This week’s Writing Show, “Editing for Emotional Impact,” presented by James River Writers, was like a cornucopia of craft tips, everything overflowing, spilling out, and the crowd eagerly eating it all up. I had a great time. Here are my favorite take-aways from the evening:
Sadeqa Johnson urged us to listen to our characters. Really listen. Be open to what they have to say. While writing a scene, she’ll pause to ask a character, “What’s up?” Time and again she finds herself surprised by her characters’ answers. She tries to figure out what makes each one feel vulnerable.
Anne Blankman stressed the value of understanding what the protagonist wants, then taking that thing away, or at the very least, threatening its safety. She told us to think of a novel like an amusement park ride; readers have bought tickets and will feel cheated if the ride doesn’t carry them up and down and make their hearts pound. Continue reading
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Tagged Anne Blankman, back-story, books, Carrie Brown, character, craft, editing, emotional truth, fiction, Ginger Moran, Glimmer Train, James River Writers, manuscript, plot, process, protagonist, revision, Robin Farmer, Sadeqa Johnson, scenes, story, writing
For months I’ve been trying to find the right opening for the novel I started in 2013, and I think I’ve got it. Finally. For my breakthrough, I owe a huge thank you to screenwriter Michael Arndt.
Last month good friend and author Kristin Swenson met Arndt at the Austin Film Festival & Conference, and afterward sent me the link to a Disney/Pixar animated short that Arndt wrote: “Beginnings: Setting a Story in Motion.” (According to this site, the short originally appeared as a bonus feature on Toy Story 3’s Blue-ray version.) Enthralled, I watched it multiple times. Not only did watching help me write an opening that works, it helped me understand why some stories are good and others blockbuster-great. Only 8 minutes long, this short packs a career’s worth of screenwriting wisdom.
But there’s a catch. Novel-writing and screenwriting aren’t the same beast. Arndt tells us to begin by establishing the protagonist and his/her defining passion; inotherwords, start with the “ordinary world” beloved by Hollywood’s devotees of mythic structure. For film, this works. For novels, hmmm… not always.
Movie viewers settle into cushy chairs for a two-hour commitment, give or take 30 minutes. Readers commit to much more—hours, days, possibly a week’s worth of time engrossed in a fictional universe. A novelist who opens with the ordinary risks losing readers in backstory before they’ve made a commitment to the long haul, and might do better to begin with a scene that sets up the emotional arc of the story. An inciting incident. Later when the hero has reason to think about the world from which she’s come, writers can always provide backstory. By that time, if we’ve hooked our readers, they’ll be curious for more.
But despite film vs. fiction differences, storytelling is storytelling and novelists have a lot to learn from screenwriters. Arndt’s little gem purports to be about beginnings, but it’s also about structure and pacing and twists and turns and why some Disney/Pixar movies are insanely successful and… I could go on and on. I’m enormously grateful to Kristin for linking me to this clip. Now I can enjoy the upcoming Thanksgiving and holiday seasons with peace of mind, believing that at least for the moment, I’ve got my manuscript where it needs to be. Pfew.
And over the holidays, I might just settle into a cushy chair with a bowl of popcorn and a little Toy Story 3…
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Tagged arc, Austin Film Festival, back-story, backstory, beginnings, character, craft, hook, inciting incident, Kristin Swenson, manuscript, Michael Arndt, pace, pacing, plot, process, protagonist, revision, scenes, screenwriting, story, structure, Toy Story, writing
This past February while writing a new scene, a character showed up, whispered to my protagonist, “We have safe houses for kids like you,” and disappeared. I nearly fell out of my chair. Of course, I had to run after her—had to figure out who she was, and what she wanted.
For months I learned cool stuff about her: she does music therapy with a therapy dog, a wonderful golden retriever named Calcutta. She happens to be writing a dissertation on kids raised in hate groups. My fourteen year-old protagonist develops a crush on her, the older woman, then squirms over the taboo nature of his attraction. So far I’ve written twenty-two chapters, and there’s a lot going on, but just recently it hit me that as soon as I complete my first draft and switch into kill-your-darlings mode, she’ll be the first to go.
She’s a great character! Problem is, every time she appears, the pace slows. Every time except her initial appearance when the protagonist sucks in his breath and takes off in a direction he wouldn’t have gone, not then. But once he gets where he’s going, she’s no longer needed. Now I see other factors that can propel him to get where he needs to be, and once there, these other factors matter more than she does.
So, yeah… I have to cut this therapist, and I’m already preparing myself for the day of surgery, grieving the loss of her, telling myself it’s for the best. You kill your darlings in service to the story, the greater good. I’m thankful for the role she played, and I imagine that in another novel, she might emerge with a story worth telling. But in this one, a boy is struggling with his place in the world, and it’s his struggle I’m telling, not hers. I’m still on the first draft, still seeking his story, wondering what he’s going to do. And who knows? Maybe he’ll run into her again. But if he does and if her presence doesn’t keep me turning pages, once again it’ll be, Lights out, lady.
Photo credit: mrhayata
For a few years, I’ve had the privilege of serving as a primary-level reader/judge for James River Writers’ Best Unpublished Novel Contest. We hold a large, quiet party. Readers pull blind manuscripts from a pile and stretch out across sofas and chairs to score them while nibbling on sandwiches, sipping coffee… It goes on all day and sometimes more than a day, depending on how many writers enter the contest.
Every year without fail, the manuscripts that don’t score well are those that begin with back-story rather than in scene. Back-story is the history a writer needs to know to create characters who ring true. But readers only need to know that today, now, in this opening scene, the character feels and wants something. The emotion hooks the reader, giving the author time to supply back-story later.
The challenge is to figure out which details are absolutely necessary for the reader to know, and when and how to bring them in. Richmond writer Dennis Danvers gave me a great tip in this area: introduce back-story as the protagonist needs to think about it, or as the past occurs to the protagonist, not as the writer thinks she needs to educate the reader. In other words, back-story is relevant only if it matters to the character.
Early drafts will run heavy with back-story, and so they should. But in the revision process, as the right structure for a novel emerges, writers who focus on present-action scenes rather than back-story have the greatest potential to hook their readers and keep them turning pages.