I’m feeling teachy today, so here’s a short revision exercise for a pleasant autumn morning. It starts, naturally enough, with your current work in progress. Grab a sentence. Make it a nice long one, something you think isn’t bad but maybe needs some work. Or something you’re obscenely proud of. You get different results with different choices.
Next, put it through the wringer. Treat that sentence badly. Imagine the worst of it. Make it justify its every syllable and turn of phrase.
- Read it aloud. Get someone else to read it aloud. Get a machine to read it aloud. How does it sound? How closely does the sentence you imagined hearing sound like the one that hit your eardrums?
- Cut all of the following: actually, really, seems, started to, began to, turned to, sort of.
- Note all of the other adverbs and give them a serious frown so they know they’re in serious trouble.
- Now, home in on the verbs. Are they workmanlike, or even boring? Can they be punched up?
- What is this sentence for, anyway? Is it sidewalk, smoothly conveying the reader from Point A to Point B without calling attention to itself? Is it scenery, a delivery mechanism for sensual imagery? Is it striking an emotional chord, delivering a character speech, slipping in a bit of exposition, transitioning us to a new idea, or eliciting a laugh? Is it only doing one of these things? Should it do more? Damn these lazy sentences anyway!
- Now that you have a job description for the sentence, ask yourself: how well is it performing?
- What is the vaguest word in the sentence? Who let that word in?
- Is anyone declaring, exclaiming, simpering, snorting, purring, giggling, or sneering when they ought to just be saying, asking or replying? (Pro tip: Sneering is not a synonym for saying. It’s something you do with your lip.)
Wait a minute, I hear you saying – you just told me to punch up the verbs! This is true, but it doesn’t apply to said. Look up Said Bookisms in the Turkey City Lexicon if you need to know why.
- How is this sentence supposed to sound? Is it in a passage featuring the jangly off-road surprises of improvisational jazz, or an easy listening scene? Is it a classic country tragedy about a lost dog and a dead truck, or is it the Imperial March from Star Wars?
- If someone threatened to take a blowtorch to your favorite action figure, could you parse out the subject and object of this particular sentence? Do you need that semicolon, honestly? And if you do, are you sure you used it correctly?
- Take the eviscerated remains, smooth them out, and read the sentence again. How does it sound now?
This kind of interrogation works nicely on paragraphs and scenes too, of course, but remember to interview your subjects separately before examining them to see if they’ve got their stories straight.
Here’s the Imperial March to play you out.
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.
Quite a few new writers embark on their first novels using first person POV. Sometimes this POV, in past or present, is indeed le choix juste. Other times, it’s less considered and more of an accident.
What causes us to bumble down this road? There are plenty of reasons, but the two I’ve seen most are these. First, if you haven’t been writing short stories or fanfic* before embarking on noveling, for example, it’s quite likely that the inside of your protagonist’s head is shockingly like the inside of yours. Their voice is a lot like your voice. So why not let them just, y’know, talk? It’s comfortable, like the things you wear on the weekend when nobody’s coming to visit.
(*Seriously, fanfic is a stupendous** way to get out of your own head and practice POV, dialog and voice if you’re just starting out. Pick a show where your knowledge is extensive and your love runs deep. Grab a favorite character, and drive around in their skin for a scene or two. Switch to the character you like least. Give them the wheel. Compare the results with whatever you’re writing now.)
(**Note to self: get the word stupendous into more heavy rotation.)
Another reason people get drawn into first person sometimes is that if you haven’t been writing for long and are going at it instinctively but without any kind of theoretical grounding (that sounds lofty, I know, but it’s less about academic snobbery and more about knowing that sticking two boards together is easier if you have a hammer and nail, or at the very least a glue gun) you may have a sense that some kind of narrative voice is… necessary. But at the same time, you may not be sure how to make it happen. Reaching for a main character named “I,” in that situation, is something of an automatic response.
So, good choice or bad, you’re in it now. First person narrator. Damn the torpedoes. How are you most likely to suck?
By making I a self-centered narcissist: The only character in the story with any degree of depth is that narrator, whom we’ll now name Vorpal. Everyone Vorpal meets in this book is onstage to be something of a flappy-armed excuse for either conversation or action. When they’re snarky, they’re clearly the one in the wrong. When they do things that intensify the conflict, they come off as a bit irrational. What drives these people? Why are they tormenting poor Vorpal? Do we even know? Can we, let’s face it, even tell them apart?
A thing about first person as a narrative choice is that you are always going to see Vorpal’s perspective most clearly… and so the characterization of everyone else has to be filtered through their perceptions. In exchange for an intense and intimate portrait of one person, you get an entire cast of other characters who can only be drawn from the outside. And that’s hard! So you can make your narrator cool and capable, a top neurosurgeon-type who designs Prada-quality bags in their spare time, and also has recorded a hit song for the new Buckaroo Banzai reboot… but if Vorpal is also an insensitive blockhead–someone who doesn’t notice things about the other characters or occasionally try to empathize with them–chances are great that your story will fall flat.
I verb, I verb, I verb. It is the truth universally acknowledged that new writers will often fall into a pattern of describing action with a long string of sentences that open with a character name and then an action.
I walked down the street and got the paper. I opened it up, and immediately saw the Wanted poster for Danny McGrew. Then I ran back home to tell Mom.
“Vorpal,” I heard her say, as she flapped her arms in surprise, “How do you find time to run down fugitives between your neurosurgery practice and Fashion Week?”
I replied, “I’ve just coded the most stupendous time management app ever!”
This is a habit to break no matter what POV you’re writing in. Obviously. Varied sentence structure = good, okay? But an additional effect of a passage like this when written in first person is that the reader’s ear picks up on the sound of someone endlessly yakking about themselves. Which is alienating – it can make us dislike even a pretty great character.
The surging oceans of inner turmoil are just gonna make us seasick. One of those two-dimensional crazy-ass supporting characters has just stormed off-stage, after giving Vorpal shit they probably did not deserve. And now, we get the unmitigated treat of three pages of: “How could they say that? Don’t they know my heart is forever theirs, and also I’m busy performing the Twelve Labors of Hercules here, on a budget I might add, and maybe this is a good time to mention again that I have post traumatic stress disorder and to launch a long flashback to the Maiming Fields of Kansasland. I felt so betrayed…”
Not only can this verge perilously close to whining–another thing that can drain a reader’s sympathy well–but it is the sort of thing that can happen without giving us a single sensory image. We might as will be in a dark room listening to a monologue. Action stops. The gnash of a broken heart is everything.
Contortionist fail. Meanwhile, halfway through the book, it suddenly occurs to you that Vorpal really cannot be present to witness the pivotal sex scene between their cheating life partner and their fellow stage magician, Burn the Magnificent. Can you fudge it with “Vorpal knew…?” No, we see what you did there. How many times can you get away with them eavesdropping on the other characters? Get off that windowledge, Vorpal, they deserve their privacy and you don’t want them calling the cops or, Chaos forbid, shooting at you. After Kansasland, you can’t really blame Burn for carrying that rifle around.
Can Vorpal pose as the hotel videographer? No.
Maybe no one will notice if you just dash behind the curtain, switch into third person for a minute, and let Burn take the mic. But are they a fully-realized and intriguingly voiced Burn, or just a 3rd person Burn who sounds a lot like Vorpal, right down to the accent, class, and education? It doesn’t matter, does it? Burn never takes center stage again. Hey, at least they got laid.
And indeed, maybe no one will notice.***
I’m just saying: sometimes these things are less glaring if you’ve thought them through earlier in the novel.
(***Actually, I’m just being polite. We’ll notice.)
The stuff Vorpal doesn’t know is way too important to share. Here your plot is headed in a super-mysterious direction, but nobody will tell poor Vorpal what’s going on. Because Vorpal’s probably pretty smart, right? If the other characters just ante up the info, obviously we’re all going to beeline to the end of the book. So instead you have the other characters swan onstage, make a few murky pronouncements, and then hightail it. Your narrator is confused and so are we. That’ll keep us hanging in for the middle ten chapters, right?
Or maybe not. Maybe you’re just being obscure, denying Vorpal their agency, and generally failing, as Kelly puts it, to get in there with the monkeys.
Now it is true that a lot of these pitfalls can arise with any POV. But first person is especially pitiless. It’s not a large cast opera, where the soprano spells off the tenor, and then they fall in love and the servants have to gossip pianissimo for it for awhile, and then a long bass versus bass smackdown breaks out, and anyway it’s opera so nobody expects the plot to make sense. First person POV is a solo concert: one point of view and the spotlight glaring down, hot enough to fry an egg. If we aren’t fascinated by Vorpal or at the very least inclined to like them as a person, we have nothing else–no other voice, no other perspectives, nothing but that hot Burn sex scene–to look forward to as the story unfolds.
If there’s one behind-the-scenes element of writing that you should know–one technical issue you ought to understand going in–my belief if that it’s this: point of view. Go with first person, but don’t fall into it by mistake. Choose wisely, and story well. Vorpal will thank you for it.
One of the things that Chuck Wendig’s brilliant post In Which I Critique Your Story (that I haven’t read) points out–in a hilarious yet gentle way–is that writing teachers see beginning authors making the same mistakes over and over. He covers a lot of those basic errors within the post. Memorize every word.
When I teach novel writing at the more advanced level for the UCLA Writers’ Extension Program, I get to see the next generation of mistakes… the things writers do after they’ve learned the lessons of Chuck. In Mysterious Informants, I’ve talked about some of the dynamics that arise when you have one in-the-know character teasing your protagonist and the reader, while failing to reveal any useful plot clues. Now I want to talk about a different kind of informational exchange: it’s a scene where one character is telling others about something that the reader has already witnessed, in an on-stage, pie-in-your-face, OMG watch out for the clown-car, Noooooo!!! unforgettable kind of scene.
Whatever it was, it mattered to the characters… obviously, or they wouldn’t be updating the people who were home, tucked into bed, during the clown car collision. But what I see in newer novelists tackling this transaction is this: a faithful and complete summary of something we vividly remember.
And that’s boring.
What can you do? These other characters do have to be brought up to speed, right? Tommy can’t freak out over Chris cheating on him until Pat mentions having seen the two of them playing tongue-lacrosse in the sauna, am I right? Plus, the reader needs to see how Tommy reacts. Maybe the next thing that happens in the story depends on that reaction!
The difficulty lies not in the transmission of the narrative of the clown car collision. It’s the faithful and full disclosure that’s problematic. That’s what reduces us to feeling as though we are binge watching something like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and we’ve hit the Previously On section. Previously On is a useful refresher when you’re watching the show one hour at a time, at one-week intervals. But hey–if you just saw all this same stuff five minutes ago, all it’s good for is a bathroom break.
1. Summarize: We have the bearer of the news, and the audience. If the bearer really is going to tell the listener everything, try giving them one opening line. “Maybe you’d better sit down,” is a classic. Then just wrap it up: “I told her about Frankie’s meltdown the day before, working hard to remember every detail.”
2. Give them a reason to leave out a crucial bit: Why do they provide every detail? As yourself: who is this person, and might they have a reason to omit something? “He outlined what happened, telling her everything except the part about how he squeezed the mustard bottle so hard that they all went home covered in yellow stains. ”
3. Think of witness bias: does your gossip, the bearer of the tale, actually see what happened in the same terms as the other characters involved? Events worth spending not one but at least two scenes on better be a little intriguing. They’re hopefully dramatic, and preferably they’re life altering. If you put ten people in a room and show them life-altering, is there any chance their stories are going to line up perfectly? If Joy kills someone in self-defense in chapter two, how much more interesting is it if chapter three opens with, “Are you kidding? It was cold-blooded, premeditated murder,” Mallory declared.
4. Can they fight? Which brings us to: how many tellers are there, and are they in complete agreement about what happened? “Holy shit, Emily, Bobo the Clown totally swerved on purpose to hit us! Stop apologizing for him?”
What if they exaggerate? What if they lie?
5. Is the news-bearer clueless? What if your reporter saw the whole thing and had no idea why it was important? “Yuck yuck yuck, we saw Elizabeth nailing some dude, in the steam room, didn’t see his face… hey, buddy, you okay? You’re lookin’ kinda furtive all of a sudden. So, as I was saying…”
6. Why is this message getting passed along at all? Review the reasons why you’ve got this briefing onstage. Fictional characters are just as happy as we are to text the boring bits to their friends and loved ones. Is the bearer motivated by good will, the desire to gossip, or the need for solace or support? Have they been asked to spread the word? Are they hoping that speaking up will make them look good? Are they after revenge?
7. Does the recipient want to hear it? What if they’ve got their fingers in their ears and are screaming “La La La Get Out!!”
By now you can see the point I’m making: unless there is some kind of twist on the second telling of your clown car massacre, there’s no point in taking us all through it again.
Remember before you go into the scene that the thing we already know isn’t important. You are writing this passage because the character reactions matter, because someone is going to give inaccurate or incomplete or just-plain-wrong information, because new light is going to be shed on the events or characters involved, or because this conversation is going to trigger the next round of important character and plot developments.
Figure out what the important thing is. Craft the scene so the crucial bit is the one that receives the emphasis.
*My Writing102 tag is a 2015 addition to this site – it’s meant to indicate essays for writers who aren’t entirely inexperienced. The Internet has a wealth of information for people just starting out, and less for those looking to develop next-level skills. In these essays, I’m trying to explore questions that might challenge people who can already write coherent, readable prose and have some idea how a story may be structured–people trying to get to the next level.
I welcome your feedback, as well as other suggestions for similar articles.
There are scenes that form basic building blocks for novels, teleplays, screenplays, and even video games of various genres. One of these crops up most frequently in the mystery and thriller field. It goes like this: a main character who’s engaged in trying to solve a puzzle, understand a mysterious event or literally solve a crime has an encounter with someone who parcels out tiny little morsels of information about what’s going on.
(I titled this essay before realizing that Mysterious Informant is, of course, the name of a related TV trope. What I’m talking about is very much in the same wheelhouse, but it’s less about what it is and more about how to do it. Because sometimes this is well worth doing.)
Anyway, they get together. One wants info; the other has it. Some verbal fencing ensues. The in-the-know character (henceforth, the Source) makes a few frustratingly vague statements and takes off, leaving their interrogator (let’s call them the Seeker) to experience frustration and other related feels before plunging back into their quest for understanding.
A few mistakes that beginning writers tend to make with Mysterious Informant scenes are:
- The actual exchange of information is insignificant.
- The Source has no agenda, and in particular no adequate reason for withholding the information except that if he or she spilled, the Seeker could proceed directly to cracking the case.
- There’s no subtext. The characters speak honestly, without recourse to half-truths, double entendres and outright lies.
- Sometimes, there’s no reason for the encounter to have taken place at all.
- The Source appears more than once, in scenes with a similar construction, emotional tone, and outcome.
Let’s look at a scene that works. Take that first encounter between Buffy and Angel in the Buffy the Vampire Slayer pilot, “Welcome to the Hellmouth.” At first glance, Angel seems to be doing exactly what I am complaining about: mouthing off, being mysterious for the sheer joy of it, and offering up nothing of use. (If you run a web search for this episode title and “transcript”, you can find the whole script, or a reasonable facsimile, online.)
In point of fact, a tremendous amount of information is exchanged between the two characters. It is Angel who reveals to Buffy that Sunnydale is on a Hellmouth, a hint that she and Giles research in greater depth later on. He tells her to get ready for the Harvest, a big upcoming vampire attack on a town that should really just put all the major evil holidays in a calendar on the City Hall website.
By offering up a few tidbits, Angel ensures that Buffy makes real progress on her problem, and thereby lets her know that like it or not, he might have his uses.
What else happens? Angel gives Buffy a cross. Blessed Bling, useful for fighting the undead! It is a dual declaration. It says “I like you” and also “I want to fight on Team Good!” Unspoken but significant is his fulfillment of a cherished personal agenda, which is basically to get a look at the Slayer up close after stalking her for… was it months?
Note, too, that in keeping with best Mysterious Informant protocols, Angel engages in a little wordplay, telling Buffy he doesn’t bite. His intention is for her to understand that he knows she’s a Slayer, while simultaneously having her take him for something other than the vampire he is. What he says is literally true, but at the same time it’s a conflict-avoiding obfuscation. This becomes even more of a complication when it turns out they’re strongly attracted to each other. They are, after all, each other’s natural prey. As becomes obvious later, they most emphatically should not date.
Two other things that make this encounter with Angel work, where less carefully crafted scenes might fail:
- It is exceedingly short. (Shorter even, I fear, than this analysis of it.) The two characters dance around each other for less than a minute, and he’s gone.
- There’s no history between them. It is harder to pull off a mysterious in-the-know visitor, I think, when the person withholding information is someone the other character knows well.
Still. Aside from the fact that it’d be boring for us viewers, why doesn’t Angel show up and say “Hey, here’s a flyer about living on a Hellmouth, and while you’re at it the Harvest will be starting at the Bronze at exactly midnight, and I’ve made up a handy infographic about the local vampire government and its plans. I’m older than you and stuff, but you wanna date?”
His motivation for being reticent is, in large part, shame. He doesn’t want to admit to having been Angelus. Who would? Angel wants to help out, to fight on the side of good, but without having to say how he knows what the local vampires are up to. He doesn’t want to tell Buffy he’s one of them.
So, how do you construct one of these scenes – which can be immensely suspenseful and effective – without leaving the reader feeling as if the Source is jerking the Seeker around for no good reason?
First, figure out how the informant got into the scene. If they entered the exchange willingly, then it follows that there is at least some small piece of information they want to divulge. This ties into the question of their agenda.
What if they didn’t seek out your protagonist? Sometimes it does turn out that the Seeker is a nice active kind of detective, the sort who digs up witnesses on their own initiative. In that case and assuming the informant can’t simply run away, clutching his precious knowledge to his chest, the Seeker is probably going to offer up the absolute minimum information required to get them out of what is effectively an unwanted interrogation.
In either case, the Seeker wants more! They want all the info, with drawings and annotations. This is where some of the conflict comes from.
Second, it is necessary to have a legitimate and defensible reason as to why the informant doesn’t say: “Here’s everything I know, so please eff off now.” Why are they giving partial information? It can be out of fear for their own safety. to protect another individual, because of national security, or because, like Angel, they have some reason to be ashamed. (I suppose that sometimes they might just be a serious dick, but I promise that is harder to pull off.)
Your guideline here is that as long as it is a believable reason, great! If it’s just to drag out the plot, readers are going to feel justifiably jerked around.
Third, ask yourself: can the minimal revelations of the Source be exploited by your Seeker? If not, everyone’s time has been wasted and I shall be obliged to despair.
Fourth, figure out what else has happened in the exchange. The revelation moves the plot forward, and that’s lovely, but what is the effect on the relationship between informant and interrogator? What did they communicate beyond their lines of dialog?
Fifth: It’s worth it to remember that each time the mysterious informant appears, they’re probably going to get less mysterious.
Six: Like all relationships, the Seeker/Source connection evolves. When you’re trying to solve a problem and a person who knows a lot about it gives you partial information, it is only natural to take the crumb trail as far as you can and then try to return to the source. So remember that, with a scene like this, you can’t give it to us the same way twice. The next time these characters encounter each other, you need to hit different emotional beats.
This is why we so often see cops going back to their sources, only to find them beaten up, shot, gasping their last, fleeing town, terrified into silence, dead, or otherwise deprived of their ability to continue offering even inadequate aid to your fictional heroes.
Seven: What makes your scene a little different? Here, for further analysis, is a scene from Sherlock where the exchange is almost all subtextual and emotional rather than truly informative:
I’d have started it earlier, and I do recommend finding the whole scene if you can. Then watch it and ask yourself: what do these guys want from each other? Which one is seeking? Ultimately, what do these men tell each other? How much of it do they actually say aloud?
Check out your current work in progress and see if any of this resonates. And feel free to mention or share your own favourite mysterious informant scenes!
*My Writing102 tag is a 2015 addition to this site – it’s meant to indicate essays for writers who aren’t entirely inexperienced. The Internet has a wealth of information for people just starting out, and less for those looking to develop next-level skills. In these essays, I’m trying to explore questions that might challenge people who can write coherent, readable prose and have some idea how a story may be structured–people trying to get to the next level. It’s a work-in-progress–in fact, this is the first attempt I’ve actually so labelled!–and I welcome your feedback as well as other suggestions for similar articles.