Tag Archives: Steve Almond

The Engine That Drives Your Plot

engine and trainCharacters drive the plot of a novel, don’t they? Certainly it’s not the theme, unless you’re writing didactic fiction. Nor does the setting drive the plot, though we might say it serves the plot. So characters it is. But what drives characters?

From a Writer’s Digest article written by Steve Almond several years ago:

Once you’ve found a strong central desire within your hero, your plot decisions boil down to forcing him into the danger of his own feelings. All else becomes secondary.

Two key words: desire and feelings.

Characters fuel the plot, but what the character wants–his desire–fuels him.

Too often writers fail to identify a character’s central desire. Rather, he floats passively through a story, letting things happen to him, only reacting when pushed into a corner.

Here’s a sample of what I’m talking about.

At the beginning of the story, our hero goes to work, but because of the bad economy, he gets laid off. He decides to go to the unemployment office. On the way, he gets into a fender bender. The other driver doesn’t have insurance, and his own coverage isn’t sufficient, so his car is totaled.

Now he’s without a job and without a car, so he sits down at a bus stop. Across the street in the window of a cafe is a “Help Wanted” sign. He decides to check it out. The owner is desperate for help and hires him on the spot, but at the end of the month, doesn’t have the money to pay him.

He tells his landlady that he can’t make the rent, so she starts eviction proceedings. Now he’s without a job, without a car, and without a place to live.

This “story”–which is actually a collection of episodic events happening one after the other to the same character–could go on indefinitely. There is no overarching goal the character is trying to reach. If there were, the reader would follow him through until he either successfully achieves what he set out to accomplish, or utterly fails. As it is, the story can stop at any point, with a further deterioration of events or a reversal. But the character isn’t driving this plot. The author is manipulating events to create the effect he wishes.

Equally problematic is a character who has a central desire and then faces one external problem after another while never once dealing with internal issues.

Plots, in reality, are nothing more than events that take a character from point A in his life to point B–not physically, but emotionally or psychologically or spiritually. In other words, the character experiences some sort of internal change which we term character development.

However, only so much character development can occur by his overcoming one physical obstacle after another. At some point, he must face and deal with his fears, hopes, disappointments, conflicting beliefs, insecurities, guilt, dread, conflicting loves, and so on.

These internal matters are, in fact, the engine that drives a character that drives the plot.

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Filed under Characters, Inner Conflict, Plot, Reactions

Hooks Versus Openings

Recently the Writer’s Digest published an article that compiled the views of writing professionals on opposing sides of certain writing “rules” issues. One of the topics dealt with the novel opening, or hook.

How exactly should a novel begin? Should the author rope you in with intrigue and suspense, then never let you go? (The hook).

This is the view author and writing instructor Jerry B. Jenkins took:

I recently critiqued a beginner’s manuscript that began, “I’m sure we’ve all heard the old adage …” Well, if it’s an adage, it’s old, and if it’s an old adage, yes, we’ve all heard it. So why in the world would you want to start your novel with that?

Most experts advise starting with or quickly getting to an “inciting incident,” or at least something that implies that a main character’s status quo has been interrupted.

You tell me. Would you be more gripped by an old adage, or by something like, “When he kissed her goodbye and said he’d see her at dinner, Elizabeth believed only Ben’s goodbye”?

It’s not gunfire, not murder, not mayhem. But I’m betting you want to know what’s going on and will stick with me until you find out.

The opposing view (the opening) was given by writing professional Steve Almond:

The single most common problem I see in student manuscripts is that they are incredibly confusing. They are incredibly confusing because student authors often refuse to orient the reader by providing basic dramatic circumstances, such as where we are, and what’s happening, and to whom. Instead, we’re plunged into a kind of ectoplasm of vivid descriptions and incisive observations. I refer to this style of writing as hysterical lyricism.

The central reason student writers succumb to this is because they’ve been told over and over that they have to “hook readers on Page 1.” They assume that the best way to do this is to dispense with all the “boring background” and get us right to the fancy prose.

Well, what’s an unpublished writer to do (or even a published one seeking to improve)? These two experienced, qualified, successful published writers, who teach the craft, do not agree.

Or … is it that they are emphasizing different things about how a novel should begin? I doubt very much if Mr. Jenkins is advocating confusion:

    Never mind if readers understand what’s happening, just get your character in danger; create suspense and readers will be with you.

No, I don’t think so.

At the same time, I don’t think Mr. Almond is advocating an opening that is void of tension:

    The facts, that’s what readers need. Tell them who is in the scene, where this takes place, how they’re all dressed, and everyone’s hair and eye color.

Uh, that’s unlikely, too.

In actuality, though they seem to be saying contradictory things, they are both right. In the list I posted last week of the things readers at Spec Faith did not like in the brief novel openings they examined, you’ll find “confusing” and “no action”; “disjointed” and “no urgency (importance).”

On the flip side, in stating what they did like in an opening, these readers mentioned “clear” (more than once) but also “created curiosity,” “tension,” and “intrigue.”

Quite obviously, the novel openings that work the best do both — they orient readers and they engage them from the start. How is this possible?

I’ll admit, I’m still learning this skill. I know it when I see it, but it’s hard to spell out. I will say this. One element should not be sacrificed for the other. In other words, a writer shouldn’t seek clarity to the point of omitting intrigue. Neither should a writer swing for the opening-hook fences by trying to be so clever that readers can’t figure out what in the world (or out of it) is happening.

I’ll add this. A few novels end up with the kinds of opening lines that are truly memorable, but a lot of great ones that are on many people’s favorite lists have much quieter beginnings. Not boring, though. Just not of the quotable variety.

Perhaps too many writers, in an effort to find the quotable, are forgetting to create a memorable character and scene. After all, readers also remarked that they liked an opening that suggested a larger world or created an interesting voice.

In short, hooks work only if they open a story readers care about, and openings work only if they hook the reader into the story.

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Curiosity Versus Confusion

Some clarity creates curiosity; too little creates confusion

Some time ago I read an article in the Writer’s Digest by Steve Almond in which he stated what he considers to be the writers Hippocratic oath: “Never confuse the reader.”

Initially this seems to clash with much advice about backstory. Writers don’t need to put everything up front, we say, and readers are far more patient than we think. In fact, they enjoy being led into a story, enjoy figuring things out rather than having all handed to them.

In other words, one sign of an amateur is too much description, too much backstory at the beginning. But Almond’s article is saying that a sign of an amateur is to leave the reader in the dark.

Are these two points in opposition, as they appear to be? I don’t think so. I think there’s a huge difference between being confused and being curious. The best story piques a reader’s interest. I don’t think that will happen successfully if the writer gives too much information. Neither do I think it will happen if a reader is confused.

Like so much in life, there is a tenuous balance. What information should a writer give and what should he withhold?

Maybe one way to look at this topic is to consider what causes confusion. First, writers muddle readers with conflicting facts or details. If the master bedroom is on the right in chapter one, then it must also be on the right in chapter five. If the heroine is afraid of heights, then she shouldn’t volunteer to scale the ladder to retrieve the ball.

Confusion also results from improper motivation — when the reader isn’t given enough information to understand why a character is acting as he is. In the example above, the character may have a compelling motive for overcoming her fear to retrieve the ball, but it must be believable and compelling. “My dad will kill me if he sees that ball on the roof,” isn’t a good motive, unless in fact, the father is abusive and this has been clearly established by this point in the story.

Third, readers can be confused when the writer does not ground the story in the concrete. The following illustration is a variation of one Steve Almond gave in his article.

    He didn’t know why she said it, but more importantly why she said it about him.

Does this create confusion or curiosity? The answer to that question can only be determined by what comes next. If the reader doesn’t start getting some information (who is he, who is she, what’s the relationship between the two, what did she say, and why did she say it?) in the next paragraph, I suspect confusion may set in.

The author does not need to give all the answers, perhaps not even complete answers, and probably not answers without introducing new questions. But the point is, unanswered questions or long-delayed answers are a cause for confusion.

Finally, writers can baffle readers by putting something into a scene that has not been either foreshadowed or previously introduced.

If a character is confronted by villains on the right and another baddie on the left, even as the true antagonist closes in from behind, what’s the hero to do? Well, he’ll transport himself to another place using his magic power — the magic power the reader had no idea he possessed.

Above all, this kind of manipulation breaks the trust of the reader. He no longer feels confident that the author has told him all he needs to know.

But just how much should an author tell the reader? Almond’s answer to this dilemma is helpful:

The reader should know at least as much as your protagonist … [Readers] are happy to open with a scene, so long as they get the necessary background. And they don’t need to know everything, just those facts that’ll elucidate the emotional significance of a particular scene.

In other words, writers should deliver specifics on a need to know basis. 😀

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