Writing Outside the Box

Having made the decision to write a middle grade novel starring a preteen boy, someone of the opposite sex and generation, I found myself falling into dangerous territory. You know—the territory marked with generalities. “Boys like to do such and such (play sports and videogames, speak one sentence for every eight a girl might utter). Therefore, I can make him do such and such.” This was simply because many of the boys I know (or knew awhile back) did those things.

Horror of horrors, I had written myself into a box. The result was a character as fake as snow in a can.

This

is not this.

How dumb, right? Generalities are not true of all; therefore, you can’t build a good character that way. Only by spending time with boys this age (and those older and younger) did the revelation hit: I needed to stop seeing this character as a stock character—as by-the-numbers as box cake mix—and see him as an individual whose heart and mind I could reveal. (And before you get ready to scream at me, I like many box cake mixes, particularly when someone else does the baking, and adds his or her own touches to make it special. But I digress.)

Case in point, I had to a pick a kid up from school a few times. Both parents were busy, so they asked me if I could pick him up and stay with him until one of them returned home. Now, many people who know this kid are of the belief that he barely talks. Not so. He talked for almost an hour about a Legend of Zelda game. I was the one who barely said a word other than, “Really? . . . Huh. . . . And then what?” He then segued to how much he loved creating music mixes using the software on his computer.

Link from The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild

Other things I discovered: Yes, watching a Barbie video was torture for him, no matter how much his younger sister begged him. And no, he would rather not play baseball or football. Dodge ball? He was the king. Badminton and volleyball? Yup. You could sign him up.

I love this kid! Thanks to him, I felt encouraged to think outside of the box—to avoid relying on generalities—to make my character someone a reader might care about. Someone who seems real.

   

What do you do to go outside of the box as you develop a character? I would appreciate any tips you might have, especially if you’re writing about a character who is very different from you.

Link is from the Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild wiki. Duncan Hines cake mix found somewhere on the internet, thanks to bing.com. Other photos by L. Marie. The mini figures are My Mini MixieQs by Mattel. Carrying case also by Mattel.

Beneath the Surface

Lately, when I’ve heard people talk about the movies they’ve seen, invariably I’ve heard phrases along these lines:

• Stunning visuals
• Bad script
• No character work
• Script okay, but not memorable
• Rich in cinematography, but dialogue poor

The last comment really resonated with me, because I love dialogue. I’ve memorized whole sections of dialogue from movies like The Princess Bride and Moonstruck. Not so with the movies I’ve seen lately. In fact, I can’t think of a single line of dialogue from any of the movies I’ve seen in the last four months. This is not to say that I disliked those films. They were very enjoyable.

As you know, dialogue and characterization go hand in hand. Dialogue can reveal a character’s motives and help move the plot along. Good dialogue can be fraught with tension.

I brought up dialogue, because I’m reminded of some feedback I received on a chapter I’d written, which centers around a family dealing with a crisis. The friend who’d read the chapter mentioned that she wanted to feel worried about the main character, but didn’t. While she complimented the writing, the scene just didn’t have enough tension. I later stumbled upon an article online that helped me realize why that scene was so troublesome.

In the article, “What Can You Learn from David Mamet About Adding Subtext to Your Script?” Justin Morrow mentioned this:

In all good drama, no one says what they want. . . [D]ialogue (or conversation, depending on what plane of reality you happen to be inhabiting) is all in the subtext, the hidden motivations and secret engines that drive our interactions.

The author went on to talk about Mamet’s screenplay for the movie, Glengarry Glen Ross, a 1992 movie adaptation of Mamet’s award-winning 1984 play. But what really caught my eye in that article (which you can find here), is this quote by Ernest Hemingway (sorry, David Mamet):

If a writer of prose knows enough about what he is writing about, he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them. The dignity of movement of an iceberg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water.

In my scene, the characters said what they meant (i.e., that they were angry or hurt), because I thought directly stating what was going on created tension. But the scene lacked subtext-—those simmering undercurrents that let you know there is more to a scene than meets the eye.

The following excerpt is from “The Light of the World,” a short story by Hemingway.

When he saw us come in the door the bartender looked up and then reached over and put the glass covers on the two free-lunch bowls.
“Give me a beer,” I said. He drew it, cut the top off with the spatula and then held the glass in his hand. I put the nickel on the wood and he slid the beer toward me.
“What’s yours?” he said to Tom.
“Beer.”
He drew that beer and cut it off and when he saw the money he pushed the beer across to Tom.
“What’s the matter?” Tom asked.
The bartender didn’t answer him. He just looked over our heads and said, “What’s yours?” to a man who’d come in.

You can infer by the bartender’s actions that he has a low opinion of the narrator (Nick) and Tom. Though the dialogue seems sparse, I felt the tension of this scene, because of what the bartender didn’t say.

If I had written that scene, I probably would have had the bartender show his disdain by saying something mean or sarcastic immediately. But I love the fact that Hemingway didn’t do that. He showed the tip of the iceberg and let the reader infer that there was a lot more going on beneath the surface.

Does every conversation have to be as subtle as the one Hemingway wrote? No. But considering the subtext can make your dialogue memorable.

What was the last movie you saw or book you read that had memorable dialogue or a scene of tension that you thought the author/screenwriter handled well? What engaged you about that dialogue or scene?

Glengarry Glen Ross movie poster from movieposter.com. Subtext image from theatrefolk.com. Dialogue image from clipartkid.com.

Soft and Strong

007A glance at the label of the generic brand of bathroom tissue I use (yes, I dare to go there) got me to thinking. I can see the value of softness and strength in bathroom tissue. But as human characteristics, softness and strength seem like polar opposites, because softness is often equated by some with weakness. I take umbrage to such a notion.

My mom’s got the softness and strength combination down. You probably think the same thing about your mom. My mom’s a hand patter. If you’re miserable, she likes to sit beside you and pat your hand, telling you that everything is going to be okay. But Mom morphs into steel when she goes into battle mode. She’s quick with a handbag upside your head if you decide to break the law. Yes, there is a story attached to that statement, but I won’t go into it now.

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Kate Spade handbag—a classy way to hit someone on the head

I love the juxtaposition of softness and strength in the males and females who populate various fictional worlds. Yet I have very little interest in heroes or heroines who are only seen in one light—that of strength, whether they are viewed as purely cool, physically powerful, or hilariously snarky. I can’t sympathize with a character who completely lacks a soft side. I can understand if he or she desperately wants to hide the fact that he/she is vulnerable. But the absence of any discernible softness causes me to put a story down.

Even Captain America (played by Chris Evans) has a bit of softness beneath his rock-hard abs. Don’t believe that? If you saw Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014) [SLIGHT SPOILER], remember the hospital scene when he visits Peggy (who has her own show now on ABC—Agent Carter)? [END SLIGHT SPOILER.] That scene caused even my jaded heart to melt. And I loved the scenes between Cap and Sam Wilson (the Falcon, played by Anthony Mackie), where they talked about their difficult adjustment to civilian life.

jakl4wj-how-hayley-atwell-became-old-peggy-carter-for-captain-america-the-winter-soldier

Cap and Peggy

34529Here’s a great example of softness and strength from Terry Pratchett’s Lords and Ladies. (For the plot, click on the book title.) The narration below shows what a character named Shawn thinks about a witch named Magrat who needs to rescue Shawn from some murderous elves. [SLIGHT SPOILER] Shawn doubts her ability to help until he realizes a fundamental truth:

Mum was right—Magrat always was the nice soft one . . .
. . . who’d just fired a crossbow through a keyhole. (268)

Shawn later learns that Magrat (who works with Greebo, a vicious cat described as “just a big softy” [269]) was extremely lethal, even as she “daintily” raises the hem of her dress to kick an iron-allergic elf with shoes bearing iron attachments. [END SLIGHT SPOILER.] Good stuff!

Because of the desire to portray heroines in a strong light and not as damsels in distress, sometimes authors (and I’m thinking mostly of myself) fight against bringing out a heroine’s soft side, hoping readers won’t judge their characters as weak.

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You might get the impression of softness when you see this cupcake. My plans to take over the world, however, might cause you to think something entirely different.

In the first incarnation of my novel, my heroine didn’t seem to have any flaws. She only mildly annoyed some of the secondary characters. Her inability to laugh at herself—to see herself as flawed—was a flaw on my part as the author. I had to start over with her and her story.

The first thing I needed to do was take myself out of the equation. While I hate to be ridiculed or abused, that doesn’t mean I should avoid writing a character’s journey that involves horrible bumps in the road. And while I like to be liked, a character who is liked by everyone isn’t a very compelling character.

One of my VCFA advisors once told me to pay attention to the way secondary characters act toward the main character. While that might seem elementary to you if you’re an experienced storyteller, that advice instigated an epiphany for me. The friction of interactions, often caustic, helped shape the pearl of a better character. Even more interesting, it provided the mixture of softness and strength I find compelling.

In what ways are your characters soft and strong?

Pratchett, Terry. Lords and Ladies. New York: HarperCollins, 1992. Print.

Hayley Atwell as Peggy Carter from somewhere on the Internet. Kate Spade handbag from thebusinesshaven.com. Book cover from Goodreads.

Convenient Incompetence?

I get on various kicks. These days, I’m really into the Justice League animated series, having seen most of the Justice League animated movies. Though this series is well over ten years old, I’m finally getting around to watching the episodes of season 1 that I missed. Better late than never, I guess.

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The Justice League (from left to right) Martian Manhunter, Green Lantern, Wonder Woman, Superman, Batman, Flash, Hawkgirl

Maybe it’s the slo-mo hero walk as the theme music swells that gets to me, but I can’t get enough of the show. Here. Watch the opener for yourself.

Like it? Makes you want to put on a cape, doesn’t it? Or, perhaps it inspires you to find six people and make them walk with you in slow motion. While I love the series, one thing irks me: many times the heroes get a serious beat-down until the last few minutes of the second or third episode. (Episodes have at least two parts in this first season.) I’m not against a hero getting the worst of it in a fight for the sake of building tension. But some aspects are frustrating to me, especially if a character is (allegedly) almost invincible. Take Superman and Wonder Woman.

jl-tradingcard-supes1 Justice-League_450

They have super strength and are bullet proof (Wonder Woman through her bullet-proof bracelets), among other skills. But in many episodes, someone who seems to have less power is able to slip in and sock either of them on the jaw, which sends them flying back. Maybe I’m missing something, but if you can’t even use scissors to cut Superman’s hair (since the scissors would break), I ask myself, Does it make sense that someone could punch him on the jaw or in the ribs without breaking several bones in one’s hand? Same with Wonder Woman. I just watched an episode where a woman raised on Themyscira (home of the Amazons) and given super strength via magic, gets the better of Wonder Woman more than once. But shouldn’t a woman who was born an Amazon have a slight advantage over a woman who is merely given super strength? I don’t pretend to be an expert. I’m just curious.

And Martian Manhunter (J’onn J’onzz), who supposedly is one of the most powerful creatures around with his super strength, regeneration ability, as well as his ability to shape shift and mind read, regularly gets knocked unconscious.

Martian Manhunter

I know I’m quibbling here. May I remind you that I do love the show. But having watched some of the behind-the-scenes features, I learned that other viewers had issues. Some described Superman as “a wimp” (according to producers Bruce Timm and James Tucker). The producers admitted that they pulled back on Superman’s power to make the threats the Justice League faced have more weight.

Okay, I can understand that. If Superman or Wonder Woman could easily defeat certain villains, the stakes would seem pretty low. And with their abilities, watching them take down a villain practically with one hand tied behind their back would seem boring by the third episode. But that’s the issue with seemingly invincible characters, isn’t it? We don’t feel the tension if we know that they will easily defeat an antagonist. (That’s why I’m a huge Batman fan. He lacks super powers, so the stakes are usually high for him.)

batman

But I still feel frustrated when a character’s “incompetence” seems convenient for the sake of the plot. For example, if a villain is able to slip in and attack a character who supposedly has super hearing or psychic ability.

I know, I know. These characters were developed over many decades. So nitpicking comes easily to someone who does not have to write or produce an animated show every week. That’s why I need to carefully assess my own characters. If they seem too powerful (the Mary Sue effect), the threat is neutralized. But if they have certain abilities (like super strength), there needs to be a good reason why an allegedly physically weaker antagonist can get the better of them. A good example of this is Lex Luthor waving a chunk of kryptonite at Superman, knowing that kryptonite is Superman’s weakness.

Lex Kryptonite

That’s why I’m inspired by a Justice League movie—Justice League: Crisis on Two Earths—which seems to hit all the right notes. In that movie, the Justice League are faced with their evil doppelgangers on a parallel earth. I won’t go into the plot. You can find that out here. Suffice it to say that the stakes are high for each character. And that’s what I want to keep in mind—high stakes for hero and antagonist alike.

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Making sure a character lives up to his or her abilities while keeping the tension high is a tightrope walk. But it’s worth the journey!

Maybe you’re not writing a superhero book. But if you have a hero (male or female) and an antagonist in some capacity, what do you do to keep the stakes high while avoiding making your hero seem conveniently incompetent?

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Hello Kitty, after assessing her archnemesis Jordie’s skills, has deemed him incompetent, and therefore worthy to attack.

Justice League image from supermantv.net. Wonder Woman from halloweencostumes.com. Superman from supermanhomepage.com. Martian Manhunter from dcmovies.wikia.com. Justice league: Crisis on Two Earths image from murrue02.tumblr.com. Lex Luthor image from listofcomicbooks.com.

Testing . . . 1, 2, 3

Call me silly, but I sometimes take quizzes or watch videos like this that tell me what my car color, sleep habits, or choice of donut allegedly says about me. (I’ll bet you thought I was kidding about the donut. Look here.) Do you look at quizzes or videos like these? I didn’t learn as much about myself as the above video promised I would learn. If you don’t care to watch the video or can’t for some reason, it’s all about sleep positions. In case you’re wondering, I start off on my side, but somehow wind up on my back when I wake up in the morning. I’m not sure what that says about me. That I have commitment issues?

1280px-Chocolate-Cake-Donut

This is my donut of choice: a chocolate cake donut.

Side sleeping is what the majority of people do (54%). At last I’m part of the in crowd. According to the doctor on the video, you can train yourself to sleep in a particular position. I don’t know about you, but that sounds like too much work. Yet I can see the benefits to it, especially if snoring is involved.

black-woman-sleeping

I’ve also seen videos and blog posts where experts state that you can train yourself to dream a certain way. My natural bent toward laziness rebels against that.

gryffindor_crest_print-r92608dde23aa4bca82f74baab045c6a5_geub_8byvr_512And then there are quizzes that tell you which fictional character you’re like or which fictional environment or faction best suits you. Like this or this. (No training is involved.) I don’t know about you, but I don’t always tell the complete truth when I take a quiz like this. If I know the desired person, environment, or group (Dauntless; Batman; Wolverine; Black Widow; Gryffindor; Aragorn; Rivendell; Harry Potter), I’ll tailor my answers to fit that person or group. Hey, I don’t want to end up in Slytherin. And I’m too selfish for Abnegation. But for some reason, no matter how many answers I fake, every time I take the superhero quiz, I wind up as Superman.

           superman logo-6 dauntless_symbol

That’s me for both. (The fiery symbol is the symbol for Dauntless.) I’d better get used to the color yellow.

One test I’m tempted to lie on but don’t is the Mary Sue Litmus Test for fictional characters. You can find it here. Unsure what a Mary Sue or a Gary Stu is? Go here. The test is to help you gauge whether or not your character is too idealized. It also provides tips to help you develop stronger characters.

Mary Sue

A Mary Sue. But if your characters are fairies or angels, don’t let this stop you. Just keep on truckin’.

My natural writing bent is toward the convenient, so making the effort to go beyond a Mary Sue has been challenging. It mainly involves letting my characters suffer instead of protecting them like a Mother Hen. That’s not pleasant. But I know that in the end, my novel will benefit from the effort I put into making my characters strong. Now if I can only figure out their sleep positions/Divergent factions/Hogwarts houses, my work would be complete.

Donut from Wikipedia. Woman asleep from theaustintimes.com. Gryffindor crest from zazzle.com.Dauntless symbol from first-jumperr.tumblr.com. Christian Bale as Batman from comicvine.com. Superman logo from thehummusoffensive.blogspot.com. Mary Sue image from lydiakang.blogspot.com.

Gone in a “Flash”

Feels like forever since I last posted or stopped by other blogs to say hi. With two deadlines soaking up most of my time last week and this past weekend devoted to my uncle’s funeral and family gatherings, I felt a bit overwhelmed. The following is the post I wrote last week, but put aside until now. I hope to return to my routine this week.

What is it about a baby shower that makes men’s eyes glaze over? I’m always amused when I see how fast guys scurry away as they drop their wives/partners off or run out the door if their wife/partner is the one throwing the shower. Yet my extremely busy week of curriculum projects due now, now, now culminated in a baby shower, for which I had to crochet sixteen kittens. (Sounds like a fifties song, “Sixteen Candles.” “Six-teen kit-tens!”) So, I’m sorry to have missed reading many of the blogs I usually read, since I had next to no free time whatsoever, even to post on my own blog.

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Hermit-ThrushC14784Speaking of now, now, now, the other day, as I waited in my car at a light, watching tiny birds like brown teacups gathered at a street corner, I thought about a quote I read in Entertainment Weekly’s double issue (September 19/26).

“I think we have to get to stuff faster probably than we otherwise would have,” [Andrew] Kreisberg sighs. “Everybody is telling stories a lot faster on TV now.”

250px-Andrew_Kreisberg

Andrew Kreisberg

Who’s he? The producer of the upcoming new series The Flash, the CW network’s vehicle for DC’s comic book hero, the Flash—“the fastest man alive.” Grant Gustin stars as the Flash. The quote is Kreisberg’s answer to the question of how the series will roll out the Flash’s powers—all at once or gradually? Inquiring minds wanted to know. But Kreisberg’s words raised questions within me beyond those having to do with the Flash’s abilities.

The-Flash

With so many shows for viewers to choose from, I totally get the need to quickly grab viewers’ attention. A trip to Half Price Bookstore helped me see that. As I wandered in the section for MG and YA books, I felt overwhelmed by the amount of books on the shelves, books screaming for my attention. Many were written by authors I’d never heard of. I scanned the first pages of some of them before I quickly moved on.

Skimming books in a bookstore doesn’t give justice to the authors who slaved over their manuscripts like great chefs—meal maestros who slave over a hot stove. And I don’t mean to convey that a book’s greatness should be judged by one hastily skimmed page nor that a television show’s worth is proved by how quickly viewers are gripped. After all, good storytelling often plays out over several pages and or over a season in television. Yet many people allow only one shot–a fleeting opportunity to quickly engage them or lose them forever.

I hope that the “fast” storytelling Kreisberg mentioned doesn’t mean that time spent crafting compelling characters will take a backseat while gimmicks and formulaic action sequences are thrust into the driver’s seat. That method of storytelling causes me to scurry away from a television program or a novel.

While I like to be engaged in a story early on, I also like to care about the characters beyond So-and-so’s hunt for his partner’s/wife’s/girlfriend’s/brother’s killer while he deals with his own issues with rage/PTSD/addictions. Of course this is not a description of the Flash/Barry Allen, whose antics I used to read about in comic book form. But I’m hoping that “fast” storytelling refers to his famed speed only and not to slapdash characters. Otherwise, I’ll be gone in a flash.

What do you think “fast” storytelling means? What’s the fastest way to engage you in a story?

“Fall TV Preview.” Entertainment Weekly. 19/26 Sept. 2014. 35-109. Print.

Grant Gustin as the Flash from screencrush.com. Bird from aconerlycoleman.wordpress.com. Andrew Kreisberg from arrow.wikia.com.

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The (Free)Play’s the Thing

One deadbeat musician boyfriend won’t commit. His scientist girlfriend wonders whether to dump him or plant watermelons. Two happy couples engage with their delightful, Pat-a-Cake-obsessed toddlers. Meanwhile, two dogs race about digging up money. Two cats do the same while remaining aloof from their owners, at least until a hug is offered. Another scientist and his artist wife contemplate adding a child to their family. But where should the child sleep? In the shrine area where the samurai mannequin is displayed? Meanwhile, a couple who just met the other day are now dating. Though he’s a scientist and she’s a real estate manager, they have the same work starting time, so that’s an advantage. But the musician has been showing up at the home of the real estate manager, whispering sweet promises in her ear. She’s tempted to listen. My suggestion? She should plant potatoes or watermelons.

Watermelons

1420What on earth am I going on about? The Sims™ FreePlay. (Sorry, Hamlet fans. The title is all you’re getting of Shakespeare’s play. And you hoped this blog was a class act. Don’t worry. There is a method to the madness. Um, okay yeah that would be another Hamlet quote.) You probably recognized the scenarios above if you have the game on your phone or tablet. You have to keep your sims (the people who populate the game) happy and inspired by fulfilling their needs (food, sleep, social, bladder, etc.). You provide housing for them, jobs, toilets, and potential dates. They earn money (simoleons) by working or gardening. Along the way, you go on quests to gain the ability to marry, have a baby, turn said baby into a toddler, acquire horses, etc.

The-Sims-FreePlay

I love the toddler aspect, since my job involves writing preschool and kindergarten curriculum. Also I am around a lot of toddlers. In fact, the other day, a little boy who will be three soon came up to me and said, “Ima draw a picture for you.” (His exact words.) I seldom say no when a toddler offers to do something for me. Here is the picture he drew:

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So sweet. But I digress. The actions in Sims FreePlay are done in real time (20 minutes means 20 actual minutes), unless you use a suggested number of life points to speed things up. Playing the game has been a lesson for me on what makes a story compelling versus what makes a story seem rote.

Characters. As I mentioned earlier, the object of Sims FreePlay is to meet all of your sims’ needs. But in a novel, a character whose every need is easily met isn’t the most interesting character to read about. Much of life involves conflict, which often helps shape character. Conflict makes a story compelling.

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Relationships are important in the sims’ lives as they are in real life. The decision to allow your sims to date is made by the click of a button: Be Romantic. Keep clicking that button and two sims will eventually have a status change to Dating. It’s that simple. So chemistry has no part to play in dating. And since the characters can date any of the other characters, there’s no mystery. (You can also click Be Nice if you want two sims to be friends.) And even the “tension” of someone who refuses to marry someone else boils down to the player’s refusal to pony up the life points for a sim to buy a decent ring.

In a novel, friendship and dating need more friction and chemistry to keep readers engaged. Also, if all of the characters could date any of the other characters in the story, where’s the tension in that?

Quests. Many compelling stories, like those following the hero’s journey, involve characters on quests. These quests, fraught with dangerous thresholds, make us turn pages. But in the Sims FreePlay, some of the thresholds involve actions like standing at a stove baking a birthday cake for 24 real-time hours or talking to a statue in a park for 24 hours (a one-sided conversation for the most part). I don’t know about you, but neither action seems exciting, especially when you think about reading a scene like this in a book. This is when a summary would come in handy. Remember what I mentioned about life points and how using them truncates time? Summarizing does this in a way. It helps you avoid boring someone with a tedious scene. Keeping a balance between scene and summary is tricky.

I’m sure I don’t really have to tell you how to make a book compelling. You’re undoubtedly hard at work doing just that. And hard work is the key isn’t it? Crafting a compelling story is hard work that goes well beyond a mere push of a button.

Sims images from megagames.com, sims.wikia.com, and at the EA Games website. Watermelons from commons.wikimedia.org. Hamlet cover from Goodreads.