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PART 1: WRITING
An action in fiction is a forward movement of the story that doesn't necessarily involve physical activity. In fiction a surprising or strongly worded or decisive thought can be an action. For instance, if the leading character decides she must investigate something—why a door that is always kept closed is open or why her husband is coming home later and later— those thoughts are actions. Action can be slamming a door, refusing to make a loan, moving a crucial chess piece, going somewhere unexpected, anything that involves significant change. Inaction is static. For instance, a scene with two characters chatting agreeably but not disagreeing about anything important is inactive and does not propel a story forward. To make conversation active, see Dialogue.
The key in story writing is plausibility. This statement is not propaganda for realism, it means simply that any action needs to be sufficiently credible so the reader won't stop and think this sounds made-up. In thrillers and suspense novels, the most common mistakes occur when the hero or villain does things that are unlikely in life. For instance, I once edited a popular author who had one character throw another character over a ship's railing. Can we believe that one character is strong enough to raise another person high enough to throw him over a railing? Even if that is possible, for the reader it is not easily credible. An action must be instantly believable. Do characters in novels do out-of-the-ordinary things? Yes. But they are done credibly. An author can make a reader see, feel, hear, smell, and believe. Physical exaggerations work against belief.
Children's books frequently have implausible action set in an environment created by the writer in which such things become possible. The possibility has to be established early. Science fiction, when well wrought, does the same thing. In literary fiction a writer might stray unnecessarily, for example by having a young leading lady crying so copiously that her dress gets wet. Not likely. Therefore, the attempt becomes a glitch in the reader's experience (see Glitch).
Adjectives and Adverbs
These weaken nouns and verbs, and therefore weaken your writing. For instance, “Life is great” is a strong statement. “Life is frequently great” is much weaker, though it may be more accurate under the circumstances. In general, I advise care in the use of adjectives and adverbs. At times they are needed for accuracy and comprehension. In speech, adjectives and adverbs are commonplace, habitual, and often unnecessary. Overuse of adjectives in speaking can sap the strength of prose. That's where we get the habit. This morning's edition of my favorite newspaper has a lead editorial about protecting “Americans’ cherished rights.” “Cherished rights” is weaker than “Americans’ rights” because of the cliché adjec tive. If the writer was desperate for an adjective—though none was needed—he or she could have weakened the noun less by choosing a less familiar adjective. If you must have an adjective, use an unusual one. When revising writing, one should develop the habit of checking for and cutting unneeded adjectives and adverbs to strengthen prose. See Clichés.
If you are like most writers, a phone ringing in the midst of writing can disrupt the flow of thought. Answering machines are only a partial remedy because the ringing of the phone can itself do the harm. One solution is to have phones at more than one location, one in some other room or place that rings and takes your messages and in your writing room another phone that doesn't have a ringer or that has a ringer that can be silenced when not wanted. If you're concerned about emergency calls, tell your family to call twice in a row if one really needs to disturb your work. You can probably think of other solutions that fit your circumstances better. The main point is to avoid interruptions.
Sometimes called an adage or a maxim, an aphorism is a brief truism or cleverly stated perception. An aphorism is usually welcomed by readers in dialogue if it is spoken appropriately by a fictional character and is consistent with what's happening at that point in the story. An aphorism should not draw attention to itself while the reader is reading. A novelist can make good use of aphorisms if they are spoken by the right characters in appropriate circumstances. I scrounged through a novel of mine, The Best Revenge, and found the following examples of aphorisms used by characters in the novel:
“Of course the Bible was written by sinners. How else would they know?”
“Experience is what enables you to have a guilty conscience when you do something you know is wrong because you've done it before.”
“The best way to move is like a duck, calm on the surface, paddling like hell underneath.”
“The important creases are in the brain, not in the pants.”
“I remembered the expression Bette Davis had in a movie when she was saying yes like she was surrendering a country.”
“The truth is people take hostages. Sometimes the hostages they take are themselves.”
“My accountant is an owl of a man who keeps one eyelid half shut not because of an affliction but because there is much in this world he is not prepared to see.”
“Show business is a hill of ice, and when you're on top all you see are the little figures climbing up toward you with pickaxes.”
“Save your breath. It's the Devil who negotiates. God never made a deal with nobody.”
“There is a kind of thought that sticks in your head the way a piece of chewing gum can stick to the sole of your shoe. The more you try to get rid of it, the worse it seems to get.”
“A lawyer is a soldier. His job is to go out and kill the enemy. You wind him up, point him in the right direction, and get the hell out of the way. All the rest is bullshit.”
“If you push the first domino, you are responsible for all that fall.”
“A good teacher leaves his tattoo on your brain.”
“If you want to understand a people, listen to their special words. In Yiddish, naches means the pride a parent gets from the achievements of a child. Who else gives their kids such a need to provide naches to their parents?”
Wonderful in operas, can be deadly in plays. I may have coined the word “speechifying” because one character going on and on can be as boring onstage as he would be in life. Dialogue can be defined as a verbal clash between two or more characters. Of course, theater has had some significant and brilliant monologues that require great skill to write and hold an audience, but the majority of plays play best when two characters thrust and parry with words. See Dialogue.
A book-length author's view of his or her own life, usually told in full if not in full disclosure. It differs from a memoir, which has selected portions of a life.
A term related to “advanced” or experimental literature, usually fiction. Early in the twentieth century James Joyce's masterpiece Ulysses demonstrated how various moments of time relate to each other. His characters’ feelings are evoked by memories seeping into consciousness, juxtaposing inner time to clock time by the fluid lapping of the stream of consciousness against the present moment. This kind of feeling predominated in the works of major writers like Proust and Virginia Woolf as well as Joyce. The chief characters in Ulysses are Leopold Bloom; his wife, Molly; and Stephen Dedalus, a young man often interpreted to be Joyce himself. It was a time when Freud and psychoanalysis influenced the intelligentsia. Writers wanted to experiment in their stories with the stream of consciousness uncensored, intermixed with memories, providing readers with a new form of storytelling that depended on the interior monologues of the main characters. In Ulysses the experienced reader enjoyed the meanderings of Bloom's and Stephen's consciousness and Molly's climactic monologue.
Joyce's next book, Finnegans Wake, strayed even further from the literary conventions of the time and seemed incomprehensible to many, with the last page segueing into the first page. I confess that at Columbia University I used to read small parts of Finnegans Wake aloud to groups in an Irish accent, which made much of what was happening intelligible to listeners for the first time. The best way to familiarize yourself with Joyce's work is to start with Dubliners, his short stories, and his early book, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.
In fiction or narrative nonfiction, events or scenes that happened earlier are called “backstory.” Such past scenes are designed to cast light on current events, enriching them. Back-stories are most effective when they are visible scenes from the past, not mere summaries. Segueing smoothly into and out of backstory without disrupting the reader's experience is a difficult craft that requires experience, experiment, and practice. When mastered it can be useful to both fiction and nonfiction writers. Moreover, the move to backstory can be accomplished with a change to a different character's point of view, as in the following example:
In my novel The Best Revenge, the principal character is Ben Riller, a Broadway producer. In chapter 3, experienced from Riller's point of view, he is having a stormy first meeting with Nick Manucci, a big-time loan shark who Riller knew as a boy. At the end of chapter 3, the protagonist Ben Riller seems to have been bested by Manucci in their meeting. Chapter 4 switches to Manucci's point of view, with an angry and caustic backstory of his growing up and his difficult relationship to his father, from whom he learned the moneylending business. In the reading, the segue is invisible. It doesn't seem abrupt, and the reader experiences the backstory, only to have chapter 5 be yet another backstory, this one from the point of view of Mary Manucci, the wife of the loan shark, revealing the story of her marriage.
Chapter 6 is back in the voice of Nick, the loan shark, in the critical scene with Ben Riller that was interrupted by two whole chapters of backstory. The only external reference from author to reader is the chapter titles, which are simply the name of the character speaking. In other words, I used two backstories to interrupt and strengthen the main conflict in the novel. I was pleased to find that readers did not notice that the novel segued into the points of view of other characters in the middle of a tense argument.
The principle to be observed is that one can segue into the past unnoticeably, even to the extent of two chapters, and slip back into the present without the reader noticing and without breaking the continuity of the reader's experience.
Beginnings, in Crime Novels, Thrillers, and Literature
The differences are great. In crime novels, a body is found early, often on page 1. In thrillers an emergency, local, national, or international, is often threatened, unveiled, or begun in the first pages. In literary fiction, the specific manner of beginning a novel may differ significantly from writer to writer.
Henry James remembered Ivan Turgenev saying that his story almost always began with the vision of one or more characters hovering before him, soliciting him, appealing to him, becoming vivid to him, at which point Turgenev imagined and invented and selected and pieced together the situations most useful to his sense of the creatures themselves, the complications they would most likely produce. To arrive at these things, Turgenev said, was to arrive at his story. “If I watch them long enough I see them engaged in this or that act and in this or that difficulty. How they look and move and speak and behave in the setting I have found for them.”
In fiction, there are two ways of trying to entice the reader to nestle down in his or her chair for the ride. In commercial thrillers, a killing is about to happen, or a bomb is set to go off. I'm seldom attracted to such stories unless I am first attracted to one or more of the people involved, including the corpse. Many writers have heard me say the reader must know the people in the car before he sees the car crash.
The first few sentences of a novel are the perfect place to involve the reader with a character. (See Characterization.) This isn't a new idea. Herman Melville learned this in the nineteenth century, when he started to write a novel badly:
It was the middle of a bright tropical afternoon that we made good our escape from the bay. The vessel we sought lay with her main- topsail aback about a league from the land and was the only object that broke the broad expanse of the ocean.
So what? First there's that word “escape.” From what? From land to the ocean? Do we care? We don't have any sense of who is talking. It's an inadequate beginning. Let's look at Melville's later draft of the beginning of the same book:
Call me Ishmael. Some years ago—never mind how long precisely—having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particu lar to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world.
Those first three words—“Call me Ishmael”—are, of course, the beginning of an acknowledged masterpiece, Moby-Dick, and the reader's curiosity is born. Who is this Ishmael with the strong voice who instructs us? A character pulls us into the story.
Writing a beginning that starts with a particular character is also suitable for a commercial crime novel, where the body is found on page 1. Starting with the character who finds the body is better than starting with the body.
In novels that aspire to be literature, starting with a character at an event will produce a stronger beginning than starting with the event. One of the very best is the beginning of Rabbit at Rest, the fourth volume of John Updike's Rabbit series. Updike uses the first paragraph to reintroduce the protagonist Rabbit Angstrom and provides the reader with a dramatic setting and two conflicts, neither of which Rabbit can control. It's an ideal beginning.
Standing amid the tan, excited post-Christmas crowd at the South west Florida Regional Airport, Rabbit Angstrom has a funny feeling that what he has come to meet, what's floating in unseen about to land, is not his son Nelson and daughter-in-law Pru and their two children but something more ominous and intimately his: his own death, shaped vaguely like an airplane. The sensation chills him, above and beyond the terminal air-conditioning. But, then, facing Nelson has made him feel uneasy for thirty years.
A common fault in beginnings—and elsewhere—is to provide the reader information about the birth or early years of a character unrelated to the story. Here's a rare case of relevance:
Ambrose was born in the Woman's Detention Center on Rikers
Island. Normally a pregnant prisoner would be transferred to a se
Excerpted from Sol Stein's: Reference Book for Writers by Sol Stein.
Copyright © 2010 by Sol Stein.
Published in 2010 by St. Martin's Griffin
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.