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Tips For Writing Melodrama

Melodrama is often used as an insult but, used properly, has its place in good storytelling. Here are some tips for writing melodrama.

What Is Melodrama?

Melodrama is the technique of revealing reality by concentrating on the ends of the spectrum rather than the middle: the remarkable rather than the ordinary.

Melodrama is about extremes of any kind. Melodrama is designed to:

  1. rouse strong emotions
  2. invoke implicit shared attitudes
melodrama from pretty little liars

A take-the-piss commentary of how melodrama is used (to great effect, I might add) in Pretty Little Liars

Why Use Melodrama In Your Writing?

Because of its heightened, exaggerated reality, melodrama lends itself easily to symbolism, allegory, and surrealism.

Surrealism is a different but related kind of exaggeration whereby the meanings implicit in objects, people, or events become more luminous and accessible than meanings normally are in the chaotic muddle of our everyday world.

Sometimes visionary, heightened reality is the most real of all, because all the transitory, trivial details have been stripped away to reveal the fundamental essence of things.

The Setting Of Melodramas

Melodramas make their heroes pawns in cities which symbolise the originating problem for the hero rather than the end of the hero’s activity. The hero is a conscious agent and a conflict between morality and the violation of established laws is developed.

Symbolism.org

A feature of melodramatic settings is often darkness contrasted with light. A lot of the scenes will probably take place at night.

Use of colour palette in the melodramatic TV series Riverdale promotional material makes the most of this contrast:

The dark/light thing is continued into the character building:
Riverdale beauty darkness light

The Problem With Melodrama: Believability

Because melodrama ignores the ordinary to concentrate on the unusual and unlikely, it often creates a credibility problem for readers who expect mimesis in storytelling.

melodrama film noir

Melodrama is a feature of film noir — a genre made up not by film makers themselves but by film critics.

Tips For Writing Melodrama

Tip 1: SHOW THAT THE MELODRAMATIC THING WORKS RIGHT AWAY

Anne Rice’s Interview with the Vampire starts out with a vampire talking into a tape recorder. Either way, you know pretty clearly what you’re in for from the beginning.

Each story demonstrates its central premise: modern vampires, or shoot-’em-up spaceflight. If you’re going to write melodrama, start with melodrama.

If your story will be playing by rules other writers have used before—that vampires exist, that faster-than-light travel is possible—melodrama may be the best way to go. work with the accepted convention. Introduce your premise with as little fuss as possible and get on with your story. Stephenie Mayer built her Twilight series on the accepted convention of vampires already established to modern readers by writers such as Anne Rice.

Tip 2: SHOW THAT THIS THING HAS WORKED IN THE RECENT PAST

Especially use this trick if you’re introducing an entirely new concept. 

There’s no arguing with the past — it’s over. Use this obvious bit of wisdom to have a character talk about the thing before it actually appears. Or you can write about a past event for which no satisfactory explanation has ever been found. The story then demonstrates the cause in the present, which also explains the past, retroactively.

Tip 3: USE A TRUSTWORTHY NARRATOR OR CHARACTER

Establish a reasonable character, and have them take the curse/magic/fantasy world seriously. Don’t have anybody doubting it, at least not for long.

This particular storytelling trick doesn’t always work well with the most savvy of young readers. Here’s a young adult who recently shared with the Internet why she doesn’t like YA fiction — one of her main points is that in real life nobody listens to teenagers. The fact that fictional adults listen to fictional young characters can either be a refreshing change or it can trigger annoyance, but now at least you see why writers do it.

Most readers are used to fictional conventions and are also appreciative of new and original fantasy worlds. They will accept anything if it is introduced correctly.

Tip 4: JUXTAPOSE THE EXTRAORDINARY WITH THE MUNDANE

Surround your curse with tangible everyday objects and activities, described in detail. I think this explains the popularity of magical realism. 

The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe opens within the (historical) reality of war, in a house that could easily exist in the real world.

Tip 5: ONE IMPROBABILITY PER STORY

If there are a whole lot of odd goings-on they should all have, finally, a single cause. That one cause accepted, all the rest follows: the other oddities fall into place.

I feel writers underestimate readers sometimes, though. I fear this particular writing tip might be responsible for all those medieval fantasy worlds which are, when it all boils down, a retrograde white patriarchy. Perhaps writers think that they can only get away with the fantasy world itself, and that every other aspect of politics and 21st century social life must be laid upon this fantastical world otherwise we’re asking too much of readers.

Tip 6: NO UNDERCUTTING YOUR PREMISE

No waking up and it was all a dream. Don’t explain it away or make fun of it in any other way, either.

Tip 7: NO TALKING ABOUT THE IMPROBABILITY IN NARRATIVE SUMMARY

Especially at first, as you’re establishing its existence. These parts must be shown in scenes. Dialogue is more believable than summary. 

Lampshading has its uses, but be careful how and when you use it.

Tip 8: DON’T LET THE IMPROBABILITY TAKE OVER THE STORY

Write of the improbability sparingly. Don’t let it become commonplace. The amount of reality versus magic has to be balanced. A story in which literally anything can happen is a story in which nothing makes sense.

Make the magician or elf (or whatever) very normal and ordinary 99% of the time, but with the potential of being extraordinary once in a while. That builds credibility and also suspense, since the reader is always waiting for the specialness to come out.

If you’ve got a monster, don’t trot it out in every chapter or the reader will start to yawn. The monster you imagine, as a reader, is much more frightening than the monster you see.

 

Notes above are largely from Anson Dibell’s book on writing: Plot

Physiological Reactions In Fiction

 

Descriptions of physiological reactions are hard to write well because:

  1. We all know what the feels to be thirsty/humiliated/busting to go to the toilet, so why does an author feel the need to explain it again, as if her character is any different? Why not just tell and not show?
  2. Every possible physiological response must have been written before, over and over, so how to sound original?
  3. It’s so easy to sound unintentionally comical.
  4. Certain physiological reactions can be cringe inducing unless done masterfully.

Yet now and again I come across a physiological description that’s original and engaging and poetic, and I’m filled with hope that it hasn’t all been done before. And then I think, “The field of possibles has just narrowed. I wish I’d written that!”

I wonder if anyone’s ever had a GOOD case of diarrhoea.

– @stephenfry

EXAMPLES OF PHYSIOLOGICAL REACTIONS IN WRITING

Feeling Hot In Summer

Wherever you went in the summer in America it was murder. It was always ninety degrees. If you closed the windows you baked, but if you left them open everything blew everywhere – comic books, maps, loose articles of clothing. If you wore shorts, as we always did, the bare skin on your legs became part of the seat, like cheese melted onto toast, and when it was time to get up, there was a rippling sound and a screaming sensation of agony as the two parted. If in your sun-baked delirium you carelessly leaned your arm against the metal part of the door on to which the sun had been shining, the skin where it made contact would shrivel and disappear, like a plastic bag in a flame. It was a truly amazing, and curiously painless, spectacle to watch part of your body just vanish. -Bill Bryson, The Lost Continent

Since I come from a Land of Celcius, I had to look up ’90 degrees’. I found out it’s a measly 32.222 degrees celcius, which means Bill Bryson should make it to Australia one day. (Oh that’s right. He did.) Part of what makes Bill Bryson so funny (to many, at least) is his creation of unlikely similes. He sometimes takes something quite grand (say, a landmark river) and compares it to something everyday and unremarkable (a drink spilled across a table). He compares many things to food. (Like legs, to cheese on toast.) If you are writing comedy, it’s possible to be endlessly original about physiological reactions, because you’ve got an infinite list of bizarre imagery at your disposal.

Awestruck

Nothing prepares you for the Grand Canyon. No matter how many times you read about it or see it pictured, it still takes your breath away. Your mind, unable to deal with anything on this scale, just shuts down and for many long moments you are a human vacuum, without speech or breath, but just a deep, inexpressible awe that anything on earth could be so vast, so beautiful, so silent. Even children are stilled by it. I was a particularly talkative and obnoxious child, but it stopped me cold. I can remember rounding a corner and standing there agog while a mouthful of half-formed jabber just rolled backwards down my throat, forever unuttered. I was seven years old and I’m told it was only the second occasion in all that time that I had stopped talking, apart from short breaks for sleeping and television. The one other thing to silence me was the sight of my grandfather dead in an open coffin. – Bill Bryson, The Lost Continent

I love how the first paragraph is serious, mock poetic, with the three adjectives listed to conclude. Of course, this is a build-up to the clincher: Grand Canyon compared to an old man dead in a coffin, which I probably shouldn’t find funny, but do. Wonderful juxtaposition.

Kissing

And then we’re kissing.

I lean in this time, and she doesn’t turn away. It’s cold, and our lips are dry, noses a little wet, foreheads sweaty beneath wool hats.

– from Will Grayson, Will Grayson, by John Green and David Levithan

It’s very easy to sound Mills-and-Boonish when approaching anything sexual, and it’s sometimes safer to make it deliberately unarousing. The wet noses make sure of that. (Unless you love dogs, perhaps…)

Homesick

It was like hell, she thought, because she could see no end to it, and to the feeling that came with it, but the torment was strange, it was all in her mind, it was like the arrival of night if you knew that you would never see anything in daylight again. She did not know what she was going to do.

– Colm Toibin, Brooklyn

So ‘homesickness’ isn’t technically a physiological reaction. But the psychological is connected, somehow, to the physiological.

Notice the very long, run-on sentence making use of commas rather than full-stops. This echoes the feeling of ‘no end’ in sight. It’s almost always a good choice to follow such sentences with a short, pithy one, and this is exactly what Toibin has done.

Sexually Aroused

It is like a little pocket of air has rushed into her mouth and sent a little shiver down her back and tugged at the empty half-basin of her pelvic bone. She feels a prolonged and dislocated swoop in her belly and a yank of emptiness in her ribcage, and suddenly she is  much too hot. Isolde feels this way sometimes when she is in the bath, or when she watches people kiss on television, or in bed when she runs her fingertips down the soft curve of her belly and imagines that her hand is not her own. Most often the feeling descends inexplicably — at a bus stop, perhaps, or in the lunch line, or waiting for a bell to ring… Here in the hallway Isolde is thinking, Did I feel this feeling then, that night? Did I feel this jangled swoop of dread and longing, this elevator-dive, this strange suspended prelude to a sneeze?

– Eleanor Catton, from The Rehearsal

That’s the most original description I’ve read. (And in case you’d thought that was all that could be possibly said on the subject, it goes on in totally original fashion for another few pages.)

A more succinct description:

He turned to look at her…Purl felt her pelvic floor contract and she steadied herself against the bar.

– Rosalie ham, from The Dressmaker

Accurate enough, I suppose. Functional writing. Slightly comic, which is the intention. That’s the thing about making use of the correct anatomical terms. It can come across as comic even when unintended. A few years back I complained that a drink was too hot and that it had ‘burned my esophagus’. This was not met with sympathy, but laughter. Apparently it was only funny because I’d used the correct term. Besides, some body parts can’t help sounding comical, and esophagus is one of them.

I woke up half an hour later, when she sat down on my bed, her butt against my hip. Her underwear, her jeans, the comforter, my corduroys, and my boxers between us, I thought. Five layers, and yet I felt it, the nervous warmth of touching — a pale reflection of the fireworks of one mouth on another, but a reflection nonetheless.

finding alaska by John Green

A perfect portrayal of a teenage proto-relationship.

Orgasmic

Elizabeth stared up into the darkness. She could feel, like tiny electric shocks, involuntary muscular spasms at the very core of her being, as if her body, like her mind, was trying to come to terms with what had transpired.

– Judy Nunn, from Maralinga

I don’t read much romance but I’m sure there are plenty of better examples. I’ll add a few more excerpts if I come across them. Even so, I’m thinking ‘spasm’ might be a popular choice of word.

Related Post: Why is there no good sex in fiction prize? from The Guardian.

Gasping For A Drink

Dick had not been married long and at the thought of the beautiful and curvaceous Dinah a clot of emotions lurched sweetly, a sensation he had come to terms with. It was a sensation which cried out for strong drink. Dick had found Dinah an exotic dish to have on his menu. Her presence, her absence, the very thought of her, called for a heady sauce. He took a turn around the room and peeped into the cupboard, although he knew before he opened the door that the bottle with the famous label which stared blankly back at him would be a skinner.

– Came A Hot Friday, by Ronald Hugh Morrieson

Two emotions are described above: wanting a drink, and being in love. For this character, the feelings are similar and he’s unable to fully separate the two.

Tipsy

I wanted to like booze more than I actually did (which is more or less the precise opposite of how I felt about Alaska). But that night, the booze felt great, as the warmth of wine in my stomach spread through my body. I didn’t like feeling stupid or out of control, but I liked the way it made everything (laughing, crying, peeing in front of your friends) easier.

(several pages later)

With her mouth half open, it occurred to me that she must already be drunk as a I noticed the far-off look in her eyes. The thousand-yard stare of intoxication, I thought, and as I watched her with idle fascination, it occurred to me that, yeah, I was a little drunk too.

looking for alaska, by John Green

Flat Out Drunk

I don’t know how many beers I had, but – I will be frank here – it was too many. I had not allowed for the fact that in the thin mountain air of Santa Fe you get drunk much faster. In any case, I was surprised to discover as I stood up a couple of hours after entering that the relationship between my mind and legs, which was normally quite a good one, had broken down. More than that, my legs now didn’t seem to be getting on at all well with each other. One of them started for the stairs, as instructed, but the other, in a burst of petulance, decided to make for the rest-room. The result was that I lurched through the bar like a man on stilts, grinning inanely as if to say, ‘Yes, I know I look like an asshole. Isn’t this amusing?’

– Bill Bryson, The Lost Continent

I’ve never been drunk, myself, so all I know about being drunk is what I’ve read in books and hearing people whinge about it afterwards. I’ve heard that you don’t always lose control of your legs when you get drunk – it depends. On what, though? Anyone know?

Hungover

“All right. All right. No screaming. Head hurts.” And it did. I could feel last night’s wine in my throat and my head throbbed like it had the morning after my concussion. My mouth tasted like a skunk had crawled into my throat and died.

– looking for alaska, John Green

I can’t see that being hungover is any different from any other kind of dehydration headache. Anyone willing to comment on that?

Stuffed With Food

The… plate was such a mixture of foods, gravies, barbecue sauces and salad creams that it was really just a heap of tasteless goo. But I shovelled it all down and then had an outsized platter of chocolate goo for dessert. And then I felt very ill. I felt as if I had eaten a roll of insulation. Clutching my distended abdomen, I found my way to an exit. There was no moving sidewalk to return me to the street – there’s no place in Las Vegas for losers or quitters – so I had to make a long weaving walk down the floodlit driveway to the Strip. The fresh air helped a little, but only a little. I limped through the crowds along the Strip, looking like a man doing a poor imitation of Quasimodo…

– Bill Bryson, The Lost Continent

Blergh. I hate that feeling, evoked excellently here.

Nauseated

It was too dark to see the gemstones in the sand now. She was fighting back nausea and swallowing back a bile in her mouth that tasted like warm beer, pasta, and woody aftertones… all mixed with a hint of self-loathing.

– from Girl At Sea by Maureen Johnson

Violently Ill

Alternating waves of hot and cold washed over her, and she knew she needed to get out of the bed, but her legs would not hold. Remaining on her knees, she crawled to the door. Shaking violently, she tried once again to stand. This time her legs stayed under her, but she could not get her equilibrium. She felt as though some central ball bearing inside her that made balance possible had been knocked loose… Never had she been this sick before. Kneeling with her head over the commode, she was so violently ill that the contractions sent pain into her neck and back. Her head throbbed so that she no longer saw shapes, only patches of gray and black. She felt as if she were being turned inside out, as if she were being scoured.

– Rebecca Wells, Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood

 

…the urge to be sick became even more intense then before, forcing her to get down on her hands and knees and vomit a thick liquid with a vile taste that made her shudder with revulsion when she lifted her head.

The ship’s movements took on a harsh rhythm, and replaced the sense of lunging forward and then being pushed back she had felt when she woke first. … There was hardly anything left to vomit, just a sour bile that left a taste in her mouth that made her cry…

– Colm Toibin, Brooklyn

 

In a state of profound agitation he arrived back at Elphaba’s little eyrie atop the corn exchange. As he climbed the stairs, his bowels turned suddenly to water, and it was only with effort he managed to make it to the chamber pot. His insides slopped noisily, wetly out, and he held his perspiring face in his hands. The cat was perched atop the wardrobe, glaring down at him. Voided, washed down, and at least loosely done up again, he tried to coax Malky with a bowl of milk. She would have none of it.

— Gregory Maguire, Wicked

Frightened

The room was big. He could feel its size although he could not clearly see. He could feel a cold breeze in his face, the blood in his heart. It was cold, too, the blood, and it felt as if it cracked — like ice — when his foot bumped into a soft heap on the floor. A body, a dead body.

– Christopher Pike, The Party

That one doesn’t work for me at all. I think it’s something to do with the extended metaphor of ‘cold blood’ – which is hard get away with, because it’s so old. (Truman Capote, anyone?) Not only is the blood cold, it’s ‘frozen’, and cracks, which is overdoing the metaphor.

Blomkvist shut his eyes. He suddenly felt acid in his throat and he swallowed hard. The pain in his gut and in his ribs seemed to swell.

– Stieg Larsson, The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo

Most often ‘bile’ is mentioned in this case, to the point where ‘bile rising in one’s throat’ is almost cliche. I think it’s therefore wise that the translator made use the word ‘acid’ instead. I think I know this reaction, but I may have led a sheltered life because I can’t think of a time in which I was so shocked and frightened that I actually experienced it. I wonder if  I have a stronger stomach than most, or if it takes extreme stress to produce the bile in one’s throat (the sort of stress most often recreated in thrillers), or if this physiological reaction is used disproportionately more often in novels than happens in real life.

She woke screaming, the smell of burning fabric assaulting her nostrils… Although she didn’t see or hear anyone in the room with her, it felt like a pair of strong hands grabbed her from behind and pulled her out of the room… Vivi’s fear was so strong she could taste it in the back of her throat. So strong it caused her to pee ever so slightly in the borrowed boxy panties she wore.

– Rebecca Wells, Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood

Wells hasn’t mentioned ‘bile’; instead she says ‘could taste it’, which is judicious, given the aforementioned cliche.

Her head was in her hands, and when she looked up at Vivi and Pete, her black face was streaked with tears that shone silver in the fading light… Vivi could hear Genevieve’s screams coming from the master bedroom. She ran past Shirley and up the stairs. When she stepped into the bedroom, Genevieve was slapping Mr Whitman on his face, his neck, his arm, whatever she could reach. Teensy stood by herself, near the bay window, her hands covering her face.

– Rebecca Wells, Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood

The character of Shirley describes the involuntary scream of shock (at a son’s death) as ‘the screech howl’, which is executed perfectly in the film. One woman commented on the YouTube segment of this movie that unless she had personally witnessed her own auntie’s reaction at losing a child, she’d not have believed that this screech howl happens in real life. She would have considered it melodramatic. It does seem that people do unexpected things when faced with terrible news; some more than others, some cultures more than others.

For a moment, everyone in the gym was silent, and the place had never been so quiet, not even in the moments before the Colonel ridiculed opponents at the free-throw stripe. I stared down at the back of the Colonel’s head. I just stared, looking at his thick and bushy hair. For a moment, it was so quiet that you could hear the sound of not-breathing, the vacuum created by 190 students shocked out of air.

I thought: It’s all my fault.

I thought: I don’t feel very good.

I thought: I’m going to throw up.

I stood up and ran outside. I mae it to a trash can outside the gym, five feet from the double doors, and heaved toward Gatorade bottles and half-eaten McDonald’s. But nothing much came out. I just heaved, my stomach muscles tightening and my throat opening and a gasping, guttural blech, going through the motions of vomiting over and over again. In between gags and coughs, I sucked air in hard.

– looking for alaska, by John Green

Crying

She began to cry until tears soaked her face, her hair, her gown. She did not remember putting on the gown she wore, did not recognise it. She needed terribly to blow her nose, but she did not have a handkerchief. She could not bear the thought, but she decided she was going to have to blow her nose on the sheets.

– Rebecca Wells, Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood

Crying is one of those things that you can’t get away with much in a book — I don’t identify with characters who mope about and cry all the time, regardless of their circumstances. I think this has something to do with passiveness. Also, the act of crying can sort of absorb the feeling which caused it; if the character cries, the reader doesn’t have to. That said, it’s done well in the paragraph above.

Story Structure: Opponents In Fiction

Every interesting hero in every story needs a worthy opponent. The opponent makes the hero interesting. The hero learns through their opponent. The opponent attacks the hero’s great weakness. The hero deals with their own great weakness and grows as a result.

opponent fiction john le carre

Continue reading

Boring Mrs Bun by Juliet Martin and David Johnstone (1986)

What sort of story is Boring Mrs Bun?

boring mrs bun cover

Almost every story in the world is structured like this.

But #NotAllStories

Rather, not all books we’d call stories. Not all picture books are stories. Some are abecederies. Others function simply to introduce the young reader to new concepts.

Every now and then you get a mood piece.

Boring Mrs Bun is a character sketch.

There is an inevitable problem that comes with character sketches, at least of the thumbnail kind. Spending an entire novel delving into the psychology of a character is a completely different matter, but the best authors avoid thumbnail character sketches.

You may notice that picture book authors avoid them completely. This isn’t because of the common prejudice that children do not like descriptions, preferring scenes and dialogue (because it has been shown empirically that actually children enjoy the pauses in picture books as much as adults do) but comes down to something else:

  1. The wish for reader to see themselves in the character (the Everyboy and the Everygirl)
  2. The wish to avoid stereotyping.

It’s impossible to describe a character without that description meaning something, possibly something you don’t intend at all.

Let’s take a look at Boring Mrs Bun as a case study.

The book opens with this image:

boring-mrs-bun

Mrs Bun works behind the counter of a cake shop. She always looks the same.

She wears a long grey overall that buttons to the neck.

She scrapes her hair back from her face and knots it in a bun.

People look at Mrs Bun and think that she is BORING.

But we know better…

Overleaf:

fun-mrs-bun

We know that when Mrs Bun gets home from work, she rips off her uniform and rummages through her wardrobe for clothes she wants to wear.

She finds jaunty denim dungarees, a sunny yellow tee-shirt and purple running shoes. She shakes her hair loose from its bun and styles it into spikes.

“Ah!” says Mrs Bun. “That feels better.”

And we think she looks COOL.

Already you can guess at the author’s message: Don’t look at an old lady and assume that’s all there is to her. In fact, don’t look at anyone and assume that what you see is what you get — there is always much more to people than the part you see.

Using the same structure, the book goes on to contrast the boring image of Mrs Bun at work with the woman who:

  1. lifts weights in leotards behind the garage
  2. does splits on the kitchen floor
  3. goes snorkelling at the beach
  4. drives a sports car
  5. has a colourful and wild garden
  6. paints abstract art
  7. is in a band and plays drums
  8. wears orange footless tights and goes out dancing
  9. rides a motorbike through the city at night

Finally we are told:

So next time you see Mrs Bun behind the cake shop counter, be brave enough to look into her sparkling blue eyes.

Catch the twinkle… watch her smile… listen for the bubbles in her laughter as they fizz up like lemonade.

BECAUSE WE KNOW THAT MRS BUN IS NOT BORING, DON’T WE?

The unintended consequence of this message is that the grandmother trope is not actually subverted, because having tea parties with your friends, watching TV and then turning in early and ‘scraping’ your hair back off your face and wearing grey clothes done up to your neck is — for women — the undesirable version of ageing.

This is a celebration of youth over age, because the behind-the-scenes Mrs Bun does youthful things and is full of unlikely energy.

The youthful Mrs Bun has her lips and eyelashes emphasised, because she is dressing in an acceptably feminine way.

The youthful Mrs Bun smiles, whereas the old lady Mrs Bun feels no need to smile for your benefit.

Whichever version of ageing you aspire to, it’s clear that the book comes down heavily on one side over the other. A different author/illustrator team might well come up with a story with the exact opposite message — that old lady Mrs Bun feels no need to subscribe to your narrow ideas of acceptable ageing and is past the emotional labour of smiling in a bakery, thank you very much.

And that is the problem with writing character sketches. Sometimes you want your ideology to shine through but other times you don’t. Even if you do, the reader might not get what you want out of it. Also, it’s almost impossible to describe a character without the stereotypes and prejudices of the era shining through.

CHARACTERS AND DETAILS

There are lots of ‘character details templates’ floating around on the web. Writers can download these and fill these out. They can be a very useful part of the writing process, but that doesn’t mean all those details should end up in the final product.

Pretty much every writing teacher warns against giving too many character details.

In reading for character, readers conventionally use their knowledge of the way people in the world around them usually behave to assign traits to characters, to guess about their motivations, to reconstruct their past, or even to predict what they might do after the end of the story.

Reading in this way implies that fiction is a kind of gossip. It assumes that authors say a little bit about the characters they describe so that readers can have the fun of guessing about all the aspects of character and experience they are not told about. […] But, like gossip, guessing about literary characters can misrepresent them by fitting them into categories readers already possess. Readers who want the pleasure of perceiving something more than or something different from what they already know or believe about human nature have to work with a different assumption: that authors carefully select what they choose to say, and that their choices–both what they say and what they don’t say–define what they wish readers to understand.

The Pleasures of Children’s Literature, Perry Nodelman and Mavis Reimer

 

I’ll go into detail about how a character looks if I think it’s really important to the storytelling. For instance, Butch the T-Rex, I wrote him to have scars and be very large.

— From interview with Pixar writer

 

Only spend time describing what it’s important to describe, what’s going to matter in the rest of the story. That may be what your characters look like; then again, it may not. You decide.

And even if your characters’ appearance is important to you and your story, the story’s very beginning may not be the best place to go into any great detail about it. You want your readers to be able to imagine your characters, not describe them for a robbery report. Have your people talking and doing: that will make the stronger impression.

— Anson Dibell

Attributes are those elements of character that people have little or no control over because they have been received as part of genetic inheritance or socialisation…Aptitudes, similarly, are largely beyond conscious intention or control, and thus part of our ‘fate’…Memorable characters are those that go beyond their attributes and aptitudes — they are defined, not by what they are, but by what they do. … Aptitudes, similarly, are largely beyond conscious intention or control, and thus part of our “fate”. … Memorable characters are those that go beyond their attributes and aptitudes — they are defined, not by what they are, but by what they do.

— Howard Suber

Be mindful of the difference between ‘characterization’ (age, looks, IQ, job etc.) and ‘true character’ (that behind the mask).

— Robert McKee

 

Purple Adjectives, Plain Adjectives; Every adjective has a home

ON PURPLE PROSE

Apart from the fact that certain types of writing demand flowery language — a subset of the romance genre being a case in point — there are other uses for the sort of prose which otherwise reads so beautifully that it draws attention to itself. Sometimes such language has the unintended effect of drawing the reader out of the story. At other times there is a reason for it.

The Idea Of Perfection cover

 

This is the opening of Chapter 12 from Kate Grenville’s The Idea Of Perfection:

Out at The Bent Bridge, the men were having their smoko. They had got the fire going, twigs crackling under the billy, the flames invisible in the brilliant morning light. Smoke drifted away blue under the trees and turned the slanting sunlight into great organ-pipes of powdery light.

In a story set in the Australian bush, this paragraph almost seems out of place, with its excess adjectives (brilliant, blue, great) and alliteration (slanting sunlight) and its grandiose metaphor (organ-pipes) and original but tenuous use of ‘powdery’ rather than ‘dusty’. But the prose continues like this, with an abrupt change in tone:

The red-headed one they all called Blue opened his sandwich up, showing the flap of grainy grey devon inside. He had caught the sun across his bare freckled back and his eyes were bloodshot.

Er, yuk, he said, and peeled it off the bread.

It was stuck like wallpaper.

He flung it into the fire where it lay across a stick, curling, darkening, starting to sizzle. He stuck the two slices of bread back against each other.

It now becomes clear why the first paragraph had been so beautifully written: To contrast with the earthiness of the men working on the bridge.

The ‘red-headed one they all called Blue’ is an example of typically Australian irony, in which case colour is mentioned now for a different effect — to bring us back to the reality of ‘Australia’. The Australian-ness of this man is continued with the colour red — his freckles, his bloodshot eyes. There is no longer any glamour associated with adjectives of colour.

The devon sausage sounds even more disgusting than it is when contrasted against the ‘organ pipes of powdery light’, especially since ‘powdery’ is a word that could equally be used to describe devon, albeit with a completely different emotional outcome.

The dialogue, too, of ‘Er, yuk’ portrays unembellished laconic disgust, with its harsh ‘k’ sound.

‘It was stuck like wallpaper’ is another kind of imagery — a simile this time — but it has a quite different ring to it, because wallpaper is such an ordinary thing found in old houses, whereas ‘organ-pipes’ conjures up a cathedral with its high ceilings, spirituality and melodious sounds.

Next we have the colloquial verbs of ‘flung’ and ‘stuck’; Germanic-derived words which emphasise the harshness of the environs.

All of this works much better, of course, because it occurs in opposition to a flowery opening paragraph, which shows off the author’s flair for language, but with an end in mind… other than showing off.

ON PLAIN PROSE

The Beasts Of Clawstone Castle cover

Critique groups will often advise beginning writers to avoid meaningless adjectives such as ‘nice’ and ‘good. But again, sometimes these adjectives are used for a reason. Take the following introduction to the heroes of The Beasts of Clawstone Castle, by Eva Ibbotson:

The children lived in a ground-floor flat in a pleasant part of South London. Their parents were funny and clever and nice, but they were apt to be a little bit frantic because of their jobs. Mrs Hamilton ran an experimental theatre which put on interesting plays but kept on running out of money, and Mr Hamilton was a designer and had to have good ideas about what people should do with their houses.

  1. The parents are not important to the story. The author’s job at the beginning of the story is simply to get them out of the way. If the author were to give examples of ‘funny’ and ‘clever’ and ‘nice’ then the story would be about the parents and the action would be suspended.
  2. The repetition of these fairly meaningless adjectives underscores the fairly meaningless lives our protagonists lead at the beginning of the story. Since their lives are uneventful and their home is sheltered, the only way they will grow as people is by leaving their secure and uneventful environment to go on an adventure elsewhere.

The Reflection Character In Storytelling

You may have heard of the ‘shadow in the hero’ when creating a character web for a story. Shadow in the hero describes a relationship between opponents. But what if two very different characters bring out the best in each other? What do you call that?

reflection characters

What Is A Reflection Character?

This is my term for the character who is most closely aligned with your hero – the best friend, partner, mentor or spouse whose primary function is to help the hero achieve the outer motivation and to urge the hero toward transformation.
— David Hauge

The reflection character is an ally.

(The reflection itself is often called the ‘Shadow In The Hero’ when a hero’s weaknesses and strengths are mirrored in a nemesis rather than in an ally.)

Mentors As Reflection Characters

A typical role for a reflection character is that of mentor to the hero – a teacher, trainer, coach or therapist whose job is to give the hero the skills necessary to achieve his goal.

On the subject of mentors, mentors often die in films. It’s only when we get rid of the mentor that the hero is given the opportunity to show what they have learnt. A common trick is to put a young innocent person between two mentors and making them pick between them. This is a test of character.

In film, reflections who are teachers are usually introduced after the beginning of the story – often around the first key turning point. This allows the reader and audience to become acquainted with the reflection as the hero does, rather than having to fill in the blanks of an existing relationship, as with a “best friend” reflection who has been aligned with the hero for some time.

Raison d’etre

To make it credible that your hero can achieve both what they want and what they need, you want to give them some help in the form of a reflection character.

The reflection character’s primary goal is to help the hero achieve the outer motivation.

Tips For Creating A Good Reflection Character

These initial exchanges illustrate a critical element of creating an effective reflection character: There must be lots of conflict between hero and reflection. Even though the reflection is the hero’s ally, teacher and friend, it is the reflection’s role to push the hero beyond his limits, challenge the hero’s poor decisions or weak actions, and repeatedly criticize and cajole the hero toward doing what is necessary to achieve his or her goal.

At some point in the story, the hero MUST reject the reflection character completely; and ultimately the reflection must remain loyal to the hero in spite of this hurtful rejection until the hero returns and aligns with the reflection once again. (This corresponds to Truby’s step: ATTACK BY ALLY.)

Examples

The King’s Speech — Speech therapist Lionel Logue embodies all the characteristics of an effective reflection to the film’s hero Bertie (later King George VI).

The Matrix — Morpheus

Good Will Hunting — Sean (mentor)

My Best Friend’s Wedding — George

True Grit — Rooster Cogburn is a reluctant mentor

 

Dirty Dancing — Baby Houseman and Johnny Castle (dance teacher mentor)

Silence Of The Lambs — Clarice and Hannibal (mentor)

An Officer And A Gentleman — Zack Mayo and Sgt. Foley (mentor)

Scarlett and Rayner

Nashville — Rayna James is mentor to Scarlett due to her greater experience in the country music scene. Rayna is much taller than Scarlett, which is interesting because in film mother figures are often taller than daughter figures even though in real life daughters tend to be the same height or even a little taller than their mothers. Their common nemesis is Juliette Barnes, and the character web is interesting physiologically because from behind at least, Scarlett and Juliette go by the same description — they are both small with long, blonde hair. Juliette is the fierce, conniving and much more successful version of Scarlett in the first few seasons.

Jennifer Melfi

The Sopranos — Tony has a therapist, who eventually works out that he’s playing with her, and that you can’t fix a sociopath with therapy but you can enable one.

Reflection Characters In Children’s Stories

Matilda — Miss Honey. If Matilda keeps reading and studying, she’s likely to become a Miss Honey herself one day.

Miss Stacey — to Anne of Green Gables. Actual teachers as reflection characters are common in children’s literature, probably because this is the period of people’s lives where teachers are important.

The Witches — Grandmama to the first person narrator. Grandmama is the original witch hunter, but the job of exterminating them all is left to the grandson.

The Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope is a mirror character to a morose boy who needs to be drawn out of himself, into some kind of adventure, romantic or otherwise. We see this pairing in adult stories as well as in stories for younger readers, e.g. In The Middle Of The Night by Robert Cormier.

Shrek — Donkey is always looking at the bright side of everything, trying to work it out. Donkey is well known for acting annoyingly and irritatingly towards other characters, especially Shrek. One night, during camp, Donkey asks Shrek why he hates everyone so much, and Shrek angrily reveals that everyone judges him a scary monster before getting to actually know him, and Donkey acknowledges that he already knew that there was more to Shrek’s character when they met. Donkey begins to notice a romance between Fiona and Shrek, despite their denials. So Donkey is that upbeat friend who brings Shrek out of a fug and counsels him romantically.

Up — Russell to the old man is similar to the relationship between Donkey and Shrek. (Not so different from the Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope, except for genre and gender.)

Mary Ingalls — to sister Laura. Mary’s level-headedness and later, her blindness, goes some way towards ‘taming’ Laura, turning her into a caring, kind person as well as someone who loves an outdoors adventure.

Gilbert Blythe — to Anne Shirley in Anne of Green Gables.

Karate Kid — Mr Miyagi (and later Mr Han). Mr Miyagi is also a trickster (mentor + trickster) because he gets Daniel-san to basically do all his most annoying and time-consuming tasks so he can sit back and tend to his bonsai.

Not Really Related

Your Dog Is Your Mirror cover

This is a non-fiction book cover that scares the hell out of me.

Writing Activity: Describe A Classroom

Jonathan Pobre

Maybe you’re in a classroom right now. If so, you can write about that. If not, you can imagine any sort of classroom you like. It may be one classroom in particular, or it may be an amalgamation of several, or of all the classrooms you’ve ever set foot in. Or you might make it up completely. 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’.

Things To Know About Chekhov

Anton Chekhov

1. CHEKHOV DID NOT OVERWRITE

You’ll hear Chekhovian advice in every writing group ever.

In short stories it is better to say not enough than to say too much, because,–because–I don’t know why.

One would like […] descriptions to be more compact and concise, just two or three lines or so.

Take out adjectives and adverbs whenever you can.

— Chekhov

 

2. OFTEN THE HERO DOES NOT CHANGE

There’s this basic rule of storytelling that the main character has to undergo a character arc, but that does not apply to short stories.

The connection between hero and world extends from the hero’s slavery throughout his character arc. In most stories, because the hero and the world are expressions of each other, the world and the hero develop together. Or if the hero doesn’t change, as in much of Chekhov, the world doesn’t change either.”

Notes From: John Truby. “The Anatomy of Story.”

Chekhov’s stories are frequently less about change than they are about the failure to change. Chekhov was generally pessimistic about the possibility of change. This is more true to life than other forms of storytelling, for example any movie coming out of Hollywood today — audiences are there to see a character change.

Even when the characters do change, their changes fail to last, merely complicate the existing conflict, or create a new and often greater conflict.

See also: Character Transformation In Fiction.

3. CHEKHOV WAS HUGELY INFLUENTIAL

Chekhovian is now a word. Examples of Chekhovian writers:

  • Henry Green (English) — who likes to ‘gag commentary’ (give even fewer reasons) than Chekhov even did.
  • Katherine Mansfield (New Zealander) — early in her life she admired Ivan Turgenev but after discovering Anton Chekhov she cast Turgenev aside. Sure enough, her best work was written after her discovery of Chekhov. The Garden Party, for instance, has a distinctively Chekhovian ending.
  • Raymond Carver (American) — influenced by Chekhov and Hemingway, who was himself influenced by Chekhov
  • Beth Henley — modern American playwright
  • James Joyce (Irish)
  • George Orwell (American)
  • Strunk & White — who wrote the grammar guide emphasising simplicity
  • Matthew Weiner — because his characters in Mad Men fail to change and that’s the whole point, unlike most other novelistic TV series. “1960 Sterling Cooper is the manor house in “The Cherry Orchard,” a besieged institution about to be swept away by the new order.” — John K.

 

4. CHEKHOV CHANGED THE NATURE OF ENDINGS

And knew exactly what he was doing when he said, “Either the hero gets married or shoots himself […] Whoever discovers new endings for plays will open up a new era.”

Chekhovian endings tend to emphasize the continuation of conflict, not its conclusion.

When I am finished with my characters, I like to return them to life.

One story even states: “And after that life went on as before.” While this feels like a ‘non-ending’, what it is, is a truncated ‘New Equilibrium’ stage.

They are subversive endings, designed to undercut our expectations.

These endings force readers to examine our conceptions about life and human nature.

The novel, and perhaps even more so, the short story does not provide philosophical answers, and Chekhov was fine with this state of affairs, saying that stories only need to ask the right questions.

Chekhov, and his descendants, may have together influenced children’s literature, including picture books:

There is a growing tendency for picture book endings to be left open, and more often than not, they pose questions to which there is no easy answer. Often the themes are what Egoff calls ‘the darker side of human experience’, as if authors wish to insist that the security of childhood be shattered as soon as possible, or maybe inferring that it is fiction anyhow.

— Clare Scott-Mitchell, Give Them Wings, 1988.

See also: Short Story Endings

5. CHEKHOV’S GUN

This storytelling term came from a piece of writing advice he issued once:

One must not put a loaded rifle on the stage if no one is thinking of firing it. If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on a wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it’s not going to be fired, it shouldn’t be hanging there.

6. CHEKHOV’S SIX PRINCIPLES OF A GOOD STORY

According to Chekhov:

  1. Absence of lengthy verbiage of a political-social-economic nature
  2. Total objectivity
  3. Truthful descriptions of persons and objects
  4. Extreme brevity
  5. Audacity and originality: flee the stereotype
  6. Compassion

 

7. CHEKHOV DID NOT REQUIRE A CLIMAX

As well as truncating the ‘New Equilibrium’ part of a traditional narrative, Chekhov often omits a Self-revelation phase.

If he does this, he does so in order to make the reader have the epiphany his protagonist fails to have.

He did this more in his later work.

He did this because an epiphany is more powerful if the reader experiences it rather than merely witnesses it.

Unreliable narrators are particularly useful for achieving an epiphany in the reader.

 

SEE ALSO

And Then There Was Chekhov: The Librarian Is In Podcast, Episode 43

Tips and Tricks from Muriel Spark

The Finishing School

In this novel, Muriel Spark takes a swipe at hack writers and aspiring novelists. All of the characters are cliches and stereotypes, working well as a comedic ensemble to convey Spark’s own ideas on writing. We are to read most of this book as irony. Failure to do so would render it dry.

Rowland marvelled as he read her essay. How slick and self-confident these young people were… How they could cover the pages, juggling the paragraphs around on their p.c.s and never for a moment thinking that any word could be spelt other than the way they wanted it to be. Tilly ‘dansed’ with her friend from ‘Nipall’. Why not? Rowland thought. She will always have an editor to put her story straight.

A common but inaccurate perception that editors exist solely to copyedit the genius of writers, who do not need to learn the basic tools of writing, but whose talent is glowing enough to shine through their basic errors.

‘Watch for details,’ Rowland had often said. ‘Observe. Think about your observations. Think hard. They do not need to be literally true. Literal truth is arid. Analyse your subject. Get at the Freudian reality, the inner kernel. Everything means something other than it seems. The cat means the mother.’

A poke at writers who dress plain things up with figurative language which gets in the way of the story.

‘I’ve changed my mind, you know, about the book I’m writing. It won’t be a novel. It will eventually be a life-study of a real person, Chris. At present I am accumulating the notes.’

True writers just get on with finishing what they’ve started. Rowland will never finish his novel because he can’t decide on what he wants to write about.

‘He hasn’t got a publisher yet,’ said Rowland. ‘That’s the sine qua non of a book.’

Characterisation

Rowland’s pompous side is underscored by his use of Latin. He could have said ‘prerequisite’, a perfectly acceptable English term but he must show off his classical education, as many hi-falutin writers tend to do.

Muriel Spark also manages to have a go at publishers who seize the opportunity to publish work by very young authors who have a platform because of their age; talented writers who nevertheless get carried away too soon, wanting their first draft made into a movie; authors who rework the plot of an existing classic; writers who use big words like ‘antiguous’, causing others to look it up; and close-readings of Thomas Hardy.

The Humour

Muriel Spark has a wonderful, acerbic tone and I enjoy her humour because it is not the kind that slaps you in the face.

Nina is conducting her comme il faut class (a class about social etiquette – the French only making it seem more pretentious than it already is). Like Miss Jean Brodie, Nina has firm but very biased ideas about such things, and embarks upon a lecture:

‘Be careful who takes you to Ascot,’ she said, ‘because unless you have married a rich husband, he is probably a crook.’ (As if rich husbands couldn’t possibly be crooks.) … Your man is bound to be a crook, bound to be. It teems with crooks…’

‘My dad doesn’t go to Ascot,’ said Pallas. (Meaning to point out that his father is therefore, proudly NOT a crook)

‘Oh I didn’t say all crooks went to Ascot, only that there are plenty of them at that function.’ (Implying in a most pragmatic way that even though Pallas’ father IS a crook, that doesn’t mean he has to go to Ascot – wonderfully twisted logic.)

But much of the humour comes from the setting – the most pretentious setting anyone could dream up – a finishing school in Switzerland. The formal language echoes the formal, pompous setting. Spark even hyphenates ‘to-day’ in the old-fashioned way.

Narration

The novel begins with Rowland opining about how to set the scene in a novel. The novel is written in omniscient POV, zooming in and out from the mind of Rowland, the 29-year-old principal of the finishing school, and aspiring novelist.

Spark makes good use of free indirect style:

It was early July, but not summery. The sky bulged, pregnant with water.

Here, it is not the narrator speaking, but obviously Rowland. Muriel Spark knows that such an image will provoke laughter and she directs our laughter towards her pompous character. This is exactly how Rowland would see the sky, in his melodramatic, overwritten way.

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