Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Inciting incidents and the incidents that incite them

Most writing students learn about the inciting incident--the event that kicks off a story and sets the protagonist on his/her journey. For Cinderella, for example, it's the announcement of the ball that she and her evil step-sisters want to attend (and that will lead her to the prince). But there's usually also a deeper layer to that incident--something that happened in the past, or a larger journey, that lends the inciting incidence (and the story) greater significance and momentum. To go back to Cinderella, this is the moment when she is orphaned and left in the care of her evil step-mother, who refuses to acknowledge Cinderella's noble birth and condemns her to servitude. Her desire to go to the ball, then, stems from her desire to take her place in the world where she belongs. (By the way, this excellent example comes from Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft by Janet Burroway and Elizabeth Stuckey-French.)

It can be surprisingly difficult to "plant" that initial seed, but it's so important to a lot of stories, because it is what will bloom into the larger meaning of the story (if you'll forgive the botanic metaphors). Anyway, I'm re-reading a YA novel that I fell in love with when I was a kid--My Name is Sus5an Smith. The 5 Is Silent by Louise Plummer--and I've been admiring how the book starts off with a moment from the past that's crucial to the front story.

Armadillo snipped from here.
In the novel's front story, Sus5an (pronounced like regular "Susan" because the "5" is silent--a sort of artistic pseudonym) is a high school senior and budding painter in Springville, Utah, who scraps her way towards moving to a big city and becoming a professional fine artist. But her overarching "quest" really starts when she is 8 years old, and her aunt Marianne's husband, Uncle Willy, takes off in his car--never to return. 8-year-old Susan is devastated because Willy is the only person in her family who truly understands her artistic vision, and she feels they share a special bond. In fact, his very last contact with the family is a package sent to Susan for her 9th birthday--a special silver armadillo necklace, because she asked him for an armadillo before he left.

The novel's arc will follow Sus5an as she develops into an independent young adult and artist, but it will also cover her quest to find out who she is and a place where she will finally belong--and it will also include a search for her ex-uncle, Willy. So, instead of opening with Sus5an's departure from Springville high school to Boston, the novel begins with a 4-page scene of the last time she saw Willy. It's such a smart beginning, because it's a simple, specific moment; it's a discrete milestone (the very day that Willy left); and it sets 8-year-old Susan up for the eventual inciting incident (Susan's high school art show and graduation) and the book's larger journey.

It also leaves us with a great metaphor that helps guide the rest of the novel--the idea of flying. At first it's literal flying--Willy swings Susan around in circles by her hands and feet--and then it transitions into more figurative forms of flying. First, Willy--who was an airforce pilot--describes his overseas tours to a wistful Susan who longs to travel to exotic locations, and it's clear that both uncle and niece are dreamers who long for escape. Then, Susan tells Willy that she, too, wants to fly a plane, and presents him with a picture she's drawn of him flying over the mountains. His reaction cements not only their relationship, but Susan's future aspirations:
Snipped from here.
"'...Listen girl,, he said, holding me around the waist. His arms were brown and smooth, his fingers long and nicely shaped: artistic fingers. 'When you do fly over the mountains, make sure you fly in your own plane so no one else can tell you where it is you have to go. Remember that. Fly in your own plane. It's real important.'"
Despite its economy and simplicity, its emotional intensity and the importance of this moment in future Sus5an's life  are more than enough to invest the reader in the remaining 200 or so pages of the book--and Willy becomes a force powerful enough to vie for Prince Charming's role, or at least the Prince Charming Sus5an wishes him to be.

Monday, March 2, 2015

Dueling unreliable narrators: Gone Girl Part II

Gone Girl's Amy Dunne, played by
Rosamund Pike.
Last week, I looked at the novel, Gone Girl, by Gillian Flynn, from the perspective of reading an unreliable narrator. I focused entirely on Nick Dunne though, and neglected the other main character, Amy Elliot Dunne, so I thought I owed her more page time. FYI: discussing any part of this book is in itself a *spoiler alert* so reader beware!

To recap: the structure of Gone Girl is a battle of dueling unreliable narrators. The chapters alternate between the point of view of a husband (Nick) and his wife (Amy), and both are unreliable because they omit, distort, and/or are incapable of accurately interpreting information. At the beginning of the book, we're led to believe that a wife has been murdered by her husband, and by the end, we find out that the wife has, in fact, only staged her murder in order to frame her husband.

Actually, I should probably correct myself and say that there are three unreliable narrators--Nick and two versions of Amy. In the first part of the book (Boy Loses Girl), there is Diary Amy--Amy as presented in the pages of a diary that she creates and, later, plants as evidence against Nick. The other is the Real Amy--the one who has gotten away with staging her murder and framing Nick. For the purposes of this post, I'll deal with Diary Amy.

The challenge with Nick's character was to make a murder suspect compelling and charming enough for the reader to want to follow his side of the story. The challenge with Diary Amy is the opposite--she has to read convincingly enough as a victim and a heroine to keep the reader from guessing her more malignant role in this drama. Here's a rundown of how I think this works:

1. The brilliant device of the diary!

This one fact alone--that we think we are reading diary pages--is enough to lure us into a false sense of intimacy and truthfulness, even though the self Amy presents in these pages is largely made up. After all, we might think, who lies in their diary?

The sense of time created by these diary entries is also significant--the entries are spontaneous, genuine, and most importantly, created prior to Amy's disappearance--they presume no foreknowledge of future events, other than Amy's suspicions and worries. This is an important distinction, when compared to Nick's chapters, which are written after Amy's disappearance, and automatically put him in the position of trying to explain what happened to his wife. That means, from the reader's point of view, Nick is under pressure to convince us (and himself) of his innocence from the beginning, while Diary Amy is automatically presumed innocent.

2. Amy's witty self-deflection
Snipped from Favim.com.
The very first paragraph of Amy's diary reads:
"Tra and la! I am smiling a big adopted-orphan smile as I write this. I am embarrassed at how happy I am, like some Technicolor comic of a teenage girl talking on the phone with my hair in a pony tail, the bubble above my head saying, I met a boy! (p10)"
The rest of the diary very much continues in this voice--the delicious mix of irony and earnestness of a reluctant yet head-over-heels woman in love. It's almost hard not to fall in love with her oneself--she's gushy and goo goo-eyed over Nick, but she's endlessly self-aware and self-deprecating about it: "I have become a wife, I have become a bore, I have been asked to forfeit my Independent Young Feminist card. (p38)" Against her best instincts, she has devoted her life to her man.

The result is an expert kind of self-deflection--the portrait of the kind of woman we should hate (and that, in fact, the Real Amy does hate, as we'll find out later), the kind whose life begins and ends with her husband's--and yet we like her! She's just like us--she's smart and funny and, yes, complicated.

3. Nick destroys Amy's dewy-eyed dreams

Diary Amy's treatment of Nick is very cleverly done. He very rarely speaks in her pages--the good times of their relationship are described mostly in summary. However, when Nick does speak, he is hostile or withholding, and hoists himself with his own petard--all without Diary Amy having to pass judgment. This is crucial, since if she did, it would damage her credibility and likability to the reader. Instead, she focuses on scenes that emphasize Nick's tendency toward self-entitlement and passive-aggression. Here's one where he skips their anniversary dinner after his colleagues are laid off, in order to buy them drinks. He stays out all night and when he shows up the next day, Diary Amy greets him with a present to show no hard feelings:
"He sat down...and glanced at the present on the table and said nothing....He clearly wasn't going to even graze against an apology--hey, sorry things got screwy today. That's all I wanted, just a quick acknowledgment. 
'Happy day after anniversary,' I start. 
He sighs, a deep aggrieved moan. 'Amy, I've had the crappiest day every. Please don't lay a guilt trip on me on top of it....' 
'I was just saying happy anniversary.'
'Happy anniversary, my asshole husband who neglected me on my big day.'
We sit silent for a minute, my stomach knotting. I don't want to be the bad guy here. I don't deserve that....(p67)"
Diary Amy comes across as making a good faith effort, while Nick reads like a self-involved jerk.

In short, Diary Amy is a brilliant construction of an unreliable narrator--one that reads just as compellingly after the reader knows the novel's outcome, as before.

Monday, February 23, 2015

Dueling unreliable narrators: Gone Girl

Well, I'm late to the party, but I finally read Gone Girl (Random House: New York, NY; 2012) by Gillian Flynn, which is a really interesting case of dueling unreliable narrators. (By the way, there's pretty much nothing you can say about this book that is not a spoiler alert--so reader beware!)

Just to refresh the memory, an unreliable narrator is a narrator who is not credible. Sometimes they're not credible because they're emotionally or mentally instable, sometimes because they omit or distort information, and sometimes because they are too naive or inexperienced to accurately interpret the world around them. In the case of Gone Girl, both narrators--the husband Nick and the wife Amy--are unreliable, since they alternately lie, omit information, or exhibit various aspects of narcissism. They "duel" back and forth in the sense that the chapters alternate between their points of view and slowly reveal information that has been hidden or manipulated--over time, we discover that the initial situation is not what it appears to be (the murder of a wife by a husband), but is something else entirely (a wife staging her own murder and framing her husband for the crime).

What makes studying an unreliable narrator interesting is that he/she is, by definition, a kind of liar. We tend to be repulsed by liars, though, so the challenge to keeping a reader invested is making him/her a compelling liar. Here is a quick look at what I think makes Nick compelling as a narrator--even though he makes for a convincing murder suspect at the start of the book.

1. He comes across as a pathetic puppy dog.
Guilty puppy snipped from here.
The "screen" his narration uses, if you will, is that he's basically a well-meaning, sweet guy who can't help the fact that he's a loser with poor decision making skills--not someone who could mastermind a cold-blooded murder. This screen is just endearing enough to charm the reader, but uncomfortable enough for the audience to withhold trust. 

For example, Nick openly admits to one of the bad decisions that has contributed to the deterioration of his marriage--promising his sister that he'll move to Missouri to take care of his parents without consulting Amy--but then he disappears into a sort of hang-dog act (pun!) to excuse himself. He says:
"I simply assumed I would bundle up my New York wife....and transplant her to a little town on the river in Missouri, and all would be fine. I did not yet understand how foolish, how optimistic, how just like Nick [a phrase Amy uses when placing blame on him] I was for thinking this. The misery it would lead to. (p6)" 
His sentiments seem to reveal genuine regret, and yet they also manage to divert responsibility by invoking Amy's past criticisms and by implying that he was too young and naive to understand the situation--he's good at making external factors the straw man, while simultaneously slinking away with his tail between his legs. 

To further complicate, the character Amy
is the star of her own kid's book series--
written by her parents when she was a child.
2. It's tough to live in the shadow of unbeatable expectations. One of my favorite pieces of the books' first section is the anniversary treasure hunt that Amy organizes for Nick every year--it's so wonderfully manipulative on Amy's part (she devises clues so obscure that hardly anyone but herself could guess them, yet she is disappointed when Nick cannot solve them). This, of course, feeds perfectly into Nick's sense of failure and self-styled "loser" image. Nick's summary of the treasure hunts reads as follows: "...[A] genuine tradition was born, one I'd never forget: Amy always going overboard, me never, ever worthy of the effort. Happy anniversary, asshole. (p20)"

Amy's expectations--in both the treasure hunt and in life--seem impossible and crushing, and it's tough not to feel sympathetic to Nick, even despite his self-sabotaging tendencies.

Snipped from here.
3. The boy's got self-esteem issues.
It's also tough not to draw a dotted line from Amy's role in Nick's life to the role of Nick's father, Bill. At the time of the novel, Bill has Alzheimer's and lives in a nursing home, but he still looms large over Nick's life, and if readers recognize Nick's s inadequacies, I think they also find the evolution of his personality compelling. For example, Nick borrows money from Amy to start a business in Missouri. This makes him feel somewhat guilty and emasculated, and he imagines what his father would think: "I could feel my dad twisting his lips at the very idea. Well, there are all kinds of men, his most damning phrase, the second half left unsaid, and you are the wrong kind. (p7)"

It's safe to say that Nick's self-image and ideas about manhood have been deeply influenced by his father: never be made dependent, vulnerable, or otherwise compromised by a woman. The father also projects a strong judgmental, dismissive energy--a parallel to Amy, who may also see Nick as the wrong kind. Take Amy's constant refrain about her husband (referenced in point #1 above):"Just like Nick, she would say. It was a refrain of hers; Just like Nick to...and whatever followed, whatever was just like me, was bad. (p5)" If Nick is a bad apple, he's an apple fallen from a rotten tree--and that gives his narration a context that rings true.

In short, we like our liars to be compelling, relatable, and plausible, even if they're not justifiable or likable.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Do you hear it, too? Specificity and universality

I came across a clever device recently when reading The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time by Mark Haddon. This was quite a popular book when it came out and is now a Broadway show, but for those of you don't know, it is a sort of mystery book written from the point of view of a highly functioning autistic boy named Christopher.

One of the enjoyable things about the story is that it gets filtered through the perceptions of the narrator, which are highly unusual and fascinating to the non-autistic reader. It shouldn't really work, because the narrator tends toward the literal, admits he doesn't understand metaphors, and can't interpret emotional cues from other people--all things that make it hard to succeed at good storytelling. But on the other hand, Christopher loves specificity, feels emotions intensely, and loves a good mystery--and these are the things that make the book come alive.

Another thing that makes it work is that Christopher tends to assume that you (the reader) experience thing just like he does--and when he does this it serves not only to highlight the way in which Christopher might experience things differently from his audience, but also to transmit that experience more vividly than would be possible by simply "explaining" it. Here's the example that caught my attention. Christopher has just discovered the corpse of a neighbor's dog and is highly distraught:
"I rolled back onto the lawn and pressed my forehead to the ground again and made the noise that Father calls groaning. I make this noise when there is too much information coming into my head from the outside world. It is like when you are upset and you hold the radio against your ear and you tune it halfway between two stations so that all you get is white noise and then you turn the volume right up so that this is all you can hear and then you know you are safe because you cannot hear anything else."
--pp7-8. Mark Haddon. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time. Vintage Contemporaries: New York, NY; 2003.
Snipped from the Guardian.
Christopher's comparison is to an experience he assumes he has in common with the reader: "It is like when you are upset and you hold the radio against your ear..." etc. From this, we discover that Christopher finds multiple stimuli disarming and prefers focusing on one, constant noise or activity.We also learn that his groaning is not merely an expression of distress, but also a soothing mechanism. This discovery is all the more compelling for that fact that many of his audience probably feel just the opposite--the sound of radio static turned up full volume might actually cause some to go crazy, for example--and for Christopher's age (he is taking pre-college math courses), rolling on the ground and groaning is not generally how most would find comfort, at least not in public.

The fact that Christopher doesn't know that his reactions are unusual gives the universe of the narrative all the more power--it dramatizes his emotional limits and the limits of his perceptions, while paradoxically, admitting us more fully into his inner life. For example, even though we might not relate specifically to radio static as an emotional outlet, the way he speaks about it makes it feel familiar--he listens to it "so that this [noise] is all you can hear and then you know you are safe because you cannot hear anything else." We've all sought this kind of refuge in some context--absorbing ourselves in a task or distraction to avoid some larger discomfort. With this device, suddenly something very specific to one boy becomes universal.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Why should I keep reading? Part II

Hooked yet? Snipped from here.
Life got busy so I've been delinquent on my last couple of posting days but it occurred to me that I should at least follow up on my most recent post, which was about searching for the hook that would captivate me as a reader in the beginning of We Are Water by Wally Lamb.

I have to admit that the book managed to pull me in around the half to two-thirds finished mark. That was when the characters in the front story finally began to move and face situations with potentially devastating consequences--it was definitely too long to wait, but I hung in there because of wanting to read it for my book club.

The other issue this book made me think about is introducing characters who don't pay off. You might recall that I mentioned how the book starts with the hint of a racially motivated murder that happens about 50 or 60 years prior to the front story. The hint of mystery was what I thought I was supposed to keep reading for, but in the end, this historic murder and its implications didn't really have much impact on the front story. I believe it could have been cut out entirely without losing anything truly significant.

Writing is hard, truly hard, because it's difficult to see it from you reader's point of view--especially when you've slaved over a story for weeks, months, years--that's why it really helps to read from a writing point of view as well. It's always good (and humbling) to have a sense of sympathy for your reader and the "work" he or she undertakes to access your story's journey.

Monday, January 26, 2015

Beginnings: why should I keep reading?

I don't really like to use this space for critiquing work--it's more for learning from reading, but sometimes reading will teach you things to avoid, too. For example, I'm reading We Are Water by Wally Lamb. I've read Lamb's books before and I fully expect the narrative to get more interesting, but for now, I'm not finding the book opening too captivating.

Sometimes, just as an experiment, I start reading a book without looking at its summary or blurb first--it just so happens I'm reading this for a book club, so I didn't really do a lot of footwork to find it on my own, which means I didn't read up on it too much. It's an interesting experience to dive in without knowing what to expect--does the opening pull you in right away, despite not knowing what the story will be about exactly? Does it give you a strong hook, or at least an idea of the question you'll be reading to find out?

With We Are Water, my answer to all of the above was, not really. I made it to the third chapter before I decided to look up the plot. I got that a wedding will be the central event of the novel, and the first chapter opens with the hint of a racially motivated murder that may have taken place in the past, but other than that, I have no idea what I'm reading to find out--there's no immediate goal, no unrequited love, and just the hint of a (murder) mystery. There's not much front story going on and each of the chapters is taken over by a different character who reminisces about the past, so it feels more like I'm reading a series of tiny memoirs rather than a novel. It feels like this is going to be a novel animated by springboard flashbacks (see my post where I theorize on this as a concept), but it looks like I'm going to have to read more patiently to figure out what they will lead back to.

I'm willing to give Wally Lamb the benefit of the doubt, but it just goes to show--readers have a hard enough job figuring out what's going on--it pays to throw them a bone at the start and make it clear there's going to be a payoff for hanging in there.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Keep it simple, fool

Today, I went looking for inspiration and found a couple of interesting writing essays from this article. One was Fairy Tale is Form, Form is Fairy Tale by Kate Bernheimer, and the other was How to Write with Style by Kurt Vonnegut. One of the common themes I got from both is, simply, simplicity.

Kate Bernheimer.
Snipped from Flavorwire
Bernheimer talks all about fairy tales, which I found perfectly synchronistic, because I just wrote a couple of posts recently about a novel that openly references its fairy tale inspiration. She says that "...one of the most classical forms in the world is that of fairy tales..." and that their techniques (flatness, abstraction, intuitive logic, and normalized magic) are often unfairly maligned for their simplicity and that we can learn a lot from studying them. Bernheimer suggests that dismissing these techniques belies their inherent power, which can be found in the bones of many literary forms:
"...fairy tales hold a key to the door fiercely locked between so-called realism and nonrealism, convention and experimentalism, psychology and abstraction. A key for those who see these as binaries, that is. Seen through the lens of fairy tales, many works of literature can be understood as literary forms sharing techniques."
Vonnegut talks about style and how less is not necessarily more. He reminds the reader that:
"...[T]wo great masters of language, William Shakespeare and James Joyce, wrote
Kurt Vonnegut. Snapped from Flavorwire.
sentences which were almost childlike when their subjects were most profound. 'To be or not to be?' asks Shakespeare's Hamlet. The longest word is three letters long. Joyce, when he was frisky, could put together a sentence as intricate and as glittering as a necklace for Cleopatra, but my favorite sentence in his short story 'Eveline' is this one: 'She was tired.' At that point in the story, no other words could break the heart of a reader as those three words do."
Both articles were good reminders of the basics and what pulls readers into a story--it's not so much the word count as the emotions, the ideas, and the power of the form.