Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell

An editor friend of mine recently wrote to me and said, loosely paraphrased, “Can you please write something about why asking lots of questions in interiority to make the reader wonder those things is lazy so that I can point writers there and let YOU be the bad guy? I’m sick of giving the same note over and over again!” I love my friends. They are more than happy to let ME fall on the sword. 😛 No problem!

Honestly, I’m happy to write this post because it’s an extension of one of my favorite topics: WHY things like “show, don’t tell” are a writing adage. If you’re still confused about the editor’s request, let me give you an example of what my brilliant friend means. She’s referring specifically to this technique in interiority:

I stared longingly across the bleachers at Paul. For a second, it almost seemed like he was looking back. A sly, blink-and-you’ll-miss-it smile later, though, his eyes had moved on. What if he liked me? He had completely broken character earlier and talked to me during lunch. A shiver worked its way through me but ended on an icy note. I reminded myself that I had to be careful. Catelynn’s killer was still out there. The police that came to the school had reminded us that cold-blooded murderers often lurk where we’d least expect. Especially in small towns like Dalebrook. A family friend. A seemingly friendly pastor. The cute guy at school. My heart squeezed painfully. What did I know about Paul, anyway? Where had his family moved from, again? Despite that dashing smile and those soulful brown eyes, could I actually trust him?

CAN YOU SEE WHERE I’M GOING WITH THIS? ARE YOU SUSPICIOUS OF PAUL YET? Whoa, sorry. I should probably put away my Obvious Megaphone. Because that’s really the effect when you start to weave too many questions into your character’s interiority. It’s basically the same as telling, though you’d like to think you’re not telling because of that ingenious little question mark at the end of the sentence. Writers are wonderful at telling themselves they’re not telling (telling to the negative degree?). They will put things they want told into dialogue to avoid long passages of backstory. They will sneak information into letters. They will overdose on flashbacks. All of these techniques are okay within reason, but let me remind you what’s harmful about telling to begin with…

Telling takes the initiative out of the story for the reader. It depletes that sense of discovery that always accompanies working your way through a good book. These questions are meant to lead the character down a certain path. Rather than luring them with bread crumbs, this is the equivalent of clubbing an audience and dragging them back to your cave. Readers like to participate in a story, that’s what gets and keeps them engaged. We’d much rather formulate our own opinions about Paul and brew our own suspicions. Maybe as a reaction to something Paul has done that’s a little shady. Maybe because we’ve read one too many “hottie bad boy” plots. Whatever the reason, we want to be suspicious of Paul on our own, and that’s something the reader is bringing to the page, rather than the author.

It all comes down to trusting the reader. We tell because we desperately want that information out there in black and white instead of leaving it as a delicious little gray area clue for the reader to find. There’s tension in the latter, though, there’s intrigue, there are even higher stakes, because if we’re not sure about something, we are more likely to care about where it goes. My suggestion is to try and bury the obvious until it’s less so. Make it a game. Don’t give away the answer in the questions.

(BTW, the title of this post is meant to be clever rather than political!)

Juicing Emotion

This post relates to notes I’ve found myself giving to writers and it’s along the lines of my Pimp Your Premise post last month. The theme is the same: You’ve done all this work, created this thing, so why not get the most out of it?

The note that originally elicited this response was a scene with high emotional potential that, for some reason, didn’t live up to its potential. Rather than becoming a sensitive life wire of emotion, the character drifted through, basically, the climax of the story with all of the interiority and sensitivity of a crash test dummy. (For all those who are new to my story theory rhetoric, I define interiority as having access to your character’s thoughts, feelings, and reactions. This is possible to accomplish in either first or third person.) The emotions were definitely possible in this intense scene, but the writer wasn’t going there.

More and more, my advice to writers can be summed up as: GO THERE. If you set up a premise with a really unique element, exploit that element to the fullest and design as many plot points around it. If you’re writing a grief story and there’s a lot of potential for your protagonist to hit rock bottom, have them crash into it at high speeds. If you’re writing a love story, give us that moment when he loses himself in her eyes entirely and becomes vulnerable for the first time ever. There are a million story opportunities for your characters to become a raw nerve.

As a group, writers–and don’t think I’m insulting writers here, this sentence could just as easily read “humans”–like to play it safe. They have their pet storytelling techniques, their favorite plot twists, their go-to phrases, their easy physical clichés that they deploy instead of having to write about the messy world of emotions. But the writer’s role job isn’t to play it safe. It isn’t to tread the familiar path, because the familiar path isn’t going to electrify readers. Artists in general search for the truth of the human condition by getting out of their comfort zones…and by taking their audiences with them.

If you yourself are unwilling to GO THERE, your reader’s potential to suffer, triumph, and understand diminishes. I’m constantly impressed by how many manuscripts scratch the surface in precisely those moments when they should be plunging in. Interiority flourishes during a boring classroom scene but is oddly silent when it’s time to visit Dad in the hospice, for example. Or we spend a lot of time on happy emotions but completely sidestep anything negative. (Reverse this dynamic for a dystopian manuscript!)

Let me get down to it: The scene that feels the hollowest in your manuscript should either be cut or you should screw your courage to the sticking place and GO THERE with it. Especially when the events transpiring call for high, noble, intense, painful, or otherwise uncomfortable emotions.

To call upon a book outside the kidlit canon, this was my biggest problem with THE MEMORY KEEPER’S DAUGHTER, an insanely successful adult novel by Kim Edwards that came out in 2005 and was incredibly successful. (SPOILERS) While it is a very emotional story, there is one glaring missed opportunity, a moment begging the author to GO THERE that was never realized. Briefly, the story is about a husband who immediately realizes that one of his newborn twins has Down’s syndrome. This is another era and he quickly spirits the girl away to a nurse, then lies to his wife, saying the second child died. Flash forward many years and the secret is close to coming out. Just as I was expecting the BLISTERING reveal and ensuing confrontation between husband and wife, the husband dies suddenly. The wife finds out another way and rages at his memory.

I know plenty of people who loved this book. But I really, really, really would’ve loved to see the scene where husband and wife stand naked before the truth. It’s one thing to rage at someone’s memory, it’s another to confront him in the flesh. And not just him, but the pastand the future. I would never call this author a coward, but I wondered what kept her from GOING THERE and giving us this highly emotional scene using both characters, not just one.

So if you’ve got a premise that’s locked and loaded with the high-stakes potential for emotion, don’t just skirt around it or do the next best thing. It’s going to be challenging, because you have a lot wrapped up in these characters and part of you probably wants to protect them, but you have to think of the most emotional points in your plot as an invitation to unleash those feelings without holding back. GO THERE.

Establishing Ramifications

One of my favorite ways of getting really good stakes going is by establishing ramifications for an action way before (ideally) that action takes place. The most obvious example of this that I can cite is the opening to The Hunger Games. Please excuse me of using such an obvious example, but I wanted to pick something that people had a good chance of having read. Suzanne Collins masterfully establishes what “the reaping” ceremony is from the first paragraph on. The ramifications of getting chosen at the reaping are very clear: you will go to the Hunger Games, and you will probably die.

We learn all about the reaping ceremony, and its risks. We hear in detail the lengths that people go to in order to avoid getting reaped. We start to fear the reaping–and, by extension, the Hunger Games–because Katniss fears the reaping and the Hunger Games. (We also start to love Katniss as a protagonist despite her thorny exterior because she fears the reaping and the Hunger Games for her little sister more than she fears it for herself. There’s that compassionate core to her that we see again and again with Peeta and Rue in the arena.)

So by the time the reaping ceremony arrives, we are extremely anxious about it. Not just because the narrator is extremely anxious, but because Suzanne Collins has established the ramifications of getting chosen. She has done her job right and the reader knows exactly what will happen: an Everdeen sister will be chosen in the reaping. Even though we are able to sense and call this inevitable plot twist very early on, I hesitate to call it predictable. Since the stakes our so high and our anxiety is so high, we dread the reaping and yet can’t wait to see how the characters will react and, eventually, get themselves out of this horrifying situation. When Prim is chosen and when Katniss volunteers, our initial anxiety (knowing what’s coming and knowing the ramifications of this plot event) is resolved, because something the author has built up has finally come to fruition, but then we’re shot into a whole new stratosphere of anxiety because now those ramifications are about to happen. Reading the opening to The Hunger Games is a thrill ride precisely because Collins has prepared us so well for the reaping.

Think about establishing ramifications when it comes to your own work. If your character is going to get kicked out of their house should they bring home anything less than a perfect grades (an exaggerated example, perhaps), the anxiety of this ramification has to be in place LONG BEFORE report card day. Then it is your responsibility to make sure the plot takes a turn in the direction of a bad grade. The stakes will be high as a result because the readers knows exactly what to expect, fears it, and is now worried about what will happen. And–it should go without saying–the consequence you established must come to pass. Sure, it may not be nice, and it may not be fun to do to your character, but that’s how you keep that all-important tension high!

If you have a bad report card or a reaping in your story, make sure the ramifications are established long, long before, and then play your reader’s anxieties for all they’re worth!

Button on Character

This has a lot to do with Monday’s post about guiding the reader emotionally. It also has to do with ending a chapter. Whenever you plunge your reader into white space (the white space at the end of a chapter, for example), you run the risk of losing them. So a lot of writers employ some smart tactics to keep this from happening.

I always recommend that you end on a cliffhanger, or introduce a new character, piece of information, or plot complication. Anything that will add tension and make your reader compulsively turn the page and start reading your next chapter. In essence, you never want to end a chapter with the character thinking about how tranquil everything is, or the reader will close the book and go play Xbox.

Well, sometimes you do use something drastic, like a cliffhanger, at the end of a chapter, but there’s the potential for a missed opportunity there, as well. Take this example:

And her father–right there in the flesh, after she thought he’d been dead all these years–walked right through the door.

Wow! Cool! I want to find out what happens, don’t you? Well, this could also be very abrupt if it’s the last sentence of your chapter. And if you tend to do this over and over, it will start to feel like your reader hitting a brick wall with each successive instance. Per the Law of Diminishing Returns, the cliffhanger tactic will also start to lose its tension-rich effectiveness.

One way to mitigate this effect, retain the tension, and also give the reader a more complex emotion than just “surprise” is to always button on character. This means to go back to your protagonist for a reaction before abruptly ending the scene. We get the surprise (or whatever tactic you’re using here), but then we’ll also put it in context, get some emotional resonance, and refocus on the protagonist’s experience of the story. If done right, this packs more of a punch than just a shock. So don’t leave your protagonist and their emotional reaction hanging until the beginning of the next chapter every time. A strong character-focused button will still keep readers invested enough to turn the page.

Sounds Great, No Substance

If you’ve ever listened to the trailer for an action movie, you know what I’m talking about. A guy with a deep and raspy voice (think Will Arnett) is narrating as the sun rises over a wasted landscape:

In a world of destruction, the danger of explosive secrets will bring one man to the edge.

Sounds great. Really juicy. Until you think about it and realize you have no idea what the movie’s about. Well, this is the kind of thing you want to avoid in your prose and in your pitches. I see this a lot with novel openings. Writers think that they can juice up the tension by making their first few paragraphs sound like action-trailer nonsense. They often do this in queries, also, where they give me even less of an inkling as to what their book is really about.

We get a lot of talk about danger and secrets and tension and action, but nothing is actually communicated and, since it has all been telling, the reader never feels the emotions that those volatile things are supposed to be stirring.

The antidote to this is specificity. I don’t want to hear about “danger,” I want to see it, and I want to know exactly what it is and what it means for the character. I don’t want to hear about “secrets,” I want to be blown out of the water by them and see their high-stakes ramifications play out on character and relationship. And if you find yourself writing one of those filler paragraphs to open your novel, delete it and start in scene, with specific action, with specific characters.

That pretty much does it for my daily “show, don’t tell” plug. Now, I’m off on my day of intrigue, excitement, and thrills!

(Translation: My day of reading a manuscript, taking a lunch meeting, and checking out my new gym. Sure, this line-up doesn’t exactly sound as flashy as “intrigue, excitement, and thrills,” but it is specific, and now you have a much clearer sense of my day.)

Confusion Is Not the Same As Mystery

I’ve been reading a lot of novel beginnings for webinar critiques lately, and I must applaud some of my students for diving right in there and starting with action. Some of these guys are just off to the races…we’re plunged into the middle of a scene, into a world, into new terminologies, into names and places that we haven’t encountered yet, etc. Kudos! Most novel beginnings have the opposite problem–they are too information-heavy, with lots of backstory or telling or explaining. Boo. I’ll take an action-packed opening that drops us into scene any day.

But!

Yes, there’s a “but.” It’s all about balance, actually. Because too much action and not enough information can be alienating to an audience that expects some grounding facts right at the beginning of the book. If we’re thrown into a story with no context or frames of reference, we are likely going to end up confused. And as I like to say, “If you confuse us, you lose us.” Especially at the beginning of the book. Nobody wants to pick up an object that they just paid $16.99 for and be frustrated or feel out of the loop. We want to be tickled, intrigued, our interest piqued. Think about a meaty mystery from a detective’s point of view: they have some clues, but not all most of them. And it’s that tantalizing yet puzzling amount of information that keeps them digging. That’s what you want to give readers right off the bat.

So, to repeat, some of these writers who do plunge the reader right in are taking a risk. They know that unanswered questions and tension and mystery are like catnip for readers (if readers were cats…though they often act like cats, curling up in various nooks, etc.). This is very true. If you start with action, you’ll most likely have tension or mystery working to your advantage, because the reader will want to follow and know more about what’s happening. It’s a natural instinct. But if you give us no grounding information at the beginning–if it’s all action and no context–you run the risk of confusing your reader with not enough information.

The best way to gauge where you fall on this spectrum is to run your opening by people who know nothing about your book (but who are writers or teachers and otherwise qualified to provide valid writing feedback). If they end up feeling like they get what’s going on at the beginning, or get it a little too much, you’ve got just enough or even a surplus of information to get the reader going. Maybe pare down some of the telling and work on increasing tension, action, and conflict to make it even more exciting. If your reader comes at you with lots of questions, on the other hand, or if they seem confused, maybe you should take a few well-placed pauses and slip in some context (without doing too much telling, of course).

Basic formula: Confusion, bad. Mystery, good. The two are not the same.

How to Button a Chapter

The white space and page break at the end of a chapter is a dangerous place. It’s very easy to lose your reader there, unless you give them a reason to stay and turn the page. Distractions are always beckoning, and nowhere is your grasp on your audience more tenuous.

What you never want to do with your chapter button is make your reader feel at peace. Unless it’s the last chapter. But if your reader thinks, at any other point in the book, “Wow, glad everything worked out,” they will put your book down.

So how do you carry them through to the next chapter? Here are some ideas:

  • Cliffhanger: stop in a place that pretty much guarantees a page-turn
  • Introduce a new character, plot point, or idea
  • Tie into theme: harken back to the Big Idea of your story with a thematic image
  • When all else fails, angst: if you do give your character a quieter moment, make sure to dip into Interiority (thoughts, feelings, reactions) and show the reader how unsettled things are under the surface with some worry or anxiety

That said, not every chapter button can be a heart-stopping cliffhanger (unless you are writing a thriller or action-packed novel, like The Hunger Games). That would get exhausting unless, again, it fits with the overall tone and genre of your story. (It could also get predictable and, as a result, have the opposite effect and disengage your audience. You don’t want your reader feeling content, but you also don’t want them thinking, “Oh, gee, I wonder what random bad news will drop out of the sky in this chapter.”) It’s okay to go for low-grade tension with some buttons (the theme and Interiority suggestions, above), as long as you have enough that truly grab your reader in a big way.

For more on this topic, read up on Prime Real Estate.

Bad Obstacles

I’ve been thinking a lot about what makes a good character obstacle lately. What kinds of things should your character butt up against in the pursuit of their objective? What kinds of things make for less-than-stellar hurdles to jump over? Well, if your reader is meant to be emotionally invested in your protagonist’s journey to the climax of the story, they will need to struggle. A lot. They will need to pursue a very important goal and get shot down as often as possible. In fact, the only time they should really succeed is during the climactic action of the novel (or picture book, though obviously goals, obstacles, and attempts at achieving the objective are appropriately scaled down, and the failures aren’t as catastrophic).

Whether your obstacles are smaller frustrations or major roadblocks, some things just don’t work. One is the internal obstacle of “I can’t.” “Can’t” is a four-letter word in fiction, when uttered by both character and writer. When a character says “I can’t,” my first instinct is to ask, “Why not?” Sometimes it’s valid. In ALCHEMY AND MEGGY SWANN by Karen Cushman, Meggy’s legs are maimed. When she says she can’t go up stairs, I believe her. Or if your worldbuilding dictates that characters can’t fly, it’s good that you’re keeping it consistent. But when a character flat-out refuses to do something, there must be a real reason behind it (like a fear of heights precluding them from climbing the Eiffel Tower that has been established in the book for a long time as crucially important), or the obstacle will feel flimsy. It’s one thing for a character to say they can’t. Writers often stop there. But if the reader is to understand their position, there should be real motivation there, or it’s a nonstarter.

On a side note, it really irks me on a logical level when writers say “can’t.” This often happens when I give them food for thought during a critique and they have the knee-jerk reaction of, “Oh, that would take too much revision and I simply can’t.” Why not? You are making everything up. If the way you’ve made something up precludes you from trying something new, simply dream your way out of the old rules and come up with another framework. “Can’t” has no place in fiction. (I often hear it for what it most likely is: “Don’t wanna.”)

Another flimsy character obstacle is one that depends entirely on another character’s will. This is often a true non-starter. If your plot is riding on your character borrowing their big brother’s car, and they ask their brother, and the brother says, “No,” well…you’re SOL, aren’t you? You’re at an impasse. There should always be other avenues to reach the objective, other actions your character can play, etc. Plus, it’s frustrating to read a situation when the other character’s refusal seems arbitrary. Just like with “can’t,” if I feel like they could easily change their minds, then I’m not buying that it’s a real obstacle.

So just like your characters, objectives, and motivations, your obstacles should be more dynamic.

The Problem With Immortality in Fiction and Writing High Stakes

“The Problem With Immortality in Fiction” doesn’t seem like a very real headline. The problem with immortality? What problem with immortality? I know that I, for one, would love to be immortal. *bares neck for any vampires that might happen by*

immortality in fiction, writing immortal characters, writing immortality, novels about immortal characters
Calling all vampires: This neck is available. Kthnx.

But in fiction, immortality is a huge problem for stakes. If your characters are immortal, they can’t die, and therefore one of the worst things that could befall someone is out of the question. When your characters are immortal, stakes plummet.

High Stakes Situations are Difficult to Write

The same goes for scenarios that are larger than life. It’s very hard to wrap one’s mind around a global apocalypse, when you really think about it. Think about those charity ads for starving children. If we hear the same mind-numbing statistic of “XX million children are starving in the world,” it’s almost too much to process. And it doesn’t stir our hearts for long. But those ad campaigns that highlight a particular child in a particular place and tell us their story, those are the ones that engage us into putting a specific face on world poverty and hunger.

So if you have an immortal character running around screaming, “The world’s going to end! Gaaah!”…I don’t know if you’re going to get the kind of reader-hooking reaction you want. The stakes you say are present (death/end of the world) are too big, and therefore they start to mean nothing, after all.

How to Make High Stakes Believable, Even With Immortality in Fiction

Let’s say you are writing a story about an immortal character or the end of the world. Should you put down the quill and sulk because it’s hopeless? No. The trick is to build in a framework of things (probably people) that your character cares about more than life itself, and put them in very real and immediate danger that is much smaller, more menacing, and more specific than some malformed looming apocalypse.

Through your character’s relationships to these people and their willingness to risk all for what they really care about, we will start to get invested in their story. After all, immortality is one thing, and it’s pretty boring, turns out. But the event that threatens to make immortality shallow and meaningless for your character? That’s what I’m interested in. And an apocalypse isn’t scary to me because it’s too huge. But the thing your character can’t bear to leave undone before the world grinds to a halt? That’s what I want to see.

Writers keep hearing advice to up the stakes, but it is possible to make your stakes too high and impossible to care about. If that’s the problem you’re battling, give your characters other more immediate things to despair over.

Struggling with building believable stakes and tension. Hire me as your fiction editor and we can make sure your novel hits the right emotional notes to pull readers in.

First Lines, Part 1

I’ve been doing a lot of critique recently and have been thinking a lot about first lines. Not just opening paragraphs and pages (we just did a workshop series on that, check it out by clicking on the workshop tag), but first lines in particular.

To drive the point home, I think I’m going to scout some killer first lines and make up some that don’t work so well next week. For the time being, here’s the note I’ve been giving out most often in my critiques, and it’s something for you to think about:

This could be the first line to any book.

When do I give this note? When I read a first line and don’t immediately understand something specific about a character or a world. When it really could go anywhere from the first line and make sense. This is a possibility when the first line is general enough, lacking detail, overly philosophical, or focused on description instead of character or action. The first line is, in a word, vague.

Here’s an example of a vague first line:

It was the summer before everything changed.

It’s a pretty okay line, by most standards. There’s tension implied — we are about to see a change, and change usually brings conflict with it. The reader also knows more than, we suppose, the characters, because we know there will be change, but it hasn’t happened in the plot yet. Not bad. I wouldn’t kick this first line out of slush.

But it could be stronger. For example, let’s give it the vague test. Could it be the opening to any story? Yes. Let’s take a look. It could be a…

Sci-fi story:

It was the summer before everything changed. Back when the Zorlots were still in control of the ship, and the clones had yet to run amok.

Western:

It was the summer before everything changed. Before that yeller-bellied Winchester rolled on into town.

Romance:

It was the summer before everything changed. The count hadn’t yet seduced Mistress Nancy and quite literally lost his head.

I think you get it. (And by “it,” here, I mean you get that I can’t really write genre to save my yeller-bellied hide.) It’s a strong line, but is it your first line? A distinctive, specific first line that can only be the first line to your book and no other? That’s what I think you should be shooting for.