What’s writing for you? A fever, a pastime, a hobby, a vocation, an obsession … or something else?
If you ever find yourself among a group of writers, writing teachers, agents or editors; and said group is waxing verbose on the craft of fiction; and the subject of what fiction is or should be rumbles into the discussion, you are likely to hear things like:
All fiction is character-driven.
It’s characters that make the book.
Readers care about characters, not plot.
Don’t talk to me about plot. I want to hear about the characters!
Such comments are usually followed by nods, murmured That’s rights or I so agrees, but almost never a healthy and hearty harrumph.
So, here is my contribution to the discussion: Harrumph!
Now that I have your attention, let me be clear about a couple of items before I continue.
First, we all agree that the best books, the most memorable novels, are a combination of terrific characters and intriguing plot developments.
Second, we all know there are different approaches to writing the novel. There are those who begin with a character and just start writing. Ray Bradbury was perhaps the most famous proponent of this method. He said he liked to let a character go running off as he followed the “footprints in the snow.” He would eventually look back and try to find the pattern in the prints.
Other writers like to begin with a strong What if, a plot idea, then people it with memorable characters. I would put Stephen King in this category. His character work is tremendous. Perhaps that is his greatest strength. But no one would say King ignores plot. He does avoid outlining the plot. But that’s more about method.
I’m not talking about method.
What I am proposing is that no successful novel is ever “just” about characters. In fact, no dynamic character can even exist without plot.
Why not? Because true character is only revealed in crisis.
Without crisis, a character can wear a mask. Plot rips off the mask and forces the character to transform––or resist transforming.
Now, what is meant by a so-called character-driven novel is that it’s more concerned with the inner life and emotions and growth of a character. Whereas a plot-driven novel is more about action and twists and turns (though the best of these weave in great character work, too). There is some sort of indefinable demarcation point where one can start to talk about a novel being one or the other. Somewhere between Annie Proulx and James Patterson is that line. Look for it if you dare.
We can also talk about the challenge to a character being rather “quiet.” Take a Jan Karon book. Father Tim is not running from armed assassins. But he does face the task of restoring a nativity scene in time for Christmas. If he didn’t have that challenge (with the pressure of time, pastoral duties, and lack of artistic skills) we would have a picture of a nice Episcopal priest who would overstay his welcome after thirty or forty pages. Instead, we have Shepherds Abiding.
If you still feel that voice within you protesting that it’s “all about character,” let me offer you this thought experiment. Let’s imagine we are reading a novel about an antebellum girl who has mesmerizing green eyes and likes to flirt with the local boys.
Let’s call her, oh, Scarlett.
We meet her on the front porch of her large Southern home chatting with the Tarleton twins. “I just can’t decide which of you is the more handsome,” she says. “And remember, I want to eat barbecue with you!”
Ten pages later we are at an estate called Twelve Oaks. Big barbecue going on. Scarlett goes around flirting with the men. She also asks one of her friends who that man is who is giving her the eye.
“Which one?” her friend says.
“That one,” says Scarlett. “The one who looks like Clark Gable.”
“Oh, that’s Rhett Butler from Charleston. Stay away from him.”
“I certainly will,” says Scarlett. (The character of Rhett Butler never appears again.)
Scarlett then finds Ashley Wilkes and coaxes him into the library.
“I love you,” she says.
“I love you too,” Ashley says. “Let’s get married.”
So they do.
One hundred pages later, Scarlett says, “I really do love you, Ashley.”
Ashley says, “I love you, Scarlett. Isn’t it grand how wonderful our life is?”
At which point a reader who has been very patient tosses the book across the room and says, “Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn.”
What’s missing? Challenge. Threat. Plot! In the first few pages Scarlett should find out Ashley is engaged to another woman! And then she should confront him, and slap him, and then break a vase over the head of that scalawag who looks like Clark Gable! Oh yes, and then a little something called the Civil War needs to break out.
These developments rip off Scarlett’s genteel mask and begin to show us what she’s really made of.
That is what makes a novel.
Yes, yes, you must create a character the readers bond with and care about. But guess what’s the best way to do that? No, it’s not backstory. Or a quirky way of talking. It’s by disturbing their ordinary world.
Which is a function of plot.
So don’t tell me that character is more important than plot. It’s actually the other way around. Thus:
- If you like to conceive of a character first, don’t do it in a vacuum. Imagine that character reacting to crisis. Play within the movie theater of your mind, creating various scenes of great tension, even if you never use them in the novel. Why? Because this exercise will begin to reveal who your character really is.
- Disturb your character on the opening page. It can be anything that is out of the ordinary, doesn’t quite fit, portends trouble. Even in literary fiction. A woman wakes up and her husband isn’t in their bed (Blue Shoe by Ann Lamott). Readers bond with characters experiencing immediate disquiet, confusion, confrontation, trouble.
- Act first, explain later. The temptation for the character-leaning writer is to spend too many early pages giving us backstory and exposition. Pare that down so the story can get moving. I like to advise three sentences of backstory in the first ten pages, used all at once or spread around. Then three paragraphs of backstory in the next ten pages. Try this as an experiment and see how your openings flow.
- If you’re writing along and start to get lost, and wonder what the heck your plot actually is, brainstorm what may be the most important plot beat of all, the mirror moment. Once you know that, you can ratchet up everything else in the novel to reflect it.
Do these things and guess what? You’ll be a plotter! Don’t hide your face in shame! Wear that badge proudly!
Our Reader Friday this week paid tribute to the late, great Ray Bradbury. He lived in L.A. so I got to hear him speak on a number of occasions. One time I got to meet him.
This was back when I was an unpublished writer unsure if I had the goods. Two books that had helped me keep my hopes up were Brenda Ueland’s If You Want to Write and Ray Bradbury’s Zen in the Art of Writing.
Bradbury was set to speak at the Woodland Hills branch of the Los Angeles Public Library, the very branch I grew up in. I couldn’t wait. I’d gobbled up The Illustrated Man in junior high school, and it was one of those transcendent reading experiences you get only once in a great while. This collection of stories is a glorious imagination on fire. It certainly turned up the heat on my own nascent desire to someday write stories myself.
So I took my well-thumbed and underlined copy of Zen to the library and settled in with a packed room. Bradbury arrived, walking slowly and wearing his white hair long and a bit wild. His hair was a metaphor for his writing approach––let it go, untamed, and put off a neat cut for as long as possible. “Time enough to think and cut and rewrite tomorrow,” Bradbury wrote in Zen. “But today––explode––fly apart––disintegrate!”
Bradbury spoke about his love of libraries, and it was great to hear from his own lips the well-known tale of how he wrote Fahrenheit 451 on a rented typewriter in the basement of UCLA’s Powell Library. (You can hear the man himself tell that story here.)
Then he talked about writing, and I took notes. Here they are:
- Do word associations, as a way of letting your subconscious tell you what is inside you.
- Creating is NOT about fame, NOT about money. It’s about having fun.
- Just do it.
- Writing every day for 57 years. That wasn’t work. That was fun!
- The intellectuals want us to believe it’s no good unless it’s tortured. The hell with that!
- Do what you love. Let it out into the world. If you’re lucky, you’ll get some money. But if you don’t, do it anyway.
- “I work for free. I haven’t made any money on any of my plays. But I love theatre. And I put up productions around town. And when I see the actors who’ve been in them on the street, we embrace, because we did what we loved and we had this experience together. For free. All the money went to my actors.”
- Don’t think while you’re doing it. Think after it’s done.
- He uses no outlines. He wakes up in the morning and lays in bed until his characters, his voices, compel him to “scramble to the typer” and record them before they get away.
He signed books after his talk, so I stood in line with my treasured copy of Zen. I introduced myself and we shook hands.
“Are you a writer?” he asked.
I quoted from the book: “‘Stay drunk on writing so reality cannot destroy you.'”
He laughed and said, “Oh, you must!”
I asked him if he set himself a daily quota, and he said, “I let my love determine how much I write.”
“Ah, so you fall in love daily?”
He signed my book. “Do you write every day?” he asked.
“Five days a week,” I said. “Weekends are for my family.”
He laughed again. “That’s the way to do it!”
He offered his hand once more and said, “God bless you.”
And off I went into the night, feeling blessed indeed for having had the chance to chat with one of the legends of our literature –– Ray Bradbury, American original.
Have you had the chance to talk to an author you admire? Who would be at the top of your list of writers you’d love to meet?
- You must write.
- You must finish what you write.
We usually have no problem with #1. But #2 can bite us in the caboose.
What is it that keeps us from finishing a project?
It could be fear … that we haven’t got a handle on the story.
It could be perfectionism … we want the story to be excellent, but sense it isn’t the best it can be.
It could be laziness … it’s easier to tell someone who doesn’t write just how hard it is to write, than it is to actually write.
Whatever it is, it holds us up. And that’s bad for everyone, including your characters.
I find endings to be the hardest part of the craft. They have to do so much–leave the reader satisfied or, better, grateful. Wrap up the story questions. Deliver a certain resonance.
And we all know a lousy ending can ruin an otherwise great reading experience.
My own approach to endings is to have a climactic scene in mind from the start, even though it is subject to change without notice. It usually does change, because as your book grows, unplanned things start to happen. Characters develop in surprising ways; a plot twist takes you around an unforeseen corner. I’ve even had characters refuse to leave a scene when I’ve told them to. I always try to incorporate these things because, as Madeleine L’Engle once said, “If the book tells me to do something completely unexpected, I heed it. The book is usually right.”
As you make these changes in your plot, the ripples go forward in time to affect how the book will end.
So you adjust. When I get to the point where I’m going to write my ending scenes, I follow a plan I call Stew, Brew, Accrue and Do.
I think hard about the ending for half an hour or so, then take a long walk, letting the story “stew” in my subconscious. My walk inevitably hits a Starbucks, because you can’t walk in any direction on earth for very long before hitting a Starbucks.
Inside I go and order an espresso. Brew.
I sip the espresso and take out a little notebook and pen. That’s when I Accrue. I jot idea after idea, image after image, doodle after doodle. I’m not writing the words of the ending, I’m just capturing all the stuff the Boys in the Basement are throwing out at me because they are hopped up on caffeine.
Then it’s back to my office where I actually Do–write the blasted thing until it’s done!
Now, even with that plan there have been a few occasions in my professional life where I get to Do and got stuck in Didn’t. I just was not finishing, for some reason or other. And I had to break through because a company had been nice enough to pay me some money and was expecting, in return, a complete manuscript. How unfair!
I always made it. And of late I haven’t really gotten stuck in Didn’t.
With one screwy exception: my novelette, Force of Habit 4: The Nun Also Rises.
I mean, I should have finished this six months ago! I was doing other projects during this time, yes, but I always came back to Force 4 trying to figure out what the heck was going on–or, rather, what was not going on–with my vigilante nun, Sister Justicia Marie of the Sisters of Perpetual Justice.
Finally, a couple of weeks ago, I just said to myself, “Listen, Stupid. Finish the doggone story! Or are you just a big fraud?”
“Okay,” I answered back. “How do you propose I do it? And don’t call me Stupid.”
And then I thought of Ray Bradbury.
As an L.A. resident I was privileged to hear Bradbury speak on a number of occasions. He liked to tell the story of when he was writing––or trying to write––the script for John Huston’s film version of Moby-Dick. He was in Ireland and London for months, trying to
pare down the huge novel and all its symbolism into a filmable screenplay. Finally, Huston demanded the script.
Bradbury rolled out of bed one morning and looked in the mirror and cried, “I am Herman Melville!” Then he sat down at his typewriter and went at the keys for eight straight hours. And finished. He took the pages across town and handed them to Huston. Huston looked at them and said, “What happened?”
And Bradbury said, “Behold Herman Melville!”
Why did I think of this account? Because Force 4 was born as I was reading the biography of Robert E. Howard, one of the great pulp writers. He was, of course, the creator of Conan the Barbarian, as well as other series characters in different genres. His writing was big and wild and full of action.
Which was how I was conceiving this latest story of mine.
So I pulled a Bradbury. In my office I cried, “Behold Robert E. Howard!”
And then I wrote and wrote and finally finished the story. And it is big and wild and full of action.
But most important of all, it is done!
And now it is available for Kindle. Here’s a preview:
So tell me, writing friends. Have you ever had a real hands-on struggle with an ending? How did you handle it?
The outskirts of Flagstaff, Arizona. I was with my high school church group, taking a week in the summer to do volunteer work for the Hopi. Our bus had stopped for the night and we brought our sleeping bags and duffels into the fellowship hall of a local church. We were told by our adult leaders to relax, read, play games, listen to the radio––but by all means stay inside the hall! Which of course my friend Randy and I interpreted as meaning: “Feel free to wander into town and find some trouble to get into.”
Ever ready to follow instructions as we understood them, Randy and I slipped out the side doors and started a nocturnal tour of the bustling Flagstaff metropolis, which seemed to have, as they used to say, rolled up the sidewalks.
So we walked and talked and came to a railroad crossing, moving therefrom into the soft red-and-yellow neon of a LIQUOR STORE sign. To a couple of seventeen-year-olds on a nighttime prowl, such illumination is catnip. Randy suggested we baptize our adventure with a bottle.
I agreed, as Randy Winter was my brother from another mother, my closest friend, with whom I laughed much and talked deeply. We would discuss with equal fervor the mystery of girls and the character of God (whose reputation, by the way, we were failing to uphold as we schemed how to lay our hands on some demon intoxicant).
Our first order of business was what manner of spirits to acquire. As an athlete who was not a member of the party circuit, I was not an imbiber of any sort. I did not like the taste of beer. I’d snuck a nip of gin once in my parents’ liquor cabinet and wondered why on earth anyone would want to drink gasoline.
So Randy suggested we try some wine. He’d heard that Boone’s Farm Apple Wine went down nicely, and the decision was made.
Then the next step: to lurk in the shadows of the parking lot until a car drove up, then casually approach the driver with a request that he be our procurer. This was nervous time, for who knew what kind of personality we would engage? What if it was an off-duty cop? Or some old Veteran of Foreign Wars who’d want to lecture us on the evils of drink?
A chance we would have to take. Which we did presently when a car drove in, and out stepped a man of about thirty, with long hair. Long hair! A good sign. A hippie perhaps, or at least a musician. In either case, cool. We emerged from our hiding spot and said, “Excuse me …”
The man stopped and read our faces in the soft, primrose light. “You want me to get you a bottle, don’t you?” he said.
We nodded. My face felt flush, as if the entire world were witnessing my iniquity.
The man laughed. “I used to do the same thing. What do you want?”
We gave the man a couple of fins, our pooled resources, and Randy said, “Boone’s Farm Apple Wine.”
It seemed to me the man hesitated, as if to give us one last chance to reconsider our fate. And then he went through the door.
Randy and I high-fived our success. And soon thereafter we had in our hands a brown paper bag and some change, passed to us with a “Good luck” sentiment from our partner in crime.
We left the scene of our misdemeanor, went back near the railroad tracks, and sat cross-legged on the ground.
Randy unscrewed the top. We were too unsophisticated to smell the cap.
Then he drank and passed the bottle to me. I took a tentative sip. Ah, I thought. Sprightly, with a conversational fruitiness and subdued notes of summer. (Actually, what I really thought was, This isn’t so bad.)
And so ‘neath the Arizona stars Randy Winter and I shared a bottle of what was generously classified as wine, and discovered something interesting about the human body, namely, that there is a lag time between the ingestion of alcoholic content and its effect on one’s physiology.
Which meant, at one point, it suddenly felt as if a switch was flipped in my brain. The disco ball lit up and went round and round, and I heard myself say something like, “Rammy, my headth pinning” before I teetered backward and ended up on the gravel, looking up at the stars as they raced around the heavens like sparkling emergency room nurses shouting, “Stat! Stat!”
Which is the last thing I remember about that night. In the morning I was in my sleeping bag on the church floor. At least I think it was my sleeping bag. My stomach felt like a balloon of toxic gasses. Two miniature railroad workers were on either side of my head, driving spikes into my temples with their sledgehammers.
The adult leaders were none too pleased with Randy and me. We knew we’d messed up, crossed the line, failed to represent our church. We were threatened with expulsion, which would mean a long and humiliating drive for our parents to come pick us up. We threw ourselves upon the mercy of the court and were granted a temporary stay. I began then to truly appreciate the power of forgiveness. Plus, I was ready to swear off booze for good.
Honest, hard work kept Randy and me on the straight and narrow for at least a week. There’s a victory in there somewhere.
I don’t know why I’m writing about this now, except that I was thinking about Randy the other day, as I do often. He died at the age of nineteen. Leukemia. When I think about him, and all the good times we had, this particular memory is the one that surfaces first.
Why is that? Maybe because it typified our friendship. We took risks together, got in trouble on occasion, but mostly laughed. A couple of times there were tears. There’s something deeply meaningful to me in all this, and if I explore it I sense it will tell me something about what I write and why. It may also be a story idea trying to get out.
Memories are the deep soil of strong fiction. We do well to work that land from time to time. Journal about it. Record it. Listen to it.
Early in his career Ray Bradbury started making lists of nouns, many of them based on childhood memories. Things like The Lake, The Night, The Crickets, The Ravine.
“These lists were the provocations,” he writes in Zen in the Art of Writing, “that caused my better stuff to surface. I was feeling my way toward something honest, hidden under the trapdoor on the top of my skull.”
Open up your own trapdoor. You’ll get to really good stuff that way. You can use it outright as the basis for a piece of fiction, or tap it for characters, emotions, scenes. Nothing is wasted. All of life is material.
And it will teach you, too, if you’re open. For I don’t believe I’ve had a taste of Boone’s Farm wine since that night. Nothing against it, you understand, but I prefer a nice California cab. In fact, I think I’ll have a glass tonight––just one––and raise a toast to my best friend, Randy Winter.
What about you? What friend from your youth do you remember, and why?
Joe’s recent post about theme put in mind this quote from The Boss: