Tag Archives: protagonist

Storytelling and Mythic Structure

Today’s post is for every fiction writer with a manuscript (like mine) that isn’t quite working. I’ve hit the two-year mark on this baby, including multiple (too many to count) rewrites of the opening five chapters, and a second draft of the complete novel, now told in alternating points of view (four different POV characters). The verdict is just in from two early readers: the manuscript still isn’t ready for my publisher’s eyes. Ugh.

But a comment from one reader has energized me. She said, “It’s one thing to be a good writer and it’s another to be a storyteller.”

Hmmmm. Read that line again. Mull it over. Let it sink in.

Both readers said my manuscript flowed easily—the writing was good—but the plot arc and emotional arc didn’t line up, and one reader found a secondary character more compelling than the protagonist (haha—that’s what I get for crafting new points of view). So I’m back to work, but I’m not writing, not yet. Instead, I’m analyzing this story. I’ve charted my characters’ desires (what my protagonist thinks he wants, what he really wants, what he needs, what he gets), and I’m rethinking the very essence of story.

I’ve turned to a book that’s sat on my shelf for years: Christopher Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers, which is something of a Bible for Hollywood screenwriters. I recall that when I first read it, back at a time when I didn’t have a complete manuscript and was considering Vogler’s ideas in the abstract, I felt disappointed with Hollywood for producing formulaic movies. Granted, these patterns are based on the work of Carl Jung and mythic archetypes, and Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces is great. But still… you can sometimes detect the formula in a film, leaving you wishing you’d waited to watch it on Netflix.

This month as I re-read Vogler, I see my manuscript anew. I’ve spent two years getting to know a setting and a set of characters, and now each of Vogler’s chapters is providing insights: oh, so that character is the mentor… oh, so he’s the shapeshifter… oh, so a “refusal of the call” establishes a deeper commitment to the journey… oh, oh, oh…! My manuscript has elements that make for a good story, but in some cases they’re out of order, and in others they’re under-developed.

I’m about to launch into yet another complete revision, and this time I’m so excited I feel guilty that this is my job. It’s too fun. I’m going to keep mythic structures and archetypes in mind as I rewrite scenes and restructure the plot, not trying to force it into a formula, but using these insights about storytelling to align the protagonist’s desire with his journey—no small task. If I kill off a character or shred a few plot points en route, well, hey, it’s okay. It’s all in service to the story.

I’m reminded that early-on in my process on this particular novel, I blogged about writing in service to the story, about appreciating characters that take a story where it needs to go, and killing them off once they’ve served their purpose. When I look at this manuscript as it stood back then, and this manuscript today… wow. There is no comparison. The story has come a long way.

And it still has a long way to go.

 

P.S. – As I was about to go live with this post, I got an email from James River Writers promoting their upcoming Writing Show on… how coincidental is this?… Plotting the Hero’s Journey, a discussion of Jung’s mythic archetypes. I had no idea this would be the February topic! The folks at JRW and I are thinking alike. I will be there…


Plotting the Hero’s Journey
Wednesday, February 25, 2015

6:00 p.m.
Firehouse Theater, Richmond, VA.

Revision Is The Best Part

The worst part of the writing process is the blank screen, the white paper, the emptiness, the limitless possibilities. The best is revision. Once I’ve scribbled a few words, I’m onto something, and when I let myself revise those words—moving paragraphs around, deleting extraneous junk—it feels great. Like cracking a Sudoku puzzle. Hahaha. (No, really.)

These days, I’m deep into revisions on a new novel and my manuscript is a mess. I love working on it, although I often wish it wouldn’t take so long. I decided to look back at an early version of Brotherhood to remind myself just how far that novel came—how bad it was early-on, and how much it improved. This gives me hope. Here’s the 2009 version of my opening scene:

Bam, bam, bam, bam, bam. Somebody is banging. Bam, bam, bam. Somebody is banging so hard the walls are rattling.

“Mrs. Weaver?” a man shouts.

My head hurts. I open my eyes. I’m in my bedroom. The light is early. A chicken squawks. Peep-peep, is that you? Jeremiah is stretched out asleep in his britches.

“Open up! Official business of the government of the United States. Open up!” The voice is flat and nasal. It’s not from around these parts. It’s Yankee.

I hear shuffling in the house. Mama is up. Peep-peep and Poke are squawking. Shoot. Is somebody hurting our chickens? I should check on the chickens. I roll off the mattress. I run to the windowsill. I am not awake. Am I awake?

“Shoot!” I cry.

There’s a boy looking in my window! He’s wearing blue. Blue cap. Brass buttons. Blue uniform. Musket on his shoulder. “Going somewhere, Mr. Weaver?”

Ouch. Cringe-worthy. Choppy. This version repels me more than it engages me. While I like the way I was able to get inside the head of this character, I feel irritated by that closeness. As a reader, I don’t want to stay inside this head for three hundred plus pages.

Here’s the revision, completed in 2011 and published in 2013:

The first sound Shad heard was the squawk of a chicken. Then the thud of a fist on wood. Bam. Bam. Bam. The hollow walls rattled. A man’s voice. “Mrs. Weaver?”

The light was early yet, and Shad glanced beside him. His older brother lay asleep there in his trousers—right there on top of the white cotton ticking. Hadn’t even changed into a nightshirt. Shad nudged Jeremiah’s shoulder and heard his brother grunt, but he didn’t wake.

The thud came again. Bam. Bam. “Mrs. Weaver? Official business of the government of the United States. Open up!” The voice was flat and nasal—not Virginia-born.

Shad nudged Jeremiah harder this time, but still his brother didn’t rouse. He rolled off the straw mattress, feet on cool dirt, and headed for the window. But at the sill, he jumped back. “Lord!”

There was a boy maybe Jeremiah’s age—seventeen—maybe a tad more—blond like Jeremiah. He stood on the other side, only inches from Shad’s face. Navy blue cap. Blue uniform. Brass buttons. Musket on his shoulder. He said, “Going somewhere, Mr. Weaver?”

Notice that I added details to ground the reader in the setting. I revised from first person, present tense to third person, past tense, pulling the reader out of the protagonist’s head, and providing a welcome distance while staying true to the character. I slowed the scene down.

Kathi Appelt

Kathi Appelt

My publisher never saw that early version of Brotherhood. Before I queried agents, I’d already revised the whole shebang, adding details, changing tenses, cutting some scenes and digging deeply into others. I had help doing it, thanks to the MFA program at  Vermont College of Fine Arts. Instead of telling me to shelve the manuscript because it was so bad, my 4th semester faculty advisor, Kathi Appelt, taught me how to approach revisions, how to dig deeper, how to turn a mess into a novel.

Re-reading my bad early version makes me feel good. Encouraged! My current WIP is messy, but it’s coming along. If I didn’t love the process, I wouldn’t keep going. But I do love it. I live for it. Spending my mornings writing fiction keeps me sane through my afternoons and evenings. And when I have something to work with—something to fix rather than starting from scratch—that’s the best of all.

Interviewing Characters

I learn a ton when I interview my characters. Over the years, I’ve compiled a set of questions for them, such as…

What are your parents’ expectations of you?
Where do you belong? Feel most at home?
What do you deserve? What are your inalienable rights?
What makes you feel worthy?
What sorts of circumstances unnerve you? Describe one.
Tell me about a defining moment in your life.

Etc., etc. It goes on for a bit. Author Gigi Amateau told me that she concludes her interviews with, “Hey [character], I’m here for you. What do you want from me? How can I help?”

Dizzy Gillespie

Dizzy Gillespie

Last week I interviewed one of my characters, a teenage boy who has asked other kids at summer music camp to call him Dizzy Gillespie in honor of the great jazz musician. It was an awesome interview. The kid told me how he stands up to bully-types but feels nervous when he does, how his connection with a particular dog makes him think about reincarnation and parallel realities. I won’t necessarily use these tidbits in the novel, but it’s good stuff to know about him. He rambled and I listened, and my fingers flew fast over the keyboard.

When I ended with Gigi’s question, he surprised me. Dizzy said, “You can help by writing me into more scenes. Get me out of the background and onto center stage. I’m the character who’s bringing this story to life. Kids are going to read this book for me, and the sooner you recognize that, the better your book will be.”

Wow. I had to smile. I love this guy! Up until now, Dizzy has been a strong secondary character—a force to reckon with—and his actions have done wonders for moving the plot forward. But he’s not the protagonist. I’ve thought of him as laid back and cool, and haven’t noticed how intensely competitive he is. Now I get that if he doesn’t get his way, he’ll try to steal every scene I put him in. He’s dangerous, and I’m loving it. I’m having a blast writing this novel.

When was the last time you interviewed your characters?

In Service to the Story

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.

Shadowy figure2For 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

The desire for a glass of water

Last month, a friend entrusted me with the privilege of skimming and commenting on her draft of a novel. Her writing was excellent, the setting unique, and the characters engaging, but there was something not quite right. I paced around my room, tracing the edge of a braided blue rug, mulling over the disconnect, and eventually got to thinking that the protagonist’s desire was not in alignment with the trajectory of the story. The novel drifted like an untethered canoe—one floating past the dock, just beyond reach.

Kurt Vonnegut

Kurt Vonnegut

As novelists, we learn to figure out what our characters want and send them in search of their desires. We’ve all heard what Kurt Vonnegut had to say on this topic during an interview posted in the spring 1977 issue of The Paris Review: “When I used to teach creative writing, I would tell the students to make their characters want something right away—even if it’s only a glass of water. Characters paralyzed by the meaninglessness of modern life still have to drink water from time to time.”

But how dull, right? A glass of water. And what if the character desires something immaterial, such as acceptance or a sense of belonging? It’s hard to communicate ethereal desires in an opening scene and hook the reader there. A novel has to build to them. I suspect Vonnegut would agree, but I think he’d tell writers to give a protagonist an interim motive—something to strive for en route to the climax. Something concrete like thirst. All desires (immaterial or otherwise) lead characters to take action in a world experienced through the senses—taste, touch, sight, sound and smell. Characters do stuff (they’re boring if all they do is sit around and think about meaninglessness or feel despair), and readers connect with them when they do stuff. When a writer describes a scene so well that it pulls readers in, inviting them to experience the world in which the character lives, details as seemingly insignificant as a glass of water matter.

My friend crafted unique and endearing characters and set them in a story that holds tremendous promise. Now her protagonist needs to want that glass of water that is… look… over there… in that glass tumbler on the windowsill… the one with the ribbon of yellow-green pollen dust at the base where the condensation has pooled… the one just out of reach… just past the edge of the bunched-up rug she’ll have to step over when she wants a sip, but she’s not looking down and her heel is going to get caught, and… uh-oh.

Many thanks to The Paris Review for posting the entire 1977 interview with Vonnegut.

Many thanks to The Paris Review for posting the entire 1977 interview with Vonnegut.

Getting into character

During one of JRW’s twitter-chats (#jrwc12) with upcoming conference speakers, we were posing questions for Kristen-Paige Madonia, author of Fingerprints of You, and she tweeted that she’d spent four years getting to know her characters. Four years? Ouch. I’d hoped to have a second novel under contract before my first appears, but I’m not so sure I’ll meet that goal. I’ve been struggling with my next novel, wondering whether my story works, and fearing I might have to banish it to a drafts-folder.

But Madonia’s comment gave me hope. Rather than lamenting that sometimes it takes as long as four years to write a novel, I’ve felt relieved. It’s okay! I don’t have to beat myself up over the next one not yet working. I’m breathing deeply again. I’m not under contract. I can take my time. Pfew. If it takes my characters four years to reveal themselves to me, well then, that’s what it will take. Implicit in my deep breaths is a new confidence that it will happen. Getting into CharacterI’d been rushing the writing, and now I’m slowing down and re-learning how to trust the process.

This past week I’ve been reading Getting into Character by Brandilyn Collins, an approach to novel-writing based on techniques in method-acting. I’m trying out her suggestion to interview my protagonist, and the kid is talking up a storm. Few if any of his ramblings will make it into the novel, but in absorbing his world-view, I hope I’ll be able to make his presence on the page authentic. Let’s see if I can do it… Let’s see if it takes me four years…

Organic writing

Last week I popped Katherine Applegate‘s middle-grade novel in verse, Home of the Brave, into my car’s CD player, and found myself mesmerized by the writing.  It was so good, I had to get the book in print so that I could read—not just listen—and savor her choice of words.

Applegate’s protagonist is a Sudanese boy who struggles to adjust to life in America.  Rather than using descriptive language common to Americans, Applegate infuses the novel with a Sudanese sensibility.  The boy’s observations include:

  • a cloth…soft as new grass after a good rain
  • pleading eyes that shine at you like river rocks in the sun
  • [an optimist] finds sun when the sky is dark
  • snowflakes tap at the window like stubborn mosquitoes.

Such organic writing!  These images grow out of the character and his experiences.

An author’s job is to create a fictional world and—with words alone—invite and compel a reader to slip into it.  The more organic the writing, the easier and faster the slip-slide happens…

Bringing in the back-story

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.