Monday, February 27, 2012

Tears on the Page

At a chat with fellow writers the other day, a friend mentioned that The Hunger Games almost made her cry. The five or six of us there all went on to list books or movies that had made us cry. I’m a crybaby so the list was long for me. Unsurprisingly, we agreed on a lot of titles. One other thing became pretty clear, movies have an advantage. As they say: seeing is believing. Or in this case, seeing is sympathizing. Plus, the visual art form also gets to weave in sound effects. How can you resist joining in a tear-fest you can both see and hear? Just like a yawn, see someone cry and you respond in kind. Hardly fair for writers, you might say. Writers have words on a page. Black against white.

But writing can run the gauntlet of emotion from the ultra blah, how to program your DVD player, to that tear-jerker novel you can’t put down. So how do the successful writers do it? Think about the scenes that made you cry, or maybe made you wish you could. (Come on, tough guys cry too.) They all have some things in common. The writer created a world or a character so real that it didn’t matter that none of it ever existed. Isn’t that what happened? You just wept over something that is complete fiction. It happened only in one person’s imagination. Yet, you felt for that fictional situation maybe even more than for a story you’d hear on the news. Emotional writing involves fully alive characters in a believable world.

And it should go without saying that, the character has to be a likeable character, not the antagonist. We should cheer when the villain gets theirs, not cry. Another given: the writing also has to be clean and have a good flow.

So why don’t writers try to provoke tears in every chapter? Obviously if writers killed off characters left and right, they would stop getting a proper reaction. Readers would give up on the book altogether or become deadened to being jerked around. So trauma must be a situation called for in the plot. You can’t just throw in a scene without reason and expect readers to react. It has to flow with the rest of the book and not stick out like a sore thumb. In other words: use super-emotion sparingly.

So what kinds of situations cause the most sorrow?

I can only speak for myself, but I boiled it down to a few situations I’ve noticed in multiple novels. The biggie: Anytime an animal is injured or killed, especial if a child is attached to it, look out. Think Black Beauty, or that staple of elementary school reading, Where the Red Fern Grows. Boy loves dogs, dogs die in tragic fashion. Not one, but both dogs. Tears galore. My personal record for crying is with the books by James Herriot, the Yorkshire veterinarian. Pets put down. Yikes, those chapters still make me break down.

Next most weepy: death of a beloved favorite character. Anybody remember Beth from Little Women? You knew it was coming, but you couldn’t help yourself anyway. Another example: Tonks and Lupin from Harry Potter. They just had a baby, sob. (Hope this isn’t a spoiler, but everybody who was going to read Harry Potter has probably seen the movie.) The list could go on and on.

There is a third shorter category of tear-jerkers: when a favorite place/setting is destroyed. The place has to have a mystic kind of perfection in some fashion to make this work. In the end of Return of the King, when the Shire is burned and enslaved. The Shire represented peaceful co-existence, a utopia that didn’t go untouched and so tore your heart to see it reduced. The rampage that wrecked Hogwarts at the end of Harry Potter is another example. Hogwarts should have been a place of safety; it was a beloved castle where loyal friendships were forged. Thus the hurt to see it torn apart.

And lastly, perhaps the hardest to pull off: the heroic sacrifice. A character makes a sacrifice out of love and loyalty to protect another. (Often this doesn’t have to end in death, thank goodness.) My favorite example is in Lord of the Rings when Merry and Pippin jump out, exposing themselves to the orcs in order to draw the orcs away from Frodo. Frodo gets away, Merry and Pippin get taken. Foolish, brave little hobbits, makes me cry every time. Another probably unknown example from Patrick O’Brian’s books. The main character was sentenced (unjustly) to the pillory as a form of public humiliation. You might remember the pillory scene from A Knight’s Tale, your head and wrists are locked in place, making the victim helpless. O’Brian’s book is similar, but written before that movie came out. Dozens, maybe hundreds, of loyal sailors came to the square to protect their Captain from being pelted with garbage or slapped around while he was helpless. A real emotion scene of pride and love. And then, there’s Dobby from Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. I can’t think about it with dry eyes. Dobby frees his friends, but takes a knife. “Here lies Dobby: A free elf.” Just try not to cry at that one.

So that’s my thoughts on the subject. I probably left out many important points as there are so many possibilities. Please feel free to list your favorite tear-jerkers in the comments, or any ideas you have for what makes a good sad scene.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Forked Roads and Man-eating Bears: Character Decisions

Decisions, decisions…
Characters have to make decisions—ones that set them on a journey at the start of the novel—otherwise there would be no story to tell. It’s usually a minor goal, something the character wants to do at first, before something—like an event or person—forces them on the overall focus, the overall goal for the novel itself.
For example, if a man—a reformed ex-con—decides to work as a janitor at a high school, he might come to work one day and find a body in one of the stalls. This spurs a whole new complication for your character: Is he guilty or innocent? Who really did it and why?
Connected to—or caused by—this minor goal, might be what’s called the inciting incident. The inciting incident is defined as the event that sends your protagonist out into the world, ruins or changes his current situation, and forces him to find answers—to answer the questions that this incident brought on, or to change things for the better. In our example with the ex-con janitor, finding the body in the stall is the inciting incident.
Likewise, character decisions must cause jeopardy and sacrifice or set in motion the inciting incident. For example, in Suzanne Collins’s dystopian fantasy trilogy The Hunger Games, Katniss Everdeen’s decision to go hunt illegally, to provide for her family, puts her at risk with the law. This decision (minor goal) helps when she is later put into the arena for the Hunger Games, to survive and fight others to the death—thus helping to save her family and world from poverty and oppression from the Capitol (overall goal).
In Christopher Paolini’s first high fantasy novel—book one of The Inheritance CycleEragon, the elf Arya sends the dragon egg away via magic, from the main villain of the book (minor goal), but this event gets herself captured. The main hero, Eragon, finds the egg which begins his journey as a Dragonrider, to help bring down the tyrannical king, Galbatorix (overall goal).
Using yet another fantasy novel, in Tamora Pierce’s romantic fantasy series Song of the Lioness, the main heroine, Alanna of Trebond, decides to switch places with her twin brother, to dress as a boy, in order to allow him to go to the City of the Gods to train as a mage, and for her to travel to the castle to become a knight (minor goal). This decision puts her at risk, because she could be killed if her gender and disguise was ever found out. In the other novels of this series, Alanna’s knighthood allows her to protect the king and restore order to the world around her (overall goal).
Please note that this character decision-making can be applied to any genre—I was just using the ones off the top of my head—many of them being fantasy.
Most novels nowadays—regardless of genre—should have the character’s decision appear at the start or within the first chapter. Set your character on a journey and make them fight or suffer to reach their goal. Force them to change it, making a minor goal into something much larger, on a much larger scale—or force them to abandon that original goal entirely in order to fulfill this bigger, overall goal that should become the bulk of your novel’s focus.
Think of your character’s decision as a forked road metaphor. On one path, it’s rainy and cold but empty. On the other…maybe a huge man-eating bear lies somewhere on that path? Which path will he choose to reach his goal—to get home? The easy, raining one? Or the man-eating bear path?
Let’s say he decided to take the easy route—he’d get a little wet and cold, sure, but his path is clear, right?
Now, what if, on that easy path, you—the author—decided he needed a challenge to overcome? You don’t want your novel to be a simple, boring read do you? Let’s put the man-eating bear in his way—what is he going to do next? Run or fight?
Either way, this “easy” decision just shook this character’s world, changed his current situation, and forces him to face something much bigger them him—just as the inciting incident in your own novel must do.
When trying to decide your character’s decision that drives the novel’s plot, think of this metaphor. The minor goal in your novel—in this case, trying to get home—must be connected to, or cause, the inciting incident to appear. Pretty soon, that rainy route home should leave your protagonist confronting a giant, man-eating bear.
What happens to your hero next is up to you.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Good Romance is Love Made Dangerous

A few weeks ago, fellow FTLOW author Helena Cross posted a blog on Character Sacrifice. In it she mentioned an essential part of good novel writing, “Raising the Stakes.” In reply to that post, a reader asked, “Is it necessary to raise the stakes in a romance?” 

As you guys know, I love doing requests or taking on topics people bring up. And it so happened that I was in the process of reading a ton of stuff on writing romance, some of it on this very topic. Since the answers were fresh in my mind, I jumped on the chance to offer my newly discovered insight.

So, the question. Is it necessary to raise the stakes in romance?

The simple answer is yes. But lets be clear here. When it comes to romance, the stakes are not necessarily the same kind that you would find in other genres, although they can be at times. And how high they are, as well as what kind you employ, also depends largely on the type of romance you’re writing.  

Lets start with what a romance is. A romance must have, and is, by its nature, two people falling in love. If done right, the stakes are already high. Stakes are merely what the character has to lose by obtaining or not obtaining the novel goal. What is already at stake here? A person’s heart. Really, anything they might give up in falling in love. Or lose by not obtaining the other’s love. Love, for most of us, poses a huge risk. We have plenty to put on the line. A good romance also has something else, what is known as “The Force.” 

Huh? What the hell does Star Wars have to do with this? No, not that kind of force. In romance, the Force is just another word for Conflict. It’s what stands in the way of the couple getting together, what keeps them apart.

Conflict is anything that prevents the protagonist from obtaining what they want. It’s a challenge, something standing in the way of the character reaching their goals. In any good novel, there is conflict. If you have no conflict, there is no story. In a romance, no Force, no story.

In a romance, put simply, keeping the reader interested is a matter of creating two characters we want to see fall in love, then drawing the couple closer together, then employing different techniques to keep them apart. This creates a longing in the reader to see them come together, and a worry that they will remain apart forever. And in any novel, you need something at stake. Meaning there must be something the characters stand to lose, and that loss must be something all important to them, something they can't live without.  

Another way to put that is, Romance in stories is love made dangerous. There is a great risk in the couple falling in love. Sometimes the danger is life and death. Sometimes the danger is losing one’s heart or being hurt. Whatever it is, it must be something the character can’t afford to lose without causing themselves heartache, or worse. 

It isn't enough to bring the couple closer and then pull them apart by the same sort of interference again and again. The risk must increase throughout the story in order to keep the reader interested. In short, you must raise the stakes. 

Lets use a beloved fairytale, Beauty and the Beast, for an example. I’ll use the movie, since it delves much deeper and has much higher stakes than the original concept.

The Beast must fall in love with Belle, and must earn her love in return. The issues that prevent her from loving him (his monstrous temper), or him from gaining her love (his mistaken belief that no one could love a beast, thus causing him to sabotage his chances, often with said temper) is the conflict. In Beauty and the Beast, romantically speaking, the Beast’s temper and his lack of faith in himself, his belief that as a beast, he is unworthy of love, is the Force.

With me so far? Good. Back to the stakes. Lets borrow from Beauty and the Beast again, shall we?  The Beast’s goal is to earn Belle’s love. In this story, the stakes are huge from the outset. If the Beast fails to earn her love, he will remain a beast forever. He will lose his humanity. So his humanity is what’s at stake. In the movie, Disney did an excellent job of raising the tension by using a classic manoeuvre, employing the ticking time bomb, or what’s called a time limit. The Beast not only has to fall in love with Belle and earn her love. He has to do it by his 21’rst year. And Belle arrives at the castle close enough to the deadline that it lowers his chances and makes it more difficult for him. It’s like tightening the noose. But the threat of his remaining a beast for all time would not have been enough to sustain a movie on its own, not while keeping us on the edge of our seats. So how were the stakes raised?

Well, from the outset, Disney found a way to make the situation matter more by having the curse effect, not just the Beast, but also everyone in the castle. If the Beast fails, not only will he remain a beast, but every other person in the castle will remain in an inhuman form (as inanimate objects) forever. Disney turned it from a personal conflict to a “world conflict.” The world, in this case being, not the literal world, but the world of the castle. Everyone else in the castle needs them to fall in love too.

No pressure, Beast.

So if you have a romance with plenty at stake, like this, how can you raise the stakes even more? How about how Disney did it?

About 3 quarters way through the movie, he added another apposing force to keep Belle and Beast apart. It helped that he did it when it would carry the greatest impact, right after Beast confessed his love for Belle, and was just about to win her heart. You remember the movie. After the romantic dance and Mrs’ Pots’ rendition of the now classic movie theme song (I think it was named after the movie), the two went out onto the terrace, hand in hand. Beast asks Belle if she’s happy with him. She says yes, but she misses her father. When Belle asks to see her father in the mirror, she discovers he’s lost in the woods and terribly sick. Beast has mastered his temper and brought Belle closer, but now there is a new apposing force. Something to keep them apart right at the moment before his victory. Belle was finally happy with the Beast, a step closer to love, but now she must leave him or her father could die. So her father is at stake, something she could lose if she stays. 

You all remember how it went. The Beast released her, and she was no longer his prisoner. She returned to her father. In doing this, he sacrificed his chance at happiness with Belle, as well as, seemingly, giving up the possibility of restoring his human form. This moment still works for raising the stakes, because it’s always good to raise them, not just for the protagonist, but for the antagonist, in this case, not a person, not a villain, but the force that keeps them apart. This also goes to making things worse for the characters, an essential element of good storytelling, which I mentioned in other posts.

But were the stakes raised even more once Belle left? Yes indeed. While up until now, the danger to Beast and his friends has been the psychological cost of never being human again, this is where it turns to life and death. As you know, Gaston, who, from the start, wanted Belle as his wife, paid the local psychiatrist to use Belle’s father’s claims of a Beast living in a castle as grounds for insanity, and threatened to lock him up if she didn’t marry him. This raised Belle’s personal stakes. It gave her more to lose. But then when a well meaning Belle tries to prove the existence of the Beast through his mirror, it backfires on her, and Gaston rallies the town to go after “the Monster.” Which suddenly upped the stakes for the Beast and Bell. If Belle can’t get to the Beast in time, Gaston and the villagers will kill him, and everyone in his castle. And as we saw in the movie, the rose had already begun to wilt, meaning that the end of Beast’s 21’st year is close at hand, and his chance of returning to human form will disappear forever if Belle doesn’t finally confess her love to him before the last pedal falls. This seems impossible with Belle and her father locked up, and Gaston and the villagers converging on the castle.

In the ensuing battle between the Beast and Gaston, we see just how deadly things are, just how at risk the Beast’s life is, because Gaston tries to kill him in a jealous rage. Gaston wants Belle and the Beast is in love with her. Up until the very end, the Beast’s life literally hung in the balance.

Which meant not only would he lose his life, but Belle would lose him, just when she’s learned to love him. And there is an added implication in the subtext here. If the Beast dies, that leaves Belle in Gaston’s fist. Her freedom is at risk, since it would invariably mean marrying Gaston, which, since he only wants a trophy for a wife, would cost her everything any woman holds dear.  

Now, I’ve seen plenty of romances where the stakes never get anywhere near that high, and even the emotional ones don’t go that deep. Category romances, the shorter ones turned out monthly by companies like Harlequin, don’t require as high stakes, partially because the word count restricts the time in which you can build things to that height. They also often require softer reads. Longer romances, or romances that combine genres like thriller or suspense, often have higher stakes in order to provide the high intensity the genres need. Longer, single title romances that have deeper thematic significance and stronger characterization, like Gone With the Wind, The Cowboy, Sound of Music, or Romeo and Juliet, need higher stakes, giving the characters more to lose because they seek to send a message or provide a lasting impact. A movie like Beauty and the Beast needed huge stakes because the story was intended to send a powerful and important message, to carry strong “thematic significance” for viewers.

So if you are writing a shorter category romance, or one that is intended to provide a quick read without any lasting effect, then the stakes may stay relatively low. But if you want your story to stay with the reader long after it’s over, if you want the type of book that will be talked about and remembered for years to come, then yes, high stakes are a must. And if, like Disney did, you can turn what’s at risk into a “world stakes,” so make it something the community at large cares about, then so much the better.



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