Tag Archives: storytelling

The Human Heart

Character is the story: that’s why we start with character. There are many ways to get to the heart of the character. My earlier entry offers one of many ways to do so. Stories—novels, plays, poems, even nonfiction—are about connecting to the human heart. Connection is the key, because stories about flesh and blood people who fail to connect to the emotional layer of being human seem to fade quickly in the reader’s interest. Roger Rosenblatt exhorts his writing students to touch the reader in Unless It Moves the Human Heart.

Even science fiction, I discovered, is not exempt. Plot devices and mechanized people in science-forged settings must ultimately move the human heart. A story comes to mind, a piece written by a sci-fi enthusiast in one of my classes. He created a fascinating world of androids cloaked in a setting of engineering marvels on a spaceship equipped with organic-like services and functions to aid the androids. That world lives on in my imagination—metal and glass orbs drifting through endless space, but I can’t recall anything of the story.

People moved through the setting operating cleverly designed gadgets, ate strange and wonderful vittles, yet they exchanged words without communicating and shared space without interacting. In doll-like motions, they acted without kindness or rancor, without joy or hurt or any sense of satisfaction. The author took no trouble to direct me, the reader, in establishing an emotional center where the incidents and events could be interpreted into greater human values.  The author saw no need to do this.

Yet, without this emotional centering, the reader does not know who to root for or who to work against. In establishing protagonist versus the antagonist (Sept. 3 blog) you are beginning a definition of that center. But there’s more. One of the tasks that has diverted my attention from this writing for the last few weeks is the need to revise a novel for submission, especially the opening paragraph. I found that in reading the piece I was about to submit, I had failed to establish the strength of the central character, the protagonist. I had failed to impress the reader with his strengths and his weaknesses especially as it pertained to hooking the reader into the story. In fact, I was back to my old tricks of dissipating tension and reader interest by making my character limpid.

What I need in a strong first chapter:

  • A character who is likeable enough to spend some time with but flawed enough to need a change in direction. That’s what the story is, how the hero is finally capable of changing direction to win his goal.
  • A clearly demarcated goal that is a worthy challenge to the hero AND a peek at the consequence if he doesn’t cut it. In nonfiction writing I would be able to write “this is my goal….” However, in fiction we must show a character in terms of his goal and its consequence.
  • The hero needs some tangible conflict that he works against, and you must show it to the reader. This was a pertinent point where I dissipated a lot of tension on the first page. My hero hates where he lives; it is a place of exile to him and it grates on him every day. The setting is conflict, that’s its dramatic function in this story.
  • The first chapter needs to grab the reader and move quickly. In a 380 page novel, my first turn does not appear until page 132. This is far too late.  Pacing is critical to hooking the reader and to keeping his interest from page to page.  I need to bring energy back to chapter one by introducing a hint of the major conflicts in the story.
  • Anticipation is the author’s connection to the reader, making the experience more pleasurable. The first chapter needn’t articulate the full nature of  conflicts, but should give a hint as to what’s going to come back to bite the hero.  In my story there are two incidents that I can move up to the first scene in order to sharpen the focus on them.

Three months ago I did not believe that it would be possible to stack all this stuff into the first ten pages of the novel. Over the course of my summer, I have read five novels, though, that have enlightened me (see list in box below).Without exception, including a middle grade novel and a young adult novel, these works offered a prime-stuffed first chapter. Two mysteries, a love story, a hostage situation and a retrospective of coming of age, all managed to weave these elements into the first chapter.

  • A sympathetic character with a pronounced flaw that will become a challenge to her as the story unfolds (a weakness), matched by an attitude that makes the character function adequately in her world.
  • From the first pages of every story, the hero is striving for something and the reader discovers what may happen if she fails to obtain it. The intangible goal is locked into a physical presence, such as the environment in my story which stands for what the character has been denied in life.
  • Conflicts from the first page. The conflict on page one may not seem related to the overall conflict that drives the novel. However at the end of each story I read, the opening conflict was indeed a piece of the greater story problem. And in a closer look, each conflict developed in the book had a tasting offered to the reader in the first chapter. Those tastings are hooks. They are what keep a reader reading.

A year ago I did not understand the workings of these notions in my novels, although I had studied fiction and fiction writing for the past twenty years. There is so much more to learn than I have dreamed of.

FYI: My SOURCES for reading fiction this fall were:

Ann Patchett, The Magician’s Assistant
                            Bel Canto

Julian Barnes, The Sense of An Ending
Elizabeth George, The Edge of Nowhere
Kathleen Ernst,  Secrets in the Hills

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Start with Character

My first novel was a cozy mystery set in Issaquah, Washington, a picturesque little town at the foot of three ancient mountain tops. The main character was a twenty-three year old female named Kate who was coming of age in the eighties.

My killer—the antagonist—was a network engineer in his thirties who was stealing the network architecture from his employers. These two characters were drawn to each other, so I made them as likeable to each other as possible. In fact, I made Kate as likeable to everybody as possible.

  • PROBLEM: No conflict. This was such a problem that in the end I had to create a new character, a crony of the killer, who became the villain.
  • PROBLEM: Tension disintegrated with every new scene.
  • PROBLEM: I didn’t see the problem. I had not yet learned to create conflict in character, something I later learned from the world of drama and play writing, contradiction, a subject we’ll return to in a future blog.

Kate was a delightful girl. She lived well in her environment, got along with most people and the reader found no issues with her. In short, she was most boring as a character.

So with all these pleasantries, I gave my reader very little to be interested in, so I made up an exciting opening to hook the reader. The opening was dramatic and exciting, a man jumped off the ferry in the middle of Seattle’s Elliott Bay. The opening event had action and drama and definitely a creative pull into story but, alas, it had little to do with the story. It did become, after much writing and literary machinations, the inciting incident of the plot, but it also stretched the story into convoluted and implausible directions. The tone of the opening did not reflect the tone of the remainder of the book, the pacing was a false cue as well. The book did not deliver a story that warranted this opening.

LESSON: Start with Character.

Define the main character first. Understand the main character (a detective in a mystery) on her own terms. What is she like? What does she think like? What behaviors define her? Journal her for a month or so to drive out her core.

We will look at character in depth later.

 With the main character established on her own terms, then turn to the antagonist (the villain, in a mystery). The antagonist should be opposite the hero in core values and characteristics that are important to the central plot. So if the central plot revolves around religious values, the conflict should arise from opposite values of beliefs and spiritual vitality.  If the plot involves law and the courts, the contradiction between the two characters should emerge from different ideas or applications of jurisprudence.

The contradiction between these two characters will drive the action and reaction of the drama. It is from this base contradiction that the tension and conflict of the plot arises.

A LITTLE STRETCH FOR YOU
Look again at your main character and your antagonist.
How do they differ?
How are they the same?
What is the heart of your story’s conflict?
What drives the conflict from page 1 to the end? Does something else besides character drive the tension in your story?

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About Those “Storytelling Issues”

Write what you read? I have always been, since my Nancy Drew days, an addictive mystery and spy novel reader. So that’s what I should write, right? My first two novels were indeed mysteries. Unfortunately my favorite author by that time was Elizabeth George. I had read every one of her novels to date that I could get my hands on. Then I started studying her style. Bad idea…not studying her style, but trying to write a complicated multi-level story on the first try. I would have done better emulating the early Agatha Christie.

An agent who had kindly perused my first novel deemed that I had “storytelling issues.” My narrative was episodic, a boring tale of people working, eating, hiking and dating. I tried to make my scenes “realistic.” They were realistically boring. The characters had no goals, only the story imposed any goal and that was to find the killer of the crime. No gore for me, the crime was about stealing secrets on network design in a software company, something that I knew a lot about.

There was virtually no action unless I forced it on the story. All the characters spoke to each other in direct confrontation. There were big secrets but no small secrets, there was lying in a grand way but no small deceptions. The characters were interesting and multi-cultural as in my real environment, but everything but the crime was out in the open. So where was the mystery–where was the feeling of mystery? Suspense was little understood by me and I did not see it as a tool to use here.

All of these issues and more leech the storytelling from the narrative. I wrote open issues, explained a lot and directed the reader toward plot motions because I had spent 25 years writing business and technical papers which were intended to do exactly this. My writing skills had been honed by fountain pen in journal which led to exploring feelings and opinions and what people did to me all day. All of which adds to a very boring writing style for novels.

Even before deciding on a genre, you need to have a story:  2 characters in conflict during a specific place and time. The story is the story of that relationship. Elizabeth George uses this approach and offers her process in her nonfiction book,  Write Away.

Story is contradiction. It’s fine to write about what people do all day like building network systems (as long as you keep the detail at a high story level). The story in the novel will focus on the contradiction of everything that goes as it should. The whole system is awry, a particular process has broken, the security is at risk. Whatever it is, the reader must feel it being wrong. So textbook descriptions of network systems are out. The switch automatically flips to connect the ambulance to the hospital to send the patient’s heart signals. The switch doesn’t work. Contradiction leads to problem.

I made the last example easy by involving a human heart. That’s a good thing to do, but unfortunately my story had nothing to do with life support systems. The design of the network was being filched and leaked to a competitor in China. Well, this is the stuff of spy thrillers. I had a lot of storytelling to lay down before I could reach those readers. Reaching the reader is the job of the characters. Their struggle is the reader’s struggle. The reader can only identify with one character at a time.

The reader becomes vested in one character’s story goal. What does the character wants and what will happen if he fails to get it? This is one of the first jobs of the writer is to hook the reader. Often hooks are thought of as plot devices–and there has to be some of that as well. But the character must have a desire so strong that it pulls him/her and the reader across the story arc, beginning to end.

In the next discussion we will look at story in the first chapter and what it must contain to keep the reader with you, no matter what type of story you are writing.

A LITTLE STRETCH FOR YOU
Look at the first chapter of your work in progress (WIP).
Who is the main character? Where is he? When is the time frame?
Who is the second character? What is their conflict?
Conflicts can also involve environment (nature v man) or society (manners v individualism). Does something like this replace your 2nd character?
What else is in your first scene?
Have you hooked the reader into your story? Into your character?

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