Some of you may remember the Journeys interviews I used to do with genre writers whose fiction I love. There’s a whole long story about why I stopped doing the Journeys, and why I’m instead launching Off My Lawn!, wherein I’m inviting a number of awesome contemporary writers to tackle pervasive myths about writing and everything associated with it.
I’ll tell you that story, but not now. Right now I’d like to invite you to listen to my friend Louise Marley. Louise is a former concert and opera singer as well as the award-winning author of more than fifteen novels of historical fiction, fantasy, and science fiction. Her newest novel, from Kensington Books, is The Glass Butterfly and see what you think of her take on “Write What You Know.” Sound good?
Beginning writers are told to “Write what you know.” Mark Twain said it. My first writing instructor said it. Everyone seemed to believe it. Somehow, though, when I tried to do it, as a fledgling writer, everything I wrote was boring. And I was bored.
What excited me about fiction was going to places I had never been. I wanted to meet people—characters—who weren’t part of my daily life. I wanted to glimpse lifestyles that were different, strange and intriguing. I wanted a fantastic experience, not a mundane one.
Still, there were things I knew that were unusual. The world of opera and classical music is one I know intimately, but few people do. Opera singers are hardly the stuff of most people’s daily experiences, and they’re fascinating. Performing on a big stage terrifies a lot of folks, but some of them like reading my stories about what it’s like. For them, the lifestyle of a professional musician is intriguing. For some, a close look at the workings of an orchestra or an opera company is a fantastic experience.
Hemingway said, “From all things that you know and all those you cannot know, you make something through your invention that is not a representation but a whole new thing.” Yes! There are things we know that we bring to our writing, but it’s the things we don’t know—and for a writer of the fantastic, things we cannot know, as Hemingway said—that lift a story from the mundane to the marvelous.
Mark Twain, despite his advice, wrote plenty about what he didn’t know, especially what it was like to be black during slave days in the South, in Huckleberry Finn’s escaped-slave character, Jim. He combined that invention with his real knowledge of the riverboat experience. Hemingway also used what he knew, and he knew a lot—about war, hunting, fishing, exploring—but he added an invented world of emotion, especially in his female characters. He wrote, “A writer who omits things because he does not know them only makes hollow places in his writing.” What would The Sun Also Rises be without the intimate point of view of Lady Brett Ashley? Her emotional depth and complexity make the rest of the novel resonate with readers.
In commercial fiction, the prolific Philippa Gregory (The Other Boleyn Girl, et al) takes what we all know to be true of the Elizabethan era and adds a huge dash of fictional invention to create much-beloved, if not entirely factual, historical novels. Science fiction authors like Suzanne Collins (The Hunger Games) invent entire societies, but extrapolate from existing science and culture. Perhaps the greatest fantasy author of them all, J. R. R. Tolkien, invented an entire world populated by the most fantastic beings imaginable—but built the world of Middle Earth on his own extensive knowledge of linguistics and history.
I’ve just published The Glass Butterfly, a novel which features a therapist—a profession about which I knew almost nothing before I began—and a sheriff, ditto. The opera composer Puccini makes an appearance, and about him and his work I knew a lot! For the kind of novel I write, just telling a story about Puccini wouldn’t have interested me, but finding the link between a turn-of-the-century dysfunctional family and a therapist in grave danger in the twenty-first century was what excited me.
Writing what we don’t know is, of course, a matter of research, and of asking good questions of the right people. Hemingway learned, somehow (maybe through having had four wives), how the female mind might work. Twain, we can imagine, observed slaves and their lives as he grew up in the South. I’m certain Philippa Gregory has read every historical source there is about her period. For my therapist character, Tory Lake, I read issues of Psychology Today and consulted at length with my sister, a trained therapist. I was fascinated—and energized–by learning the details of a therapist’s life, all of them new to me.
We all write what we don’t know, all the time. Writing what we do know may be the foundation a story is built on, but writing what we don’t know can create some spectacular architecture!
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?
Storytelling is an act of communication–as writers, we are driven to create narratives because we have something to say.
That doesn’t mean every story has to come out swinging, like the fables you may have studied in grade school. Most good works of fiction don’t beat their readers over the head with some heavy-handed moral, or a preachy political message.
The theme of a story can be a subtle observation about human nature, a ‘here’s what it feels like to discover your own mortality,’ or ‘here’s something I’ve noticed about losing a loved one, falling in or out of love’, etc. It can be romantic or deadly serious, a low-key observation or a big insight into life’s greater mysteries. It can address a specific historical event, as does Richard Bowes’s 9/11 ghost story, “There’s a Hole in the City,” or a more generalized experience: war, car accidents, divorce.
Often when we are writing draft, we don’t know what our themes are. It’s entirely common for a writers to not necessarily know what they’re saying within a given story until that draft is written. . . and that’s absolutely fine. Our initial spark for a given book is quite often something very concrete: a character, a setting, or a situation. While that initial inspiration may be tied to whatever deeper things a writer wishes to say, it is normal to find those ideas don’t really surface until the text is actually on the page.
Why worry about theme at all if your subconscious mind is on the job? Because after you’ve got that draft in your hands, it’s worthwhile to figure out what you’re saying, how you’ve said it and whether you’ve made your argument successfully. The reason is this: fiction can be more sophisticated and pleasing when it has a unity that comes from the author’s having paid attention to all of its elements.
When I ask students to identify the theme of a given piece, I like to see a simple sentence. Rather than “Justice” for example, I like to at least see “This story is about Justice” or, preferably, “At times, our justice system is unjust.”
With this in mind, take a moment to see if you can express the themes of a few of your favorite motion pictures, television shows, and books. Don’t be concerned if they seem simple. It is entirely possible to do a complex and nuanced exploration of what seems like a simple proposition, even a cliche. Readers have their own experiences to bring to bear on universal propositions, such as: “Having a sick parent is hard;” “Raising a child is rewarding;” or “Cheaters sometimes do prosper.”
Making the reader ‘get it’
When writing students are asked to consider theme, a risk arises that they will become focused on this element to the exclusion of all else, overcomplicating their ‘message’ and then feeling frustration if their instructor and classmates don’t understand or agree with what they are saying. At times like this, writers may ask: how can I make readers get my theme?
The answer, frustratingly enough, is that they don’t have to. However, your peers, instructors and workshop partners should be at least able to see what you are saying, though–if they can’t, it probably means this element of your story is murky.
Other questions to ask when considering your story’s thematic content:
Do you know what your story is about?
How important is that theme to you?
Does it address that topic?
Are you satisfied with what the story says?
Imagery as it relates to theme:
Moving on, what is imagery and how does it relate to this idea of theme?
You probably remember the basics from English classes you have taken throughout your educational career. Imagery, in literary terms, is language which evokes sensory experience. It includes similes, metaphors, and allusions.
Imagery is what makes your prose poetic; it is what elevates your novel from being a transcript of plot and character action and into another realm of artistic achievement. But to what end? Perhaps, you think, it’s hard enough to tell an interesting story clearly without gumming up the works with a lot of arty language. And it may be that you are a spare prose stylist, with a light hand with such flourishes. Everyone approaches imagery differently: some of us flavor sparse powerful images and plainer prose; other writers layer on the metaphors heavily, even to excess (see purple prose).
All that said, the power of your fiction can increase exponentially if the images you choose resonate somehow with your theme.
Think of your novel as a musical instrument, specifically a piano. Imagine that each of its 88 strings is an element of your novel; a character, a plot development, a pivotal revelation, a theme. As you strike the various notes, music plays–a concert unfolds, carrying the reader along with it.
Now, imagine that the piano is out of tune.
A well-tuned work of fiction is merely one whose elements are in harmony with each other. If your story is about greed, which image is more appropriate to it: apple blossoms floating on a river, or crows fighting over scraps of garbage? If it about reawakening to joy after a long period of sadness, is it better to conclude it with a sunrise or a sunset?
With that in mind, look at the following lists. One is a series of themes, and the second is a random list of images.
First, see which list items feel like they might match.
Next, think about what kinds of stories you expect to see paired with the images, and what kind of images you expect to see in stories with the stated themes.
Finally, consider whether there are images not on the list that you prefer as possible partners for a given theme, or whether there are themes outside this very small roster that might go nicely with the images below.
Make a few notes, do a little thinking… and then have a look at this week’s novel submissions, and see if it sparks any insights.
List one – Themes… a few things a novel might be about
The cost of war
The extent of human obsession
Learning to forgive
The difference between right and fair
The cruelty of kids to one another
Faithfulness in marriage
The difficulty in being in competition with friends.
What is the nature of heroism?
Death of dreams
Failure versus the price of success
Learning to face tragedy
Miracle of new life
The joys of parenthood
List Two – Randomly Chosen Images
Fields of anonymous dead soldiers
Brown leaves and patches of snow
Breaking new eggs
Blowing dirt and tumbleweeds
Indecisive unhappy-looking shoppers
Empty swimming pools
Houses with broken windows
Well-oiled guns in a pristine cabinet.
No matter what genre you are writing in, your novel has to take place somewhere. In some cases that world is the here and now, a place you and your readers ought to find quite recognizable. In others, you may need to research a less familiar setting. No matter where or when you set a book, though, it is important to remember that every place and time is unique, and that no matter how ordinary an environment seems to you, there are readers who will find it vivid and intriguing–if only you take the time to make it so.
It is all too easy to take the present day for granted, but compare these two fragments:
“Picture a summer stolen whole from some coming-of-age film set in small-town 1950s. This is none of Ireland’s subtle seasons mixed for a connoisseur’s palate, water-color nuances within a pinch-sized range of cloud and soft rain; this is summer-full-throated and extravagant in a hot pure silkscreen blue. This summer explodes on your tongue tasting of chewed blades of long grass, your own clean sweat, Marie biscuits with butter squirting through the holes and shaken bottles of red lemonade picnicked in tree houses. It tingles on your skin with BMX wind in your face, ladybug feet up your arm; it packs every breath full of mown grass and billowing washing-lines; it chimes and fountains with bird calls, bees, leaves and foot-ball bounces and skipping chants, One! Two! Three! This summer will never end. It starts every day with a shower of Mr. Whippy notes and your best friend’s knock at the door, finishes it with long slow twilight and mothers silhouetted in doorways calling you to come in, through the bats shrilling among the black-lace trees. This is Everysummer decked in all its best glory.
In the Woods, Tana French
The rain’s wet Denny’s shirt flat to his skinny back to so the bones of his shoulders and the trail of his spine show through, even whiter than the unbleached cotton material. The mud’s up around the tops of his wooden clogs and spilling in. Even with my hat on, my coat’s getting soaked, and the damp makes my dog and dice all wadded up in the crotch of my wool breeches start to itch. Even the crippled chickens have clucked off to find somewhere dry.
Choke, Chuck Palahniuk
Both of these novels take place in the present day, and both evoke the past as a means of anchoring writers in the present. But they couldn’t be more different. French evokes the romance of an Irish summer; Palahniuk the grim reality of a U.S. historical theme park on an especially dismal day. Despite the fact that they theoretically take place within the same world and timeframe, it is hard to imagine Denny and Victor running loose in the bright backyards of French’s Ireland.
Rather than letting your setting work as a simple, perhaps even generic background for your characters, think of it as the stage on which your novel takes place–and remember how much work goes into designing stages in theater and film. A good set is designed in detail, built from the ground up and carefully ‘dressed’ with objects and spaces that allow the characters and the audience to fully explore the world they move through. In a similar fashion, a well-rendered setting can amplify your theme, enhance mood, add new dimensions to a character’s plight, provide ‘props’ for the action, and even take on character traits of its own. More importantly, setting is where your readers ‘go’ when they enter your fiction. Writing transports readers out of their daily lives and into new realms. . . and, indeed, you will hear from many people that this experience is exactly what they are looking for when they pick up a novel.
Needless to say, some settings are more easily established than others. Speculative fiction authors may build entire worlds from scratch; writers of historical fiction must bring the past to life.
When looking at setting, whether during the draft or revision process, ask yourself what is remarkable about the environment in which your characters move. Might any element of your ‘stage’–from the weather to the architecture to the religious climate–be considered noteworthy, even extreme? What is the first thing an ordinary person would notice, were they to walk through this world? What would excite them, or scare them? What would arouse their curiosity? Where and when are they, in other words? Does the environment require anything special of them–access passes, survival gear, money, social status, a minimum level of physical fitness, a health concern, or simple travel?
Once you have given your setting some thought, your task becomes making it real to readers. How do you do that? You can describe your setting, of course–but all too often new writes fall into the trap of offering a few bland visuals before moving on. Pause for a moment, and think about all your senses. How does this place smell, taste? What are its textures? If there is a dominant visual element, is it particularly compelling?
When teachers or workshop members tell a writer their work could use more sensory detail, this is what they are talking about: specific images that allow readers to experience what being in a particular place is like.
Compare the two text fragments above once more. How many colors does Tana French mention? How many sounds and tastes has she evoked within the short passage quoted above? How many of these images are things you remember or can clearly imagine? What about the Palahniuk? Do you have a good idea of what that damp and rainy cold must be like?
Now, consider the novel you are working on. Where does it take place? What is that place actually like? What are its ambient smells, sounds, and colors? What is the quality of the light like? Are the surfaces hard, soft, or a mixture? What does a footstep sound like? Do voices echo? Is it hot or cold? Ask yourself: how does this place affect its people? Who are the wealthy and poor of this world, the weak and powerful? What is an ordinary person’s life like in this milieu?
If you’re working on something now that could use a dialed-up setting, take the time to make a short list of these details, breaking the list down into several examples of each sense being evoked: sight, sound, touch, taste, and smell. Next, decide which of these details is most vivid, or see if you can sharpen them from the generic (a blue summer sky) to something more specific (French’s “hot pure silkscreen blue”).
When placing your reader within a particular setting, the old adage “show, don’t tell” comes in. Having made your list of vivid sensory details, place them within your narrative–and let your characters experience the reality you have created. Instead of saying “It was hot,” show your characters sweating miserably and fainting from heatstroke. If it stinks, have them gag, complain, run in the other direction, or, eyes watering, reach for a gas mask.
If you can learn to evoke the heart of your setting with intensely sensory phrases, preferably filtering the sensations through a point of view character you’re developing at the same time, you’re already on your way to writing an unforgettable book.
This week’s writing essay is just a “What is,” and a “How to” on an important technical aspect of story structure–the workings of a thing we call Point of View.
Understanding point of view–POV, as we usually say–is as necessary to the process of writing as knowing the rules of the road is basic to learning to drive. If you don’t know which side of the road your car belongs on, or that you’re required to signal before turning, you are doomed to have a short career as a driver. (Or to use a medical analogy–if you can’t tell a human from a horse, your chances of becoming a doctor may be rather slim.)
Does that mean POV is dull? A dry and necessary fundamental, something to be gotten out of the way before moving on to fun and cool topics like voice and scenebuilding? Definitely not. The beauty and power of this element of writing is subtle, though, and once you have a good grip on it, it tends to work invisibly, behind the scenes. When you get into your car every morning, you don’t have to remind yourself to stop at traffic lights; it becomes so basic–so completely obvious–that the sight of an orange light will trigger the proper reaction in a driver without conscious thought.
An experienced driver rarely considers the intricacies of basic traffic law, but focus your attention on a few key details of this apparently dull phenomenon for a second:
1) Millions of people understand and agree on the basic rules and follow them.
2) Those “basics” allow these same people and their passengers to hurtle through space at hundreds of kilometers per hour and to travel significant vast distances in minutes.
3) Visualize the complex simplicity of a highway system, with its multi-lane traffic and the system of entrances and exits which allows travellers to move together and then separate as needed.
4) Last, consider the tragic crashes that sometimes result when people flout these agreed-upon rules.
Point of view is crucial in just the same way, and often just as invisible.