Friday, March 25, 2011

Tell Me a Story

Back when the first primitive humans huddled around an open fire after a long day of hunting and gathering they shared the events of the day by grunting and gesturing. Mostly this was to kill time while watching the day’s kill sizzle to charred doneness over the fire. Then, somewhere along the way, those grunts and finger points turned into actual dinner conversation. I’ve often wondered about that first conversation, the first time that early man managed to string together a subject and a verb into a coherent expression of his thoughts. I don’t think that first sentence was a rambling narrative of the teller’s opinion as to why the weather has turned colder, or a complaint that dinner was a tad overdone. I don’t even think it was about sex or even a recounting of the teller’s heroics during the day’s hunt and why the teller should now be immediately voted chief of the clan. I think the first sentence ever uttered was very simple, “tell me a story.” I think people wanted, and still want, a good, old fashioned story. Of course, I believe the second sentence was probably a rambling opinion or a glorified tale of the hunter’s prowess, his qualifications as clan leader, and why he should have the prettiest woman and the lion’s share of the meat. This later became the political stump speech and even later the ‘blog’. The third sentence uttered was probably a fart joke. I don’t think early man qualified his request for a story with “give me a character-driven narrative” or “give me an in-depth description of the main character’s thoughts and feeling as he hurled his spear toward the antelope,” I think he just wanted to hear about people or animals or even the gods of that time, doing things. It wasn’t until the invention of puffery by the romanticists in the 18th century that character driven narratives and deep introspection evolved to plague the storyline. When Homer penned the Iliad and the Odyssey stories were about people, gods and creatures actually doing things.

OK, we all love a good story but I’m finding good stories harder and harder to come by. I read books that have great characters, the heroes and heroines have depth, they are multi-dimensional, full of angst or humor or perseverance in the face of calamity, but they tend not to “do” much of anything throughout the story (unless you count their constant spewing of angst and introspection). I find that a lot of authors tend to get bogged down in the character’s introspection, or in the background information of the novel. I have even seen authors describe the scenery in agonizing length, taking the reader from anticipation to boredom until the story line dies. I tried to read a Barbara Kingsolver novel recently, it started off innocently enough, describing a very bucolic scene of a deer drinking at a stream in the forest with sunlight sifting through the tree branches. Thirty-two pages later that same damned deer was still drinking at the same damned stream and I now knew more than I ever wanted to know about the many ways sunlight can sift through leaves. I personally don’t hunt game, but by this point I was hoping a hunter would come crashing through the forest, shotgun poised, and blow that dear to bits. I also hoped that hunter would then reload start in on those damned leaves. So, on page thirty-three I got up, walked to the window and pitched the book into my back yard. I hope the sun gently filters through the leaves toward it for a long, long time.

A novel should be like a river flowing to the sea, the current pushes the plot along and the characters react to the changes in the flow and speed of the water. In their little character boat they survive the white water, curse the doldrums, or go down with the ship, but the focus should be on the journey to the sea, not those journeying. When the current slows, and the boat begins to flounder in the backwater, the reader quickly loses interest. But when that boat is sucked into class five rapids, and rushes along at a good clip, the reader’s heart begins to beat a little faster eyes are glued to the text, fingers poised to flip to the next exciting page. This is not the time so pause and tell the reader what boat company made the boat, that the boat maker’s tools were passed down from his father or that his daughter has a large nose, that’s the best way to lose the momentum of the book, and in doing so, lose the reader. Now, I’m no enemy of sub-plots. A good sub-plot can add to the depth of the book and give the reader a change of scenery, and/or let characters and take a breath after an exciting passage in the book. Notice I said after, not during. I have seen lots of writers try to “create suspense” by switching scenes to a sub-plot in the middle the action. This may suspend the action enough for your reader to start eyeing his open window. Also, be careful of how much time you spend in the sub-plot(s). Never linger in the subplot so long that the reader loses the string of the major plot line. The major plot-line should always be going full speed ahead in the reader’s mind.

OK, so yes, I’m a story-driven writer. I feel that the story should drive the characters and the characters should, in turn, react to the twists and turns of the plot. And when my characters start messing with my plot I calmly remind them that ‘I’m the writer here, and with a quick visit to the ‘replace all’ function I could change their names from Brick and Desiree to Eugene and Bertha. Like the Gods of old I speaketh to them; ‘I made thee and I can take thee out, so don’t tryith it’. I’ve even had to threaten to “pull this book over and turn it around” from time to time when my characters started to wander off toward the edges of my story outline.

Character driven novels move along at the whim of the characters and usually with a lot of ruminating, soul searching and belly-button staring contemplation. I don’t give my characters that kind of time. If you give your characters even a little slack time they will soon be eyeing the edges of the storyline and began to shuffle, ever so casually and stealthily, away from the plot. When I see them start to look introspective I quickly send in a tornado or have an alligator turn up in their bathtub. That’ll show those slackers. Of course I’ll go back a couple of chapters and plant the seeds of catastrophe very subtly so the characters won’t know what’s coming. They may ask “why the sudden appearance of my ten year old nephew and why are you having him flush his pet baby alligator down my toilet?” I smile and say, “just keep to the storyline and you have nothing worry about.” I alone know what these mutineers will be plotting a mere few chapters on, and now I’m ready for them.

Whether the plot drives the characters or the characters drive the plot, the major plot is still the overriding premise of the book. You should be able to express the premise in an “elevator description”. One or two sentences that describe the major plot that can be communicated in the average ride in an elevator. From that major premise you began to break out your scenes.

The flow should depict the continuity of scenes, each following logically from the one before. Once you have a general idea of the action that will happen in each scene you can begin fleshing things out. The first bit of flesh to be added is the opening scene. The first scene should draw the readers in and make them want to read on. This is not the place for background information or a narrative about the history of the characters (or to go on and on about the sun drifting through the leaves). That will mire up your story before it even gets out of the gate and the reader will glance again at that open window (you don’t want to see the sun filtering thorough the leaves onto your book). The first scene should be action or a mystery or steamy, or anything to spark the reader’s interest right away and draw them into the story. You can acquaint them with the characters later, preferably through another character’s eyes and thoughts or through dialogue. Be careful here though, dialogue can also bore the reader and slow the pace if you don’t pair it with some physical movement. I try to have my characters do something while they are talking, even if it’s just driving or eating. Try to break up long strings of dialogue with a visual image of the character doing something. I think everybody who has read Atlas Shrugged has skipped over half of John Gault’s radio speech in the middle of the book - talk about beating a dead horse. You don’t want to do anything that will make the reader put the book down. A tip I got from Tom Robbins is to “never mention food or sex in a scene or you will make the reader hungry or horny and he or she may just put your book down and go in search of something more satisfying than the written word”. Of course this doesn’t apply to erotica or restaurant reviews.

Here is an example of where I managed to put some action between the lines of dialogue.

“What is it you want Deputy?” Dorcas still didn’t turn from her keyboard. She was twisting her joystick and moving and clicking her mouse that brought images closer in whatever screen she chose. Blazer watched Dorcas’s eyes scan the screens as the camera changed from location to location, from grocery store, to convenience store to liquor store faster than Blazer could follow them. The fleeting images were different, but similar. A hopeful face in each camera before a backdrop of stocked shelves and beer packed coolers, and a clerk presenting that hopeful face with a lottery ticket.

“Am I interrupting your lunch?” Blazer Moore lurked, leaning in the doorjamb.

Ok, we have the action moving along and we have the characters doing something while they are talking, the next thing to worry about is voice. Volumes can, and have been written about the use of voice and tone in novels. In relation to the plot, just remember to be careful when changing voice so as not to disrupt the flow of the story. This was the hardest lesson for me to learn, to use only one narrative voice per scene. My characters all want to be the center of attention and they all have something so say in every scene so I keep my finger threateningly poised over the “replace all” button. Like our caveman story-telling around the fire, it’s a one person job. If too many storytellers start talking the listeners won’t know who to listen to. The reader is seeing action unfold in a scene and he or she can only see it through one set of eyes. More than one voice per scene can confuse the reader and disrupt the pace.

Now, your book be cruising along, plot purring like a well oiled machine, your characters spinning in a well greased groove and then you realize you’ve written yourself into a corner. Your main character is poised on the edge of a cliff over an abyss and an army of bad guys is closing in. You will be tempted to use a plot device - suddenly your character looks down and finds a parachute as his or her feet, or the ultimate plot device the deus ex machine. Suddenly a huge bird flies over and your main character grasps his mighty claw and is carried to safety. Resist the temptation to use a cheesy plot device. Or, if you must, go back and first introduce that plot device earlier in the book, like that baby alligator dropped into the toilet.

So, you have honed your premise to that two sentence description, you have broken out your story scene by scene and have begun your first scene with something to draw your reader in and you are steering your boat of characters through the fast moving current. Now is not the time to let down your guard and watch that plot boat float gently down the stream. If your characters are anything like mine old Bertha and Eugene are already plotting their next mutiny.