Like most lies, its chief danger lies in its subtlety. What am I talking about? I am talking about how popular media propagates the message that emotional dysfunctional people are more interesting (among other things)than well adjusted people. Now, for the purpose of this short post I am defining emotionally dysfunctional people as people who express their emotions in unhealthy/immature ways. An extreme example would be a grown man throwing a tantrum when he doesn’t get what he wants. But (you say) surely the media isn’t glorifying the man throwing the tantrum; maybe they’re just portraying the way things are. Maybe. I’m not against portraying an honest picture of humanity, if it’s done well. But I want to explain some of the problems I have with what I call “irresponsible storytelling.”
My parents’ bedroom and my father’s office are situated side by side at the end of the hall in the back of their house. Sometimes you can catch them having conversations around the corner. The other day I was sitting just down the hall when I heard my mother’s voice.
“Can I trust you? I would like to, but I just don’t think I can.”
Now I have heard my parents argue and I have heard my mother’s voice when it is under stress. This was different. It didn’t sound like a voice she would use with my dad, but who else would she be talking to in the back of the house? It sounded like she was repeating the lines from some soap opera.
A few minutes later I went into my parents’ room to ask a question. Everything became clear. She had two dresses (freshly dry cleaned) hanging from the bed frame and over on the windowsill was our black cat Max. (And no, he should not be trusted alone in a room with two dresses exposed. To him they might as well be the stairway to heaven.)
If I were the sort of person to jump to conclusions, that whole situation could have played out very differently. Here’s the truth about people though: a lot of them do tend to jump to conclusions. I tend to come from a rare breed–the ones who want to gather all the information they can before making a conclusion. I know it must be rare because people comment on it all the time.
I don’t think I need to explain to you how you can use context in your story. Some of the most infamous pieces of literature are centered around characters taking things out of context, or miscommunication.
Now, to be honest, stories about miscommunication can be infuriating. But as a writer, I have to recognize that people take things out of context all the time. It’s human nature. (Yes, even I do it.) One of the coolest things about human beings is that we can take information, process it, find patterns, and come to conclusions. Our brains are pretty neat. But no one is omnipotent. And we like for things to be wrapped up neatly. So, even if we don’t have all the information, we try to wrap up what we do know and that’s where we get into trouble.
Misunderstanding is part of life and it can be really fun to play with as an author (as long as you don’t torment your reader. Please don’t do that). In fact, I think there is nothing that can so powerfully show the different backgrounds of two people then how they may understand the same statement in two completely different ways. That’s the kind of misunderstanding I want to play with: the kind that reveals more about my characters.
I have been thinking a lot about genres–partly because I am asked to clearly define the genre of each book I write, partly because as an author genre partially defines me, and partly because I do a lot of writing research.
You may or may not find it surprising that it is difficult for me to categorize my work. Yes, it falls within the bounds of science fiction or fantasy. But I always find myself wanting to add explanations: “it’s not just science fiction.”
The truth is that genres sometimes remind me of high school stereotypes. Do you remember how in high school as soon as you told someone you were in band, or on the football team they immediately stereotyped you? That’s how it is with genres sometimes. People like to categorize books by content and not by whether they are good or not. And as an author starting out you are told to pick your genre and stick with it.
Here’s the problem: I’ve never been good at staying in boxes (shoutout to Pelangi, who knows this better than anyone!). Growing up between two cultures probably had a lot to do with this. I’m not a fan of blanket statements, I don’t like black and white thinking, and moderation and balance are two of my favorite words.
In thinking about genres, I came to two realizations: a lot of authors fully embrace and lean heavily into their genres; but I am not one of those authors. I came to this realization while contemplating the problem with the vast majority of romance novels: they miss the forest for the trees. I think I’ve shared that quote about endings being hard because they are false. Well, your typical romance novel focuses entirely on just that: a romance between two people. It’s almost as if the lives of these people before they met didn’t matter, nor will their lives after matter. I realized that the only romance I will write will be part of a bigger story. It will be a bigger story about life in general in which people fall in love. Because like it or not, life is not centered around romance. (Now, I am not saying that there are no good romance novels out there. I’m sure there are. I just think the market is flooded with bad ones, and I also think that I will never write one.)
What I want to write is the “Literary MVP.” Can you guess what I mean by that? In any sport you have your specialists and then you have your all-around players. Now technically a specialist can win most valuable player. But at least in my mind, the MVP was the player that carries the team because the coach can put her in anywhere. That’s what I’m talking about.
My favorite books transcend genres. Yes, they can be technically categorized, but they always appeal to a wider audience because they strike a common chord. They take a piece of human existence and insert it into their genre. But their work breaks down stereotypes.
I want my works to be strong in all areas. I want them to be quick on their feet, with spiderweb fingers, able to block if necessary, and able to punt when necessary. I don’t want to settle for being strong in one area. It takes a lot of work and training to be an all-around athlete. It’s no different for us all-around writers.
I’m well aware that at present I probably fall short in several categories–that is I haven’t reached champion status in all categories. I am okay with that. I will continue to aim high until I hit my target.
Many years ago, as a young reader and writer, I had the rather misguided idea that the storyteller’s goal was shock the reader in any way possible. Sometimes I even pictured the emotional reaction of my “readers” with malevolent satisfaction. “Ha! They’ll never see this coming!” It was almost like my imagined readers were my enemy and I had to outsmart and defeat them.
I had probably picked up the impression from my very intelligent father who would harshly discard or critique any plot that didn’t meet his intelligent standard. And there one or two stories that broke my heart with their plot twists, but I upheld as golden works of fiction.
As I discussed with my posts addressing cliffhangers, this theme also seems to be prevalent in modern television. Many shows aim high on the drama scale: killing off characters and making characters act irrationally. Their goal is to be controversial. But I have learned that I do not have the same goals.
There are books where you can tell the author respects her audience, and there are books where the opposite is true. Now, I’m not saying that you write purely for your audience, and if you’ve read my blog at all, you’ll know I frequently preach the opposite. But really it’s just common sense: if you make enemies of your audience, they won’t recommend your book.
I remember watching Jane Eyre for the first time. I had never read the book and didn’t know the story. Bronte does a good job of being creepy. At one point it seemed like there was a vampire in the house. I remember debating whether or not to turn it off. I didn’t want to keep watching it if the explanation was a vampire. But something told me I could trust the author. And in the end it was all explicable.
It may sound exciting to cross genres or throw in shock-and-awe surprises, but sometimes that is just unfair to the reader. If you purchase a book because it is historical fiction and halfway through the author throws in aliens, it can feel like a betrayal.
But this author-reader trust goes beyond “genre crossing.” I don’t have all the answers. But I do know that I want to be an author that readers trust. I don’t want to be the controversial shock and awe author. I don’t want my reader to feel like the boat sprung a leak halfway across the bay. I want to get my reader safely from one shore to the other.
Okay! Where did we leave off? I promised to examine some different endings with you.
- The Return of the King
- Ender’s Game
- The Secret Life of Walter Mitty/ Midnight in Paris
Just for the heck of it we’re going to start with number four.
Now these are two movies (which I love). But they have a similar ending style. In “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,” Walter is a responsible man overseeing negative assets for LIFE magazine. He has taken care of his family since his dad died. He doesn’t branch out and is afraid to pursue the woman he’s interested in. The movie is about him stepping out, fighting for what’s important to him, experiencing life, and finding his own adventures (instead of daydreaming them). It’s a fantastic movie about not getting locked behind a desk, but experiencing this beautiful world that we live in. In the end, after chasing a photographer around the world, Walter finds the negative that he lost and gives it to the executive who fired him. And he gets the chance to stand up, not only for himself, but for all the men and women who were let go during the transition to online. Then he moves on with his life. He starts job searching. While picking up his severance package he runs into Cheryl and takes the risk to speak to her again. At the end of the movie his life of quiet responsibility is validated and there is the promise of a future relationship with Cheryl. It’s a quiet ending. But the movie was mostly about the journey, anyhow. It delve into the depths of human tragedy so there is no need for a dramatic ending. And his relationship with Cheryl was not the center of the story. The ending matches the tone of the movie: Walter is re-learning what life is about.
“Midnight in Paris” has a similar feel and a similar ending. But this movie is about a struggling writer and his wealthy, controlling fiance. While Walter daydreams about his life, Gil is caught up in nostalgia for the past. Through a bizarre set of circumstances he gets to visit his “dream era” (Paris in the twenties). But over the course of the movie he realizes that he has to live the life he has been given-that to long for the past is to miss out on the present. In the end he decides to pursue his dream of living as a poor writer in Paris, even if it means losing his fiance. At the end, not only do we see Gil contentedly walking through the rain in Paris, but there is the possibility of a new romantic interest. Again, it is a simple ending. There really is no need for extended “payoff” scenes of him living in Paris. He has been working toward this goal and now he found it. The audience can see clearly how his life would go from this point. They have all the information they need to know he’s going to be happy.
Number three on that list is a bit different. “Serenity” is a scifi movie with some pretty heavy content. It has action, it has comedy, and it has fun adventure, but it also delves into the dark side of humanity. River is a girl who has gone through deep psychological trauma at the hands of the Alliance–the same people who try to “fix” humanity and ended up turning a group of people into monsters with no morals. One main character and two minor ones die. Others are seriously wounded. So the ending of this movie can’t be a quick cutoff, or even a vague send off like “Walter Mitty” or “Midnight in Paris.” The movie took the audience through deep emotional waters and now the story needs to lead us to the shore again. When the crew of Serenity accomplishes their mission it is bittersweet, because they have lost so much. So the storytellers show a beautiful funeral ceremony where the characters and the audience get a chance to say goodbye. Then there is a montage of the crew patching up the ship. This assures the audience that they will be able to move forward with their lives, and it also serves for a metaphor of emotional and physical healing. A few quiet conversations wrap up plot points and emotional loose ends. There are seeds of hope for the future. Finally, the Serenity takes off, bursting through the storm and above the clouds (another metaphor). The audience can take it from here.
“Ender’s Game” is perhaps the bridge between “Serenity” and “The Return of the King.” While it is difficult to objectively compare the depth of emotional content there are a couple of factors to take into consideration. “Serenity” is a little far-fetched. The technology, culture, and science are pretty far removed from our own. So although you can sympathize with the characters’ struggles, it doesn’t hit super close to home. The world of “Ender’s Game” is much more similar to ours. And the fact that Ender is a child through the entire book makes him more vulnerable, not to mention that the book is far more psychological than the “rollicking adventure” of “Serenity.” “Ender’s Game” explores themes that we deal with in daily life: self-preservation vs. compassion, the struggle of leadership, being your own worst enemy, and betrayal to name a few. Beside all these conflicts there is the main and obvious one: the leaders of humanity have to face the guilt of what they’ve done to Ender and Ender has to face the guilt of his own actions. After the major climax, Card takes his time finishing the story, which I have always been grateful for. He explains some of the political consequences. He shows the impact on Ender and the internal struggles he is facing. The solution for what he does next felt a little bittersweet. I didn’t like it much, but it also made sense. But then Card jumps eight or nine years into the future and gives a remarkably satisfying ending. There is redemption and again hope for the future. The reader can now visualize how Ender’s life will go.
And finally…”The Return of the King.” I won’t take too much time explaining the plot (I bet you all know it). The first time I experienced this story was in theaters. If you’ve seen the movie you know that it has several “fake endings.” The screen blacks out for a full couple of seconds before the scene changes. It was like Jackson kept teasing us that it was the end, but then adding in more. And every time the scene faded in again I was so very gratified. Because after such a long journey through struggle, war, hopelessness, and despair you can’t just end it. If any story needs a payoff at the end it is this one. Not only does Jackson give us the payoff in the movie version, but Tolkien did even more so in the book. In the movie the hobbits are saved from the exploding Mount Doom, the Fellowship is reunited, Aragorn is crowned king, and the hobbits return home. All beautiful things that you hoped for. But in the movie version the Shire is unchanged and no one can understand what the four hobbits have been through. And even though Frodo writes about his experiences, he can never fully recover from what he’s been through, so he goes off with the elves across the sea. I was happy with this ending because it matched the rest of the story. How could he return to a normal life after fighting against such evil for so long?
But the book ending is now my ultimate favorite. Tolkien takes a full hundred pages to explain what happens after the ring is destroyed (and this not counting the Appendices). The Fellowship have many conversations with each other. There is the process of Aragorn becoming king and finding the sprout of a new White Tree. He explains how each party goes back to their own land. The hobbits go with the elves to Rivendell for a while before finally returning to the Shire. Of course, anyone who’s read the books knows how vastly different the Shire is in Tolkien’s story. The hobbits have to fight to redeem their Shire. And they do so valiantly.
Either way, this story was so long, the darkness so deep, and the struggle so real that it is only fair to be patient in wrapping it all up. The story could have ended with some profound comments after the destruction of the ring. Honestly, when I thought the movie would end with Frodo and Sam on the rock surrounded by lava, I was okay with it. It would have been bittersweet, but at least we knew they had won. All the additional information is like whip cream on top. Here’s the difference: if the story had ended right there, the audience would have remembered the struggle against Sauron as the main part of the story. But since it went on to show the lives of each character afterward you are reminded that the focus of the story is not Sauron, but each of these dear and wonderful characters. And after all of that emotional impact, when you get to follow the characters into their normal lives you love them more intimately and they root themselves in your heart, and suddenly the story becomes yours forever.
And that’s the kind of author I want to be. I want to tell the full story: the beginning, the middle, the end, and even the “after end” if necessary. Ultimately, I strive to make each ending equal in weight to the themes and climax. I don’t want to play tricks on my readers. I want to give them a full story that they can participate in- a story that they want to re-read because it is like going on a journey with friends.
I recently stumbled upon this post and it got me thinking…
If you haven’t read it, the author claims that nothing good comes out of “rewriting.” He is not talking about editing, proofreading, or adding minor changes. He is talking about when an author goes back and extensively restructures the story.
His claim is that rewriting is a purely critical function, which squashes the author’s creativity. The first draft is the creative draft and therefore worth more. He supplied supporting evidence with multiple examples of writers who swear against rewrites, simply passing through a couple drafts before moving on to another work.
There are a few things that I want to say.
First, I understand the merit in always moving forward. Writers truly do learn by practice and experimentation and I know firsthand the deep trap of holding onto one story and always trying to “fix it.”
However. I can’t believe that stories cannot be “fixed.” The author who wrote that piece above seems to believe that once your first draft is written your creative juices are spent on that project. I disagree. I would like to argue that writers’ minds work differently. My logical/critical mind marries very nicely to my creative mind.
Oftentimes my first draft is courageously creative. I branch out, go wild, and follow my gut. Sometimes my “logical mind” chimes in enough where I have a very strong first draft that only needs a few tweaks. Other times I recognize there are major shortcomings and I try to find what’s wrong.
I have two books which I have rewritten over many years. Yet I would strongly argue that both of these books got better and better. The first book I finished at nineteen. It wasn’t very good–but the characters and the story I wanted to communicate were important to me. So I didn’t give up. Over the next five to six years I rewrote and restructured the novel, keeping the characters and their journeys much the same, but changing major plot points. The second one followed a similar, shorter journey.
I am so glad I didn’t give up on them. I had something I wanted to communicate. I suppose I could have moved on to another novel, but it would have traveled down a similar path. Now I feel like I have finally communicated what I wanted to and done these characters justice.
But I will grant something else: these two projects have often bogged me down and limited the other content I’m writing. The problem with rewriting is that you often work in isolated chunks. It could be infuriating. And it wasn’t until I paused and started a new novel that I saw growth. It was an opportunity to surge ahead. I saw how much I’d grown and I challenged myself anew. It was healthy.
So, again I come back to one of my favorite mantras: balance. I probably need to lean more on the side of drafting and moving forward. But I want to stand up and say that sometimes rewriting a story that is important to you is worth it!
I’ve heard about it for years, of course. My sister even showed me an episode a couple of years ago, but I wasn’t hooked. But recently, at the insistence of my sister-in-law, I decided to give it a chance and I took the plunge into season 1.
I am on season 3 now and although there are things I appreciate about the show, I have been a number of complaints.
- One of my excuses to my sister-in-law (from the 1.5 episodes I had seen) was that there were too many characters. She scoffed at me, and for good reason. Ten minutes into episode one I understood clearly who everyone was. I still think there is an issue with the characters, but that it is quality and not quantity. My general impression so far is that (with a few exceptions) most of the characters exist as pieces of the writer’s dramatic puzzle. Therefore they are motivated not out of their own character, but in order to fulfill certain pieces of drama. The difference can be very subtle, but for me it is extremely irksome. Even in season 1 I began rolling my eyes at the characters’ choices.
- And I want to add that (again with a few exceptions) the show gives little insight into any of these many characters. In spite of all the layers of complicated dialogue, plot twists, intrigue, and romance, many of the characters maintain very flimsy shadows. The main exceptions I can think of are O’Brien (I kind of love her) and Edith (with the jury still out on Cora, Thomas, and Mrs. Patmore). Not only have they been the most consistent, but they both have fascinating layers to their characters.
- I suppose I was warned by the description of the show that it is a bit like a classy soap opera, so maybe I shouldn’t complain. But I see the potential the show could have had if it had steered away from the “soap opera” aspects. There are plenty of trials and tribulations in real life. I can’t help but compare it to Dickens’ “Bleak House,” which contains plenty of suspense, drama, and intrigue and a host of characters, but pulls it off with sophistication and rich characters.
- Missing Pieces
- My final complaint has to do with odd storytelling. At times there are important scenes that seem to take place “offstage” and I can’t understand why they didn’t include them. One example is when Lady Sibyl is first shown at a political rally. They make an abrupt reference like, “I wish she wouldn’t go to these things” which is supposed to inform the audience that she has been interested in politics for some time. But it comes across as a little jolting. With all the hours of screen time up to this point it seems like there could have been a smoother introduction. And this occurs multiple times with the development of storylines and/or relationships. Some are done well, but many are a bit bumpy. In the development of one major couple’s relationship I found myself unconvinced. I still have no idea why she suddenly started liking him.
Although I want to like the show, those three factors can make it difficult. The costumes are beautiful, the details about the time period and how the house is run are fascinating, and I even appreciate the social and political perspectives of the time (especially dealing with servants, the aristocracy, and issues that come up at the hospital). I may continue to watch. But for now this show remains mediocre for me when it could have been great.
I always considered it an art. I used to scoff at creative writing courses. I used to think (for some reason) that if you had to take a class about structuring your plot you weren’t really a writer. True writing was inspired, but also came through lots and lots of practice.
There is some truth to that. But I have also learned that storytelling is complex and if you study it you can find patterns and tools for what works best. Some people have natural instincts about plot development, dialogue, and character arcs. But even the best of us fall into our own traps of biases and inexperience. Maybe I could learn it all on my own through trial and error…but it might take me fifty years. Why not jump ahead right now by learning from other people’s experiences and making my writing the best it can be?
But if any of you are familiar with me at all you’ll know that I still like to emphasize the art of writing. I know that I have a lot to learn and have great respect for learning the mechanics of writing. However, some of the best aspects of writing cannot be taught in a class. Some of the best writing goes outside of the box, breaks the rules, and still succeeds for reasons unknown. For the plot, characters, themes, style, and tone to all interact and take the reader on an impactful journey there is a sense in which the writer needs true inspiration. At this point it has become art, not science. You can teach someone all the intricacies of painting (perspective, shading, color mixing), but there is that extra factor of emotion and following the inspiration of color, shape, and meaning that is undefinable.
How does this apply to my life right now?
I am working on two series. One series I have outlined cleanly in advance (something I never thought I’d do!). I wrote the first draft in this series in record time because I knew where the plot was going and what I needed to get there as confidently as I know where a train is going.
The other series is the complete opposite. I have written the first two novels. I did not have an outline for either. Both went through half a dozen major plot changes and revisions. And I doubt whether I’ll be able to outline the third. These books are much more about discovery. They are about communicating themes and emotions and trying to find the right action and plot to fit that. Someone is probably itching to tell me how wrong that is. But I love these books in their own way. They are far more intimate to me than the second series. These characters didn’t reveal themselves to me until I put them in different situations. And then they shocked me. They took control of the story and took me on quite a journey. And it was confusing and messy, and I often got it wrong. But when I got it right I saw how much I had grown.
So I am learning to appreciate this duality about writing: the control vs. the discovery, the logical and ordered vs. the organic and chaotic. Here’s hoping that someday I strike the perfect balance between the two!
Am I talking about the hip hop number choreographed by NappyTabs for So You Think You Can Dance? No. (Although if you haven’t seen it, go watch it now!)
I am talking about the recent blockbuster, “In the Heart of the Sea,” starring Chris Hemsworth. ***SPOILERS AHEAD***
I went to see it a couple weeks ago in our local dollar theater (love those). I was prepared to be impressed. I love the book, “Moby Dick,” and the trailer showed some awe-inspiring whale action scenes.
However, early on I felt underwhelmed. Hemsworth’s character, which showed promise early on, seemed to hit snooze a third of the way into the movie, as did the conflict between Captain and First Mate. The last chunk of the movie was like an endless tangent that I was not interested in. But the friend I went with thought it was amazing! So I went on the internet to validate my feelings and see what other people thought.
A couple of reviews put it really well. One said that the movie was almost cut into three segments with three different stories. Another remarked on how the “cut-backs” to Melville and his story-teller were awkward and diminished the action. A third explained how the story may have ultimately fallen short because it was trapped in a modern mindset.
I thought about this. It seemed true. There were a couple times when modern perspective was thrust in there to “gratify” modern audiences. And it did make the whole story feel a little less genuine. The characters weren’t allowed to just be themselves, or show us their character through their responses to situations. They were all conveniently molded and polished to give their lines at the appropriate times for the plot of the film. And this is something that has become a huge irritation for me.
But it was particularly irksome because it is so very contrary to Herman Melville. The characters of Moby Dick are simple yet complex, raw and riveting. They are what keeps you reading through the detailed accounts of the whaling industry procedures. By the end I only had a mild attachment to Hemsworth’s character (I can’t even remember his name) and mainly because his wife made such a scene at the beginning for him to come home. And if I had known that the last portion would be a gruesome narrative of survival on the ocean where they are forced to cannibalism and or shooting themselves, I wouldn’t have been interested in seeing the film. (Although I do realize that was true to history).
(At one point as they were approaching the island in their little boats I thought Hemsworth was going to turn into the monomaniac Captain Ahab. He kept “seeing” the whale everywhere and shouting. That could have been interesting and believable, considering that the whale obliterated the ship and killed several men. But then later on he has an opportunity to harpoon the whale and he chooses not to. I’m not saying having compassion on animals is a bad thing–but it conflicted with other messages in the film and made the story fall flat even more.)
All this to say: as a storyteller you need to make sure you don’t get trapped in your own perspective. This could have been a great story to tell if the filmmaker’s had allowed the time period and the characters to speak for themselves.
(Granted, this movie was based on a book, which I haven’t read. If it so happens that the movie kept steadfastly loyal to the book, then I will say Ron Howard missed a good opportunity to improve upon the book.)
Get out of your mind. (Especially if you are writing historical fiction) Branch out. Make sure not all of your characters believe what you do. Maybe even tell stories you don’t agree with…be brave.
Guys, I’m almost there! I am so close to wrapping up “Into the Void.”
I literally feel like I have been running the eight hundred, and this is the last stretch (why is the last stretch so brutal? And why did anyone ever invent the 800 meter race??!).
I am so very proud of this work, but also so ready to have it done and complete, and outside of my mind in a pretty little cover. And I am ready to move on to my next project and re-explore the universe of “The Traveler.”
To any of you who have never written a novel…it is quite a feat. I feel like I hiked Mt. Whitney again, or gave birth to a child. This one was particularly challenging because I took everything up a notch: the character development (focusing more on minor characters), the plot intricacies, the science…it takes a genius to write a good scifi. And while I don’t claim to be a genius, I do claim that my scifi is at least enjoyable.
I would ask for tips on how to finish strong, but I feel like the best advice any of you could give me is…keep going! Make good choices! Don’t sell yourself short! I will do my best.