Thursday, January 3, 2019

Kill your darlings

In his 2005 commencement address at Stanford University, Steve Jobs said everyone wants to go to Heaven, but no one wants to die to get there. Unfortunately, we all die, and so do many of our characters. Death in literature is a common theme because it's a part of life, but the way we write these deaths can add layers of insight to the character, theme, and plot.

Death is not only about the dying. Death can catapult a story into overdrive as characters scramble to figure out how their lives will change. Experiencing the drama and pain for those around the dying can drive an entire plot. Pay careful attention to the words used to describe the event. What is the mood or tone? Is it more effective to keep it simple, or do long, quiet conversations fit the characters and the mood? I've seen both done well, and each depends on the type of story you create. I've chosen a few examples of death portrayals to help you write your next scene.

The first one comes from my unpublished novel, but will give readers a little insight into the killer's frame of mind. The set-up is that the woman he drugged and tied to a sinking boat is facing the wrong way, and the only thing he is upset about is that he can't see her face.

“I’ll plan more carefully next time,” he said, as he picked a small blue flower to place in the lapel of his jacket folded neatly in his car. In A Farewell to Arms, Hemingway also leaves out the emotional aspect of death, but for a completely different reason. "After a while I went out and left the hospital and walked back to the hotel in the rain."

In Dead Poets Society, the sound of the gun firing off camera leaves no room for doubt. Neil's father, the man we loved to hate, suddenly becomes vulnerable as the death of his son fills his house, destroying both of their lives.

Describing a death using figurative language can also be effective. In The Outsiders, S. E. Hinton used the sentence “Like a candle with the flame gone,” to describe the body of Johnny Cade, who died a heroic death saving children from a fire.

 Is death quiet, loud, or lonely? Does it take place on a battlefield, or in an empty hospital room? Is the dying subject surrounded by a spouse and large family, or a former lover no one knew about? Perhaps a childhood friend, or the son or daughter who hasn't been heard from for decades shows up for reasons not quite clear until making a shocking confession.

Showing who cares about an impending death, and who is there only to be seen by the others can explain character motives. A frail figure in a deathbed may work as another character reveals how the dying character hurt her, and share how much she enjoys watching him suffer. Or a seemingly devoted wife watches helplessly as her husband grows weaker by the day, until the writer reveals that she prepares his favorite meals with a little bit of salt, pepper, and poison.

Edgar Allan Poe said, "The death, then, of a beautiful woman is unquestionably the most poetical topic in the world." Poe's life was full of death, and often the topic of his work. A symbol of death may be small, as when a drop of blood appeared on the lip of his beloved wife as she sang. Death had announced itself through that tiny red dot, but the implication was huge, for he knew in that moment she had tuberculosis.

If your character dies at the hands of someone else, what does it say about both of them? Choosing the right weapon can be instrumental in determining the type of betrayal or pain felt by the attacker. Strangling or stabbing is intimate, while shooting from across the room isn't as personal. The death may also explain a code of honor the victim or attacker lived by, or whose love was unrequited.

Death is simple for the dying, but complicated for everyone else. The next time you write a death scene, determine how the death affects the entire story, and not just the victim.

Mary Horner earned The Writing Certificate from the University of Missouri, and teaches communications at St. Louis and St. Charles Community Colleges.

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

I am Spider-Man (at least for a little while)

If you've ever cried or felt your heart pound while reading a book or watching a movie, then you've experienced what I call "reality blocking"--the process of becoming so engrossed in a story that you ignore your own feelings and adopt those of a fictional character. In the real world, nothing has happened, but your brain processes the information you see or read as if it were real, which, in turn, causes your body to react as if it were true. You "become" the character and see the world through his or her eyes.

Good writing focuses on shared emotions. Regardless of whether you write fiction or nonfiction, tapping into the emotions that make us human can improve your writing. Readers will root for the boy to get the girl of his dreams because we have all loved someone, and readers will empathize with the athlete who loses the race because we have all worked hard for something important, and suffered defeat. We feel the character's pain or joy.

So when I follow a fictional mother down a long, dark hallway toward her children's bedroom because she heard an unearthly noise, my fear increases with every step. She begins to sweat, and I begin to sweat. I relate because I worry that something bad might happen to someone I love. Because I care, I want to know what happens, and will continue to turn pages or sit through a movie that scares me. 

This also explains why I care about alien invasion, Spidey Senses, or a wizard who casts away evil. None of these things will ever affect me (probably), so why am I not content to sit at home and pet my cat and work on a craft project? Instead, I willingly spend my time and money sitting in a dark theater, or curled up in a comfortable arm chair to experience a world that looks nothing like mine. 

Through empathy, I can put myself in Spider-Man's shoes (does he wear shoes?) and think about what I would do in his situation. Would I feel guilty for Uncle Ben's death? Probably. I can relate to that emotion because I have experienced my own guilt and sorrow. 

Audiences will care when they know why the main character cares. If there is no emotion behind the action, then we are just watching a guy in a spider suit. Although I will never spin a web from my wrist, I connect to his emotions and put myself in the center of the action, which makes me believe that I am Spider-Man (at least for a little while). 

Here's a link for more information:

Mary Horner is a freelance writer, editor, and author of "Strengthen Your Nonfiction Writing." She teaches communications at St. Louis and St. Charles Community Colleges.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Cue the Romance!

How do you write the "falling in love" scene? For tips, follow the link to my Women on Writing blog post!

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

The devil is in the details!

Read about the mistakes I've made regarding using too many details!

Friday, December 16, 2016

WOW The Muffin

I am now blogging for The Muffin!

My friends at Women On Writing, a great website resource for any writer, invited me to be a regular contributor last month. I am so pleased to be part of a wonderful group of writers, and you can find my thoughts on writing twice a month. Here's a link to my second post!

Write soon,


Saturday, November 5, 2016

Macaroni and cheese

The act of crafting a great beginning sends many writers to Google, Facebook, Netflix, Amazon Prime and/or the bottle for answers, or a way to procrastinate. Personally, I Googled how to begin a novel so I could begin this blog post about how to begin writing.

The answer? There is no perfect way to begin. There are many ways to craft a beginning, and each rule or strategy has its merits, but every writer has to find his or her own way depending on the piece. However, I did learn that writing a great beginning can be difficult, intimidating and frustrating. 

Regardless of whether we follow the rules or break them, the way a writer begins a book, article or a blogpost gives the readers a path in to the world he or she created. In the speech class I teach, it's called an attention-getter; and in journalism, the lead (or lede) or hook. Regardless, each is a strategy designed as a preview of what's to come. Each word, line and paragraph work together to encourage the reader to continue. A great beginning creates desire. A great beginning creates the need to find out what happens, or explore the "what if?" A great beginning is essential.

That's a lot of pressure.

While watching a cooking show, I started to think about how the chef began the process. There were lots of utensils, equipment and ingredients scattered about. But if you go back before the the process began, the ingredients and equipment were scattered about a store, and before that, possibly scattered around the world. And before that, maybe the chef was a kid who grew tired of plain old macaroni and cheese and wanted to switch it up. So how do all these factors come together? With time, patience and desire to create something wonderful.

Every chef knows that his or her mac and cheese is not like anyone else's, and that's what makes the world an interesting place. And the recipe has probably changed from the first effort, and maybe quite a few times. What's right for one chef may not be right for another.

So when readers enter a world that may be self-contained, or spread out like the ingredients in a great dish, the writer has to find the right way in. He or she needs to guide us through the one door that will take us right to the heart of the story, and make it clear and interesting while asking questions and presenting options. The effort to begin the story effectively may be long and difficult, or maybe not. Maybe the simple blue box of macaroni and cheese is the secret comfort food your favorite chef craves, and that's OK.

Here's how authors began a few of my favorite books:

"Four hours out from Los Angeles I drove into nothingness."

            Jory Sherman, from The Ballad of Pinewood Lake

 "This is a story about a man named Eddie and it begins at the end, with Eddie dying in the sun."

            Mitch Albom, from The Five People You Meet in Heaven

"Begin here. It was raining." 

            May Sarton, from Journal of a Solitude

"Jack is the church I have joined, but he is a church without ceremony."

            Martha Bergland, from A Farm Under a Lake

So I've learned that it doesn't matter how we find our way in, but that we are more likely to find the way that speaks to us. And the rules are followed, and they aren't, and sometimes the method that should work doesn't, and what shouldn't work does. Why? Because writing, like life, is complex and difficult and we all have a unique perspective, just like a favorite macaroni and cheese recipe.

Write soon,

Friday, October 7, 2016

The director's cut

Are you like me and love to explore the writing process? I must confess that a large part of my home library consists of how-to writing books. To me, finding great tips and techniques from other writers regarding how to tell a story feels like finding hidden treasure. 

Some of these gems of insight, though, come from other sources. I want to share one of my favorite tips from my friend and fellow writing-group member Candace Carrabus Rice, author of “On The Buckle,” and “The Roar of Smoke.” She suggested writers watch the director’s cut of a movie to get commentary and a unique look at the creative process. 

“It will help you get insight into plot to learn how the director sees the story,” she said, “and how he or she made it work. It’s like looking at an x-ray to see what’s going on behind the scenes.” 

And the good news is that you can watch movies and call it “research!” 

What’s your secret source of writing tips? 

Write soon,