Bonding Character and Reader

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

Lee Patrick as Effie Perine in The Maltese Falcon (1941)

What is the most important thing your novel must accomplish with the opening pages?

A gripping first line? An action-driven plot? World building? A compelling lead character? Style? Voice?

All of the above?

Well, sure! If you can do all that, do it. But let me suggest that there’s something else, without which these elements won’t be as effective.

What the author must do, as soon as possible, is bond the character to the reader. It’s an emotional alchemy that render fictive gold. When the reader is not just interested in, but emotionally connected to the main character, the urge to turn pages ramps up to its fullest potential.

This is why the concept of the opening disturbance is so crucial. When a character is confronted with threat or challenge, we have a naturally sympathetic reaction. We can identify. We’ve all been there. That’s why this a good first step to the bonding I’m talking about.

An even more powerful effect can be achieved by adding a second technique, one I call the Care Package. It’s one of my fourteen signpost scenes as laid out in Super Structure.

In the most basic sense, it refers to a caring relationship is in place before the story begins between the main character and someone else. This is to distinguish it from Pet the Dog, which is when the Lead, somewhere in the middle of the story, takes time to help another character who is weaker and in need.

A perfect example of both is in The Hunger Games. When we first meet Katniss, she is out hunting to feed her family—her mother and her little sister, Prim. Katniss’ actions are illegal, but she does this out of love. Those relationships are in place before the novel begins. Author Suzanne Collins also includes in this Care Package a scruffy cat that Katniss does not like. This is a skillful addition, for the Care Package works even if a character is resentful about the relationship and the caring is done out of obligation. That works because we admire those who do their duty, regardless of feelings.

In the middle of the book, Katniss becomes the protector of the weakest of the tributes in the Games—Rue. That’s an example of Pet the Dog. It is a relationship formed after the story is well under way.

I got an email recently from a writer who asked if the Care Package could be something the character is passionate about, like basketball or playing the piano.

The short answer is No. It has to be a human or an animal (as in Dorothy and Toto in The Wizard of Oz, or Terry Malloy and his pigeons in On the Waterfront). Being in love with an activity falls under the umbrella of self-interest. Caring about another person is the essence of selflessness.

Note, too, that the Care Package applies to any genre. Even the hardest of hardboiled fiction, as demonstrated in this passage from Dashiell Hammett’s classic, The Maltese Falcon:

When Spade reached his office at ten o’clock the following morning Effie Perine was at her desk opening the morning’s mail. Her boyish face was pale under its sunburn. She put down the handful of envelopes and the brass paper-knife she held and said: “She’s in there.” Her voice was low and warning.

“I asked you to keep her away,” Spade complained. He too kept his voice low.

Effie Perine’s brown eyes opened wide and her voice was irritable as his: “Yes, but you didn’t tell me how.” Her eyelids went together a little and her shoulders drooped. “Don’t be cranky, Sam,” she said wearily. “I had her all night.”

Spade stood beside the girl, put a hand on her head, and smoothed her hair away from its parting. “Sorry, angel, I haven’t—” He broke off as the inner door opened. “Hello, Iva,” he said to the woman who had opened it.

One action: smoothing her hair. One line, and not even one Spade gets to finish! This moment is the only bit of tenderness Sam Spade shows to anybody in the book. But Hammett knew it would stand out for that very reason. We get one peek that Spade is not made of pure ice…because he has someone in his life he cares about.

Simple exercise: Before writing your novel, take ten minutes to brainstorm a list of possible Care Packages for your main character. Make some based in love and others out of duty. Eventually you will find the one that feels just right.

It will feel just right to the readers, too.

The floor is open. What Care Packages can you think of from favorite novels or films? NOTE: I’m in travel mode today so my comments will be scarce. Talk amongst yourselves!

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How to Write Act II

american-act-ii-microwave-popcorn-tub-9866-pA couple of months ago I released Super Structure: The Key to Unleashing the Power of Story. I’ve received many nice emails and comments about it, but recently two people asked me the same question. And it’s a good one, so I thought it worthy of a full post. Here’s a clip from an email (used by permission):

I’ve often noticed that writing books get a bit too abstract at times about theme, as if it’s something impossible to hold onto or grasp. But you are so clear by making it come across so smoothly in the super structure points. There is something very smooth about your approach. I felt very grounded as I read.

This is a small point that I’ve wanted to ask a teacher for some time because I’ve noticed this situation in other structure layouts: Why is it that Act II, which constitutes at least half of the entire story (actually > 55% if Act I is 20% and Act II is 25%), have relatively fewer super structure points (i.e., Kick in the Shins, The Mirror Moment, Pet the Dog, Doorway of No Return #2). There are 4 in Act II to guide the writer for 55% of the story but 10 to guide the writer for the other 45% (Act I and III combined). And yet we’re often told that the hardest part of writing a novel or screenplay IS Act II. Is it the hardest partly because it’s harder to teach in terms of structure, etc.?

That’s an excellent and insightful question. It does seem counter-intuitive to suggest in a book about structural signposts that the least number of them occur in longest section of the novel.

But, in point of fact, this is exactly how it must be.

First of all, what is Act II all about? It’s about the Lead’s confrontation with Death. Death can come in three guises: physical, professional, or psychological. That’s what makes the stakes high enough for the reader to care about what’s going on.

Act I prepares us for this death struggle. To get readers to care about what happens, we have to bond them with a Lead character, show something of the ordinary world, have hints of trouble to come … and then we have to find a way to force the Lead through that Doorway of No Return. Why force? Because no one wants to confront Death unless they have to! (Or unless their name is Evel Knievel.)

That’s why there are several important structural beats in Act I.

Okay, now the Lead is in the dark forest. To survive and get back to the castle, she’ll havekinopoisk.ru to defeat the forces arrayed against her. If you want a perfect illustration of this, think of The Hunger Games. Katniss Everdeen is taken from her ordinary world and thrust into a contest to the death, in an arena filled with obstacles and opponents.

Now, keep these two points in mind:

1. There are innumerable actions the Lead can take to gain her objective, to survive, and to ultimately defeat the opponent.

Standing at the edge of that dark forest, the Lead might: go left, go right, go straight ahead, follow a sound, run from a sound, climb a tree, make a weapon, start a fire, form an alliance, fight off a monster—whatever it is, you, the author, get to choose.

2. Each subsequent action will, in some way, be a reaction to what’s just happened.

If the Lead breaks her leg, she won’t be running in the next scene. If her love interest decides to walk out on her, she won’t be singing a happy tune.

You may also find that a character refuses to do what you want. In one novel I tried to get a wife to go away to her sister’s house, but she would not do it. I’d planned for her to go, I tried to push her out the door, but no soap. So I had to readjust, and in this case the character was right!

In short, a more “open” Act II enables us to respond to the story as it takes shape.

This is true, by the way, whether you like to outline or whether you prefer to wing it.

Further, you don’t need as many signposts because your scenes should have an organic logic to them. Act II is largely made up of the Lead’s battle plans. We know what the objective is: defeat death! In The Hunger Games it’s physical death; in The Catcher in the Rye, it’s psychological death; in The Verdict, it’s professional death.

So the Lead, in Act II, takes an action to gain a foothold in this battle. And suffers a setback.  Now what?

She forms a new plan, takes a new step, reacting to and learning from the last one.

In this way you have a natural, logical, clear and compelling “plot generator.” You don’t need as many signposts to do that.

If you ever feel “lost” in Act II, just go back and check a few things:

• Are the stakes death?

• Is the Opponent stronger than the Lead?

• Is your Lead using strength of will to push forward?

• Is there an easier way for your Lead to solve the problem? (If so, figure out how to eliminate that possibility)

Then brainstorm a few questions:

• How can things get worse for the Lead?

• What’s the worst thing that could happen to the Lead?

• Can a new character come in to complicate matters even more?

• What are the enemies of the Lead doing “off screen”? That is, what actions are they taking while the reader is reading the current scene? (This is a great way to come up with plot complications.)

Soon enough, you’ll be back on track with plenty of ideas for organic scenes, rising and falling action, throughout Act II.

Then, at some point, you have to get the Lead through another doorway, into Act III, where the final battle takes place. There are more signposts in Act III to guide you through this section. That’s because you can’t dilly dally. You’ve got the Lead going over a waterfall. You’ve got to get him to safety, fast.  The Act III signposts have a shorter space between them, which is exactly what you need.

Make sense?

I think it was Isaac Asimov who said that he knows the beginning and the ending of his novels, but then has the “fun” of finding out how to get from the one to the other.

So go go have some fun.

And tell us how you approach Act II in your own novel writing. What challenges do you find? How do you address them?

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How To Write A Young Adult Novel

By Mark Alpert

9781492615293-PR

I love Young Adult novels. For many years I read the books aloud to my son and daughter, and when my kids got old enough to read the books on their own, I would sneak into their bedrooms late at night and swipe the novels from their desks so I could keep up with them. I longed to write a YA novel of my own, and a couple of years ago I had an idea for a science thriller that might appeal to teenagers, a story about robots and artificial intelligence and whether a person’s mind or soul can really outlive the death of the body. Titled The Six, the novel will be published in July, and it’s already received some advance praise from R.L. Stine, author of the Goosebumps series (my son’s favorite bedtime read when he was a second-grader), and Michael Grant, author of the Gone series (which my kids also loved). Now I’d like to share some of the things I learned while writing the novel.

1) It’s all about The Voice. One could argue that the best YA novel of all time is The Catcher in the Rye. My daughter, now in eighth grade, read the book for her English class this year and was completely enthralled by the adventures of sixteen-year-old Holden Caulfield. It was Holden’s voice that grabbed her, the vivacious, confused, sometimes angry, sometimes wise voice that ridiculed all the phonies at Pencey Prep and wondered what happened to Central Park’s ducks in the winter. For a few weeks she adopted Holden’s voice as her own and spoke exclusively in Holden-speak, complaining nonstop about her “goddamn homework” and declaring “That kills me!” every time she saw something interesting on the street.

Of course, the narrator’s voice is important in all novels, but I think it’s absolutely critical for YA books. Young adult readers are especially eager to identify with the protagonist. They want to see the world through his or her eyes and maybe learn a thing or two in the process.

2) YA can be more daring than adult fiction. Writing in first-person is a very effective tool for creating a compelling voice. The main character can quickly establish a wonderful sense of intimacy when he or she is speaking directly to the reader. The problem with writing in first-person is that it’s hard to do well. If J.D. Salinger had been less adept at it, Holden would’ve come across as a whiny snot-nose. One of the keys is balance: the narrator has to be forthright but not arrogant, courageous but not stupid, compassionate but not a sap.

Because first-person is so difficult to pull off, I think many writers shy away from it. I don’t have any definite numbers on this, but I feel confident that the overwhelming majority of thrillers are written in the more conventional way — that is, third-person, past tense. That’s the way I wrote all my thrillers for adults. But YA authors seem to take more chances. Suzanne Collins made a brilliant choice when she wrote The Hunger Games in first-person, present tense. If it had been written in third-person, I don’t think readers would’ve fallen so madly in love with an unusual character like Katniss Everdeen. And the use of present tense energized the book’s gladiatorial combat scenes.

I decided to write The Six in first-person, present tense, and I think it made a world of difference. The book’s narrator, Adam Armstrong, is a seventeen-year-old suffering from Duchenne muscular dystrophy. He’s been in a wheelchair since the age of twelve and his heart is starting to fail. He has less than six months left to live. And yet he’s also a bright, funny kid who writes virtual-reality programs and loves the New York Giants. I don’t think I could’ve successfully portrayed this character if I wasn’t inside his head, telling his story in real time and talking directly to readers.

3) YA is usually shorter than adult fiction. A hundred thousand words is LONG for a Young Adult novel. Cut as ruthlessly as you can.

4) It’s good to have both boys AND girls in the story. What’s Harry Potter without Hermione? What’s Katniss without Gale and Peeta? One of the things I really liked about Rick Yancey’s The 5th Wave is that it’s split almost evenly between female and male point-of-view characters.

My YA novel focuses on five teenagers besides Adam, three girls and two boys. They’re all terminally ill, which makes them eligible for an experimental procedure that scans their brains in such detail that the full contents of their minds — all their memories and emotions and virtues and flaws — can be digitally recorded and stored in advanced electronic circuits. I call the six teenagers the Pioneers because some futurists believe that all people will be able to make this leap from biological tissue to computer processors, perhaps by the year 2050.

5) Give the kids special abilities. Those abilities don’t have to be supernatural or futuristic powers. Maybe one of your characters can have a fantastic memory or an amazing pitching arm or a remarkable singing voice. Special talents are actually pretty common among teenagers. If a kid has a passion for something, he or she will practice constantly and get absurdly good at it in a relatively short amount of time.

Growing up is the subject of most, if not all, YA novels, even the most fantastical ones. I remember when my daughter was a toddler she had very poor balance and was always slipping off chairs and benches. One day we were sitting on a bench on a concrete patio, and she started tipping backwards. She would’ve hurt herself very badly if I hadn’t swooped my arm around her, grabbing her in midair just before her head hit the concrete. It was really no big deal, one of the routine things parents do everyday, but at the time the thought occurred to me: To her, I am Superman. I have powers of speed and strength and agility that are far beyond her poor childish abilities. But when she becomes a teenager, she too will gain those physical and mental powers, and she’ll have to learn how to use them. Then I understood why I enjoyed the Harry Potter series and all the other books about teenagers struggling to control and take advantage of their newfound abilities. They’re all metaphors for the primary challenge of growing up.

6) Give the kids someone to love. Teenagers fall in love all the time. When I was seventeen I fell in love with a different girl every week (and ninety-nine percent of them were blissfully unaware of my passions). That’s one of the charming things about teens: most of them haven’t been really hurt yet, so they’re still willing to open their hearts. And that’s why love triangles are so popular in YA novels. These kids don’t know what they want yet. They’re still experimenting.

This experimentation often involves sex which you can see video examples of its depiction at cartoonporno. No other toon tube can touch cartoonporno.xxx, and the best YA books don’t shrink from describing sexual situations (I’m thinking of Holden Caulfield’s sad encounter with the prostitute in Catcher). In my YA novel the relationships are a little more unusual because the teenagers are transformed into giant clanking robots with bullet-shaped torsos. This is an advantage in some ways; the robots lack sexual equipment of any kind, so I don’t have to worry about disturbing younger readers (and their parents) with any graphic descriptions. But even though my teenagers are trapped inside machines, they still find ways to experiment. Adam figures out how to share circuits with one of the female Pioneers, and while they’re occupying the same machine each teenager has full access to the other’s memories and emotions. It’s a romantic connection that’s actually much more intimate than ordinary sex.

7) Don’t be afraid of the dark. Authors of YA novels no longer have to avoid the more upsetting aspects of adolescence. You can delve into heavy subjects like suicide and drug addiction without alienating your readers. Teenagers are talking about these things anyway and learning about them in their health classes. If a YA novel treats these subjects with the proper sensitivity, then reading the book might help kids make better decisions.

I was a somewhat morbid teen, appalled by the inevitability of death. It seemed ridiculously unfair. In The Six, I tackle these fears head-on by describing the death of Adam’s body. The teenager dies and is reborn as a machine. Then he and his fellow Pioneers must confront an even greater threat, an out-of-control artificial intelligence that’s seeking to exterminate the human race. If our species goes extinct, what was the point of all our struggles? Yes, it’s a dark thought, but teenage readers can handle it.

8) Above all, it has to be fun. Even the most serious YA novels have some humor in them. Kids are amused by the absurdities that adults have stopped noticing. The other day my son told me, “In a hundred years, people will be living to the age of 150. That means there are fifty-year-olds today who will still be alive a hundred years from now. So cheer up, Dad. You might be one of the lucky ones.”

It’s a funny quote, right? I’m going to try to fit it into another YA novel.

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