Tag Archive | "character"

How to Force Your Character to Take Action

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How to Force Your Character to Take Action


emergencyescapeA 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 do.

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What Writers Can Learn from Christmas

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What Writers Can Learn from Christmas


presentsWe 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 page.

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5 Lessons Human Memory Teaches the Storyteller

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5 Lessons Human Memory Teaches the Storyteller


NYC Skyline pre-9.11.2001Quick:

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 meaning.

5) Change–or the enormous and powerful possibility of change–are at the heart of memory and story.

Story and memory are the heightened bits, repressed or vivid, that move us to peer closely or to turn away. Everything else is just another day.

Authenticity note: I was living at 12th Street and Avenue A in the LES on Sept. 11, 2001 and teaching at Pratt in Brooklyn that morning.

What will you always remember? What have you learned from memory?

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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 be too ashamed to divorce her and call her bluff. Or so he believes. In the movie, the young protagonist can barely hear Maxim’s confession about hitting Rebecca, watching her fall, realizing she was dead and shunting her off in her sailboat. She just keeps repeating, “You didn’t love her.”

Here is where I am making my grand play for the POV is plot argument: The plot of Rebecca is dependent first on the narrator’s perspective. If we knew all along that Max hated Rebecca, we’d have a completely different story–almost no story at all. Once that tidbit is revealed, we are given a new set of facts that are taken as concrete–Max killed the pregnant Rebecca.

At Rebecca’s cousin-cum-lover’s insistence, the characters begin to follow clues left behind by Rebecca about her last days. It turns out that she’d gone to a doctor far away, up near London. The cousin, the crazy housekeeper who was Rebecca’s nursemaid, the inspector and Maxim’s loyal estate lawyer, Frank, all go, along with Max and his young wife, to find out why Rebecca went to the doctor. The narrator and Max know why, of course: she was pregnant. The suspense at this time, then, is how will these facts come out and how will this cast further suspicion on Max. They are really just stretching out the time before the inevitable discovery of Maxim’s crime–and they want, now, to spend that time together.

But at the doctor’s we learn that Rebecca was not pregnant, as she’d told Max. She had cancer and was dying.  Point of view, again, sets us up and turns the story.

Plot is about what is revealed and what is hidden. What somebody knows that somebody else does not know. Therefore, in those moments when you wish you could follow some other characters to some other place and leave your chosen narrator behind, consider instead your plot options–what your narrator doesn’t know can hurt him, but that can’t hurt the plot!

Plot, in turn, will test your characters, which will reveal them the more fully, which will have an impact on their point of view.

A few more brief notes on some of the other ways point of view is interwoven into every aspect of the book: What your narrator sees and misses in a room or landscape will define your setting. The character’s mood will define, too, what s/he sees and how it looks. The voice, the language choices, that shape your narrative will come from the narrator, whether an embodied character or an omniscient point of view or one that moves among characters. The language will shape the page, the rhythms and feeling of the story.

What your narrator hears will influence dialog. Think of Denis Johnson’s wonderful use of dialog to end “Emergency.” (I am discussing this from memory, so forgive any slight errors.) He sets us up for the line a couple of pages ahead, telling us that it was saying this thing that showed the narrator what set his friend apart from him. Then we get the whole scene about picking up the guy who’s gone AWOL, and at the very end, the AWOL guy asks the friend, who is a drug-addled orderly, What do you do for a living? And the orderly answers, “I save lives.”

What is remarkable about the line is what it means to the narrator and how it is set up, rather than the sentiment itself. This whole story is about point of view, as when the narrator sees giant angel faces full of pity and it turns out to be the drive-in movie theater in the snow. Oh, he says, I thought it was something else. The splendor of that scene, and of the entire story, is wholly dependent on the misunderstandings fostered by the point of view.

Does this mean you should stress out more about your point of view choices? I don’t think so. I think it means that you should lean into the limits of the point of view. Use them for plot turns and thematic revelations, and as guides to language, setting and dialog. Trust the work that point of view does in your story and see where it can lead you.

[I am offering an online course in revision beginning January 15 for anyone with some rough manuscript, fiction or narrative non-fiction--including memoir. Send me an email to receive my once-a-month writing tip newsletter for sales and special offers. See you on the screen!]

Posted in Choices, Detail, Dialog, Language, Mastery, Plot, Point of View, Scene, Setting, Voice, Writers and Other PeopleComments (3)

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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 . . .

* second person (“You walk down Salamander Street, hoping to see Charlotte, who owes you five-hundred dollars and an ex-husband.”) Note verb tense change. Second person is a bit of a stylistic tic and tends to come in present tense, perhaps to give the impression of hypnotising the reader.

* third person (“She walked down Salamander Street, hoping to see Charlotte, who owed her five-hundred dollars and an ex-husband.”)

Third person can be “close” or “omniscient”:

* A close third operates from inside the head of one character, or follows that one character and dips in and out of his or her head. It is similar to first person, except for the pronoun choices.

* An omniscient third is the God point-of-view. Your narrator can see all; however, this does not mean that your narrator tells all. An omniscient narrator hopping from head to head can be as dizzying and unappealing as a 1970s hippie doing the same from bed to bed. Omniscience is about control, about that bird’s eye perspective that can zoom in, sometimes here, sometimes there, but thoughtfully, craftfully. No zipping, no hopping.

The other technical point of view issue to keep in mind is distance in time between the moment of narration and the moment of the events of the story.

This is an issue in non-fiction, as well, especially in memoir. The writer is obviously going to write in first person–or perhaps I should say, likely going to unless serious experimentation is taking place, whether legitimate–The Autobiography of Miss Alice B. Toklas–or illegitimate–A Million Little Pieces. However, a narrator looking back across a span of fifty years has a different first person point-of-view than one writing as if just upon the heels of the events. Either narrator will zoom in on the events to give the reader a sense of immediacy–we don’t want every moment moderated by that fifty-year perspective–but the first narrator can draw back and reflect, while the second keeps us close to the bone of the story.

Naturally, in any point of view, the distance in time will impact the perspective such that one could argue that the narrator is a different person at one age than at another.

That’s about what you will get in a standard creative writing course. Maybe less.

But I am going to tell you what no one tells you about point of view.

Point of view is story. It is plot, voice and therefore language, character, dialog, setting, the whole caboodle. It could be said that all of these elements of narrative are doors into the same large, labyrinthine room, but that does not mean that the interconnections are not fruitfully searched.

These elements will be explored in parts 2 & 3 of this post.

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On Being Anything: Chris Rock, Borges, and Raising White Boys


Last night we watched part of the new Chris Rock comedy special. Let me say, first of all, that the man is funny as heck. We were laughing hard. He had a lot to say about Obama that was not only funny but astute and telling. He’s also smart–he can read the audience and respond to that “uh-oh” feeling that comes from listening to edgy humor that takes no prisoners.

Angie and I were talking this morning about the part where Chris Rock said that if Obama were president, Black people could stop giving their kids the “you can be anything you want to be” speech every morning before they leave the house. He said, White people don’t give their kids that speech, because it’s obvious. This led Angie and me to discuss (not for the first time) the fact that we are raising two little white boys. They could be president, even in the old days (and let’s hope they are nearly over) when only little white boys could grow up to be president. Then we talked about whether having two lesbian moms would be enough of a handicap to prevent them from being president, and whether Clinton’s (Bill, that is) single mom and alcoholic step-dad were equivalent to having lesbian mothers. I said no; Angie said yes.

This is what we do with our free time while the boys are with their babysitter.

Then we go to the library, sit at the long wooden tables, and get to work. Around us, the economy is tanking, and taking us with it for the ride, I suppose, but we are all paid up on our library fines and have a clean slate when it comes to borrowing all the wealth in this bank of books. Wee-ha!

Just for the record, my mother did give me that speech, since I was a little white (half-Jewish) kid, but also a girl, and it wasn’t so obvious that I could be anything I wanted to be. Except as a reader.

Yeah–there’s the tie in to fiction: the gateway to success for those not wedded too closely to reality. Funnily enough, this is also exactly what most people–interviewers, say, or even readers–refuse to understand fully about writing fiction: characters can be invented out of the thick swirl of internal and external experience, out of the “what if” musings that run rampant in junior high kids like I was, for example, out of that feeling that who you actually are is a quirky twist of fate rather than a destiny, that you might as easily have arrived over there, in that body, in that life.

There but for fortune, we say, but is the fortune always good? I guess this is another confession: every time I hear a piece of someone else’s life, I zip into it and feel around for the fit. I overhear someone say that she’d finished her dissertation after twelve years. First thought: I should get a PhD. Someone writes to me from Kansas City with a look at living in a place that doesn’t value questioning over hierarchy as he feels the Bay Area does, but in an aside he mentions the lower cost of living. First thought: We could buy a house in Kansas City.

In life, I’m a bit of a push-over, then; indecisive and open to all manner of possibilities. My therapist seems to think (it’s hard to be sure between his nodding and questions and my own projections) that this has to do with my fear of committing to one life trajectory, since a single trajectory inevitably ends. Whereas Zeno’s paradox assures us that if we are jumping point to point, halfway to halfway to halfway again, we will never reach the end. In life, this is kind of weak, I suppose. But for the fiction writer, this same waffling, wafting search is like pumping iron for the imagination. I. Could. Be. Anything.

Sure, I can’t be everything. In life, I may only be able to be a handful of things (and some people might succeed in amending the constitution of the state just to prevent one of those things, so Vote No on Prop. 8). But there are lives ahead of me as a writer.

Borges said it better in “Everything and Nothing,” a piece out of Labyrinths which my father read aloud to me one day in what was then his living room and is now mine (speaking of changes . . .). My father had this sonorous voice, hushed in reverence to its own power, and when he read this I felt deeply understood. Which is not to compare myself to Shakespeare or Borges, but only to toss my headpiece in with the rest of the writers, to say, I live by my greatest weakness, which is that I cannot pick one life for good.


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Even If We’re Just Chatting in the Dark: Plot and Telephones


I taught my first Skype class last night, speaking with people as far away as Georgia and as nearby as Emeryville about how to plot a novel. There was a little technological brouhaha at the start, but that is probably the equivalent of my not knowing quite how the key works in the classroom door and then not being able to find the chalk while a few people wander in late or lost. And then we were off . . .

It was exciting. I started by having each person say something about his or her surrounds. It helped to imagine people at their kitchen tables or garage-offices, to know that this one had stacks of math books around and that one had the empty bowl from her pre-class snack. Are we gaining access to more people or losing access to the ones near-by? At any rate, I liked having the human context for the voices. I liked the voices, too. Regional accents and varying tonalities.

I used to love to talk on the phone, but these days I almost never do it. First of all, I am almost never alone. And we can’t make phone calls while driving any more in California. I mean, I can project a call into the car, but the sound-quality is so poor . . . and for some reason, raising my voice while holding the small device of my cell phone to my head seems so natural that I don’t even know I am doing it until I notice Angie wincing. But shouting in the direction of the dashboard in my car feels strange indeed.

I’m not sure any of the logistics are the entirety of why I don’t talk on the phone anymore. Another reason has to be the enormity of the shifts in my life in the past couple of years. I hardly know what to say in response to the simplest, “How are you?” that is both brief and true. I draw a blank.

I have so many experiences and feelings crammed inside me, like the whole wheat bunnies and sand and occasional sock you find in every crevice of the boys’ car seats. A phone call wouldn’t help. I need a vacuum cleaner.

But it was lovely to talk on the phone about plot. Made-up plots. We are all connoisseurs of plot, really. Someone starts to tell us a story and we have all the right questions at hand–not as critics or as writers, but as consumers of story. How do these events impact the protagonist? What happens next? What in this character drives her to take this action? And all the questions are about character and plot together, because we believe in what people do, not what they say.

Maybe this is another reason the phone isn’t doing it for me these days. Everything is in action, and I don’t want the voice-over narration. Come over and see my babies laugh. Talk to me while I wash the dishes.

Maybe I’m better in writing anyway. More eloquent. More honest. There’s a lot of getting in and getting out with a phone call, especially if you add in the need to explain that I am on call if a baby cries . . .

I think I’m complaining, which is a poor use of a blog. There is something else I want to say about plot:

Everything that people tend to hold up as against plot is right there in it: lyricism and place and theme and character and “real life” and whatever autobiographical fragments to writer brings to the book. The idea that plot is antithetical to these things is some bizarre misunderstanding of art. It is as if to say that a portrait that attends to perspective and framing, to shadow and light, to shading and line, cannot capture what matters about a person, about a life. People’s meanings and secret hopes and quiet desperations are yearning for expression, so much so that you can start anywhere–as many writers do–start with horror or parody or romance–and still you will stumble upon these things. And if the writer never makes it to the heart of the heart of the matter, don’t blame the lithe and limber plot. Don’t hate it because it is beautiful.

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I Could Write A Great Novel If Only I Had A Story to Tell


Okay, I stole this title from Barbara Sher (the Wishcraft lady), who has a book entitled I Could Do Anything If Only I Knew What It Was. I am about to usher myself and a passel of writers and hopefuls through the process of planning and writing and revising a novel.

In October, we will plot and plan, write about writing, fumble and feel and think our way to the stories we think we will tell. In November and half of December, we will write our a**es off, at a minimal rate of 1667 words/ day. In mid-January, after a respite for perspective and recovery, we will gather again to see what these books are about and to begin to revise them.

But right now, we are about to start (on Oct. 6. To join us visit http://www.elizabethstark.com/courses). And I am asking people to come up with a pitch–character, motivation, obstacles. These are good times for stories. No one can say that nothing happens: corruption, greed, ambition, loss, fear, and a lot of the unknown, looming. And yet, what to write?

I won’t say that there are two types of people . . . but I will say that some people have tons of ideas (but don’t necessarily follow through) and some people seem not to have ideas. My theory is that people who don’t seem to have ideas are just shooting them down before they pop up. Scaring them away.

It is easier to come up with five ideas than only one. Five ideas is like dating; one idea is like getting married on your first date: what if I don’t want to stick with this idea?

The secret, I think, is to trust story. Not a particular story, but the fact that caught in the happenings and imagery and relationships of a story is everything you have to say about the world. Start with a composite of your grandmother and your dental hygienist. Start with a moment when someone loses everything on the stock market. Start with a little boy at the park hugging smaller little boy in a matching shirt until they both fall over in the wood chips and start to cry. (Character, dire situation, imagery.)

When I was seventeen and had just started college, I took a class with Gloria Anzaldua (another amazing writing teacher who died too young. Uh oh.). She has us write a Table of Contents of our lives. This is a great exercise for digging up story.

Shakespeare lifted his plots (stole them, you might say) and transformed them. I’ve heard that Jane Smiley always uses another book as a blueprint. (I know that A Thousand Acres uses King Lear.) Natalie Goldberg (not a great writer but a great writing teacher) would tell you, write down, “I want to write about . . . ” and then keep your pen moving, coming back to this phrase whenever you get stuck. Barbara Kingsolver asks herself a question whose answer she does not know, and she learns the answer in the process of writing her novel.

Start with a story from the newspaper. Or the story of how your parents met. Or the story you invented about that strange guy at the corner store. Think of someone you know and about what would cause this person to change completely. Then make that person a different gender or age or race, give them a different profession in another city; let them become a fictional character.

Take a stack of index cards and write down ten different characters, ten different impossible situations, ten different insurmountable obstacles. Then mix and match.

Write in crayon on big paper. Ride a bus and scribble in a little book. Go for a walk and let the rhythm of your feet turn into words, into a voice, and let the voice tell you its story. Look at someone across the cafe from you and imagine something in his life that changed him completely. Ever wondered, “Why do people do XY&Z?” Make-up a character who does that and let her tell you.

I remember a story–I think it was in a play? or in The Sun magazine?–about a woman who told her young daughter that she was going to teach a drawing class to adults. “You mean they forgot how?” the child asked.

Your mind is full of stories. What are you afraid of, what do you hope for, who did you think you might be? The great thing about the writing experiment we are about to embark upon is that you can start anywhere, explore, and move deeply into a story. Through that story you will discover other stories, discover a voice or voices, discover what you think about some piece of the world and–by extension–about the world itself.

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Related Sites

  • 1st Books: Stories of How Writers Get Started See my blog about the wonderful Meg Clayton. The blog is guest authors’ tales of their tales
  • A Bit of This, A Bit of That Prolific, intelligent and quirky blogger and lover of all things bicycle . . .
  • Jamie Ford: Bittersweet Blog The author of The Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet (2009) shares the journey; lots of fun.
  • Koreanish A wonderful, helpful blog by the great writer Alexander Chee
  • ReadingWritingLiving Susan’s Ito’s wonderful blog on “trying to do it all: reading writing momming daughtering spousing working living” plus great insights into adoption and other stuff
  • SethFleisher.com Seth is a very good writer–and he’s got content: international politics, being a dad, and, of course, writing . . .
  • Sports Race Politics America Gretchen Atwood is working on an exciting book about the integration of pro-football. Here’s one to watch.
  • Towers of Gold Frances Dinkelspiel’s engaging web site about California history, economics and other important ideas.