Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Ari Gold's Worst Thing

This post will contain some mild spoilers for the final season opener for Entourage. If you want to see it and haven't yet, hold off on reading this post. Otherwise, soldier on for a discussion of why a certain plotting technique doesn't always work with antiheroes and other scoundrels.

If you watch Entourage, you know that talent agent Ari Gold isn't always a nice man. And he isn't always a bad man. In fact, he's cut in largely the same mold as Vito Corleone, the classic antihero: ruthless about business dealings, fiercely loyal to his people, willing to stop at nothing to destroy his enemies, and above all, a dedicated husband and father. Above all? Yes, above all, because the "family man" angle on this character type is what allows an audience to cheer for and ultimately love these characters. Sure, they stole (clients and cash) and committed all manner of other bad acts. But they did it for their families.

Ari says it over and over again to his wife through the course of the series. "I'm doing this so you can have six weeks traveling this summer, and our children can go to the best schools," and so on. He loves his wife, and that's evident even if he doesn't always treat her well. (In fairness, she's not always a devoted and supportive wife, either.) In fact, they spend much of the first 8 seasons in marital counseling. Some of the clips from these counseling sessions are genius, and here's one that demonstrates the tension in his character between work and family life:

So,he loves his wife. He loves his kids. It's not all smooth sailing, but if there is one person on the planet who can bring Ari Gold to his knees, it's Mrs. Ari. In fact, the clip I really wanted to show you guys, but couldn't find on youtube, was the one where they hired a clown for Ari's son's birthday party. Ari is hanging out at the party when he gets a call that he must go take care of something in person. His wife protests. They quarrel. He insists that he has to leave because his job pays for all these things, and she says something like, "Listen, Agent Boy, if you're not back in time for the clown, you're in big trouble." And he sort of collapses, all the bravado deflating in one whoosh, and he promises to be back in time for the clown. Mrs. Ari wins, and you get the feeling she's one of the few people, if not the only person, who can win this kind of response from him.

This brings us to the plotting device. We've all heard the suggestion. Imagine the worst thing that could happen to your character, and then do it to him. This can be a very useful plotting tool, but it's not all-purpose, and Ari Gold shows us why. In the season finale last series, Air's wife asked him for a separation. And in the season opener this week, when he begs to move back in, she tells him she's seeing someone else. The most important thing to Ari is his family, his wife and kids, right? So now we see that being removed from him.

But here's why this is a problem. Ari's not an heroic character. He's an antihero. His redeeming virtue -- the characteristic that is largely responsible for keeping him from sliding over into villainous territory -- is his love for his family. And they're removing that from his world.

Now, we don't know how the season will develop. It's possible that Ari will move heaven and earth to get his wife back. This would be in keeping with his character, though her betrayal might be something he can't get over. Loyalty is very important to him. But if they spin the subplot so that it becomes a challenge to Ari's notion of loyalty rather than a removal of his redeeming characteristic, we might not have a problem.

Otherwise, we're in a bit of trouble here. Ari could quickly become despicable. At the moment, he's just lost. He wound up the episode by diving into a bottle of vodka, and he was so emotionally wrecked that he didn't even realize it was fake, non-alcoholic vodka. Where he goes from here could be somewhere interesting, or somewhere that the audience won't want to follow. Anyone have any guesses as to what might happen next? Anyone see another path to redemption for Ari, other than fighting to get his family back?


Monday, July 25, 2011

Agents and direct publishing?

There's a discussion (h/t Bethany!) in the comments at the Book Ends (Agency) blog, about what role if any an agent has with direct publishing.  What do you all think?  Do you think an agent can help, and if so, how much do you think an agent's participation is worth? (They mostly get 15% when they make a deal for you with a traditional publisher.)


Friday, July 22, 2011

Today at RU

Did you get a request from a pitch at nationals? Good for you! Here's a checklist of ten things to do before you send in your requested full manuscript.


Wednesday, July 20, 2011

What is Melodrama?

Last week, I wrote about a lesser-used technique to cheat melodrama, and that prompted several people to ask me, "What's melodrama?" These weren't idle questions. So many times, in these discussions, I heard people give a variation of the old definition-of-pornography standard. "I can't describe it, but I know it when I see it." We know when something feels melodramatic, but we don't always know why it feels that way.

So I thought it might make make sense to talk about some of the ways drama tilts over into melodrama. Let's start by establishing a basic concept we've discussed before in other contexts on this blog: proportion matters. The size of a reaction should be roughly the same as the size of the action that caused it. The amount of attention paid to a particular setting or character or action should match the relative importance of that setting or character or action.

There are times we manipulate proportion to achieve certain effects. For example, in mysteries, we often try to hide clues in plain sight by mentioning them in small ways, and then surrounding them with bigger things. "Hey, look, there's a bullet hole in this wall. AND OMG SOMETHING JUST EXPLODED AND BLEW ME OUT OF MY BOOTS." The explosion might make good plot (in context), but the bullet hole is the detail we're trying t sneak into plain sight.

Another good example of minimized proportion is when a reaction is underplayed for effect. The quietness of a response can cause an extra zing of emotion for the surprised reader. This is the kind of thing that has to be deftly controlled in order to build up to the moment appropriately. Otherwise, it will lose impact instead of gaining it.

There's a great example of this kind of underplayed response in the tv series, "Lost in Austen," about a modern London woman, Amanda Price, who finds herself inserted into Elizabeth Bennet's role in Pride and Prejudice. When Amanda Price first meets Darcy at the assembly dance in Meryton, the moment is underplayed for dramatic effect. Mr. Bingley just asked Amanda to dance, and she declined but lied to him about the reason. Darcy can call her out as a liar if he chooses, something which would not be out of character for the scrupulously honest Darcy from Pride and Prejudice. The moment is beautifully underplayed, and music and a slow pace are used to heighten suspense so that the underplayed response packs an even bigger punch. Here, watch the clip, or the first minute and a half, anyway:

See what I mean? The easy banter between Amanda and Bingley shifts into an almost menacing mood. Slow turn, slow walk, scowl, clashing music, and then, that single word murmured very softly. That is the opposite of melodrama, even if it packs a big wallop of emotion. In other words, an underplayed emotion can still be very powerful. It's not that the emotion is lost, just that it is presented in a different manner.

So if the opposite of melodrama is a minimized detail, then melodrama itself is an exaggerated detail. The purpose of this exaggeration is to make an emotional appeal to the reader. The problem, though, is that melodrama feels cheap, like a giant flashing neon sign reading, "TIME TO BE SAD,'" or "NOW LET'S GET SUPER ANGRY." It creates a passive entertainment experience because the readers don't have to work for it or even become deeply engaged with the text. Everything is on the surface in giant glowing letters. It's too easy.

Melodrama can take many forms. Usually, when we talk about melodrama, we're talking about the emotional component of a scene. If the emotion is bigger than the situation warrants, it's melodramatic. But situations themselves can be melodramatic, as in soap operas where the outlandish is ordinary and the impossible is routine and coincidence is the savior of plot contrivances. And characters can also be melodramatic if they're exaggerated into near-caricatures -- like the villain (and we've all read this villain somewhere or other) whose vicious behavior is never explained. He's evil because he's the villain, and he's the villain because he's evil, and his motivation doesn't get much deeper than that. Another example -- the evil bitch ex-girlfriend in romance, or the first husband who was either physically abusive or sexually impotent. The romantic unfitness of these characters is exaggerated until you wonder why anyone ever agreed to a second date with them, let alone a long-term involvement.

I don't know if that will give you a foolproof way to identify melodrama, or if we're still in "I know it when I see it" territory. But the basic idea is that melodrama results from exaggeration. Learn to evaluate relative proportions of different fiction elements, and you'll have no trouble spotting melodrama.


Monday, July 18, 2011

The Contest Writer's Synopsis

Last week, a friend and I were talking about a synopsis she had to evaluate for work. There were things she liked about it, but something about it was making her pause. So we talked about it, and almost immediately, I knew something about the author of the synopsis. She most likely hadn't written the whole book.

How could I know that? There were two dead giveaways. First, the author touted a long list of contest wins. Now, don't get me wrong. I think contests are a fine way to get your work in front of an editor and gain some credibility in the early stages of your career. But there comes a point when a new writer ought to be shifting out of contest territory and into publication territory. If you just stay in contest-land, we'll kind of wonder why. Is there something wrong with the books? Is there a lack of follow-through? Is the writer somehow addicted to the contest vibe?

In this case, it seemed pretty clear to me that there was a lack of follow-through. And that brings us to the synopsis.

Let's say your synopsis is 4 pages long, and your book is 400 pages long. You can expect that roughly one synopsis page will be spent on every 100 pages of the text, but that's not a perfect ratio. In fact, probably the first quarter and the last quarter will take up slightly more room in the synopsis, and the middle two quarters will be slightly compressed. This is because the premise and the resolution often take more word space to explain properly, and if you need to compress the synopsis, it's usually easiest to compress the plotty stuff, which ordinarily would fall in the middle two quarters of the synopsis.

In this case, we saw a very different pattern. The first half of the synopsis was devoted to the first 50-75(ish) pages of the book. There was quite a lot of detail about the initiating event and the events in the early chapters. It was apparent that the author really understood this part of her story.

But after that, the synopsis read like a tick-list of unrelated events. "They go shopping. Then he goes on vacation for a week. Then she talks to her mom on the phone. Then they run into each other at the coffee shop. He gives her a newspaper. Then she realizes she's in love. Then he surprises her at her office. The end."

Those were not the actual events, of course. The actual events were somewhat more interesting in some ways, but they were also as wholly unrelated to each other as the items in that list. There was no sense of causation. No clear arc being described for either of the characters. It read as though the author had brainstormed a list of things that could plausibly happen in this particular story, but hadn't thought through whether these things amounted to a plot.

If she had written the entire book and shown it to betas and spent some time analyzing her own work, I'm sure the author -- who demonstrated competence in so many ways -- would have realized the disjointed nature of the events in the book. In fact, I hazard to say she would have realized it as she was writing the first draft. At some point, she would have asked a question about why her characters were behaving in this manner, and she would have realized the motivation and arcs were poorly conceived and the plot was just a mash of events with no "glue" to hold them together. (Yes, she would have. Seriously, you could tell how smart she was.)

So, the synopsis was beautifully detailed for the first half, and a disconnected list of episodes for the second half. The first half of the synopsis focused on the first eighth of the book. The author had a long list of "first chapter" type contest wins. This led me to conclude that the entire book had not been written, and I think my friend agreed. She didn't cut the author loose at that point, because there was strong evidence of talent, but she was wary about how things might proceed from that point.

This one, we'll file under "Things You Can Tell Just By Reading The Synopsis."


Sunday, July 17, 2011

More metaphor

 In the comments, we were talking about metaphor, and I thought I'd try to come up with some examples of larger central metaphors in fiction.  Mirror is a good one. I'm in a poetry reading group, and one of the groupmembers (hi, Dottie!) was a Spanish teacher and brings us Latin American poetry. (Poetry is great for studying metaphor-- if there's no central/thematic metaphor, I would say there's no poetry.) Dottie mentioned that "mirror" is frequently used as a metaphor in LA poetry. Why? Well, we can speculate. What does a mirror mean? It presents a likeness, but not a true image (reversed). And Latin America is (probably more than North America) interested in how it "mirrors" Iberian Europe. So "mirror" is a way the poets there create the subtext of the -- we thought-- distorted identity that comes from colonization.

Metaphor is the process, but not the product. We don't want metaphor just to be poetic, but to lead the reader to a deeper truth, maybe the theme, maybe the subtext.

Here's a "mirror" metaphor in a novel-- China Mieville's novel The City and the City.  This is kind of a near-future urban fantasy that takes place somewhere in Eastern Europe.  I don't think there's any mention of a near-century of Soviet occupation -- this is an alternate Eastern Europe. But no European could ignore the historical subtext of setting a novel in Eastern Europe-- it means the iron grip of the Iron Curtain, and a sudden freedom. (I have an in-law who was born in Soviet Bulgaria, where no one was allowed to leave-- now she's in the UK, living and working there freely as an EU citizen, and British tourists fly cheaply to the Bulgarian beaches for holiday... and all this transformation came about in 20 years.)

Anyway, though Mieville doesn't refer to the Soviets (as the film Casablanca never refers to Pearl Harbor), the reader will doubtless have that in mind while reading. (That's the cultural/historical subtext.)  "Mirror" is the metaphor here, as you can tell by the cover-- the two cities are mirrors of each other, each occupying almost the same geography, but they're sort of in different dimensions mentally (that's the way I had to think of it to understand). The citizens of each city are supposed to "unsee" each other and the other city. A murder investigation forces them into more contact, and the police investigator must travel from one to the other and back, "seeing" what usually can't (legally) be seen. The one city ("his" city) is decrepit, grim (pretty clearly a Soviet-era city), and the "unseen" city is colorful and vivid-- interestingly post-Soviet and/or what cities like Prague and Budapest used to be (so both modern and ancient).  While it's never stated out (metaphor shouldn't be explained, though that's what I'm doing :), this is the conundrum of the post-Soviet Eastern European capitals and citizens. They have to remember ("as if through a glass darkly") the Soviet days (the
Beszel city) while living in the European city (Ul Qoma). (Perhaps the best real-life parallel, though farther north and west, is Berlin.)

So there's the mirror, and the subtextual reference to the recent transformation in Eastern Europe. However, there's another mirror, which is Mieville's mirroring of the hard-boiled detective novel (like Hammett's) within a sort of literary urban fantasy.

The book reviews mention Borges (one of the Latin American writers most obsessed with the mirror metaphor) and A Tale of Two Cities (Dickens), which was the other example of "mirror as thematic metaphor" I was planning to use! :)  Remember the famous "mirror-image" opening:
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, 

 That sets up quickly the metaphor of  "different, but alike," which is carried through to the near-identical appearing young men Charles Dornay (aka the Big Drip :), and Sydney Carton (sigh-- I loves me some bad boy).  Several times Dickens uses an actual physical mirror to emphasize that seeming sameness, while the two men (both in love with the same woman, of course) are in so many ways different (one honorable, one dis, etc.), a difference that would not be so striking except they look so much alike. (Identical twin and lookalike stories partake of the mirror metaphor, btw-- emphasizing the difference by stressing the similarity).  In the end (I hope this isn't a spoiler ), Sydney makes use of the "mirror imageability" to substitute himself for Charles and go to the guillotine in his place. (This is really a great book.) Dickens makes use of the mirror even in his sentence structure, and uses a "mirror-sentence" as the final line to mirror the opening balanced sentence. The book ends: "It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known."

Now what's the cultural subtext of the mirror metaphor there?  I think it was the mirror between hope and reality. The hope of the revolution was that a European city would become a haven of freedom and democracy, but the reality was that one form of tyranny gave way to another (another mirror!).  Paris ended up no more free than London.  Reality bore a resemblance to the hope, but only so far, and in the end, we realize the reversed image in that the revolutionaries become the tyrants they overthrew. But Sydney, in sacrificing and redeeming himself, gave hope even in death of some future of compassion and love.

As I said, most "identical twin" books spin off of that "mirror image" metaphor, including a far lesser book by Twain (The Prince and the Pauper)-- btw, "Twain" is in itself a mirror metaphor!  What are some other metaphors that represent something deeper?  (Freud is helpful here. :)  For example, I've always been fascinated with a related metaphor, the mistaken identity one, which I think connects (depending on who is doing the mistaking) stories about amnesia victims (they don't know their own identity), undercover cops (deceiving others about their identity), and hidden pasts (the present identity hides the past identity).

Notice that these metaphor transcend genre-- you'll find the "sort-of twin" in science fiction (Ivan and Miles in Bujold's books), in film melodrama ("Manhattan Melodrama"), in romance (a bunch-- this is popular, twins taking each other's places)....  The popularity of the metaphor hints to me that this relates to some universal psychic issue, something about identity, about how we know who we are, about how we can be unique when we're so much like everyone else.

I always find it easier to discuss this in poetry, but it's there in fiction, and not just in the language.
Metaphor isn't the deeper meaning, but it takes us TO the deeper meaning.

Okay, here's a metaphor embedded in the FORM of a poem (the sonnet).  (As Mieville makes use of the "form" of a police procedural, we can probably think of ways to do this in fiction. Examples? Calvino does this, I think, in If on a winter's night a traveler.  Not police procedural, but the mirror-mirror story development, a reader reads a book called that, within a book called that, much like a self-portrait of a self-portrait.)

The most famous maker of sonnets in English (perhaps in the world) is of course Shakespeare, who published 154 of them. I think he must have thought in iambic pentameter, as the sonnet form seemed to have come so easily to him.  Anyway, the "English" sonnet (3 quatrains-- 4-line verses-- and a couplet -- two rhyming lines) is now named after him (though others wrote that form too).  The couplet at the end usually has some reversal or even contradiction of what went before, and is a sign (to me) of Shakespeare's flexible mind, that he could almost always see "the other side" of any situation.

There's another sonnet form, the Petrarchan or Italian sonnet. This is a much more graceful form, with an octet (8 lines) more smoothly moving into the sextet (6 lines)-- still 14 lines, but more cohesive and flowing.  Plenty of poets writing in English used this form (Millay is probably the most recent great sonneteer and used the Italian form primarily). So it's not as if you HAD to choose the English sonnet if you wrote in English, and Keats wasn't breaking the rules when he started writing in the Italian form. (He did, however, use the Shakespearian form later in his tragically short poetry career... maybe when he became more confident.)

But one of his greatest sonnets (and in terms of percentages, he beats Shakespeare in "greatest sonnets per career") specifically makes use of the Italian sonnet in a way that adds a layer of metaphor to a poem already dripping with metaphor. I mean, of course, "On First Looking Into Chapman's Homer" which kind of hearkens to an alternative sonnet/poetry tradition if Shakespeare hadn't existed (as Mieville's city refers to an alternate reality where liberation from the Soviets never quite took place).  Keats looks back to the classical period, and to do so, he uses Italian, which isn't what Homer used, but it's sure closer in geography than the English sonnet. :)  He refers to "bard" which to most of us (indeed, to Keats too usually I'm sure) would refer to Shakespeare, but here means Homer.  That is, he's looking PAST Shakespeare or rather (to be more precise in my visual metaphor :) AROUND Shakespeare to another poet, the greatest of all until, you know, Shakespeare, and taking his inspiration from Homer.

Now we can only imagine what it was like to be a young poet (and soon-to-be a very great one) in the same city and same language and even same form as Shakespeare.  It's like having an older sibling who was valedictorian, football quarterback, prom king, and United Way volunteer-of-the-year all at the same time. How do you escape from his shadow? How do you create your own light?

Keats explores the complication of that experience here by subtextually referring to Shakespeare ("bard") but also presenting an absence of Shakespeare (remember, in subtext, absence is presence-- more mirror!)--
Round many western islands have I been
Which bards in fealty to Apollo hold
(Britain and Ireland are, of course, the most westerly islands in Europe, not the Aegean islands he seems to mean. Keats's history and geography are adorably flawed in this sonnet, but let's give him a break-- it was written in a couple amazing hours.)
(Apollo, btw, was god of music and poetry, so his name is a symbol here of poetry.)  
Then he refers to the amazing power of Homer and how transformed he is by the experience of reading a poet who didn't have to secretly think (as did the spiteful Ben Jonson and the magisterial Milton, and Keats and Wordsworth too), "Shakespeare was here first." NO! Homer was here first! 
 From this perspective, Keats's use of the Italian rather than Shakespearian sonnet is like a minor declaration of independence. The form becomes a metaphor of his need to break free, if only momentarily, from the influence of Shakespeare, in order to become himself a great poet. 

Life handed Keats another mirror metaphor, really-- the similarities stressed (poets, sonnets, English) in order to highlight the differences. (As I said, in later sonnets, Keats did more confidently use the Shakespearian model, and I "feel" Shakespeare's influence intensely when I read the great Odes, especially "Nightingale"-- I've always felt that Caliban could have recited the end of that poem.)  

What does that have to do with story? I don't know, except it does. I know I understand the use of metaphor more because I've read so much great poetry.  Anyway, do you see a thematic metaphor in your own story, something that leads the reader down to a deeper meaning?

My example-- I'm currently working on a mystery, where the mystery of who murdered Gromov is a metaphor for the mystery of who Katya (the protagonist) is, and the "murder" of this Russian man is a metaphor (a surface representation, that is) for the destruction of her childhood when Napoleon marched on Moscow, laying waste as he went. 

Some point, let's try to talk about how to USE the surface to hint at the depths (as Dickens uses the image of the mirror to hint at the twinned fates of the two men).  


Saturday, July 16, 2011

Fiction as Metaphor

I'm reading a book called I Is an Other, about the uses of metaphor.  Geary points out that language is metaphor, that much of what we think of as direct terms for an object are just defunct metaphors. ("Table" actually started as a metaphor -- something that stands.)  When something new comes into our knowledge, we don't usually invent new terms for it, rather we apply or modify a term of something it's related to. (I'm thinking-- back in the dawn of the computer era-- small pieces of information were called "bits," and "bites" or "bytes" are ... bites of the bits.  A "bug" is a computer problem, based on, you know, a fly in the ointment. :)

Metaphor is completely inescapable for human discourse, and actually makes possible not only the acquisition or invention of new knowledge, but also nuance, subtext, theme, linkage, motif-- all the deep stuff. Fiction IS metaphor, and I think we don't write good fiction really until we understand that consciously or subconsciously.

Some writers seem to think that fiction is just facts we make up, kind of like really dishonest reporting-- just narrating what happens, only it's not really happening.

But no matter what you're writing, it becomes fiction I think only when you let metaphor in, that what you're writing means more than what the direct words say and the scenes show. Let's take an example most people will know-- the XMen.  The Xmen are mutants, shunned by humans, and they have special powers. Right away we have a metaphor there, diversity as strength, maybe.  Then look at their powers and think about how the powers connect to their personalities and conflicts:

Cyclops:  With the vision that burns, he must wear blinkers to protect others.  But being blinkered, he often can't see what's right under his nose, like his wife's problems, or his teammate's feelings.

Rogue:  She steals other mutants' powers. She can become anything, but she can't touch anyone. She's the ultimate "vampire," really, her strength comes from depriving others of their strength.

Gambit: He doesn't have much in the way of power (those cards are lame :). He does have the ability to charm, and while that's an otherworldly charm, it's an analogue to his insouciant human charm.

Wolverine:  Adamantine claws, yes. But metaphorically, that's a symbol of his anger, which is dangerous to him and others.

Professor X:  He is crippled physically, but he can read minds and so has access to others' thoughts. This telepathy is a manifestation of his unending curiosity, which makes all of the universe's knowledge accessible to him because he actually seeks it.

Storm: Her ability to "control" the weather is a counterpart of her need to control her own inner wildness.

That's just an example, but from pop culture, just to show that metaphor isn't restricted to literary fiction.  I suspect, in fact, that what makes a story popular is that its metaphors make sense subliminally to a whole lot of people, tapping into some universal theme or need within humans.

I'll keep reading and come up with more examples. (He uses Elvis a lot.)  But the message is-- think of story as metaphor. It's not just the narration of events (though it's that too). It's got some meaning or meanings buried maybe not too far under the surface.  How you name your characters, what you have them do for a living, whether they slam a door or close it quietly-- all these can be metaphors for some deeper truth.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Making the Moment

Emotion, like humor, benefits from being drawn out. This is especially true if it's some long-sought moment. You'll wring more emotion if you take a bit of time to set up the moment, and then find a subtle way to postpone it JUST FOR A BIT. (Multiple postponements could lead to melodrama, about which read Theresa's great Cheating Melodrama post.)

An example of postponing the emotional payoff moment is early in Grapes of Wrath. Tom Joad has just been paroled from prison and has walked and hitchhiked home. There's a long set-up of Tom and his friend Casy finding that his home area has been devastated, with evil bankers foreclosing on farms and bulldozing homes. He gets the low-down from Muley, an old man driven into hiding by the bankers. Tom understandably starts to worry that his own family has been affected, and Muley warns him that the Joads are heading to California to find work. So Tom approaches the home in anxiety, and is beyond relieved to see his father (who, fatherlike, quickly assumes he's busted out of jail and is ready to be upset). Tom, above all, wants to see his beloved mother, and has to be warned off running into the house and startling her.

So it's established that he's anxious about their fate, and that they were about to leave for CA and he was lucky to find them. And he's seen his father. So already, expectation is high, and the suspense is like a knot in our throats.

But Steinbeck doesn't give us a quick emotional jolt of Ma seeing him and shouting with joy. No, Pa calls out to her that there are two hobos here, and can they stay for supper. Easily she says yes, as she brings the food out to set on the table. NOT LOOKING UP. Tom can barely restrain himself as his father calls him "Mister" rather than his name, and Steinbeck even draws it out a bit more, having Tom stand in such a way that his mother can't see him against the sun. Tom's mental description of her stretches the suspense out for another paragraph or two.

Finally, though, Tom steps forward and Ma sees him and cries out, and their embrace is that much more powerfully emotional because of the suspended set-up.

Notice that done poorly, this can dissolve into sentimentality or frustration or melodrama. Effects like this are all in the execution. If you do it well, you've given the reader an intense experience. If you do it poorly, you can annoy or amuse the reader. What Theresa and I are saying is-- it's not the event that makes a scene melodramatic or irritating. It's how it's DONE that makes the difference.

And good writers can learn how to design a scene where the event becomes important and meaningful because of how it's presented. Never settle for just putting the event (Tom's return to Ma) there and thinking that's enough, or, conversely, shoving in more emotion than is there naturally.

So what's a scene you've been working on? And how have you designed the scene so that it's more powerful but not too over-the-top?


Monday, July 11, 2011

Cheating Melodrama

When a character must react to a stimulus, in most cases, we prefer the reaction to be in proportion to the stimulus. A loud bang might make someone jump, but it will hardly ever make them jump up, pack their bags, and leave on the next flight to Belize. (When would that be a proportionate response? Maybe the loud bang is a gunshot, and our character is fleeing the crime.)

If the response is larger than the stimulus, we say that it's melodramatic rather than dramatic. Melodrama is all about exaggeration, spectacle, and sensationalism. Emotions are supersized. Readers perceive it as overwrought and unrealistic, and for that reason, the presence of melodrama can push a reader out of the story. 

There is one way to avoid that push, though. Use another character to point out the melodrama. "Oh, Mary, you're overreacting."  That way, the reader will identify with this reaction instead of with Mary's overreaction. Let's take a look at how this might unfold. Mary and Cynthia are enjoying a bite to eat before going to the theater. Mary is very enthusiastic about the play they're about to see. This has all been established before this bit of melodrama:


"Hurry, Cynthia. Finish your coffee already. We're going to be late!"

Mary pushed her chair back just as a waiter walked behind her with a tray. He jostled the tray with skill, but a cup of tomato soup tipped and splashed across Mary's blouse. She stared at in in horror. White blouse. Red soup. Oh, God, and she'd paid a fortune for this shirt, and she'd saved it special for tonight.

"You asshole!" She shouted at the waiter. "Can't you see I'm trying to get up here?"

"I'm sorry, miss. Let me get you a towel."

"A towel? A towel? What am I going to do with a towel, wear it out of here?"

"And some club soda."

"You've ruined this entire night. You should get fired for this." Mary burst into tears and buried her hands in her face.


Yeah, that doesn't work. The reactions are out of proportion to the actions. Most people reading this will think, "Get over it, Mary. It's just soup. Wash it up and move on." And in a routine edit, we would either

1- dim down Mary's reaction so that it's proportionate. The soup spill can still be a minor complication, but it's not a terminable offense, right? This is the easy fix, and the one we'll reach for in most cases. Or,

2 - beef up her motivation so that the reader understands it's not just the soup spill making her melt down. There are several ways this can be done, but most of them are complicated and will add a lot of narrative to the text. For example, maybe Mary won the tickets in one of those "Meet Your Favorite Actor" contests and has been a bundle of nerves for weeks. But that would require writing all that into the plot so that this reaction makes a little more sense in terms of proportion. Because it's a bigger revision, we don't often opt for this choice unless the bones are already in place.

The third option, mentioned above, is a little trickier to navigate but can allow you to make Mary a little cray cray over the soup without heavy revision to build up to this moment. Let Cynthia be the voice of the reader's reaction.


"Hurry, Cynthia. Finish your coffee already. We're going to be late!"

"Please relax. Curtain's not for another half hour, and we're fifty yards from the theater door." Cynthia sipped her coffee slowly.

Too slowly. Mary couldn't wait another second. She pushed her chair back just as a waiter walked behind her with a tray. He jostled the tray with skill, but a cup of tomato soup tipped and splashed across Mary's blouse. She stared at in in horror. White blouse. Red soup. Oh, God, and she'd paid a fortune for this shirt, and she'd saved it special for tonight.

"You asshole!" She shouted at the waiter. "Can't you see I'm trying to get up here?"

"Mary!" Cynthia dropped her cup into the saucer with a clatter.

"I'm sorry, miss. Let me get you a towel."

"A towel? A towel? What am I going to do with a towel, wear it out of here?"

"For heaven's sake!" Cynthia blurted. "What's wrong with you! Leave that poor man alone."

"And some club soda," the waiter added.

"You've ruined this entire night," Mary said. "You should get fired for this." She burst into tears and buried her hands in her face.

"He is most certainly not going to get fired for this." Cynthia fumbled in her bag and pulled out a Tide pen. "Now take this into the ladies room and don't come out until you're -- well, not like this. You're embarrassing yourself."


Do you see how that works? Now there's an additional layer of conflict between Cynthia and Mary, and Cynthia is embodying the reader's objection to Mary's melodramatic response. This won't cure every melodramatic scene -- and there's a definite danger in switching reader identification away from the pov character, even temporarily -- but it's another trick to add to your editing toolkit.

Have you ever read a melodramatic scene that worked? What did the author do to make it work?


Thursday, July 7, 2011

Guest Post: The Dreaded Flashback by Adrienne Giordano

Editor's Note: We're very proud to have Adrienne Giordano for one of our rare guest posts today. Adrienne is one of those marvels who managed to sell the first book she ever wrote. And the second, and the third, and the fourth, and we see no limit to her success. When she suggested using one of our email exchanges as the basis for a post on technique, I was all for it, even if it does show my tendency to rush and confuse things. Who me, in a hurry? *ggg* Adrienne's book "Man Law" debuted at #1 at Carina this week. Congratulations, Adrienne! ~Theresa

Not long ago my editor suggested something that scared the hell out me. We were working on content revisions, trying to bring in relevant backstory when she said she might like to see a flashback.

I steadied myself and reread the email. Seriously? A flashback? Once the immediate panic subsided, because, let's face it, for years I'd been avoiding writing flashbacks. Flashbacks to me were the equivalent of climbing Everest. All I'd heard was how hard they were and how authors blow it more often than not. Still, the idea intrigued me so I agreed to try it.

I immediately turned to my bookshelf and all those patiently waiting craft books. After reading through a few of the books, I discovered a fantastic section on flashbacks in Writing Fiction by Janet Burroway. If you don't have this book on your shelf, I highly recommend it. Our own Theresa Stevens suggested it to me years ago and it is by far the book I use most.

So, I studied the Burroway instructions and settled down to work on my flashback. By the time I was done, I realized I had a big problem. The flashback itself was fine, but my transitions into and out of the flashback were in serious need of help. Then I did what I always do when I'm stuck.

I asked Theresa for help.

And that's when things really got crazy and I learned about framing. What follows are the emails Theresa and I exchanged starting with my initial question.
Adrienne: I used a look he gave her to start the flashback (see below). Can I end the flashback somehow tying it to the same look?


Enough of this already. Because, really, she didn't have time. She was getting nowhere with him when all she wanted was to get somewhere. And then he went and did it. He tilted his head and parted his lips just so slightly and a burst of heat shot through her. At any second, it would occur to him that he should attempt to mask his feelings. The idiot hadn't yet realized his ability to hide from her evaporated two years ago in her basement. That had been the first time she'd noticed the look and it still tortured her.

"Holy shit," he had said when he saw her on top of the dryer literally being hosed with water shooting from the pipe.


He snorted. "Am I? Have I said anything that's not true?"

No, he hadn’t said anything that wasn’t true. And now Vic stood in front of her giving her the look that had started it all. After the basement incident Vic had kept his hands, among other things, to himself. He'd been cordial. Disgustingly so. Like too much syrup on a stack of pancakes and the sweetness made her ill. At times, she caught him staring at her and it infuriated her because they had never once discussed it. That's how it had been until Mike's wedding and their second act of spontaneous humping.

Here is Theresa's response:

It's a little too abstract. The look can be a trigger, but let it trigger something concrete in the real world -- use a prop or setting detail that you can return to later.

You know, he gives her the look, and she reacts by fingering a locket or something. Then, you come back to it, "Gina toyed with her locket as Vic stood there giving her the look that had started it all."

Anchor it with something concrete.

Adrienne's response:

In the flashback, right before he gives her the look, she pushes her hair out of her face. (She’s soaking wet and he’s turned on by it.) She doesn’t notice the look until she shoves her hair out of her face. Would her doing that again work? “Gina pushed her hair off her face as Vic stood there giving her the look that started it all.”

No wonder people don’t try these damned flashbacks! They are hard.

Theresa's Response:

That hair-pushing thing is character -- it's a gesture used to signal a character's internal state. You want setting or a prop. A concrete object from the environment. Something not a part of a character's body or body language.

Sorry to harp on this, but it's important. The longer the flashback, the heavier the anchor in the frames must be. Otherwise the reader might miss the frame and lost track of story time. For a short flashback, no more than a page of text, a character gesture might work -- tricky, but it might work. Better, really, to save that kind of frame for time breaks of no more than a few sentences.


At this point, I was beginning to doubt my ability to pull this flasback off. I just wasn't understaning this concrete detail bit. Then it hit me that I could use the hallway they were standing in as my anchor. The hallway was a concrete detail.


After all the back and forth with my ever-patient friend, here is the revised start to the flashback.

Enough of this already. Because, really, she didn’t have time. She was getting nowhere with him when all she wanted was to get somewhere. And then he went and did it. He tilted his head and parted his lips just so slightly and a burst of heat exploded inside her. Suddenly, the hallway seemed tight. Closing in as his stare filled the space. At any second, it would occur to him that he should attempt to mask his feelings. The idiot hadn’t yet realized his ability to hide from her dissolved two years ago in her basement. That had been the first time she’d noticed the look and it still tortured her. Damn him for bringing it all back.

Her fingers twitched at the memory. Kneeling on top of the dryer battling the water that had shot from the pipe and doused her. And Vic staring at her in a way that made her miss having a man to curl up with.

And the end:

Gina huffed out a breath. “Knock it off. You don’t know a thing about what went on here. You’re completely out of line.”

He snorted. “Am I? Have I said anything that’s not true?”

No, he hadn’t said anything that wasn’t true. And now, Vic stood before her giving her the look that once again made her feel like the damned hallway had shrunk. After the basement incident Vic had kept those big hands of his, among other things, to himself. He’d been cordial. Disgustingly so. Like too much syrup on a stack of pancakes, and the sweetness made her ill. At times, she caught him staring and it infuriated her because they had never once discussed it.

That was how it had been until Mike’s wedding and their second act of spontaneous passion.

Can you see the difference? How that simple concrete detail pulls it all together? It seems so easy, but I assure you, flashbacks are a tricky beast. The shifting verb tenses alone are enough to send me to chocolate. Verb tenses aside, once you have that concrete detail to frame the scene it allows you to easily shift in and out of the flashback.

What about you? Have you ever tackled a flasback? Did you frame the scene?

Adrienne's Bio: Adrienne Giordano writes romantic suspense and women's fiction. She is a Jersey girl at heart, but now lives in the Chicago area with her work-a-holic husband, sports obsessed son and Buddy the Wheaton Terrorist (Terrier). She is a co-founder of Romance University blog. Adrienne's books have been finalists in the 2008, 2009 Linda Howard Award of Excellence contests. Adrienne also received first place honors in the 2011 Linda Howard contest. Her debut romantic suspense, Man Law, will be released by Carina Press on July 4, 2011. Her second book, A Just Deception, will be available from Carina Press on September 5, 2011. 
For more information please visit www.AdrienneGiordano.com
Follow Adrienne on Twitter @AdriennGiordano 
or http://www.facebook.com/AdrienneGiordanoAuthor.

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Text copyright © 2011 by Adrienne Giordano
Cover Art Copyright © 2011 by Harlequin Enterprises Limited
Permission to reproduce text granted by Harlequin Books S.A. Cover Art used by arrangement with Harlequin Enterprises Limited.  All rights reserved ® and ™ are trademarks owned by Harlequin Enterprises Limited or its affiliated companies, used under license.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Not Much Gossip

Home again, home again, from my back-to-back trips. Good times. I didn't spend much time at the RWA hotel, but I did talk to a few people here and there. I didn't pick up a lot of gossip, but there were a few things.

Some authors are angry over RWA's decision to drop the First Sale ribbon in favor of a New PAN Member ribbon. They see it as RWA's continued effort to ghetto-ize a large section of its membership. I heard a lot of talk about how to force RWA to change. It's never gonna happen, kids. RWA's power has always been in its inclusiveness, and its weakness has always been in the constant internal warring that this inclusiveness causes. Any organization that ostensibly welcomes all -- but only to a certain point -- is going to have loads of problems over the places it draws its internal lines. Nature of the beast and all that.

Speaking of inclusiveness, I was party to a discussion with some GLBTQ writers about what it might take to get their own Rita category. Smart thinking in that group. I wish them much success, and then I wish that they would share their successful methods with the erotic romance authors, who are still beating their collective foreheads against that brick wall.

I heard rave reviews of the Michael Hauge workshops. (Is that how we spell his name? Someone correct me if I'm wrong.) Based on the little I heard about workshops, I would hesitantly conclude that this one was the best of them.

Not a lot of chatter about the houses. Some rumors floating around, but nothing confirmed, so I won't repeat them here.

For my money, this year I chose to attend the IASPR conference instead of RWA. IASPR was fantastic. The quality of analysis in this group is very high. I took mad notes during the panels, and one particular paper on wild characters made me think for a long, long time afterward. Still kind of mulling over some of the points.

So, for those of you who were there, what did you hear? What's the news?


Saturday, July 2, 2011

The true self

In many stories, the purpose of the plot events is to reveal "the true self," inside the persona the character exhibits to the world.

Here is an essay asking what it the true self, the Id or the Superego? (I'm using those terms, but the essay talks about the suppressed inner desire self vs. the self in moments of calm reflection.)

This certainly doesn't have to be a one or the other dilemma for fictionwriters. Our characters can reveal their true selves in moments that they lose control, or when they exhibit the most control. Which would you say your stories use most?

I was thinking that my stories are about letting go, about finding the true self by surrendering to desire, etc. But in fact, I think generally I have my protagonists most be themselves, their true selves, when they overcome their own desires to decide "what is best" and do that-- whether it's sacrificing the need for vengeance, or releasing someone you love from obligation.

Interesting... what about you? In your stories, which "true self" scenario most appeals to you?