Selling It

I had a friend comment on one of the other entries here (one of the writing exercises) and he liked what I did there. I think it was Exercise #2. Anyway, I looked at what he liked, and realized it was all about the last line of the exercise and that it was kind of a shaggy dog (for those who do not know, a shaggy dog is a style of joke where the punch line comes out of left field, but is well set up by the joke).

But it got me thinking. I recently read a book in which I enjoyed the writing style, the authors voice, and so forth, but didn’t end up liking the book that much (names withheld because the author is actually quite skilled). And the reason I didn’t like it: the ending was not a sell for me.

We see this in various things we do. Think of a vacation you really liked. Now think of one you really didn’t. Was it the last couple of days (or even the last day) of the vacation that set the tone? For many people, the answer will be yes.

And that is part of what I see in what I wrote. The ending of the writing exercise is a surprise, even though essentially unsupported by the prose, but it hammers home the idea in a visceral way. The “tag line” sells the whole bit.

I think many things in stories are like this. There can be (with apologies to Buffy/Xander, and Joss Whedon) “big overture, little show” (from BTVS episode Fear Itself) in what authors do. If you don’t sell the story in the closing, people may not think much about how excellent the writing is, how much they like the author’s voice, how well plotted the theme is, how novel the idea is, or whatever else is cool. They will merely remember that the ending didn’t sell it. We, as human beings, tend to remember more the last thing we saw rather than the whole. The “tag line” rather than the substance.

Doubt me? Let me do an experiment. “Adrien! Adrien!”. Know the movie? Was it a great movie? Or how about “I’ll be back.” Recognize it? Or even “Where’s the Beef?” Seem familiar? Tag lines, or closings, are central to what we remember. Even though we have not always been a six second sound bite culture, we are always caught by catchy things (probably why they are called catchy). Don’t believe it? Long before we had six second sound bites we had “Stella! Stella!” or even (misquoted) “Play it again, Sam.”

Small ideas, pithily stated, often hold our attention and memory. That is not to say our writing should always be all about that. But never underestimate the power of a small, witty sentence that brings the whole piece together.

That’s all folks.

Writing Exercise #4

This exercise is one I picked up from “Writing Great Fiction: Storytelling Tips and Techniques” by James Hynes. He credits “What if? Writing Exercises for Fiction Writers” by Anne Bernays and Pamela Painter.

Pick a character from a story, novel, whatever. Describe everything you know or can guess about that character.

Beware, some potential spoilers below. I am taking Cameron Jeffry Jaclyn from Into the Fire as my subject. I will reveal things about him that are revealed in the book, but also some things that are not revealed in that book, but in book two A Dollar Short which I am currently working on.

Okay. Here Goes.

  • Cameron Jeffry Jaclyn is 30-ish.
  • He works in the financial industry as some sort of analyst. He is not to top-level quant, but is somewhat skilled in his arena.
  • He works for a smallish firm.
  • He is valued by his co-workers for his ability to swiftly run new “numbers”.
  • He is not wealthy, but is reasonably well off. He is not living hand-to-mouth. Probably upper-middle class.
  • He has modest computer skills, focused mainly on his job.
  • He is about average height.
  • He is not much of an athlete, and fits in neither the “fighter” nor “lover” categories.
  • He is unsure of himself around women, and easily gets flustered.
  • He is often in his own head rather than deeply engaged in the world around him.
  • He does not always plan ahead or think things all the way through before acting.
  • He only recently acquired a cell-phone, so might be seen as a slight luddite.
  • He drives an average car (Toyota sedan).
  • He lives in an apartment building/condo.
  • His apartment is smallish, but has a living room, kitchen, small dining nook, an upstairs with bedroom. Presumably it also has a bathroom.
  • He has a checkered past. He has been on the wrong side of the law, has done some breaking and entering, and owes his current job, as well as his status as a nominally law-abiding citizen, to Ben Marshall, a man who helped him out of a scrape with the law when he was younger.
  • He is not particularly political.
  • He dislikes law enforcement officers.
  • He would like to be in a relationship, but is not.
  • He likes the outdoors, especially the mountains.
  • He lives in Denver, Colorado.
  • He feels a deep sense of obligation to people who have helped him.
  • He has no family to speak of, is possibly an orphan.
  • He has a small circle of friends.
  • He is truly close to Clifford Kelly. Perhaps his only truly close relationship.
  • He knows JC Schwittenhausen, and does not particularly like him, though he might be counted among Cameron’s friends.
  • His friends call him Cam.
  • He is a social chameleon, adapting his speaking patterns, attitudes, and whatnot to the current situation.
  • He is dogged in pursuing things he believes are important. Personal risk, physical or otherwise, will not deter him.
  • He is something of a loner.
  • He likes wine, and dislikes beer, especially cheap beer.
  • He recently discovered he like some whiskeys.
  • He is willing to break the law in pursuit of things he thinks are important, but only to a certain point, and always with some forethought about consequences.
  • He recently met Kelly Davis, an ex-cop, and actually likes her even though she was a cop.
  • He is willing to bribe people for illicit information.
  • He has a moderate social life, going out with friends to drink or watch a movie from time to time.
  • He likes fast-food, Thai (particularly a lamb dish), and pizza.
  • He likes peach pie.
  • He dislikes strawberry-rhubarb pie.
  • He drinks coffee.
  • He tends to follow a routine, often eating at the same places, taking the same route to work, and so forth.
  • He prefers to confront problems with subtle solutions rather than brute force. He likes to trick his opponents into missteps.
  • He has a lawyer, seemingly on retainer. His lawyer, Mark Falstaff, is a trial lawyer. This is possibly a hold-over from his younger days as a petty criminal.
  • He is somewhat familiar with the law, but lacks direct knowledge of police procedure and detailed terminology.

Writing Exercise #3

This exercise is one I picked up from “Writing Great Fiction: Storytelling Tips and Techniques” by James Hynes.

Objective: Describe an object, building, or landscape (a thing) with the intent of revealing an emotional state without stating the state (example: a parent who has just lost a child without saying anything specific about the loss of the child).

Tougher one. Here goes.

The bricks were gray. Not a soothing gray, like gentle clouds, but a depressing gray, like the ash from a burned building. And the doorway looked like a toothless maw, an endless orifice that could swallow all that was good in the world. The darkness beyond was limitless. An infinite black. To think how it could swallow such light. Unfathomable. A repository for all lost hope. A singular location for destroyed dreams. I couldn’t take my eyes from it as I stepped back. How could one edifice hold such cruelty?

The building was not tall. Nor was it broad. Small even. But big enough. Big enough. How could something that small consume so much? Hope goes in. Nothing comes out. And yet the interior was as empty as my heart. Nothing inside anymore. You enter with hope. You come out with ashes. Nothing remains, all is consumed. No more sounds of laughter. No more pattering of feet. No more silly shouting. No more games. No more stories. Nothing.

They call it hospital. Shelter for the needy? Shelter from what? Not this. No shelter at all from this. Not for me. A guest house? The only guest is the ash cloaked fellow with the scythe. That and his customers. In the French it even sounds like hope. What a joke. A joke on me. A cruel, endless joke. But no one is laughing. Not anymore. All the sweet laughter has been forever silenced.

 

 

Choices

I was talking to a friend last night, and the conversation turned to storytelling. We have had versions of this conversation before, but something struck me as we were talking.

The topic: “What makes a story good?” We have batted this question back and forth before, and our conclusion is usually some variant of character choice. It was this time as well. But as we spoke about character choice, I realized how much that equates to the idea of conflict. Many creative writing courses, discussions, panels and whatnot have referenced the idea that conflict is, ultimately, what drives a story. Without conflict, nothing really happens, and the telling ceases to be a story and becomes instead just a recitation. I have heard argument against this idea, and kind of get what people are getting at when they take that position, but last night it kind of gelled in my head.

If you replace “conflict” with “choice” I think you address both sides of the argument about conflict driving a story (or not). Character choice in a tale drives the action. The ideas presented in the Hero’s Journey (this is an archetypal concept that predates many of our written tales; you can see examples of it in Norse mythology for instance) contain direct items of choice. One of the central and early themes of the Hero’s Journey is that the Hero is going along his (or her) merry way and encounters a choice: The Call To Adventure. The hero can accept or refuse this call, but that choice will forever define the hero’s life. At least according to the idea of the Hero’s Journey.

So, if you think of “choice” as the mechanism rather than “conflict”, even stories for children contain some measure of this (at least in the stories I can think of), whereas saying they contain “conflict” might be a stretch for some of them. The idea that the character is presented with some situation about which a decision has to be made drives the story. Do I follow the wizard on this crazy escapade? Do I run away from home to escape my evil stepmother? Do I go see what those strange lights in the sky last night were?

I am sure there are plenty of people who already understood this idea, but my perspective on it shifted last night, gaining clarity. Interesting character choices lead to interesting stories. And one definition bandied about in our conversation dealt with what makes a hero. If the character is presented a choice (we’ll keep it a binary choice for simplicity), and side A of the choice is safer/better for the character, and side B of the choice is safer/better for the world/the character’s friends/some endangered group, what makes the character a hero is choosing side B.

I think that has some legs, but it could be the margaritas talking.

Writing Exercise #2

This exercise is one I picked up from “Writing Great Fiction: Storytelling Tips and Techniques” by James Hynes.

Objective #1: Think of a vivid image (from whatever source). Write about the image imparting motivations, what led to the event/person/whatever.

So, I am going to expand on what I did yesterday. Here goes.

The hand, more than anything, catches my attention. It is as if he is beseeching me. Not so much to physically reach for it, as if I would help or rescue him, but rather, metaphorically reaching for it, as if to help or rescue what he represents. He is, perhaps, an envoy for a larger group who needs assistance, or support, or maybe just comfort. Perhaps he is not even really a person, but is an avatar of some universal force, or thought, or idea. The physical manifestation of a much greater need. Something beyond what a single human could need. So much need that the desire was given form. His form. Standing in the darkness, but bringing with him light; the request for help accompanied by the promise of personal reward, of fulfillment, of gratification in the act. Perhaps in helping him, or serving his deep need, my own burden will be lightened, my own need fulfilled. Perhaps the outstretched hand is not a request, but an offering. Perhaps the extended hand is saying, “use me to fulfill yourself; use my need to serve your compassion.”

Or maybe I have his keys and he wants them back.

Writing Exercise #1

This exercise is one I picked up from “Writing Great Fiction: Storytelling Tips and Techniques” by James Hynes.

Objective #1: Think of a vivid image (from whatever source). Describe it in as much detail as you can.

So, here goes.

His hand is outstretched, palm up. I say his, but, really, he is obscured in shadow. The room is darkened, no lights at all, but the window in the door behind him is streaming with late afternoon light. Not bright; the day is cloudy and gray, perhaps it has just rained, or is just about to start. But the light is enough to hide the figure’s features. But it doesn’t hide the room completely. I can see enough to guess this is a shack rather than a house. There are thin bars of light leaking through the walls as well. And the doorway contains a screen door, one of the old wooden kind. I think the screen is missing, but maybe I just can’t tell because of the lighting.

The skin on the hand is dark, a deep mahogany. The fingertips are slightly illuminated, not quite like they are glowing, but they are lighter than the other things I see. Maybe they actually are lighter, and it is not a trick cause by the illumination. But maybe not. The outstretched arm is the same deep tone. I cannot be certain, but I think the head, what I can see of it, and the other arm are also this color. But maybe that is because I expect the skin to be uniform. The hair sits tight to the head of the figure, curly, kinky even. The shape of the silhouette is what makes me think this is a man. From the height, the thinness, the outline of the hair and head, I believe it is a young black man, maybe in his twenties. He looks underfed, and I can see the shape of his bones beneath the skin. Though perhaps the shadows are enhancing that perspective. He is wearing a t-shirt, perhaps an undershirt. It looks like what they call a “wife-beater”, though that term doesn’t fit him at all. It fits him loosely, but not because that is the style, more, I think, because it is a size or two too large for him. And it seems old, worn, thin. Perhaps it is a hand-me-down.