One of the things that is sometimes debated within various pockets of the literary community is the question of whether writing, (or presumably, by extension, any art) can be taught. Though many authors currently practice workshopping in some form, though a good number of us have availed ourselves of night classes, MFAs, opportunities like Viable Paradise or Alpha, and certificate programs like the one I teach at, at UCLA, there are also those who believe teaching writing creates cookie-cutter work.
There are definitely writers who are ill-suited to workshops, and who’ll generally do better if they bash along on their own. But like all good kernels of thought, it’s possible to get dogmatic about this down with teaching proposition, to argue that a workshop or a class will inevitably ruin new talent by crushing their creativity into some kind of rigid publishing mold.
Naturally, I disagree. (As a general principle, I disagree with anything that presumes that one size fits–or fails–all.)
Now, of course, I would take issue with this, wouldn’t I? I went to Clarion West, after all, and my wife Kelly Robson attended Taos Toolbox. And I do teach, a lot, not only at the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program but in person at UTSC. My bread is entirely covered in student butter. (And I think Kelly’s many award nominations since she began to sell short fiction constitute a powerful argument, in their own right, that workshops can be a force for good!)
Do I think writing can be taught? Obviously. Do I think everything about writing can be taught?
With the arts, you not a physics professor laying out a formula, some cut-and-dried procedure for which there is one satisfactory answer. You’re not showing someone how to paint the perfect yellow line down the middle of a strip of road, or fly an airplane without making it go kersplat, or performing open heart surgery. The arts are more fungible. For every so-called rule, there’s at least one fantastic book or story that makes said rule a hilarious joke, a baffled wide-eyed “But!” with cream pie dripping down their face.
So what is teaching writing like?
One of my favorite analogies for the teaching of writing is that it’s a bit like taking a bunch of people to a junkyard, a vast expanse of crushed metal and random parts, oil and cogs and wheels, looming in creaky, ominous, teetering piles.
In a junkyard, at first glance, much of what you see is pretty familiar: busted windshields, steering wheels, coveralls, crowbars, and the smell of paint. Things may be mixed and jumbled, but a gas tank’s a gas tank. Or is that… an oil pan?
Teaching writing is like taking students out to this stretch of familiar parts, and saying: “Okay, you all know what a car is. Now build one.”
They go off. They work at it. Every now and then someone may bring me back a door, or part of an engine, and ask where they should put it. If they do, I’m only to happy to suggest moving a windshield wiper or adding a muffler. But essentially once the task is set, each writer is off, isolated, in their own corner of the wrecking yard, fusing things together into stories, clanking away and hoping it works.
Then, finally, we get to the point where everyone’s made something and the workshop can begin.
Almost all of us have been in more motor vehicles than we could possibly count. How would you even guesstimate? Cars are ubiquitous, less familiar than your skin, but not by that much. You’ve been strapped in baby seats. Drunk and headed home in smelly taxicabs. Alone with a podcast on your nightly two-hour commute. You’ve been on road trips in rentals, trapped on tour buses, and on tenterhooks, possibly, at your driver’s exam.
How many of us could assemble a car out of parts?
In this analogy, the first thing I ask when I see the cobbled-together creations of my students is a pretty simple question: “Does it run?”
If a story doesn’t go, if it can’t carry a reader from some point A to another point B, the author’s generally got to go back to the scrapheap for more or different pieces.
This is an important element of how I think about fiction in all my roles, as a reader, a teacher, an editor, and especially as a writer. I want to create things that are exciting, fuel-efficient, and stunningly beautiful. But none of that matters until the story can move someone. If it can’t, it might as well be a hunk of metal up on blocks in someone’s yard. No matter how great the paintjob, it’s of limited use.
If a story runs–even if it can only cough its way like an ill-used jalopy, to the corner of Flash Fiction Avenue and Finished Street–then I as a coach and the whole workshop group gets to move onto making it run better.
And when it runs pretty well? Then you can really drill into the aesthetics: “Any chance you’d care to make it more attractive and comfortable for the passengers?”
(One of the things that is fun about this particular analogy is that process of translating workshop critique into car talk.)
- “Right now the seats have a funny smell and the ride is really bumpy.”
- “I know POV lives under the hood, but just because you can’t usually see it doesn’t mean you don’t need one.”
- “After the adultery scene, it just kinda runs out of gas.”
Stories and written language surround us, just as cars do. They travel, as cars do. And what the car metaphor gives me is an ability to talk about the building process—to teach via metaphor. You can talk about getting a vehicle up to speed, about skidding out of a turn, about the flashy exterior of a pretty sports car. Oddly, this can sometimes make more sense than “Show, don’t tell.”
Now actual cars do have a right answer, when you’re building them. It would be ludicrous to expect mechanics to learn to assemble them from trial and error.
But what about the part you can’t teach?
I’m an expert, on stories. I can see if they run. I can say if the tires look good and the propeller on top is, probably, a bit too much. But because each writer makes their own story from the ground up, every time, out of a glorious randomosity of bits of wrecked dream, nuggets of grudge, precious hoarded research, glimmers of genius and cobweb threads of memory, the final path to making any tale roadworthy isn’t ever going to be a case of me giving you the One True Answer. Art is not Newtonian physics, or fixing Chevy Cavaliers. I may think that propeller I mentioned, above, has to go. Meanwhile the author’s gut’s is saying “We just need another one, on the bottom. It needs to be made of uranium.”
Somewhere, within that gap between my “That’s not gonna take a reader anywhere!” And their “The propeller is non-negotiable,” is the stuff that can’t be taught. That’s the point where the author has to slink back into the junkyard, wrench at the ready, in search of the pieces to make it fit.
About this post: There used to be a link on my now-defunct Livejournal to one of my photographs–a picture of a broken traffic light–along with some musings about the nature of teaching creative writing. I called it “the car metaphor essay,” and linked to it often. It contained some handy ideas, but it was also little more than a sketch of the core concept. This new essay attempts to adds a real engine and some new paint to the thing.
San francisco mural
When I originally conceived this essay, it was meant to be something in the way of a How To thing, for one of my classes, an easy to follow step by step guide on how to market your work. By the time I came to write it, though, I realized that this particular bunch of students already had that covered. And, anyway, there are lots of pieces like that. (A quick crank through Submission Grinder might be enough to get some writers started. Writers Digest has a piece on the basics, too.)
So what this became, in fairly short order, was more of an acknowledgment of something many of us realize, forget, and then learn anew over the course of our careers:
- Learning to write well–learning your craft–is hard.
- Learning to sell your work is completely different–and also hard.
- Both are lifelong pursuits with changing goalposts.
It used to be, in the days before the Internet, that the process of submitting a manuscript had an almost ritualistic air to it.
You had to produce a typed copy, of course… and if you go back far enough, that involved actually typing it on an old school typewriter. You needed a back-up, and before copy shops and the days of a laser printer in every home, that meant carbon copies. This was a pain in the ass the likes of which I cannot even describe.
Unless you had the random good fortune to live in the same city as and be buddies with your chosen editor, a mythical unicorn-like creature straight out of the pages of John Irving, who accepted prose directly from your hands and impressed it, deitybeams emanating all the while, right into the centerspread of The New Yorker, each submission had to go into snailmail, with a cover letter and something called an SASE–which means self-addressed stamp envelope. This was an envelope with enough U.S. postage on it (no matter where your country of origin was, and don’t get me started on International Reply Coupons) to pay to return your original. This in turn ensured that you didn’t have to type it again if a rejection happened to come.
If the story got picked up, the SASE was used for the contract.
There was no real way of knowing if Writers Digest was still on track when it said that a market like Tomorrow Speculative Fiction would take six months to get back to you. There was a sense of throwing your fiction out into the void to see if it might somehow, miraculously catch a yes. It was night fishing. It was slow. The most important part of many a writer’s day was watching for the mail carrier.
I came along somewhere midway between carbon copies and dot matrix printers, and so my point in telling you this is not anything along the lines of Oh, you kids have it so much better than the oldsters who founded this genre! It’s not even Hey, things are so much better now! They are, of course, at least in terms of logistics. It is much easier to get up-to-date market information, to canvas other writers about what any given editor may want, and to go to the aforementioned Grinder to find out things like the average response time for a given market.
In the end, though, it still comes down to this: your story, working its way into the unknown, trying to catch the attention of a single reader. That reader might be an overtaxed and jaded slush reader for a magazine that gets eighty manuscripts a day. It might be the agent who asked for your manuscript in person at a writing conference. The physical artifact might still exist: you may yet mail out printed Courier text on crisp white sheets of 20 pound bond. It might as easily end up being custom formatted, by the recipient, to suit whatever e-reader they keep by the bedside table at home.
There’s a metaphorical line, a reel and a piece of bait. And what hasn’t changed, between then and now, is that you are taking an immense emotional risk.
Some of us are years, even decades, from the first time we threw a manuscript out there. Some of us have reached a point where we don’t even find the process of casting our work out there particularly difficult anymore. Others will struggle every single time.
I have seen people get used enough to selling that the submission process becomes something they’re comparatively blasé about… blasé, that is, until that rejection for something they really wanted to sell hits their Inbox.
Then we remember. Oh, yeah! We’re putting ourselves out there. We’re taking risks.
Now, a thing about sticking your neck out is, of course, that you can lose. Lose badly, sometimes. The time spent writing a work of fiction is not a trivial investment. And I have seen people brought very low in the arts. There are discouragements and heartbreaks and dark nights of the soul. But the risk isn’t like casino gambling. The house is not against you. I sincerely believe there are more people hoping you will win than there are those stacking the deck against you.
So as you prepare your next submission, be it your first or your fiftieth, take time to recognize that you are doing something that is difficult, and brave, and worth applauding in its own right. Remember that there may have been a time in your life when you could not have imagined submitting your writing to a workshop, let alone a professional market. Remember that there may have been a time when you were unable to consider calling yourself a writer at all.
You are allowed to have this dream. It’s yours, and you own a little more of it every time you put words to paper, every time you research something you may later put in a story, every time you read a book or watch a movie with a critical eye even as you feed that impulse to entertain yourself. You are allowed to claw for time to make your art, and to send the finished product to people who may pay you the enormous compliment of giving you money and seeking an audience for it. Start thinking of yourself as part of the club.
And for those of you who aren’t in a space where you currently need reassurance, I say this: the day may come when you cycle back around to this emotional place I’m describing. To the precipice. There may be a future you who questions whether the risk is too great, who lacks the beautiful certainty of your now. So think of this little peptalk as a time traveler: pack it into your mental backpack, and carry it on to the future.
It’s often observed that the people who succeeding in fiction writing are the ones who just keep knocking on doors. That doesn’t mean their work is bad. Quite the opposite. It just means that they have, among other things, refused to give up on the idea of The Sale.
Practically ever essay I’ve seen on writing success talks about persistence. You’ve all seen those essays, I suspect, and the reason the point bears endless, tiresome repeating is specifically because risk takes energy. Risk gets tiring. Risk can even, when it’s day in, day out, and a lot of No mixed in with the Yes, become something of a grind.
So when writers turn out charming blog entries about how you just have to keep at it, remember that lying under the grassy green promise of those peppy essays are the ghosts of dreams, the memory of talented souls who gave up, the crawling worms that feed on the sleepless nights when we ourselves lay awake wondering if we might just be better off getting a real estate license. We’re telling you you have to keep at it or go under. And, simultaneously, we’re telling ourselves.
And this brings me to each other. In this, as in so many other things, the only people who truly get it are the people going through the same thing.
Writers workshop to receive crucial feedback for their fiction, but the other function of classes like my various workshops, and Clarion, and Odyssey, is to connect you with your fellow travelers. This is, again, an area where the Internet has been a game changer. It is possible now to have a writer’s group that will never meet in person. You can find a kindred spirit, anywhere in the world, and form a rich and lasting creative bond.
Keep making the work. Keep throwing it out there. Fish with a friend whenever you can. These are the things that are within your control, and they make it so much easier to survive those moments when the business side of this wacky, rewarding and idiosyncratic art–of giving voice to your dreams, in other words–starts to feel like you’re shouting into an abyss.
You’ve all read the book whose protagonist moves ever so calmly from crisis to crisis. Maybe they experience the occasional pang of angst, but they never really need to do anything more dramatic about their problems than whip out the bastard sword (or the monster gun or ye holy guitar of rock godness or even their wand) and, y’know, lay waste. They’re together in a way that most of us aren’t.
From a reader’s point of view and the longer a novel goes on, this can be deeply alienating. No, we don’t always pick up fiction to read about someone as flawed and messily chaotic as the person falling apart, one cubicle over, from our desk at work. Most of us prefer to have a little bit of space from slow-motion drama explosions, real or fictional. But coolness, while it’s superficially attractive, is also distancing. It breeds remoteness. If someone is too cool, they become untouchable.
How do you find the balance between admirable and accessible? Here are five things you can check within your own writing:
We feel what they feel. Maybe Tyrion Lannister’s problems aren’t our problems (and for that, hooray!) But when his big sister’s carrying on about how she hates him for taking their mother’s love away, and why can’t he just die… well, what younger sibling hasn’t felt a shade or two of that? Tyrion’s an unlikely character, living in a shockingly hard-to-navigate world, but his sibling problems unlock a path into relating to him.
They snap when we’d snap. Behaving badly is part of character and there’s an art to choosing the moments when your mostly-nice characters devolve into rampant asshole behavior. (And, on the other side of things, the points where your evil ones experience those humanizing instances of benevolence.) Push them hard. Give them the emotional resources to put up with a certain amount of adversity, because few of us like a shrinking violet. Let them play it cool for awhile if that’s their thing… but at the point when any sane human being would break down, lash out or overreact, make it epic.
They have crimson or raven tresses, just like yours! Also: flashing violet eyes, adamantium manicures, bracing personal hygeine and an apostrophe in their N’Ame. No. I’m lying. That was a trick. The reason we like Harry Potter, if we do, probably isn’t that lightning scar. It’s the bravery, loyalty to friends and–for me, anyway–the fact that he hauls his ass in to work every day. Sure, work in this case means surviving and prevailing over he who can barely be spelled, but I dig perseverance.
Here’s one that’s crucial: they give a demonstrable shit about other people. I’m reading Fran Wilde’s Updraft right now, and there’s a crucial turn where her heroine believes she’s succeeded at something her best friend has failed at. And she’s happy for herself, and even takes time to celebrate, but she also spends a significant amount of time and energy thinking about ways to help that friend pick himself up off the not-ground and get back to his life.
They take risks. Sure, there are whole books about scaredy-cat wimptastic emotional basket-cases, guys who are so busy worrying about doing their job perfectly that they never ever extend themselves to make contact with another human being, but they are written by Kazuo Ishiguro, and the rest of us are probably better off not trying to emulate him.
Part of putting yourself in a fictional character’s shoes is believing you can fill them, and that is vastly more possible if they experience the range of human behavior, the noble and the petty, the humorous and the pathetic, the mundane and the glorious. No matter how awesome your characters are, let them break pattern now and then; give them a chance to be just like us. We’ll love them all the more for it.
Emotionally powerful fiction, as you know, brings characters into conflict with each other.
This is not to say that you can’t tell a story about someone who’s facing a powerful internal conflict, or a character who’s at odds with their environment, locked in a battle with impersonal forces, with physical survival as the stakes. However, the most affecting clashes in fiction are usually the struggles between individuals, those frictions that arise out of our natural attempts to connect with (and, sometimes, control) other people.
As I write this essay, I hope it’s true of those of you reading it that the important relationships in your life are positive ones: enduring friendships, solid family ties, and cordial business associations. So here’s an exercise: think about simple affection, and jot down some notes about the things you like about the people in your world. (Be as specific as you can. If you particularly admire your mother for her self-sufficiency, think of an example of a behavior that illuminates this trait.)
Now, look it over. What areas of common ground are the foundations of your friendships? Do you, like most of us, have a hierarchy of friendship: BFF, old schoolmates, colleagues, fellow writers, Twitter pals? How many worlds do you live in, and how well do these worlds co-exist?
All this exercise is meant to illustrate is that your characters probably don’t exist within a social vacuum. As you consider who they may clash with in a given story, think too about who supports them, and what resources—social and otherwise—they may have to draw upon.
If you’re stuck, consider a few common plots involving friendly relationships:
The Mentor—Be he Merlin or Obi-wan Kenobi, this older and more experienced ‘trainer’ figure turns up in adventure fiction, to prepare young heroes for big tests.
· Who are your real life mentors and inspirations?
Mercutio—this is the friend who serves as a sacrificial lamb. They are usually killed to up the stakes on a conflict already in progress, or to show that the villain really means business.
Loved one gone bad—sometimes a protagonist loses a friends’ support through selfishness, with the catastrophic result that the former ally joins forces with the antagonists of the story.
Confidante—Confidantes are handy—they give protagonists a chance to hash out their interior angst on the page. They are custodians of your characters’ secrets, and sometimes unwittingly betray them.
· Who do you confide in? What qualities make them especially trustworthy?
The above examples are just a small starter list of archetypes and the stories that spring from common, real-world relationships. Any of the ‘types’ I’ve listed above can be treated as a cliché or be fully-realized and brilliantly handled. The key thing to remember is that if your novel’s protagonist is so socially isolated that there is nobody at all to reach out to when they’re in a jam, you may have an underdeveloped cast of characters.
Here’s another thing: Affection and Conflict can go hand in hand!
Not all stories boil down to Hero Versus Villain, thankfully, and even the closest relationships can be eclipsed by conflict. For many of us, we’re far less likely to solve a murder or save the world from aliens than we are to have a painful argument with a loved one. How many of you might prefer getting a punch in the gut from a total stranger to having a verbal conflict with someone you love deeply?
A protagonist’s loved ones are in a more advantageous position to undermine, deceive and flat-out betray them than a villain-stranger. You cannot betray someone who doesn’t trust you.
So, with that in mind, let’s talk about lying for a minute. Lying, in fiction, has great potential to create both conflict and suspense: it also makes characters, and their motivations, more interesting. A common beginner mistake in writing is to have all or most of your characters tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. Nobody is perfectly honest; don’t allow your characters to fall into this trap.
Insofar as fiction has any rules, here’s a biggie:
If an important character tells a big lie in a novel, the truth must come out by the end.
Here are some basic things to ponder with regard to lying:
· A character should lie more easily to a stranger or casual acquaintance than a loved one (this assumes they are not a sociopath)
· A character needs a reason to lie. They—or someone they care about—should have something big at stake.
· Lies and other betrayals of trust are unique opportunities to examine an intriguing facet of human nature. Few things are worse than the experience of being betrayed by a loved one: this is deeply personal, deeply emotional material.
· If a character is going to tell a big lie, it’s probably a good idea to make them sympathetic in other ways.
Think: how many times have you told a casual acquaintance who asked how you were that you were “Fine,” even though the answer was anything but? Does that make you dishonest, a chronic liar? No. Withholding information and even deceiving people can self-protective, a necessity or even a kindness. We all do it. Remember this when your characters start to tell random strangers too much about their current situation.
As an exercise, look at the following lines of dialogue, assume they are untruthful, and see what you can deduce about the speakers:
· “That dress looks fab on you, darling.”
· “It’s all over with my ex—I was just returning some stuff he left at my place.”
· “I never touched her.”
· “I have no idea where Chris is.”
· “I sold the rifle—I’m not hunting anymore.”
· “I’m not very smart. Not as smart as you.”
· “It’s a gift for my sister—can you take it back to the U.S. with you and mail it?”
· “The dog ran away after you left for school today, sweetie.”
· “I will never touch another drink again.”
· “The doctor gave me a clean bill of health.”
Just knowing the above statements aren’t true laces them with conflict, doesn’t it? Try coming up with a few of your own. Look for speeches that are creepy, heartbreaking, or hilarious—hit as many emotional notes as you can find.
What about when the untruth is malicious—when it’s backed up by bad action? As I’ve said, betrayals by their very nature can only occur in relationships characterized by a certain degree of trust. This is true whether a character is a spy selling military secrets, an adulterous spouse, or a corporate embezzler.
In fiction, betrayals and lies tend to get bigger as your story unfolds—the dishonest character’s actions make things worse—and by the time the truth comes to light, the ‘victim’, whoever it is, has a significant chance of being hurt.
Imagine one of the sentences before: “It’s all over with my ex—I was just returning some stuff she left at my place.”
What if the speaker initially said this to his new girlfriend because his ex tracked him down and tried to start things up again? Perhaps the initial ‘fib’ was merely an attempt to avoid worrying the new girlfriend. Not necessarily a terrible crime, am I right? But then the ex starts calling, and he doesn’t want to admit he was dishonest. Now, in an all-too-human burst of panic, our speaker tells his new love something wildly untrue. “My ex has been diagnosed with leukemia,” he says. Suddenly things are very sticky, and can spiral out of control in a number of ways.
And, remember, sooner or later the truth will come to light, and then there will be consequences for everyone involved.
This brings us, finally, to. . .
Not all betrayals are forgivable, and not all characters are capable of forgiveness. Scenes where your characters do let go of this type of pain can be tough to write. How do you say “I forgive you,” without falling into cliché?
One strategy is to look at what else there is in the relationship you’re exploring—the common ground that makes forgiveness possible and worthwhile, the past history. Often a reconciliation scene is less explicitly a case of Character A saying “Forgive me,” and Character B replying “Okay!” and more a case of a gentle, careful reaching out into one of those areas of commonality. This doesn’t mean things go back to the precise way they were before the betrayal occurred. Betrayal inevitably changes things—the trust is damaged, and the rules of the relationship will to reflect that.
Since fiction is, after all, about character change, this is fertile ground, well worth exploring.
So far, I’ve talked about engaging our protagonists in conflict not only with obvious bad guys, but with their loved ones. I’ve talked about how the people in a given character’s life can, even with good intentions, mislead and betray. Finally, because I’m still focusing on essentially positive relationships, I’ve talked about the potential for forgiveneness and reconciliation. Now, there’s one more thing you may want to consider . . .
Love, Intimacy and Sex
Writing about sex can be daunting, so take a breath and remind yourself that everything I am saying about friendship—its joys, its power to support and nourish a protagonist and its potential for conflict—goes for intimate relationships too.
Think about falling in love. Consider what happened, how the feelings developed, what you felt and what, if anything, went wrong. Most people may find that their love interests and sex partners are the people they trust most, and are most vulnerable to.
A huge proportion of Western literature traces the love relationships of thousands of couples, both conventional and unconventional. When you try your hand at showing people in love or on their way to it, remember, once again, to look for the details that make them and their romance unique.
What if it’s time to get your characters into the bedroom (or the supply closet? Or the Macy’s parade?)
Some writers revel in creating smut. Others are embarrassed. Most fall somewhere in between. Writing honest, unabashed sex scenes can take courage. What if your grandmother reads them, after all?
Assuming, though, that the threat of Grandma doesn’t stop you, here are a few important things to remember:
1) Sex scenes are about atmosphere, not which body parts end up where. Technical writing (“He inserted Tab A into Slot B”) is, generally speaking, something to be avoided. Creating an aura of sexual action, where readers can imagine what’s happening is more important than the blow by blow.
2) Sex scenes are about revealing character traits, developing relationships, and furthering conflict.
3) Sex doesn’t begin or end with intercourse.
Okay, enough of this chatter about good guys. What about villainy?
What I’m hoping you’ll remember as you sit down to write is that your protagonist’s allies come from somewhere. They are family, friends, compatriots and lovers. These are the threads from which your whole story is spun, so consider their color and texture carefully. A main character’s parents, siblings, spouses, ex-spouses, bosses, their sons and daughters, teachers, fellow-sufferers, doctors, grocers, landlords, classmates, slaves, confessors–and even their media heroes, are all potential sources of inspiration, nurturance, support and well-intentioned conflict.
Now, remember this too: your story’s antagonist or ‘bad guy,’ if it has such a thing, comes from the same pool. A rapist need not be merely an unnamed shadow-figure: he can be a teacher. A co-worker can set out to have your main character fired; an officer on the other side of the battlefield can take it into their head to maliciously shell your character’s foxhole. As you move from considering a character’s mostly-positive relationships to thinking about deliberate bad behaviour, consider the possibilities for complexity in these relationships too. The individuals involved aren’t just pieces of your plot. They are still human and should have comprehensible motives. What makes them a baddie is that their intentions are actively harmful.
Which brings us, conveniently and at last, from sex to violence!
One of the ironies of Western culture is that many of us are quite uncomfortable when writing about love, lust and sex. . . but we’re only too happy to dive into a war scene or a barroom brawl.
Most of us are fortunate enough to live in less violent worlds than we write in. Fiction is full of murder, fighting, and carnage because we fear these things, and we want to experience them in a safe, controlled fashion. Part of us likes to believe that practicing violence in this manner can prepare us for the reality. It can’t.
Isn’t it odd, then, that it can entertain?
Like it or not, fighting is entertaining. Hannibal Lecter is, to many, a cool character. Film genres like anime make terrible acts look bloodless, even beautiful. To write about violence in an entertaining fashion is to pretend that we can shake it off—that police can get into gunfights and sleep soundly at night after slaughtering nameless bad guys.
This is perfectly okay. It’s escapism, it’s part of our culture, and there’s no sense in pretending it’s not fun. But what if you want to say something true about violence? The answer lies earlier in this essay: you make its participants real to the reader.
Before we delve too deeply into the mechanics of violence, I want to revisit two points I mentioned with regard to sex scenes:
1) It’s not about which body parts end up where.
2) Intimate scenes are about revealing character traits, developing relationships, and furthering conflict.
The above statements are equally true whether your characters are rolling around on a beach in the throes of passion or if they are trying to drown each other.
Imagine a world where all the fight scenes were a literal description of the action:
Smith hit Jones, breaking his nose.
“Ow,” Jones said. He stabbed Smith in the chest with a barbecue fork.
Smith fell, clawing in his jacket for his gun.
Even if the above were more stylishly written, it would be pretty dull, wouldn’t it? Remember this about fictional violence—be it a knock-down brawl, a hair-pulling fight between five year olds, or even a vicious, relationship-ending father-son argument—people in conflict are emotional. Most of us live fairly pleasant, violence-free lives (I hope!) and it takes a great deal to get us to lash out physically. Yes, in fiction violent situations crop up more frequently than they do in the real world. And yes, some characters do round out their working day with a swordfight. This is no excuse to have them be emotionally distanced from the experience of harming another being—or being harmed by them.
Foreplay, Intercourse, Pillow-talk and Pregnancy
No, we haven’t slipped back into the smutty gutter—but remember that third point? Violence, like sex, rarely begins and ends with the act itself. There’s lead-up to the actual event; afterward, there’s character reaction to deal with. Depending on the degree of realism in your work, there may also be long-term fallout in the form of trauma.
Trauma, naturally, is yet another of those things that comes with a set of conventions and clichés. You’ve all seen stories that open with someone screaming themselves awake from a nightmare. You’ve all seen fictional victims of violence shrinking from the touch of others, having flashbacks, resisting therapy and then opening themselves up to that process. These things do happen, of course, but the range of human behavior is wider than the few possibilities I’ve mentioned. As with anything else, finding a more unique and yet believable response will make your work stand out.
Violence makes for exciting, suspenseful reading, and I invite you to try writing scenes that bring your characters into physical conflict. But what if that just doesn’t fit with your story? What if you’re writing about two people who are vying for a promotion at work, a parent attempting to bond with a difficult child, a person coming to grips with loss, or their gender identity, or even just something unexpected?
In a sense, the answer is the same either way. Whether you’re writing about an interpersonal struggle between two passive-aggressive relatives or using words to stage a knife fight, remember: sex, violence and conflict are all about the same thing—power. Who’s winning, and who’s losing? Who’s in control and how are the other parties responding? Does one character have something the other wants? These are the underlying dynamics of good scenebuilding—use them well.
Fisticuffs can be great, in other words, but not all stories need them. What they do need—what this entire lecture is about–is passion, purpose, and characters who work their way into your readers’ hearts.
Plot doesn’t pick up where characterization ends: the two are inextricable. It’s all very well to create a vibrant protagonist whom readers can relate to, but then you have to get that character into some kind of trouble. The engine that drives a short story’s plot is its protagonist’s wants and needs. Knowing your characters’ deepest desires–and why these desires motivate them–is critical.
Sparks begin to fly in fiction when characters come together–when we see them conflict, fall in love, betray each other, form alliances, and just plain perform on the stage you’ve created for them. In stories, this can be accomplished in as little as a single scene between two characters. In novels, though, your conflict moves through a series of scenes whose tension increases incrementally until it all boils over.
At the heart of every story, regardless of its genre, is a character with a problem: one that, for whatever reason, isn’t easily solved.
There are as many approaches to plotting a story as there are writers, but for those struggling to tighten a piece, a look at standard plot formulas can sometimes be helpful. Author Wendy Webb, for example, suggests that narratives be structured using seven steps:
Hook (open with a high-impact phrase that engages reader interest)
Problem (clue readers in as to what the protagonist wants… and why he cannot have it)
Backfill (now that the audience is engaged, provide whatever context is required)
Complications (the protagonist encounters obstacles in his first attempts to achieve the goal.)
Action (more attempts, more failures)
Dark Moment (the goal seems out of reach… but is it?)
Resolution (The protagonist succeeds or fails, and we see the final result of his struggle.)
An alternative structure used by other writers is even simpler:
Intro (similar to hook, above)
Resolution: Things Get Worse
Resolution: Things Get Still Worse
Still more complications, and a crisis…
Resolution: Where Character Either Triumphs or Dies
Remember, though, that the true key to plotting lies not in following a formula, but in establishing a conflict that readers can clearly identify (and identify with), bringing it to a crisis, and then resolving that crisis in an emotionally satisfying fashion. If you can pull this off, your story will be a successful work of fiction.
Questions to ask when plotting:
Is what your character wants important? A fine meal, a night’s sleep, a new TV–we’ve all wanted one at one point or another, but is it worthy of a 200-or-more page story? A book should be about something crucial to the character’s happiness or even their continued existence.
Think through your novel on a scene by scene basis: Does each scene advance the plot? Does the conflict come into play within each scene? Is it possible to increase the tension of some or all of your scenes?
Are all the elements of plot present in your draft? When can the reader say, positively, that they know what forces are in conflict in your story? Can they identify the moment of crisis and its resolution? Are the protagonist’s actions in pursuit of her goal logical?
What emotions do your characters experience as the story unfolds? Is your protagonist happy, sad, anxious, or in some other emotional state when the story begins? How far from this starting point is the story going to move them? (Remember that a character who is already in crisis on page one of a piece has nowhere to go but up, whereas one who is happy–or only moderately distressed–can be set up more easily for a big plunge.)
How suspenseful is your story? What is it that your reader wants to know or experience? Have you managed to dangle this expectation just out of reach… without being unclear as to what’s going on in the story?
Do you have a plan for balancing the need to surprise readers against the need to make your characters’ actions believable? Nobody wants to write (or read) a book whose ending is obvious by the second chapter. At the same time, your characters must be true to themselves. If they do something wildly improbable, readers will not hang in for your big finish. In other words, do your characters’ actions make sense?
Is what is happening clear at every stage of the story?