Story and the Power of Connection

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

In an article over at Aeon, Elizabeth Svoboda writes,

The careers of many great novelists and filmmakers are built on the assumption, conscious or not, that stories can motivate us to re-evaluate the world and our place in it. New research is lending texture and credence to what generations of storytellers have known in their bones – that books, poems, movies, and real-life stories can affect the way we think and even, by extension, the way we act. As the late US poet laureate Stanley Kunitz put it in ‘The Layers’, ‘I have walked through many lives, some of them my own, and I am not who I was.’

As storytellers, don’t we all have that hope? That what we write will have this kind of impact on a reader?

Even if our genre is a commercial one, we ought to consider the power of the wiring in our brains, which seems to be uniquely designed for the reception of a story. It has always been so!

One reason the epics had such staying power was that they instilled values like grit, sacrifice, and selflessness, especially when young people were exposed to them as a matter of course. ‘The later Greeks used Homer as an early reading text, not just because it was old and reverenced, but because it outlined with astonishing clarity a way of life; a way of thinking under stress,’ wrote William Harris, the late classics professor emeritus at Middlebury College, Vermont. ‘They knew that it would generate a sense of independence and character, but only if it were read carefully, over and over again.’

When our writing hooks into these universal themes (e.g., grit, sacrifice) there is a connection with readers that is an essential component of long-term writing success. Again, genre does not matter. To Kill a Mockingbird makes that connection, but so do the Perry Mason novels. Erle Stanley Gardner, Mason’s creator, recognized this early on. He called it finding a “common denominator” for the reading public, and boy did he ever get rewarded for that! Perry Mason was a “knight” fighting “injustice,” Gardner once wrote. The same can be said of Atticus Finch.  Perry Mason

There is scientific proof that our brain circuitry works exactly this way:

When the University of Southern California neuroscientist Mary Immordino-Yang told subjects a series of moving true stories, their brains revealed that they identified with the stories and characters on a visceral level. People reported strong waves of emotion as they listened – one story, for instance, was about a woman who invented a system of Tibetan Braille and taught it to blind children in Tibet. The fMRI data showed that emotion-driven responses to stories like these started in the brain stem, which governs basic physical functions, such as digestion and heartbeat. So when we read about a character facing a heart-wrenching situation, it’s perfectly natural for our own hearts to pound.

The late Dallas Willard, whom I was privileged to know, spoke of the power of Jesus’ parables thus: “He ravished people with the kingdom of God.”

Ravish is the perfect word. It means to overtake with indescribable delight. Jesus wooed the crowds with stories, like The Prodigal Son. He taught what love looks like in The Good Samaritan. These stories tap into circuits that pre-exist in our brains and zap us with emotion.

Maybe the other way to put it is that readers, being actual people who live in this world, seek connections –– with friends, family, and at the table of a worthy cause. A cynic may manage to convince himself he needs none of these things, but he will be the unwitting foe of his own wiring. Get him into a ripping good story, though, and at the very least he’ll be out of the abyss for awhile. And maybe that story will be the lifeline that pulls him back into the light to stay.

When Abraham Lincoln, a first-rate storyteller himself, met Harriet Beecher Stowe, the author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, in 1862, he reportedly said, “So you’re the little woman who wrote the book that started this great war.” Stowe and Lincoln both knew how to unleash “the better angels of our nature.” They used story power.

Do you ever think in those terms when you write? Do you have a potential reader in mind, knowing he or she desires connection? What “common denominators” do you think about when you write?

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Reader Friday: Best-Ever Film Made from a Book?

BY Kathryn Lilley, TKZ FOUNDER

So many films have been inspired by novels–most of them, unfortunately, were Not So Good. Can you name ONE film that was as good as the novel it was based upon (or even better?)

Following are listed some of my personal favorite novel-to-film creations.

JURASSIC PARK

 

THE GODFATHER

BLADE RUNNER

THE THING

THE GREAT GATSBY

THE HUNGER GAMES

TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD

GONE WITH THE WIND

SILENCE OF THE LAMBS

50 SHADES OF GRAY

JAWS

drunkirishdogshutterstock_178849166

In honor of our leprechaun fans.

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The Whole Truth About Atticus Finch

NOTE: Because of the timely nature of this item, Jordan and I are switching slots this week. Her post will come on Sunday. 

It’s been a rough week for fans of the book and film To Kill A Mockingbird.  

HarperCollins delivered the “new” Harper Lee novel, Go Set A Watchman. Many people urlstill harbor strong suspicions that the aging and infirm Ms. Lee was manipulated after fifty years of steadfastly refusing to publish anything else.

Be that as it may, it’s here. Strangely unedited (it renders a different version of the Tom Robinson trial, for example), the novel is primarily about one thing––a daughter’s coming to terms with her less-than-perfect father.

That’s the big shocker everyone is talking about: In Watchman, Atticus Finch is revealed to be a segregationist. He does not want the government or the courts telling him or his community how to live. He thinks the Supreme Court is using the Fourteenth Amendment to erase the Tenth Amendment. And he believes the black population is not ready for the responsibilities of citizenship.

In Watchman, Atticus is a member of the Citizens’ Council of Maycomb County, a group of white men strategizing on how to deal with Brown v. Board of Education, and the incursion of the NAACP and northern progressives into the South.

Harper Lee w:her father
Harper Lee with her father, Amasa Coleman Lee

The grown-up Jean Louise Finch (Scout from Mockingbird) discovers this about the father she idolized as a child. It all leads to the climactic scene––a knockdown argument between Jean Louise and Atticus over the “negroes” (the term the book uses).

“Let’s look at it this way,” Atticus says. “You realize that our Negro population is backward, don’t you? You will concede that? You realize the full implications of the word ‘backward’, don’t you?”

Jean Louise is horrified and responds: “You are a coward as well as a snob and a tyrant, Atticus.” She goes on to compare him to Hitler (!) and admittedly tries to grind him into the ground.

As a historical document, written in the mid-1950s, Watchman is reflective of so many similar confrontations that took place back then––college-educated white children coming home to challenge their parents’ views on race, especially in the South.

I will not reveal what happens in the last chapter. Suffice to say I was simultaneously moved and unsatisfied by it. Which may be the very point Harper Lee, the author, intended to make.

We live in an imperfect world, loving imperfect people.

Which brings us back to Atticus Finch. He was always seen as a virtual saint, especially as played by Gregory Peck in the movie.

But what everyone seems to miss is that Atticus held the same segregationist views in Mockingbird.

I’ve taught Mockingbird in seminars, most notably the Story Masters sessions I do with Donald Maass and Christopher Vogler. We go through the book chapter by chapter, talking about technique and style.

There is a single, enigmatic passage in the book that’s always troubled me. I never knew quite what to do with it. Until now, with the publication of Watchman.

It comes early in Chapter 15, the very chapter where Atticus sets himself in front of the lynch mob at the jail. The narrator, Scout, reflects on how Atticus would sometimes ask, “Do you really think so?” as a way to get people to think more deeply.

That was Atticus’s dangerous question. “Do you really think you want to move there, Scout?” Bam, bam, bam and the checkerboard was swept clean of my men. “Do you really think that, son? Then read this.” Jem would struggle the rest of an evening through the speeches of Henry W. Grady.

So what was Jem’s opinion? Who was Henry W. Grady? Why would Atticus give his boy a book of Grady’s speeches?

In light of what I’m about to reveal, I think Jem (who is the more sensitive of the children) probably said something along these lines: “Atticus, it’s just not fair that colored kids don’t get to go to school with white kids.”

Atticus gives him the Grady speeches, which are available online.

Henry W. Grady (1850-1889) was a post-Civil War advocate of what he called the “New South.”

The old South rested everything on slavery and agriculture, unconscious that these could neither give nor maintain healthy growth. The new South presents a perfect democracy, the oligarchs leading in the popular movement; a social system compact and closely knitted, less splendid on the surface, but stronger at the core; a hundred farms for every plantation, fifty homes for every palace; and a diversified industry that meets the complex needs of this complex age.

The new South is enamored of her new work. Her soul is stirred with the breath of a new life.

But what about the population of emancipated slaves? What of their future? Grady said things like this:

What is this negro vote? In every Southern State it is considerable, and I fear it is increasing. It is alien, being separated by radical differences that are deep and permanent. It is ignorant — easily deluded or betrayed. It is impulsive — lashed by a word into violence. It is purchasable, having the incentive of poverty and cupidity, and the restraint of neither pride nor conviction. It can never be merged through logical or orderly currents into either of two parties, if two should present themselves. We cannot be rid of it. There it is, a vast mass of impulsive, ignorant, and purchasable votes. With no factions between which to swing it has no play or dislocation; but thrown from one faction to another it is the loosed cannon on the storm-tossed ship.

These, then, were the views Atticus was passing along to Jem in Mockingbird, and holding onto in Watchman.

In other words, Atticus Finch was never a perfect saint.

But let me ask you this: who among us is? I’ve not known very many in my lifetime.

Which means this complex Atticus Finch is a more realistic character than the “perfect” one. He is still the man who defended Tom Robinson to the best of his ability. But he also holds odious, segregationist views. Jean Louise (and Harper Lee) make clear how wrong that is.

So what do we do with such a man, or woman, or family member? What are the limits of love? What is the cost of growing up? Are we compelled to hate those who hold views we cannot abide?

That’s what Harper Lee is asking in Go Set A Watchman.

The novel does not destroy the Atticus Finch of Mockingbird. Rather, it renders him flawed and therefore human.

You know, like the rest of us.

Jesus taught people to hate the sin, but love the sinner. In a world of so much hate, this message is exactly what we need to hear. Harper Lee’s novel, so long locked up in a safety deposit box, may therefore be more important than we think.

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Do You Know What You Want to Say?

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell


“If you want to send a message, try Western Union.” – Samuel Goldwyn
Do you send a message in your fiction? Nothing wrong with that. You can’t read Atlas Shruggedor On The Road or To Kill A Mockingbird without picking up that the writers had something on their minds that drove them in the writing. And each of those books still sell tens of thousands of copies per year.
But good old Sam Goldwyn knew that if you get too didactic, the story suffers. You have to let the characters live and breathe and act like real people in response to the story elements. You don’t want to manipulate them so much that the reader thinks you’ve moved from storytelling to sermonizing.
Still, at the end of any book or story, an author will have left something for the reader to think about. It can’t be helped. That’s the nature of story.
Which bring us to Theme.  Theme (or as I call it, Meaning) is the “big idea.” It is what emerges once the central conflict is resolved. The famous writing teacher William Foster-Harris believed that all great stories could be explained in a “moral formula,” the struggle between sets of values:
Value 1 vs. Value 2 => Outcome.
You plug in your values thus:
            Love vs. Ambition => Love.
In other words, the value of love overcomes in the struggle against ambition. If one were writing a tragedy, the outcome would be the opposite, with ambition winning, but at the cost of lost love.
Writing teacher Lajos Egri posed a similar idea in The Art of Dramatic Writing. He called it the “Premise.” It is expressed in a moral formula as well, as in Justice overcomes deceit.
The question today, writer, is whether you are being intentional about your theme.
Not all writers know their theme when they start writing. They have characters and a plot idea, and they let the writing unfold as it will. They may not think about theme at all. They may simply write about characters involved in the struggle of the plot, knowing that struggle will eventually end. Most of the time that’s how I approach it in my own writing. But I do, at some point, identify what it is my emerging story is trying to say—because, of course, it’s really mein there somewhere.
But even writers who say they never think about theme end up saying something. It can’t be helped. All stories have meaning, whether the author is purposeful about it or not. Why? Because readers are wired for it. We are always looking for meaning, trying to make sense of the world. Indeed, one of the reasons we have storytellers is to help our fellow creatures through the mythical dark forest, otherwise known as life.
Perhaps, then, it would be wise to be a little more conscious of your theme. Whether you start out with one or find it along the way, try to identify the unifying message. Then you can go back in the revision process and weave symbols, metaphors and thematic dialogue into the tale.
It also helps to know your theme in case you get questions. I wrote a short story that stoked some controversy among a section of my reader base. I got a few emails, and one consternated face-to-face query, asking why I wrote such a disturbing and eerie tale.  
I responded that I was actually trying to write a profoundly moral tale. One that had a very clear meaning (to me, at least). I shaped the plot precisely to be disturbing (think Twilight Zone or Alfred Hitchcock Presents)  because the theme would not be as powerfully presented otherwise.
I would be very interested in seeing if you find the meaning I intended. That’s why I’ve made the story, “Autumnal,” free on Kindle today through Wednesday. I’d love it if you got it, read it, and told me via Twitter what you think the meaning is. Use #Autumnal for the discussion.
As for you, dear author, talk about this in the comments: Do you know what you want to say when you start a story? Are you a “theme-first” kind of writer? Or do you prefer to let the characters duke it out and leave it at that?

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Killing off good characters

WARNING: SPOILER ALERTS
Yesterday, I killed the dog.
I didn’t want to do it but it had to be done. The creature had been hanging around far too long and I had sort of grown to regret ever allowing it into my life. So I killed the dog.
I waited as long as I could — chapter twenty-two to be exact. But then I just typed the words and the mutt was gone. Now I have to endure the after-wrath. It won’t come for months because the book won’t be published until next year but I know it will come. There’s an unwritten rule in our genre that you never kill animals. Because if you do, your readers turn on you like, well, rabid dogs.
It’s not just dogs. It can be cats. I am a big fan of the British writer Minette Walters, read every book she put out. Until “The Shape of Snakes” and she had a character who tortured cats to death with duct tape. Repulsed, I threw the book across the room. I had seven cats at the time.
This rule about animals is not just limited to cats and dogs. It’s birds, hamsters, horses. I refused to see the movie “War Horse” until a friend assured me the horse didn’t die. And don’t get me started about what those damn pigs did to Boxer the Horse in “Animal Farm.” 
The killing of the good and innocent. It’s the toughest thing we writers do. I am often asked what books have influenced me most as a writer and my first answer is “Charlotte’s Web.” It taught me that yes, sometimes you just have to kill off a really good character for the sake of the story, even if it’s only a spider. 
Is it harder if it’s a human being?

Why should a dog, a horse, a rat, have life,
And thou no breath at all? Thou’lt come no more,
Never, never, never, never, never!

That’s King Lear speaking. He’s grieving for the dead Cordelia. She was the good daughter, if you recall. Now Shakespeare had no qualms about killing off the good. (That’s why they called them tragedies.) We writers are still learning from him after all these years, especially those of us in the crime genre where death is the main machine in our plots. 
I’ve been thinking hard about this lately. Not just because of the dog thing but because of “Downton Abbey.” When Matthew Crawley bought the farm on that country road my mouth dropped open. Damn! They killed the good guy! He’s never coming back. Unless Mary steps into the shower and declares that his death was just a dream.
I felt the same way when Bobby Simone did his Mimi bit on “NYPD Blue.” Ditto when Col. Henry Blake’s helicopter went down in “M*A*S*H.” And I was upset that Lane Pryce hanged himself in “Mad Men” before he had a chance to make things right in his sad life.
Is it different in novels? Do readers feel less invested than viewers? Or are the attachments they form in the pure ether of their imaginations even stronger than those forged by film?
Consider Charles Dickens. He delivered his novel “The Old Curiosity Shop” chapter by chapter to his fans and when he killed off his heroine, Little Nell, all hell broke loose. One critic wrote, “Dickens killed Nell just as a butcher would slaughter a lamb.”
Author Conan Doyle always wanted to kill off Holmes. (“I must save my mind for better things, even if it means I must bury my pocketbook with him,” he once grumbled.) When Doyle finally did Holmes in, thousands canceled their subscription to The Strand. Doyle eventually gave in and resurrected Holmes in “The Hound of the Baskervilles.”
Closer to home, a few years ago crime writer Karin Slaughter killed off one of her beloved characters. Readers were furious, many accusing her of doing it for the shock value and vowing to never pick up another one of her books again. Slaughter felt compelled to post an explanation on her website. 
Readers take these things personally. At least they do if you, the writer, are doing your job. It broke my heart when Beth died in “Little Women.” I was mad at Larry McMurtry for weeks after he killed Gus in “Lonesome Dove.”  It took me decades to understand why Phineas had to die in “A Separate Peace.”
In fact, I didn’t really get what Fowles was doing with that book until fairly recently when I finally got around to reading Joseph Campbell’s “The Hero’s Journey.” Finney, I realized, had to die so Gene could find a way to live.
I wish I could say that in those decades between “Charlotte’s Web” and “The Hero’s Journey” that I have learned how to the handle death of the good. That is what the best books are supposed to do, after all, teach us about such big questions. But I think I have become a better at dealing with death as a writer. So let me offer a few suggestions for anyone who is struggling with this.
Make it worth something. You must create a bond between the doomed character and the reader so when that character dies, it has value. The death has to propel the plot forward or affect the emotional arc of another character. Check out this stellar passage from one of my favorite books “Smiley’s People” by John le Carré.

Slowly, [Smiley] returned his gaze to Leipzig’s face. Some dead faces, he reflected, have the dull, even stupid look of a patient under anaesthetic. Others preserve a single mood of the once varied nature – the dead man as lover, as father, as car driver, bridge player, tyrant. And some, like Leipzig’s, have ceased to preserve anything. But Leipzig’s face, even without the ropes across it, had a mood, and it was anger: anger intensified by pain, turned to fury by it; anger that had increased and become the whole man as the body lost its strength.

The death has to be organic. Make sure there is enough time for the reader to come to know the character. The death may be a surprise but there should be a subtle feeling of foreshadowing about it. Lennie Small in “Of Mice and Men” strikes an empathetic chord with the reader. That’s why his death at the hands of his best friend George to spare him from a lynch mob, is so powerful.
Don’t do it to fix a weak plot. We’ve all read books where another corpse is dropped and we go “meh.” Mercifully, I won’t include any examples here.
Keep true to your book’s tone. How do you want your readers to feel about this? Fearful? Deep sense of personal loss? Generalized feeling of human tragedy? Maybe you want them to laugh. Yeah, can be appropriate. I can’t think of any book examples but here’s an image I can’t forget from “L.A. Law”: Villainess Rosalind Shays accidently stepping to her doom in that open elevator shaft.
Don’t preach. Let the readers make their own conclusions about what the death means. Don’t tack on one of those awful codas where the hero stands around telling us what truths he has learned. And don’t, for corn’s sake, have someone say something like, “well, I guess we should steer clear of cannibals in the future.”
Be sure of what you are doing. Unless you’re in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s league, you can’t undo a death. At least not without some silly deus ex machina thing. I mean, I am glad that Spock didn’t really die from radiation poisoning in the warp drive tube. But I thought his rebirth was cheesy. I recently read a really good mystery by a successful author and I am pretty sure that the character he killed off isn’t really dead. (Can’t tell you the title; the author would kill me). I hope I am wrong. I hope the character is dead because it feels truer to this writer’s voice. Which leads me to my final point…
Let the end make room for beginnings. Pay attention to the survivors in your story and make sure death affects their lives. Leave room for redemption. In “To Kill a Mockingbird,” what’s so disturbing about Tom Robinson’s death is its awful inevitably. After falsely being found guilty of rape, he tries to escape but is shot by prison guards. But are we left in despair? I don’t think so because through this experience, Jem and Scout are learning about the dark complexities of the adult world. And at the end, there is Jem, keeping Scout from squishing that little roly-poly bug. There is hope in his need to protect the most vulnerable. There is hope for us all.
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Last Lines

By John Gilstrap
Over the years, we’ve devoted a lot of space here at The Killzone to the importance of first lines, but in the grand scheme of things, I spend far more time in my own writing fretting over the last line.  I’ve lost track of the books that have held me solidly in their spell all the way till the last couple of pages, only to betray my devotion by short-changing me on the ending.  I vow never to do that.

As a writer of thrillers, I think it’s my job to give my readers a wild ride, filled with exciting twists.  I work hard to make my characters seem alive to readers, and I’m often harder on the good guys than I am on the bad guys–at least for a while.  I owe it to my readers to bring the story to a satisfying ending.  That doesn’t mean that I promise a “happy ending” necessarily, but I do guarantee a sense of peace when the journey is over.  It’s the kind of commitment that I think breeds trust between a writer and his readers.

Now that I’m writing a series, I face the additional challenge of leaving enough of a cliffhanger to compel readers to look forward to the next book without also incurring their wrath by making them feel baited and switched.  To pull all of that off within the time constraints of my contract, I have to know the point to which I am writing the story.

All too often these days, I read books by brand name authors who seem to end their books by running out of words.  The plot develops, climaxes and then . . . I’m at the back cover.  One of the most egregious examples in recent years is John Grisham’s A Painted House.  I actually wondered if I had picked up a defective book where the last chapter had been removed.  Don’t get me wrong: I think Grisham is a great story teller, and as I read it, I thought that House was one of his best.  And then . . . thud.

An even more famous example is Stephen King’s The Stand.  There I was plowing through hundreds of thousands of words, loving it, loving it, loving it, and . . . what are you kidding me??

Here’s the thing about this three-act structure most of us adopt in our writing: A story had a beginning, a middle and an end, and each part is equally important.  There’s no room for laziness.  Every component of every scene needs to pull the reader forward.  The last scene is most important of all, I think, because that’s what the reader will remember forever.

I haven’t always gotten it right, either–at least not if you read some of the letters I’ve gotten over the years.  Nathan’s Run in particular has generated a number of letters from fans who wanted one more chapter.  In fact, the chapter they craved was in my original draft.  I took it out and reinserted it four or five times before I decided to leave it in the drawer.  Without giving too much away, I thought–and I still think, but am less sure–that the story ended when the action ended, and that the final feel-good knot-tying chapter was a step too far.

Of course, I’m the curmudgeon who believes that JK Rowling’s biggest misstep in the largely-wonderful Harry Potter saga is the final chapter–the coda, really–of The Deathly Hallows.  I would rather have imagined the future instead of having it spelled out for me.  It didn’t ruin anything for me; it just felt like one too many bits of storytelling.

What do y’all think?  Any favorite endings out there?  Terrible ones?

For me, the best closing line ever written, bar none, comes from To Kill A Mockingbird: “And he’d be there when Jem waked up in the morning.”  It tells us everything we need to know, and let’s us just float on the satisfaction of time well spent.

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