Wednesday, September 17, 2014

When Bad Things Happen to Good Characters

On July 23, 2014, Lex from Bohemia wrote, I am having a hard time entering into a scene I know will be difficult for my characters. I'm shying away from it because it is what needs to happen, but I'm afraid to do it to my characters. Any thoughts? How do you prepare yourself to write the hard stuff?

J. Garf responded with: I don't know of a way to prepare necessarily, but there's a chapter about it called "Suffer!" in Mrs. Levine's book Writing Magic. In it she talks about how if you're cruel to your characters, your readers will care more about them and how it's going to end. I tend to be a pretty mean writer (I'm sure that if my characters were real people they'd punch me in the face for all the stuff I put them through), but I still have the same problem sometimes. Try finding something about your characters that can make them as annoying as any real person. If you focus on that, it might not be as hard to make them suffer.

I like this, J. Garf! Relieve our own suffering by making our characters irritating! We don’t even have to actually give our MC annoying traits in the story; we can just imagine her whining whenever any little thing goes wrong. Then we can snarl happily, “If you think that was bad, take this!” and drop a boulder on her leg.

As some of you know, I’ve been working on a prequel to The Two Princesses of Bamarre, although I’m putting the work aside now that the fall semester of poetry school has started. *SPOILER ALERT!* A few times, I’ve gone back to Two Princesses to refresh my memory of some of the details. The first time I did this, when I reread the end, much to my surprise, I wept!

*SPOILER ALERT!* continues. When I wrote the book, I could have let Meryl live. But that ending seemed flat. I believed the reader would think, Oh, okay. Ho hum, what should I read next? And I didn’t want to completely kill Meryl off, either. Yes, other citizens of Bamarre would benefit from the cure, but Addie would have failed in her personal quest, so I found a middle ground that came to feel inevitable.

*SPOILER ALERT!* still continues. However, at one time the prospects were good (not any more) for a Two Princesses movie, and a script was written. The producer opposed my ending, so it came out completely happily. The screenwriter did a good job, and it worked. But I still prefer my way.

The point here is that we don’t always have to be totally brutal to our characters. We can make them suffer somewhat. The boulder can land on a toe rather than on our MC’s entire leg.

However, sometimes we do have to be totally cruel. Then we may have to bite down hard on a cloth while we write--to keep from screaming. We may have to take frequent breaks, but it must be done.

In the new book, I recently had to make my MC go through something awful, and at the end of the awful thing I piled on something else just as bad. However, it took me a while to sit down to do it. I had to write notes in which I wondered if I could get away with something less terrible. But when I finally faced the music and started typing, I had fun, because the scene has tons of energy, and I could see it so clearly.

So there’s that comfort. Those moments when everything goes horribly wrong for our beloved MC come to vivid life on the page, and our writing is likely to be our best.

Another *SPOILER ALERT!* This one is for Ella Enchanted. I wrote Ella about six and seven years after my parents died when I was in my late thirties. As I wrote about Ella’s feelings after I killed off her mother, I included some of my emotions about my parents’ deaths. That was a relief, to re-experience a very sad time in a gentle way, cushioned by fiction. Oddly, when I gave my grief to Ella, I felt like I had a companion in it. Comforting.

And that’s another strategy: to use our own experiences in the misery that we inflict on our characters. We heighten the realness of what our characters are going through, and we validate our own history.

We can also comfort ourselves. If we’re not writing a tragedy, we can keep in mind the final victory and the lessons learned. We can think of bad things that have happened to us that turned out well in the long run, that we learned from, that strengthened and shaped us.

In addition, we can talk to our characters in our notes and prepare them for what’s to come, the way a doctor or a dentist does when she’s about to inflict a little pain. “You’ll feel a prick,” she says, and we get ready, and it’s much better than being taken by surprise. Moreover, we may learn something about our characters. These conversations won’t appear in our story, but they can help us deal out the bad stuff. Might go something like this:

Lanie, in a minute I’m going to drop a boulder on your leg. It’s going to be extremely painful.

Why would you do this to me? Do you hate me?

No. Actually, I love you. You’re my favorite character.

I’d hate to be a character you dislike. So why are you doing it?

You’ve used strength and agility in the past to accomplish great things, but you haven’t learned other skills that will bring you the success you want most. Being laid up will force you to engage with the people who are important to your goals. You’ll learn that you have to depend on others. The lesson may hurt more than the boulder. Sorry!

Will I be able to walk and run after I recover?

You’ll have a limp forever.

Silence. Then: But I’ll still be able to throw a spear, right? You won’t mess up my arm or my eyesight?

They’ll be fine.

Okay. Do it already.

Here are four prompts:

Write the conversation with your character about what’s going to happen.

Rewrite the conversation with your character about what’s going to happen and make your character so irritating that you don’t mind doing it!

Your MC’s BFF tells him that she never liked him. Write the scene. Be sure to include your MC’s emotions. If you like, continue and write what comes next.

Your MC’s beloved dog Woof gets the power of speech. He tells your MC that he dislikes her and that everything she does annoys him and always has. At the animal shelter he was hoping to be picked by anybody but her. He’s just too polite to bite. Write the scene. (This may be the worst thing you can do to a character!) Again, include your MC’s feelings, and keep going if you like.

Have fun, and save what you write!

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

The Passivity Solution

This week we start the many questions that came in when I asked for help restocking my list. Thanks again for the big response! The first one came from Michelle Dyck on July 23, 2014: This last week I've been reading over a novel I wrote three years ago. It's book two in a series, and when I wrote it, I thought it was fabulous. Not anymore! The thing is chock full of inconsistencies, plot holes, convenient solutions, and leaps of logic (all of which I plan to fix).But one problem that's bugging me is how passive my two MCs are. In book one, they take charge and go on a quest to save a nation. They're independent and make their own decisions. Circumstances in book two, however, find these teens in the company of several adults. Because my MCs are respectful of authority, they wind up playing follow the leader a lot of the time. And as much as the adults in the group deserve that respect, I don't want my heroes just tagging along for the ride. Any advice?

Let’s assume we need these annoyingly sensible grown-ups in our story, so we can’t kill them off or have them be kidnapped. What are some other possibilities?

Suppose our MCs, Adele and Beau, and three upstanding grownups, Caryn, Dennis, and Enola, are being pursued by the evil queen Francesca and a dozen of her henchpeople, who intend to torture information out of them, because each of the five good guys knows a crucial piece of a whole that will either save or destroy the future child king. The pursuit is taking place in mountainous terrain, and winter is coming on. If our heroes are trapped on this side of the pass, all is lost.

Here are eleven ways to allow the kids to be more active:

We can give them special skills that the adults don’t have, and we can make those skills essential for success. Adele is a skilled mountaineer. Beau is a spelunker, and these mountains are full of caves and tunnels. The others may be great at swordplay or withstanding torture or planning, but when the kids’ skills are called for, the grownups have to stand back.

The teens can discover abilities they didn’t know they had. They're attacked by the bearions from a previous post (a cross between a lion and a bear that carpelibris drew), and Adele turns out to have an uncanny talent for predicting the creatures’ next moves.

Caryn, Dennis, and Enola can regard themselves as teachers, or can actually be teachers. Adele and Beau have to be given a chance to act and make mistakes, so the adults defer to them. Of course, the problems have to be real. When the kids do make mistakes, everyone has to live with the consequences, or the tension is gone.

We can include Adele’s and Beau’s thoughts, which, even if they’re not doing much, will make them seem more active to the reader. They listen to the adults but disagree in their thoughts. And they worry, which always ratchets up suspense. This strategy may not be enough to solve the passivity problem, but it will help.

There can be more than one approach to a crisis. Beau argues his and is convincing. His plan is adopted. The adults take the lead in carrying it out, but he still feels responsible. Or, his plan includes crucial roles for himself and Adele.

The adults deserve respect, but they can’t be perfect, because no one is. Caryn has asthma, which is worsened by altitude. In these mountains she needs the help of the teens to keep up with the others. Dennis is cautious, even in situations that require boldness. Adele discovers that if she’s subtly reassuring, he moves forward. Enola has no sense of direction. When she’s alone with Beau or Adele, the youngster has to keep them from getting lost.

Adele and Beau can each have flaws and virtues that get them into trouble, and getting into trouble isn’t passive. For example, Beau is impulsive, and Adele is loyal. When Beau slips off to try some ill-considered approach to the problem that’s threatening everyone, Adele goes with him. They create a situation that they then have to get themselves out of while the adults are back at the campsite, fast asleep.

We can create a temporary separation. For instance, supplies are low, so Caryn and Dennis go off to hunt, while Enola looks for a source of fresh water. They tell the teens to stay at the campsite. While they’re away, three of Queen Francesca’s people discover the camp and attack. Adele and Beau are on their own.

Size, agility, and youth can make Adele and Beau the best choices for certain actions. They have to do them solo or duo, and the adults have to wait on the sidelines.

We can use simple physical placement. Adele is in the path of a rockslide. Or Queen Francesca’s henchperson sneaks into the camp in the middle of the night. He captures the one on watch, who happens to be Beau.

Queen Francesca, who is not stupid, can realize that the young people are the key to her evil designs. They’re less experienced than the adults and more prone to making mistakes. Moreover, the grownups will be less likely to sacrifice a teen than one of themselves. They may even be foolhardy in their attempts at a rescue. The kids, therefore, are the focus of their attacks. Sometimes the adults save them, but often Adele and Beau have to act for themselves and even make split-second decisions for the whole group.

Naturally, these prompts come from the post:

Write a scene that reveals the child king and shows why he is beloved and why he’s the hope of the kingdom.

Our five heroes are gathered around their campsite at night. They don’t know how far away their pursuit is, although they’re safe for the next few hours. They need to plan their actions after that. Write the dialogue, revealing the characters of each and their strengths and weaknesses. Include the thoughts of the two teens as the discussion progresses.

Queen Francesca and her company are at their own campsite, planning their moves for the next day. Reveal her character and the characters of two important members of her bunch.

Create a scene from one or more (or all!) of the situations in the bullets above. If you like, continue and write the whole story.

Have fun, and save what you write!

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

What's funny

On July 13, 2014, Writer At Heart wrote, I'm having problems with my MC. I feel as though she isn't very developed. How do I get around to do this? Maybe it's because I don't think that she has a great sense of humor.

carpelibris responded with these questions: Why doesn't she have a sense of humor? Is she overly serious? Socially awkward? Too literal-minded? The reason might give you clues to her personality.

Is she in a situation where humor's important? Why? How does she respond? What problems does this cause for her?

And Writer At Heart answered, No, she's not overly serious or any of that other stuff you said. Like, she can be awkward at times or serious, it’s really just me. I can say a joke pretty well, but I just can't write it down on paper or on the computer. She's actually very outgoing. It's not only my MC who I want to be funny, but my MC's 'boyfriend.' I want him to be very funny, someone who can make a girl laugh. 

The school teacherish side of me has to say that if we’re not good at writing a particular kind of thing and we want to be, the remedy is practice. We can write down the joke that we told out loud, which had our friend clutching his sides and weeping with laughter. We can tweak it until we think it’s pretty good. Then we can show it to another friend and see what happens.

Not even a smile? Revise and repeat.

We may never cause the uproarious laughter that accompanied the spoken joke, because our timing, our inflection, our own suppressed hilarity will be missing, but we should be able to get a smile.

If this aspect of writing is as important to us as it is to Writer at Heart, we can read joke books and see which ones make us laugh and figure out how the effect was achieved.

So now I’m tempted. I recently heard a joke on the radio that I loved and want to share. (It’s not mean.) It’s also not funny to everybody. The radio person who told it said that the smartest person she knows didn’t get it. Here’s the joke:

I’m walking down the street and see my old friend, but, surprisingly, he now has a big orange head. I ask him what happened. He says he was in an antique store and bought an old lamp, which he cleaned when he got home and a genie appeared and offered him three wishes. His first wish, he says, was for a beautiful house. He points at an enormous, gorgeous mansion and says that’s it. His second wish was for a beautiful wife. He points at a stunning woman who’s pruning the roses along the fence and says she’s his wife. He goes on. “Then I made my mistake. For my third wish I asked for a big orange head.”

I'm laughing right now. My telling is nothing special. I just wrote it down more or less as I heard it. The surprise and the absurdity tickle me.

I want to assure you all that I’m not violating anybody’s copyright by telling this joke. When it was told on the radio, the person who heard it already knew it, so it’s out there. But we do need to be careful with jokes that come from joke books, which  probably are copy protected. We can repeat them to friends, but we shouldn’t include them in anything we hope to publish.

I adore funny books, plays, movies, but not everybody is into humor or is interested in writing it. Most writers, as far as I can tell, are, sadly (so to speak!), not funny. We can write a career's worth of serious stories, and that’s fine. It’s like some artists aren’t good at drawing hands but they’re great at other aspects of visual art.

So let’s work on making our MC funny, and let’s call her Marie, and let’s call her boyfriend Jonas. They can both be funny in the way that Writer at Heart would like, that is, they can be witty. In a social situation, people can wait for one or the other of them to make the remark that surprises and brings the smiles. Also, for them to be likable to the reader, they can’t be mean. Their jokes shouldn’t be at someone else’s expense.

Suppose they go together to a Valentine’s Day party. They make their entrance a little late, and everyone is delighted to see them, because they’re the life of every party. On the way in, Jonas picks up a big heart lollipop from a bowl. With everyone watching, he lunges like a fencer at Marie. She steps back smiling, instantly getting the joke. The two of them bow to everyone and say in unison, “Heart attack.”

Not sure how funny a heart attack is, but Marie and Jonas are clever. They’re witty, and no one’s feelings have been hurt.

How did I come up with the heart-attack joke?

It happened to come right away, but if it hadn’t I would have written some notes, which might have gone like this: They’re at a party. A theme party provides more opportunities and more interesting props, could be Halloween, a birthday, Valentine’s Day. Valentine’s Day. Which of them will make the joke?

Marie holds a heart doily to her ear. Jonas gets it and says loudly, “Heart of hearing!”

Heart is also hart. Can I do anything with a joke about the deer? No. Nobody will get it.

Something with endearments: sweetie, love, dear, darling, sugar, honey.

Stick with heart. I got it! Heart attack. How do I write it so it isn’t making fun of a terrible illness?

Or you may prefer heart of hearing. Or the endearments may have gotten you thinking.

In a story, a series of jokes will quickly grow tiresome. If Marie’s and Jonas’s repartee continue at length, the reader may stop reading and switch to something that has story momentum. So suppose we leave it at one joke in this moment, and suppose the reader knows that half an hour ago the lovebirds were arguing and even on the point of parting. They’ve made up, and the relieved reader sees that they’re back in sync. The joke isn’t just funny now, it also makes the reader feel good until the next crisis.

Or, suppose either Marie or Jonas is really not a nice person, and the reader is alarmed that they’re happily together again. The joke is still clever, but the tone is ominous.

Or, the reader knows somehow that they’re about to be separated forever, but the two of them are blissfully unaware. Now the humor is tinged with tragedy. The reader smiles through his tears.

Let’s consider other ways Marie and Jonas can be funny, and let’s reprise carpelibris’s questions: Is she overly serious? Socially awkward? Too literal-minded?

Writer at Heart said no, but a character’s foibles can help with the humor. Marie can be overly serious and too literal-minded. People are being witty all around her, and she doesn’t get it. The reader hears the soundtrack of her thoughts. She’s trying to figure out what’s funny, and she has a fake smile pasted on her face. Finally, she thinks she understands. She says, “I get it!” And she comes out with a wild interpretation that nobody meant. They laugh, and she’s mildly puzzled. The reader sympathizes and smiles. But if she’s really hurt it stops being funny.

Jonas can be socially awkward. He always says the thing everybody else is tiptoeing around. He means no harm, but he misses a lot of cues. There can be comic relief when he blurts out the obvious.

In both of these, unlike the witticisms, we’ve made our MCs vulnerable, which probably makes them more likable and certainly makes them funnier. If we think about stand-up comics, many present themselves as vulnerable, and there usually is a dark side to their humor. For example, I heard a comedian named Mike Birbiglia perform a piece on the radio about his sleepwalking. Part of the story involved him walking through the plate-glass window of his hotel room. It was very funny, since he’d lived to tell about it.

There are, of course, many ways to write humor. I suggest you also look back at my other two posts labeled "writing humor," and you can also check out the chapter “Writing Funny, Writing Punny” in Writing Magic.

These prompts are based on the post:

Jonas and Marie are going to be separated forever as soon as the party ends. Write the party scene with both at their wittiest, most charming, and most obviously in love. End with the tragedy that separates them.

Rewrite the scene, but make the romance ridiculously over the top. Their pet names for each other are embarrassing. Jason feeds Marie a heart-shaped cookie, and they’re both dusted with powdered sugar, which they don’t see. Marie is wearing a long scarf, which gets tangled in something while they dance. They’re not nearly as charming as they think they are, but they may be twice as funny. Then have the separation occur.

Let’s imagine that the story is going to turn sinister when two heavily armed men and one heavily armed woman crash the party, hoping for a place to evade the police. Make Jason and Marie laughable as they were in the last prompt, or make one socially awkward and the other overly serious and too literal-minded. Before the situation turns deadly they are vulnerable objects of fun. When these desperadoes come in, Marie and Jason accidentally notice the danger. They can’t tell anyone or the baddies will realize. (The phone lines have been cut, and cell phone reception is terrible here.) It’s up to our doofus duo to save the day. Write the scene, and use detail to make it funny. I’m rooting for a happy ending, but it’s up to you.

Have fun and save what you write!

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Moving Along

Thanks to all for the questions. That was terrific! My list is healthy again, but questions are always welcome.

On June 2, 2014, Sunny Smith wrote, Hey, I was wondering if any of you guys have any tips on how to spice up travel scenes so they aren't boring? I'm writing a book where the main characters are doing a lot of traveling and I'm learned quickly that if you don't spice it up it can get pretty boring really fast. So that’s what I've been doing, but I keep wondering how much spice is too much spice. Where's the line between making the reader so interested they can't stop reading and making them frustrated with it because there just too much stuff going on?

Sunny Smith’s question generated a lot of help. This came in from maybeawriter: Well, I know of an older post dealing with road trips called "Enhancing Experience." (April 20, 2011.) Not sure if that helps you, but it might be worth looking at.

And this from Eliza: They don't need a flat tire and a troll bridge every two pages to keep the reader interested. There are simpler ways to spice things up. You know those pesky bits of dialogue you have to put somewhere but too much talking slows down the story? Put the talking with the walking.

And from Elisa: I would suggest reading Crown Duel, by Sherwood Smith, and it's sequel, Court Duel. The first has a lot of traveling in it, and the second has some as well, though not as much. Plus, they're fun books. Especially Crown Duel.

And from carpelibris: Is the journey part of the story, or do you just need to get characters from Point A to Point B? If that's the case, you can just say something like "Three weeks later, footsore, sunburned, and in dire need of baths, they arrived at the palace."

Sunny Smith responded to Carpelibris: It is part of the story, it's actually a quest story like Writer At Heart's so it’s pretty major. The worst part is in my first chapter where my POV character is on her way to meet up with the other three mains and she's all by herself in a forest for most of it so there isn't any way for me to put in any juicy dialogue. So I made it interesting because I'm not one to bore myself and I keep wondering if it’s too much for the first chapter.

These are great ideas! I’m with carpelibris in that we can truncate a journey with judicious telling, and her suggestion for how to do it is charming, in my opinion.

Let’s consider this first chapter as I understand it. Our MC–let’s call her Andressa--has to cross a dangerous forest to reach her allies, the other three MCs, who will help her on the next leg of her journey. Andressa’s ultimate mission is to find the mythical roc, the bird that, according to prophecy, will lay a golden egg, and the egg has the power to unite three warring kingdoms. Let’s say that once Andressa possesses the egg she has to get it to the queen of her home kingdom, because this queen is the only ruler who wants peace.

If nothing is going to happen in the crossing of the forest that will have bearing on the discovery of the roc, one choice is to skip the forest entirely and start the book when Andressa reaches the village where her friends are waiting.

Another possibility is to make the forest crossing have bearing on the quest. It could be some kind of test of Andressa’s ability. There are lots of options. Maybe she’s been told that she mustn’t leave the path through the forest. As she crosses, she keeps being tempted. She can succumb once for a reason we choose. Maybe she gets hungry. An apple tree loaded with low-hanging fruit is growing near the path. She reaches for an apple but keeps her feet planted firmly where they should be. Unfortunately, the apple is just a little farther than she expects. She stumbles and her foot comes down six inches beyond the path.

The reader--and Andressa-–worries that she’s already failed at the quest. To make matters worse, when she gets out of the forest, she doesn’t tell anyone about the failure.

The point is that whatever we write in our forest-crossing scene should have some bearing on the quest. If it doesn’t, our reader may be engaged briefly, but he’s soon likely to feel confused about what’s important. He may have trouble following the thread.

What happens in that first chapter doesn’t have to be quite so focused on the quest as the prophecy idea. We can use the forest adventure to shed light on Andressa’s character and her fitness for the task she’s taken on. Suppose there are bearions, a cross between a bear and a lion, in this wilderness.  Andressa’s first mistake is that she leaves crumbs after her evening meal. She curls up to sleep nearby, and a bearion smells the food and finds her. She hears it coming and has time to get ready with her bow and arrow. She shoots off four arrows, but the beast keeps coming, so she runs to a tree to climb. And the reader discovers how bad her coordination is. She can’t climb the tree. The four arrows do finish off the bearion before it reaches her, but the reader is worried again. Andressa has proven herself a good shot but also careless and clumsy. She is a weak vessel for such an important mission.

I’d say that one adventure is probably enough for the forest part of the story unless we decide that more of the plot should take place there. After the event we’ll probably want to go into Andressa’s thoughts about what happened. If she doesn’t realize that leaving crumbs was a mistake, the reader is going to worry even more about her. If she does realize and beats up on herself too much, he’s going to worry too. If she thinks about the importance of her quest for, say, the people she loves, he’s most likely going to like her. If she pities the dead bearion, he is certainly going to.

We can also use thoughts to eat up the miles and set up the trouble to come. During day one she can think about each of the friends she’s going to meet if this interminable forest ever comes to an end. She can assess their strengths and shortcomings while her opinions also inform the reader about her. During day two she can think about the war that’s raging outside this interminable forest. And during day three she can recall everything she knows about the roc. On day four she can arrive.

A Tale of Two Castles begins with a boat ride to the town of Two Castles, where the body of the story takes place. On the cog (medieval boat) Elodie observes her surroundings. She thinks about where she’s going and what her mission is. A lot of thinking goes on. She also gets seasick and receives bad news from a fellow passenger that threatens her plans. Nothing is earth shattering, but the journey fills seventeen pages. It establishes Elodie’s character and begins to build the world of the story.

If we don’t have dialogue we still have actions and thoughts. And we also have a setting for our MC to interact with, all in the context of her quest. Now let's start down that yellow brick road!

Here are four prompts:

Write the scene in which the bearion attacks Andressa. Go on to write her thoughts after she discovers that she isn’t going to die.

Write Andressa’s thoughts as she crosses the forest, and have her consider the issues I named: the other MC’s, the war, the roc.

Imagine the roc. Write a scene about it in its natural habitat. Reveal something that will make Andressa’s quest much more difficult.

Write the whole story of Andressa, her three companions, the roc, and the golden egg.

Have fun, and save what you write!