Finding the Heart of a Story

It’s hard enough just putting a story together. Keeping track of all the details, making sure it all makes sense. There is an endless series of decisions that have to be made before the story comes together, before it feels like it’s done. But there’s one question a lot of writers forget to ask along the way.

Why are you writing this?

Why must this particular story be told?

Just a relation of events, a list of “this happened, then the next thing happened, then one more thing happened” is never enough to justify the work that goes into a project. You need to find the heart of the story. The thing that gives it life. The reason it exists in the first place.

A story without a heart is boring. It may be readable, but it won’t be memorable. You need to find the heart, and everything in your story has to serve the heart. It’s a tall order, but it’s absolutely crucial to good writing.

The heart doesn’t have to be that complicated. A really interesting setting can be enough. A character dynamic you haven’t seen used before. Even just some witty dialogue. It should be something fresh, though, something altogether new or at least a fascinating new take on an old idea. It should be the kind of thing you loved about stories when you first started reading them. The first purpose of a story is to entertain the reader, and if the story’s heart is big and strong enough, you can be guaranteed to be successful at that level.

But say you want to go deeper. More meaningful. Locating the heart of the story is vital to making something great. This is where themes really come into play. A theme that shapes an entire story, that completely informs it, is a great heart. Theme can be tricky, though. Some writers like to just start composing, in the hope of finding an emergent theme. That’s a dicey game, of course. What if the theme never shows itself? You can write an entire novel and realize it has nothing to say. Other writers like to start with a theme, and then build a story around it. It’s a great strategy but it carries its own risks–if you make your theme too obvious, you may come off as preachy, or even guilty of special pleading.

Risks are inherent in all writing, though. The heart of the story, the why of the story, is always a leap of faith. You hope you present your meaning in a way that is comprehensible and–more importantly–resonant. You have to close your eyes and just pray that your story strikes home. It will not always be successful. There will always be people who don’t get you–or choose not to. Yet this is exactly why we write, isn’t it? The hope that someone, at least one reader, will feel the heart of your story beating, and be charmed by it, or alarmed, or simply compelled to hold it close. Finding the heart of your story is a desperate attempt to connect. And sometimes, it really works.

Second Person and Present Tense: Why and Why Not

I risk coming off like a grumpy old man in this post, which is something I’ll just have to live with. It’s my assertion, though, that second person viewpoint and the present tense are overused in modern writing, and that outside of certain usages they should be shunned.

Let’s start with second person, that is, when a writer addresses the protagonist of their story as “you” as if they were telling this character their own story. This is something you almost never used to see. I remember an English teacher I had in high school telling me there was no such thing as second person–that it had never actually been done (he was wrong, of course, but it was so rare back then I didn’t know how to contradict him). You see it more and more these days and while I think there is a place for it, it’s almost never used correctly.

If the narrator is describing recent events to someone with amnesia, perhaps, or describing events that have been foretold but have not yet occurred, then second person might be justified. The main and most important use of second person is in interactive stories–choose-your-own-adventures, interactive fiction games, and the like. I used it myself in my experiment to write a novel on Twitter, which allowed readers to pick each plot development by poll.

Otherwise, second person always comes off as affected, as pretentious, and it distances the reader from the writer in a highly artificial way. Which is not to say that’s always bad! Distancing is a valuable technique, for some stories. If you’re going to use it, though, you should have a very good reason–and the fact that it’s trendy, or cool, is not a good reason.

(Just as a tangent here I’ll say I’m not crazy about first person, either–I like limited omniscience in my narrators, and the freedom that provides to expand a story beyond a narrow range of perceptions. But there are plenty of excellent reasons to use first person and it never really bothers me when I pick up a book with a strong protagonist’s voice).

Writing narrative fiction in the present tense isn’t quite as jarring, but I feel it’s getting overused as well and it comes with its own raft of problems. Present tense suggests immediately to the reader that the story hasn’t been finalized, that the events described are still evolving, which means they can’t be predicted–that the reader who is coming along for this ride cannot be guaranteed a coherent or even complete story. It’s a subtle psychological effect and one that needs to be considered carefully.

The writer who employs the past tense when telling a story is making a compact with the reader. It says that the events that are about to unfold, having already happened, can be examined thoughtfully and with a certain authority. Present tense throws that away. Again, there could be good story reasons to do so. Yet drawing on past tense puts your story in a comfortable and established mold that readers have come to accept as the standard for storytelling. It helps speed along immersion and makes the reader feel like they’re in safe hands. You need a good reason to eschew that comfort level, and more often than not I find present tense narratives lacking in justification.

The main explanation for why people use second person or present tense, I am told, is immediacy. The idea is that a story being told directly to the reader–and only the reader–or one told as it is literally happening is better at pulling the reader in, in making them feel like they’re being dragged along on a breathless adventure. I can see the logic in this argument, but I find it rarely works that way. Typically when a writer starts out in present tense, my immediate reaction is to roll my eyes. When they start in the second person I frown and wonder why they made such an odd choice. But even this dubiety doesn’t last. Typically I pay attention to a story’s tense and viewpoint for the first couple of pages–then learn to ignore it, to put it aside and focus on the plot and characters instead. Whatever immediacy the writer has laid claim to disappears as I sink into the work. Writing is always about choices, and when the writer chooses one of these pretentious techniques it only ever puts me off… for a little while. It’s usually not worth it.

It’s possible I’m missing something here, and I’d be happy to hear from other writers who find second person and present tense useful in their writing. But for myself, I’m going to use them sparingly, and only when I can point to an excellent, organic reason for them to be there.

The Dreaded Infodump

Exposition is a crucial part of any story. It’s how you create your world and how you share it with your reader. Yet it’s also a great way to bring your narrative flow to a crashing halt and bore anyone who was kind enough to pick up your book. Writers often decry the “infodump”, the long, uninterrupted section of pure exposition which sits in the middle of your tale like an undigested lump of carbs. Yet it sometimes seems like a necessary evil. If you’re writing about a secondary world, especially, you need to convey a lot of setting and character information in a hurry, information your reader cannot be expected to know on their own.

There are a couple solutions to this problem, none of which are entirely satisfactory. One is to simply not do it–to shift the burden to your reader. William Gibson is famous for never explaining any of the crazy concepts he dumps on his readers. I remember reading Neuromancer for the first time and having to constantly check dictionaries and encylopedias to figure out what he was talking about–and nine times out of ten, even that wasn’t enough. Gibson expects you to pick things up from context clues. There’s a good reason why he does this, and it’s not just to frustrate his readers. He writes his stories from the perspective of his characters–characters who already know what an Ono-Sendai Deck is for, and what carbon fiber is and why you would build an airplane out of it. He shoves you into their headspace and this builds an incredible sense of immediacy and presence. He makes you live in his world. He’s a master of this, and lesser authors trying the same trick usually fail. Their work becomes impenetrable and mystifying, and not in a good way.

A more common technique is to use “infodrips” instead. Rather than just blurting out setting data in long multi-paragraph dialogue sections, you can deliver your exposition just a little at a time. A sentence here, a few words there, spread out across action scenes and great character moments. This technique helps keep your readers from feeling like they’re cramming for a pop quiz, and it can be effective–assuming it’s done with proper timing. Infodrips are fine in the first act of a story, and can be used sparingly in the second act. If you’re still delivering vital world-building information in the third act, your readers will (rightly) feel like you’ve been holding out on them. Oh, it turns out that the Sword of the Deathmuncher can only be destroyed by stabbing it into the heart of the Night Glacier? A fact which we don’t find out until the Swordruiner is actually on top of said glacier? Your readers will feel cheated. Additionally, infodripping can make your readers feel like you’re holding their hand as you cross the street. Like you don’t trust them to “get” your story unless you’re constantly explaining every little detail.

The best solution, in my experience, has been to avoid exposition wherever possible. Not by leaving everything obscure, but by grounding my stories to the maximum possible degree. Secondary worlds are wonderful places to get lost in, but by tying them closely to the real world, they become richer and they resonate better with the reader. The fewer things you need to explain, the more your readers will sink into the actual story. Cut back as much exposition as you can. If your character is carrying a Kandisian force-glaive, could you achieve the same effect by saying they’re holding a plain old halberd? Does your story need a High Hierophant of the Seven Tyronian Mysteries, or can you get away with calling them the Space Pope? Maybe you can’t! Maybe there’s a real difference, one super important to your plot. More often than not, however, you can easily use a simpler term or a more relatable concept to the same effect.

Look at your story, at what you’re trying to say with it, at what effect you want to achieve. Think about how to achieve that sense of mystery or emotional truth with more grounded ideas. If you do absolutely need to put something in your story that has to be explained in depth, that’s fine. But do you really need two such things? Three? High concept notions are fun, and can make your story stand out. Putting too many of them in one story, however, leaves you scrambling to explain how they work and how they interact–robbing you of time you could be spending on character arcs and building suspense. Infodumps are evil, kids! And the trick to fighting necessary evils is to isolate them and break them down into smaller problems, whenever possible.

Three Act Structure

There are, of course, an infinite number of ways to write a book. In these articles I’ve been outlining how I do it, because that’s what I know to write about, but there are no binding rules, no arbitrary guidelines. That said, there are some structural… suggestions that can benefit almost any writer. Stories can have more impact when they follow a basic architecture. Even here there are variations. I know people who stick to the twelve stages of the Hero’s Journey. I know writers who like five act structures, because that was good enough for Shakespeare, dammit. Personally I work with the three act structure, which is the simplest and, I think, the most effective.

You can think of three act structure as the beginning, middle, and end of your story. Or the setup, the buildup, and the punchline. I like to think of it this way;

ACT I: Oh, look, I’m in a forest.

ACT II: Oh, no! I’m getting lost in this forest!

ACT III: Oh, look, there’s a way out of this forest.

Perhaps I should elaborate.

Act I of any story is the shortest. Sadly, it also has to do the most work. This is going to make up about 25% of your total word count, but it needs to do the following things: establish all the main characters of your story, as well as the setting, pace, and tone. Establish the problem of the story, as well as the stakes (what happens if the problem is, or isn’t resolved). By the end of act one your protagonist must be stuck on a path that leads to a final conflict. That can mean that the evil mustachio-twirling villain has kidnapped their boyfriend. It can also mean your hero has realized they have a drinking problem, and they’re headed for rock bottom.

Act II is the longest act, the most fun, and absolutely, without question, the most dangerous. Act two is where you develop all your clever ideas, where your protagonist tries out various solutions to the problem (none of which, of course, work). It’s where you have room and time to explore the setting and build character arcs and do all the fun parts of writing… and if you make a misstep, your story will go right off the rails. Act two is a time of steadily increasing tension, modulated with (occasional) moments of relief. All that exploring you’re doing? Imagine a maze with one exit, and all the various paths through the maze MUST lead to that exit, even if they wind a little bit. It’s way too easy for something to go wrong in act two which then sabotages the most important act…

Act III is longer than act one, but shorter than act two. It’s the most laser-focused of your story’s sections and often the easiest one to write–although, perversely enough, it can also be the thing that kills you. When act three begins the die is cast. Your protagonist knows (or thinks they know) how to solve the problem. They have good, compelling reasons why they MUST solve the problem. The stakes have never been higher. The protagonist works at nothing else past this point–they will sacrifice anything to resolve the story. The antagonist (whether you have a bald, cat-stroking villain or a natural disaster like a mudslide) is moving steadily toward an easy win and they have every reason to be confident. Then the magic happens. Somehow (you’d better know how) the protagonist gets the better of the antagonist in a surprise twist and the world is set to rights. Yay! Then you can have a denouement that’s as long or as short as you like (I prefer super-short), and you’re done.

Of course none of this happens by magic. You need to outline your story (if only in your head) before you start writing. You can save yourself a lot of trouble that way. There’s an old bit of writing advice I’ve found to be almost universally true: if there’s a problem in Act III, it’s a problem with Act I. Go back and look and you’ll see you didn’t set something up properly.

I’ll add two corollaries to this chestnut. First: If there’s a problem in Act I, it’s a problem with Act III. If you have trouble making your protagonist believable (could a four year-old really build a rocket to escape the Mars-beasts?) it’s because they’re the wrong person to face down the big antagonist at the end of the tale. If the setting feels off or boring, it’s because it’s too small to hold the ending.

And finally: if there’s a problem in Act II, it’s because you’re writing the wrong story. Act II is for exploration. Often times, you can explore so far you find yourself in a completely different story–maybe the story you really wanted to write in the first place. If this happens, don’t despair! Either go off and write that story instead… or put it aside, somewhere safe, and go back and find where your act II maze got side-tracked, and fix it!

NaNoWriMo Tips

I’m a huge fan of National Novel Writing Month. I think it’s one of the best ways to get people inspired to work on that novel they’ve always dreamed of writing. Structure is a writer’s best friend (even when sometimes it feels like a frenemy).

Every year I try to post daily writing tips for each day in November on my Twitter. You can follow these at @LastTrilobite (you’ll also get all my retweets of things I find interesting or humorous, for no extra charge). Today’s tip, for November 1st, concerns first lines, and I thought I’d expand on that thought here.

The first line of a book is crucial. It’s what gets the reader invested to read the second line… and so on. It’s also incredibly fun to write it because for once it doesn’t have to do multiple things simultaneously (unlike, say, every other line in the story). It does not need to set the tone of the book, introduce the main character, or anything else. It just needs to grab the reader’s attention. Typically you can achieve this best by writing something outrageous or silly or intriguing. The more outlandish the better!

Whatever you do, though, please don’t make it about the weather. “It was a dark and stormy night…” is considered terrible writing for a reason. Unless it’s literally raining frogs or something, just… don’t.

Of course, if you only write one line on day 1 of NaNoWriMo you’re going to get behind in your schedule. You need to think about the second line, too. And the third, and the fourth… in a longer work, you could easily develop that first crazy line for a paragraph or three. But with only 50,000 words in your project, you don’t have time for that. You need to get to the meat of things right away. After that first line, your first paragraph really needs to start doing some work. You’ll need to introduce us to your main character, establish a preliminary setting, and set the tone. It’s a lot to pack into one paragraph, but it can be done if you’re judicious with your sentences.

You’ve got your work cut out for you. So come up with that first crazy line now–just use the first thing that pops into your head. Remember, you can always change it later. Though you probably shouldn’t–if it made your head spin the first time, it’s doing exactly what it needs to do!

Good luck to everyone doing NaNoWriMo this year, and keep at it!

Why I Don’t Believe in Willful Suspension of Disbelief

We’re told, almost certainly apocryphally, that one of the earliest movies was of a train heading directly toward the camera, and that audiences who saw it ran for their lives. We’re told that a truly great piece of fiction makes the reader forget they’re reading a book (or seeing a movie, etc.) and immerses them entirely in the secondary world of the story.

I’ve never bought it. Oh, I’ve read plenty of immersive stories in my time, but every single time the thought in my head was not “this is real! If the characters die, I will too!” My typical thought is more along the lines of “oh, this is really good! How can I pull off this same effect in my own work?”

Maybe it’s because I’m a writer, and I know how the sausage gets made. Maybe my insider knowledge of how stories are put together keeps me from enjoying them in the intended manner. I don’t think so, though. I think pretty much every consumer of culture knows the basics of how entertainment is made. The water cooler talk about the latest Game of Thrones episode is often as much about the difference between practical and CG effects as it is “can you believe character X did that to character Y?”

Then there are the commenters. In one of my books I suggested that a given handgun could hold thirteen bullets (you get a prize if you can guess which book this was. The prize is that you briefly made me feel like I exist). I got an email from a reader who told me he had enjoyed the book up to that point, but really, since said gun could actually hold fourteen bullets, he could no longer appreciate my work and would not be purchasing any of my future books. I actually took this seriously and mentioned, in the second volume of the series, that the gun could hold fourteen rounds.

I then got an angry email from a reader saying that if I didn’t know the gun could only hold thirteen bullets, I wasn’t fit to be writing about vampires.

I mention this story because I think it shows that we, as media savvy entertainment consumers, have stopped willfully suspending our disbelief–if we ever did. Just as some people can watch a movie and check their texts at the same time (horrible people), when we read a book we’re never completely lost in the imagined world. We’re always–always–comparing the story to what we know, to what we’ve read before. We run to wikipedia or at least the dictionary if we find concepts or even just words that are unfamiliar in our texts. We discuss our stories endlessly–Chris Hardwick has made a career out of dissecting TV shows the very second they’ve finished airing. I don’t think disbelief enters into the equation at any point.

Instead I think we are actively participating in cultural transmission. Rather than passively submerging ourselves in words and images, we are all, in our heads, remixing them continuously into nuanced interpretations, hot takes, and snarky scorn. We don’t just absorb texts, we study them, mining for ideas for our own work, or at the very least for sick burns we can share with co-workers.

As media becomes more and more integrated into our psychological landscape we become more adept at using it, rather than being manipulated by it (current politics notwithstanding). We always experience texts at a remove, now. But I don’t know if this is purely an artifact of the twenty-first century. I’ve always been interested in mythology, and one of the first questions you end up asking when you read Bullfinch is whether the Greeks really believed that the sun was a chariot with Apollo at the reins. The answer of course is that some people did, while others simply used the story to organize their lives–just as many people today seem unable to understand the news or the actions of their friends without framing them in terms of scenes from Harry Potter. I think this may be something intrinsic in the way we tell stories.

Think of a stage magician’s show. We are told that the magician will saw a woman in half. We watch it happen. Yet only a very small part of our lizard brains actually thinks it’s real. The vast majority of our consciousness is instead devoted to trying to figure out how the trick is done. We engage with the act on multiple levels at once, almost all of them on a metatextual level–we are outside the thing we perceive, aware of factors beyond what the magician wants us to see. The same can be said for every book we read, every television show we watch. Really interesting art often plays with our expectations and our preconceptions. Think of unreliable narrators, antiheroes and stories that break the fourth wall.

When Coleridge coined the term “willful suspension of disbelief” in 1817, he was specifically talking about genre stuff (what he would call “fantastical tales”) being leavened with verisimilitude and human pathos to make it more palatable. His idea was that readers would scoff at fantasy stories unless they were given enough realism to have something to hang onto. I’m not sure if this was true even at the time; I’m certain it isn’t, now.

What’s the takeaway here, for writers? Be conscious, always, of the fact that your reader isn’t reading your work in a vacuum. She has access to endless secondary sources. She can call you on your bullshit, or she can get in a discussion group with hundreds of other people about the details of your fiction. Don’t let that paralyze you, though. Instead, play with it. Withhold details or intentionally provide false information–which you correct later, for dramatic effect. Don’t be afraid of direct address or other techniques which might damage the illusion of secondary reality. But always remember, when you write, you are not alone. You are not screaming your truth into a void. You are contributing one long twitter thread in the culture conversation that began before you were born and will long outlive you.

Was that helpful? Or are you already rolling your eyes, thinking about how I overwrote that last sentence, and how much of this article I got wrong?

Bad Writing Advice: “Write What You Know”

99% of all writing advice is just inspirational nonsense. Most of it boils down to “sing the story inside of you!” or “don’t give up on your dreams!” If you’re a writer, you don’t need to be told this. If you have the bug, you’re going to write and nothing, not even self-interest, will stop you.

There’s another kind of writing advice, though, which usually gets quoted as gospel truth because nobody every thinks about what it really means. Let’s start with the most famous and most often repeated saying, “write what you know.”

Sounds good, right? Write from your own personal experience, and your stories will breathe with verisimilitude. What if you want to write genre fiction, though? What if you want, specifically, to write about what you don’t know? I can’t count how many times people have told me to write what I know. I try very hard to say thank you and not roll my eyes so hard they get stuck in the back of my head. The whole point of writing for me is to create new worlds. To explore weird ideas. If I only ever wrote what I know, my readers would get very bored, very quickly. The vast majority of my life involves what I’m doing right now. Staring at a blinking cursor on a computer screen, while I lift a can of Coke Zero Sugar to my mouth and fail to actually drink from it because I’m too lost in thought.

Do you want to read that book?

Honestly, this piece of advice is impossible to follow. Any story will, at the very least, abstract reality. A writer knows when to skip over vast swaths of lived reality. You throw away all the conversations that amount to:

“What? I didn’t hear you.”

“Never mind.”

“No, I didn’t–”

“Doesn’t matter.”

You skip the periods of time your character is asleep, or in the bathroom, or just watching television. But beyond mere elision, it’s literally impossible to write from reality. Language is only ever metaphor for describing things taken in by the human senses. No matter how carefully you choose your words, they are symbols, simplified hieroglyphs that represent sensory impressions in your reader’s mind. Except your reader may have very different impressions than you do. Your best attempt to represent your reality will never match up to what the reader experiences in their own head.

Perhaps I’m being a little precious, here. And, to be fair, like most pieces of advice, “write what you know” is actually useful when it’s taken with a grain of salt. It’s very true, for instance, that good writers take cues from their sensory experience when creating even the most fantastical scenes. One of the best bits of imagery I ever came up with was that the queen of an alien species of social insects had breath that smelled like honey. I love that image, and it came from actually getting a jar of honey out of the cupboard and taking a good honest whiff.

But the idea that you can only ever write from personal experience just doesn’t hold up, no matter how much you want it to. Simply because the whole purpose of writing–the reason it was created in the first place–was to catalogue all the things the reader cannot immediately see or feel or hear. Writers do research. We look things up, in others peoples’ books (or, more often these days, on Wikipedia). We draw ideas and images from other stories, or from first hand accounts of things, or scientific descriptions. Maybe the advice should be: “write what you know, or failing that, research the topic until you feel like you know it”.

Finally, to get back to genre writing–how can you “know” what it looks like to fly through hyperspace on the back of a time dragon, or what it feels like to transform into a were-ocelot under a silvery moon? The answer, of course, is that you infer it. You compare it to slightly similar experiences, or you close your eyes and just imagine it. The quality of your writing depends on your ability to then communicate your inference in a way that makes the reader feel it, too.

So maybe the advice should be “write what you know, or what you’ve researched thoroughly, or what you’ve done your level best to imagine given all the mental tools you have available.”

That’s a little long to put into a Facebook meme, though.