Saturday, February 23, 2013

Is Your Fiction too Real? Lessons from Downton Abbey, Death, and Believability

Whether we write about early 20th century aristocrats or sparkly vampires, super-heroes or detectives, most writers want to inject a sense of realism into our stories.

Characters should always be believable, and plot developments should grow out of the choices they’ve made and the world they live in, not random events.

However, knowing when a plot development comes across as believable or not can be difficult.

One of the most believable works of fiction I’ve encountered recently is Downton Abbey, the British historical drama airing on PBS in the U.S.  I’ve sung DA’s praises before, and it remains an engaging and thoughtful drama every writer of fiction should study.

No show is perfect, however, and DA started to show the cracks in its fine dinnerware this season through the near back-to-back deaths of two major characters. Spoiler warning: Read no further if you don’t want plot details of the third season spoiled for you.

First, Lady Sybil died in childbirth in a wholly believable and heart-wrenching sequence.

Then viewers were rocked again in the season finale. Matthew Crawley, husband of Sybil's sister, Mary, and father of Mary's newborn son, died in a car crash.

I’ll give series creator Julian Fellowes props for foreshadowing Matthew’s exit. Fellowes built Matthew up as a character we care about, a handsome young lawyer whose business savvy saved the family from financial ruin. 

Matthew’s impulsive streak was also well displayed this season, making the circumstances of his demise somewhat credible. 

And Fellowes had to manage an all-too-real situation of series television: Sometimes actors want to leave

Still, I have two complaints concerning Matthew’s death. One is that he, like Sybil, died right after becoming a parent.  The second is the rather obvious way Matthew was played up to be the family savior this season.

Real Life, Fiction, and Coincidence

Yes, I know eerie coincidences happen in real life. And I’ve experienced first-hand how families can be devastated by one senseless tragedy after another.

But therein lies the difference between fiction and reality. Reality doesn’t have to make sense; fiction should.

In fact, fiction is often used to make sense of reality. In Good Scripts, Bad Scripts, screenwriter Thomas Pope wrote:

Art doesn’t try to imitate life, but rather distills its essence to find and reveal the truths beneath the lies, the meaning behind the meaninglessness, the structure in the randomness. Even when it doesn’t show those deeper truths, it can at least let people see, for a few popcorn-drenched moments, a better world, where heroes triumph and life has structure and meaning (xix).

Of course, Downton Abbey is not about heroes triumphing--at least not always. It’s about ordinary people coming to terms with their changing world.

Even so, the series excels at finding “meaning behind the meaningless” and “structure in the randomness." Sybil's death, for example, led to painful scenes between her mother, Cora, and her father, Robert, both of whom believed he was responsible for her death, and to an interesting resolution when the family doctor fibs (or not) to save their marriage.

Sybil's widower, Tom Branson, has had to cope with enormous changes in his life before and since his wife's death. He struggles to move forward, to do what's best for the family, as heroes do.

Matthew's death, on the other hand, comes off as a little more than contrived--an end-of-season cliffhanger worthy of the worst soap operas.

(Fellowes explained, in the article linked to above, why he wrote Matthew out as he did. And while his reasons make perfect sense from a television series writer's point of view, the event still fell flat in the episode itself.)

Is Your Story Too "Realistic"?

For writers, this development illustrates the pratfalls of attempting to make our stories too real. Too much randomness, too much meaninglessness, no matter how “realistic,” can throw the reader out of your story. 

So, how do you know when an event in your story, such as the death of a major character, is believable?  Consider the following:

  • Does the event flow naturally from who the characters are and from the choices they’ve made?
  • Does the event contribute something substantial to your story, or is it intended merely for shock value?
  • Does the event have lasting repercussions for the characters and/or their survivors?
  • Have you set up (foreshadowed) the event so that, even if it comes as a surprise, it seems inevitable?
  • Is the event too similar to something else that’s happened in your story?

Set It Up, But Not Too Loudly

Even if you think through the answers to these questions, a sudden and drastic change can still feel contrived. Fellowes went a little overboard this season in playing up Matthew's importance to the family and general good character.

Matthew even forced an 18-year-old cousin to break off an affair with a married man, rooted for his sister-in-law Edith in her new career as a journalist, and belatedly earned his father-in-law’s appreciation for saving the family home.

If Matthew hadn't died (and if more of the family were Catholic), he'd have become a living saint.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

What to Do with Deleted Scenes from Your Novel

Amazon Kindle
Amazon Kindle (Photo credit: agirregabiria)
So, you've finished writing your book, but not everything fit.  Some scenes, chapters, and even characters had to be left on the cutting room floor -- a perfectly normal and healthy part of the writing process.

But wait!  Don't throw those extra scenes away.

Why discard them when you can put them on your blog, where readers can get extra behind-the-scenes glimpse into the workings of your novel?

Herewith is a scene I wrote for THE POWER CLUB, but left out for several reasons. Although I'm happy with the scene, it's not told from my main character's point of view. Also, it might be a bit disturbing for young readers.

(By the way, the event depicted actually does happen in the novel; however, we don't get to see it in "real time.")

If you've read THE POWER CLUB, you can compare this scene with what actually does take place in the novel.  (This scene would have fallen about midway through Chapter 10.)  If you haven't read the novel, you may want to do so to see what happens next.

What do you think?  Did I make the right call in deleting it?

Liberator’s Journal: Entry 7061

The flight attendant asks me if I want something to drink.  I pretend to be polite and tell her no.  She smiles and pushes the drink cart away.  Her calves are perfectly round behind her smoke-colored hose.  I almost regret what is going to happen.

Yes, we are at war, or so my cell leader tells me.  The people on this plane go about their business, chatting, listening to music, strapping their children in.  They would crucify me if they knew I was “special”. 

As the plane taxis down the runway, I feel an impending sense of dread.  I’ve never done this in an airplane.  It should be easy, though.  Falling is be no big deal, but I won’t be able to move until I’ve fully reintegrated.  Barney will have to find me before the cops.  He’d better get the coordinates right, or else.

“First time?” says the woman next to me.

Puzzled, I glance at her.

“Is this your first time flying?”

I shake my head. 

“Are you all right?” she says, staring at my hands.  I realize that I’m gripping the arms of my seat. The metal ends have started to melt.

I relax my hands, but I keep them in place to hide the damage.

“Bad cold,” I reply.

She seems satisfied and nods.

A full minute passes before she adds, “I always get a little nervous, no matter how many times I fly.  Do you fly often?”

At first, I do not look at her directly.  I never like to look at them, at the oppressors.  But I feel her eyes upon me. It would arouse suspicion if I continue to ignore her, so I look.

She is middle-aged, not very attractive, and slightly overweight.  Her grey-brown hair is plastered to the side of her face like a wavy picture frame.  It must have taken a full bottle of hairspray to get that effect.  Her jean jacket seems out of place.

“Not often,” I say.

The plane gathers speed as we prepare to leave the ground. G-forces press me into my seat, threatening to ignite my power.  I could let that happen now, but I must wait until the proper time. 

I look out the window as the ground falls away.

I hold my breath to initiate the change.  Deep within my body, I feel it begin, like a fuse being lit.  Acrid fumes force their way up into my throat and nose, burning them.  Not yet.

“Where are you from?” the woman asks.

Just my luck to be seated next to a talker. I swallow the fumes, causing indigestion.  When I’m able to speak, I pick the farthest place away that I can imagine.


Her face lights up.  “Houston, Texas?  My sister and her family live there. They’re on the northeastern side.” She rattles off names that mean nothing to me.

“I’m from the southwestern side,” I interrupt, “but I haven’t been there in a long time.”

“Where do you live now?”

“Out of suitcases, mostly.”  I heard that on TV once.

She leans forward, as if her interest has now truly been piqued. 

“Oh, you’re a businessman?  But you look so young.  My son is a businessman, too.  He also travels a lot.”

I strain to keep the bland expression on my face, hoping that she will get the hint and shut up.  The change continues to happen, and I feel it spread up my torso and over my shoulders. 

It won’t be long now.

She is telling me about her son and her grandchildren.  I tune most of it out.  I have to do that.  If I listen, she becomes a person, not a means to an end.

I steal a glance out the window.  We are still over the city. 
Then she says something that stops me cold.  “Are you from the district?”

I glance down at my hands.  There’s no way she could have seen . . .

“Oh, I’m sorry,” she says, covering her mouth with her hand.  “I meant the Middleton School District, not that other district.  I thought you were a book buyer.”

I relax.  Safe.

In an effort to cover my own embarrassment, I ask, “Is that what you are?  A book buyer for the Middleton School District?”

“No, I teach biology at Middleton High School.  I’m on my way to a teaching conference in Seattle.  I thought that’s where you were heading, too.  After all, you’re dressed so nice.”

I knew my business suit and tie were too much for a plane trip. It’s hard to know what the wear when you don’t get out much.  Her words only increase my discomfort, which grows as I try not to ignite too soon.

I glance out the window.  The city has given way to farmland.  “I’m not going to a conference,” I admit. 

“Where are you going, if I may ask?”

“To a funeral.”

“Oh, I’m so sorry.  Was it someone close to you?”

“I barely knew her.”

“You must have cared to come all this way.”

I look out the window for the last time.  The farmland gives way to the tiny forest trees.  The change within me builds to a crescendo.  My temperature rises ten degrees.

“Was it a relative?” she asks.

“The funeral I’m going to,” I say as I take my hands off the melted arms of the chair and turn to her, “is yours.”

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Saturday, February 9, 2013

The Power of Words, and How Not to Abuse Them on Facebook

Facebook logo
Facebook logo (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As writers in the modern world, we are often encouraged to make ourselves known on social media outlets such as Facebook, so we can build a following, inform potential readers or our work, and “be relatable” (a necessary ingredient for building a following, it seems).  

All well and good, but there are some things writers and non-writers alike should avoid posting, even on Facebook.

Facebook, valuable sociological experiment as it is, can be virtual ground for vitriol.  Posters can say anything they like—and if it disparages politicians, those with different views, or religious organizations, so much, it seems, the better. 

After all, certain individuals and organizations lend themselves easily to mockery.

But before you go blasting away at your favorite target, ask yourself two simple questions: Would you say the same thing at a party filled with strangers or acquaintances, and how would you feel if someone you admired were subjected to similar attacks?

“But it’s just my opinion.”

A frequent defense for posting attacks is that the user is simply stating his or her opinion. The underlying assumption is that an opinion is basically harmless. But is this really so?  

Next time you post an attack on someone, delete that person's name and type in your own before you hit "post." How do you feel now about the post being made public?

Opinions carry weight. If you repeat something often enough, you run the risk of others thinking you know what you're talking about.

Besides, what often passes for opinion on Facebook is not well-thought out points of view but memes —those clever pictures with captions started by someone and so easily "shared" by the rest of us. 

I admit I’ve shared memes, too. Memes can be clever or funny ways of making a point. 

And there’s nothing wrong with creating memes or sharing them, unless the sole purpose for doing so is to ridicule someone or present something in a simplistic or distorted light.

Awhile back, one of the memes making its rounds on Facebook showed an image of Abraham Lincoln and featured a quote from him: “That I am not a member of any Christian church is true.” On the surface, there’s nothing wrong with this. Lincoln did say those words. But the meme presented them out of context and left it up to the reader to guess what Lincoln (and the person sharing the meme) meant. 

What are we supposed to take from Lincoln’s statement? That because he did not belong to a Christian church, we shouldn’t either? That Christianity is bad? The meme carries an air or authority behind it, but, by being purposely vague, it invites us to read into it anything we want.  

(For the record, Lincoln’s beliefs were mysterious and open to scholarly debate.)

Do you even know what that word means?

Another frequent form of attack is aimed at President Obama. Actually, FB is not alone in this. Media pundits who oppose Obama are fond of calling him a socialist or claiming that the United States is becoming more socialist under his administration. While Obama, like any politician, merits criticism on any number of fronts, socialism isn’t one of them.

People who hurl the “S” word often don’t know what it, in fact, means.  Rather, they use it as a scare tactic, as “Communist” once was used.

Furthermore, they seem oblivious to the fact that the U.S. already has policies which emphasize that “individuals do not live and work in isolation but live in cooperation with one another." You may have heard of Medicare, income tax, or even the U.S. military.

Yet some portray socialism as inherently bad and Obama as an evil man for foisting it upon us. If that is what you truly believe, fine. But please keep it to yourself.

(And, just to be fair, similar attacks on Republicans are no less execrable.)

Lighting a match

Opinions are wonderful. Everybody has them. And there’s nothing wrong with expressing yours on Facebook, but please do so responsibly.

My former uncle used to have a saying, which I will present in cleaned-up form: Opinions are like that part of your body which leaves behind solid waste—everyone has such an anatomical feature. 

To this, I add: No one likes it when you pass gas in public, and, if you do, don’t be surprised when someone else lights a match.

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Saturday, February 2, 2013

What "Watchmen" Can Teach You About Story Structure

Cover art for the 1987 U.S. (right) and U.K. (...
Cover art for the 1987 U.S. (right) and U.K. (left) collected editions of Watchmen, published by DC Comics and Titan Books (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
The ol' deadline doom is upon me once again.  Here's a favorite article from 2009:

The first part of "Comics and Story Structure" discussed how Freytag’s Pyramid of dramatic structure can be an invaluable tool in plotting stories. To recap, the seven elements of the pyramid are:
  1. Exposition
  2. Inciting Incident
  3. Rising Action
  4. Climax
  5. Falling Action
  6. Resolution
  7. Denouement
They can be found in virtually every kind of story, including one of the most famous comic book stories of all time: the origin of Spider-Man.

“That’s fine,” you may say, “but what if my comic book story is a limited series or features a protagonist who isn't a cuddly, wall-crawling do-gooder?”

Structure is just as important for any type of story. The fact that some comics run for awhile on random plot lines and shock appeal does not invalidate the need for structure. Such comics sputter to a halt after awhile or degenerate into a neverending series of "character arcs" that lack any real development. Comics that operate this way usually get cancelled or relaunched, or a new writer comes in to “fix” it—often by starting a new story that lacks structure.

Structure, Stories, and Real Life

Why is structure so important? The answer can be found in Thomas Pope’s book, Good Scripts, Bad Scripts: Learning the Craft of Screenwriting Through 25 of the Best and Worst Films in History. Though written for screenwriters, Pope’s work is essential to comic book writers, as well. In his introduction, Pope reflects,"[L]ife is just one damned thing after another, without apparent structure or meaning. ... Art doesn't try to imitate life, but rather distills its essence to find and reveal the truth behind the lies, the meaning behind the meaningless, the structure within the randomness" (xix).

But what if you as a writer want to emphasize that life is, in fact, “one damned thing after another,” without meaning or structure? Many writers attempt to portray what they see as the world outside their windows, with all the grim, gritty, and amoral aspects (which might prompt one to suggest that they move to a nicer neighborhood).

Even if your story focuses on the darker side of heroes, structure can keep it from spinning out of control or sputtering to a halt eight issues into a 12-issue limited series. To illustrate this point, look at the granddaddy of all “dark” super-hero comics, Watchmen.

Watchmen and Dramatic Structure
Spoiler Warning: Aspects of Watchmen are discussed below. Proceed at your own risk.

Published as a 12-issue limited series in 1986-87 and later collected into a graphic novel, Watchmen set the tone for today's grim and gritty comics. But while many fledgling writers imitated the raw violence, sex, and language of Watchmen, they failed to learn a far more valuable lesson: Watchmen makes superb use of dramatic structure.

Writer Alan Moore put his own spin on Freytag’s Pyramid. For example, the story begins with the grisly aftermath of a murder—the “hero” known as The Comedian has been thrown through a penthouse window and his blood is being washed from the sidewalk below into the gutter. The Inciting Incident—the murder—has already occurred; this means that the opening scene begins the Rising Action. (Note that the 2009 film version departs from this beginning by showing the murder at the onset.)

But what about Exposition? Moore did not neglect this vital information. Some of it is filled in by the two detectives investigating the case; other information is discovered by another “hero,” Rorschach, as he conducts his own illegal investigation. By Page 8 of the first issue, we’re well oriented to the world of Watchmen and two of its main characters. Moore successfully weaves Exposition with Rising Action while showing us only glimpses of the Inciting Incident in flashback.

Packing and Unpacking Stories

A story, as Watchmen demonstrates, does not have to begin with Exposition. The writer can start the story anywhere along Freytag’s Pyramid. However, all of the dramatic elements should be present when the story is unpacked and laid out. (If you are familiar with Watchmen, unpack the rest of it yourself and see if you can locate the other elements.)

Good writers should also unpack their own stories and see where the dramatic beats lie. This will help you avoid “lumps” or flatness in the final product, regardless of whether it lasts one issue, 12 issues, or indefinitely.

Moore, Alan, writer, and Dave Gibbons, artist. Watchmen. New York: DC Comics, 1986.

Pope, Thomas. Good Scripts, Bad Scripts: Learning the Craft of Screenwriting Through 25 of the Best and Worst Films in History. New York: Three Rivers, 1998.
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Sneak Peak at My Answers for the Local Author Fair Panel

On Thursday, November 5, I will be one of four authors participating in the Local Authors Fair Panel through Woodneath Library Center, Kansa...