1:2. Therefore, it should be composed of about four times as much milieu material as idea or character material and about twice as much event material as idea or character material.

Note that this principle contradicts the widespread belief that all good stories are character driven. Not so. In fact, you can actually wreck idea stories, milieu stories, and even events stories by too much emphasis on character.

For example, note that Agatha Christie's idea stories feature characters like Inspector Poirot, a fairly shallow main character with but some eccentricities to spice him up. If she delved too much into his character, she'd no longer have a whodunnit, but rather a story about Inspector Poirot.

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Monday, February 06, 2006

The Lit Fuse Device in Melodrama and Comedy

The Lit Fuse device is common in melodrama and comedy.

The very old "Perils of Pauline" movies are a melodramatic example. The villain, Snidely Whiplash, demands, "You must marry me!"

"No! No! I won't marry you!" she cries.

"But you must marry me!"

"No! No! I won't marry you!"

"But you must marry me!"

"No! No! I won't marry you!"

If he can't have her, nobody can. So Snidely ties her to the railroad tracks. Our hero, Dudley Doright, must get there to save her before the 12:10 arrives.

The old television series, Batman, parodied the Lit Fuse device. In every episode Batman and Robin were threatened with a frightful fate, say, by being dangled over a vat of boiling oil with the rope unraveling.

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Thursday, February 02, 2006

The Lit Fuse

"Lighting the fuse" is a powerful literary device for creating negative Type 2 Suspense — putting the reader in a state of anxiety or apprehension.

The classic example is that a time-bomb is about to go off and the hero must defuse it in time. But you can light the fuse by putting a sympathetic character in any situation with something terrible about to happen (usually at an appointed time) that the characters must prevent.

Thriller writers are masters of the Lit Fuse device. An example is Day of the Jackal by Frederick Forsyth. He keeps us in suspense for almost the entire novel, hoping that the hero keeps the Jackal, a hired assassin, from killing French President Charles de Gaulle. Another example is The Eye of the Needle by Ken Follett. In it a Nazi tries to reach a radio so he can send Berlin crucial information about the imminent D-Day Invasion. He must be stopped in time.

But thrillers aren't the only stories that use the Lit Fuse device to create powerful suspense. For example, in Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell, the damned Yankees are about to burn defenseless Atlanta, and Scarlett must flee. But not till after she delivers a baby.

More on this device later.

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Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Use Strong Verbs

Weak verbs are actionless verbs, vague verbs, and verbs in the passive voice. We have already discussed the passive voice, so let's focus on actionless verbs and vague verbs.

Actionless verbs include static verbs, like exist and the various forms of the verb to be. Other actionless verbs include English's infamous cargo of "helping" or "auxiliary" verbs. (See below.) I call them "little verbs." Vague verbs convey little meaning and usually require help to adequately describe the action. For example hit is vague. Slapped, punched, or walloped more vividly and precisely describe the action.

Use a thesaurus to find strong, precise verbs. The time is well spent, because using verbs that carry more meaning eliminates the need for additional words to bolster and modify them

Little Verbs
  • be, am, is, are, was, were, being, been
  • have, has, had, having
  • do, does, did, doing
  • may, might
  • can, could
  • would, will, shall
  • the contracted forms 's, 're, and 've.
Note: In British English will and shall still have different meanings. Through sloppiness in the mass media, this useful nuance has been lost in American English. A word to the wise: shall is rarely used in the U.S. and may even strike an American audience as stilted. Nonetheless, I do rarely use it myself -- when I want to emphasize inevitability rather than volition by the actor. In some contexts the use of the unusal shall conveys that message even to an American audience not used to hearing it.

One good way to achieve conciseness (eliminate wordiness) is to just challenge every instance of these little verbs. Use them only when necessary.

For example, can you change The police had been called to The police were called? If you can, do. Again for example, can you change I have called the police to I called the police? If you can, do. Notice that writing in the active voice eliminates some of these little verbs for you.