Notes from 2/12/13 Meeting
Second and Fourth welcomed two new visitors, David Mayer and Andy Peiffer, who both enthusiastically joined in the discussion
We started with talk about the next Fifth Tuesday, which is in April. If anyone from 2nd & 4th has a suitable place to host it, please let me know ASAP. We tossed around some ideas for the writing challenge, including an April Fool’s Story, a story with a cliche for a title, or one cliche which EVERYONE has to use as their title, and so on. We also suggested a story using the title “Lirpa.” Most discussion will follow at future meetings.
Bill Eisigner took us back in time with his short story, “No Cub Scout.” Rebecca and Carol immediately needed to know how the dog was doing! Poor guy. Jen felt the story dragged a bit, that we weren’t really there in the moment. Andy suggested it could be a case of telling, not showing. Carol wanted to establish a deadline time for Billy to be home – we don’t know he’s late until, well, he says he’s late at the end. Also establish the time period of the story early on. David suggested using the last line as the first line and really focus on Gary’s image of a “bad” guy but show how he’s really a good and decent person.
Rebecca Rettenmund presented Chapter 20 of The Cheese Logue. David, as a newcomer, was pleased to be able to follow the characters and dynamic of the story even though he had no idea of what had come before. Carol liked how Isaiah was ducking questions by hiding behind his beer. Bill liked the concept of partners having to work harder to earn approval. And Katelin said to make sure earlier in the book that the relationship is established as good, just that Isaiah doesn’t want to hear her book. David suggested cutting out some of the directions that seemed to go with each line of dialog and let some of the dialog stand alone.
Katelin Cummings went on a nostalgia trip with an old piece from college called “I Remember.” Turned out to be something of a trip for all of us! Rebecca said she got something different out of it every time she read it. Andy declared it beautifully written but totally “frickin’ confusing!” David observed that the story wasn’t really the point, the atmosphere it created was important. Carol was ready to rag on all the word repetition until she realized the words were creating a rhythm and flow that shifted as the story went on. Very much a prose poem, and none of us still knows what it means, but it was fun.
Carol Hornung shared scene 3 of The Ghost of Heffron College. Andy felt that Kyle’s reaction of disbelief was good – it was either that, or fear. Katelin (and others) were expecting the ghost to be female, not male, and the name doesn’t help. Establish masculine charactaristics earlier on. David liked the clues planted regarding the time period the ghost is from.
Odds and Ends
The Secret to Show, Don’t Tell
By K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland
This guest post is by C.S. Lakin.
Gone are the days of the long narrative passages we used to see in novels written by greats like Dickens and Steinbeck. Even though literary prose is still highly praised and found in many bestselling commercial novels, the trend over the last few decades has been to “show, not tell.” Meaning, readers prefer scenes in which they are watching the action unfold in real time—instead of being told what is happening by the author or even by one of the characters.
Sol Stein, in his book Stein on Writing, says,
Twentieth-century readers, transformed by film and TV, are used to seeing stories. The reading experience for a twentieth-century reader is increasingly visual. The story is happening in front of his eyes.
This is even more true in the twenty-first century. As literary agent and author Donald Maass says in Writing 21st Century Fiction: “Make characters do something that readers can visualize.”
Just How Do You Show?
As much as we writers hear the phrase “show, don’t tell,” we never hear anyone explain just how to do that.
Is there only one way to “show” a scene?
Is there a “best” way?
Is there a secret to doing this well?
I believe the key is in what Stein spoke of—how the reading experience has been affected by film. Film technique is the ultimate in showing instead of telling. In fact, even in scenes in which a character is talking about what is happening, whether a character on the screen or as a voiceover (when you just hear someone talking but don’t see them), you still see something happening on the screen before you. In a novel, if the author interrupts the present action to explain something (narrative or exposition), the reader stops “seeing” what’s going on.
Back in the day, because film had to be edited laboriously by hand and was tricky to do seamlessly, many movie scenes were filmed using one camera from one angle in one continuous shot. Take a look at some of the dance scenes from some old Fred Astaire movies and you’ll be amazed how he performed his dance sequences so perfectly in one long shot! It makes me wonder how many takes they’d have to do to get that perfect sequence.
Now with the wonders of modern technology, film editors can cut and splice with ease and create scenes out of numerous segments from different camera angles. Just pay attention the next time you watch an action movie like Die Hard. See if you can count all the individual cuts and camera shots that have been pieced together in a segment. Sometimes there are dozens—forcing your eye to shift from close-up to zoom, to panning the action, to an inserted detail, and the list goes on.
If novelists approach their scenes in a similar fashion, they’ll produce powerful, riveting scenes. These scenes don’t have to be high action; any scene can benefit from this technique. Too many novel scenes feel like the camera is stuck in one spot watching what is happening, and that can make a scene flat and boring. Imagine two people talking while they sit and drink tea with the camera only showing their two faces. Boring. But you don’t just want to “move your camera around” randomly. And this is where the secret comes in.
The Secret to “Show, Don’t Tell”
Let me preface by saying something I say often, to the point of excess: every scene needs to have a point or it shouldn’t be in your novel. With that said, let me add this: every scene needs a high moment, where that point is made. When actress Rosalind Russell was asked “What distinguishes a great movie?” she answered, “Moments.” And that’s so true for scenes.
We remember great scenes because they contain a great moment. Often that moment is not something huge and explosive. On the contrary—the best moments are the very subtle ones in which the character learns or realizes something that may appear small to the outside world but is giant in scope to the character.
So, once you determine the “moment” in your story, think about the best way to show it. If you are revealing something small—like a word, an expression or reaction, or a physical detail, you’ll want to have your “camera” up close. If it’s a big explosion in a city center, you’ll want to use a long shot to see the impact on a huge scale. Once you envision that moment and how you mean to show it, you can work backward to build up to it. Just like a movie director does when planning the segments to shoot a scene, writers can storyboard or plan out each segment leading up to their “moment” to give it the greatest punch.
Learn from today’s top movie directors and watch how they tell a story on the big screen by using camera shots. Pay attention to the key moments in each scene and notice how the filmmakers “show” instead of “tell.” If you take the time to study great scenes in movies, you can discover ways to fashion great scenes in your novels. Don’t be surprised when readers keep saying to you, “Wow, I could really picture your novel as a movie.” Take that as a compliment
How to Write a Character From Start to Finish
by Jeff Gerke
The best fiction is about a character who changes in some significant way. The selfish brute learns to put others first. The woman marrying for money decides to marry for love. The career ladder climber learns to cut back on his hours to enjoy his family. The bitter old crone learns to let others in. The independent pilot of the Millennium Falcon learns to care about a cause. The owner of Rick’s Café Américain decides he will stick his neck out for somebody after all.
We love to see characters transformed. Mainly because we are being transformed. We know the painful but liberating feeling of ceasing to be one way and beginning to be another, especially if the new way results in more success in relationships or other areas of life we value.
Most of the time, main characters in fiction are changing for the better. It’s uplifting to see someone make good choices and improve as a person. Probably your book will be about a character who changes for the best.
But there’s also room for characters who change for the worse. Indeed, though they may lead to depressing, poor-selling books if given the lead role, these tragic characters are fascinating to watch. Before our very eyes, Roger in Lord of the Flies, Allie Fox in The Mosquito Coast and Anakin Skywalker in the Star Wars saga all devolve into villains. It’s terrible and we want them to stop. But part of us doesn’t want them to stop.
Perhaps most intriguing of all is a “bad” character who flirts for a while with the idea of being good, but then decides that his true self is on the dark side of the street. Gollum/Sméagol in The Lord of the Rings is a famous example.
Of course, not every story has to be about a character who changes. Certainly we don’t expect much change from Indiana Jones. He simply is who he is. And there are wonderful stories about people whose character is so complete at the beginning of the tale that everyone else must change around them. Anne of Green Gables is a terrific example of this. Anne is out of step with everyone. She doesn’t fit in. And yet as those around her try to change her to conform, they discover that it is they who are in need of becoming a bit more like Anne. Forrest Gump, WALL-E, Don Quixote, Mary Poppins and even Jesus Christ are the agents of change though they themselves do not transform. But these characters can be difficult to write well—and they’re more the exception than the norm. So let’s focus here on a main character who changes.
Whether your protagonist ultimately turns toward or away from the light will be up to you, but we’ll look at ways to send her on a journey in which she’s transformed.
The Inner Journey
In fiction terms, a character’s transformation is called his inner journey or character arc. I like the former term as it suggests an odyssey, which it certainly will be for this poor creature you’re about to place on stage and commence to torturing.
The heart of this system is your main character’s inner journey. Other characters may be on journeys of their own, but it is the protagonist’s transformation with which we (and our readers) will be most concerned. The core temperament, the birth order, the way others respond to her, her major life events—all of those are essential background, but they are background all the same, for the main event, which is her inner journey as it will be explored in your novel. A character’s inner journey has five major phases:
• Initial Condition (including the “Knot”)
• Inciting Event
• Moment of Truth
• Final State.
It’s imperative you understand these five phases are steps on a voyage between two points: the “knot” and the moment of truth. The journey itself is a measure of where the character is along the progression between these two points: Everything else is preparation for this quest, progress along this quest, and aftermath of this quest. The simple graph you see is the thing that is going to ensure that your novel has both incredible characters and satisfying plot.
The Seeds of Change
The knot is the thing that is wrong with your character. It’s her flaw, her besetting sin, the unhealthy lifestyle she’s gotten herself into. It’s the harmful thing that the story’s whole point is to expose and give her the opportunity to change. In short, the knot is the thing that is messing up your character’s life.
You as novelist act as Fate or God over this character. You know exactly what’s wrong with this person, you see how it’s harming her, and you know how to bring it to her attention. You decide you’re going to force her to deal with it. You care about her too much to leave her in this handicapped state, so you’re going to make her see it and make a decision about it once and for all. This moment is your hero’s Inciting Event.
So you begin sending difficulties into her life. She wants to keep things the way they are—stay in an abu- sive relationship, give up on her dreams, not stand up for herself, hang on to her bitterness, etc.—because, despite the pain of the status quo, it beats the potential pain of change. But you won’t let her. So you, as a good fiction deity, rain on her parade. You make it progres- sively harder for her to ignore the folly of the choices she’s making. You bring in positive examples of what her life could be like if she were to try an alternative way. And then you put the squeeze on her (something I like to call Escalation). It’s all about getting her to the point where she will choose, her Moment of Truth. At the outset of the story, she had arrived at an unhappy medium, an imperfect solution that is not good but is at least better than all the other alternatives she’s found so far. But through the course of the tale you will show her clearly how her solu- tion is harming her and you will show her the bright, happy land she could enter if she went the new way. When she gets to this moment of truth, it will be as if she’s standing at a crossroads. She needs to be able to perceive what her alternatives are. “I can stay as I am and suffer these real and potential consequences, or I can make this change—at this cost—and enjoy these real and potential benefits.”
It’s that hanging-in-the-balance moment that is the point to which your entire story is heading. You could go so far as to say that this moment is the one and only purpose of the story. What the character chooses in that moment is the all-important thing, the infinite pause when heaven and earth hold their breath to see what this person elects to do in her instant of perfect free choice.
The aftermath of that choice leads to the Final State and the end of the story. That is your character’s inner journey in a nutshell. Make no mistake: Your book is about what your main character decides at her moment of truth. Everything else is just the vehicle to drive her to that pen- ultimate moment.
Can you see how this is an application of our simple graphic? If the destination we’re driving to is the moment of truth, then the starting point—the causation point, really—is the knot, the issue causing the problem in the first place. The trip from one to the other is your story. If you build your novel as I recommend, 75 percent of your book will consist of your main character’s inner journey.
The Role of Change
When you’re first concepting your character, you might be tempted to think only about who a character is. But to keep your characters interesting you must also think about what your character can become. Given this starting point, this temperament, and these layers, how will this character respond when shown she’s wrong or dysfunctional in some way and offered a better alternative? People don’t like to change. It’s so much easier to stay as we are, even if it’s hurting us. In fiction, as in life, people resist change.
Right up until the moment when it hurts too much. People dislike change, but they dislike unacceptable pain and consequences even more. Wait, you mean I could go to jail for that? You mean I won’t be able to see my girl- friend anymore—ever? You mean I really am, for sure, 100 percent, going to die if I do this one more time? Dude, what do I need to do to make that not happen?
Your job as story god over this pathetic, synthetic human you’ve created is to bring the pain. You have to dislodge her from her comfortable dysfunction like a pebble you have to remove from a block of mud. The crowbar you use is pain. You have to make it more painful to stay the same than it is to contemplate some manner of char- acter revision. People don’t change until it hurts too much to stay the same. Bring that pain to enable that change, and you’ll have uncovered the inner journey.
Coming Soon…February 19: Clayton Gill (???), Rebecca Rettenmund (chapter 18, The Cheese Logue), Bob Kralapp (???), Michelle Nightoak (chapter, memoir), Alicia Connolly-Lohr (chapter, Lincoln’s Other War), and Jerry Peterson (chapter 2, The Last Good Man).
February 26: Katelin Cummins, outline, Battle of Sista; Andy Pheiffer, Chaper, People; Rebecca Rettemund, Chapter 21, The Cheese Logue;
David Mayer, chapter, Time Traveler’s Definitive Guide, Vol 2; Bill Eisigner, short story; Jen Wilcher, “Work Drama.”
March 5: Lisa McDougal (chapter 10, Follow the Yellow), Amber Boudreau (chapter, Noble), Millie Mader (chapter 42, Life on Hold), Pat Edwards (???), Clayton Gill (chapter, Fishing Derby), and Aaron Boehm (film script/part 4, “Whole Again”).
March 12: Jack Freiburger, Jesus at the IHOP (postponed from Feb 12); Carol Hornung, scene, Ghost of Heffron College.