On Writing

Grab ’em by the throat and never let ’em go: Billy Wilder

Billy Wilder, who died in 2002, won six Oscars and was one of the most admired of screenwriters. The following ten tips were aimed at writing screenplays for movies, but if you are familiar with the three-act structure in fiction, you will see how they apply to fiction as well as they do to screenplays. 

  1. Develop a clean line of action for your leading character. The key issue Wilder addresses here is “character arc,” which simply means the trajectory of development your character undergoes. All the actions of your leading character should clearly contribute to his or her line of development, and that line of development should be coherent and seem inevitable.
  2. The more subtle and elegant you are in hiding your plot points, the better you are as a writer. Your plot points in fiction, those major incidents that are turning points in a story, may look quite different in various genres. The plot points in a literary novel might indeed be quite subtle, but in most genre novels, they are more prominent and fall in predictable places.
  3. If you have a problem with the third act, the real problem is in the first act. “Setup” is a key idea here. Everything that happens in the third act should be predicated on what happened in the first. Getting this thread of causality right is usually a matter of revision, going back in the later drafts and making sure you have what you need in Act One and then refining how it plays out to the end.
  4. The event that occurs at the second-act curtain triggers the end of the movie. The plot point at the end of Act Two is the catalyst that leads to the big climax in Act Three. You might say it’s the point of no return. After it, the leading character is committed to a course of action that makes the climax inevitable.
  5. The third act must build, build, build in tempo and action until the last event, and then –that’s it. Don’t hang around. Once your catalyst kicks in at the end of Act Two, it’s a dead run to the climax. Again, this is more prominent in genre fiction than in literary fiction. In writing a thriller, romance, or mystery, this final section has to sustain the intensity, and when the climax happens, Wilder says, wind it down and get out.
  6. The audience is fickle. We’ve all heard the advice “Know your audience! Know who you’re writing for.” Well, Wilder seems to be saying you can’t always count on that audience. I would add that the only audience you can really count on is yourself, so write for an audience of one.
  7. Grab ‘em by the throat and never let ‘em go. Wilder seems to say writing that grabs the reader’s mind and emotions (the throat) won’t be sabotaged by a fickle audience. Intensity, drama, is important.
  8. Know where you’re going! I frequently advise writers who struggle with plot to write a draft of their final chapter, then come back to where they felt lost and write toward that chapter. It helps them know where they’re going.
  9. Let the audience add up two plus two. They’ll love you forever. The more readers can add to a work, the more they will invest in it, the more they will remember it. Wilder is telling us not to explain away the subtleties of our work. Good writers find the sweet spot between obscurity, on the one hand, and explaining, on the other.
  10. In doing voice-overs, be careful not to describe what the audience already sees. Add to what they are seeing. As applied to screenwriting, this tip has a quite different meaning than it does in fiction. I’d say “voice-over” in fiction refers to the author’s use of narrative voice, and it’s an extension of Tip #4. Though the narrator is positioned at differing distances in different points of view (1st-person, 3rd subjective, omniscient, dramatic), Wilder’s concept applies to them all (perhaps least so to the dramatic p.o.v.). The setting and the action, including dialogue and thought—i.e., “what the audience already sees”—should carry most of what the reader needs to know. An insecure author may be tempted to use the narrator to explain what the author fears the reader won’t understand.

Billy Wilder was a highly successful writer. And though he tosses writing tips out like peanuts at the zoo, I’m pretty sure he’d agree experience—hard work in The Forge—is the only way to make them stick.

Here’s a final thought from Wilder that’s worth keeping in mind in all of this: Trust your own instinct. Your mistakes might as well be your own, instead of someone else’s.

Characters as Aristotle Saw Them

from Michael Tierno’s Book Aristotle’s Poetics for Screenwriters

The book Aristotle’s Poetics for Screenwriters, by Michael Tierno, was featured recently on Delanceyplace.com , an excellent site for the curious among us. And the excerpt, which gives Aristotle’s thoughts on creating good characters in fiction, is a perfect follow-up to the series of posts I’ve been doing on characterization in fiction.

The Greek philosopher Aristotle’s book Poetics has given countless writers a guidepost for creating great fiction:

“One  of  the  many  things  we  can  thank  Aristotle  for  is  his  writings  on  how  to  create  characters  that  seem both realistic and able to captivate an audience. First, make them good enough that we can root for them. Second, make them ‘appropriate,’ meaning give them characteristics that make sense for the type of person they are. Third, make them human — give them flaws or quirks that make us believe that they exist. Finally, whatever characteristics you do give them, make sure you keep them there throughout the length of the screenplay. As Aristotle says, make sure they are ‘con­sistently inconsistent.’…

“Additionally, he gives us five principles of life that we can use to create character in our stories:

  1. Nutritive Life
  2. Desiring Life
  3. Sensitive Life
  4. Locomotion
  5. Capacity for Rational Thought

“Because these five principles all belong to the makeup of a real-life person’s ‘psychology,’ they can be used to create convincing three-dimensional characters. Let’s examine each one.

1. Nutritive Life. Do you wonder about your characters’ eating habits? Wouldn’t that tell you (and your audi­ence) a lot about them? Don’t your eating habits say a lot about you? You should brainstorm as much as you can to get a clear picture of what the eating habits of your characters might be, to gather clues about who they are. How do they eat, what do they eat? Do they think about food a lot? What do your characters’ refrigerators look like? Not that any of this ever has to make it to the page, but it’s a window into their character. I mean, when Rocky gets up at 4 a.m, and drinks four raw eggs, isn’t that worth a gazillion pages of psychological notes on him? That image is so powerful and evocative that you know without further elaboration that he is serious about this boxing match. Look at Lester Burnham [in the Oscar-winning American Beauty]. What does he eat? By the end of his transformation from mis­erable mid-life-crisis guy to seeker of eternal youth, he’s blending and drinking health drinks. What could tell us more about Lester’s new attitude toward life? What could make Lester seem more human?

2.  Desiring Life. At the heart of all action is the desire of the hero. Basic human desire is really what makes char­acters come alive on the screen. In The Godfather, when Michael Corleone goes to Italy and falls in love with an Italian woman from the mountains, doesn’t that make him seem truly alive? It’s a probable incident that flows with the action, reflecting his deep commitment to his Italian ‘roots.’ In Gladiator, Maximus yearns to go home to his family and, after they have been murdered, to join them in eternity. In The Blair Witch Project, the kids’ ambition to tape the Blair Witch and make a film leads them to their death. Desiring is at the heart of what it means to be a living, breathing human being.

3.  Sensitive Life. It goes without saying that our five senses are a big part of being alive. If a human being faces the prospect of losing sight or hearing, it’s devas­tating. In fact, all of the five senses — sight, hearing, touch, smell, and taste — define our lives at the most ba­sic level. Lester Burnham spends a lot of time mastur­bating, doesn’t he? In fact, it’s how we are first introduced to him. What more do we need to sense that Lester is real and to ‘know’ who he is? In cinema, perhaps the most important sense in regard to character development is visual perception. Great screenwriters know how to feed information to the audience through the eyes of characters, such as when Lester sees Angela at the pep rally and fantasizes about her. Showing how characters actually see things with their own eyes ena­bles the audience to experience ’causes’ of the action.

It also puts to use a powerful aspect of the cinematic medium, which is the hero’s literal point of view.

4.  Locomotion. Carefully depicting movement is vital to a screenplay. For example, The Blair Witch Project is a tapestry of rest and locomotion, in which the characters’ use of their eyes and ears is also notably important. Heather, the lead character in the story, spends a lot of time running around, screaming, and trying to videotape the ground in front of her. The lifelike aspect of all the characters is transmitted largely by their physical move­ment, as they trudge through the woods.

5.  Capacity for Rational Thought. Thinking about the mind and thought processes of people can be a fun way to brainstorm characters into existence. In Annie Hall,

Alvie is a rational man who has bouts of irrationality. This surfaces when a cop pulls him over and he tears up his license. In Titanic Rose jumps from the lifeboat to return to Jack, a slightly more irrational than rational act — but hey, this is a love story, and romantic love is rooted as much in animal nature as it is in the higher mind. (Rose is also slightly larger than life, and she’s being consistent with what we’ve seen of her.)

“In summary, to create a real human being for an audi­ence you must have them do things that convince the au­dience that they are alive, really alive, giving details that even a scientist like Aristotle would appreciate.”


Complex Characters: Part I

This is the first in a series of posts on creating complex characters.

Janet Burroway, in Writing Fiction: a Guide to Narrative Craft, says that “your fiction can be only as successful as the characters who move it and move within it . . . . we must find them interesting, we must find them believable, and we must care about what happens to them.”

A complex character exhibits conflict and contradiction. Burroway says, “Conflict is at the core of character, as it is of plot.” A complex character’s conflict will be not only with the world or with other characters. A complex character is in conflict with herself. This is where contradiction comes in. Each of us at times exhibits a particular human characteristic, and at other times exhibit its polar opposite. As Burroway puts it, “All of us are gentle, violent; logical, schmaltzy; tough, squeamish; lusty, prudish; sloppy, meticulous; energetic, apathetic; manic, depressive.”

One of the most common recommendations given to writers about creating well-developed characters is to build a character bio sheet, listing physical, emotional, intellectual characteristics, preferences, dislikes, habits, and so forth. The idea is to build up a reserve of details from which you can draw as you write the character into the narrative. Such a list helps you understand your character’s motivation and gives you the concrete particulars that help you dramatize a scene.

I would suggest that any character bio sheet should include a consideration of contradictory tendencies the character might exhibit. Choose three contradictory tendencies and make lists of specific ways in which these contradictions are exhibited. For example, if we take Burroway’s first example from above—gentle, violent—it might look like this:

Our character, Larry, is a fifty-year-old man, balding, thin, brown eyes, with calloused workman’s hands. I’ll keep the lists short for the sake of space.

Gentle Larry                                                               Violent Larry

Combs granddaughter’s hair                             Pounds fist on vending machines

Cuddles with the cat                                               Kicks the cat off the porch

Holds wife’s hand before sleep                         Aggressive toward co-workers

Works in flowerbed                                                 Yells at other drivers on the road

A middle-aged working man who combs his granddaughter’s hair is a lovable character. That the same character pounds on the vending machine and kicks the cat off the porch is a bit disturbing. But it is also very human. We are all clusters of contradictory desires and motivations. We may all admire the gentle Larry, but we will identify with, more deeply sympathize with, the complex Larry who does all these things.

Making these “contradiction lists” serves a practical purpose for your narrative. It helps you to show, and not tell, the complex nature of your character. You may not use everything in your lists, but your understanding of the contradictions inherent in the character make her more complex and more interesting.

Creating Complex Characters, Part II

There are two general methods of characterization—Indirect and Direct. The Indirect method consists of the author telling the reader the character’s background, feelings, values, and so forth. This is that bugaboo all writers are warned away from—“telling” instead of “showing,” the author interpreting the character for the reader. Over-using the indirect method of characterization will result in the First Deadly Sin of writing, monotonous prose. There are, however, times when the Indirect method is useful. With it, the writer can move freely in time and space and can communicate a lot of information quickly.

Just remember, because it is telling and not showing, a little goes a long way. Readers want to be pulled into the scene, to experience the story with the character.

So most of a writer’s work in characterization occurs through the Direct method. There are four generally recognized ways to characterize directly—appearance, action, speech, and thought.

Janet Burroway, in Writing Fiction, says that “appearance is especially important because our eyes are our most highly developed means of perception” and that “it is appearance that prompts our first reaction to people.” The accumulation of concrete particulars in a person’s appearance—not just hair color, but hair style—not only gives the reader something to “see,” but also reveals something about the character. It may be unkind to judge a person by his/her appearance, but the fact is appearance says something about who we are.

BUT a story is not just what characters look like. It is, more importantly, what characters do. Action is what drives a story. Action causes and reveals conflict, which is the heart of any story. Action causes and reveals change, which is essential to character development. What characters do reveals who they are more powerfully than any other descriptor. Characters make decisions and re-act to forces acting on them. And their reactions become the catalysts for further actions in the story.

And remember, even when a character does nothing in response to a stimulus, the lack of action is itself a response that reveals something about who the person is. Burroway says, “In fiction as in life, restraint, the decision to do nothing, is fraught with potential tension.”

In the next From the Forge column, we’ll look at the remaining Direct methods of characterization—speech and thought.

Creating Complex Characters, Part III

Because human beings are inherently complex, characterization in fiction is itself a complex process. Appearance and action, the two methods of characterization we looked at in my last From the Forge post, obviously reveal character, but they may also be used to hide or disguise some elements of character. A character’s actions may even be used to mislead the reader temporarily.

This complexity of characterization is heightened when a writer turns to speech and thought as methods. Janet Burroway, in Writing Fiction, says that “speech represents an effort . . . to externalize the internal and to manifest not merely taste of preference but also deliberated thought.” Put simply, Burroway is saying that we attempt to say what we mean, what we think. But there, of course, lies the problem. As Hamlet says, “Words, words, words.” We have all experienced the struggle of putting our thoughts and feelings clearly into words, while avoiding misunderstanding. But that very difficulty can create great opportunity for the writer.

What is more human than hiding our true feelings and either saying nothing or saying what we do not really mean? What is more human than misunderstanding our own intentions, or more human than hurting another person with words that were innocently spoken?

The writer can use these struggles, manipulating the conflict between methods of characterization—for example, between what is thought and what is said, or between what is thought and what is done—to great effect.

In Ernest Hemingway’s short story “Hills Like White Elephants,” one of the two characters–the man–says to the other character–the woman–four times, “I don’t want you to do anything that you don’t want to do.” The reader knows, has in fact known

from the first time he says it, that the man does want her to do something she doesn’t want to do, which is have an abortion. His selfish nature and his duplicity are revealed by the conflict between what he says at those four points and everything else he says and does.

Hemingway doesn’t have to tell the reader anything about the man’s thoughts or feelings, because he has revealed the man’s nature through the clash between his words and actions.

Joyce Carol Oates on Writing

For most of my professional career, it seemed as though Joyce Carol Oates published a new novel every year, in addition to short stories and all manner of non-fiction pieces. So when one recent list of writing advice from well-known writers included three suggestions from Oates, I was intrigued.

Her first suggestion was this: “The first sentence can be written only after the last sentence has been written.” I have mentored people who were working on longer manuscripts—novel or memoir—and who reached a point at which they struggled to find their way. My advice was usually to write a draft of the final chapter, as they saw it at that point, and then to come back to where they felt lost. In a way, it’s almost too obvious. We can’t know how to get there if we don’t know where we’re going.

Oates’ second suggestion was to keep in mind Oscar Wilde: “A little sincerity is a dangerous thing, and a great deal of it is absolutely fatal.” This is funny and may seem a bit absurd on the face of it, but I think Oates is trying to say that both fiction and memoir are story, and story is a crafted thing from which the writer must step back and observe with a critical eye. If you become too self-absorbed, it is easy to lose the necessary sense of story as art, as a made thing. Even in memoir, your life must be a story that is crafted to accomplish your objective.

The final piece of advice Oates gave was, “Don’t try to anticipate an ideal reader — or any reader. He/she might exist — but is reading someone else.” Okay, this is the witty, ironic side of Joyce Carol Oates. I doubt that she really believes this one herself. But it might serve as a reminder that, even though we need to know our audience, we need even more to know ourselves and our characters because those are the sources of our story.

Show, Don’t Tell?

If you’ve been a creative writer for very long, you have heard this directive repeatedly—Show, Don’t Tell. But what exactly does it mean? What does show mean? What does tell mean?

Here’s a simple definition for each: to show means to present fictional material through immediate sense perceptions, to offer character experience. To tell means to present fictional material through the narrator’s analysis, to offer abstract ideas.

Janet Burroway, in Writing Fiction, says, “Fiction must contain ideas, which give significance to characters and events. . . . But the ideas must be experienced through or with the characters; they must be felt or the fiction will fail . . .”

James Joyce: One of the best at showing.

Maybe the directive should be “Show ideas, don’t Tell them.” The reader should be able to understand the story’s ideas through the characters’ actions and experience. If the narrator has to spell out the meaning for the reader, then the writer has not done a good enough job of telling the story.

Burroway offers several techniques for showing, not telling. The most important of these is the use of Significant Detail. “Specific, definite, concrete, particular details—these are the life of fiction,” she says. She is referring to details that appeal to the senses—things seen, heard, smelled, tasted, or touched. But a writer must do more than simply offer sense details. The details “must be details ‘that matter.’” This idea of careful selection of details that “implicitly suggest meaning and value” is central to Burroway’s argument.

Here’s a simple example. Your character has lost her job and is feeling depressed. Your narrator can simply say, “She was depressed.” In that case, you would be telling the reader by using an abstract expression. Simple and direct, perhaps, but also boring. On the other hand, your narrator can have the character open her second bottle of wine, spill some on her blouse, and begin to cry. The room may be drab and dark, the sky dull and cloudy. A bird singing outside the window may make the character angry. All of these details are experiences that reproduce the emotional impact of depression for the reader.

When you use carefully selected, concrete, descriptive details like these, you are showing, not telling.

Elmore Leonard Says

You might not like Leonard’s hard boiled fiction, but it’s hard to argue with the assertion that he is a stylistic purist, that his writing has, in fact, been purged of all false qualities.

So here are my two favorites of Leonard’s 10 rules of writing, and my responses:

  1. Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue.

This one is pure gold. Said and only said, is a good mantra for any writer. You might get away with an occasional yelled or whispered to cover the extremes. Some people insist on using the verb asked when attributing a question, but the verb asked seems redundant to me. The spoken passage ends with a question mark, doesn’t it? All the other verbs of attribution people try to conjure up (jabbered, moaned, squawked, squealed, huffed, etc.) make the character seem like an animal in a zoo. What they attempt to communicate should be communicated by effective narrative context. They tend to appear most commonly in poorly written genre fiction. Well-written genre fiction avoids them in the same way literary fiction does.

2. Never use an adverb to modify the verb said.

Another pure gold piece of advice. Using an adverb (especially any –ly adverb, such as fondly, soothingly, angrily, etc.) is simply cheating on the first rule given above, and, from a literal point of view, is usually either redundant or inaccurate. An example: “Bullshit!” he said emphatically. (The word emphatically is redundant and should be insulting to an intelligent reader.)

So you might want to carefully consider Leonard’s advice here. His simple rules can help any writer develop “a prose miraculously purged of all false qualities.”

The Verb/Adverb Addiction in Dialogue

Recently I posted a column titled “Elmore Leonard Says.” You may recall that Leonard’s third rule for writing was “Never use a verb other than said to carry dialogue,” and his fourth rule was “Never use an adverb to modify the verb said.” About dialogue tags, Leonard says, “The line of dialogue belongs to the character. The verb is the writer sticking his nose in. But ‘said’ is far less intrusive than grumbled, gasped, cautioned, lied.” Many writers, in fact, say that the verb said in a dialogue tag is in fact invisible. A phrase like “he said” can clarify who is speaking without even registering on the reader’s radar.

Gloria Kempton’s book Dialogue describes what she calls “The Adjective, Adverb, and Inappropriate Tag Addiction.” Kempton says, “The funny thing about the adverb addiction is that the words chosen are often made up and look ridiculous when written down.” After offering a few outrageous examples, such as ragingly, laughingly, disapprovingly, alarmingly, she adds, “Even more common adverbs, like sweetly, leisurely, and assiduously, are unnecessary if you are working hard on your dialogue so it communicates the emotion and intensity you want it to have.”

I can hear people asking now, “But how does dialogue communicate emotion and intensity without the adverbs?” Kempton offers a straightforward answer: “Sometimes you need a couple of assistants, narrative and action.” I would explain it this way. What a character does is much more effective in communicating emotion and intensity than what the narrator tells us about it. For example, if one character punches another and says, “How does that work for you?” the writer does not need to add angrily as a dialogue tag. The action says it all. The same would be true for the college graduate who throws her hat in the air and says, “I made it!” No need for happily, or joyfully, or excitedly. Again the action says it all.

Facial expression and posture are closely related to action. Using description to help the reader to see the speaker’s face and posture not only communicates the emotional tone of what is said, it also brings the reader into the moment of the scene, whereas dropping an adverb like wryly onto a verb presents an abstract concept to the reader. I would argue it does more to exclude the reader from the moment than it does to bring the reader in.

There is also, of course, what is said to communicate emotion and intensity. When your character says, “Damn you, Betty. That’s the last time you’ll get away with that!” you don’t need any qualifiers added to the verb says. Tom Chiarella, in Writing Dialogue, from Story Press, says, “If the words of the characters are charged and chosen, they don’t need the help of a descriptive dialogue tag.”

Action, description, and content are all more immediate ways of showing emotion and intensity than intrusive, distracting adverbs. Listen to Elmore Leonard’s advice and don’t stick your nose into the character’s business.

Writing Strong Scenes

In The Scene Book: a Primer for the Fiction Writer, Sandra Scofield says, “Scene is ACTION . . . Scenes are those passages in narrative when we slow down and focus on an event in the story so that we are ‘in the moment’ with characters in action.”

According to Scofield, a scene has four basic elements:

  1. Event and emotion: In a scene, something is happening in real time. The reader is pulled into that real time, moment by moment, and is able to feel what the character(s) feels. There is action that results in a reaction, by both character and reader.
  2. Function: A scene appears in a story where it does for a reason. The writer should be able to articulate that reason. Does it develop a particular line of plot? Does it develop a character? Does it prepare the reader for something that comes later? Why is the scene there? If it doesn’t have a clear function, maybe you don’t need it or can summarize it.
  3. Structure: A scene has a beginning, middle, and end. In a short scene, the structure may not be as apparent as in a longer scene. But every scene will begin at a particular moment in time. Something will happen in that moment. And there will be a result or reaction. A very simple example: a character gets on a bus and finds a seat; the man and woman sitting behind her argue vehemently; the woman slaps the man; the character gets off the bus smiling. Beginning, middle, end.
  4. Pulse: A scene has an energy, drawn from the story as a whole, that connects with the reader and makes the scene memorable. Pulse is the most difficult to define of the four elements of a scene. I might call it a little emotional charge that any good scene carries and that the reader feels when she reads the scene.

Scenes are the high octane fuel that runs the engine of the story. Sometimes the engine idles, sometimes it roars. Without scenes, it doesn’t run at all.

According to Scofield, a scene has four basic elements:

  1. Event and emotion: In a scene, something is happening in real time. The reader is pulled into that real time, moment by moment, and is able to feel what the character(s) feels. There is action that results in a reaction, by both character and reader.
  2. Function: A scene appears in a story where it does for a reason. The writer should be able to articulate that reason. Does it develop a particular line of plot? Does it develop a character? Does it prepare the reader for something that comes later? Why is the scene there? If it doesn’t have a clear function, maybe you don’t need it or can summarize it.
  3. Structure: A scene has a beginning, middle, and end. In a short scene, the structure may not be as apparent as in a longer scene. But every scene will begin at a particular moment in time. Something will happen in that moment. And there will be a result or reaction. A very simple example: a character gets on a bus and finds a seat; the man and woman sitting behind her argue vehemently; the woman slaps the man; the character gets off the bus smiling. Beginning, middle, end.
  4. Pulse: A scene has an energy, drawn from the story as a whole, that connects with the reader and makes the scene memorable. Pulse is the most difficult to define of the four elements of a scene. I might call it a little emotional charge that any good scene carries and that the reader feels when she reads the scene.

Scenes are the high octane fuel that runs the engine of the story. Sometimes the engine idles, sometimes it roars. Without scenes, it doesn’t run at all.

Writing Dialogue in Fiction

The problem that most of us have when we write dialogue is that we put too much on the page. We are driven by the need to be sure the reader “gets it.” That need leads the writer to fill in all the gaps. But what we are doing, in fact, is propping up dialogue that, if done well, doesn’t need the props. In writing dialogue, it is often true that “less is more.”

In the second chapter of Writing Dialogue, from Story Press, Tom Chiarella says, “Good dialogue rises out of the way a writer makes use of individual techniques, such as interruption, silences, echoing, reversals, shifts in tone and pace, idiom, and detail.”

We have all read good dialogue that uses these techniques, but may not have stopped to think about how they work. Let’s look at the first four of the techniques mentioned by Chiarella, which are fairly easy to demonstrate. Each of the following is a two-line dialogue between two characters

  1. Interruption:

“Look, you may not like it but—“

“No, I don’t like it at all.”

2. Silence:

“Just tell me what the problem is.”

She looked away and said nothing.

3. Echoing:

“Stop, or I’ll punch your face.”

“Punch my face? And then what?”

4. Reversals

Reversals are a little trickier: It might be when a conversation suddenly goes sour or goes in an unexpected direction or when one of the speakers drops a little bomb on the other:

“Tonight was the beautiful. Candlelight. Cabernet.”

Her eyes filled with tears. “Johnny, I’m leaving you.”

One of the best-known dialogues in all of short fiction, from “Hills Like White Elephants,” by Ernest Hemingway, shows how a master uses these four techniques. There are only two characters in the story, and the whole story is dialogue—an argument, the topic of which is never stated directly. The two characters are sitting at an isolated train station surrounded by desert, drinking, waiting for the train:

“I don’t want you to do anything that you don’t want to do—“

“Nor that isn’t good for me,” she said. “I know. Could we have another beer?”

“All right. But you’ve got to realize—“

“I realize,” the girl said. “Can’t we maybe stop talking?”

They sat down at the table and the girl looked across at the hills on the dry side of the valley and the man looked at her and at the table.

“You’ve got to realize,” he said, “that I don’t want you to do it if you don’t want to. I’m perfectly willing to go through with it if it means anything to you.”

“Doesn’t it mean anything you you? We could get along.”

“Of course it does. But I don’t want anybody but you. I don’t want any one else. And I know it’s perfectly simple.”

“Yes, you know its perfectly simple.”

“It’s all right for you to say that, but I do know it.”

“Would you do something for me now?”

“I’d do anything for you.”

“Would you please please please please please please please stop talking?”

It doesn’t take long for Interruption to show up, twice in the first four lines. Silence appears not when a character doesn’t answer, but when the girl asks the man to stop talking in line four, followed by silence. Repetition occurs when the man says, “I know it’s perfectly simple,” and the girl replies, “Yes, you know it’s perfectly simple.” And finally, there is a big reversal of expectation in the final two lines. Interruption, Silence, Repetition, and Reversal. Simple techniques that we can all use to strengthen dialogue.

Autobiographical Material in Fiction

This morning I was reading Betsy Lerner’s book The Forest for the Trees: An Editor’s Advice to Writers, and in chapter three, “The Wicked Child,” she says, “You must give yourself permission to tell. Most important, give up the vain hope that people will like your work. People like vanilla ice cream. Hope that they love your work or hate it.” Lerner is telling us that the writing should touch a nerve.

In this chapter Lerner is talking about the particular problem writers have using biographical material in their fiction, the fear of offending Mom or Granddad or Aunt Myrtle when a problematic character is based on her. It’s a valid concern. People are sometimes offended by what is written. Lerner comes down on the side of telling. She says, “In order to tell the truth (and I don’t mean what happened in ‘real life’ in any conventional sense, but the emotional truth), to raise what is only hinted at, the writer [has] to risk his place at the [dinner] table, which is often too threatening.”

In writing fiction, the writer is not as much concerned with what actually happened with members of the family as she is with the story she is telling. As Lerner says, “Everything you put on the page is a deliberate manipulation of what happened” in order to serve the purposes of the story. It is a fiction, after all. But most writers know that autobiographical material cannot always be concealed. If she bothers to read the book, Aunt Myrtle will recognize herself. In fact, people who never entered the writer’s mind will see themselves too. If the writer’s fear of offending a friend or relative is greater than her devotion to writing a great story, then she may have to find another story.

Not every story has to be told. But if you are going to tell it, tell it well and tell it true. If “Aunt Myrtle” is the one who drove her son to commit suicide, that emotional truth is essential to the power of your plot. You can’t remake her as the old sweetie who was blindsided by her little boy’s shocking end. Family dynamics are one of the richest sources of dark conflict. And remember, “no conflict, no story.”


The iconic writer of spy thrillers John le Carre once said, “’The cat sat on the mat’ . . . . is not the beginning of a story, but ‘The cat sat on the dog’s mat’ is.” Why so? Because a story is not made up simply of action (The cat sat on the mat) but of action that springs from, or leads to, conflict (The cat sat on the dog’s mat).

In her fine book on craft, titled Writing Fiction: a Guide to Narrative Craft, Janet Burroway says “Conflict is the first encountered and the fundamental element of fiction, fundamental because in literature only trouble is interesting.” Consider this. Gossip may be a sin, but if so, it is one of the most widely appealing and practiced sins. Why? Because human beings want to hear stories, especially stories about trouble.

Charles Baxter, in Burning Down the House, offers this observation: “Say what you will about it, Hell is story-friendly. If you want a compelling story, put your protagonist among the damned. . . . Paradise is not a story. It’s about what happens when the stories are over.” Not all stories end in Paradise, of course. Many great stories leave the protagonist in Hell, or at least in Purgatory.

Baxter’s Hell is simply human conflict, and his damned simply humans in conflict. Conflict stems from thwarted desire, heartbreaking obstacles, love, joy, betrayal, sex, laughter. A character yearns and struggles to fulfill her yearnings. And in the end, she overcomes, or is overcome.

No conflict, no story.

Geography 101

In her book Making A Literary Life: Advice for Writers and Other Dreamers, Carolyn See says that “by being ‘universal’ we run the risk of boring our readers to death.”

But, wait. I thought good literature was universal, that good literature connects us to what William Faulkner called “the old verities and truths of the heart, the old universal truths lacking which any story is ephemeral and doomed – love and honor and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice”? Far be it from me to argue with Faulkner.

But how does a story do what Faulkner requires. Where do writers find the “universal truths”? The answer, of course, is that the “old verities and truths of the heart” are mined from the geography of everyday life. A story is about people who want things, do things, suffer, and succeed or fail. The “old verities” are found in “verisimilitude.” They have to look like life. The quiet room after the door closes. The lipstick smudge on the empty glass. The smell of rotting flesh, or a flower.

See’s advice? “Scratch out a sketch of the town the story happens in, the living room where people sit and talk, the view from the windows, the traffic outside. . . . The more deeply you take charge of [the geography], the more easily you keep the reader enchanted.” I think See means that you, the writer, must inhabit the geography of your story. Close your eyes and breathe deeply, hear the baby cry next door, see the light go out in the second story room. [Short example]

The paradox of great stories, See says, is that “In order to be timeless, [they have] to be rooted in time.” We understand the universal only through concrete reality.

So keep it real.

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