Part 3: Following the line
1. Act One
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“Never open a book with weather.”
-- Elmore Leonard
Well, okay, it's not quite as cut-and-dried as that. Leonard goes on to say you can get away with opening with weather if you're really good at it, or if you're actually focusing on a character's reaction to the weather. If you absolutely must talk about the weather, he says, keep it short. And for good reason.
Your first scene is enormously important. It invites the reader into the world of the characters and the world of the book. Ideally, it should set into motion something that will be important later. It should almost certainly introduce us to a main character, if not actually the primary character.
And it should make us eager to read (and you eager to write) the second scene.
When you think about it, you realize that you can actually begin a story anywhere. Listen to what a wonderful writer, Margaret Visser, says in a dazzling book, The Geometry of Love: Space, Time, Mystery and Meaning in an Ordinary Church:
Often the “line” of connection in stories is pictured as a thread. (The word “line” itself comes from the Latin linea, a flaxen thread for making linen.) We speak of “spinning a yarn” and, if we become distracted, of “losing the thread” of the tale . . . . The word “text” has the same root as “textile” because a narrative is thought of as woven, out of threads.
And like a textile, like a piece of cloth, a story can be cut and assembled – or “woven,” to use her word – in an almost infinite number of ways.
So where will you begin to weave your story?
For your opening scene, I'd suggest you consider the following:
- Give us something to look at. Let the reader use his or her imagination to see something that captures attention.
- Get it moving. There's no reason a book's momentum shouldn't begin on the first page, or even in the first paragraph or the first sentence. Let the reader ride that momentum right into the story.
- Populate it. Get your characters on the page as soon as possible. Of course, there are always exceptions. James Michener started Hawaii with God only knows how many pages describing the geological events that created the chain of islands where his novel was set. Fissures opened in the seabed. Magma bubbled up and formed undersea volcanic mountains in microscopic increments. For thousands of years. Rain fell. Rain didn't fall. The mountains grew from their own eruptions. Surface rocks slowly, and I mean slowly, fragmented to become sand. You get the point. And my description isn't fair, because it worked. But he was James Michener, with dozens of novels and stories, literally millions of words, behind him. He had learned his craft to an extent that most of us only dream about. And, Elmore Leonard notwithstanding, there was a bunch of weather in there, too.
- Pick the right moment. Remember, you don't have to start at the beginning. It's your story – you can open it up anywhere you want. You can jump ahead to a point at which the action is beginning to rise and then, when the scene's done, back it up to an earlier point. Or you can find a moment at the very beginning when things begin to develop – perhaps a moment at which a character's world begins to change, whether he or she knows it or not.
- Establish the stakes. Whatever is at issue in the novel – or at least one of the things that's at issue, if there are several – should be introduced in the first scene. Lots of other writers would argue with this, and have, on a face-to-face basis, but I take the point of view that the reader doesn't have a decade to dedicate to your book. You owe the reader your best attempt to do several things at once, whenever possible: to move the story forward, deepen the characters, and focus on the stakes. You might as well begin with the first scene.
My Bangkok novel that's being published in June, A Nail Through the Heart opens with two crooks digging up a safe outside a mysteriously run-down Bangkok beside the Chao Phraya river. One of these two men will later become an important character, and the theft of the safe's contents sets into motion one of the primary threads in the fabric of the story. The book I'm writing now, The Million Dollar Minute, begins with a woman in line at a bank to make a substantial withdrawal from an extremely nervous teller who keeps looking past her to see if he's being observed through the window that opens onto the street. Both the woman and the teller will figure in the story, with different degrees of prominence. The money itself becomes a key element in the stakes.
Missing from the first scene of both these books is the series' main character, a Bangkok-based rough-travel writer named Poke Rafferty. But he's only one chapter away from his first appearance, and in both instances he's doing something that (I hope) is interesting. And in both books, the events of the two first chapters will give rise to the stakes that eventually threaten practically everything he lives for.
I could have chosen to begin either of these books at a dozen other places, but I chose these scenes after answering a series of questions about three or four possible starting points.
It might be interesting for you to go through the same exercise. This is pretty much what I did:
First, as I said, I chose several possible openings. Then I answered in writing, these questions:
- What's the first thing the reader sees or hears?
- Who are the first people the reader meets?
- Where are we physically? Is it an interesting place?
- How does the scene set up the story?
- How does it advance the story?
- What do we learn about the characters?
- Is the scene interesting in itself – is it strong enough to bring the reader into the book?
- Does it lead to an interesting second scene?
And one more thing – if your main character isn't introduced in an interesting fashion in the first chapter, make sure he or she is doing something interesting when he or she finally does claim space on the page.
2. What's a Scene? (And What's a Chapter?)
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“Most persons would succeed in small things if they were not troubled with great ambitions.”
-- Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
In the long run, I write novels. In the short run, I write scenes.
One of the things that ties people up when they sit down to write a novel is that they sit down to write a novel. For heaven's sake, lighten up,
You're not going to write a novel today. Or even this week, or probably this month. All you're going to do on a given day is move one or more characters from point A to point B, or halfway to point B, or make him or her realize that point B is someplace he or she wants to go. Or find an interesting way to describe an apartment house, or the sound that's made by stiff, sun-dried clothes hanging on a line when the wind stirs them. And that's a good day. If you can do that, day after day, you're eventually going to have a book.
Or, if you're really rolling, you might write an entire scene.
If the fundamental units of writing are words and sentences, the fundamental unit of the novel is the scene. I'm sure there's a formal literary definition for the word “scene,” but I have no idea what it is. For me, a scene is a unit of story in which something changes. It has a beginning, a middle, and an end, and at the end something is different than it was at the beginning. It may be a character or a situation, or just our understanding of a character or a situation, but whatever it is, it's changed when the scene is over.
A scene can be one person working something out. It can be two people talking something through. It can be three people throwing eggs at each other. It can be expositional, meaning that one character tells another something that he or she needs to know. It can be internal, meaning that it happens entirely inside a character. It can be action, which I assume doesn't need to be explained. Two people deciding to take a train is a scene. That bunch of villagers with torches storming Frankenstein's castle is a scene. Juliet's realization that Romeo is dead is a scene.
Something has changed when it's over.
The primary question I ask myself when I start to write a scene is whether it's the right scene. Is this really where I want to go next? Is there someplace else that might be better? How does the scene move the story along? What does it tell the reader about the characters or the central situation? How does it reflect what's at stake? Is it interesting and/or entertaining? If it isn't, do I need it? If I do need it, how can I make it interesting and/or entertaining?
Much of the time, when I fall apart in a scene and can't push it through to conclusion, it's because of one (or more) of the following:
- I'm making a character do something he or she wouldn't. I may have a predetermined idea of where the story should go next, and to get there I need to make a character do something that's inconsistent with who he or she is. This happens most frequently, as luck would have it, in the “big scenes” I've been looking forward to writing, scenes I had in mind when I began to write the book. In one case, in fact, the breakdown came in the scene that persuaded me to write the book in the first place. The problem was simple: when I first thought of the scenes, I hadn't written the characters yet – I didn't know them. When it came time to write the scene, I knew the characters inside out, and the scene didn't work. It was literally out of character. There's only one way to handle this – find a different way to write the scene. When it's a choice between character and story, character wins every time.
- I don't know enough about the other characters in the scene. This can hurt me two ways. First, the scene can be dull, especially if it's exposition. When there's a chunk of information to deliver, it's tempting to concentrate on the information instead of on the character who's delivering it. This is a big mistake. The more important the information is (I think), the more interesting the character should be. After all, I want the reader to remember this stuff. I don't want an essential nugget of information to read like the directions to assembling a barbecue.
Second, if I don't know the other characters in the scene, I'm cheating the reader and depriving myself of some potentially good material. It's easy, when I'm focused on my main character, to see the world exclusively from his or her point of view. When I do that, I tend to forget that everyone in the scene has a point of view. As far as the other characters are personally concerned, they haven't been stacked horizontally on some shelf somewhere waiting to be trotted out to reflect my central character's heat and light. They have lives. They've come from somewhere. They're going somewhere. They're not furniture. If I don't work on who they are, and allow them to be that on the page, I'm going to have a dead scene. And understanding their perspectives better will give me interesting new material – different ways to write the scene.
- I haven't defined the stakes in the scene well enough. Something, even if it's minor, should be at stake in every scene. Maybe it's whether to use butter or margarine when the in-laws come to dinner. Maybe it's whether to trust someone or shoot him through the head. I need to be clear on what it is, and I need to know how all my other characters feel about it. If I have one character lift a torch skyward and shout, “Together, men! To the castle!”, it's not much of a scene if everyone else stands around and nods. But if another guy in a jerkin says, “You're crazy, Ladislaw. There's a monster in there,” and then someone else (Verminous Peasant #3) says he'd really love to go along but his matches are wet, then I've got the beginning of a scene. At least there's something at stake and someone on various sides of the issue. Otherwise, it's like a tug-of-war with only one team; it's just a bunch of guys dragging a rope around. Not likely to keep the reader flipping the pages.
- It's just the wrong damn scene. When this happens, I usually try to write it three or four different ways. I begin it in a different place – usually a little later in the scene – and I try to analyze what the other characters should be doing, I re-examine the scene's importance to the story. I might try a different setting. I might try to set some sort of clock running to increase the urgency, or try to make it funny instead of serious, or plant a stick of dynamite under the dining-room table, but most of this kind of rewriting is like putting frosting on a fire hydrant – what's under there isn't cake, and anyone who takes a bite is going to find out, fast. Ultimately, it may be that there's only one thing to do: Tear it up and come up with a different scene. One of the nicest things about writing is that no one but you gets to go through your wastebasket.
And a Chapter Is . . .
Damned if I know.
Some writers don't use chapters at all. Their narratives unspool seamlessly, unblemished by page breaks and clever titles or unclever numbers. I personally like chapters. They reassure me. They tell me there are times when it's okay to close the book for a while, to go to the bathroom or talk to my wife. They remind me that I have a life, and it's okay to stop reading and do the necessary maintenance.
And when I'm writing, I find that scenes naturally arrange themselves into chapters. I don't know why, they just do. I always know when I've reached the end of a chapter. I usually know when a chapter is going on too long. Just don't ask me how I know.
But since I got myself into this, here's what a chapter is to me: It's a series of scenes that combine to move the story to a new point. It might trace an arc in the development of a character. It might be a sequence of events that makes it clear to a character (or to the reader) that there's no exit from the situation. It might literally take a character from one location to another. It might put another crocodile in the water. It might do any relatively important thing, but – as with a scene – something is different at the end of a chapter.
And, like a scene, a chapter should end with something that makes the reader want to keep going. I mean, if you're going to put that big expanse of nice clean white paper there, you need to throw the reader a line to make him or her want to cross it. And preferably, the line should have a hook at the end of it.
Since I realize this hasn't been very helpful, here's a suggestion. Take a book you like, and choose a chapter that contains several scenes. Do a synopsis – one or two sentences – of each scene, and note what changes occur in each. Then put them all together and ask yourself what the chapter as a whole accomplished. Ask yourself why the writer chose to end the chapter where he or she did. Ask yourself what's at the end of the chapter that will push the reader to go on to the next chapter.
One of the ways Raymond Chandler taught himself to write was by taking a novel by someone else – usually Erle Stanley Gardner, who created “Perry Mason” -- and changing the characters, the setting, and what was at stake, but keeping the structure, scene by scene. Gradually he began to develop a feel for the flow of a story, how to keep things moving, what to do about compressing or expanding time, how to keep the stakes in sight at all times – a whole backpack full of skills that a novelist needs to be able to grab whenever necessary. Then he went on to write some of the best American novels ever, books that – in retrospect – are much better than Erle Stanley Gardner's.
If it was good enough for Raymond Chandler . . .
3. To Outline or Not to Outline?
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“Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”
-- E.L. Doctorow
(Quoted by Anne Lamott)
Should you know your whole story when you begin your book?
Or should you simply have a good idea of what the book is about, who the main characters are, and what's at stake?
I know writers who believe they need to know everything and who create a detailed outline before they begin to write. Every scene, every plot twist, every revelation, is planned in advance. (Many of these writers came to the novel from film or television, where structure is God.)
And then I know writers (more of them, actually) who start with an interesting problem, a few characters they can learn to care about, a setting, and a sense of what the stakes are. They let the story unfold as they write it. They listen to their characters. They hold themselves open to new ideas. They don't actually know where they're going. If they have an ending in mind, they try repeatedly to top it as they write their way toward it.
I'm in the second camp. I personally can't stand to outline. My main problem is that I don't know my characters well enough until I've written about them at some length, and it doesn't work for me to try to force them into a story they might outgrow. I want them to grow as I write them, and then I want the story to grow out of them.
Someone once said, “We learn what we're writing about by writing about it.” For me, and for most of the other novelists I know, writing a novel is (to use an inelegant simile) like circling a drain. We start out by working around the edges of our story, and then the spiral narrows as the story, and our characters, become clearer to us. We center in on the things that really matter.
I also have to say that – for me – writing from an outline is no fun. I want to be surprised by what happens. I want my characters to develop in ways I didn't expect. I don't want to know how the story will end until it does. As Raymond Chandler believed, “the best way to stop the reader from guessing the end of a story was not to know how it ended yourself.” (Quoted from Raymond Chandler: A Biography, by Tom Hiney.)
So if you want to write from an outline, if you're not comfortable starting out until you have the entire road map in front of you, go ahead. But I can't be very helpful to you because I don't (and probably can't) work that way.
But that doesn't mean I start with nothing. Getting ready to write a book is, for me, as important a process as actually writing it. If I don't do this groundwork thoroughly, the odds are the book will sooner or later rear up and bite me, and if it does that often enough, I won't finish it.
Long before I begin to write a book, I begin to write about the book. I just open up and let it flow – no censorship, no self-criticism, no pressure. I write about the problem, the setting, the characters. I write biographies of the characters. I let them write about themselves, in the first person. I do a lot of work on what's at stake – what it is, why it matters, how each of the major characters stands on it. (I may even diagram that.) What's the worst that can happen, and to whom? What's the best possible outcome?
I make notes for possible scenes and, just for the hell of it, drop my major characters into those scenes and let them begin to talk to each other. (Quite a bit of this material later gets cut and pasted into the book, and then revised as necessary.) I give myself permission to make mistakes. Sometimes I make mistakes on purpose, trying out wildly improbable turns of events, writing scenes that have almost no chance of ever seeing the light of day. Why not? I'm the only person who'll ever read them.
Once in a while, one of these side-trips yields something extremely interesting, something I never would have thought of otherwise. (One of the main characters in A Nail Through the Heart, a street kid who calls himself Superman, came into existence as a result of this kind of intentional blundering around.)
This process goes on for quite a while, at least a few months. Eventually there will come a time when I have anywhere from 100 to 200 pages of noodling and I realize that I'm looking very hard at a possible opening scene. Then I open a new file, give it the title of the book, and write the scene.
There. I'm writing a book.
Granted, I don't know exactly where I'm going. I don't know (yet) exactly who my characters are. I don't know who will live and who will die, since I write those kinds of books. If I really allowed myself to think about it, it would probably scare me senseless.
There's a wonderful quotation from a Japanese director named Yoji Yamada, who wrote and directed an endless series of films about a decent, somewhat melancholy traveling salesman named Tora-San. Yamada says this:
“Sometimes it's necessary to make the leap and grow your wings on the way down.”
The amazing thing, for me and for many other writers, is that those wings do grow. What's more, they find the updrafts in the developing story and ride them, like hawks wheeling on the wind. They allow us to dive to the depths of the story, almost touch bottom, and soar up again. They keep us afloat until we reach the end, and we can fold them and rest.
So I put my trust in the process. I write a sentence and then another sentence, a paragraph and then another paragraph, a scene and then another scene. Sometimes it's just awful. The words weigh ten pounds each. The scenes refuse to develop. The characters say things that are supposed to be deeply meaningful – often a hundred words' worth or more – that boil down, essentially, into, “Duh.” I come to hate the entire book. I come to hate myself. I decide to buy a new computer. I decide to eat fourteen donuts. I scour the bathtub.
And then there are days when it's so much fun that I doubt it's legal. The material comes so fast that my fingers literally can't keep up. My characters actually seem to be smarter than I am, which is widely supposed to be impossible. And my understanding of the story deepens and deepens, and I realize it's reached my heart. And then I can really begin to write.
Odds are that, in the cold light of the next day I'll tear up half of it and write something else. Over the course of writing a 350-page novel, I'll probably write close to 2000 pages. Some of those pages will be pure gold, some will have a few good things, and some will be solid lead. But there's always a chance that even the most leaden page will have one teensy particle on it somewhere, sparkling like a fleck of ore in a miner's pan. If I take that little sparkler and work with it, it can take me someplace completely new.
Of course, “someplace completely new” can feel like a problem. Why am I suddenly spending so much time with this character? What is it about this house by the river that interests me so much? Why did my character do or say that, and what does it mean? Am I really going to drop this entire sub-plot? Where the hell am I going?
Here's something that virtually all novelists learn relatively quickly, but which can turn new writers into quivering lumps of protoplasm. I'm going to center it on the page so it jumps out at you if you're skimming this:
The novel you finish will not be the novel you started.
Here's something else:
you don't want it to be.
You want the writing process to be a journey of discovery. You want to listen to your characters. You want to be open to new ideas. You want to learn more about what you're writing as you write it. And no matter how strong your original idea was, you want to be in a position to accept – and be grateful for – a better one. And better ideas will come, if you write regularly and often and if you've got the courage to take a chance when one makes itself available to you.
When something new and revolutionary occurs to you, entertain it. Say hi. Give it a seat at the table. Pour it some coffee. Think about it. Write about it. Where will it lead you? Is it good for your characters? For your story? For the stakes? What will you lose? What will you gain? Is this a wrong turn, a short cut, or a map to new and valuable territory?
Unless it seems to be a fundamental violation of your idea – in its purest and most basic form – go ahead. Write the hell out of it. It may be the discovery that powers the rest of your book into being. It may give you the fresh excitement you need to keep writing. It may be the thing that lets you finish your book.
And, by the way, these kinds of ideas often require a writer to go back and change things in the portion of the book that was written before the new inspiration materialized. This is not cheating. We all do it. It's part of the creative process. But I'd strongly suggest that you go back and do it later. For now, follow the new vein of gold and mine it for all it's worth.
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“'Some fifteen billion years ago . . . all the [universe's] matter and energy were condensed to a point' and then there was an almighty Big Bang.”
-- Simon Singh, Ph.D.
The Big Bang
How far back do we have to go to begin our story? How far back should we go? And, on a practical level, how do we work into our story the necessary information and events that happened before the story began?
In her book on writing, Bird By Bird, Anne Lamott credits writer Alice Adams with the ABDCE plot breakdown: Action, Background, Development, Climax, Ending. Most of those are self-explanatory – begin with an Action that engages your reader's attention; Develop the situation; take it to a Climax; and wrap it all up at the End.
The lug-nut in the beef stew, for me, at least, is background.
I mean, when do you supply it? And how?
If we were to begin every story at the actual beginning, we'd have pages and pages of uninteresting but vitally important background. All the things that explain why our characters react as they do. Geopolitical and socioeconomic info about what's at stake. The geological history of the Hawaiian Islands. All the fascinating stories from the writer's own childhood that have been loaned to his or her characters.
Male readers would probably have to shave before the action begins. And then they'd wander off and turn on the TV.
All this stuff, these gobs of information about the characters, the setting, and the issues, is called exposition. And the problem is that we need to know it, but we don't particularly want to read it. Especially in bulky clots that stop the flow of the story.
In practice, very few novels begin with the Big Bang. Most writers start to tell their story around the time that the primary immediate action commences. One of the challenges is to keep things moving while making sure the vital background is available to the reader. Another is to make all that vital background interesting.
The thing I try to keep in mind is that readers don't need to know everything until well into the book. Background information can be reserved until it's called for. I don't need readers to know that my central character memorized the World Book at the age of twelve for them to follow a scene in which that character falls downstairs. If the first three chapters of your novel show Sally going about her work unaware that her co-workers are plotting against her, we probably don't need to know that her childhood was scarred by her failure to win the Girl Scout Merit Badge for Post-Feminist Literary Deconstruction. We'll need to know it later if it's essential to understanding her character, but we readers probably don't need to know it yet.
There will come a time when we do need to know it, and when we do, you can parcel it out, as you will all the other necessary material. The question is how.
One method is to take the reader back in time, to Sally's childhood, and tell the story there. It's probably best to set these snippets apart with what's called a page break, an incredibly versatile device made up of a double double-space – just a snippet of blank page to tell the reader that something new is coming. (These are also essential between scenes.) When you start to tell a piece of the background story, you need to give it the same kind of attention you give to a scene. One approach is to start with an attention-getting detail: When Sally was twelve, she had a secret drawer in her bedroom. Her diary was in plain sight, where her mother could see it. The drawer was full to overflowing with the flashlight batteries she used every night to read in bed. (Please understand that I'm not trying to pass this off as good writing. It's barely writing at all.)
If that approach works for you, you can treat this background information as a longer story and break it at a cliffhanger every time. That way, the next time an installment comes up, your reader won't roll his or her eyes, or, worse, close them. It will become something to look forward to.
Or you can trigger a reminiscence prompted by something in the present. Sally's eye was drawn by the badly darned hole in the sleeve of the girl's blouse. She sometimes wondered if her chronic desire to achieve was a remnant of the fierceness with which she pursued the Girl Scout merit badges that covered the holes in her own blouses. Okay, that's pretty awful, especially since Girl Scouts wear their merit badges on their uniforms. But you know what? Now I have something to rewrite. It can only get better. Repeat after me: The enemy is not the awful page, it's the empty page.
One of the least painful ways to deal with exposition is to work it into scenes. You need to be careful here, though. There has to be a reason for people to explain things to each other. They need some good reason to unburden their souls. They're under duress. There comes a time in your story when a lie can't be allowed to survive a moment longer. What it absolutely cannot be is a bunch of stuff both characters already know and have no earthly need to say aloud. A writer friend of mine, Stan Cutler, sums up this kind of writing perfectly with a single line of dialog: “As you know, Ken, I'm your father.”
I just read a book by a writer whom I admire greatly – I've read every one of his many novels – in which a bunch of bad guys who are plotting something terrifically complicated bring into the room someone to whom they explain the entire scheme, in detail and at extraordinary length, practically all the way back to Noah's flood. Then they kill him. Work for you? It didn't for me, either.
Let's say you've got some information about a major character that the major character would never reveal. Or can't, because it was so traumatic she's blocked it from her memory. Or wouldn't because she doesn't understand its importance. Or let's say there's a piece of your story that no major character knows, and you've got to bring it into the light. That's when you might bring in a minor character – the shopkeeper on the corner, the eyewitness, the third-grade teacher of your now-adult heroine – and give him or her the scoop, and then dig it out.
These can be tricky scenes. You want to put some work into that character. She can't just have a button that says PLAY on her chest that your questioner can push, and then sit back and listen. The more memorable that character is, the more memorable the information would be. You want that scene to have stakes of its own: the person with the information is reluctant to share it, feels like it's a betrayal, is ashamed of it, distrusts the person who's asking the questions, is afraid she'll harm the character about whom the questions are being asked. Your questioner needs to work for the information, and that information should have some kind of urgent importance so the questioner has his or her own stakes.
In other words, it has to satisfy the requirements of any other good scene – and maybe a little more so, because its actual purpose is to stand aside from the action of the novel long enough to fill in some blanks.
In my novel A Nail Through the Heart, I did myself a great service (actually at the suggestion of my agent) by setting the story about twelve weeks after the huge tsunami that swept over so much of coastal Southeast Asia. That meant that virtually all the minor characters who supplied so much of the book's background information were struggling with issues of their own – loss, bereavement, trying to figure out how (and why) to go on. I can't tell you how much that contributed to the effectiveness and interest value of those expository scenes. It gave them heart.
Exposition is a necessary evil. It's the writer's goal to turn it into an asset.
5. What we leave out
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“Don't write the parts readers skip.”
-- Elmore Leonard
All writing is a process of selection. What is left out is often as important to the flow of the story as what is left in.
As writers, we select the basic idea, and then certain aspects of that idea. We select the characters who will live out the idea. We select the details of their behavior that tell us about them. We select the bits and pieces of the settings that work for the story.
Every time we select something, we discard, by eliminating it as unnecessary, something else. What we're going to look at here is a certain kind of story material you can skip to keep the reader turning the page.
Many new writers try to write everything. The telephone conversations in their book begin with dialing and end with hanging up. They give us every word and pause in between. First-rate writers face this problem when they start out, too. Raymond Chandler once said of one of his early characters, “I could hardly get his hat off.” According to Chandler's biographer, Tom Hiney, “it was two to three years before he could get a character out of a room convincingly.”
And Chandler was a great writer.
Let's go back to that phone call. Jack (he's baaaaaack!) needs to find out whether his seven trillion-dollar takeover bid for the patent to a random fingerprint generator has been accepted. Here's one way to handle it.
Jack picked up the phone, checked his daybook, and punched in seven numbers: 555-1248. He lifted the receiver to his ear and listened, putting his hand over his other ear even though the office was quiet. He waited. The phone on the other end made a burring sound: once, twice, three times. The third ring was interrupted. “Mr. Exposition's office,” said a female voice.
“Is he there?” Jack said.
“Jack Spaulding. It's urgent.”
“One moment.” Jack listened to the Rolling Stone's “Under My Thumb” played by a string quartet until Exposition said, “Jack?”
“What did they say?” The phone was slick with sweat in Jack's hand.
“No go,” Exposition said.
Jack's blood pressure tripled. “What do you mean, no go?”
. . . The conversation continues as they hatch a plan to steal the machine,.
Here's another way:
“What do you mean, no go? The phone was slick with sweat in Jack's hand and he could feel his blood pressure triple.
. . . The conversation continues as they hatch a plan to steal the machine.
Two questions: First, given that you're likely to live only 65 or 70 years, which version would you rather read? And second, did the second version eliminate anything that actually mattered?
This technique can be called starting late. It's a great way to cut directly to the rising action in a scene without having to go through all the preliminaries. It cuts away all the connective tissue, some of which is, inevitably dull. And anyway, people already know how to dial a phone, how to turn a doorknob and push or pull the door open, how to get into a car, or how to get something out of a wallet.
If we absolutely have to mention the wallet, it should do something else. For example:
Jack worked the card out of his wallet. It took some doing – it had been stuck in there ever since the day the hogs ate grandma.
Okay, now we're getting somewhere. Why had the card been in there, undisturbed, all that time? What is it? What kind of a card does someone slip into his wallet on the day his grandmother was eaten by hogs?
Generally speaking, we can leave out lots of commonplace action that the reader will assume the character had to perform anyway – unless some aspect of it tells us something else.
Scenery is nice. Trains go through it. We stop and take pictures of it, and then we never look at them again, unless we want to use them as a slide show to torment our friends.
A few scenic details in a novel can help to establish a setting. More than that is usually dead weight – unless it somehow reflects our characters or tells them something about them.
Since readers do skip things, even really fascinating material, you may have skipped the section called “Setting as character.” If you did, let me share once again two ways to write Dolores's trip uptown.
Riding uptown in the Lincoln town car, Dolores passed Tiffany and Prada and the magical toy emporium of FAO Schwartz.
Modestly interesting for shopaholics, I suppose, but it would be a lot more interesting if it had something to do with Dolores. For example:
Riding uptown in the Lincoln town car, Dolores allowed the smooth leather of the seat to calm her. She checked her fingernails as they passed the glittering art deco spire of the Chrysler building but sat forward as Tiffany, Prada, and FAO Schwartz slid by.
We've now seen the scenery and we know that Dolores is upset about something (between you and me, it's Jack, and who wouldn't be?) and we've learned that she's more interested in brand names than she is in great architecture.
To put it broadly, scenery is an inert element unless it somehow reflects our characters' lives, tells us something about them, or is an actual element in the story. I would not, for example, advise a writer doing a book about a tragic mountain-climbing expedition to go light on the descriptions of the mountain.
And then there's time
I personally have more trouble with time than any of the other kinds of skippable material. It took me hundreds of thousands of words even to begin to get a handle on it, and I still confront the vast acreage of my ignorance every time I write a chapter.
Let's say that Jack has intercepted a letter from the inventor of the random fingerprint generator, written to a colleague. Jack is sure that the letter contains the secret of this potential goldmine of a machine. Unfortunately, he can't follow what it says, because the person to whom it was written already knew an enormous amount about the enterprise, so key details are missing. Let's also say that this letter is a brilliant invention on your part to put things in a holding pattern for three days while some other stuff happens in the story – stuff that can't plausibly happen in a shorter time. You need those three days. How do you write them?
Well, one way would be to follow Jack through them as he agonizes over the letter, tries all sorts of solutions, reads it backward, x-rays it, and then – finally – takes it to a scientist who might be able to fill in the details. This could take ten to twelve pages (maybe more) and might be interesting if you really know a lot about how to probe documents for their secrets – and if your reader is fascinated by the topic. Ultimately, though, even if you manage to make it interesting, the action leads nowhere, and Jack winds up doing what he probably should have done in the first place: He takes it to an expert.
Another way would be to use the miraculous device called the page break that we talked about in the section on “Exposition.” It's just a double double-space, and it has more uses than the wheel. One of them is to denote the passage of time. So here's a way to handle Jack's problem with that letter.
Jack refolded the letter for the thirtieth time and put it on the bed-table. He turned out the light and settled back. Surely, when he woke in the morning, it would all be clear.
Seventy-two hours later, the letter split in half along the longer fold, and Jack admitted defeat. He got the phone number of the forensic science department at the city university, slipped the letter back into his pocket, and dialed.
See? Those three days went away. What did you lose? Probably a bunch of material that your editor, if your novel gets published, would later ask you to cut.
Whenever you find yourself a little bored by what you're writing, or whenever it's really slowing things down, ask yourself whether you really need what you're writing. If not, lose it. It'll not only make the book flow better, it'll keep you interested enough to keep writing.
6. Listening to your characters
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“The poor novelist constructs his characters, he controls them and makes them speak. The true novelist listens to them and watches them function; he eavesdrops on them even before he knows them. It is only according to what he hears them say that he begins to understand who they are.”
-- André Gide
This should really be titled, “Listening to (and watching) your characters,” because often they'll show us something about themselves and your story by doing something rather than by talking. But who am I to argue with André Gide? He's right. Most of the time they explain themselves by talking.
It's hard for some beginning writers to understand that character can take on lives of their own, that they can surprise their own creators. All I can say, is take my word for it. If you've put some work into your fictional people, at some point in the writing of your book, they will begin to move around on their own. Like two-year-olds, they'll develop wills of their own. They'll become sharper and sharper in your mind. On occasion, they'll take charge of the book.
It happens every time, even if it doesn't happen every day.
The key, I think, is for the writer to explore the characters thoroughly and then remain flexible and open. Michelangelo once said something to the effect that the way he created a sculpture was to cut away all the extra marble. In other words, as far as he was concerned, the form was already in there, hidden in that block of stone, waiting to be brought into the open air.
Many, many writers say they feel, when they're writing, that the story already exists somewhere, complete and perfect, and their job is to find their way to it and get it down – as opposed to making it up. And since stories are really just characters doing things, the way the story often presents itself to a writer is through the characters.
I know this probably sounds sort of New Age, and I've made a determined effort in this section of the site to remain practical and to stay away from lighting candles, burning sage to clear the negativity from the corners of your writing space, hiring a professional channel to converse with your characters, and some of the other semi-mystical rituals some people recommend to open a time and space for creative energy. (To be honest, though, if any of these things helped me to prepare myself for writing, I'd be in line at Costo, buying candles in bulk.)
I'll admit it: I don't have any idea how these people I make up suddenly begin to move and talk and think. All I know is that when it happens, I should grab on for dear life.
When they start to talk, I've learned to listen.
Here's an example from my own writing, which I've chosen not because it's particularly wonderful, but because it pole-axed me when it happened. (I could have said, “When I wrote it,” but it didn't feel like I was writing it at all. It felt like I should have learned shorthand to get it all down fast enough.)
Not long ago, I wrote a graphic novel. Its central character is a beautiful sixteen-year-old girl named Angel, who happens to kill people for a living. Other than that, she's a relatively normal girl – if anything, she's unusually socially backward, uncomfortable with intimacy of any kind, and uneasy around boys. (There's a reason for this that the reader learns later in the book.)
One of the boys in the story falls in love with her. After they've shared a couple of near-death experiences, he gets personal. He asks her how she feels about killing people. I had meant simply to write a scene in which Angel evades the question, demonstrating how difficult it is for her to share anything that really means anything to her. Instead, this is what happened.
The boy, Solo, presses her to answer the question. He says, “So?
“So what did I feel?” Angel says. “Not much of anything. I was scared at first, but then I realized how helpless I look, and I relaxed. It wasn’t that hard, usually. People die easy.”
“I’m not talking about them, I’m talking about you.”
“Yeah, but it’s kind of odd. I mean, people sell their time to stay alive, they sell themselves, they fight like cats when they feel threatened. But when it comes time to die, there’s no high wall there, no big burst of music, not even a dotted line. Whatever it was that made them alive, it just slips away. Like steam, you know? You lift the lid on a pot of hot water, and steam escapes. And then it’s gone. It doesn’t hover over the pot or go wooo-wooo or anything, it just vanishes. Dying is kind of like that. The livingness evaporates without even a poof, and what’s left is meat.”
He puts a finger on the tip of her nose. “What a romantic chat.”
Angel says, “Well, you asked.”
“Actually, I didn’t. But you don’t want to answer the question I did ask.”
“No,” she says. “I don’t.”
No matter what your critical reaction is to Angel's speech, the point is that I had no idea it was coming. When it was finally there, on the page, I stared at it for three or four minutes. My reaction was, pretty much, “Whaaaaat?” And then bang, it opened up an entire aspect not only of Angel's personal world, which is pretty rough, but of the physical and moral world in which the story takes place. And it also revealed to me that Angel needs to defend herself against the full knowledge of what she is, and this idea, this conviction that life is as ephemeral as steam, is one way she does it.
That speech affected the way I wrote Angel throughout the book. And there were similar moments with every major character in the book, and most of the minor ones.
This happens in every book. If it hasn't happened to you, yet, keep writing. It will.
Here's the kicker: Sometimes what a character says or does will stop you cold. It'll wreck your scene. It'll make you realize that you can't make this character do what he or she is “supposed” to do. Your plot itself may be in danger.
When that happens, you have only two choices, as far as I'm concerned. You can back up and try to create an entirely new character, one that will play your way, or you can throw out your much-cherished story point and go with the characters.
If you ignore your characters' resistance and force them to do what you want, you've stopped writing a novel. You're staging a puppet show. You're in danger of writing the kind of plot-driven drivel I referred to earlier, in a piece you probably skipped: the horror movie where all the characters are trapped in a house with someone or something that's trying to kill them, and they all decide it would be a great idea to go to their rooms and spend the night alone. Where they can be killed one at a time. Where they haven't got the chance of a paper plane in a hurricane.
When I see characters behave like this, I stop reading. If you make your characters behave like this, I think there's an excellent chance that you'll stop writing.
It may seem like it boils down to a choice between characters and story: preserve that plot, and if you have to, ignore your characters. But I want to suggest strongly, one more time, that the truth is that story is what characters do.
Listen to your characters. You ignore them (or mess with them) at your peril.
7. The shape of your story
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“Forget everything you have ever learned about structure, and sit down and start writing.”
-- V.S. Naipaul
Okay, I got that out of my system.
There is no “ideal” structure. For every half-dozen classically-structured stories in three, four, or five acts stories, there’s at least one exception: a story that start in the middle, that meanders from place to place, stories that goes in circles. And some of them work.
There are dozens of theories about structure, many of them pretty rigid. Rising action, falling action, resolution; the classic paradigm of the hero's journey; Alice Adams' ABDCE (action, background, development, climax, ending). Every year, at least five or six books a year offer another theory of story structure.
But all story structures have three things in common: a beginning, a middle and an end. I personally think this is all you need to keep in mind.
Each of these sections needs to accomplish certain things. Since Shakespeare is the greatest writer who ever picked up a pen, let’s take Hamlet as an example. If you're not familiar with the play, I apologize, but what the hell, you ought to read it.
Introduces main character(s): (Hamlet, Ghost of Hamlet’s father, Claudius, Gertrude, Ophelia)
Establishes physical setting – where, when (Elsinore Castle, in Denmark, a long time ago). Also creates emotional setting – fear and soul-sickness – with the very first lines of dialogue:
Barnardo: Who’s there?
Francisco: Nay, answer me. Stand and unfold yourself.
Bernardo: Long live the King!
. . .
Francisco: For this relief much thanks.
I am bitter cold and sick at heart.
Establishes the back-story, if necessary. (Murder of Hamlet’s father – some information revealed very early on, by the Ghost, talking to Hamlet; some distributed through later scenes; remember the vividness of the murder in the play-within-a-play.)
Action and/or complications lead to the first crisis or reversal: (In this case, the meeting with the Ghost is both; it turns Hamlet’s world upside-down. Hamlet immediately swears all those who have seen the Ghost to secrecy and announces to Horatio his plan to behave as though he were mad, thus giving himself room to act without arousing the murderer's suspicion.)
Progressive story complications take place: these complications may arise from within the character him/herself (Hamlet’s assumption of madness, and his hesitation to act); from interactions with other characters (Polonius spying behind the curtain), Claudius's suspicion of Hamlet; or from the outside world (the shipwreck, the entrance of Fortinbras).
The crisis – the potentially most devastating reversal – takes place. (Hamlet confronts his mother and shames her, and then, thinking the person hiding behind a curtain is Claudius, accidentally murders Polonius.)
- Final actions arise from the crisis. (Ophelia’s suicide, Claudius’ attempt to have Hamlet killed; the deaths of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern; the duel with Laertes, the poisoned foil and the poisoned cup.)
- The climax – the final, world-changing event – takes place. (The duel in which Hamlet and Laertes are fatally wounded, Gertrude drinks from the poisoned cup, and Hamlet kills Claudius.
- Resolution and restoration of order: (Fortinbras quite literally restores order by claiming the throne.)
These three sections contain huge amounts of story. (Shakespeare broke the play into five acts, but in modern performance it's often played as three.)
Think of your own story in these terms. Odds are pretty good it'll arrange itself into this pattern on its own, but you want to be aware of where you are in the structure. Generally speaking, in the beginning, you want to introduce all your main characters and set up all the issues. It's absolutely mandatory to establish the stakes here. All your story elements, including subplots, should begin in this section, although it's okay to set the stage in this section for a subplot that takes off in the middle of the book. And, perhaps most important, you need to get the primary action underway.
In the middle, we'll watch the characters develop, we'll see complications arise in the story, we'll get some backstory, and we'll see the stakes increase. We'll almost undoubtedly get to know the antagonist better, unless you're writing a classic mystery, where the antagonist isn't identified until the climax. If you're thinking in terms of pace, usually it's fast in the beginning and then slows some into the middle, when it picks up again and then goes like a bat out of hell through the end.
The end weaves together all the strands of the story, brings the stakes to full boil, and rises to the climax, the incident or act that settles scores, reveals the truth, and paves the way to the final resolution.
One more thing. Writing the beginning of a novel is usually an enormous amount of fun. The end is often a roller-coaster; the writer just does his or her best to ride it.
Writing the middle, on the other hand, often sucks. We'll look at the reasons for that next.
8. The dread middle
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“The writer is always at the mercy of his story.”
-- George V. Higgins
It's kind of a shame there's no way to skip writing the middle of a novel. Writing would be much easier if only readers would settle for a crack-up beginning, then a nicely typeset page that says something like, “Then a bunch of stuff happens,” followed by an absolutely slam-bang ending.
But they won't. They've shelled out for that book, or gone all the way to the library to get it, and they want a middle. It's unreasonable, but there it is.
You have to write the damn thing.
A million pages ago, at the beginning of this incredibly long section of the site, I used the metaphor that you marry the idea behind your book. To pursue the marriage metaphor to unreasonable length, the beginning is the honeymoon. Anything is possible, it's all fresh and new, the entire world sparkles with potential energy. The ending is the golden years. You and your characters have learned all about each other. You're comfortable working together. You understand – you feel – their hopes and dreams. There's a final goal in sight, and you finally know how to achieve it.
The middle is divorce time.
Look. By the time you reach the middle of your book, you've made literally hundreds of basic creative decisions – about your characters, your story, the stakes, your setting, the tone of the narrative, on and on. For better or for worse, you’re committed to all these things. You can't just decide, “This would be interesting,” and change them on a whim. You can't make up new rules. There comes a time when the basic idea no longer seems so fresh, the action seems to sag a little, the characters are yellowing around the edges, and you are forced to go through the ups and downs – the sheer gruntwork – of pushing a manuscript along. You endure writer's block, anxiety, sneering from your inner critics, the sense of having lost your way in a wilderness of words.
If you're not careful, you can develop a blind, unreasoning hatred of every idea, scene, setting, character, line of dialog, word, space, and punctuation mark in the manuscript.
And what happens then? You quit.
We're going to talk in the next section, “Getting Out of Trouble,” about ways to deal with some of the specific issues that often arise during the writing of the Dread Middle. For now, some general observations:
- Everyone else goes through this, too. This includes your favorite novelists in the whole wide world. But they finish. So can you.
- Life will go on. If you keep working, even if all you do is write about the problem you're facing, you'll eventually see daylight. A character will surprise you. You'll find a way to start a few scenes that actually makes them fun to write. Some of your confusion will clear up, and you'll realize that there actually is a path through your story. So what if it's not the path you originally had in mind? It's probably a better one.
- Have faith. You're engaged in a creative enterprise of the first order. Nobody ever said it would be easy. You can do it – as long as you don't quit.
- Narrow your focus. Don't worry about the whole book. Do one scene at a time. If it stinks, write it again. If that stinks, write a different scene that attempts to do the same thing. If that stinks, skip ahead to a scene you've been looking forward to writing, and do that one.
- Don't get stuck on little stuff. Can't find the exchange of dialog you need? Can't rattle up a memorable description of a character? Don't know what somebody's living room looks like, and you need to describe it as a way of presenting something about her character? Rhubarb it. That's my all-purpose “let's get past this” term, based on what background characters in radio dramas used to say when crowd noise was needed. If a bunch of people say, “rhubarb” at slightly different times and at random speeds, it sounds like a general hubbub. When I get to something that has the potential to derail me, I write, “rhubarb” a couple of times and move on. Then, later, when my anxiety is under control, I have my computer find “rhubarb.” and I fill it in.
All of this boils down to two points. First, you're probably going to have trouble with the middle of your book. Second, you can get through it.
After all, the only really wrong way to write the middle of your book is not to write it. Anything else can be improved upon.