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Tag: James Wood

Story Structure: Character Desire

Kurt Vonnegut famously advised writers: Characters must want something, even if it’s just a glass of water. Desire is what the character thinks they want. According to Vonnegut, this could be a glass of water. But maybe that character who wants a glass of water really needs human interaction, which is why he has visited the corner shop to buy a bottle of water rather than drinking it out of his kitchen tap.

This advice is so fundamental, every storytelling guru will tell you a version of the same thing.

Other authors don’t bother with such low stakes. Before Caroline Leavitt starts any novel, she asks herself the following questions about each of her characters.

What does she want at the beginning of the novel and why? And what’s at stake if she doesn’t get it?
“There has to be something at stake. It has to be something really major. I mean, if she just wants a glass of water, that’s not really interesting.”

Writer Mag

Note that ‘stakes’ is a concept closely related to ‘desire’.

John Yorke prefers the term ‘active goal’ rather than ‘desire’:

All archetypal stories are defined by this one essential tenet: the central character has an active goal. They desire something. If characters don’t then it’s almost impossible to care for them, and care we must. They are our avatars and thus our entry point: they are the ones we most want to win or to find redemption — or indeed be punished if they’ve transgressed, for subconsciously we can be deeply masochistic in our desires. Effectively they’re us. […] If a character doesn’t want something, they’re passive. And if they’re passive, they’re effectively dead. Without a desire to animate the protagonist, the writer has no hope of bringing the character alive, no hope of telling a story and the work will almost always be boring.

— John Yorke, Into The Woods

And for the concept of desire itself, some people use different terminology: motive, goal, want. Each genre of story has its own typical desire lines. In romantic comedies the main character wants to find love. In a crime thriller the detective wants to find the criminal.  The ‘quest’ plot has a strong desire line built into its plot, which partly explains its enduring popularity over the last 3000 years.

John Truby has given us a basic hierarchy of desire, which shows us the complete continuum of wants. As you can see, superheroes are at the top, underdogs are at the bottom. From highest level of desire to lowest:

  1. Save the world
  2. Save the republic
  3. Bright justice and freedom
  4. Gain Love
  5. Find the truth
  6. Catch a criminal
  7. Explore a world
  8. Achieve something
  9. Win the battle
  10. Take revenge
  11. Survive or escape

We might quibble a little with the ordering of that list — some characters (and people) make it their absolute mission in life to exact revenge. But the takeaway point is this: Your main character doesn’t have to want to save the world in order for you to have a decent story in your hands.

Desire is the main reason almost all TV shows are set in the cop, lawyer, and doctor arenas. These jobs give their shows a simple and repeatable desire line that tracks the episode every week. Catch the criminal. Win the case. Save the life. But of course this is extremely limiting. Most people don’t spend their daily lives solving crimes, prosecuting bad guys, and saving lives.

– John Truby

Without desire, no story. This is so basic — at first glance what more could be to it? This comic strip by Poorly Drawn Lines takes a common desire line and spoofs it.

comic about power and desire

Why does it work as a joke? Because of the juxtaposition between (noble) quest and the completely unremarkable character arc — the discovery that he can eat his roommate’s leftovers with basically no consequences. This flaunts the basic rules of storytelling which we all know intuitively: When a character has a strong desire they go on an important quest and undergo significant character change as a result. Achieving their goal must be hard. It can’t come easily or you don’t have a fully-fleshed story. Continue reading

What is a metaphor for?

Metaphors help readers see the world in a new way. Below are some hints for creating a resonant metaphor.

metaphor

Every metaphor or simile is a little explosion of fiction within the larger fiction of the novel or story.

— James Wood, How Fiction Works

The metaphor is a fabricated image, without deep, true, genuine roots. It is an ephemeral expression. It is, or should be, one that is used only once, in passing. We must be careful, therefore not to give it too much thought; nor should the reader think too much about it.

— Gaston Bachelard, Poetics of Space

“Metaphors matter”, as Bernard Bailyn has reminded us, for “they shape the way we think” — all the more when they make sense in the light of actual experience.

— A. Roger Ekirch

The Difference Between Imagery and Metaphor

A metaphor gives concrete substance to an impression that is difficult to express. Metaphor is related to a psychic being from which it differs. An image, on the contrary, product of absolute imagination, owes its entire being to the imagination.

— Gaston Bachelard, Poetics of Space

Don’t Hate On The Mixed Metaphor

A mixed metaphor is defined as ‘a combination of two or more incompatible metaphors’.

Actually, there is a way in which mixed metaphor is perfectly logical, and not an aberration at all. … In contemporary parlance, what people dislike about mixed metaphor is that it tends to combine two different cliches, as in, say, “out of a sea of despair, he has pulled forth a plum.” The metaphorical aspect is actually dimmed, almost to non-existence, by the presence of two or more mixed cliches (which be definition are themselves dim or dead metaphors).

— James Wood, How Fiction Works

In other words — a mixed metaphor is fine. Cliches are bad.

The Secret Of Powerful Metaphor

Often the leap toward the counterintuitive, toward the very opposite of the thing you are seeking to compare, is the secret of powerful metaphor. […] Obviously, whenever you liken x to y, you will be drawing attention to the fact that x is really nothing like y, as well as drawing attention to the effort involved in producing such extravagances. The kind of metaphor I most delight in, however […] estranges and then instantly connects, and in doing the latter so well, hides the former. The result is a tiny shock of surprise, followed by a feeling of inevitability.

— James Wood, How Fiction Works

(I’ve heard that ‘surprise plus feeling of inevitability’ combo before, elsewhere, in describing ‘the perfect ending’ to a story. So metaphors and endings have a few things in common.)

Metaphor In Children’s Literature

Maurice Saxby tells us that metaphors in children’s literature need to be on the child reader’s level for them to work:

When the image or metaphor is within a child’s range of sensory, emotional, cognitive and moral experience and is expressed in linguistic terms that can be apprehended and comprehended by young readers, a book becomes classed as a children’s one.

— Maurice Saxby, Give Them Wings

Still Images In Picturebook Illustration

The ability to depict movement is perhaps the most important skill of a picture book illustrator. The same goes for comic book illustrators. But not everything is all about movement.Although a professional illustrator has to be good at depicting movement, there is a time and a place for ‘stills’, even inside ‘high-movement’ stories.

Below I take a look at examples of still images in picture book illustration.

AN EXAMPLE FROM COMICS

I was writing NYX, which was a Marvel book about these teenage mutants who are living on the streets of New York. And [the character] Kiden, one of her powers is that she can stop time. I remember the editor writing, “This is not a film. So how do you guide an artist when it comes to describing stopped time? Because literally everything is already stopped on the page.” That was a real eye-opener to how this was a very deep medium I was working in.

from an interview with Marjorie Liu, creator of Monstress

CHARACTERS POSING FOR ‘PHOTOS’ IN PICTURE BOOKS

This is how my eight year old tends to begin her homemade picture books:

Once there was a dog_600x412

Professional picture book illustrators, on the other hand, know all about movement, and are able to convey in a static image a wide variety of verbs that are happening within a scene.

Rudie Nudie by Emma Quay is an example of a picture book in which movement is very important and expertly depicted. A loose, sketchy, generic style of illustration is very good for ‘high-movement’ illustrations, with realism best saved for sombre, more serious stories. Continue reading

Levels of Detail In Literature

NOVELS

Tartt endows her characters, however minor, with lavish backstories. No detail is too small. ”Not everything has to serve the plot,” Tartt says. ”Dickens digresses. I like books that are big, busy and bustling. Novels are capacious. Those casual walk-on parts create the illusion of life, which is baggy with people you never see again and get to know fleetingly.”

from an interview with Donna Tartt, Sydney Morning Herald

On-duty and Off-duty Detail

There is a conventional but modern fondness for quiet but “telling” detail: “The detective noticed that Carla’s hairband was surprisingly dirty.” If there is such a thing as a telling detail, then there must be such a thing as an untelling detail, no? A better distinction might be between what I would call “off-duty” and “on-duty” detail; the off-duty detail is part of the standing army of life, as it were–it is always ready to be activated. Literature is full of such off-duty detail.[…] Nineteenth-century realism, from Balzac on, creates such an abundance of detail that the modern reader has come to expect of narrative that it will always contain a certain superfluity, a built-in redundancy, that it will carry more detail than it needs. In other words, fiction builds into itself a lot of surplus detail just as life is full of surplus details.

— James Wood, How Fiction Works

Barthes’s Referential Illusion

Wood then goes on to explain that although all this surplus detail feels like it’s meant to denote what’s ‘real’, all it does is signify it.

Realism in general, it is implied, is just such a business of false denotation. […] Realism offers the appearance of reality but is in fact utterly fake–what [Roland] Barthes calls “the referential illusion.” […] those laurel-leaf haircuts worn by the actors in Hollywood “Roman” films signify “Romanness” in the way that Flaubert’s barometer signifies “realness”.

In the end it doesn’t really matter about any distinction between what is real and what is signified, because “realism can be an effect and still be true”. Wood describes Barthes’s attitude towards realism as “sensitive, murderous hostility” and that’s the only reason why he insisted on this “false division”.

SHORT STORIES

Detail in a short story has to carry a lot of weight. Everything means something.

In the short story, detail is transformed into metaphorical significance. In a novel, on the other hand, the particular can remain merely the particular. It exists to make the reader feel he/she knows the experience — to create verisimilitude.

— Charles E. May, The Art of Brevity, edited by Per Winther

Raymond Carver explains that even in a poem or a short story the language used to describe this detail does not, itself, have to be startling. Everyday words will still do the trick.

It is possible, in a poem or a short story, to write about commonplace things and objects using commonplace but precise language, and to endow those things — a chair, a window curtain, a fork, a stone, a woman’s earring — with immense, even startling power.

— Raymond Carver, On Writing

PICTURE BOOKS

Modern picture books convey all of their detail in the illustrations and none in the text. The text is for conveying the story structure. There are few exceptions to this. Once the text starts to describe the picture, what you now have is an ‘illustrated story’.

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