Thursday, June 3, 2010


Hi folks,
Thought it might be a good time to return to basic stuff today. Hope you enjoy and get some value out of this!

©Leslie Edgerton

            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 asked, 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 literary 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…


Anne Gallagher said...

New fan here! I am so glad I found your blog. You are an inspiration to the written word. Thanks so much for today's post. It really resonated with me and my current wip.

Les Edgerton said...

Hi Piedmont! Welcome to our blog and I'm glad you like it. I'm all over the map... kind of like a fart in a skillet... but hope some of it resonates with you.

Helen Ginger said...

Les, I'm wondering how long a reader will give an author to establish that empathy - and how long will that empathy hold the reader. I'm thinking of a story where the protagonist, for example, is married to an abusive alcoholic. The reader identifies with her because the reader was or is in the same or similar situation. Will the reader at some point stop reading if the protagonist doesn't stand up for herself and leave the relationship or change it for the better? (Because the reader ultimately longs for a better life herself and the ability to stand up for herself.) Can the author go a hundred pages before we begin to see the shift in the wife? 200? 50?

Straight From Hel

Anonymous said...

Oh thank God! I was worried that I had too much dialogue. Now for the character's inner conflict, how much of that is okay to show via character thought? And how would thought be shown? Italics? Regular text with a "Bob thought"?

Les Edgerton said...

Helen, good question! I'd recommend that you establish empathy immediately. I think I should do a post on this and I'll probably use Blake Snyder's take on this as per the title of his books (Save the Cat) which is akin to this very thing. I know you got at least the first book, so look in the Introduction on page xv. As far as how far will the reader go with the protagonist once this is established, the answer is... almost forever, provided at some point (s)he is rewarded for sticking around. If the reader is never rewarded, they may have read that book, but probably never again will they pick up that author!

Also, remember there are two other elements and if one is missing or absent for awhile, the other two may work to keep the reader engaged.

The more I think about it, the more I think you're asking two different things. If the protagonist doesn't stand up for herself for very long, the story as a whole isn't working to begin with, because one of the requirements of story is that once the inciting incident is over--which is one of the few times the character can be reactive--then he or she has to become proactive in resolving the problem. If they don't, it becomes an episodic novel and, as you know, there's no market for them puppies. So, with that in mind, I don't think there's any question about how long a reader will stick with a protagonist who simply lets things happen to her without being proactive. That's Indiana Jones without any production values... Make sense?

Does that answer it? Hope so! You ask the best (and toughest!) questions.

Les Edgerton said...

Writer-lilies (Cool name!) good question! Unfortunately, there's no formula or guideline to how much dialog should be used. Successful novels have been written that were virtually all dialog and others in which dialog was almost nonexistent. Although, I wouldn't recommend either extreme unless your work is of true genius. ( may be!) Most agents/editors look for and want to see a goodly amount of dialog. It just tells them this is a writer who can probably write scenes and that's crucial.

As far as the character's inner thoughts showing conflict, I'd only use as much as is necessary. No more. That doesn't tell you much, I realize, but it's really a case-by-case scenario. In general, however, I'd limit to only the thoughts that are truly crucial and move the plot forward. Keep in mind that thoughts are dialog just as much as spoken dialog is. It's just interior dialog, but it has the same rules and effects as spoken dialog.

As far as italics, technically, it's okay to use italics, but my personal taste is not to use them. For one thing, when there are very many italicized sentences on the page, it quickly delivers a very ugly aesthetic to the "look" of the page, which can easily turn an agent/editor or reader off. Also, I'd try to eliminate tagging thoughts for the most part and as long as you make it clear by the context that it's a thought, it doesn't draw unnecessary attention to the fact that someone's writing it and take us out of the fictive dream. It's a personal thing, but I suspect there are many readers who kind of shudder when they encounter a page with very many italicized "thought" sentences. Using just regular text just makes the puppy look "gooder."

Hope this helps!

Sally Clements said...

Thanks for a really excellent post, Les. The part that really resonated with me was that there are pros and cons to every decision. And that the character, to gain something, should lose something. When I first started writing, my characters always made the 'right' decision. They got what they wanted, they lost nothing. It was all happy ever after, and boring as hell to read. Now, like the rest of us, they make a choice and its not always the right one. And when they get happiness, they've gone through the wringer to achieve it! :)

Sarah Faurote said...

Hi Les--I haven't see you in ages. Sorry about that. I am evolving...morphing, perhaps--I would love to see you. I will call soon. Peace-

Eeleen Lee said...

this is great post, more in depth than the prescriptive 'Save the cat' advice for making characters likable and sympathetic