Last week, I took a little break because of the holiday in the U.S., but this week, we’re talking about cause and effect in fiction novels.
Troubleshooting Your Novel by Steven James has a big section about this:
He suggests asking yourself these questions to fine-tune your story.
“Do realizations or insights occur after the event that caused them (as would naturally happen), or do I have things in the wrong order?
“Does this scene move from cause to effect? If not, why not? Can I tweak the story to show the natural flow of events rather than stop after they’ve happened to explain why they did?
“Does context dictate that I reverse the order to effect to cause? Rendering the story this way will force readers to ask, “Why?” Do I want them to do so at this moment in the book? Would lack of clarity about the character’s intention help readers engage with the story at this point? If it won’t, how can I recast it?
“What will I do to ensure that each ball rolls naturally away from the one that just hit it, both in action sequences and in dialogue?”
And for a quicker fix, he suggests:
“Analyze every scene, as well as every paragraph, to weed out cause-and-effect problems. Pinpoint the connections between events. Does each action have an appropriate consequence? Does the emotional resonance of a scene fit in congruently from the actions within that scene?”
Hi, I’m breaking format this week, for once. Our high school had a credible and serious threat yesterday, staff and teachers and kids were locked down for hours and I want to talk about how people telling their stories makes things much more real than cut-up newspaper reports.
And that’s important.
Don’t forget how powerful writing is, okay? Don’t forget how powerful you are either.
Share this if you want and also because it would be super nice of you!
Ah, as many of you know, I get super stressed and major imposter syndrome about sharing anything artistic or doing anything where people can hear my voice.
And because of that I have a super hard time actually doing things like buying paint or canvas because it means I’m using money to make art rather than pay bills or buy pellets for winter. That’s why this painting is actually mixed media. I ran out of a lot of paint this week.
Running out of a lot of paint and only having pretty low quality paint brushes is cool in a way because it pushes me. I have to think in different ways.
Life, I guess, is kind of like that, too.
I talked to someone this week that used to really intimidate me. They are smart and no holds barred. Sometimes that’s a scary combination in a person. And I used to have so much anxiety about talking to this person. But I did it. I talked to them. And you know what? It was good. I made a connection, I think. I had fun.
Why? Because I remembered that they are a person too.
“You used to be so fearful,” they said, which is really similar to something a local bookseller said to me last year.
And I think part of it is that I know how flawed I am. I can’t even remember to shut the closet door, but it’s okay. We are all flawed and imperfect and if people want to judge me? That’s okay, but I’m going to do my damn best not to judge them.
There’s a sort of freedom that comes with that realization—a freedom that I’m hoping will extend to me being able to share paintings and art. Because all my fear about art is about being not talented enough and being judged for that. That’s not really what life is about, is it? It’s not what art is about either.
Brené Brown said,“I define connection as the energy that exists between people when they feel seen, heard, and valued; when they can give and receive without judgment; and when they derive sustenance and strength from the relationship.”
I have been super lucky lately because writing a local news blog has pushed me out of my hermit ways and I have a reason to find connection. I hope you find more and new ways to be brave, too.
Steve Martin had a catch phrase from his time on SNL and standup that he was a wild and crazy guy. He had an entirely different persona in the skit but you could feel it and tell he’d been inspired by something in real life and turned it into comedy through exaggeration.
Now, decades after that Wild and Crazy Guy skit, Martin has this masterclass and in it he says, “Everything you see, hear, experience is usable.”
He’s mostly talking about comedy, screenplays and skits, but it works for the other arts and writing other genres, too.
How people go about scratching their nose, trying not to pick at their wedgie, argue with their kids; how they greet someone at a school board meeting, or even your own observations like the feel of bad indoor-outdoor carpet under your butt, the way this particular headache throbs like an almost perceptible bass beat coming from a car down the street, right at your left temple and the base of your neck—all of it can be used in your story.
Martin suggests being “an active observer in life” which to him means always being “on the lookout.” And he says you should grab a notebook that fits in your back pocket to write down what you observe. He forgets apparently that women’s pants often don’t have pockets? And also about the notes app on your phone. But it’s still good advice. Write what you see and taste and fear and feel.
This advice isn’t new. Richard Powers, who wrote The Overstory, which won a Pulitzer has said this. Powers says, “Be present, practice attention, and the story you are working on will feed on everything in front of you.”
Writers need to be mindful not in the power of positive psychology sort of way, but just in a way of being fully present so that we can notice what’s going on around us and within us.
Maya Angelou says:
“I try to pull the language in to such a sharpness that it jumps off the page. It must look easy, but it takes me forever to get it to look so easy. Of course, there are those critics – New York critics as a rule – who say, Well, Maya Angelou has a new book out and of course it’s good but then she’s a natural writer. Those are the ones I want to grab by the throat and wrestle to the floor because it takes me forever to get it to sing. I work at the language.”
To understand language that sings, you have to understand the sounds of language, observe and pay attention to the details of conversations around you, how people choose different words for arguments than they do when talking about their day or asking for some water. Paying attention to the language on the page means paying attention to the sound of language in the air and using it.
Martin. Powers. Angelou. They all have and had it together. They know that writing is observing and translating, being present and recreating sharpness on the page and on the tongue.
The character in your story is the heart of your story.
It does not matter if that character is a person or a troll or a manatee. That character is the soul of your story. Setting, theme, plot are important, but the most important aspect is creating a character that the reader can connect with.
That connection can be emotional.
That connection can be intellectual.
But there has to be a connection.
How readers connect to the character isn’t always for the same reason. They might seem like a friend. They might seem like us. They might be who we want to be. They might be who we are afraid to be. And as authors, we have to find ways to make our readers care about the characters we put on the page.
That’s what we talk about this podcast! So listen in and like and subscribe and all those things.
I’m going to talk a little bit more about that today.
Again, backstory is the events that happened to your character before the actual main story starts.
So backstory, once you have it, allows you to give your character goals in the beginning of the novel and throughout the novel because it allows you the writer (and reader) to know what forces and history make that character who they are today and drive them.
The Two Goals (Thanks to Backstory) Which Gives Your Character Dimension
One goal is usually physical or tangible. They want something. Let’s say they want to drive a car. They are 15 and want to learn how to drive. That’s a tangible goal. The author wants to get her novel done. The puppy wants a bacon treat.
The other goal is usually emotional. This goal has to do with yearning. This goal is the reason for the tangible goal.
They want to learn how to drive (tangible) because they yearn to get out of their claustrophobic home (emotional).
She wants to get her novel done (tangible) because her brother always said she couldn’t get anything done because she’s lazy and she yearns to prove him wrong (emotional).
The puppy wants a bacon treat (tangible) because he yearns for bacon because that’s what he used to get in his first house before he got lost (emotional).
Without knowing the backstory, we wouldn’t know the emotional goals of the character, the why for their tangible goals. Instead we’d be reading and thinking, yeah, he wants to finish the novel. So what?
Tomorrow over on LIVING HAPPY, I’ll dive in a tiny bit more into this.