SENTENCE OLYMPIANS: LEARNING THE POWER OF THE SENTENCE

Guest post by Daniel Noyes

Daniel Noyes writes books for children and is currently seeking DanielNoyesPhotorepresentation for his work. He is a member of SCBWI and a winner of the 2014, 2015, and 2016 LDStorymakers Conference first chapter contests. He has an MBA from Idaho State University and works as a critical infrastructure cyber security analyst.


Everything we write involves three choices: what to write about, the words we use, and the order in which we place them.

Gertrude Stein once asked:

Why should a sequence of words be anything but a pleasure?

As writers, our tools are words and sentences, and with these two things we write mountains of books. From these two things are birthed a plethora of pleasing sentences, some you may have memorized.

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.

—–

In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.

—–

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, . . .

Consider the following sentence.

He drove the car carefully, his shaggy hair whipped by the wind, his eyes hidden behind wraparound mirror shades, his mouth set in a grim smile, a .38 Police Special on the seat beside him, the corpse stuffed in the trunk.

Wow, right? What a power-packed sentence. It starts so simple and clear and then builds and builds all the way to the very last word. Would you have guessed it was forty-one words long? Forty-one words. Did you have any trouble comprehending it?

Did you know that the sentence, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” goes on for over a hundred words?

There will be many willing to teach you the “rules of writing.”  One rule I see too often is to keep sentences short. Some even say not to exceed a certain number of words and that if you do, you need to start trimming. They say long sentences only confuse readers. They tell you that Hemingway used only short sentences, unaware of his 424-word monster in The Green Hills of Africa, among others.

In a course titled, “Building Great Sentences: Exploring the Writer’s Craft,” Brooks Landon, English Professor at the University of Iowa, says this:

An assumption exists that long sentences are bad, but it is usually the case that bad sentences are long.

It’s time we shrug off our fear of long sentences. Fear is for things we don’t understand, things we can’t control, and as authors, we control our sentences.

There are many ways to write long sentences that are both crystal clear and replete with pleasure. One such way is through cumulative syntax.

In his course, Professor Landon goes on to say:

I think cumulative syntax is…the surest way for writers to immediately improve the effectiveness of their sentences.

—–

Cumulative sentences are easy to write, a process of adding modifying phrases to the base clause of the sentence, each phrase adding to our understanding or sharpening our visualization of the preceding phrase or of the base clause.

Let’s refer back to that corpse-in-the-trunk sentence, one that Professor Landon uses as a poster child in his course.

It has one base clause: He drove the car carefully,

Followed by five free modifying phrases: his shaggy hair whipped by the wind, his eyes hidden behind wraparound mirror shades, his mouth set in a grim smile, a .38 Police Special on the seat beside him, the corpse stuffed in the trunk.

They’re called free modifying phrases because they can be placed in any syntactic position relative to the base clause, unlike bound modifiers, which have a tendency to curtail comprehension in long sentences.

Go ahead and try it. Start with a simple base clause, add a comma to the end, and pile on some modifying phrases.

If your modifying phrases all refer back to the base clause, it’s called a coordinate pattern.

D1

If you’d like, each modifying phrase can refer to the clause or phrase immediately preceding it to create a subordinate pattern.

D2

Of course, we can mix and match coordinate and subordinate phrases as we desire. This is known as a mixed pattern.

D3

Here’s an example I found in one of my manuscripts. My main character, Ricky, has just arrived at the Colosseum in Rome where he is to change into an animal and compete in an Olympic-style tournament. Given how we’re just coming away from the summer Olympics in real life, this seems particularly fitting. Here are Ricky’s thoughts as he studies the arena.

Ricky imagined a Roman chariot flashing by, dust whipping and swirling in the air behind it, the horses galloping with every mite of speed they could muster, each hoping to finish first, to earn their master a laurel crown, to finally retire and grow fat and sire the next generation of champions, the next generation of stars.

Fifty-seven words; not bad. And if I can do it, anyone can do it.

Our goal as writers shouldn’t be to follow a list of do’s and don’ts, but rather to become sentence Olympians, able to perform syntagmatic and paradigmatic feats that give our readers ample pleasure.

(Cue epic music) No, we writers don’t win gold medals in live events with millions cheering us on. We don’t perform in vast arenas with tens of thousands screaming our names. Many of us will never earn enough to pay the bills with our writing. But our words, our sentences, our characters, our stories fill the minds of the world, expand the knowledgeverse, and live on, and on, and on.

Every book you read, every blockbuster you watch, every hit pouring through your speakers, all were spawned in the mind of a brave soul, a writer who slapped rejection in the face, saying, “You don’t own me; you don’t choose the words I share or decide when I give up, because I won’t give up; I will write, creating something where there was void, telling stories you said couldn’t be told, and if someday in a quiet corner of Earth, a beautiful bag of blood and bones reads my words and in them finds comfort or adventure, longing or courage, or whatever manner of happily they desire, then I’ve changed the world, made an individual difference, held an empty hand, dried a lonely tear, nourished a starving soul, and all by taking a single word and writing it down and adding to it another, and another, until I’ve reached the end and created something beautiful—a thing alive.”

Words are our nails, sentences, our lumber. From a blank space, we create characters who are as real to our readers as any pop star or gold medalist they’ve never met. Scientific discovery is engaged by our conceptions. Newborns are named after characters sparked from our minds. Our words, our sentences, are not accidents. They are decisions, choices we make every time we set off to write, choices we can be proud of, choices we can cherish.

Editing: It’s not just for big publisher novels

I’ve been reading a great book lately. I am really enjoying its fresh and whimsical tone that keeps you from otherwise crying over what is a truly ghastly plot (ie. the plot is about something ghastly, not the plotting is ghastly). At the same time, however, I really wish there had been a more thorough editing job done on it before it went to print.

The book I’m reading is either small-press or indie-published. I understand that at this level the resources just aren’t there to catch every error. I get that. But there are an inordinate number of errors ranging from typos and missing words, to fragments of sentences fused together, to entire paragraphs being repeated within a few paragraphs of one another. It’s bad enough it throws me out of a story I really don’t want to be thrown out of.

As I said, the writing is so good I want to keep reading, so I overlook these errors and I move on. But deep down inside I resent being treated this way. It’s almost as if the writer is saying they don’t care about the reader, and that’s not the message an author wants to convey. I want so much to enjoy this book, but every time I encounter one of these errors it’s as if someone splashed mud across the page.

Self-publishing still has a reputation for poor quality; of books that are poorly written, poorly edited, poorly packaged and, as a result, poorly read. If this is ever to change we’re going to have to step up our game as writers. Readers will forgive a few small errors. Those even creep into top-published books. But if our readers begin to feel as though they are being asked to proof-read your book for you they probably won’t read another one. Proof-readers shouldn’t have to pay for the privilege of correcting your crap.

At the very least talk a conscientious friend into proof-reading your manuscript. And your ebook copy. And your POD copy. Not all errors are the fault of the writer–some software can make errors where none existed. But the writer still gets the blame. Sometimes you’ll get an Amazon review that points out your errors for you, but more often your potential fan will simply never become a fan–and you’ll never know about it–or why. You will only know you’re not selling as many books as you would like.

 

Flipping Story Stuff (with Interstellar)

I’ve talked several times on my blog posts about flipping story-parts on their heads for an interesting effect. The example I usually refer to is Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn, which takes the classic hero-journey fantasy story and flips it. One way he does this is by starting the tale after the prophesied “hero” has attempted to kill the god-like antagonist–and died. That’s like Harry finally reaching the climax of his battle with Voldemort, dying, and then J.K. Rowling starting the story there.

The point of flipping and twisting familiar concepts is that it creates a sense of originality, breathes fresh life into old ideas, and surprises viewers. Whenever you need to get your story to feel more original, whenever you need to brainstorm new ideas, you can look at flipping, twisting, and morphing a common concept. You can look at flipping, twisting, and morphing what is already at work in your story.

Interstellar did just that in several ways.

Inverting Concepts: Tars and Case and Robots

 

 

Christopher and Jonathon Nolan, the writers of Interstellar, flipped the concept of “robot” on its head. So much so that Christopher didn’t even like thinking of them as robots. He calls them “machines.” To some, Tars and Case might seem a little weird. Other viewers loved them. But here is the brilliance of Tars and Case: they are the exact inverse of our concept of a robot.

Here’s how.

In the behind-the-scenes clip on them, Christopher Nolan talks about how robots usually try to look like humans, or at least, like some specific creature or object. He didn’t want to do that. He wanted Tars and Case to “look like a thing.”

As I watched the movie, I remembered how most humor that comes from robots comes from how literal they take things. They usually lack “human-ness.” Often they don’t understand human emotion. That’s where writers get humor out of robot characters.

But the Nolans didn’t do that. They wanted Tars and Case to have a human-ness inside them. They wanted it to come across like Cooper and these guys were buddies, so we get Cooper saying, “See you on the other side, Slick”–that nickname gives us the sense that they are pals. Christopher wanted Tars and Case to sound and feel human when talking. So for once we actually got robots that understood human emotion and had real humor–even to the point of making jokes off the fact they were robots.

So the Nolans turned the concept of a robot literally inside out:

A typical robot character looks human on the outside, but struggles to understand human behaviors, thought processes, and emotions on the “inside.”

 

VS.

 

Tars and Case look inhuman on the outside, but appear to be quite human on the “inside.” They are the inverse of the typical robot character.


We still get that feeling of Tars and Case being “other” because of how inhuman they look…

Continue reading Flipping Story Stuff (with Interstellar)

HOW TO SET BACKUPS IN SCRIVENER


I’ve talked about Scrivener before, and how much I love it. It is truly the best software for writing of any kind, especially creative writing. I don’t claim to be an expert on Scrivener, but I have been using it for some time now, and have had the time to pick up a few things. These tips are for the Windows version.

One of the best Scrivener features is the auto-saving and backup options. Be default, Scrivener saves every 2-3 seconds when you pause your typing. Barring any problems that may corrupt the files, this means that any changes that you do during a writing session will be saved. This doesn’t preclude backing up, either automatic or manual. I usually open my Scrivener project in the morning and close it at the end of day, and have it set up for auto back ups at closing. I can do a manual backup at any time.

Let’s talk about manual back ups. These are independent from the auto-back ups and you can have them pointed at any directory you want. You will find them here:

cindy1

Once you click on that, a pop-up box shows up:

cindy2

You can then click on ‘browse’ and choose the directory where you want this back-up saved to. I have these backups saved to an external drive where I keep all of my personal files (as an extra precaution in case something happens to my C drive). The backups are saved as ZIP files, and I will explain more about that below.

Now, for the automatic backup. As the name says, these backups are automatic and you don’t have to think about them. This is where you can find them:

cindy3

After you click ‘Options’, this pop-up box shows up:

Cindy4

By default, Scrivener saves your work every time you close a project, keeping five copies of these. Also by default, this is where you will find these auto backups:

cindy5

If you don’t know where to find the backup files, Scrivener helps with that and all you have to do is click on the bar that says ‘Open backup folder’.

As you can see from my screenshot of my current project, I have my auto backups set to keep the latest ten copies (you can save up to the 25 most recent), and pointed at another external drive, a different one from where the manual backups are saved to. This is because I had problems with my C drive years ago (another computer, not the one I currently use), and when the C drive is corrupted then your backups would be to.

You will find your backups organized by chronological order, with a time stamp. And, as mentioned above, your backups will be in a ZIP format. I checked with Scrivener Windows Support, and it’s very important that you don’t try to recover your project from the original location where it’s saved (the backup folder). These files are zipped to protect the contents, and by definition, ZIP files are read-only. This means you have to unzip the file before you recover it. According to Scrivener support, copy the ZIP file to a new location on your hard drive (anywhere will do), then unzip it. To unzip it, DO NOT double-click the file. In Windows, double-clicking a zip file navigates into the file while it is still zipped, which isn’t what you want. Instead, right-click the file and select “Extract All.” Once it is extracted, you should be able to open the unzipped copy without any trouble.

They also mention to not use 7zip to unzip the backups. That particular utility has a bug that makes it incompatible with Scrivener’s zip files. However, this isn’t a problem with any other unzipping utility, including
the “Extract All” utility built into Windows (which I described above).

In addition to these measures, I also have an account with an offsite online backup service, Backblaze. For a nominal yearly fee, Backblaze continually saves everything in my computer, including any external drives. It’s extra peace of mind.

What I mentioned here is just an overview on how to set up the backups in Scrivener. For extra reading on Scrivener backups, with a lot more details, I recommend this blog post by R. Dale Guthrie.

And if you like to use Dropbox, these blog posts are helpful as well: Daniel Gardina, and Kromey.

If you have any questions that you can’t find an answer for on the internet, don’t hesitate to contact Scrivener Support for Windows, or find them on Facebook.

What is your value proposition?

When some friends and I started our own business six years ago we sat down and took a look at our competition and how we would be able to stack up against them in several areas, such as price, selection, service, etc. We decided that we could beat our competition in several areas, and made plans to do so.

Six years later the only competitor left in town is a national chain that can beat us on advertising dollars and selection. But we beat them in every other category, and we continue to focus on that. We can’t be everything to everyone, but we can be the best where we can. And that’s enough to keep us doing well while others have failed.

Writers have a value proposition, too. Some are able to pull off amazing twists that leave readers stunned. Others are able to create characters we fall in love with. Some can create a setting that intrigues and fires the imagination. Still others are able to craft a plot that grabs the reader and won’t let go. Many are able to combine several of these strengths (and others), and that’s usually what makes them good enough to gain an audience.

But few–if any–writers can be good at everything. Most are able to polish up a few areas to stand out, but in many other areas writers are merely adequate. And that’s okay; so long as those areas are strong enough they don’t draw negative attention to themselves, they don’t necessarily need to be outstanding.

Still, it’s our strengths that define us as writers, and our specific package of strengths that constitute our “value proposition”, or style. Some elements are instinctive, acquired from our life-experience and the works of other writers that stick with us. Others are developed over time through conscious effort.

The point is, however, that we can decide for ourselves what type of writer we want to be. We can choose the value proposition we offer to readers. The key, however, regardless of whether we pursue a specific set of strengths or let it find us, is to be aware of what our value proposition is, and then consistently provide it in work after work. Not that you want to feel “mass produced”; you can wrap your core value proposition in original and unique concepts to both hit the right notes and keep your work fresh.

Can you imagine a Brandon Sanderson without any magic system at all? Or George R. R. Martin without the relentless introduction and extermination of characters? Or Stephanie Meyers without supernatural elements? A writer might be able to leave out one or perhaps two signature elements and still satisfy their readers, but leave out too many and you risk losing them–such as with J. K. Rowling’s under-impressive “The Casual Vacancy”.

Whatever your value proposition maybe, it’s important as a writer to know what it is. If you don’t know why your readers are following you it can be difficult to keep them coming back. So while you’re working with your peer readers or writing group, don’t just find out what doesn’t work or needs to be fixed. Take time to find out what others find most interesting and compelling in your work. Learn what your value proposition is so that you can continue to develop it, improve it, and continue to meet expectations.

How to Turn That Frown Into Effective Prose

Guest Post by Kaki Olsen

Kaki Olsen has been a published personal essayist since 2000 and a published novelist since 2016.  In between the two dates, she wrote many scholarly essays on things such as the significance of poverty author (1)in science-fiction, the theological argument against zombies and what Dumbledore can teach us about training a leader.  She is an insatiable traveler who has been to five continents so far.  Born in Texas, raised Bostonian, she currently lives in American Fork, UT with one roommate, three fish and over 50 novel ideas.  She is at work on writing one manuscript and editing two others.


For anyone who interacts with me on a regular basis or even follows my Facebook feed, it’s apparent that I haven’t had the most cheerful of lives. I grew up in an environment where unhappiness was to be hidden and mediocrity was an abominable sin. I was diagnosed with clinical depression when I was 14 and developed Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder ten years later. I fell deeply in love with a man whose undiagnosed mental disorder meant that he did anything from punching me in the face to trying to choke me to death on multiple occasions. I have watched three siblings get happily married and have oodles of adorable children while I face the possibility that the only happily-ever-after relationship I will ever have in my life was with the person who caused my PTSD. I have learned to fend off suicidal urges, how to work through my panic attacks and I feel as though I have given up on being happy in life. Even if we set aside my mental disorders, psychological and physical abuses, I have had a hard time with ordinary life. In one summer, I lost my job three times. Due to my PTSD, I even spent most of one summer unable to face being alone in my apartment and spent days at a time virtually homeless between work shifts.

I apologize for this rather dour introduction to my topic, but I had to put my topic of misery into perspective. I have been told repeatedly that my reason for the miserable circumstances that I so often find myself in are so I can help others who face those challenges. I have seen this manifest in the friend who didn’t know her reasons for failing many of her classes because of crushing unhappiness during winter semesters; she is now undergoing treatment for Seasonal Affect Disorder. Another one felt something was off about her relationship with her fiancé and came to me for advice; once she’d broken up with her manipulative other half, she met the man she’s been married to for five years.

Trials and tribulations can be equally as effective when it comes to writing.

 

I’m in the process of writing my fifth manuscript and the idea has been in the works for a number of years. I refer to it as my “Evil Narnia” because it is based on the premise that stumbling into a magical world can be a devastating thing. I knew that I would draw on my experiences with PTSD in writing a 17-year-old girl who is held prisoner for six months after finding her way into this alternate world. What I discovered in beginning to write the book is that I had to draw on a completely different epoch of my life.

In this story, the protagonist’s sister sent her an address and an invitation to come on an adventure on April 30. On June 20, after weeks of uncertainty and terrified apprehension, her sister’s body was found. I told my roommate/alpha-reader about this insertion and she immediately sighed very heavily at how I related to it. One day in 1998, my older sister disappeared from her apartment and it was over two months before she made contact again. In that time, a fairly disciplined home turned totalitarian. It turned hostile as everyone blamed each other or themselves. When my sister reached out for the first time since running away, she was met with hatred and anger first.

I have written this story because I know what it is to live through the terror of an absence. I know the breakdown that can happen and the irreparable damage that can be done in such times. But as I pointed out to my roommate, “I’m writing a story about an older sister who runs away and never gets the chance to return. That’s the horror that could have happened to me, but thank goodness it didn’t.”

One of the things I’ve written the most about is how to write effective fights. This was originally geared towards people for whom swordplay or hand-to-hand combat was an integral part of their narrative. One of the most fundamental pieces of advice that I give is to use comparative experience. You may not have ever been burned alive, but you can probably remember burning your hand on a hot stove. You can’t imagine having a compound fracture, but you can remember suffering a broken wrist. Comparative experience draws on the idea that you can imagine the worst-case scenario of what you yourself have gone through.

Writing about emotion and harrowing experiences can be drawn from that same skill. In my recently-published novel, Swan and Shadow, one character’s greatest fear is being powerless during a major crisis. I originally considered this just before my home city of Boston was the site of a terrorist attack. It also came to mind when my nephew was seriously ill and all I could do was pray and ask to go home early because of the stress. I even go out of town on my birthday every year because the last time I worked on that day, my grandfather was diagnosed with terminal cancer. The great moment of horror for this one character comes when her father is attacked and hospitalized in the line of duty as a police officer. The attack happens at 9 a.m., but because she is a swan until sunset, she is completely unaware of the horror she should be experiencing until 5 o’clock that evening.

In short, if you need to go to the darkest of places for your character, first plumb the depths of what you have already been through. It’s not necessary to have hit rock-bottom during a drug addiction or to have been at death’s door during cancer treatments. You are absolutely capable of knowing the path that leads to that bottom and the kinds of handholds that allow you to claw your way free of those depths.

A thousand stories

Why do I watch the Olympics? I’m as patriotic as the next guy, but USA’s medal count matters to me about as much as who wins the Super Bowl or World Series (other than knowing for watercooler convos the next day, not much). It’s as much for the stories as anything else. And the Olympics is full of stories.

Often the real story is what the athlete had to go through to get to the Olympics. Sometimes the story is the rivalries that arise during the games. It may be the moments of class, grace, and sportsmanship the occur during the games. It may be the personal struggles an athlete goes through on their way to the finals. Everywhere you look there are stories.

For every big story, like Lithuania knocking off the USA Dream Team, there are hundred little stories. An athlete struggles through Crone’s Disease to win a medal. A seasoned veteran mentors a rookie who becomes the partner that gets him on the medal stand. A coach pulls the goalie who put in a phenomenal first half to put in a less experienced goalie, who then gives up five goals to lose the game.

Every novel has its big stories we want our readers to care about. But one of the best ways to accomplish that is to build a foundation of a lot of smaller stories that make us care about the characters who make up the big story.  Yes, we might care about our interstellar naval captain who suddenly finds himself in the middle of a firefight with an unknown alien race, but we’ll like care even more if we know that this captain has been held back in his career after a brash decision went wrong, and now he second-guesses himself. Add to that a female first officer whose older brother’s shady dealings have put on pressure on her to be all that much more ‘by-the-book’, and a science officer whose father was aboard a ship destroyed by aliens two decades earlier, and you have just added a lot more tension to an already tense story.

So when writing your big story, don’t forget about all the little stories behind that story. It’s those littles stories that help us care about the big story.

“Stick-to-it-iveness”

I recently complained on Facebook that I had to cut my writing short for the day because the scene I was about to write was just more than I could handle that particular day and in that particular mood. A friend of mine replied to remind me of advice I had given him almost five years ago when we both participated in NaNoWriMo 2011.

My advice? “Write crap, but write.”

Now of course I had to feign indignation that he would save up my words all that time just to hurl them back in my face, but I couldn’t help but feel a little flattered. Someone remembered something I’d said! And for five years! But I also felt just a little shamed, too. Here I was quitting early for the day just because it got a little hard and I didn’t want to write a bad scene.

We all get that urge to self-edit, that little voice that tells us we can’t just write, we have to write well. We have to write “Art.” Hence my advice. Granted, it was originally geared to NaNoWriMo and the Herculean task of writing 50,000 words in a month. If you spend time editing and polishing, or trying to create perfect prose on the first pass you’re going to fail. It’s as simple as that. Hence the advice: to make that word count you’re going to have to just accept that some of your words are going to be pooped out by something less elegant than unicorns. Accept that, and keep writing. Don’t look back.

It was good advice for NaNoWriMo, and looking back, it’s been good advice for the past five years, even though that was the last time I did NaNo. I hit my goal that year, and though it was hard, I proved to myself that I could sustain a solid writing effort. I’ve written more or less continuously ever since, finishing three novels and part of a fourth in that time while mostly writing during my lunch hour at work.

I’ve had to accept that, working under those conditions, there are going to be days I write crap. There are going to be days when 300 words are the best I can do. But I’ve tried my best not to give up. I’ve accepted that there are going to be entire months worth of work that may have to be reworked or even tossed out. But if there is any truth to the notion that you have to write a million sub-par words before you start to become a good writer, then I do myself no service by not writing until I’m certain what I write will be pure gold. The sooner I burn through that million words the better!

And yes, I’ve written crap, and I’m probably still writing crap. Twice now I’ve thrown out half of a draft and completely rewritten them (hence only three finished novels in five years). But I haven’t given up, and I haven’t needed NaNoWriMo for motivation. I write, even at risk of writing crap.

By now I’m getting pretty close to at least halfway through those million words. Am I getting better? I don’t know. Have I wanted to give up? A couple of times, yes. Have I got anything to show for it? Well, no, not really. But as they often quote on “Writing Excuses”, “Anyone can tell you you can’t write. Don’t let anyone tell you you don’t write.”

In that regard, at least, I am a success. I write. Five years later I still write. I’d like to think my writing doesn’t stink, but I don’t really know. That’s not important, anyhow. After five years I have learned at least one thing: I write because I want to, and because I want to, I write.

A Matter of Motivation

Guest post by Nathan Barra.

I have always known that I was a storyteller at heart, though I thought that writing novels was a relatively new development. It was a passion that I picked up in high school and abandoned in college in favor of live-performance improvised comedy. I rediscovered the joy of writing in my senior year as I faced the reality that I wasn’t likely to perform on stage again any time soon. It wasn’t until I was packing up all my belongings in preparation to Nathanmove 1,100 miles to a town I had never heard of until two months previous for a job I only held on paper that I discovered the truth. I was taking a break from hours spent deciding which of my possessions would survive the culling when my mother asked me if I intended to take anything from my box. My reaction was relatively straightforward. ”Wait, what box? I have a box?”


Mum led me deep into our seldom visited basement storage room and helped me drag a large plastic crate, gray for the layers of dust caked into the burgundy polymer, out into the living room. As I dug through rediscovered yearbooks and two decades of memorabilia, I found my first manuscripts. I spent the evening reading through the stacks of short stories that I had written as I learned to read for the second time (French literacy hardly counted, after all). I was, well, a fourth grader. But a prolific fourth grader. The simple stories were the beginning of a journey of learning, self discovery and experimentation that would lead me to my first completed manuscript and this blog. I hope that you will stick around with me to find out where it all goes next. If nothing else, it promises to be fun!

I am Nathan Barra and I am a writer. I have been since the days I first learned to read. Published or unpublished, I will continue to be so until the day I die. It’s a pleasure to make your acquaintance.


Our readers pick up a book wanting to believe the impossible. They yearn to leave their version of “reality” and enter a world where true love conquers inconceivable odds, where galactic empires clash with and fall to rebel alliances, and where a poor boy from London can be whisked away to a magical boarding school. If handled properly, audiences will readily embrace almost any premise. However, the gift of their suspension of disbelief is not a blank check, nor is it given freely. It must first be earned and then spent carefully.

Exactly how far you can push your reader’s suspension of disbelief varies from genre to genre. However, the absolute last place we can afford to spend this precious currency is on the believability of our characters. It is their goals, their conflicts, and their pain that drive the plot forward. It is their growth and their triumph that give the book power. It is they who define the story.

The key to making your characters feel real to your reader lies in understanding their motivations and ensuring that they act consistently with those desires. While it’s often simpler to give characters a single, defining goal, our major players need to be a bit more complex. Human beings are messy, and often contradictory in their desires. We come into any situation with a mountain of baggage and experiences that will pull on us to act and react. Our characters should be no different.

However, saying “people are complex” isn’t useful as a model for motivation. After all, how would you know what truly motivates your characters when there are hundreds, if not thousands of possible surface motivations? Personally, I like to view human motivation as driven by four fundamental factors. Everything else is either a symbol or a proxy for these big four.

1. Sex – The biological need to reproduce.
2. Survival – The need to avoid physical, emotional, or mental harm.
3. Power – The need to control oneself, others, or one’s environment.
4. Passion – The need to indulge emotions.

 

bankFor example, take a character who wants to steal a million dollars as part of a bank heist. While being rich may seem motivation enough, it is in actuality much too shallow and nebulous to be anything other than a front. We need to dig deeper and figure out why they want to be rich. What does wealth represent to them? Maybe they have always fantasized about diving into a pool filled with money like Scrooge McDuck. What they really seek is to sate their greed, an emotion that is strong enough to make them risk life and freedom in order to satisfy their passion. This sort of simple motivation may be enough for a spear carrier or minion character, but the protagonist and antagonist need to be more nuanced.

Character complexity comes when we start mixing and layering two or more of these fundamental motivations. For example, take a character who grew up in a desperately poor, abusive environment. To them, money isn’t about satisfying raw greed, but rather what having that money will allow them to do. It is the ability to ensure that no one can ever hurt them again, while also allowing them to live a comfortable, even lavish lifestyle. To them, the money is a symbol for both survival and power. You can make the motivation even more powerful if they act for someone other than themselves. By giving them someone to protect and provide for, you raise the stakes and form a perfect hook for your readers’ empathy.

While that’s a good start, one motivation isn’t enough for a major character. At the very least, the character needs two journeys – one inner and one outer. To make things even more interesting, we should ensure that the inner and outer journeys conflict.

What if we were to make our protagonist a single mother? She’s an experienced safe cracker, but left her criminal lifestyle behind when she got pregnant. She wants to be a good example for her child, but also needs to provide for his/her future. Let’s say that her need for fast money is so pressing that she has no legal recourse. Maybe she was recently widowed, but before he passed, her husband’s gambling addiction lead him gamble their life savings and then accrue hundreds of thousands of dollars of debt to the local mob. Knee-crackers are harassing her at every turn, even going so far as threatening her baby. She must return to a life of crime and complete this job to keep her child safe. This motivation is driven by both survival (her child’s well-being) and passion (her love for her child).

However, her criminal acts also directly conflict with her need to protect her child. If she is caught, she will go to jail and her child will be given to the custody of her parents, who verbally and emotionally abused her. Furthermore, she worries that her criminal compatriots and the mob will try to use her kid against her. As her inner journey, she’ll constantly be asking herself if her actions are really what’s best for her child or if they are instead exposing him/her to more risk. By layering conflicting desires, we are making our protagonist choose between the lesser of evils, a path that is full of pitfalls and weighty choices.

Pretty good so far, but how can we step up the tension even more? We build a gap between her conscious motivation and her unconscious desires. In so doing, our character will experience stress as she tries to accomplish her goals, yet never find satisfaction or fulfillment. What if our character tells herself that she is getting into crime for her kid, but actually does so because of her profound grief? The loss of her husband and the anger at the crippling debt he left behind is pushing her to fill the void with the excitement that comes with a heist. She tells herself that she is doing this for her child when she in reality, is working to satisfy her own emotional needs. This may cause her to take unnecessary risks for the temporary pleasure and fulfillment the excitement gives her. For an even stronger emotional punch, we can make her sacrifice what she really wants, a good relationship with her child, in an unconscious attempt to satisfy her own passionate grief. The fallout from such choices can be beautiful.

It isn’t enough that our characters pursue a goal, they must do so for compelling reasons. We owe it to our readers to push past the simple answers and dig down into our character’s psyche to figure out their deep motivations. By layering our character’s goals with complex and conflicting motivations, we ensure that they appear well rounded to our reader. They, and their choices feel real and therefore put no strain on our audience’s suspension of disbelief. Therefore, we as writers must to endeavor understand our characters’ motivations better than they do themselves.

Stories around the campfire

Last week I went camping with my family, which is part of the reason I didn’t get a post up for the week (sorry about that). My family and I spent three nights in the “wild”, and had to find out own entertainment away from electronics, friends, and the Internet. It was actually much easier than we might have expected, but one thing rather surprised me.

My kids asked me to tell them stories.

Now, I read to my kids fairly frequently–or used to before they got older and found it’s sometimes just quicker to read it themselves. But I haven’t been asked to tell them stories in years. So I dusted off my repertoire of campfire stories and went to it.

I don’t know about the kids, but I thoroughly enjoyed it. There’s something about sitting around in the dark with just a fire for illumination, listening to a tale well told. I love listening to a good storyteller, from Storyteller Kendall Haven who used to appear regularly at the Boise River Fest to John Hurt as The Storyteller on The Jim Henson Hour years ago, to my college storytelling professor (yes, there was an actual class at my college on storytelling, and boy did I jump on that one when it was announced).

It’s becoming a lost art form, sadly. A good storyteller is part actor, part stand-up comedian, part improvisational speaker, and part researcher. I’ve heard good storytellers multiple years at scout camps, and though they tell the same story every year, they always make it new again by emphasizing different elements of the story.

The more I think about that experience the more I’ve considered the difference between a verbal storyteller and a writer.  Besides the obvious issue of medium, the other major difference is the spontaneity. A Storyteller can tell the same story as many different ways as he has audiences. Every retelling, unless the story is well-memorized and rehearsed, will vary from the previous ones. As writers, we get only once chance to tell our tale, and the only variations, then, is in the readers themselves.

But for the most part the tools of a writer are much the same as those of a storyteller. Pacing, voice, characterization, description, word choice–all are elements that can make or break a story regardless of its medium. With that in mind I would recommend a little research into the art of storytelling. Here’s two starting points. The first is a recording of Kendall Haven’s story “The Killer Brusselsprouts”. The second is a lecture on storytelling Haven gave at Stanford. It applies elements of story to public relations and marketing, but there is some useful concepts there that should be applicable to all types of storytelling.

The Authors' Think Tank Podcast, a show for writers by writers with new episodes every Monday.

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