Friday, November 30, 2012

Fifth: It’s What’s Inside That Counts

And last but not least:
5. The best character needs aren’t external needs, but internal ones.
This final reason for knowing every character’s driving desire is important because so many writers simply don’t get it.

My last post hinted at this aspect of character creation. McClane’s need to reconcile with Holly is an internal need that is expressed through external action. People may enjoy all the action, but for the most part it’s way outside their experience. Rather, it’s the internal need that people relate to and identify with.

You might not realize it, but even Gruber is motivated by an internal need. It shows up in many ways during the movie, but perhaps the most direct statement of it comes near the climax. Gruber has realized who Holly really is and has taken her down to the vault with him. As Holly watches Gruber’s men and realizes that the “terrorist plot” is little more than a farce to cover their true intent, she remarks that Gruber is just a common thief. In a rare moment of anger, Gruber jumps in her face and says, “I am an exceptional thief, Mrs. McClane, and since I’m moving up to kidnapping, you should be more polite!”

Gruber holding Holly hostage

It appears that Hans Gruber has an internal need to be the best at something, to prove that he is superior to everyone else, doesn’t it? It’s this inner passion that makes his character sizzle onscreen, that makes him a fitting villain to challenge John McClane’s “cowboy.” It creates the chemistry between the two that made Die Hard a box office smash.

By now I hope you understand why it’s so important to know what every character wants in your story. A properly-chosen personal passion can make even the most outlandish plot seem plausible. By knowing this one thing about your characters, you could conceivably revolutionize your ability to write powerful, gripping stories.

The photo came from the IMBD image database.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Fourth: Are You Sure That’s What You Want?

Here's the fourth reason you need to know what a character wants more than anything:
4. What a character appears to be after isn’t necessarily what they’re actually after.
In the movie Die Hard, the villain Hans Gruber is involved in a very complex theft, one that he has camouflaged as a terrorist act. All is going well except for one thing: a cop named John McClane. For some reason McClane has set his sights on thwarting Gruber’s plans... and Gruber has no idea why. Gruber spends most of the movie tearing his hair out, trying to figure out why McClane won’t give up. It’s only at the climax of the movie that Gruber figures out what’s really going on: McClane’s wife Holly, going under her maiden name of Gennero, is one of his hostages.

Of course, movie viewers know this from the beginning of the movie. Part of the excitement of the movie comes from wondering when Gruber will figure it out.

Why does this little bit of subterfuge work so well? Why doesn’t it come across as being contrived? Many movies using a ploy like this would fall flat.

The reason is because what McClane appears to be after isn’t what he’s actually after. Many writers would have made McClane’s reason for action a simple matter of a quest for justice — or, to use Igor’s line from the last post, “It’s what I do.” This is a common mistake writers often make; namely, that the hero’s goal is simply to accomplish the plot points of the story.

The writers of Die Hard chose instead to give McClane an unexpected passion: to mend a fractured relationship with his estranged wife. When Holly winds up as a hostage, McClane must rescue her in order to achieve his true goal. McClane’s motivations are now totally believable; the rescue of his estranged wife is a personal goal that all moviegoers could relate to, yet it was big enough and strong enough to explain why he would endure the ridiculously hard challenges he was required to overcome in the movie plot.

This is a useful technique to remember in your own writing. It’s logical to assume that your character’s biggest need is to achieve the goal of the story... but it’s not particularly realistic to do so. Giving your character a need that sends him or her in an unexpected direction also helps with plotting, since accomplishing an easy-to-understand goal can send us into complex situations.

Many of us pursue a course of action in our lives that makes no sense to anybody... maybe not even us. The reason is that what we appear to be after isn’t we’re actually after; a lot of psychoanalysis is focused purely on helping us connect the two. The irony is that even children can understand that, and it's fairly simple to make sure that they do. After all, if Holly is McClane's wife and she's in trouble, he needs to rescue her, doesn't he?

Our characters, when they seem most real, are struggling with the same issues as the rest of us... which brings us to reason #5 in the next post.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Third: Villains Need Love Too

Here's the third reason you need to know what a character wants more than anything:
3. When I say “every character,” I mean every... with some minor exceptions.
As a general rule, since you want every character to seem real, you need to know what they all want. Yes, all of them.

Even the bad guys.

This is one place where most writers fail at one time or another. It can be very easy to invest yourself in the hero, to give him a passion that you identify with, and make him seem very real... and then make a two-dimensional villain. Or perhaps you find the villain to be the most interesting character in your story, so you turn him into a fully-rounded character... and then turn him loose to face a boring hero with a paste-on smile.

Either case is a sure ticket to a failed story.

Every character in the story wants something. You don’t have to put anywhere near the work into a secondary character that you put into a main character, but knowing what each character wants goes a long way toward making your story more gripping and your characters more memorable. (Remember this, because failure to do so — to give each major character in the story a passion — is responsible for maybe 80 to 85% of our difficulties when it comes to developing a story idea.)

Now, there is one exception to this rule. This minor exception is, appropriately enough, the minor (or walk-on) character. This is a character who appears only briefly in the story, perhaps as part of the background, or is a character that we don’t really want people to care about. An obvious example might be someone whom our main character meets on the street and asks for directions. But on occasion this character plays a larger part, which requires a defter touch.

For my money, the classic example is Igor in the movie Van Helsing. Igor exists primarily as comic relief and the writers didn’t want us to like him; in fact, they wanted us to enjoy it when he met his end during the climactic fight at the end of the movie. So how did they do this?

They avoided giving him any depth by making him a character with no goals; he just does what he’s told.

In one particularly humorous moment early in the movie, Igor is seen with what I can only describe as a gigantic electric cattle prod, and he’s using it on a werewolf. When Count Dracula asks him, “Why are you torturing that poor creature?” Igor replies, with a shrug that implies it should be self-evident, “It’s what I do.”

While such a two-dimensional character may work well as comic relief, it’s unforgivable to treat a major character with the same lack of respect. Give all your major characters a driving passion, and you’ll have gone a long way toward making your characters come alive on the page.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Second: Using The Internal Compass

Here's the second reason you need to know what a character wants more than anything:
2. What a character needs is what drives his actions in the story... all his actions, not just the external conflicts in the story.
As the story goes on and the character’s path gets tougher, the character moves from:
  • interested in getting his desire to
  • must get his desire to
  • obsessed with getting his desire.
The character takes bigger and bigger risks as he goes, simply because he used the easiest routes to goal attainment first and they failed. (Don’t you do the same thing?) This results in that miraculous aspect of fiction writing sometimes referred to as rising action.

A character’s pursuit of his heart’s desire will automatically cause the stakes to rise as the story goes along. This is both important and useful to know if you struggle with ratcheting up the tension as the plot progresses.

But it doesn’t stop there.

Everything that the character does, and all of his thoughts and choices, are shaped in some degree by that one desire. It acts as a compass, directing him on a daily, almost minute-by-minute basis. And because of that, it also acts as your compass, helping you decide what to include and what to leave out of the story. Your story is, after all, about your character’s pursuit of his heart’s desire... and it makes no sense to include things that don’t further his attainment of that goal. That's especially true in an easy reader, where the number of words you use are at a premium.

I know you probably think I’m beating this “compass” idea to death, but it’s so vital to staying on track in your writing that I have to. Most people, once they set their mind on something, filter out all distractions and set a laserlike course toward their goal. Some of those “distractions” are things that shouldn’t be ignored, but everything is sacrificed in the pursuit of the goal. (These ignored “distractions” often provide some of the more interesting complications in your story.)

So remember this “law of increasing obsession” when working with your characters. Your writing will be much stronger for it.

Friday, November 16, 2012

First: The “Grab Me” Factor

In my last post I said that the one thing you must know about each character in your story is what that character wants most. I listed five reasons you needed to know this, and that we would look at each in turn. Today we start...

The first reason should be almost intuitive:
1. No matter whether your story is inspired by a character, a world, or a plot (all are valid starting points), it's the character who fuels the emotional dimension of the story, who causes your readers to identify with and hook into your tale.
Some people start writing a story because a certain character grips their imagination; some people naturally create worlds and wonder what kinds of adventures might happen in them; and still others have an idea for an adventure and set about creating characters and worlds in which it might take place. There is no single right way to develop a story idea but, when all is said and done, it’s the characters in the successful story that the reader ultimately remembers.

This should come as no surprise. No matter how novel the world is or how gripping the plot, we are “characters” ourselves and so we tend to identify with other characters whom we find appealing. For that reason alone, we owe it to our readers -- and especially our youngest readers, who may struggle with the very act of reading -- to make our characters as “identifiable with” as we can...

And what readers generally identify with is a character who wants things that they can sympathize with.

Think about that for a minute. Think about the stories (or series of stories) you’ve enjoyed most. Isn’t it the characters — or frequently, one particular character — that you most relate to? Or think about TV and movie series that have developed huge, almost cult followings. Don’t the fans usually identify with one specific cast member’s character? (If you see them at a fan convention, you probably don’t even have to ask which character that is; you can recognize the character’s costume, which they are most certainly wearing. Beam me up, Scotty!)

Knowing that readers tend to identify with characters who share the same passions as they have, doesn’t it make sense that the most important thing to know about a character is what he or she is most passionate about? Any time you find yourself stuck and unable to decide what a character should do in the scene you’re writing, you should immediately stop and ask yourself:
What is this character most passionate about? What does he want most, and what is the most logical choice he could make at this point in this story to bring him closer to that goal?
Nine times out of 10, I bet the answer to those questions will get you unstuck.

There is no more important thing that you can know about a character than their heart’s desire. This one piece of information serves as the character’s compass... and yours as well.

Monday, November 12, 2012

The One Thing You Must Know About Every Character

In many ways, writing easy readers is no different from writing fiction for adults. You use the same basic "blocks" to build all stories. You need to simplify the blocks when writing for children -- you have less space, fewer words, and less complicated plotting -- but good storytelling always uses the same techniques.

One of those "blocks" is particularly essential to good storytelling. And if for some reason a story "isn't working," this is the first thing I check.

In all likelihood, you have heard teachers say that conflict is the guiding principle of all fiction. You may have been taught that fiction is conflict. You may have even heard the old saw, “Conflict is two dogs and one bone.”

There’s a lot of truth in all those sayings... but it’s a bit misleading as well. An over-emphasis on conflict can actually cause your story to fall flat. Conflict isn’t a cause in fiction; rather, conflict is the result of characters doing what comes naturally.

And what comes naturally to characters? The same thing that comes naturally to all of us human beings...

Going after what we want.

So it follows that the one thing you absolutely must know about every character in your story is... what does she want more than anything else?

“Ah, yes,” you say. “That’s all well and good. Each character wants something, and I should know what that something is. But I don’t see anything so revolutionary about that.”

But it is revolutionary because there’s so much more to this than just “every character wants something and I should know what it is.” In fact, understanding this one concept can completely change your approach to writing.

There are several reasons why this is so, and we’ll be looking at each of them over the next few posts. They are:
  1. No matter whether your story is inspired by a character, a world, or a plot (all are valid starting points), it's the character who fuels the emotional dimension of the story, who causes your readers to identify with and hook into your tale.
  2. What a character needs is what drives his actions in the story... all his actions, not just the external conflicts in the story.
  3. When I say “every character,” I mean every... with some minor exceptions.
  4. What a character appears to be after isn’t necessarily what they’re actually after.
  5. The best character needs aren’t external needs, but internal ones.
I think you'll find that knowing what your character wants immediately improves your storytelling.

Friday, November 9, 2012

A Use for the Useless

Today's plot sparker is a simple concept that you've probably heard people joke about from time to time. The quickest way to explain it is probably this movie clip.

Before there were movies like Dumb and Dumber there was Airplane. Airplane was fun because it took so many "serious" actors -- like Lloyd Bridges, Leslie Nielson (yes, he used to do serious stuff), and Robert Stack -- and put them in a comedy. The bit I'd like to call your attention to happens around the :20 second mark in this collection of clips from the movie, starring the childlike Jonny and a newspaper:

"Jonny, what do you make out of this?" Bridges asks, and Jonny replies, "This? Well, I could make a cap, or a broach, or a pterodactyl..."

I call this sparker "uses for the useless" because it reminds me of Jonny's useless suggestions. A pterodactyl? Why would you even try?

But suppose your character came across something useless but she was so captivated by it that she decided to do something with it. That could make a good story, especially if that "something" was completely useless and the use your character came up with was somewhat bizarre.

Jonny's suggestions for the newspaper don't sound very promising, do they? A cap, a broach... wait, did he say a pterodactyl??? Oh, I'm seeing a story idea already! Don't you? No? You can't figure out how you get a story out of pterodactyls and newspapers? Well, I'll give you this one for free, just so you get the idea...

Suppose little Jonny decided to enter a science fair and, being a dinosaur geek (maybe like Dinosaur Dan on Nick Jr.) he decides to create a dinosaur model. But not just any dinosaur -- a pterodactyl. And not some little dinky model -- oh no, not our Jonny! He decides to build a lifesize model. According to Wikipedia:
"Pterodactylus was a relatively small pterosaur, with an estimated adult wingspan of about 1.5 meters (5 ft) in P. antiquus."
A five-foot wingspan! Where is he going to get the materials to... oh, wait a minute. How about newspaper? A pterodactyl built from paper-mache and wire and whatever else he can get hold of! But imagine the problems involved -- not just building it, but transporting it to the science fair. And what if that little bugger could actually fly if the wind caught it?

Of course, the wind would have to catch it in your story, wouldn't it? I can imagine the bedlam when folks in a small town suddenly start seeing a pterodactyl gliding overhead...

The world is full of useless objects that people throw away. Some of them, like old newspapers, lend themselves to inventive stories. And if your character finds something really unusual... well, who knows what kind of story you might create?

Monday, November 5, 2012

Let Me Repeat That Again

I have a series of three books by an author named Eve Heidi Bine-Stock. They're called How to Write a Children's Picture Book (there are 3 volumes) and they use several different children's books to teach good writing techniques.

Picture books and easy readers have a lot in common, although picture books typically use vocabulary and sentence structure that's far too complex for an easy reader. (Remember, adults read picture books to children while children try to read easy readers themselves.) Still, some of the techniques that make picture books so enjoyable can be used in an easy reader.

One of these things -- and one which Bine-Stock points out in several of her examples -- is repetition. Repetition helps a young reader learn new words by letting them see the same word several times. Frequent exposure equals better retention... or at least that's the theory. (It works when I'm trying to learn something new, anyway.)

But there are good ways to repeat things and there are bad ways to repeat things. Knowing the difference can make your book more readable.

Repetition is more than just saying the same thing over and over. For example, in that last paragraph I used a form of repetition intended to emphasize a difference. I wrote "But there are good ways to repeat things and there are bad ways to repeat things." Most of the words are the same, but one phrase contrasts with the other. See what I mean?

Many people think free verse poetry has no structure... but it does. The structure is built around repetition -- the repetition of a sound, a word, a phrase, or even a verse structure. You can do the same thing in an easy reader. Repetition creates a rhythm of its own, and the trick is often in using it without overusing it.

You can use a series of words linked by "ands" instead of commas. Depending on the words you link, you can slow a sentence down or make something seem more impressive. Or, to put it another way, you can make something seem to grow or shrink.

You can repeat words at the ends of successive sentences to create a sense of closure. You don't want to overdo this, but it can certainly help tie things together.

One method that Bine-Stock mentions comes from the book Harry the Dirty Dog, where Gene Zion does it a couple of times:
In fact, he changed from a white dog with black spots, to a black dog with white spots.
He flip-flopped and he flop-flipped.
Again, you wouldn't want to overdo this, but it lends a certain playfulness to the story.

Lyle, Lyle< Crocodile coverThe book Lyle, Lyle, Crocodile is built on all kinds of repetition. Many of them are simple parallel sentence constructions. In addition to the kinds of repetition listed already (and no, these aren't quotes from the book, just examples of how repetition works):
  • One character does the same thing as another character, so they're described with the same words (such as "Joe ate a cookie. Then Jane ate a cookie.")
  • Words at the beginning of one sentence are repeated at the end of another. ("The store? Why would I go to the store?")
  • One person asks a question, the other replies using the same words. ("Did you see a green elephant?" "No, I didn't see a green elephant.")
  • Repetitions can grow. (Think of The House that Jack Built.)
Now, none of these examples require repetition to make sense. You could say "Jack ate a cookie. So did Jane." In some cases that might work perfectly fine. Or you could say "The store? Why would I go there?" There's nothing wrong with that either.

But sometimes repetition adds to the story. Personally, I think repetition often adds to the humor of a book. How much you use is a personal choice, but a little repetition in the right place can make a story particularly memorable.

If you handle repetition correctly in your easy readers, your book is more likely to be read over and over -- or, if you get my meaning, repeatedly. And that's the kind of repetition you'd like to see.

Friday, November 2, 2012

Never Work with Animals...

Or children. At least, that's what I've heard actors say. The reason? Both animals and children will upstage you.

Of course, not working with children and animals is impossible for the writer of easy readers. Most easy readers involve children or animals or both. But have you ever considered how you use them in your books?

Forget all those crazy things you've heard about editors not wanting books with talking animals -- they print gobs of them every year. Forget about kids only wanting to read about kids near their age -- that's part of the reason talking animals get used! These "rules" go in the trash along with the belief that editors don't publish books in verse -- they're just looking for good verse.

Likewise, there are good ways and bad ways to use children and animals in books. I'm particularly thinking about talking animals and (presumably) talking children. Some combinations simply shouldn't be used!

I wish I could remember where I got these "rules" from. I know I got some of them from cartoonist Christopher Hart, who used to draw the comic strip Blondie and who has a load of "how to draw cartoon" books out. But wherever I got them all from, I think you'll find them useful.

Most children's books have fantasy elements... and that makes some people worry. They worry that the kids won't be able to separate fantasy from reality. They worry that they'll read these fantasy books and expect the same things to happen in the real world. If you're one of those people, you'll find these rules very helpful in avoiding that problem.

The rules concern kids (well, humans in general) and animals talking to each other. These rules can help you make a fantasy setting seem realistic without confusing your readers.

First rule: Under normal circumstances, kids (humans) can talk to other kids, and animals can talk to other animals, but animals can't talk to kids. Sounds blatantly obvious, I know, but it needs to be stated plainly. The key words here are "under normal circumstances." If you're doing a fairly realistic story -- the world is very similar to the one we live in -- and you use normal animals, you follow the normal rules of the real world. Humans do talk to animals, but animals never talk back. They bark or meow or moo or whatever the particular animal would normally do, but that's about it.

First corollary to first rule: Animals can talk to other animals. Yeah, this is a fantasy element, but it doesn't violate our understanding of the real world. Animals do communicate with each other in various ways; the idea that they use some kind of "universal animal language" is a writer's construct to move the plot along more quickly. Obviously, if you're striving for super-realism, you don't use this shortcut... but you have to use more space explaining the nonverbal communication that goes on.

Second corollary to first rule: Animals may understand what kids say and may even discuss it amongst themselves, but they never talk back in more than a bark or a growl or a hiss or whatever. Again, this is a shortcut. The cat hissing at its owner is reacting to a perceived threat of some kind, not the actual words spoken by the owner, but we don't go into detail about that. We just make sure the cat doesn't say, "Put a sock in it, bud!"

AslanSecond rule: Animals CAN talk to kids IF the story world clearly has no relationship to reality OR if the animal clearly is a "kid in a cat suit," not a real animal. Again, this is a pretty self-explanatory rule. In the first case, Aslan the lion -- among other animals -- talks to humans in The Chronicles of Narnia, but Narnia is clearly not a real place. (The kids got there through the back of a wardrobe. Know a travel agent who can manage that?) In the second case, just think about The Cat in the Hat. Is it a "real world situation"? Supposedly... but how many six-foot-tall cats wearing red and white striped stovepipe hats and carrying umbrellas have you seen in your lifetime? In each of these cases, the writer makes it clear that the rules of the story world are very different from the rules of the real world where the reader lives and that the animals themselves are very different from normal animals. As long as you make that clear, you can stretch the rules.

Third rule: Once you make it clear what the rules of your world are, you can do anything you want as long as you don't violate those rules. Calvin can talk to his stuffed tiger Hobbes -- and actually sees Hobbes as a live tiger -- but Calvin's parents hear nothing because the stuffed tiger they see is... well, stuffed. And in a related example, even though he's in a comic strip -- where, supposedly, anything can happen -- Snoopy never utters a word. He communicates with Charlie Brown and the others in very human ways, but he never speaks in human language. In the first case, Hobbes is an imaginary friend -- an accepted part of a child's life in the real world -- whom Calvin has identified with a stuffed animal but whom his parents clearly recognize as an imaginary friend. In the second case, Snoopy may be a human in dog's clothes, but Schultz's world says an animal is still an animal so it doesn't use human language. He followed this same rule with Woodstock, Spike, Frieda's boneless cat, and every other animal in the strip.

As long as you understand the rules of your fantasy world, make them clear to your readers, and stick to them, you can work with children and animals all you like... even talking animals. I would advise avoiding actors, however... they can be very difficult to work with, and they all want their own trailers.

The picture of Aslan is originally from the 2005 live-action movie The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe and was found in Wikipedia's article on Aslan.