Tuesday, August 30, 2011

raising the stakes

So I've made my outline. Checked it once. Checked it twice. And the comment I made in almost every scene was "raise the stakes." Or, I found myself asking a somewhat related question: "What is at stake?"

I'm not sure I consciously thought about what raising the stakes meant until recently. When it comes to screenwriting, I learned this summer that you have to torture, torture, torture your protagonist. Whenever you can, turn the screws. I think this rule applies to comedy as well--perhaps even more so. Larry Gelbart used to advise writers to always put the protagonist somewhere s/he doesn't want to be, even if it was something as simple as in an army boot with a big hole, walking through the rain.

At any given time, a character has an intention (I want something) and an obstacle (something/someone is in the way of my getting it). When we ask the question "What is at stake?" we're asking the character what will happen if s/he doesn't get what s/he wants (or, perhaps, what happens if s/he does). Put another way, "What have you got to lose (or gain)?" If there's very little at stake--a bruised ego, a slap on the wrist, etc., then the reader is going to lose interest in the story, as well as the character. Raising the stakes means taking your characters to the brink-- losing a job, a home, a relationship. Becoming a fugitive, a refugee, an exile. Or perhaps it's gaining a child and not being able to afford to take care of her, or winning the lottery at the expense of losing a friend. Perhaps it's coming face to face with death.

Torture, torture, torture.

Knowing what's at stake will inform how or why our characters behave the way they do. When we raise the stakes, our characters enter the Point of No Return. They're forced to make choices that cause anxiety. They have to do things differently. And that's what keeps our readers riveted.

As a revision exercise, take two scenes from your draft -- your best one and your worst one -- and study the action of that scene. Is there an intention? Is there an obstacle? Is your protagonist somewhere s/he doesn't want to be? Determine what's at stake. Then turn the screws -- raise the stakes and see how your character responds. What happens?

I can't wait to find out.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

to outline or not to outline

Here's the thing: organization is not one of my strong suits. I don't think I'm messy by trade, but I certainly have to make a conscious effort to control the clutter. That goes not only for my living or office space, but also my writing.

I'm also not a very good planner. I'm more of a visualizer. Yes, I make a syllabus for the entire year, and I try to stick to it. I really do. But past students will attest to days when I've walked into class and said, "I got a great idea for a workshop on the way to campus today, so let's try it out." And if something's not working in class-- the students aren't grasping a concept, a workshop isn't producing the desired effect -- or, if the class gets off on an exciting tangent and I don't want to quash the energy of the discussion, then I'm ok with changing the plan, even if it's on the fly.

Ditto for writing.

Knowing all this, then, you can speculate how I might feel about outlines. It's not that I'm not a fan -- in certain writing situations, I find them very helpful -- but I'm not very good at them when it comes to my own writing. I would never begin my novel-writing process with an outline, for example (some basic notes, yes). And I did no outlining whatsoever with my first two novels. Nor my third. My co-author, Sarah, did the outline. She's very outline-friendly.

And I have to say, the WILS outline turned out to be rather useful. We (ok, she) outlined after we'd already had a draft of the novel, and for me that's when an outline is most helpful. It was a way for us to trace our steps and see what the path looked like, a map. If the streets didn't meet, were full of potholes, etc., then we had an idea of how to go back and fix it -- add or delete scenes, develop characters, raise the stakes, etc. (and heads up: I have a feeling my next blog post will be about what "raising the stakes" means). And considering that we patchworked this novel together, we very much needed that roadmap. The outline also helped us decide who would tackle which sections needing the most work.

Outlines came into the picture yet again during my screenwriting classes last month -- story and character outlines were essential before writing a word of the screenplay. And yet, I could see their applications to my novel-in-progress, too.

So here I am, writing solo again, and I find my draft stuck in the mud. And I realized that I was going to have to make an outline.

By myself.

And so I did, with the help of a writing software program called Scrivener. Using the very basic template, I broke the entire draft down into sections (mostly by chapter, although some chapters got split into several scenes) and tried to capture the gist of that section. And lo and behold, the map started to come together, and I started to get an idea as to why it was so muddy.

It goes without saying that every writer has a different process. For some, the outline comes before all else. For others, it is the very final step. For others still, it plays no role whatsoever. I don't think I'll ever be an uber-organizer (heck, I'd just like to clear my coffee table!), but I'm coming to appreciate the outline more and more, and finding it a helpful tool in my process. In the meantime, I'd love to know how (or if) it works for you, or doesn't.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

what our characters say reveals who they are

I came up with the idea for this post in the middle of the night as I was trying to fall asleep. My only hope is that the post doesn't read as if I wrote it in my sleep.

As writers, we've all heard the lesson of "show, don't tell" ad nauseum. We've dispensed and taken this advice throughout our writing lives, not to mention our drafting and revision process.

Example of telling: I opened the oven door to discover that I'd burned the roast. It was black and unrecognizable.

Example of showing: Marcus' nose emerged from behind the book he was reading, and crinkled. "What's that smell?" Just then the scent of smoldering sandpaper hit me. I raced to the kitchen, yanked open the oven door, and was assailed by a cloud of putrid grey smoke before pulling out the boulder formally known as my roast.

Ok, so that's a little wordy. But you get the idea. Showing involves the senses. It uses active voice and puts the reader courtside rather than in the bleachers seats.

Dialogue is not only a great tool for showing vs. telling, but also for revealing the various layers and aspects of your characters. In other words, what our characters say reveals who they are.

Consider this exchange between Devin and Andi during their first tutorial in Faking It. I'm deliberately taking out all the narration, but leaving in one direction of nonverbal communication.

DEVIN: What kind of music do you like?
ANDI: Beatles, Hendrix, Clapton, Nat King Cole, Diana Krall, Norah Jones, John Mayer...
(Devin glares at Andi and cocks an eyebrow.)
ANDI: I like guitars and pianos.
DEVIN: What kind of music makes you feel sexy?
ANDI: I'm not sure. I've never thought about it.

On the surface, this looks like really simple dialogue. One character getting to know another character, perhaps. But in the context of the rest of the scene, so much more is happening. For one thing, Andi and Devin are having a miscommunication, revealing that they don't know each other and are far from the point of reading each other's minds and finishing each other's sentences. Devin is asking the question not in a social way, but as a teacher, and assumes Andi gets the context. But Andi has missed the purpose of the question (hence the look he gives her). It reveals her disconnect with the subject of sex as well as with her own sexuality.

Additionally, the reader learns something about Andi that Devin doesn't yet know. Andi's musical preferences (at least in her answer) are mostly the product of her brothers' influence (one is a rock guitarist, the other a jazz pianist). And it's interesting that she doesn't explain this to Devin but rather declares she likes the instruments. We see that the strong connection to her brothers is special but has also been overbearing at times. We also see that she's withholding information from Devin.

Rhetorically speaking, the Socratic method is at work here (and forgive me for defying everything I teach my students and quoting Wikipedia, but it's convenient and defines it well): "a form of inquiry and debate between individuals with opposing viewpoints based on asking and answering questions to stimulate critical thinking and illuminate ideas." This is probably one of the reasons why dialogue so appeals to me as a novelist as well as a rhetoric geek. I'm all about the peeling back the layers, the getting to the heart of the matter, the quest for meaning, and ultimately, truth. I'm all about using argument and persuasion to get one person to see the other person (or perhaps themselves) in a way they've never seen before.

Besides, sometimes it's downright fun, like this exchange between Devin and Andi well after they've gotten to know each other (again, minus the narration):

ANDI: I absolutely adore the Impressionists.
DEVIN:You what? You adore the Impressionists? No. You can't adore them. No one adores the Impressionists.
ANDI: Why not?
DEVIN: You just don't. You--no one adores them. It can't be done.
ANDI: What the hell are you talking about?
DEVIN: The Impressionists are not "adorable." Things that scamper are adorable. Fluffy bunnies hopping in meadows. Little dogs with knitted sweaters. Those little hats that newborns wear. Baby shoes are adorable. Not Impressionists.
ANDI: Wha--?
DEVIN: You don't "adore" men who cut off their ears. You don't "adore" men who eat lead-based paint. Men who refused to compromise themselves or their work, even when it meant depriving their families of food. Men who kept mistresses. Who died poor and alone and bitter. There's something much bigger happening in these paintings, something way beyond adoration.

I love everything about that exchange (and there's more, but why give away my best stuff?) -- the rhythm, the humor, and the style (another post altogether); and yet again, there's something bubbling under the surface.

This time do your own dialogic analysis and tell me what you see.

If dialogue is not your strong suit, try a simple exercise of putting two people with opposite traits, opinions, backgrounds, etc. in a room together (better yet, have them get stuck in an elevator) and see what they have to say. Leave out the narration. I'll bet you'll be surprised what they reveal.

I also use dialogue to help me when I'm struggling with a character's motivation. In that case, the dialogue is usually between me and the character.

Overall, have fun with dialogue. Explore. And most of all, listen.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Antagonist 101

Although I learned quite a bit from the short fiction workshop I took at the Southampton Writers Conference, it was the screenwriting workshops that resonated with me. Namely, the various discussions about character. I had already known that I was more character-driven than plot-driven when it comes to novel-writing, but these workshops reinforced just how comfortable a place that is for me to be.

Two of the most eye-opening moments for me came about as the result of conversations about antagonists. The first time, my screenplay adaptation instructor Stephen Molton asked me who the antagonist was in Ordinary World (I had chosen this work to adapt). I had to think about this. Remember, I'm trained in rhetoric, not literature. This stuff doesn't come as quickly to me.

"Um, I think it's Andi's grief," I replied, my voice full of uncertainty.

Stephen, the nurturing teacher, clarified that grief was certainly one obstacle in the way of Andi's intention. (And then, a blast from the past: "man vs. man", "man vs. nature", and "man vs. himself" emerged from the memory vault marked "7th-grade English".) But there was a more obvious antagonist.


Of course. He's the guy who always pushed Andi's buttons, first as Devin in Faking It. Literally, the antagonizer. I had never thought of him as such because I had always believed antagonists to be villains with sinister motives; and quite frankly, Devin/David never appeared as such to me.

Eye-opener number two came on the heels of this revelation in a second workshop with Will Chandler who mentioned, almost in a by-the-way fashion, that "the antagonist never thinks s/he's the antagonist; s/he always thinks s/he's the protagonist."

And just like that, my world opened up. Of course. Of course! No wonder David never appeared to be the antagonist. He even fooled me into thinking he was the protagonist (well, one of them). This revelation brought with it a new pair of eyes with which to see my current "cast" of characters in my latest novel-in-progess. It opened up possibilities in terms of exploring their depth, their motivation, and their perceptions. It made me excited to (re-)visit them.

And if that wasn't enough, Stephen, with super-screenwriter x-ray vision of his own, saw another antagonist, "the one hiding in plain sight," as he called it, that could be developed for the Ordinary World screenplay.

Can you guess who it is?

So, to sum up, here's what I bring back to my novel-writing: when getting to know my characters, it is key for me to ask what my protagonist wants (intention) and what's in the way of her/him getting it (obstacle). It is key for me to identify my antagonist not necessarily as the villain (although s/he very well may be), but perhaps either as one of those obstacles or, more literally, the antagonizer. And as I explore my antagonists' psyches, it will be key for me to listen to them make their case for protag status. No doubt I will learn plenty from them when they tell me. And so will you.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

conference de-briefing

A new blog post can be quite intimidating if you've been away from it for awhile. I've returned from an incredible three weeks in Southampton, NY with writers block not because I have nothing to say, but because I have so much to say. I already know that this post won't do any of it justice, so I'll just generally sum up.

Some things I learned (or affirmed) about myself as a writer during this conference, in no particular order:

  • I'm a storyteller, and my stories are driven by character and a what-if.
  • Screenwriting and novel-writing suit me well. Short story-writing does not.
  • My bachelor's degree in psychology was money well spent.
  • I have a hard time grasping the concept of "literary".
  • I'm very proud and appreciative of my rhetorical training and perspective.
  • My insecurities about (not) being "well read" have resurfaced. (Then again, I grasp the concept of "well read" about as easily as I grasp the concept of "literary".)
  • A classroom is a special space. So is a Long Island beach.
  • Ice cream cures writers block. (Rather, it makes you not give a damn about it.)
  • Man, and I can get paid for this!
  • Revision is still my favorite part of the process. So is the thinking part. And, when the time is right (and it needs to be just right), so is the talking-it-out part.
  • I have to serve myself as a reader before I can serve any other reader(s).
  • I'm on the right track.

Maybe some of these resonate with you. I don't think you need a conference or a class or a workshop or even an MFA to discover these things. But it's quite validating when you do so in the company of other writers and writing teachers. At least it was for me.

As I take this week to work on my syllabus for the fall semester, I will be thinking about this blog as a classroom space and get back to the teaching of writing here, too, starting with character. I can't wait to share what I learned about protagonists and antagonists!

Happy writing, folks. And take my word for it on the ice cream.