Learning my Lines: Earning the Emotional Beat

by Dan Stout in ,


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One of the most powerful tools available to writers is to read and study the work of those who have gone before. For me, hand copying and examination can reveal the techniques of another author and help me advance my own craft. I've written up some of these observations to share with other readers & writers.

 

Okay, I recently read Edgar Cantero's Meddling Kids. There's SO MUCH great stuff in this book, but today I want to highlight one passage in particular that jumped out at me, and see if we can peek under the hood to see why it works.  

 

"Tomorrow, Tim, we'll be in Blyton Hills. You know what that is?"
She scratched his head, their eyes locked and perfectly level, and Tim listened closely.
"You've never been there, but your great-grandfather had. It's the best place in the world," she told him. "A very little town in a valley filled with summer homes, not like those shitty plastic suburbs, but with cute gardens and really old trees, where not yuppies, nor rednecks, but real nice people live. And all around it, in every direction, and the green mantle of woods, miles and miles of... adventure."
Her sight, and Tim's, and strayed into the stars.
"Mountains to climb and creeks to cross in every spot. Swamps where you can build rafts, and caves to take shelter in when it rains, and old mills and barns where hand-wringing bad guys think of their plots, and lakes with monsters, and haunted houses where pirates used to live."
She paused. Tim nose-prodded her like she was a music box that had stopped playing.

This section comes after a lengthy road trip, in a bit of a narrative pause, as the main characters have assembled and are about to enter into the next phase of their story. It's certainly Cantero talking to the audience, as much as it's about the characters expressing their own sense of wonder.

The interesting thing is why is works so well. This direct stating of fact and theme is pulled off because the characters have gone through so much heartache and trouble to get to this spot. The speaker, Andy, in particular has been through a lot, and has been the primary driver in reuniting the gang and returning them to their childhood haunts. She's picked up physical and emotional scars getting this far, and her moment of reflection (with Tim, a dog, who can't speak or judge) feels like a reward to her and the reader, while also serving as a promise of where the story is headed next. 

It's this sense of earned honesty combined with wonder and anticipation that makes this section sing. Truthfully, I'm not even sure it will seem striking if you haven't seen it in the context of the full book. 

But it damn well works if you have.

 

 

Edit:  Interestingly, Jason Sheehan chose the same excerpt to lead his NPR review of Meddling Kids.

And for another Meddling Kids review, check out this one from Sarah Hans

 

by Dan Stout

Learning my Lines: Believable Conflict

by Dan Stout in ,


One of the most powerful tools available to writers is to read and study the work of those who have gone before. For me, hand copying and examination can reveal the techniques of another author and help me advance my own craft. I've written up some of these observations to share with other readers & writers.

Okay, so this is a bit of a departure, as this time around Learning my Lines looks at a screenplay, rather than a novel. 

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The 2017 romantic comedy THE BIG SICK was written by Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon. Based on Nanjiani and Gordon's real-life story, the film is touching and brilliantly structured. It's a stunning example of how to take true events and find the deeper Truth at the story's heart. 

THE BIG SICK is excels in many areas, but there's one area in particular that really shines: the forces keeping the leads apart

A massive hurdle for writers telling relationship stories or arcs is how to put obstacles in the characters' path. It's difficult to show two people who have enough chemistry for the audience to root for them to be together, but who also manage to somehow not get together for most of the story. Far too many writers resort to one character having a 'secret' that they inexplicably refuse to fess up to the other. If you've watched many romantic comedies, then you've seen a dozen variations of the man who can't admit to his soul mate that he's not actually a construction worker -- he's the billionaire who owns the building, or the woman who's secretly a journalist writing her 'big break' article about dating jerks, when she accidentally meets her dream guy. Generally, these are the plots that could be resolved with a five minute conversation. 

But in THE BIG SICK, the conflicts working against the leads aren't easily swept aside. Nunjiani's family expects him to enter into an arranged marriage, and the idea of him dating outside Pakistani circles is seen as disrespectful to his parents. But Kumail's family are never depicted as caricatures. They're not afraid to pressure him, but they're still his family, and he loves them. Kumail lies to himself and Emily in order to avoid the inevitable conflict between committing his love for her and the inevitable fall-out from his family. It's a weakness, and we're hoping he won't do it, but his behavior is totally understandable.   

The same is true for Emily's character, though I won't go into them here as they're are a bit more spoilery. Suffice to say that the issues she faces are serious problems that can't be resolved with a short conversation. Her response to these obstacles are both sympathetic and proportional to the nature of the hurdles placed in front of her. 

Since this film is based on true events, there's an obvious reason why the characters' motives seem so realistic: They're what actually happened. The real life Kumail and Emily had serious motivations and reasonable reactions, because otherwise they wouldn't have done them.  For those of us creating fiction, the trick is to craft characters whose actions feel every bit as ground in reality. Easier said than done, right?

This is where all that work you put into fleshing out your characters pays off. If you have two characters drawn together (romantically or not) then ask yourself what kind of obstacle makes it difficult for one (or both) of them from fully committing. Ask your characters what they'd do to overcome the obstacle, and then keep upping the physical or emotional threat until the answer is that they wouldn't-- your characters would run away, even risking the loss of love or friendship, rather than face it. And if you don't get an answer at all, then it's time to do the work of learning the twists and turns of your characters' psyches. 

by Dan Stout

Learning my Lines: Staggered Timelines in a Novel

by Dan Stout in ,


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One of the most powerful tools available to writers is to read and study the work of those who have gone before. For me, hand copying and examination can reveal the techniques of another author and help me advance my own craft. I've written up some of these observations to share with other readers & writers.

 

There's a lot to love in Saladin Ahmed's Throne of the Crescent Moon. But one thing I took away was his nimble shuffling of POV chapters, each jumping to the character who is most logical to follow without becoming confusing. 

He does this a few times in the course of the narrative, and each time it was clear what was happening, who was involved, and when everything was taking place. That's not something I can say about every book I read.

The best example -- and the one that really made me sit up and take notice -- happens just over 25% of the way into the story.

At this point in the story the protagonists are arguing, and tempers flare enough for them to stomp off and give themselves (and each other) some breathing room. The next two chapters each follow a different character in the wake of the fight, jumping back to start a few seconds later after the argument ends, as if they're all tree limbs extending from a broad trunk.

The "trunk" chapter is written from the point of view of a character named Litasz. She and four other people are in a room, and as the chapter comes to a climax, Litasz's old friend Adoulla  ends an argument by storming out of the house. 

"Some fresh air," he blurted, and bolted for the door, slamming it behind him.

After this comes four brief paragraphs establishing how the roomful of people react to Adoulla's departure. The next chapter begins:

Adoulla slammed the heavy wooden door to his friends' shop behind him.

So we're slid back in time, prior to the last four paragraphs of the previous chapter. But look at what Ahmed's done here: he's hanging his time shift on the strong physical act of slamming the door. That's an action that all readers will relate to. We know what it looks like, what it sounds like. Hell, we've probably done it ourselves a time or two. 

Even better, the door slam is a turning point in in the trunk chapter, and it happened only a couple pages ago. Further, Ahmed uses the same verb, "slammed," reinforcing the connection. Even a casual reader will remember it when the next chapter begins. 

So with this new starting point, we follow Adoulla as he storms off from the argument and collects himself. Clever enough, but what blew my mind was that the following chapter begins like this:

Raseed bas Raseed watched the Doctor storm out of the shop and slam the front door.

We're back in time, but as a reader I still knew exactly where we were!  Ahmed's use of the door slam in the trunk chapter marked it in memory. The use of it in the following chapter underlined it. And now, many pages after the original event, I slipped back into the time stream with no trouble at all. 

Note the recurrence of "slam" yet again, and that this POV shift is happening immediately after the chapter following Adoulla. If we'd stayed in his POV for multiple chapters, I suspect that I'd have had a harder time returning to the door slam, but as it's written I found it easy, even natural to do so.

The new chapter follows Raseed as he travels into the city. While we're in his POV, our experience is enriched by knowing what is happening to Adoulla simultaneously. 

 

Throne of the Crescent Moon is great fun, but it also displays some pretty skillful handling of reader expectations. Reading it helped me learn how to lodge a moment in a reader's mind, and then use that later, like a rock climber setting a piton. 

by Dan Stout

Learning my Lines: Creating Instant Emotion

by Dan Stout in


One of the most powerful tools available to writers is to read and study the work of those who have gone before. For me, hand copying and examination can reveal the techniques of another author and help me advance my own craft. I've written up some of these observations to share with other readers & writers.

This excerpt is from SPARROW HILL ROAD, by Seanan McGuire. The quote below comes early in the book, and demonstrates how to quickly create a bond between reader and character.

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by Dan Stout