Category Archives: Fiction Techniques

Posts about specific techniques

‘Realistic’ dialogue

I recently read a draft of a colleague’s story. I was thoroughly enjoying the tension, the mystery, the literary craft of the tale – until, a third of the way into the story, the focal character began to speak.

He was an old man fold yorkshire manrom an English country area, and the writer had him using the idiomatic expressions of his class and county in a manner she later assured me was authentic: her great-uncles had spoken exactly that way.

Not only did the character speak entirely in dialect expressions, he also said exactly what one would expect him to say in his situation – his dialogue was made up of clichés. A fiercely independent old codger, he was refusing to go into a nursing home, and constantly made statements like ‘There’s life in me old bones yet’. My colleague reminded me that people do speak in clichés quite a lot: they’re the expressions that spring to mind because we’ve heard them so often. The dialogue, she insisted, was ‘realistic’. She’s probably right.

The problem is that, as a reader, I was jarred out of the ‘reality’ of the story the moment I began to read this character’s dialogue. My suspension of disbelief was shattered; instead of remaining immersed in the fictional world, I surfaced. For me, the tone of the story shifted abruptly from literary fiction to caricature. I can identify two reasons for this.

Firstly, we’re all accustomed to minor characters in novels, films, and (especially) TV shows, speaking entirely in clichéd colourful expressions to indicate their local, low-class status. Along with costume, it’s a short-hand way to tell the reader or viewer ‘this is all you need to know about this character – he or she is the equivalent of a Shakespearian mechanical, performing a function in the plot’. I’m sure there are real West Country people who say ‘Happen we mun’ do this or that. There are certainly real Australians – my dad among them – who say ‘Blimey Charlie’ and ‘strike a light’, but I know that as soon as I put these expressions in a character’s mouth, the Australian reader’s mind will switch from literature to television. Americans might consider their reaction to ‘Boy howdy’ or ‘Git along now’. We’re all steeped in the convention that certain geographically-linked idiomatic expressions indicate a particular kind of character not to be taken seriously.

Secondly, when a character who speaks a local dialect is intended to be taken seriously, the writer signals this, and uses various techniques to encourage the reader to look beyond the character’s surface presentation. The character usually won’t speak in clichés or catch-phrases: he or she will say things that are startling, provocative, evasive, intriguing, strange, witty, or otherwise unexpected. Sometimes, especially in genres like noir, thriller or police drama, the character speaks very little actual dialogue. Sometimes the character has a high degree of control over his or her use of language – a good example is Donna Leon’s Commissario Brunetti, who chooses carefully whether to speak Italian, English or Venetian in any given situation, and consciously makes his accent and choice of vocabulary coarser or more refined depending on the effect he’s aiming to have on his interlocutors.

So, in literary fiction, we expect to see sophistication in the use of language, within the character’s dialogue, or at least in the interplay between dialogue and what happens around it. The fact that a character speaks in dialect or local idiom doesn’t disqualify him or her from the role of central character – but the writer needs to be aware of how cross-media conventions can undermine the desired effect of a character’s speech.

I’m reminded of a satirical scene I once saw, in which a writer’s work is being produced for television. The scene calls for a horse, so the writer is startled to see a saddled cow being led onto set. ‘It’s okay,’ the director assures the writer. ‘Horses don’t look like horses on TV; we have to use cows, cunningly painted.’ ‘What do you use for cows, then?’ ‘Two actors in a suit.’ Numerous sound effects for radio are produced by means other than the obvious: the sound of a farm gate closing can be mimicked by shutting up an ironing board, ice clinking in a glass may actually be dominoes, and kneeling on a pile of old cassette tape while squelching your hands in a bowl of yoghurt then dropping a wet towel off your shoulder creates a good approximation of a lamb being born (http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p00z44ff). Apparently, a microphone stuck down a geyser near Rotorua produces the sound of the inner workings of Mordor – but at least that makes sense.mordor

My point is, medium places demands on content. For fiction purposes, it’s not enough to write ‘realistic’ dialogue. As writers’ self-help books constantly remind us, in ‘real’ speech people um and ah, don’t complete their sentences, leave out key words, talk over one another, and sometimes say nothing at all, yet meaning is conveyed in a conversation through tone, gesture, facial expression and so on. These aspects of communication can only be reproduced in a limited way as words on paper. And, of course, in a piece of writing it’s not just the participants in the conversation who must understand each other: the reader needs to process the conversation in the context of the characters and their wider situation. So as writers creating characters, we must ask more of our dialogue than mere ‘realism’.

An exercise:

Look at a piece of your recent writing that features dialogue. Think about what is conveyed to the reader about each character through their speech: the words they use, the length and grammatical correctness of their sentences, the use of idiomatic expressions or slang, and so on. Does the dialogue ‘place’ the character in terms of age, gender, social background, geographical location, and so on? Does the character adjust his or her speech to suit different situations? If your character uses clichés, what effect do these have on the reader – do they build character or undermine it? Are any aspects of the dialogue working against your purposes as the writer of this story? Discuss with a writing buddy or reflective reader.

Want more content like this? Andrea also writes for Fiction Southeast – check out her column, “Write Now”, under Essays/Articles at http://fictionsoutheast.com

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Some treasures require digging

pirate treasure mapI’m tutoring Short Story at uni this semester, and encountering some interesting issues in the classroom. As my students read published short stories and one another’s work, I often hear the complaint that part of a story is “confusing”, that something “jars” or a particular sentence seems “random”. Closer inspection will reveal the seemingly random sentence as a vital clue to the meaning of the whole piece, so-called confusion as a question you must read on to answer, and allegedly jarring notes as moments of modulation. In other words the students protest against complexity, mystery, paradox, contradiction and multiplicity of meaning – everything that, from my point of view, makes a story compelling.

These young readers seem to expect instant understanding of a text: they want to glean everything that’s there from a quick skim. They don’t want to stop and think, or (heaven forbid) re-read anything. One student told me yesterday he likes stories to unfold like films – smoothly, consistently, with events happening one after another. I was reminded of an interview with Lee Childs, in which he said his readers don’t have to do anything but strap themselves in for the ride.

On the other hand, the same student said he also enjoys stories which force him to the dictionary to look up words he doesn’t know. So while these folks may not be exactly open to literary challenges, I’ll lever at the chinks. Hopefully they’ll have gained a new perspective by the end of semester: all the short stories for class study are complex works that reward close reading, re-reading, and contemplation.

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Dear Diary

diary

For my current YA novel, Still Water, I’m using a “diary” structure. This has its pros and cons. Some pros:

  • The diary form provides a good justification for first person narration, very popular in YA fiction. The reader is placed in the position of the diary – the recipient of the protagonist’s confidences. This creates a very personal connection between protagonist and reader, since the protagonist is sharing her most private and powerful thoughts and feelings, including internal conflicts. Being placed in the role of sympathetic “listener” predisposes the reader to identify with and care about the protagonist.
  • The form emphasises the passage of time, while allowing flexibility in the way events are narrated. My protagonist, Storm usually brings her diary up to date a couple of times a day. However, sometimes she’s writing in the middle of an unfolding drama, while other times days go past before she updates her diary.  I like the variety this brings to the narrative.
  • We get a sense of immediacy in our relationship with the protagonist. We get to “see” where Storm is, who she’s with and what she’s feeling at the moment of writing (like a FB update!) and also to hear about what’s happened in the past few hours or days to bring her to this point. Sometimes she’ll say at lunchtime, “This afternoon I’m going to try this“, then at dinnertime “That didn’t work! Let me tell you what happened…”  The mix of past-tense and present-tense narration keeps things interesting.
  • The diary is a tool for showing changes in the protagonist’s mental state, not just through the content of what she writes, but through the form. Longer or shorter diary entries, frequency of entries, length and completeness of sentences, punctuation or lack of it, repetitiveness, misspellings, and so on can show that the protagonist is upset, angry, confused, semi-conscious, borderline psychotic – whether she tells us or not.
  • The diary form lends itself to a sense of continuity – that the protagonist has a life beyond this particular novel. I’m planning a prequel and a sequel to Still Water, which I don’t think I’d have had the urge to do if the novel wasn’t in diary form. Storm explains at the start that she’s been diarizing for the past year, while hospitalised for depression and self-harm. This “new” diary begins when she leaves hospital. Now, as her author, I’m curious to read her hospital diary – and I’m also interested in what happens next, after this one ends. I’m hoping her readers will be equally inquisitive!

However, the diary form also raises some challenges. So far I’ve identified these:

  • Some readers consider the diary form to be overused, particularly since the 1990s, so a novel in this form now seems “old hat”. (Personally I can’t say I feel that, but some people do).
  • If your protagonist is keeping a diary quite conscientiously, it’s reasonable for the reader to ask why? Does she expect someone else to read it someday? Does she feel she’s participating in historically important events that someone should chronicle? Is she collecting raw material for her memoir? Is it a school project? Or just a way of coping with the stresses of life? Especially today when many people blog or micro-blog rather than keep a diary, it may be important that your protagonist has a reason for journalling – and this reason can also add another dimension to the character/story.
  • Switching between past-tense and present-tense narration can feel “clunky” or jarring, unless carefully managed.
  • The diary form privileges the protagonist’s view of things so completely it can be a challenge to show the reader anything else. The protagonist is more interesting if she doesn’t fully understand herself and her own actions. Other characters are more interesting if the reader can see things about them that the protagonist is blind to. As the author, sometimes you want to share a secret with the reader without letting the protagonist in on it. This can be tricky in diary form – but it’s fun!
  • Because your protagonist is placed explicitly in the role of narrator, mediating or translating events for the diary/reader, it can be easy to slip into using the protagonist as a mouthpiece for your own views. Readers are quick to detect preachiness. It’s especially important in a diary to maintain the voice of the protagonist consistently, and this can be challenging if he/she is very different from you the author in age, sex, socio-economic status, cultural-linguistic background, etc.

How about you – have you written in diary form? Or read novels that use a diary structure? What inspires you about this form? What challenges you? What solutions have you found to these challenges?

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Kathy Stewart on building suspense

Great post on tension and building suspense, from Kathy Stewarthere. Loads of information delivered very succinctly.

Writing Novels in Australia is an engaging, informative blog, well worth a visit. It’s a group blog on which a range of Australian authors write a monthly post on ther novel writing. 2012 is dedicated to first-time novelists.

I’m enjoying hearing from these novelists about their process – their frustrations, inspirations, challenges, strategies and triumphs. At present I’m too busy writing to blog regularly, but in lieu of hearing from me, feel free to pop over and hear from them! 🙂

 

 

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Leaving is fine – it’s coming back that hurts!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I read somewhere that, in ancient Greece, writers were advised to leave a “finished” piece of writing alone for nine years before coming back and editing it. Nine years might be going a bit overboard, but this is still common advice: write it, leave it alone, come back with fresh eyes and edit like it’s someone else’s writing.

I endorse this advice whole-heartedly. (You can hear the “but” coming, can’t you?) I left the first draft of my novel alone for a full three months over Christmas, and wrote a novella. Now I’ve left the novella alone for three weeks while I worked on my PhD confirmation.

Here’s the “but”. When you get back to the piece of writing you left alone, you may have one or more of the following reactions:

  • This is utter rubbish
  • What was I thinking?
  • I can’t remember why I wanted to write this in the first place
  • It really is rubbish
  • Aaaaaaarrrrrrggggghhhhhh!

Before you can rewrite, you need to do a few things:

  • Reconnect with why you wanted to write this, what got you fired up about it
  • Identify the strengths – which parts do work, what aspects have merit?
  • Ask yourself whether there’s one overriding problem that’s causing your negative reaction. That’s probably the place to start reworking

For my novel, surprisingly, I did have to reformulate why I cared. Spending a year on the first draft had me bogged down in technical issues; I knew I was passionate about the story, but couldn’t have told you succinctly why. I think I can now.

Identifying the strengths wasn’t too difficult – I like all the characters, still love the setting, the dialogue and description are generally strong, and the second half flows quite well though it’s a bit rushed at the end.

The overriding problem was easy to identify, too, because my five test readers all said the same thing: they couldn’t get a handle on the protagonist. The rewrite must start with letting readers into the protagonist’s head in a way that enlists their sympathy. My problem here is the balance between trusting the reader to do the work, and giving them enough information to work with. I’m also struggling with the idea of “show don’t tell”. With internal monologue, telling is showing if you do it right – but despite reading many many examples of great writing, I still can’t work out how to do it right. Advice, anyone?

The novella is a little different. I know why I’m passionate about telling the story, so that’s not a problem. I’m having trouble identifying strengths in the writing because I’m overwhelmed by what’s wrong with it. The main problem is something to do with pace and momentum in combination with tension. The writing seems to gloss over the story; too much happens too fast with not enough tension or emotional engagement. The result is a story that feels glib and pat, when it should feel complex and powerful. Individually, the events of the plot are believable. The characters are realistic. But something about the way I’m telling the story is failing to do justice to the characters and what they go through from beginning to end. I need to find ways to deepen the reader’s engagement with the characters without slowing the story to a plodding pace. I suspect it needs to be significantly longer – too much happens in 19,000 words – but the last thing I want to do is create “padding”. Again, I’m very open to suggestions and advice from you, wonderful fellow-writers :-).

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Extending and Advancing

Once again, Improvisational Theatre waves its hand from the back row – “Miss, miss!”

“Yes Impro, do you have something to contribute to this discussion on storytelling in flash fiction?”

“Extend and advance, Miss!”

Ah yes.

When I was an improviser, I was enchanted by Keith Johnstone’s concept of extending and advancing. Extending means staying with “what you’ve got” – elaborating, exploring, going deeper, resisting the pressure to move forward. Advancing means deliberately yielding to the narrative pressure and taking a step.

Inexperienced improvisers tend to rush the story – advance, advance, advance – without investing the time to evoke setting, build character, or enlist the audience’s emotions. Timed impro games (especially 1 and 2 minute games) often encourage this breathless rushing that leaves nobody feeling satisfied.

I think that, for writers, there’s a risk that flash fiction can encourage the same strategy – trying to pack in as much “action” as quickly as possible. However, the best flash fiction I’ve read – like some of the best improvisation I’ve seen – creates a sense of deep engagement, of taking its time, of bringing the reader/audience along.

My favourite improvisation exercise for developing extending/advancing skills is played in pairs.

Person A starts an activity (eg. “going fishing”), and Person B asks “What are you doing?”

A must check, and report what she’s doing right at this moment – “walking”, “breathing”, “sliding the worm onto the hook”, “swinging my rod backwards”.

Then B says “Extend … (that action)”. A lets go of whatever she’s vaguely intending to do in the future (eg. hook such a big fish she gets hauled into the water), and focuses on extending the identified moment of walking, breathing, sliding the worm, or swinging the rod.

All kinds of possibilities can develop out of any of these actions. From “breathing”, for example, A might find herself suddenly struggling for breath, or smell something foul or beautiful and start sniffing the air. A bug might fly up her nose, she might find herself filling up like a balloon, etc. etc.

B observes carefully, and encourages A to extend on her immediate action – “Extend trying to snort the bug out of your nose”. The story gradually develops – it does move forward – but with much more tension, physicality, emotion, and interest, than if A had simply ploughed ahead with the ideas she had in mind. It’s a little like a collected canter in dressage, where the horse is moving forward but in an “intensified” kind of way, because momentum is working against restraint.

After a while, if A starts feeling uncreative in her extending and the story hasn’t reached a satisfying conclusion, B might say “Advance”. This gives A permission to let something new happen.  The sense of release from the intensity of extending usually results in quite a big leap or twist. For example, since A has blown up like a balloon and is floating helplessly, the enormous fish might mistake her for a fly and leap up out of the water. This advancement is immediately reined in by the instruction to “Extend” (eg. “What are you doing?” “Being eaten by the fish!” “Extend being eaten”). And again we get a rich, satisfying, entertaining chunk of story.

I’ve noticed most if not all of my favourite flash pieces work the same way as the game Extend and Advance. The storyteller starts us off somewhere, and extends on what’s happening, tiny detail by tiny detail, developing the picture. Then there’ll be a leap, twist or turning point that’s quite dramatic, if subtle. Some stories are two-act (one turning point, maybe half or 2/3 of the way through), some are three-act (one turning point at the 1/3 mark, another around the 2/3 mark or later). After the turning point (advance), the dominant mode might return to extension, but the story usually seems to move more quickly because the details are now invested with new meaning.

Some exercises:

1. Look at several pieces of flash fiction by different authors (I’ve been looking at pieces up to 300 words, but the uses of extending and advancing are usually very clear up to about 1000 words).

Using a couple of different colour highlighting pens, mark each sentence according to whether it’s “extending” or “advancing”.

Notice where the points of advancement occur. Do they delineate “acts” in the story? What impact does each advancement have on what comes after? Does the author then go back to extending, or leap from advance to advance? Are there different degrees of advancement – big leaps versus small but significant ones? How does the author manage extending without becoming boring? How does she manage advancing without leaving the reader behind?

For this exercise it’s great if you can get some pieces you feel “work”, and some you feel “don’t quite work”, and analyse the weaker stories by comparing them with the stronger.

2. Write a piece of flash fiction. Give yourself a time limit (5 minutes). Start with a title, topic or idea (use a prompt from a writing site if you need one). Write the first sentence. Then “Extend” on the first sentence/idea. Extend and extend as long as you can, resisting the pressure to advance the story until you a. reach a satisfying conclusion, b. run out of time, c. start feeling uncreative, or d. have such a good idea for an advancement you can’t resist.

If a., read over the first draft and decide what else the story needs. Did an advancement creep in without you even noticing? Did you extend all the way to the end, but nothing much happened? Is it a good story but a bit “samey” in terms of pace, tone, etc.? Use the concepts of advancing and extending to rewrite.

If b., pretty much the same as for a. Did you reach a conclusion? What does the story need? Go back and rewrite, using the concepts of advancing and extending.

If c. or d., allow yourself to Advance. Now you’ll have to decide whether (and what) to extend. Maybe the path to the end of your story is now in a series of advancements, like stepping stones. When you run out of time, start your rewriting process, paying particular attention to the concepts of advancing and extending.

When you’ve rewritten your piece to your satisfaction, go through the finished story with your highlighters and identify the sentences that extend and those that advance. Ask yourself the questions from 1.

I know this is a very analytical exercise, but it should be quite an informative one 🙂

 

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Promises, Promises

In The Fiction Editor, the Novel, and the Novelist, Thomas McCormack talks about making promises to the reader. Of course we hear this terminology all  the time, but McCormack gets into a fairly technical explanation of what’s entailed in making and keeping such promises.

I was intrigued by the idea that a reader keeps turning pages, not so much because of what she’s reading right now, but rather what she’s being promised is still to come. Like the smell of coffee or the anticipation of Christmas morning, a promise can be so much more delicious than any reality. The reader therefore reads in a state of pleasurable expectation, and so long as reality doesn’t actually disappoint, she’ll finish the book having had a delightful reading experience.

I’m wondering if there’s something too stolid about the way I usually write, which is focussed on what I’m delivering on any given page, rather than what I’m promising.

McCormack talks about “prelibation” (I do love a good neologism!) It translates as something like “foretaste” – tasting in advance. McCormack says that the reader has “salivancy” – an appetite, a craving produced by the text – and the author must know both how to elicit this craving and how to satisfy it. Prelibation is the author’s intuition about what will satisfy.

“Implied prelibation” is when the text has set up an obvious requirement. Virginia Woolf praised Jane Austen for never failing to supply the “obligatory scene” – the scene we have to have. In a whodunnit, there must be a scene in which the detective reveals who the murderer is. Usually there must also be some kind of confrontation with the murderer – don’t you feel cheated when it turns out the murderer has been killed, or has run away to reappear in the sequel, without leaving so much as a taunting note?

I’ve realised there’s an obligatory scene missing from my current novel. Two characters who’ve been in conflict for two-thirds of the book make up awkwardly over the phone because there are larger issues at stake. This just isn’t good enough: the reader will be “salivating” for a proper showdown, which I’m obliged as the writer to supply. Implied prelibation is at work.

“Unimplied prelibation” is more subtle. The reader doesn’t know what she’s expecting next, but she’s expecting something. The writer’s responsibility is both to whet these inchoate appetites, and then to satisfy them with surprising and gratifying details, scenes, dialogue, etc. That’s writing, you say. Yes, but maybe it’s a common mistake of the novice writer to slave away, trying to deliver surprising, gratifying, original, amazing and beautiful words on the page, but not paying enough attention to the creation of expectations. The set-up, the promising.

The idea of promises is related to – possibly the same as? – tension. So that this post doesn’t go on forever, I’ll just look at two examples of the kinds of promises a writer can make, or tensions he can set up.

Here’s the first one-third of the first line of Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Virgin Suicides: “On the morning the last Lisbon daughter took her turn at suicide – it was Mary this time, and sleeping pills, like Therese – …”

What are you asking yourself as a reader? How many Lisbon daughters were there? (clearly at least three, sounds like more). How old were they? (the title and the fact they’re described as “daughters” sounds like they were very young) Why did they attempt suicide? Under what circumstances? How? (since Mary and Therese used sleeping pills) Did any survive? (the word “attempted”) Does Mary survive? Why are we being told this story? The author is promising to explore all these questions, if not necessarily to answer them. We can be pretty sure of finding out how many girls, their names, their ages, the circumstances, the methods, the outcomes. We expect to learn something about the Lisbon daughters, individually and as a family. We can be certain the “why” question will be asked, but we sense from the tone that we’re not being promised an answer, and this is a source of tension.

In the second sentence we get the information that the medics were, “as usual”, moving much too slowly “in our opinion”. The reader is promised something very unusual – a plural first person narrative point of view: in effect, a chorus. Reviewers have noted that the first paragraph of this novel also promises the setting (suburban America), the tone (“wry and voluptuous with glittering black jokes carried along like seacoal by the smooth melancholy swell”), and the idea that there is something allegorical about this story, that it takes place more in a mythic realm than a realistic one. These are all interesting promises, and we read on with a strong sense of curiosity to see where the writer will take us.

A different kind of promise is offered in Justin Cronin’s The Passage, through the structure of the book. Again there’s a mythic note struck at the very beginning, telling us “Before she became the Girl from Nowhere – the One Who Walked In, the First and Last and Only, who lived a thousand years – she was just a little girl in Iowa, named Amy”. The first chapter goes on to tell us briefly and fairly realistically about Amy’s early childhood. The second chapter consists of emails between Jonas Lear and Paul Kiernan, concerning mysterious but horrific events in a Bolivian jungle. The third chapter begins in a prison for men sentenced to death, and focuses on inmate Anthony Carter. Halfway through this chapter we jump to a federal agent, Brad Wolgast, driving along a Texan road reminiscing about his childhood. The promise is that all these people and storylines are moving into alignment, that they will come together and set in motion other trains of events.

Promises, tension, mystery, suspense. A writing exercise? Ask a trusted reader to look at the first paragraph of something you’ve written. Ask them to tell you as they go along:

1. What questions am I asking as I read this?

2. What do I expect from the rest of the story?

Leave the questions as broad as that – see how much they can tell you about the possibilities opening up in their mind, stimulated by your words on the page. Take notes – do any of their questions and speculations surprise you? Do they imagine a whole storyline worlds away from what you’ve actually written? Or do they struggle to articulate any sense of anticipation or curiosity? (in which case, you might want to reword this opening para).

If you’re very brave, you could allow them to go on reading, and describe for you as they go along which possibilities are opening out or collapsing, and whether they’re happy with the realities that take their place.

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Relative status of characters

I used to be an improviser. I started with Theatresports, then branched out into other forms of performance impro. If you have a good coach, you can learn a lot about storymaking through theatrical improvisation. (If not, you’ll just learn to gag, block, and cheat the audience out of wonderful experiences they don’t know they could have had – but meanwhile back at the point…)

I did have a good coach, in Keith Johnstone of Loose Moose Theatre Company, Calgary, Canada. One of the key story drivers Keith emphasised was status. Improvised scenes for performance tend to be short, so you need a reliable means of engaging the audience and making sure the story goes somewhere. A good way to do this is to play with characters’ status, and we used to play status games to develop these skills.

In one game, A starts with high status and B with low (eg. school principal and student, queen and butler, police officer and criminal, etc.) The events of the scene must cause the high status character to lose status, and the low status character to gain status – that is, by the end, the status positions are reversed.

In another exercise, two characters each try to get higher status than the other. For example, A shows off an expensive watch, B claims to have three just like it, A shakes her head pityingly and asks if B is still having trouble with those old delusions, B says not since she invented the world’s most successful anti-psychotic and became a billionnaire, and offers to take A out to dinner to tell her all about it, and so on. Or, the two characters can work to get lower status than the other. Experienced improvisers play a version where they try to maintain equal status – Keith points out that this is what we usually do with our friends.

In writing fiction, it’s quite useful to bear in mind the status relationships between characters. Improvisation scenes often suffer because two characters have the same status (two students, two road-workers, two friends at a nightclub) and although the improvisors are struggling to create a story, they won’t let anything happen that changes the status relationship. Inexplicable torpor or “flatness” in a piece of fiction is sometimes traceable to the same problem.

Status can be conceptualised in terms of power, social standing, respect accorded the character by others. A character whose job or social position might be seen as low status (eg. a swagman) can be high status in a given situation (when he is the only person who knows how to treat a snakebite), or he might just “play” high status and be accorded respect as a result. And, of course, vice versa – the British comedic tradition, for example, is full of put-upon lords and ineffectual politicians who think their position entitles them to a level of respect they don’t actually deserve or get. Humorous effects can be obtained when a character thinks of himself as high status when everyone else sees him as low (common in the commedia dell’Arte), and touching moments can result when a character who sees herself as low status is suddenly elevated to high (a stock technique in romantic comedy, the Cinderella story arc being a classic example).

I’m just beginning a new novella, where the whole story will turn on a change in the status relationship between my two main characters. I think this is very common, but I don’t often hear it discussed in the terms I learnt from Keith Johnstone. So if this idea of status, status hierarchies, status battles, and changes in status relationships, is useful to you in your writing, by all means go ahead and use it. (I was fascinated to discover just now, looking up Keith’s entry on Wikipedia, that his teaching on status seems to be considered his most influential contribution to theatrical storytelling. Pop over and have a look here).

An exercise: read through a piece you’ve written, and analyse what happens to the relative status of the main characters in it, particularly the protagonist. Does the status of the protagonist change – in her own eyes, in the eyes of the people in her world, and/or in the eyes of the reader, over the course of the story? How does that come about? Does another character start out higher status than the protagonist, and end lower, or vice versa? Does a battle for higher (or lower) status drive some (or all) of the action? What are the emotions, conflicts, tensions, which contribute to and arise from that battle? Would more careful attention to status and status relationships enhance the story at all?

 

 

 

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Grab the reader

“But why?” I wailed. “Why won’t you read my book?”

My thirteen year-old son shrugged. “It just doesn’t grab me.”

I’ve drafted my first-ever children’s book, and I’m cajoling every child of my acquaintance to read it and tell me what they think. My very helpful nieces have done so, without the need for emotional blackmail, bribery or threats (thank you, Rhiannon and Briley!) But my own kids haven’t made it past the first three pages. Which is a pretty big red flag.

Every “How-to-Write-a-Book” book gives the same advice – grab the reader on the first page. Once she’s hooked, maybe you can let the pressure off a bit (unless you’re Matthew Reilly). But it’s fatal to let the reader get a few pages in and give up, because nothing exciting or intriguing has happened to “grab” her.

I’ve always been a bit skeptical about this advice. Many of the books I love start with paragraphs of description – of a place, or a character – a bit of mood-setting, some information, even a philosophical rant. But I recognise, firstly, that such openings tend to be associated with older works (my editor friend Helena Bond has pointed out that most Georgette Heyer books begin with description rather than action or dialogue). And even a low-key opening must offer the reader something she wants, some promise she’s keen to see fulfilled.

I’m having a quick look at a random selection of books lying around my house at the moment, and the various techniques authors use to hook us in.

Teaser – a sneak peak at story’s climax

Twilight by Stephenie Meyer (shut up, I’m loving it) begins with a scene you know must be from the climax – then goes back and narrates the events leading up to it. First line: “I’d never given much thought to how I would die – though I’d had reason enough in the last few months – but even if I had, I would not have imagined it like this.” That’s a grabber.

Similarly, Miranda Darling begins The Siren’s Sting with a dramatic event involving two characters, then starts the main story some time earlier. The protagonist is not one of the characters we’ve briefly glimpsed in the prologue, so the tension that pulls us into the story initially is the desire to know who these two people are, when the protagonist will meet them, and what the opening scene will turn out to mean in the larger context of the story.

Prologue – events that occur before the main story begins, and cast a shadow

An Imaginary Life by David Malouf, my favourite book ever, starts with a brief prologue introducing the two main characters on a kind of mythic level – appropriate for a book narrated by a poet. I remember being intrigued and wooed by the style, the mood and the mystery.

Blanche d’Alpuget’s Turtle Beach is somewhat similar, beginning with a brief “Part One”/prologue referring to events which occur before the main story begins. The promise is that the significance of these events will be unfolded over the course of the story. Evelyn Waugh does the same in Brideshead Revisited. Kim Wilkins does it in The Resurrectionists, but in this case the Prologue occurs only a short time before the main story starts, and is the immediate catalyst for it.

Keri Hulme, in The Bone People, uses her prologue to introduce her main characters, but very cryptically. You know you’ll have to go back and re-read it, once you figure out what’s going on.

Danielle Wood’s The Alphabet of Light and Dark introduces her protagonist as a child, seventeen years before the story begins, and her second main character as a young man three years before the story begins. At this stage we have no idea whether they know each other. Some of the expectation, therefore, is about when and how they’ll encounter each other story and what will be the result.

Prologue-Epilogue frame – start with events that occur after the story has finished

David Malouf’s Johnno starts with a Prologue in which the narrator is going through his father’s effects after his death. The narrator finds a photograph, which triggers memories of his friend Johnno. The story proper explores the history of that relationship. What sucks me in on the first page is the situation – a man describing his father, his father’s death, his own reaction. It’s a situation at once so common and so unique, of course I care and of course I want to read more about it.

Beginning at the beginning – origin stories

Annie Proulx’ Accordion Crimes begins with an unnamed instrument-maker creating the accordion of the title. What grabs me is the close focalisation, the instrument-maker’s intense concentration and passion, and the rich vivid sensory depiction of details. The lacquer on the instrument is “gleaming like wet sap”. The maker is someone who hears harmonies “in the groan of hinges”. The promise of this opening is that the writer has constructed her story with the same fanatical care and attention to detail as the instrument-maker creating the accordion, with which we are about to pass a hundred years.

Humour

Terry Pratchett’s Jingo, of course, starts with a character who has a silly name, doing something intricately pointless but exquisitely linguistically funny. Solid Jackson is fishing for Curious Squid, “so called because, as well as being squid, they were curious”. Okay, I’m hooked.

Anansi Boys, by Neil Gaiman, begins with a “sublime to ridiculous” first page. There’s a kind of Biblical invocation, in which all of creation is sung into existence, before the narrator tells us chattily “There are other things you can do with songs. They do not only make worlds or recreate existence. Fat Charlie Nancy’s father, for example, was simply using them to have what he hoped and expected would be a marvellous night out”. Of course, as well as being slightly and pleasantly confused, we are now intensely curious about both Fat Charlie Nancy and his father.

A powerful emotion

William Golding’s The Spire opens with the protagonist laughing for joy – out loud, immoderately, and in the face of his companion’s misgivings. The imagery is also startling and initially confusing – “God the Father was exploding in his face with a glory of sunlight through painted glass”. We read on, gathering up the hints as the author drops them, desperate to know why a Dean in his cathedral just before Matins can’t help laughing uproariously with excitement. So it’s not just the expressed emotion that grabs us, but curiosity about its cause.

Instant drama

Tim Winton’s Breath begins with the first person narrator in an ambulance; he’s a paramedic rushing to an emergency, lights flashing and sirens blaring. As if that wasn’t exciting enough, he’s in a conflict with the young woman who’s driving, and we know we’re going to hear more about that. Grabbed. Cloudstreet is different – it’s more like The Spire, with lyricism and joyful energy sucking us in first. But the sense of imminent danger cuts in very quickly too – someone is rushing towards the river, someone who shouldn’t be. In Cloudstreet we know we won’t find out till the end what happens to this person – and that’s a lot of reading! – but the language and the characters are going to take us there.

Northern Lights, by Philip Pullman, starts with someone sneaking around trying not to get caught. We’re told that she’s accompanied by her daemon, and we quickly realise she’s a child. Yes, I want to know what she’s up to. The single word “daemon” alerts me to the fact that she’s not in my world – from the start I’m working hard to compare and contrast her world with mine, reach some comprehension of her world in time and space as I know it. She’s grabbed me.

Intriguing characters

Wuthering Heights begins with an interesting juxtaposition – a first-person narrator jauntily describing himself as a misanthrope and rejoicing that he has come to live in such a bleak, unpeopled corner of England. He immediately embroils himself in an edgy social encounter with his landlord, Heathcliff, “a man who seemed even more exaggeratedly reserved than myself”. There’s a delightful energy about Lockwood’s determination to inflict his company on Heathcliff, who so patently doesn’t want it, that we read on to see what will fall out.

Begin with dialogue

Another technique, recommended by Craig Bolland from the School of Creative Writing at QUT, is beginning with dialogue. I didn’t find an example in my random book-snatching, but I think it’s a good way to hook the reader straight into the relationship between two characters.

A writing exercise? Write the opening paragraphs of your next ten stories (hypothetically!) Each opening paragraph should aim to use a different technique for “grabbing” the reader:

1. A sneak peak of the story’s climax, which is yet to come

2. An event that occurs before the main story begins, and promises to influence the main story

3. An event that occurs after the main story ends, and promises to be meaningful once the main story has been told

4. Begin the story “starting at the very beginning”, with a strong sense that this moment will have far-reaching effects

5. Start with humour

6. Start with a strong emotion

7. Start with instant drama/trouble/conflict, through which we are introduced to the characters

8. Start with an intriguing character

9. Begin with dialogue

10. Start with something that is consciously none of the above – maybe a piece of scene-setting. How can you “grab” the reader through this opening? What can you promise her, how can you intrigue her, what can you do to make her want to keep reading?

Good luck – let me know how you get on!

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Colouring In

Describe that sky!

My writing buddy Kathy has blogged an interesting post about using colours in your writing. She expressed a concern that she tends to use colour-words too much (I don’t think she does). But it got me thinking about my own love of colour, and the relationship between colours and words. My first novel is called Blue : that says something right there 🙂

Maybe I’m a lazy reader – maybe my imagination doesn’t create scenes from the written word as actively as someone else’s might – but I need the writer to supply colour-words to help bring a scene visually alive. Kathy quotes from J.M. Coetzee: Through a window he glimpses the Shaw’s backyard: an apple tree dropping wormridden fruit, rampant weeds, an area fenced in with galvanized-iron sheets, wooden pallets, old tyres, where chickens scratch around… I can see it, but do you know, more vividly I can smell it. I wonder what difference colour-words might have made to my imagined sensory experience of this scene: an apple tree dropping brown worm-ridden fruit, rampant bitter-green weeds, an area fenced with galvanized-iron sheets rusting at the edges, wooden pallets, old tyres, where dirty white hens scratch around…

I’m currently reading The Siren’s Sting, by Miranda Darling, in which the author works hard to show us what her protagonist is seeing: The strange light of storm weather had turned the lagoon an opaque shade of jade green and fingers of red now shot out from an invisible setting sun…The palazzo just opposite was painted a deep rust red, with green shutters and green and white striped poles marking its water door... She was shown to her room, a small golden chamber with red velvet curtains overlooking a busy canal… While I also appreciate the author’s diligence in filling in the other senses – she tells us about the sound of heavy rain in the street, the feel of damp evening air on her protagonist’s face, and evokes the aromas of meals in various Mediterranean restaurants – it’s the colours that bring the story to life for me.

I’m often frustrated in the search for the perfect word for a colour. How, without becoming tedious, do you describe the exact colour of wet sand-flats at low tide just after the sunset pinks and oranges have faded but before it’s dark? The colour of the eastern horizon at that moment? The exact shade of deepening blue half-way up the sky, where the evening star is beginning to shine? We probably all envision/remember those colours slightly differently. If I want the reader to see a moment as my protagonist sees it, do I go hunting for obscure terms that are meant to describe a precise hue but probably don’t for every reader (bisque, aquamarine, brown madder)? Do I go all Taubmans and try to evoke that colour in the reader’s mind by describing something else in the world (Bell Pepper, Hot Frog, Lime Leaf, Honeydew, for shades of green)? Or do I try to mix words like you mix paints (blue-green water, apricot-brown sand, seaweed that’s greenish gold shading into orange with flecks of lemon yellow)?

How do you handle colour as a writer (and experience it as a reader)? I’d be keen to hear other people’s thoughts.

And just so this post contains some exercises:

1. Find a passage you’ve written, that contains visual description. Have you used any colour words? What happens if you take them all out? Put more in? Work at making the colour words more precisely descriptive? Stick to the simplest colour words possible (red, blue, green)?

2. Write a para or two describing a scene but without using actual colours – instead try to evoke lights and shades, as if the scene were a black-and-white photograph

3. Write a short scene between two characters, without using any colour words. Then see where you can add visual detail, including colour. Does this pull the scene in any different direction?

4. Play with synaesthesia – using words from one sensory modality to describe something in another. Particularly try this with colour words – a green breeze, the white hammering of rain


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