Tag Archives: Writing 21st Century Fiction

Timeless Questions And Eternal Mysteries

church_1Writers say something. Whether that something is trivial and mundane or significant and profound depends on how unafraid they are. Yes, unafraid. Many writers are afraid they will limit the scope of their book if they place their story firmly in a particular economic or political or religious milieu. They’re afraid if they take sides in a controversial question, they’ll make enemies and lose readers.

Just this week another writer related on an email the gist of a discussion elsewhere regarding the inclusion of particular evangelical Christian denominations and their practices in works of fiction. This writer argued against generic “community churches” and in favor of the First Presbyterian Church or Grace Lutheran or Diamond Bar Baptist. In other words, she advocated including specific churches with peculiar doctrines.

The individual taking the opposite position made a case for widening the audience for a book by painting generic evangelical elements rather than specific ones.

Which is right?

According to a host of writing instructors, writing with specific details brings a place or a person alive. Consequently, writers that steer away from presenting a particular environment or view point, whether religious or political, are actually neutering their story. From Donald Maass:

What distinguishes our era? What are its look, buzzwords, issues, and conflicts? Fashion magazines, op-ed pages, sports reporting, rappers, corporate websites, and teen slang are all barometers of our times . . . I don’t mean to suggest dropping in brand names or news events. Those are shallow gimmicks. I do mean that an important component of any novel’s grip on readers’ imaginations is how that novel brings alive its times. (Writing 21st Century Fiction, p. 168 – emphasis mine)

The fear of dating a novel scares off some authors from creating the kind of particular atmosphere that makes a story feel as if it’s anchored in reality. However, stories like The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck bring alive a time and culture through which the author can then say something important and universal.

Some writers also fear taking a stand on a controversial subject or saying something significant about an eternal question. Maass again:

The mysteries of existence are also often avoided in manuscripts. Do you believe in destiny? Do you believe in God? Are our lives random or do they have a purpose? Do you think about these things? Of course you do . . . What about your protagonist? What’s her take on the big questions? Is it pretentious to include them?

Ducking the big questions is easy. So is achieving low impact . . . Is there such a thing as justice when laws are made by fallible humans? Does do no harm have any meaning when medicine becomes guesswork? Is it worth building bridges when their ultimate collapse is guaranteed? Do we teach in schools “truths” that are untrue? Does the accumulation of capital do good or does it corrupt? What are the limits of friendship? Should loyalty last beyond the grave? We read fiction not just for entertainment but for answers to those questions. So answer them. (Writing 21st Century Fiction, p. 169-170 – emphasis mine)

A good many writers are afraid of answering these kinds of questions, thinking that by doing so they’ll come across as preachy–the death knell to fiction, especially Christian fiction.

To_Kill_a_MockingbirdHaving something to say does not equate with preachy writing. Harper Lee had some specific things to say about prejudice, but I’ve never heard anyone claim To Kill A Mockingbird was preachy. That’s because Ms. Lee didn’t explain what she had to say: she showed it through her characters.

She didn’t have one of them sum up the meaning of all the events or spell out the ethical implications of why they did what they chose to do. Rather, she created believable people who lived in a specific time with a certain set of problems, and she showed one man and his daughter who lived in contradiction to the societal norm.

Clearly she tackled her subject unafraid, even in the racially charged era of the pre-Civil Rights movement, and the result was a classic story with timeless truths, still being read and studied fifty years later.

Oh, and that author opposed to specific evangelical Christian denominations in fiction? It turns out each of her books is set in the Amish community–quite particular, very unique, and yet apparently a fertile field for stories that speak to readers today.

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Deepen Your Story With Plot Layers

Super_Bowl_XLIII_-_Thunderbirds_Flyover_-_Feb_1_2009Tomorrow is Super Bowl Sunday. For the past two weeks since the teams have been set, reporters have been busy gleaning stories to tell as part of their preview. Of course there’s the main conflict — which is the better team and which will win? But there are also subplots and plot layers which good newsmen ferret out.

The subplots might have to do with a particular player’s path to the pros or his overcoming injury or his decision to retire at the end of this season. In other words, there’s a story inside the main story, perhaps one that deals with people not involved in the game. The scam perpetrated on Notre Dame football player Manti Te’o–with his friend setting up a fake girlfriend and then supposedly having her die–is an example of a subplot.

Jim_Harbaugh_in_2007Plot layers generally center on the main character. In my Super Bowl analogy, that usually is the quarterback, but for this article, let’s make it the coaches. You see, this year, the two opposing coaches, Jim Harbaugh and John Harbaugh, are brothers. So they have the obvious game connection–leaders of two teams vying for the top spot in the NFL. But below that is their life-long connection as brothers.

In a novel, the layers of a story–the varied aspects of a character’s life, should intersect at a pivotal point. In the Super Bowl, the coaches who are brothers might make a critical decision because of their relationship–one that could either win or lose the game.

In a young adult book I’m reading now, a boy is running for his life only to discover that his missing father is the key to why he’s being pursued. His desire to find his father and his need to escape his would-be killer intersect.

There are several reasons for adding layers to a story. First they add richness the way a layered cake becomes richer with a creamy filling.

JohnHarbaugh2009Then, too, layers deepen character. A character isn’t just a coach. He’s also a brother, perhaps the oldest who has had expectations put on his shoulders all his life, or the youngest who has tried to find credibility in the eyes of the rest of the family.

Thirdly, a layered plot gives the texture of the character’s varied world. The character isn’t just trying to win a game. He’s also trying to keep his marriage together, perhaps, or to gain bargaining power when his contract expires. Maybe he’s a foster dad who wants to give his new son hope that life can be better than he’s believed possible. Whatever the particulars, these added elements make the world seem complete because the character is juggling a variety of issues–the same way real people do.

For more information about and examples of plot layers, I recommend Donald Maass’s latest book, Writing 21st Century Fiction.

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Characters With Universal Appeal

From time to time I see free books offered in one venue or another that obviously appeal to a limited audience. I try to imagine, for example, a teenage boy reading a book with lots of pink and lace on the cover or with a picture of an elderly couple, no matter how “with it” they might appear.

Covers, of course, can be overcome with favorable endorsements and other positive promotion, but to generate genuine buzz about a book, there needs to be a character with whom readers connect–a character with universal appeal.

Strangely enough, according to writing instructor Donald Maass in his latest book Writing 21st Century Fiction, creating a character that fits with what we think readers will like, is the wrong approach.

First, keep in mind that characters, like genres, follow trends.

In any literary era, there are trends in characterizations. Whole decades have been defined by characters who were blithe, survivors, or edgy. The evolution of young adult protagonists makes this particularly clear. In the first half of the 20th century, children from Horatio Alger to the Hardy Boys were plucky and alert with derring-do. In the 1970s, pervasive problem novels celebrated teen angst. More recently, the norm has become snarky detachment. (excerpt from Writing 21st Century Fiction, p. 104)

The problem with such trends is that writers begin to follow what seems to be the yellow brick road to the land of publishing Oz. In other words, they join the pack and write a stereotypical character that fits the current trend, assuming that this is what readers, and editors, want.

Unfortunately those characters grow old quickly. There’s nothing memorable about them, nothing unique, and in the end, nothing universal. Readers, and before them, editors, will grow weary of these copy-cat characters.

Earlier this year, I discussed stereotypical characters in “Characters Can Be Cliches Too,” but Maass makes the point that in creating unique characters, writers are actually creating ones with universal appeal.

These characters do things that are not typical of people we know, but their emotions and motivations will be ones we recognize.

I recently read a young adult fantasy with a protagonist who was unique. She was the youngest daughter of a king and happy that she wasn’t heir to the throne. She was willful, interested mostly in keeping herself entertained with her friends, but fiercely loyal to her family. Consequently, when her sister lay dying, she started on a trek to find the one thing she believed would save her. Never mind that the king told her not to go. Never mind that she would be returning to a land where one of her friends had killed a young man and his brother had vowed revenge.

Whatever we may think of this character for doing what she did, she still touches on universal emotions. Who among us hasn’t felt helpless in the face of a governmental or parental or corporate restriction? Who among us hasn’t loved so deeply we would travel to the ends of the earth if that’s what it took to save the life of the one we loved?

Maass states the key succinctly:

The secret of standout characters is their uniqueness.

In other words, none of us should be trying to write the next Katniss or the next Harry Potter or the next Bilbo Baggins. We should aim to create a character like none we’ve ever read before.

Maass suggests writers start with our own uniqueness:

In a way, making a character different than any who’s existed before begins with making that character like you, only more so. The store of individuality at your disposal is your own incomparable self. Borrow it, but blow it up. Let yourself loose. The more singular you become on the page, the more your readers will see themselves there too.

I’ll admit, I have some reservations about this advice. I’ve read books before where I thought the main character was transparently patterned after the writer. In addition there’s the issue of writing book after book with a character just like … you, only blown up. It seems that approach would have its limitations.

Still, I think the principle is sound. In the same way that each one of us is a unique person, with our own DNA and blend of beliefs and experiences that shape us, each of our characters should be original creations as well.

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Pace Isn’t All It’s Cracked Up To Be

I like fast-paced, page-turner novels. They pique my curiosity and force me to keep reading so that I can learn the secret or the answer or the perpetrator or the outcome. Will he survive, do they fall in love, will she choose the best job, can they make the rent, will he catch the thief? Questions drive a story forward and keep a reader turning pages.

I’ve even written about creating a fast pace in fiction as an important technique to learn (see “Picking Up The Pace”), and I haven’t changed my mind. However I have been reminded that a fast pace should not be the goal of a story but rather a means.

Acclaimed agent and writing instructor Donald Maass, in his new book Writing 21st Century Fiction has this to say:

Clever twists and turns are only momentarily attention-grabbing. Relentless forward-driving action, high tension, and cliffhangers do serve to keep readers’ eyeballs on the page but don’t necessarily engage their hearts. . . How then can commercial novelists construct plots that have true power? (emphasis mine)

How indeed! First, I think it’s important to see pace for what it is–a means by which to keep readers engaged. Sadly, it seems as if a host of contemporary writers–novelists and script writers–are under the delusion that keeping readers (or viewers) glued to their seats for a prerequisite period of time qualifies a story as good.

Seat belts do that. So do roller coasters. But rides in cars and trips to amusement parks are generally forgettable.

Good stories definitely keep a reader’s interest, but there’s more. Good stories prompt the reader to think about the characters when away from the book. Good stories prompt the reader to mull over the outcome of the story once he finishes.

In other words, there has to be more than pages whipping by like telephone poles seen through the window of a speeding car. A good story is more than one long chase, more than a ticking time bomb.

Good stories are not easily mistaken for a different title. They have a uniqueness about them, though they may still include the tropes of their genre.

What is it, then, that makes the difference? Maass again:

The characters who resonate most widely today don’t merely reflect our times, they reflect ourselves. That’s true whether we’re talking about genre fare, historicals, satire, or serious literary stuff. Revealing human truths means transcending tropes, peering into the past with fresh eyes, unearthing all that is hidden, and moving beyond what is easy and comfortable to write what is hard and even painful to face.

In short, the writer being authentic and individual and fearless makes the difference. But we’ll need to explore what that means in greater depth another time. For today, the take-home would be this: pace is a tool to use. It should serve the story and not rule the story.

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