Why Plot is Essential to Character

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

Rhett-Butler-Scarlett-O-Hara-scarlett-ohara-and-rhett-butler-6948455-316-392If 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:

  1. 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.
  1. 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.
  1. 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.
  1. 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!

Super Plotter

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Short Fiction, Satisfying Endings and Reader Expectations

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

This month a writer named James Patterson (who has had some lg-bookshots-cross-killsuccess and may break out soon) began a new enterprise. It’s called BookShots. These are to be what he calls “short novels” and what everyone else calls “novellas.”

Patterson, the former advertising man, is nothing if not strategic, even visionary. He is always looking for ways to expand his product line and this plan is brilliantly counterintuitive –– find new places for physical books. 

According to a story in the New York Times, Patterson “wants to sell books to people who have abandoned reading for television, video games, movies and social media.” He wants to write fiction that is “shorter, cheaper, more plot-driven and more widely available” than full-length books. But here’s the part that really intrigues me:

[E]ventually, Mr. Patterson and his publisher want to colonize retail chains that don’t normally sell books, like drugstores, grocery stores and other outlets. They envision having BookShots next to magazines in grocery store checkout lanes, or dangling from clip strips like a bag of gummy bears.

“Those venues are very inhospitable to traditional publishing, but we think this is a type of book that could work very well there,” said Michael Pietsch, the chief executive of Hachette Book Group, which publishes Mr. Patterson’s books in the United States through its Little, Brown imprint. “He has enough recognition that his name can make it work.”

In some ways, Mr. Patterson’s effort is a throwback to the dime novels and pulp fiction magazines that were popular in the late 19th and early 20th century, when commercial fiction was widely available in drugstores.

It’s an ambitious plan, and I doubt any writer except Patterson, backed by mega-publisher Hachette, could pull this off. Maybe Stephen King if he also branded his name as Patterson does. For that is part of the strategy as well:

Hachette is betting that Mr. Patterson is famous enough to overcome … obstacles. The company is planning to publish 21 BookShots in 2016, including thrillers, science fiction, mysteries and romances. The first two, out in June, are “Cross Kill,” a book by Mr. Patterson starring his popular recurring character Alex Cross, and “Zoo II,” a science-fiction thriller written by Mr. Patterson and Max DiLallo. All the books will be written or partially written by Mr. Patterson, except the romances, which will be labeled “James Patterson Presents.”

All well and good. This is a business, after all, and no one has been a more astute businessman than James Patterson. He provides a product. That product entertains. There is an exchange of money for perceived value. And everyone’s happy.

Well, almost everyone. I hopped over to Amazon to have a look at the first BookShot, Cross Kill. Some of the reviewers have a complaint: the ending is incomplete. As one reviewer put it: The story is good, typical Patterson but it ends with a huge cliffhanger and that is what I do not like. … I had expected a short book, like a short story and I liked the idea but now I must say I am disappointed. It would be good if it could be explained where in the Cross Universe these Bookshots fit.

Had the book been advertised as the first part of a serial, all would be well. That’s what Stephen King did back when he and his publisher released The Green Mile. It was done in six installments, and that’s how it was advertised. So readers knew when they purchased one of the short books there would be another to come.

So what does all this mean?

It’s a great new era for short fiction. Short stories (up to 7k words or so); novelettes (7k – 20k); novellas (20k – 50k); and short novels (50k – 70k). You can use these to hone your skills, establish a digital footprint, and make new readers. I’ve been pleased that my series of novelettes about a vigilante nun, Force of Habit, which I did purely for fun, has generated its own little fan base. That’s the pulp fiction idea, and I love that it’s available to us now via direct digital publishing.

But write your stories to completion! No matter the form, the ending has to satisfy the reader. They expect an ending, unless in your marketing you are absolutely clear that you are writing a serial.

I remember years ago when my wife was reading a thriller and kept telling me how good it was. I would say, “But what about mine, honey?” And she’d say, “Shh, I’m reading.”

Anyway, she got to the end and … there was no ending! She was at first confused, then ticked off. I had a look at the book. It was a bit shorter than a “big” novel. And it indeed left off right in the middle of a crucial moment.

Only later did I learn that the publisher had decided to take a “really big” thriller and divide it in two. Their thinking was, “Hey! This is a good novel, and we can double our money by making it two books! The readers will be panting for the rest!”

Only they did not pant. They punted.. They did not want to be “tricked” again. The second book went nowhere.

So don’t treat your short fiction as a throwaway. Over the last few years most of the A-list writers, at the behest of their publishers, have dashed off short ebooks to augment their series or help sell an upcoming release. In several instances these have been less than stellar efforts, garnering a spate of 1-star reviews from fans. Maybe the A-list can get away with it, but the rest of us can’t. We need, more than anything, to establish “trustability.”

So, kids, write the best short fiction you can, every time out. And that means –– unless it’s a serial and the readers know it –– that you give them a satisfying ending.

Have you ever been burned by a story you thought was going to end, but didn’t? Or ended in such a fashion that it ruined all the good stuff up to that point?

And what do you think of this new pulp fiction idea? Do you think there’s a market for it?

_____

Speaking of thinking strategically, if you’d like to pick up a book on how a writer can do that very thing, here it is..

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Great Quotes about Writing

Captivate_full_w_decalFirst, a quick reminder about Steven James’ one-day writers’ conference in Nashville on January 17, 2015, Troubleshooting Your Novel. I’ll be presenting a workshop on revision and self-editing, called “Revise for Success,” and I’ll also be conducting one-on-one manuscript evaluations. ~ Jodie Renner
——————

Inspired by Kathryn Lilley’s question here Friday, I decided that rather than post one of my craft-of-writing articles so close to Christmas and the Holiday Season, I’d just share some excellent inspirational and practical advice for fiction writers, most from well-known authors. Which ones resonate most with you? Do you have any good ones to add?

I try to leave out the parts that people skip. ~ Elmore Leonard

When something can be read without effort, great effort has gone into its writing. ~ Enrique Jardiel Poncela

I’m not a very good writer, but I’m an excellent rewriter. ~ James Michener

The beautiful part of writing is that you don’t have to get it right the first time, unlike, say, a brain surgeon. ~ Michael Crichton

The wastebasket is a writer’s best friend. ~ Isaac Bashevis Singer

Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass. ~ Anton Chekhov

Making people believe the unbelievable is no trick; it’s work. … Belief and reader absorption come in the details: An overturned tricycle in the gutter of an abandoned neighborhood can stand for everything. ~ Stephen King

If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it. Or, if proper usage gets in the way, it may have to go. I can’t allow what we learned in English composition to disrupt the sound and rhythm of the narrative.
~ Elmore Leonard

Writing is turning one’s worst moments into money. ~ J.P. Donleavy
Fire up Your Fiction_ebook_2 silversEvery writer I know has trouble writing. ~ Joseph Heller

Writing is Rewriting. ~ ???

Easy reading is damn hard writing. ~ Nathaniel Hawthorne

A professional writer is an amateur who didn’t quit. ~ Richard Bach

You might not write well every day, but you can always edit a bad page. You can’t edit a blank page. ~ Jodie Picoult

Amateurs fall in love with every word they write. ~ William Bernhardt

Keep working. Don’t wait for inspiration. Work inspires inspiration. Keep working. ~ Michael Crichton

I love writing. I love the swirl and swing of words as they tangle with human emotions. ~ James Michener

I always do the first line well, but I have trouble doing the others. ~ Moliere

You can’t wait for inspiration. You have to go after it with a club. ~ Jack London

When asked, “How do you write?” I invariably answer, “One word at a time.” ~ Stephen King

Manuscript: something submitted in haste and returned at leisure. ~ Oliver Herford

I write fiction because it’s a way of making statements I can disown. ~ Tom Stoppard

Good writing is supposed to evoke sensation in the reader—not the fact that it is raining, but the feeling of being rained upon. ~ E.L. Doctorow

Writing is easy: All you do is sit staring at a blank sheet of paper until drops of blood form on your forehead. ~ Gene Fowler

Writing comes more easily if you have something to say. ~ Sholem Asch

You write to communicate to the hearts and minds of others what’s burning inside you. And we edit to let the fire show through the smoke. ~ Arthur Polotnik

If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot. ~ Stephen King

A good style should show no signs of effort. What is written should seem a happy accident. ~ W. Somerset Maugham, Summing Up, 1938

Writing a Killer Thriller_May '13There is no way of writing well and also of writing easily. ~ Anthony Trollope

If I’m trying to sleep, the ideas won’t stop. If I’m trying to write, there appears a barren nothingness. ~ Carrie Latet

How vain it is to sit down to write when you have not stood up to live. ~ Henry David Thoreau, Journal, 19 August 1851

Write your first draft with your heart. Rewrite with your head. ~ From the movie Finding Forrester

An author in his book must be like God in the universe, present everywhere and visible nowhere. ~ Gustave Flaubert

The scariest moment is always just before you start. ~ Stephen King (On Writing)

No author dislikes to be edited as much as he dislikes not to be published. ~ Russell Lynes

Sleep on your writing; take a walk over it; scrutinize it of a morning; review it of an afternoon; digest it after a meal; let it sleep in your drawer a twelvemonth; never venture a whisper about it to your friend, if he be an author especially. ~ A. Bronson Alcott

Sit down, and put down everything that comes into your head and then you’re a writer. But an author is one who can judge his own stuff’s worth, without pity, and destroy most of it. ~ Colette

A good novel tells us the truth about its hero; but a bad novel tells us the truth about its author. ~ G.K. Chesterton

Description begins in the writer’s imagination, but should finish in the reader’s. ~ Stephen King (On Writing)

The most essential gift for a good writer is a built-in, shockproof shit detector. This is the writer’s radar and all great writers have had it. ~ Ernest Hemingway

The best style is the style you don’t notice. ~ Somerset Maugham

The road to hell is paved with adverbs. ~ Stephen King, On Writing

Drama, instead of telling us the whole of a man’s life, must place him in such a situation, tie such a knot, that when it is untied, the whole man is visible. ~ Leo Tolstoy

Quantity produces quality. If you only write a few things, you’re doomed. ~ Ray Bradbury

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

Books by Jodie Renner:

~ Fire up Your Fiction – An Editor’s Guide to Writing Compelling Stories Amazon.com Amazon.ca Amazon.co.uk

~ Captivate Your Readers – An Editor’s Guide to Writing Compelling Fiction Amazon.com  Amazon.ca  Amazon.co.uk

~ Writing a Killer Thriller – An Editor’s Guide to Writing Compelling Fiction Amazon.com Amazon.ca Amazon.co.uk

~ Quick Clicks: Word Usage – Precise Word Choices at Your Fingertips Amazon.com , Amazon.ca , Amazon.co.uk

~ Quick Clicks: Spelling List – Commonly Misspelled Words at Your Fingertips Amazon.com , Amazon.ca , Amazon.co.uk

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I Screamed, I Cried, I Threw It Across the Room

                                                              

I love lists of things and I found another good one this morning. It is “18 Films You’ll Never Watch Again”, courtesy of the folks at movieseum.com. It’s not that the films that make the list are poorly done; they are not. They are by and large wonderfully done, but their subject matter is of the type with which you don’t want to deal, unless you have a half-gallon or so of bleach to pour into your sulci when you’re through. There is plenty to agree with (Bad Lieutenant made the list, as did Sophie’s Choice to name but two) and with which to disagree (The Devil’s Rejects? Are you kidding?!) but the list is worth perusal when you get a moment as it is wide-ranging and lists a few films that even the most ardent film buff might have missed.

So. Where is the list of books that are worthy of being read but, topic-wise, were more than could handle? I imagine that a number of folks would put THE ROAD by Cormac McCarthy on that list (the film version had its own entry) because of the dark, unrelentingly grim, subject matter. I would not, even though there are passages in that book which in their entirety haunt me still. No, my entry is PET SEMATARY, by Stephen King, the novel, which, according to King himself, the novelist Tabitha King begged him not to write. I agree with her; while I was reading the book, I screamed, I cried, I through it across the room, I stomped it, and then I finished it. The book concerned two things that I handle: the death of children and the death of pets. That PET SEMATARY deals with those subjects (and I’m not going to tell you how, if you haven’t read the book; no spoilers here, Bucko) would have been bad enough, but then King, God Bless him, takes things a step further with a very subtle, brilliantly conceived and wondrously executed “what would you do” scenario. I know what I would do, in a circumstance similar to that which confronted Louis Creed: I would do exactly what Creed did, even knowing what would happen, on the chance that something different might occur.  And that, my friends, is what I can’t deal with. I have more stories unpublished than otherwise, with mayhem and mortality and violence visited upon the innocent and the guilty alike, but I have never harmed a child or a pet in any of them. It’s someplace I can’t go.

If I may, then: what book did you find fearfully and wonderfully written that you nonetheless refuse to ever read again? Why? What elements of that book for you are the spiders in the shoes at the bottom of the closet, those shoes you won’t wear anymore? And can you write about your fears in your stories, or do you leave them unspoken, so as to rob them of life? 
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Fiction Writing Keys for Non-Outliners


Note from Jodie: I’m pleased to welcome back bestselling author Steven James to TKZ, and am looking forward to presenting a workshop at Steven’s conference, Troubleshooting Your Novel, in Nashville on January 17.

Excerpted from Story Trumps Structure (Writer’s Digest, 2014) by Steven James

Twelve years ago I had an idea for a series of mysteries featuring a one-armed detective. I attended a seminar by a well-known novelist who taught us to carefully and meticulously outline our fiction and then stick to the outline as we crafted our stories. In some cases he would write a forty-page long, single-spaced outline and then spend his actual novel-writing time pretty much filling in the blanks.

Well, I didn’t get very far in the one-armed detective project. In fact, it went absolutely nowhere. The process of outlining seemed daunting, not a whole lot of fun, and a very artificial way to approach an art form—sort of like telling an artist to use a paint-by-numbers approach.

I realized that in my heart of hearts I’m a storyteller, not an outline-maker.

If that’s you, here are a couple of secrets I’ve picked up over the course of writing ten novels without any outlines.

I’ve found that when I tell people to stop outlining their stories, I get strange looks as if writing organically is against some sort of “rule” of writing.

Well, in that case, I invite you to the rebellion.

Discarding your outline and uncovering your story word by word might be the best thing you can do for your fiction, just as it was for me. 

Here’s how to get started.

Trust the fluidity of the process.

I love Stephen King’s analogy in his book On Writing where he compares stories to fossils that we, as storytellers, are uncovering. To plot out a story is to decide beforehand what kind of dinosaur it is, how big it should be, and so on. As King writes, “Plot is, I think, the good writer’s last resort, and the dullard’s first choice.”

His analogy helps me to stop thinking of a story as something I create as much as it is something I uncover by asking the right questions. 

When people outline their stories, they’ll inevitably come up with ideas for scenes that they think are important to the plot, but the transitions between these scenes (in terms of the character’s motivation to move to another place or take a specific action) will often be weak. 

Why? 

The impetus to move the story to the next plot point is so strong that it can end up overriding the believability of the character’s choice in that moment of the story. 

Read that last sentence again. It’s a key one. 

Stated another way, the author imposes the plot onto the clay without letting it be shaped by the essential forces of believability, causality, and context. 

You might have had this experience: you’re reading a novel and it feels like there’s an agenda to the story that isn’t dictated by the narrative events. This is a typical problem for people who outline their stories. Instead, listen to the story, and respond to where it takes you.

You can often tell that an author outlined or “plotted out” her story when you read a book and find yourself thinking things like, 

◦ “But I thought she was shy? Why would she act like that?”

◦ “I don’t get it. That doesn’t make sense. He would never say that.”

◦ “What?! I thought she was . . . ?”

◦ “Whatever happened to the . . . ? Couldn’t she use that right now?”

◦ “I don’t understand why they’re not . . . ”

This happens when an author stops asking, “What would naturally happen next?” and starts asking, “What do I need to have happen to move this story toward the climax?”

The first question grows from the story itself, the second places artificial pressure on the story to do something that might not be causally or believably connected to the story events that just happened.

As soon as your character doesn’t act in a believable way, it’ll cause readers to ask, “Why doesn’t she just . . . ?” And as soon as that happens, they’re no longer emotionally present in the story.

As you learn to feel out the direction of the story by constantly asking yourself what would naturally happen next, based on the narrative forces that shape all stories, you’ll find your characters acting in more believable and honest ways and your story will flow more smoothly, contingently, and coherently. 

Here’s one of the biggest problems with starting by writing an outline: You’ll be tempted to stick to it. You’ll get to a certain place and stop digging, even though there might be an awful lot of interesting dinosaur left to uncover. 

Follow rabbit trails.

Forget all that rubbish you’ve heard about staying on track and not following rabbit trails. 

Yes, of course you should follow them. It’s inherent to the creative process. What you at first thought was just a rabbit trail leading nowhere in particular might take you to a breathtaking overlook that far eclipses everything you previously had in mind for your story. 

If you’re going to come up with original stories, you’ll always brainstorm more scenes and write more words than you can use. This isn’t wasted effort; it’s part of the process. Every idea is a doorway to the next.

So, where to start? Put an intriguing character in a challenging situation and see how he responds. Sometimes he’ll surprise you in how he acts, or demand a bigger part in the story.

And sometimes a random character will appear out of nowhere and vie for a part in the story.

As J.R.R. Tolkien noted one time, “A new character has come on the scene (I am sure I did not invent him, I did not even want him, but there he came walking through the woods of Ithilien): Faramir, the brother of Boromir.”

For fans of The Lord of the Rings books, it’s a good thing Tolkien didn’t stick to some predetermined outline.

Where do ideas and characters like this come from? Tolkien’s contemporary and the author of The Chronicles of Narnia, C.S. Lewis, wrote, “I don’t believe anyone knows exactly how he ‘makes things up.’ Making up is a very mysterious thing. When you ‘have an idea’ could you tell anyone exactly how you thought of it?”

While the exact genesis of ideas will always be, as Lewis points out, somewhat mysterious and impossible to pin down, we can tip the scales in our favor when we remember, that they often come from the questions, attentiveness, observance and responsiveness of the artist, the author, the poet, or the musician. 

Allow your characters the opportunity to flex and adapt and grow, revealing to you their quirks and inconsistencies, even as you push them to the limit to see how they respond. Then let the story shape them even while they shape the direction of the story. 

The key is responding to the story as it unfolds, being honest, keeping it believable, letting the characters act and develop naturally, and following where the trail of the story takes you. Give yourself the freedom to explore the terrain of your tale.

Without serendipitous discoveries, your story runs the risk of feeling artificial and prepackaged.

+++++++++++++++++++++

Steven James is the bestselling, critically acclaimed author of ten novels. When he’s not writing, trail running or watching science fiction movies, he’s teaching storytelling around the world. http://www.storytrumpsstructure.com/

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Writing Novels in a Minor Key:Where Are All the Good Tear-Jerkers?

By P.J. Parrish

Have you ever cried reading a novel?

No, I don’t mean your first draft. I mean, has someone’s work moved you to such a point that you shed real tears? Movies…that’s easy. We all have our favorite cinematic tear-jerkers. Here’s just a few of mine:

Breakfast At Tiffany’s: Holly searches for Cat in the rain.
Roman Holiday: The Princess and the pauper Peck. Hopeless love.
The Vikings: Kirk Douglas gets his Viking funeral.
Field of Dreams: Costner plays catch with his father’s ghost.
Sophie’s Choice: Stingo reciting Dickinson over the death bed.
Spartacus: “Please die, my love… die, die now my darling!”  
The Incredible Journey: Yes, even the old dog makes it home.

But the number of books that have made me cry I can maybe count on one hand. I cried when Jack the dog, reaching old age, had to be put down by Pa in the Laura Ingalls Wilder Books. I cried when Charlotte the spider died (but her babies lived on!) I remember reading Amy Tan’s Joy Luck Club on a plane and when I got to the scene where the mother explains why she abandoned her babies by the side of the road, I had to go hide in the bathroom and compose myself.

Are novelists more leery of the “cheap” reaction of tears? I think that is certainly true in crime fiction today. It is rare to find a novel, in these days of neo-noir aping and dick-lit posturing, that appeals to the emotions. We deal with the themes of death and loss all the time. We describe blood and guts with clinical accuracy. Why do we pull our punches when it comes to showing the emotional outfall of death?

I don’t believe it is just because movies are visual. What is more powerful than the blank screens of our own imaginations? I think it might be because today’s crime writers are leery of being labeled as soft when we go into matters of the heart. But to my mind, something very special happens when crime writers decide to write in a minor key.

Time out! Quick music lesson here. There are basically two ways you can compose something — in major and minor keys. And they sound distinctly different. In the western musical tradition, major-key music is played at times of celebration (think of Mendelssohn’s Wedding March or Happy Birthday), and fun times (Celebration by Kool And The Gang). Minor-key music is used to mark mourning (Chopin’s Funeral March), heartache (Back To Black by Amy Winehouse) and despair (Gloomy Sunday by Billie Holiday).

That memorable score to The Godfather, the one that captures the despair, bloody history, horror and complicated family love? It was written in C Minor. Now here is how it sounds when rewritten in a MAJOR key (Listen to just a couple seconds and you’ll be shocked.)

I’ll make him an offer that he…aw heck, on second thought, buy the old man a new horsey. ((Sunshine, lollipops and tommyguns every day…)))

Excepting many cozies, the tone of most crime fiction is minor key. (Although I find it interesting that the haunting theme for Dennis Lehane’s dark classic Mystic River is in C Major. Maybe because director Clint Eastwood wanted to go against grain and convey majesty and hope?) If you want to continue the music analogy, even romantic suspense doesn’t shy away from a darker feel at times. Yet I have found few crime novels that had me reaching for the Kleenex, that elicited from me a genuinely earned emotional response. Here are a couple:

Silent Joe by T. Jefferson Parker. The hero, a victim of child abuse, hunts for a kidnapper but every path leads him right back to uncovering the secrets of his own childhood. Sparse as a haiku but powerful and haunting.

Sandrine’s Case by Thomas H. Cook. Beautifully written like all his works but what starts out as a mundane murder trial with a semi-repulsive protag becomes a wonderfully humane love story. Think Gone Girl with a heart.

Lisey’s Story by Stephen King. Not technically a crime novel but I’m including it anyway here. It took me a while to get into this book, which slides back and forth between the real and woo-woo worlds as it tells the story of a wife coping with the aftermath of her writer-husband’s death. It is slow-building but powerful magic, King writing in B minor, about gently accepting one’s fate.

A pretty short list.

I had a conversation with a high-placed editor at a New York cocktail party last year. She told me she has noticed two trends in crime fiction recently: the decline of hard-boiled “guy books.” And the continued strength of romantic suspense. Now, let’s not kid ourselves. There is some terrific hard-boiled stuff being written right now, books that don’t turn up their noses at emotions. Likewise, there is some utterly putrid romance suspense on the shelves these days, stuff that gets everything about police procedure and forensics wrong and gets really treacly about the romance part. But where are the crime novels that hit you in the heart?

Maybe I am wrong. Or just reading the wrong stuff. What has gotten to you? What has made you cry? Movies are easy. But give me some books as well.

Or am I wrong in my belief that there is still room for well-wrought (as opposed to over-wrought) emotion in today’s crime fiction?

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Learning from Stephen King

Last month I had the great pleasure of reading Stephen King’s Misery to my 15-year-old son. Actually, I read only about a quarter of the novel to him; he read most of it on his own, devouring the chapters while he rode the subway to his cross-country team practices. I’d never read Misery before. I saw the movie when it came out in 1990 and loved it. In fact, that’s why I didn’t read the novel for almost a quarter-century. I doubted it could be better than the movie.
But the book is better. It’s even more disturbing and gruesome. In the movie, the insane nurse Annie Wilkes (played so wonderfully by Kathy Bates) punishes her bedridden captive Paul Sheldon (played by James Caan) by breaking his ankles with a sledgehammer. But in the book she chops off his left foot with an ax and cauterizes the stump with a blowtorch. Then, for good measure, she cuts off his thumb with an electric carving knife. But she’s also careful enough to apply a coat of Betadine antiseptic to both the knife and the ax blade. One of the most memorable parts of the novel is the image of the carving knife in motion, flinging drops of Betadine every which way as it saws back and forth. As my son put it: “That picture really stays with you.”
What’s more, King uses the novel to make several interesting points about writing. Paul, the narrator, is a bestselling novelist (like King) who’s loved by millions of readers but disliked by many reviewers (again like King, at least back in the 1980s). Annie is Paul’s deranged “number one fan.” At the start of the novel, before all the torture and amputations, Paul tries to explain some of the techniques of fiction to Annie, but she has no interest in them — she’s strictly a reader, not a writer. And yet she’s passionate about the books she reads and gets furiously upset at implausible plot twists. (“HE DIDN’T GET OUT OF THE COCKADOODIE CAR!”)
King explores the issue of plausibility by having Paul recall a childhood memory. He remembers a grade-school class where the teacher encouraged Paul and the other students to play a game called “Can you?” The students would collectively tell a story, with each boy or girl contributing a few twists and turns, and when the story reached a point where the hero faced an impossible dilemma, the teacher would challenge the students to come up with a way out of the fix. She would ask, “Can you?” and the student who accepted the challenge would propose a solution, and then the other students would vote on whether it seemed plausible.
This reminded me of a different game my wife and I still play with our kids during long car rides: the Fortunately/Unfortunately game. The kid playing the Unfortunate role thinks up terrible disasters while the Fortunate kid thinks of ways to escape death and ruin. Both of these games are good exercises for budding novelists. (In our family’s case, though, the games usually go downhill fast. We don’t do well on long car rides.)
Halfway through Misery’s plot, Paul realizes that only writing can save him from his own impossible dilemma. He starts writing a novel that rivets Annie, preventing her from killing him until he finishes the book. King’s descriptions of the writing process are spot-on. Paul talks about seeing a hole in the piece of paper he’s typing on, and through the hole he can see what’s going to happen next in his book. On some days the hole is big, on other days it’s tiny. He also talks about ideas that pop up from the unconscious mind, which he refers to as “the boys in the sweatshop.” Just the other day I was having some trouble with the book I’m working on — I was out of ideas, I didn’t know what would happen next — and my son reassured me by quoting from Misery: “Don’t worry, Dad. Sooner or later the boys in the sweatshop will send up a flare.”

After my son and I finished the book, we rented the movie (he’d never seen it before). The screenwriter (William Goldman) and director (Rob Reiner) made a few smart tweaks to the plot, and Kathy Bates’s performance was just as good as I remembered, but I missed the intimacy of being inside Paul Sheldon’s head and seeing all the fear and despair and cleverness in there. That’s the picture that really stays with you, the one that can’t be filmed.
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Stealing From Other Writers

By P.J. Parrish

When I write, I don’t read. Because I know, from experience, what happens when I do.  I steal.

Now, don’t get me wrong. All writers steal. At least, the smart ones do. Because this is partly how you learn to write a novel, by reading other novels, figuring out how the person structured the story, analyzing how the characters were layered, how the motivations were laid out, how the words were put together to elicit an emotional response. We learn by digesting the craftsmanship of others.

Here’s the thing though:  You have to steal in the right frame of mind. And for me at least, that is NOT when I am working on my own book. If I see a way of structuring a scene or chapter that is clever, I will try to replicate it in my own book. If I read a passage that sings, I will try to mimic it even if it’s not my style. When I am writing, I am in this weird fugue state and my brain is very porous and open. The temptation to take things that really don’t belong to me is too great.

But something changes once I am done writing my own book. I binge read for pleasure. Freed from my own insecurities and writer ego, I hear other writers more clearly. And when that happens, I learn more about writing in general and the lessons sort of sit in my brain, baking and bubbling, until I need them.

So, yes, I steal from other writers. Here are some of the things I have taken and the people I took them from:

Every sentence must do one of two things: reveal character or advance the action. I stole this from Kurt Vonnegut. About ten years ago, I was struggling mightily to write my first short story.  I went back and read Cheever, Hemingway, Saki and O Henry. I discovered John D. MacDonald’s The Good Old Stuff.  But it wasn’t until I got to Vonnegut’s Bagombo Snuff Box that I hit pay dirt. In the preface, Vonnegut laid out his eight rules for writing. (Click here to read them all.) His idea that every sentence must reveal character or advance plot was a light bulb moment for me. It now informs everything I write.  And when I teach, I try to impress on writers that every scene, every chapter, must work hard in service to the twin poles of character and plot.

Kill Your Darlings. Nope, I didn’t get this one from Faulkner. I stole this from E.B. White. And by “darlings” I mean good characters.  Charlotte’s Web is my favorite book, maybe the one that most influenced me as a writer. It has many great lessons but the most enduring is that a writer can – must – be brave enough to kill a good character. I’ve written about this before, so click here if you want to read more.

Fall in love with the sound of language.  Stole this one from Truman Capote after reading Music for Chameleons. This is a miscellany of stories and essays published in 1980 after a 14-year drought following Capote’s brilliant In Cold Blood. It contains passages of exquisite beauty and it taught me, when I was just starting to write, to pay attention to what words sounded like. Like those chameleons in the lead story, I was mesmerized by the music, and have spent all the years since trying to make my own. (In his preface, Capote writes: “When God hands you a gift, he also hands you a whip for self-flagellation.” Ha!)

Don’t be afraid! This one I got from Mike Connelly’s The Poet. For most of our Louis Kincaid series, we have stayed mainly with a third-person intimate POV because we think filtering the story through our hero’s consciousness enhances the reader’s bond with him. But when we started our first stand alone thriller, The Killing Song, we realized our protag and villain were equally important. We needed something special to drive home their dichotomy of good and evil, so we decided to copy Connelly’s The Poet and mix first and third POVs. Our first chapter was written in first-person from the killer’s POV and the second chapter switched to third-person from the hero’s POV. But it wasn’t working. And we couldn’t figure out why.  I ran into Mike at Bouchercon and told him I stole his idea. He smiled, shook his head and said, “But give the first-person to your hero. It’s his story.” We took his advice and the story took off. But I wouldn’t have had the guts to try without reading The Poet. 

There have been other lessons learned from my life of crime. From Stephen King, who has tried everything from horror to westerns, from eBooks to novellas, I learned not to let expectations box me into one genre or style. This has given me the courage to use an unreliable narrator in my WIP. As E.B. White said, “Sometimes a writer, like an acrobat, must try a trick that is too much for him.”

From Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, I stole the idea that a protagonist can be deeply flawed. From Jane Austen’s Emma I learned to pay attention to secondary characters because they might hold the key to the story (In the end, George Knightley won Emma’s heart). From Pete Dexter’s Paris Trout, I got the revelation that all good crime stories are not about the crime but rather its rippling effect on the people and the town. And last but not least, From Anne Lamott, I learned that my quest for perfectionism is death. She wrote in Bird by Bird: “The only way I can get anything written at all is to write really, really shitty first drafts.”  Which might be the best advice for writers I have ever heard.

Who do you steal from? And what treasure did you get?

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Afterlife with Archie

Do you remember Archie comics? I can’t remember a time when they weren’t around. The first Archie comic was published in…1944. I have, until recently only read a couple of them, but the characters — Archie, Betty, Veronica, Reggie, Jughead, and Midge — were of a type with which any high school student could readily identify. I always skipped over Archie titles, moving quickly to The Flash, Green Lantern, Fantastic Four, Tales of Suspense (which introduced Iron Man), Daredevil, and Justice League of America, to name but a few. I continued to read and collect comics for four decades, giving it up in 2000 when it seemed as if the plots were beginning to repeat themselves and my collection was becoming more of an accumulation. The new move toward digital comics didn’t bring me back to the fold, either, despite some attempt to update and “modernize” the titles I used to love. I also peripherally noted, from a seat on the sidelines in the peanut gallery, that the Archie books tried an update or two — Archie at one point had to choose between Betty and Veronica, among other things — which didn’t really sit well with the old fans or bring in any new ones on a long term or permanent basis.  

I thought I had bought or read my last comic book until a lifelong friend of mine, a 64 year-old fan boy, brought a new Archie series to my attention. It’s Afterlife with Archie, and you besides being a really good comic book, it contains a lesson for writers, published and otherwise. The Archie characters we all know are basically the same; Jughead isn’t a rocket scientist; Reggie is still kind of a d.b.; Moose is still athletically inclined to the exclusion of his intellect; and Archie, Betty, and Veronica are still caught in that love triangle of several decades. The story, however, is much, much darker. It begins when Jughead’s loyal pet Hot Dog is killed in a hit-and-run accident. Jughead takes Hot Dog to Sabrina, the teenage witch, who brings Hot Dog back to life with a spell. Hilarity ensues. Not really. Hot Dog is…different now. The resurrected Hot Dog bites someone — something that the Hot Dog we know would never do — turning them into a zombie, and within a few pages the town of Riverdale is a very, very different place. Yes, the story does tip its fedora to PET SEMATARY by Stephen King, but only a bit. There there are enough twists and turns to keep even the oldest and most jaded comic reader (me, for one) interested. The art, which is less cartoony than what you might be used to, is inked in dark shades to match the mood of the storyline, which spirals ever deliciously downward. The series is a huge hit; it takes place outside of the regular Archie universe and within its own unsettling continuity. Each issue is selling out at the comic book stores either in spite of that or because of it. Or both.

What does this mean for you or for me? I daresay that every one of us who has ever attempted to put story to page has any number of abandoned efforts on files languishing on hard drives (or in paper file folders) that are based upon good or even great ideas but somehow failed in the execution or otherwise died aborning. What I would like for you to do — and what I am going to do myself — is take one of those efforts and dramatically change one thing, and only one thing, within it.  Everything wild that happens in Afterlife with Archie proceeds from one element that differs from the series proper: Hot Dog BITES someone. Chomp. It changes everything. So go ahead. Take that nice woman in your story and turn her into a killer. Or how about that ten year old boy who got kidnapped in your Chapter One? Make your kidnapper wish they had taken anyone but him. Try it, and see how that old, forgotten project works. And tell us: have you tried this before? How did it work for you?

 
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Untrue Romances

I am writing this on Valentine’s Day. Call me sappy (or, perhaps, unable to think of a better topic) if you wish; however, we should consider our favorite couples in fiction (as opposed to fictional couples, a plethora of which exist in the real world!) even though we will be a day late and dollars short of V-Day by the time you read this.

Please permit me to take the plunge first. No one comes close to Spenser, the world’s most self-satisfied detective, and Susan Silverman. Each installment of Robert B. Parker’s iconic series (which lives on through the immense talent of Ace Atkins) is propelled by dialogue, and Dr. Silverman’s ability to match her tough-guy boyfriend line-for-line makes for great reading indeed. I will confess that in my own day-to-day conversations (though never in my stories) I have with abandon misappropriated sentences (nay, paragraphs!) which originally sprung from the mouths of both of these characters. Naturally, my favorite book about their relationship is A CATSKILL EAGLE, where Susan and Spenser kind of, sort of break up for a book or so. This gives Spenser an excuse to get truly medieval, and he does.

How many Spenser books are there? Dozens, at least.  Accordingly, my second-favorite romantic pairing is an angst-laden one, played out over the course of but one book. The couple would be Johnny and Sarah; the book would be THE DEAD ZONE by Stephen King. It’s not necessarily one of King’s best books, but it is one of many favorites, and the relationship between these two very nice people is one reason why. Their courtship is cut short when an automobile accident puts Johnny in a seemingly eternal coma. Sarah, sort of understandably, moves on after a decent interval and marries a decent enough guy, though King indicates here and there that the gentleman’s ancestry just might include a sphincter (or two) and maybe even a plastic device for holding a certain vinegar and water concoction.  She is comfortably though not necessarily happily married when Johnny comes out of the coma. The book is not so much about their romance as it is about Johnny’s psychic powers, but the back and forth between Johnny and Sarah throughout the story as they look but can’t touch and then say what-the-heck, let’s touch anyway, is worth the price of admission all by itself. THE DEAD ZONE, by the by, was nominated for, but did not win, the 1980 Locus Award for Best Fantasy Novel.
Now: your turn. Any romantically linked couple in fiction, in any media, is acceptable (though if you tell us Batman and Robin…), and please explain why. And Happy Valentine’s Day, wherever you are.
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