How to Force Your Character to Take Action

A member of the Book Writing World has written a terrific mystery, but his protagonist is a little slow about pursuing the clues he’s stumbled upon that indicate a murder has happened. I’ve had my own problems with protagonists who feel helpless, uncertain or just plain lazy. How do you get your characters to stop pondering, philosophizing or just buying donuts and start to make sh*t happen? Get behind your characters’ motivation. What would *you* do if you thought you had discovered evidence of a murder?! Would it haunt you? Writing can be like dreaming. I used to have dreams in which something bad was happening and I needed to run but couldn’t. Eventually I realized that this was because my sleeping body thought I actually wanted it to run and it refused to haul itself out of bed just because I was having a bad dream! A similar lethargy can haunt the writing process. We writers are sitting safely at our desks or wherever, and it seems far-fetched to jump up and start solving murders or actively dealing with major life problems. But if we were in the actual situation, you bet we’d be taking action–and that is what our characters must...

What Writers Can Learn from Christmas

We all want the perfect family and the perfect day, but the stories come from the problems and troubles. We want it to be easy; we want it to be simple; we want it to be pure joy. But life is more complicated than that, and your stories should be, too! Here are some more tips for writers that holiday celebrations drive home: 1) Unwrapping half the fun? Worrying about being able to smile and thank Aunt Matilda for the horrible present keep you up at night? Anticipation is more involving than payoff. See my blog on withholding. 2) Shared childhood? Hardly! Each person remembers different moments, different aspects of what happened and who did what and what pieces of the world around mattered. Hence the interrelation of point of view, plot, character and setting. Who tells the story will determine what gets recounted, what gets noticed and remembered. 3) When everything is happening all at once, it’s exciting, but it’s hard to keep track of what’s going on, let alone appreciate it. Sequences and causality support the creation of meaning. No matter what kind of holiday (or childhood) you had, you can use it to strengthen yourself as a writer. The interior narrator, like the interior soundtrack, can get you through a lot until you’re back to the wide expanse of your own blank...

5 Lessons Human Memory Teaches the Storyteller

Quick: What do you remember about March 7, 2005? What do you remember about September 11, 2001? Now, for all I know, you were a teenager giving birth on March 7, 2005. Or, like someone I know, you lost your spouse of sixty years on 9/11/01, and that’s what you remember. But if you are like me, nothing special happened on March 7, 1995, and you don’t remember it at all. Whereas on a day, some years earlier, everything seemed to be changing, and you remember where you were, what you were doing, who you called, what you did next . . . unless you were so traumatized that you’ve blocked major portions of your day. Memory is a storyteller. Or perhaps it would make more sense to say that stories are patterned after the human mind and soul, which is to say, the human memory. What can the storyteller learn from human memory? 1) Not all events are equal. Not everything is part of the story just because it happened, too, just as not all the marble in the block became part of Michaelangelo’s David. 2) Details become very important when life is in crisis. The memory zeros in on the physical world. (See #4) 3) Build up, backstory and filling in the in between stuff are NOT important: jump cuts are part of human memory and serve story well. 4) Actions reveal character. You are fascinated by what you and everyone else did. Interior monologue is largely left out of memory. What you wore, who you touched, where you went–these are what stick and carry all the...

What No One Tell You About Point of View: Part Three, Examples

Spoiler altert: I discuss the full plot of the book and film Rebecca in this blog, as well as the ending of Denis Johnson’s “Emergency.” I first saw Daphne Du Marier’s  Rebecca as a film–Alfred Hitchcock’s amazing movie with Joan Fontaine and Laurence Olivier. I was just a kid; my babysitter, who was a writer, took me to a little theater that used to live by LaVal’s pizza in Berkeley. As the credits ran, I searched for the name of the actress who’d played the most captivating character of them all, the title role of Rebecca. But of course, she never shows up in the film. In the book, too, she is entirely a creation of the narrator and the people around her. The narrator is the mousy and very young second wife of the drowned Rebecca’s husband Maxim de Winter. Everything we learn about Rebecca is filtered through her lens, and although we cringe at her meekness and long for her to stand up for herself and realize her own worth, we are as convinced as she is that Maxim is in love with Rebecca and probably always will be. His moodiness is easy to understand as an inability to adjust to this simple, plain wife after having been married to the charismatic and gorgeous Rebecca who stirred so many people’s passions. The great turning point near the end of the book comes when our nameless narrator learns that Max did not love Rebecca. “I hated her,” he declares. In fact, he killed her, struck her because she was carrying another man’s baby and knew that he would...

What No One Tells You About Point of View: Part 1, A Primer

A student writes: I would like you to talk about point of view – even something as simple as an enumeration of the possibilities. I told my story from the point of view of an omniscient third person who knew the thoughts of the main character but of no one else. This was inconvenient at one point because I envisioned a chapter where [his] love interest goes off with [his] mother [for a scene]. I couldn’t do that directly because the storyteller only knew what was going on through the main character’s eyes. Did I make a mistake? Can an omniscient storyteller know everything? That was about the only place I needed that extra knowledge for the storyteller. Part One of my three-part reply: Usually, when people talk about point of view, they concentrate on the technicalities. Let’s get the technicalities out of the way. Generally, the point of view can either be * first person (“I walked down Salamander Street, hoping to see Charlotte, who owed me five-hundred dollars and an ex-husband.”) First person can be singular, as shown in example, or collective, as when a town or a family or some other group entity narrates, using “we.” This tends toward a more omniscient role, as the storytellers are often part of the setting more than they are the main character. First person singular need not be a main character, either. Madame Bovary is written in first person from the point of view of a classmate of M. Bovary who shows up briefly in one early pronoun and not much more if at all . . . *...