Wednesday, March 31, 2010


©Leslie Edgerton

Gonna get back to some writing craft stuff today. Hope it helps!

The entire purpose of fiction is to transport the reader into almost a “dream-like state”, to where he or she “suspends their disbelief.” There are many techniques a writer can use to achieve this goal and we will be discussing a few of those that should be helpful.

The use of details in a story is a very powerful means of inducing that dream. Let’s take a real-life example of how details convince others. Let’s assume there is a man, unemployed for six months, whose wife has been carping at him (justifiably) to get a job, but he hasn’t actually looked for months. However, he wants to convince her he’s trying his best to secure employment. On Monday, he has promised her he will go down to the unemployment office and see what they have. Monday evening, when she returns from her own job she asks him if he went as promised. It may go something like this:

“Did you go to the unemployment office today like you promised?” Mary said, her eyebrows raising and her tone skeptical.

“Of course I did. I was there bright and early. They just didn’t have anything I was qualified for. At least I made the effort.”

“Right,” she said. “I believe you, Tony. I really do.” There was pure sarcasm in her voice. Leaving the room to go upstairs and change her work clothes, she spat out one word as she went up the stairs. “Liar!”

Now, this is a passable scene (barely) but the man doesn’t convince his wife and he certainly doesn’t convince the reader. Now, imagine the same situation but structured a little differently:

“Did you go to the unemployment office today like you promised?” Mary said, her tone skeptical.

“Yeah,” Tony said. “Not that it did much good. They didn’t have a single job I was qualified for. Something weird happened, though. There was a lady just in front of me in line and she was nine months pregnant. Just as she got to the window, she started screaming and yelling and collapsed to the floor. People came running from everywhere and somebody called 911 and guess what! She had her damn baby right there! I couldn’t believe it! It was a boy. She was wearing this blue dress and when the blood got on it, it was the weirdest thing. Instead of turning it red, it turned it black. Anyway, it screwed everything up. I bet it was another half hour before they all settled down and I got to see a clerk. Not that it did any good. You’da thought maybe that would have brought me good luck, since I got to jump a place in line, but there wasn’t even one single, solitary job I could do. Unless I lied and told them I could handle heavy equipment. I thought about even doing that--lie--but I knew they’d figure it out as soon as I crawled up on that caterpillar seat that I didn’t know what the hell I was doing. How was your day? A little less traumatic, I hope?”

See the difference? In the first example, whether Tony was speaking the truth or not it didn’t matter - Mary didn’t believe him and we don’t either. In the second example, by use of detail to embellish his story, it would be difficult not to believe Tony. There’s a pregnant lady - she’s the one in front of him - she’s wearing a blue dress that turns black where the blood spotted it - and so on and so on. By the use of details, he has turned a weak lie into a story that would be hard to disbelieve.

Tony also used something else to suspend his wife’s disbelief. He used tension. What could have been a tenser situation than what he was describing! Tension keeps the reader turning the pages and overlooking the fact he or she knew when beginning the story - that it was fiction and therefore a lie.

James Frey, in his book How To Write A Damn Good Novel, II informs that the fictive dream is created by the power of suggestion. He goes on to say that “the power of suggestion is the operant tool of the ad man, the con man, the propagandist, the priest, the hypnotist, and, yes, the fiction writer.” That’s exactly what we are doing when we write fiction--we’re running a con game. We’re lying to readers. The trick is to get them (the reader) to believe the lie.

Besides the use of details and creating tension, the writer must provide for the reader an emotional involvement. This is done by creating sympathy, identification, and empathy for the protagonist. Once we care, on some level, about the character the story is about, we will suspend our disbelief and keep on reading.

Sympathy for a character is created in a number of ways. Sympathy does not necessarily mean admiration, which Frey points out. He offers the character of Jake LaMotta in the film Raging Bull for an example. LaMotta beats his wife, seduces underage girls, has a horrible temper, suffers from paranoia and speaks in grunts. He is a total savage. Yet the LaMotta character in the movie gets enormous audience sympathy. Why? Because, at the start of the movie, LaMotta is living in ignorance, degradation and poverty and so the audience feels sorry for him, and therefore will follow him on the screen through his story, regardless of the fact that he is a brutish lout in almost all respects.

Sympathy is how a reader gains emotional access to a story and without it there is no involvement and the reader will put down the book or story.

Second, the reader must identify with the character. This happens when the reader is not only sympathetic with the character’s situation but also applauds his or her goals and wants the character to achieve them. Frey again gives some very good examples:

In Jaws, the reader supports Brody’s goal to destroy the shark.

In The Red Badge of Courage, the reader supports Henry’s desire to prove to himself he isn’t a coward.

In Gone With The Wind, the reader supports Scarlett’s desire to get her plantation back after it is destroyed by Yankees. (I can relate to that, being a Southerner!)

The way to achieve identification is to give the main character goals and desires that the reader will view as desirable him- or herself.

The third technique in achieving emotional involvement for the reader is empathy. Empathy is an even more powerful emotion than sympathy. A husband suffering birth pains along with his wife is an example of empathy. Empathy is simply the reader putting himself in the shoes of the character. One way to do this is to use the power of suggestion. Use details to suggest what it is like to be the character and experience what he or she is experiencing. Using my own story “My Idea of a Good Thing” in Monday's Meal, Raye is not a particularly admirable character--she’s addicted to alcohol, for example. It would have created little empathy if I had just drawn her as this weak-willed person who just can’t say no to a drink--but when you show the reader what her struggle is like, then most people can identify with her on some level and will then gain empathy. For instance, most people aren’t alcoholics, but most of us have fallen prey to some form of addiction. Maybe it’s cigarettes, maybe it’s chocolates, maybe it’s always falling for the wrong man or woman. There are lots of examples. By using details of the internal struggle, the reader can identify with their own private struggles. Reaching for a bottle of Stoli may evoke images within the reader of reaching for the pack of Marlboros or that pint of Haagen-Daz Chocolate-Chocolate Chip in the supermarket
Once you have established sympathy, identification and empathy for your character, you’ve created a strong emotional bond between that character and the readers. One final step is needed to bring the reader into that hypnotic state of suspended disbelief, called the plenary state in hypnosis. We are striving for the same effect.

Inner conflict.

This is the key to transporting the reader. It’s the storm that rages inside the characters heart, mind and soul. In fiction we have an advantage over media like film in showing inner conflict. In films this conflict can be shown only in exterior ways. In the written word and in plays, we have more tools since we can actually go into the character’s minds and we can use dialogue more abundantly than one can in movies. Too much dialogue in movies usually results in a kind of “talking heads” kind of production, but entire books have been successfully written almost entirely in dialogue. And what is a stage play without dialogue!

To create inner conflict we need to show the character’s guilt, doubts, misgivings and remorse and we need to show the character struggling with decisions. There have to be decisions to be made to achieve the goal of the character and they can’t be easy decisions. Nothing that is black and white. The best literature is shaded gray. There should be pros and cons to each decision on the way to goal-achievement, and whatever is gained should be with some loss. Scarlett O’Hara, for example, ultimately gains her beloved Tara, but at the cost of two men who loved her and for whom she had love, albeit with bad timing. She gains the thing that is most important to her but in the process loses something almost equally valuable. This is the stuff of literature.

Frey again gives an excellent way to think of inner conflict. He suggests thinking of it as a battle between two voices within the character: one of reason, the other of passion--or of two conflicting passions. Within the character him or herself rages a protagonist and an antagonist.

Again, using my own story, Raye has a voice inside telling her she must stop drinking or die and another voice convincing her that if she does quit the booze, she will lose her soul or at least that which makes her an artist and therefore human. Which is preferable? To live physically and die emotionally or to do the reverse? In a perfect, happy-ending, fairy-tale kind of story, she could have both. She could dry out and find she plays even better than before, but that isn’t real life (at least not Raye’s “real life”).

Try this: Pick a story you especially like (you can use the one you’re writing now, if you choose), and see if you can pick out how the author has created sympathy, identification and empathy for the main character. Then, identify the internal crisis in the protagonist’s mind. This is only for your own use - not to be shared with the rest of us and is designed to have you look at stories in their bare essence. Basically, you will be looking for what the character wants and why did you (reader) care enough to keep reading to see if the goal was achieved.

It's important that the author create this in the beginning of her story - empathy, sympathy and/or identification for the central character. Else why should the reader continue?

Answer: He/she won't…


Helen Ginger said...

Excellent advice and examples, Les. Thank you. The last book I read had three protagonists. Although each is very different from me, I could identify with their struggles. For each one, something happened that pulled the rug out from under their feet. I, like probably just about everyone else, has had that happen at some point.

Straight From Hel

Les Edgerton said...

Thanks, Helen! I wish I could claim credit for this info, but James Frey gets all the kudos. It's unfortunate he played with the facts a bit too much in his memoir, but he doesn't mess around in his writing books!

Charmaine Clancy said...

Les you've clarified this information perfectly.
Thanks for a thought-provoking post (even though you gave us homework) :-)

Les Edgerton said...

Thanks, Charmaine! Sorry about the "homework." This is from a lesson I give in some of my classes, and I forgot to take out the homework thingy!

Christine Danek said...

Thank you for the wonderful advice. I may bookmark this for further reference. Also, thank you for visiting my blog. I am now a follower of your.
Christine Danek

Karen Jones Gowen said...


I saw you left a comment on Christine Danek's blog. Which I thought very classy. Your book is the reason I jumped through all those hoops, because I want to win a copy! I had no idea you had a blog here. I'm following so I can get more good ideas.


Les Edgerton said...

Welcome, Christine and Karen! Christine, I found your blog by accident, but it rocks. And I'm a follower of yours also, Christine.

Carl Brush said...

The dialogue exercise would be great for a drama class, too. but wait, you're not teaching drama? Want to bet?