Friday, February 26, 2016

On Having Something to Say

Dear A. S. King,

I know a novel is not an essay.  It’s an experience.  But I recently went to see E. Lockhart speak, and she explained the characters in a book are all in a conversation with each other, and the book itself in in conversation with other books, with what’s going on in the world.  I recently read your I Crawl through It.  Your novel has something to say.  It responds to so much that has been frustrating me about our world and education in particular.  When I was finished I wanted to shout out my window, “This!  This!  This!”  But when I realized the street outside my house was empty, I quickly googled reviews of I Crawl through It so I could connect with others about my relief at your brilliant articulation.  Surely this book was already making splashes of change in a surreal and hypocritical educational system if not the world.  Finally!  However, though reviewers appreciate that I Crawl through It has accomplished something important, it soon becomes clear that they don’t totally get what that is.  I had to let you know that my writing partner and I stayed long past the lunch hour at our local café discussing your book, and somebody out here gets it.
I’m about to tell you what I got out of this book and why it’s important, but that necessitates taking it apart to some extent.  E. Lockhart said something else the night I heard her speak.  Recalling those teachers who asked us to boil down the meaning of a novel into one sentence, she said, “You write a novel because what you have to say can’t be said in one sentence.”  Nothing I say here will remotely compete with the beauty and richness of I Crawl through It as a whole artistic work.  Nevertheless I feel compelled to cry out across the country from my little writing room to you, Ms. King, “I get it!”
I get it.  I have built invisible helicopters.  Dreams I saw quite clearly that people in positions of authority did not see.  Dreams I worked on every day.  I fashioned them from lines I copied out of books, images I saw in films, art I stared at, lives I listened to, and questions I couldn’t shake.  Dreams I wasn’t sure would fly, but which I was compelled to pilot regardless.  And so I tried out for the play, I taught in the inner city school, I married a man I believed in, I painted my living room purple, adopted a daughter from China, quit teaching, and have spent years alone typing stories into a laptop.  Neighbors, colleagues, family, even friends questioned why I didn’t go into engineering, become a business major, or adopt “one of my own kind”.  They lifted skeptical eyebrows, shook their heads –what a waste, asked how long it takes to write a book anyway.
I get it.  I have ticked like a bomb.  When I brought limp student sentences that needed attention to the principal, and she told me not to ever leave my desk until four o’clock exactly.  When one robotics kit for one “trouble maker” took a fight.  When schedules, tests, and documentation crowded out the space and time for learning.  When one of the sixteen-year-old eighth graders asked me why I would even come teach here.  When the children’s need began to be supplanted by buzzwords and doublespeak that safeguard the status quo.  When those in charge listen with a smiling face, a nodding head, and a patronizing tone, but do not hear, do not intend to address anything after I exit the room.  When seething they say to me, “How can one child be arrogant and tender?”
I get it.  What I am forced to eat, I have tried to digest on paper.  Real people in torn jeans scribbled on with a Bic pen.  Angry boys plugged into electric music resting their heads on backpacks jaw muscles clenching and unclenching as they chew their gum.  I type them into Word documents, give them beautiful sentences, ask them questions until their dark places merge with mine.  All of them in the process of a great becoming.  All of them searching for a path through.  But this is light writing.  Just for kids.  Or so dark it will give them ideas.  About who they can love, what is fair, who is missing from the conversation.
I get it.  I have heard the cry, “I can be helped.”  They sat around the table in an effort not to lose him.  I asked if he was using –he said yes.  And the rest of them went around the table continuing the litany of missed assignments.  I saw the eyeliner, the piercings, the dyed hair, and the dog collar, but I heard a voice that did not want to walk on anyone’s leash.  Another asked why she had to do this anyway?  They told that one she was rude.  And no one said anything when her chair went empty the rest of the year.  Lonely, so lonely, so misunderstood, so desperate they thought about taking their own lives, and I was the only one they could ferret out who would do anything?
I get it.  I walk through a senseless world in which the most sane are called crazy.  Where classrooms are stripped of any curriculum taking up culture because that is racist.  Where candidates call for the deportation of whole populations and call that American values.  Where the voice of calm reason is drowned out by the zealots, and a child who wants just a little bit more or a different way is taking advantage while litigious parents defend the playing time of kids who crash cars full of empties.  Where millions of dollars are spent on tests that ask the wrong questions because no one wants to pay enough attention to the hard questions.
That is why I want to wave your book out my window and shout, “This!”  I am compelled to rush down my street and slap it on the high school principal’s desk, explain to him that I Crawl through It should be required reading for every school district, university, and learning community –students, teachers, and administrators, librarians, business owners, and parents.  Maybe I still will.  I don’t know.  What I know is that something stops me.  I think those who most need to read your book won’t understand it.  They have not learned think in a way that would enable them to process it.  That’s when I wonder maybe you did not write I Crawl through It for the people who run the system.  Maybe you wrote it for us, the few people who can see the reset buttons so small they’ll only fit an unbent paper clip, so we keep crawling through them.  For that I thank you.

Jill Bixel

Tuesday, January 13, 2015


So a long time ago when I first started writing seriously I was in grad school at NYU, and I wrote a play based on a poem by Mel Glenn in Class Dismissed.  In the poem a struggling girl goes to her parents, who send her to her teachers, who send her to her counselor, who sends her to the assistant principal, who sends her to the principal, and so on until she loops right back to her parents.  My play, about a disenfranchised but talented girl named Jessie, was one act, and followed this very neat structure…three scenes –in the principal’s office, the guidance counselor’s office, and her mom’s kitchen alternated with bridge scenes in which she talks to an unlikely friend.  There was a seed of something there, but readers kept asking for more, especially when we did a staged reading.
I think I just figured something out.
I just reread Jay Asher’s Thirteen Reasons Why.  He has a very neat structure in this book too.  Thirteen tapes, each telling the story of how one of Hannah’s classmates contributed to her suicide, with bookend chapters at the beginning and end.  What was remarkable to me as I reread was the way Jay varied this structure.  And, of course, this variation keeps me engaged.  The thirteen-tapes-thirteen-chapters structure holds.  Really, it speaks for itself.  But within these chapters Jay creates captivating variations.
When I structure a story, there is a compelling temptation for me to find a neat, even structure and stay inside it.  If I’d been writing Thirteen Reasons Why when I was in grad school, I would have been tempted to keep the alternating stories of present Clay and past Hannah completely in line –if she was talking about Courtney in Chapter “Five” (Cassette 3: Side A), I’d have Clay at Courtney’s spot on the map, Monet’s Café, right?  Uh, Jay doesn’t do this.  Past Hannah’s experience on the tapes is always one story ahead of Present Clay’s location on the map.  This is how Jay starts new problems smoldering just before he resolves Clay’s current issue.  It creates suspense.  It propels the reader forward.
Let’s not ignore that map.  The tapes are the primary structural image, but if it wasn’t for that map, we’d still be stuck with Clay in his garage.  The map gets him moving, and in the process unearths something true about Clay’s experience.  He needs room to breathe while he listens to the tapes.  He can’t do this at home where his mother could walk in on him at any moment.
Next, near the middle of the novel, Clay veers from Hannah’s map.  On his own, he goes to the movie theatre where he worked with her in the summer.  This variation does a lot.  First, it heightens suspense, because he does this just when we’re worried he’s not going to make it to Rosie’s before his mom.  Second, it does a great deal to show us how Clay is coping with the tapes; after so much ugliness, he needs to go to a place where Hannah was safe.  Maybe most importantly, it gives Jay the opportunity to build up Clay’s past experience with Hannah, and we need that to understand where the main arc of the story is going, how these tapes are going to change Clay forever.
Additionally, Jay doesn’t let Clay wander the whole book alone.  There are several important instances of supporting characters appearing in Clay’s present day drama with the tapes.  Clay runs into Skye on the bus, and his clipped conversation with her serves as a seed for the gravity of the conclusion.  In front of Tyler’s house, Clay runs into Marcus.  Their interchange showcases a contrast of responses to the Hannah situation and gives Clay an opportunity to express his anger.  And of course, there is Tony who shows up at the diner and drives Clay to the party house where they listen to Clay’s tape together.  There is human empathy here, a decency we need to counter the despicable actions on the tape and point the way to redemption.
Near the end of the novel, Clay stops following Hannah’s instructions.  He refuses to go on to Courtney’s house, and chooses instead to spend the night at Eisenhower Park.  To me, this marks Clay’s departure from Hannah’s line of thinking.  Though he empathizes with Hannah deeply, Clay sees elements of her logic that are twisted, he sees, in the end, she was sabotaging herself.  When he veers from her directions, he also refuses to give into the danger of her logic.
Instead of Hannah telling the story of Mr. Porter, the thirteenth tape is an actual recording of her interchange with him.  This heightens the stakes.  It’s also necessary because by now we know Hannah’s thinking is a little warped, and we need to know that Porter unequivocally shuts down her attempt to reach out.
Lastly, Jay allows us to listen for a moment to the blankness of the fourteenth side of the tape.  In that static whirring we hear the distance between ourselves and Hannah, where she is now.  It is heartrending.
All these deeply emotional moments, indispensable insights into character, and plot decisions that drive us to read on would be impossible if Jay had kept things as neat as I am tempted to do.  The structure speaks for itself.  It holds everything together.  It is clear and strong.  It is in the variation of this structure that emotional discoveries are unearthed.  A lesson learned.  A lesson well taught.

Suspense and Small Potatoes

           Recently I met Jay Asher on his visit to our local, children’s, indie bookstore Cover to Cover for his 50 States Against Bullying Tour.  First of all, I have to say that Jay Asher is one of the nicest, most reflective, articulate writers I’ve ever met.  He listened to my question intently and made sure he answered every part of it.  I said to him, “I stayed up till two in the morning to finish Thirteen Reasons Why, it gave me a migraine, and it was one of the best books I’ve ever read.  How did you maintain that kind of intensity on every page?”
            He said, basically, it all came from fear.  He was afraid readers would find the book too sad so, from the beginning, he decided he wanted to write the most suspenseful story he could.  He went on to explain the key is anticipation.  The reader thinks she knows what is going to happen, and she reads on to find out if she’s right.  You want the reader to need just one more chapter.  You want, as Jay said, no bookmarks.  No place the reader feels it’s okay to put the book down.  I’d say that worked!  But Jay went on to explain how he did this, and I went home to reread Thirteen Reasons Why and analyze his suspense tactics.
            Of course, you can create suspense with foreshadowing and pitch perfect chapter endings, but Jay spoke about something else.  He said mainly he’s worried the reader knows the question of the main arc is not going to be resolved until the end of the book.  So how is he going to keep readers reading until there?  For example, the big question in Thirteen Reasons Why is: why is Clay on the tapes and when is his name going to come up?  We know we’re probably not going to get answers until the end, so what keeps us turning the pages?  Jay says…smaller problems.
            Jay actually brainstormed problems that could come up for Clay in his dilemma with Hannah’s tapes.  As he was writing he could pull from the list to get a smaller problem festering.  So for example, Clay calls his mom to bring him the tapes he left at home, and for the pages it takes for her to show up you’re worrying what if she listens to them!?!  Then, before that worry is resolved, Jay starts another little problem smoldering for the reader to worry about.
            Of course!  Of course!  Of course!  So I went back and looked for these smaller problems.  I listed them.  I found pages of them.  As I listed these small potatoes, I found I always phrased them as questions.  Bearing in mind that Jay wrote Hannah’s story first in total, then Clay’s, and then wove them together, I realized I found small potato problems on three levels of the story –Clay’s present day dilemma with the tapes, Hannah’s story from the past, and Clay’s experience of Hannah from the past.  This was an interesting discovery.  The list of small potatoes from Clay’s past was basically a list of rising stakes for Clay’s overall arc.  The list of small potatoes from Hannah’s past was the longest, but the list of smaller problems for the present day Clay dealing with Hannah’s tapes was actually the most unique and difficult to make predictions about.
            I also noticed a couple of techniques for staggering the small potato problems.  Jay overlaps them so a new problem is introduced before the current one is resolved.  In Thirteen Reasons Why, he does this by staggering the past and present stories.  The telling of the past on Hannah’s tapes is always one story ahead of Clay’s present location on the map she’s given him.  This makes it easy to start one problem before the other is resolved. 
Another way he overlaps problems is the interconnectedness of the characters.  Donald Maass talks about the importance of finding unexpected ways your cast is related to each other.  Jay clearly did this.  I can just seem him drawing web-like lines between characters’ names on the page.  Because Jay found unique connections between his supporting cast members, Hannah can allude to characters she’s discussed showing up later.  This of course drives theory-formulating readers crazy with anticipation. 
Jay also uses the simple technique of seeding.  The story of the old man Clay helps after a car accident is seeded almost inconsequentially in an early chapter about Hannah first house, where the old man now lives.  But you know it’s there for a reason, and the early appearance of the old man hits you like a ton of bricks when he reappears in one of the final chapters. 
Of course, Jay allows readers plenty of room to theorize about characters’ motivations.  As Hannah makes her way through those indicted on the tapes, she, somewhat coyly, drops references to shocking behaviors.  Readers cannot help but wonder why anyone would do such a thing, and we read on to see if our predictions match up with Hannah’s explanations. 
Lastly, Jay, probably because he is such a good listener, is very in tune with the teen experience.  Tape after tape, chapter after chapter, he hits us with discrete, unique events, very recognizable to high school students –parties, angsty poetry writing, line-crossing voyeurism, watering holes, summer jobs, cars, and school institutions like the counselors office.  So every chapter is refreshing rather than belaboring.  Beneath these external conflicts are also real examinations of internal issues teens know all too well like rumors, reputations, betrayal, trust, and navel-gazing self-analysis.  Jay’s choice of events is both refreshing and true.  Even the three parties are distinctive.
Thank you, Jay, for your openness and generosity about suspenseful writing.  Your response to my question opened up a whole new world to me.  And actually retracing Jay’s steps through Thirteen Reasons Why helped me to deeply internalize that new understanding.  Try this with your favorite suspenseful YA and see what you learn!

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Going Far Enough

 Jandy Nelson’s I’ll Give You the Sun blew me away.  She writes in high-definition.   It’s more than highly developed characters you care about.  When Jandy Nelson writes it’s in color, and almost everyone else is in black and white.  Reading Nelson is like walking into Wonka’s chocolate factory and it’s not just a mirage –you can walk into it and touch everything and taste it.  I tried tearing apart what Jandy Nelson had done to achieve this, but it wasn’t until I read another nameless new novel that I fully understood some of what Nelson is doing when she writes.  I finished the fifth chapter of Nameless Novel breathless, about to start telling people I wished I had written this book.  The premise was out of this world.  But it is way too easy to post-it pages that let me down.  Though each of these four post-it points deals with a slightly different writing craft principle, I suspect they are all negative examples of what Jandy Nelson does so well.

Stage It
I had the distinct feeling that Nameless Author was using her characters to move the reader through her own thoughts.  Too often scenes weren’t about characters in conflict over their desires.  Instead, the author uses her characters as puppets to walk us through her own line of thought.  The result is the characters do not sound like young people, nor do they sound distinct from each other.  The dialogue reads as hokey and fake.  I am so much more present in the author’s head than I am in the novel’s scenes, scenes which could have been dripping mood and tense with conflict.
Her ability to stage characters’ essential discoveries through action is perhaps Nelson’s greatest strength as a writer.  The most memorable occasion in I’ll Give You the Sun occurs on page 308:

It’s time for second chances.  It’s time to remake the world.
Knowing I only have one shot to get it right with this tool, I wrap the cord around my shoulder, position the circular saw between Noah’s shoulder and my own, and turn on the power.  The tool roars to life.  My whole body vibrates with electricity as I split the rock in two.
So that NoahandJude becomes Noah and Jude.

Jude splits her sculpture down the middle epitomizing her need to be a whole person separate from her twin brother.  She could have just said this in a line of dialogue, but as an action the moment is heightened, beautiful, and memorable.

Emotional Core
Nameless Author often dangled potential scenes in front of me only to snatch them away and avoid them entirely.  Two main characters discuss a move on of them has to make.  No sooner does one of them reflect, in her head, how hard this will be, than we skip ahead to the next scene, a scene in which the significant move has already been made.  The reader never gets to see the scene happen.  I felt so cheated.  I wanted to see this experience in a scene.  As a reader, I want to head directly into the characters’ messiest, most emotionally challenging, horrific moments.  I want to head into the moments that deal directly with the emotional core of the story.
In contrast, Nelson’s Noah has just been caught masturbating with Brian, caught by his mom.  “She doesn’t pretend it didn’t happen,” Noah says narrating the opening of the next scene, and neither does Nelson.  She lays down sentence after sentence heading directly into the messiest of moments, the one Noah would most like to avoid, and –oddly enough –one right at the emotional core of the novel.  As Dianna enters Noah’s room to talk about what happened, I wriggle in my chair squeamishly.  I want to get out of this scene as much as Noah does.  But Nelson steers us right through it, and her courage results in fabulously real moments like Noah’s exclamation:

How does she know what I’m feeling?  How does she know anything about anything?  She doesn’t.  She can’t.  She can’t just barge into my most secret world and then try to show me around.

And the scene ends with Dianna’s theme-cracking statement to Noah:

“Listen to me.  It takes a lot of courage to be true to yourself, true to you heart.  You always have been very brave that way and I pray you always will be.  It’s your responsibility, Noah.  Remember that.”

And, yes, that cuts right to the core of Noah’s conflict with his mom and, more importantly, himself.

Character Development & Stakes
Namelss Novel’s protagonist loses her closest friend to a decision she, herself, will soon have to face.  Nameless Novel’s protagonist witnesses the loss, she sees it happen, and it is final.  This should be a climactic scene in the book.  The protagonist, already dealing with traumatic loss, stands to lose the first person she’s trusted to be a real friend.  But the scene leaves me cold.  Why?  The lost friend is severely underdeveloped.  She doesn’t feel distinct from the protagonist as a person.  She doesn’t even speak differently.  She is characterized differently in terms of interest, background, and even race, but on the level of the soul, her approach to life has never been given definition.  So, I never come to care about her.  Beyond that, close friends each contribute something to the relationship the other needs; if I’d known what the protagonist lost with her friend, I would have felt the loss as it happened.
Jandy Nelson has me caring from page one:

This is how it all begins.
With Zephyr and Fry –reigning neighborhood sociopaths –torpedoing after me and the whole forest floor shaking under my feet as I blast through air, tree, this white-hot panic.

In these two sentences I come to know about care about Noah.  Because he is running from bullies, I feel immediate sympathy for him.  I smile at his voice, at his hyperbolic way of thinking, at his energetic, racing syntax.  I also admire my first glimpse of Noah’s vivid way of viewing the world.  If Nelson can do this in two sentences, imagine how much I, the reader, care about Noah by page 145 when Jude describes Noah’s new, non-painting personality as “death of the spirit”.  I literally gasped.  I felt the loss, because I’d been given a chance to feel what Jude was losing.  I lost Noah with her.

The Readers’ Job
In one of the final scene of Nameless Novel, one character basically explains the meaning of the entire book, over the course of eight pages.  No fair.  A book is supposed to be an interaction between the reader and the text.  It’s the author’s job to put a story out there.  It’s the readers job to react to it.  No fair kicking the reader out and taking over that role.  A significant thematic line or two placed appropriately?  Okay.  But eight pages.  It kicks me right out of the story because I have no more thinking to do.  And, frankly, it feels disingenuous because in reality nobody shows up to explain the meaning of life.
To be fair, even Nelson dallies with the temptation to moralize at the end of I’ll Give You the Sun, but at least her thematic lines are tied to in-scene action.  It’s a little much when Jude rambles on about how maybe we are accumulating new selves all the time, but this is so incredibly overshadowed by action-action-action at all the climactic moments.  Jude saws the NoahandJude statue in half.  Oscar tackles Noah.  Guillermo realizes Dianna is Jude’s mother –not because someone tells him – but because he sees the studies for her statue.  This is a novel of secrets revealed, but they are never just disclosed from one character to another, they are revealed through action every time.

I hoped by exploring the contrast between these writers’ approaches I would be able to arrive at some general principle of novel writing that embodies all four of these writing musts:

• Staging characters’ essential discoveries through action achieves the integrity at the core of why we write in the first place.

• Heading directly into the messiest moments at the emotional core of the material results in radically true, reader-changing moments.

• Slowing down and spending the time to develop characters who need each other raises the stakes, heightening the moments when we lose them.

• If you do these things, there won’t be any need for you to explain your book’s meaning in the final chapters because your readers will have lived it.

I think all of this can be summarize by some of the most powerful words a writing teacher ever shared with me.  Editor Patti Lee Gauch often says, “Go far enough.”  I’ll Give You the Sun is a prime example of a writer going far enough.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

The Problem with Talking It Out

Okay, Joss Whedon is my hero.  I’ve been r-watching Buffy from the beginning while I’m on the treadmill, and it’s a daily writing lesson on top of a workout.  Today Joss Whedon answered my prayers.  You know how sometimes there is something nagging you about a manuscript, you know what it is, but you quietly hope it will go away?  Well, this isn’t that.  This is worse.  This is more insidious.  This is a bad habit I’ve carried with me since I started taking writing seriously, a habit I didn’t even know I had.  Recently, I got some clues in the form of agent feedback letters, and so I’ve been watching for it in my peripheral vision.

Here’s what I’ve been doing all this time.  Writers are observant and articulate –some of our greatest strengths.  I see all the complexities of my characters’ relationships and all the subtleties of their issues.  And it feels so good to be able to pin those all down in words whether I’m having them hash things out in a big confrontational dialogue scene or moodily brood, reflecting on all the intricacies of their situation.  Problem is this isn’t very good storytelling.

Here’s what is.  Buffy, Season 3, Episode 7: Revelations.  Angel has been spit back out of the demon dimension, and Buffy is keeping him hidden in an abandoned mansion while he recovers.  Meanwhile, Mrs. Post, an ex-watcher, has come to town under the guise of supervising Buffy’s slayer friend, Faith –really she’s after the Glove of Myneghon, which will give her evil powers.

The whole time, I am talking to my laptop screen –which is something because remember I’m on the treadmill.  And I’m gasping to Buffy, “Would you and Angel just talk to each other and work out how things are going to be between you now?”  I can see all the things they have to hash out:

1)    You can count on Angel, Buffy!  He came back from the freaking demon dimension for you!
2)    How can you not mention the fact that you love each other but if you sleep together again Angel will lose his soul!
3)    Giles and the Scooby Gang are always researching your way out of problems.  I’m sure if you looked into it, in the library, you could find a way to be together.
4)    Plus, you should talk to your friends so they understand Angel is good again.
5)    Angel, you’ve got to tell Buffy how betrayed you felt when she slayed you!
6)    And Buffy, you’ve got to tell him why you had to do it and how it tore you up!
7)    On top of that, Buffy, if you really believe you should move on to other less Hellmouthy guys, it’s only fair that you tell Angel why!
8)    And Angel, you’re not going to tell Buffy about what the demon dimension was like and how you were compelled to get back for her?
9)    I don’t think you can just skip over the question of whether Angel should be responsible for his sins.  I mean he wasn’t himself, he wasn’t in control, but he did do those things!
10) And, uh, I know it’s a little existential, but worth a cup of coffee to talk through whether you can/should even really be together, right?

I keep watching because I think Angel’s good now.  I want to figure out all of the above ten points so Angel and Buffy can be together.  But if Joss Whedon puts in this talky scene I want, it kills all the suspense.  And it kills all the suspense because it kills all the interaction between me, the viewer, and the story.  The talky scene resolves all the problems I am waiting to find about if I’m right about.  Good for real life relationships, but not so much for storytelling.

Joss Whedon, being the genius he is, does something else instead.  He shows a brief scene of Angel doing a spell in his brooding mansion.  And again I keep watching because, though I’m sure this indicates Angel is creating the living fire that will destroy the Glove of Myneghon, there is the remote possibility he could be preparing it for his own evil use.  I want to find out if I am right and Buffy’s friends are wrong about him!

When Faith shows up at the mansion to kill Angel, I even want Buffy to tell her Mrs. Post tried to kill Giles and is not to be trusted.  But Joss Whedon sets up the scene so  there's no time for this conversation.  Buffy and Faith have to fight.  Faith has to find out about Mrs. Post by seeing her put on the glove with all the ensuing lightning and everything.  A much better scene than if Buffy told on Post, and Faith was like, “Okay,  cool.”  They kill her, they shrug, they go home, end of show.  Besides, I mean, if you have a glove someone has to put on the stinking glove, right?

Now, I am a little suspicious about TV series because sometimes I don’t think the writers know the answers to my list of questions.  I think sometimes they just keeping manipulating the character dynamics to keep me watching.  In a novel, I think the writer has got to have an idea what those answers are. 

But, it’s okay to let some of these questions go unanswered for a few chapters because it keeps me, the reader, engaged, it keeps me interacting with the story, it keeps me wondering, and talking out loud to the book in public places, and it keeps me turning the pages! 

And, when these problems and questions are resolved, I, the writer, can’t have the characters sit down and talk it out like psychologically healthy people you’d like to be involved with in real life.  It’s got to happen through a scene the reader can interpret, through action.  It’s only fair.  Just because I see all the intricacies of what should be resolved, I can’t leave the reader out.

So, ahhh.  It all seems so obvious, but my abilities as a writer, this acuteness of observation and articulation seduced me to a place where I could pin everything neatly down on the page and forget entirely about storytelling.  Thank you Joss Whedon for taking me to the next level!

One big question I have about this is…does a first-person limited viewpoint make this harder.  It might.  I’m going to think about this in the scenes I write and read next.

When a Character Tells a Story II

Sometimes a character has to tell a story to another character.  It’s something I’ve been curious about for a while and began writing about here.  Being a writer can attract you to characters who tell stories.  My fear, and I think it’s justified, is as soon as a character starts telling a story all the tension goes out of the scene.  Now I’m finally going to get the answers I’ve been waiting for, you know, and the character is just going to tell you.

Recently, I was reading a great new suspenseful YA novel.  Super setting, super premise.  And one of the main reasons I was turning the pages was to find out the story behind the mysterious protagonist.  He kept alluding to history that put him in this awful situation, and I was loving piecing things together.  Then, about halfway through, he finally tells his story to another main character.

The author did a really good job of it too.  She did it just like I would have.  It was a believable point in the plot for him to have to disclose what happened.  The scene is from the listening character’s perspective.  She breaks it up with questions, the listener’s reactions, and the listener’s observations of the story’s effects on the teller.  And it’s the least suspenseful part of the book.

So I had a thought about another way to keep the tension in a storytelling scene.  I’m still looking for a novel that tries something like this, but I wanted to get it down so I could remember to experiment later.  I think I’d like to try having the listener predict what the storyteller might say.  This could happen in dialogue or in the listener’s head.  I think it might work because the reader could be guessing along with the listening character.  Also, it amps up the tension between the storytelling character and the listener –impatience, maybe conflict about how much to share.  On top of that, I don’t think I’d have the storytelling character answer the listener’s questions with speech.  It would be much better to have the storyteller answer with an action –show the listener an artifact, take her somewhere, perform some grand gesture that allows the listener, and vicariously the reader, to reach her own conclusions.

Friday, August 1, 2014

A Classroom Lesson

Spoilers in the service of craft…sorry!

I’m anticipating writing some classroom scenes in my current manuscript, and deep in the middle of Brandy Colbert’s Pointe, I found a stellar example of how to execute a purposeful classroom scene ripe with tension.  Colbert’s Chapter Twelve features protagonist Theo, who has just learned her recently-returned best friend’s kidnapper was her four-years-ago, much-older boyfriend.  Mr. Jacobsen, her world gov teacher, is conducting a lesson on Stolkholm syndrome.  

Colbert includes not only the classroom scene, but also three pages of anticipation.  Mr. Jacobsen stops Theo in the hallway to gives her a heads up about the discussion to come.  This serves several purposes.  The reader understands this discussion will threaten Theo’s precarious perspective of the kidnapper as her boyfriend, not to mention we anticipate a variety of opinions, which may not be supportive of Theo’s position.  But Theo agrees to attend.  So the tension is on.  Additionally, Colbert wins our sympathy for the sensitive, straight-talking teacher –a set-up for an end-of-scene, accidental betrayal.

Colbert also moves us through four distinct high points.

First, the device.  Mr. Jacobsen explains to Theo the principal has asked him to help the students process the return of Theo’s friend, Donovan, kidnapped four years prior, and to do this Mr. Jacobsen is conducting a lesson on Stolkholm syndrome.  It’s a believable device to give the cast a new filter for the situation.

Second, Colbert lets the classroom discussion build point (Donovan ran away willingly.) by counterpoint (He was a victim.) until Mr. Jacobsen picks up a point to accentuate.  He phrases this point as a focus-building question: Is the extent of the victim’s danger diminished when we learn that he had a seemingly normal relationship with the defendant prior to the abduction?  The question is a high point because it is the question Theo is asking about herself.  Indeed, in the next paragraph, Theo thinks to herself: Bingo.  Is it?  I will give one million dollars to whoever can answer that question right now. 

Third and finally, the discussion ends on an answer to that question which makes Theo feel “like someone drove their knuckles square into [her] stomach,” when classmate Klein lets fly: “…I think if some dude was trying to fuck me every night, I’d find a way to get out of that situation a little faster than he did.”  This hits Theo hard, again, because Colbert stages the discussion so Theo can apply the Stolkhom syndrome concept to herself.  She’s left to wonder, albeit subconsciously, Did I let Chris abuse me and like it?  A dangerous question for an isolated girl.

Lastly, Mr. Jacobsen slips, when he reminds Klein this is a sensitive subject, letting his eyes drift to Theo.  The teacher’s faux-pas not only makes us catch our breath because we like him so much, but now, unavoidably, everyone in that classroom has made some connection between Theo, Donovan, and this kidnapper.  It is as close as Theo has come in the story to seeing herself as a victim.

In addition to building on this strong four-point structure, Colbert maintains constant tension throughout the discussion.  Theo agreeing to be present sets Mr. Jacobsen up to protect her throughout the class.  The point-counterpoint between Phil and Klein is accentuated by their tenuous friendship.  Also several times, Colbert has Theo consider what would happen if she just came out and asked what she’s really wondering; this hypothetical veneer-rending contrasts with Theo’s need to mask how much the discussion upsets her.  There is also the juxtaposition of how much each cast member knows –the classmates know very little about Theo’s involvement, Mr. Jacobsen knows some, Theo knows more, but even her knowledge of herself is skewed.  Then, of course, affected by the discussion, Theo vacillates between whether she will testify at Chris’ trial or not, which is really a vacillation between views of herself.

Colbert also does an expert job of building in Theo’s silent reactions to the discussion.  She never participates out loud, but we read her thoughts which include surprise that everyone has an opinion on the topic, anger at how little people know, a brief but disturbing memory of what she was doing at thirteen, as well as both questioning Chris and remembering him which turns into a list of grooming behaviors she, herself, does not recognize.  After Klein asks the question “everyone’s thinking,” Colbert adds Theo’s physical reactions –she feels the knuckle-punch to her stomach, she doesn’t move, she stares at the words Stockholm syndrome on the board, she tries to look away from all the eyes on her.  Additionally, Theo’s reactions serve to expand the discussion beyond a black-and-white debate –it is not just a matter of whether Donovan was a victim or ran away willingly –he can be both.  And, because the whole discussion applies to Theo, so can she.

Other things Colbert does well in her execution of the classroom scene:

SETTING: She establishes setting, carefully pinpointing the location of each speaker in relation to Theo.  We know where Theo sits, where each character is in relation to her, and what she observes about each person.  It’s all about how this discussion affects Theo.

CAST: She limits the players in the discussion to characters we know –Klein, Phil, and Sarah who can represent viewpoints from judgmental to understanding to naïve.  But Colbert also fleshes out the class.  She drops three other student names with spot-on adolescent reactions to Klein stomach-punch comment, including a painfully realistic cough-laugh.

INFORMATION: Notably, Colbert also slips in the definition of two key words: Stockholm syndrome and grooming without forcing the teacher “teach” them in a contrived way.  Just as Mr. Jacobsen is about the clarify what Stockholm syndrome is for Theo, she interrupts him –“I know what it is,” and Colbert slips the definition into Theo’s private thoughts.  The term grooming appears between Phil’s surmising on Donovan’s prior relationship with Chris and Theo’s dismissive thoughts about grooming seeming “so textbook.”  Giving our protagonist the benefit of this knowledge affords respect to the readers who travel the story through her eyes, while at the same time demonstrating how this knowledge is not necessarily a match for an abuser’s grooming process.

And that’s just Chapter Twelve.  Yeah, buy this book.  You’ll need to write in it.