Category: story

The Disgruntled Viewer

First, a thousand apologies for neglecting the care and feeding of the blog. If you want to see my list of excuses, read to the end.

goodwifeOne of the things I’ve been doing during the long, hot days of summer besides neglecting the blog is watching The Good Wife, all seven seasons, because I didn’t watch the show when it aired in real time and I’d heard it was well-casted, smartly written, and chock full of big and small moral dilemmas and courtroom intrigue.

I admit I became attached to these very flawed characters (much like I latched on emotionally to the equally, if not more, messed-up characters on Mad Men). I became interested and invested in their fictional lives and I began to care whether or not they found the happiness in life we all seek. Let me just stop right here and say SPOILER ALERT. If you’ve not seen The Good Wife to its conclusion and think you might want to, skip right now to my excuses for not feeding the blog, or click away and I’ll see you next time.

When a viewer starts to care about TV characters who aren’t real people, the series screenwriter has done his or her job perfectly. When we start to care, we start to long for the characters’ vindication or redemption. Season after season, year after a year of a character’s life, we increasingly long for the day (as the characters does) when she will either get what she wants or when she will become a different kind of person who wants something else. Something better. We will look back at the end of the viewing journey and say that story was worth the hours (many hours) we gave to it.

Can you tell I am about to tell you I felt cheated out of my emotional investment and the sheer number of minutes I turned over to this TV drama? I was not prepared for Alicia (spoiler alert, spoiler alert) to morph into the anti-hero. And this is not because I can’t handle a good person becoming the anti-hero. I was a big fan of Breaking Bad. It’s also not because I can’t handle a flawed person staying flawed. I am an even bigger fan of Mad Men. Donald Draper is the most flawed TV character I’ve ever known and yet I was not left feeling robbed at his series finale.

So why did I feel so ticked off at how The Good Wife ended? I’m still trying to figure it out. How is Alicia Florrick different than Walter White? She was told late in the series by another character that her problem is she can’t distinguish between love and responsibility. I liked that line and I waited to see how this revelation would be used to bring her character around to a satisfying end. Not necessarily happily-ever-after, but satisfying. That revelation never brought about anything other than her character’s demise. The wounds she’d suffered (and which had bound me to her emotionally) were cheapened by who she became at the end, at least for me. Walter White had a similar end and yet I could see his moral collapse coming, episode after episode. Not so here. Am I the one at fault? Am I missing something grand here?

Would love to hear your thoughts, fellow Good Wife viewers. Enlighten me, please. I really do want to know what you think. And I want to be able to feel the hours had been worth it. I stand ready to be convinced.

Oh, here are the excuses:

  1. I was busy
  2. I had nothing important to say
  3. It was hot
  4. I was plotting a new book
  5. I was editing a book
  6. I was watching The Good Wife

Why stories sometimes need a death

the-walking-dead-posterWarning: If you haven’t watched the mid-season finale of The Walking Dead, don’t read this blog post yet. . .

Despite the gut-wrenching dystopic setting of AMC’s The Walking Dead, we are big fans at my house. I’ve long since gotten over the sound effects and visual horror of zombies dining and zombies being dispatched and while I still look away plenty of times, the cinematic gore is too over the top for me to think of it as real. The characters on the other hand come across as exceedingly real to me. They are the reason I am a fan of the show. They are ordinary people trying to hold onto their humanity in a hellish environment that wants to rob them of it, and that is a fabulous setting in which to tell a story.

So naturally when a beloved and longstanding character is killed off with no warning of any kind, the storylover in me feels a pang of true grief. A season ago when the kind and gentle Hershel died in The Walking Dead, I actually shouted at the television, “Noooooooo!’ I was not mentally prepared for the death of this character, whose persona consistently reminded the other characters who they had been before the world turned upside down. There was no network scuttlebutt of the actor who played Hershel wanting out of the show (ala Sybil and Matthew in Downton Abbey)  and thus forcing the screenwriters to look for creative ways to pen him out of the story.  His sad death was as real as it might have been if our world really was reeling from a zombie apocalypse. There were no contrivances here.

You can imagine then, my response to Beth’s unexpected death last night. I yelled. I got mad. I got sad. I wanted to rewind the story and change it so she lives. Isn’t that exactly how a real death is? On the commentary show that followed, The Talking Dead, the actress who plays Beth, Emily Kinney, could barely bring herself to speak about what happened to her character because she still loved portraying her. She hadn’t been wanting a way off the show. The story, according to its writers, requires such deeply emotional twists now and then because it would not be believable that every character always survives every nasty situation in a zombie apocalypse. We would not believe that kind of story. A story you can’t believe isn’t a story you will love.  As a writer myself, I understand that.  A game-changer like what happened last night is an intense action scene that will demand many reaction scenes in the episodes to come.

The writer in me gets that.

The human in me is still sad that sweet Beth, a gentle reminder of who Hershel — her father —  had been, is gone. She felt real to me, as a great character in a great story should…

I wanted to but I couldn’t

BellmanI remember reading once that Harper Lee didn’t write another novel after To Kill a Mockingbird because she knew readers would expect too much with a second book and that kind of pressure was wholly unattractive. Perhaps Margaret Mitchell felt the same way after Gone With the Wind. We readers can be heartless in our desire to be wooed and won at a more breath-taking level than the book before.

Some years ago I read, nay, devoured Diane Setterfield’s The Thirteenth Tale. I told every one I knew who loved fiction to read it, it was such a well-written, captivating tale. I read the book a second time for book club, and then a third time to just study the craft of having a young, idealistic protagonist cross paths with a much older realist; a pairing I wanted for The Shape of Mercy which I wrote in 2007.

I waited and waited for Ms. Setterfield to write a second book, and while I read many other novels in the interim, The Thirteenth Tale remained in my perennial  top five. When people would ask me to recommend a book in those in-between years, I would invariably ask, “Have you read The Thirteenth Tale?” and if they hadn’t, I would tell them that was the book they needed to read next.

So when I learned that, after eight years,  a new Setterfield book was on the horizon, I gleefully pre-ordered it – months before it was to hit bookstore shelves- and counted the days. Bellman & Black arrived on my doorstep in all its hardback beauty two days after its release. I had to finish another book I was reading and I itched to be done so that I could crack open the Setterfieldian pages and consume them.

I finished the book last night.  I can only say that I wanted so very much to be transported to another place with the story, just as I had been before. My expectations were high, perhaps illogically so. Perhaps with The Thirteenth Tale it was the writer’s story, not the story’s writer that so captivated me before. Perhaps it was something unique about me that made The Thirteenth Tale resonate within me, rather than something unique about its author.  The prose in Bellman & Black was lovely, Setterfield is still a master, but I never left the room while reading her second book. And I wanted to. Too much so. I wanted to be transported. I was not.

Perhaps I need to book-club this one to appreciate it properly. Sometimes it’s only after I’ve discussed a book with people that I realize what I missed. Some reader reviewers have said Bellman & Black is too dark; but so was The Thirteenth Tale, so I don’t think for me, that it was because there wasn’t enough light. As a novelist myself I know that in every great story, the main character has to be on a quest, a pursuit to have something he doesn’t have, and he has to overcome recognizable and somewhat relatable obstacles to get it. Doesn’t matter if you are reading Green Eggs and Ham or The Silence of the the Lambs. The protagonist, flawed but likeable, must want something and must overcome opposition to get it. What the character wants must be something we readers understand and WANT them to want. Their opposition must also be understood and recognizable. This is how we become emotionally invested. This is what keeps us turning pages. This is what transports us. The clash of the quest and the character and the conflict must captivate us.

Otherwise you just have words on a page. They can be great words, skillfully placed. But unless they transport, they remain words.

Not a ticket.

Will I read Setterfield again? Absolutely. This one just wasn’t the trip for me.

From nothing to flesh and bone

frankensteinI’m in the throes of the hardest part of writing a book and I’m only 5,000 words into it. It’s always this way when I first begin a novel. I’ve done the research, I’ve set the scene, I’ve plotted the storyline, I’ve prepared my notes. I begin, and I immediately run for the Advil to chase away the thundering headache from those first attempts to write a character whom I’ve never worked with before.

For me, the aspect of novel-writing that takes me to the mat is character-fleshing. Not character-creating; that part is easy. Character-creating is sitting in Starbucks or on my patio with a yellow pad and mechanical pencil, happily imagining someone who who wants something. I like that day. It’s invigorating. The unvigorating part is giving that wispy, personish idea flesh and bones. That part doesn’t happen on a day; it happens over the course of agonizing weeks while I squeeze out of that character’s nothingness a somethingness. Moving her forward on her quest to have what she wants requires that I know her intimately; that I know how she responds to change. I have to have already imagined how she thinks, and what makes her sad, what makes her angry, what makes her feel safe, feel threatened, feel empowered, feel defeated. And I have to tease the readers into caring about her, and whether she gets what she wants. The character has to have flaws and virtues. Strengths and weaknesses. It’s mentally exhausting. When I finish writing this blog post, I will click off every Internety  thing I have open (distractions, distractions) and will spend the rest of the day making the flat girl in my laboratory come to life. And I will do it tomorrow and the next day. And the next, and for likely the next 30,000 words. By the third-of-the-way mark, I am usually over the worst of it.

I will have to pull off the first third by writing as if this character was already this richly detailed person whose deepest thoughts are already known to me. Yep, that’s the killer. A character reveals herself as I write. And yet I can’t write unless I know the character.  Scary stuff, that.

I love this quote from a CNN interview with Mo Willems on this conundrum of which comes first.

“CNN: Which comes first: the characters or the ideas?
Mo Willems: It all depends. A lot of people think of ideas as objects, or animals that you hunt. You go into the woods, you find an idea, you capture it and you bring it home. And ideas really are more like gardens. And every day, you’re planting lots and lots of ideas. Some of them get eaten by birds, and never go anywhere. Some of them grow up to be really horrible things. Some wither and die. Every now and then, over time, some idea grows up to be big and beautiful and filled with fruit. You can cut that down and burn it for profit. So it’s an evolution.”

And the evolution happens – for me, anyway – not on lovely Starbucks day, but in the grueling salt mines of writing that first third.

It’s a wearisome wonder. A demanding delight.

Call me when it’s over…

I know what conventional wisdom says is the oldest profession in the world, but I simply don’t agree. I think storytellers have that spot, and I think history will back me up on that. Before there was paper and ink, or even commerce routes and trading posts, there were stories.

Oral tradition is as old as hunting and gathering. We’ve been endowed by our storytelling Creator to respond to Story as an art form that transcends art. Story is more than just “Once upon a time, something happened, and they lived happily ever after.” Story allows us to interpret life; record-keeping just observes it. Story lets us pass on what we learn to the next generation. And so on, and so on. It’s the “something happened” part that is the heart of story, not the “Once upon a time” part.

A few months from now I will join other storytellers (novelists like me: Mary DeMuth, Jenny B Jones, Nicole Seitz, and Lisa Wingate) at a Proverbs 31 SheSpeaks pre-conference offering to help women of faith and influence hone their storytelling skills. I can’t wait to get there. Story is the heart of communication. We haven’t all had the same experiences in life, but we can all imagine the same experience and learn from it if there is a storyteller to guide us. 

I’ve asked Marybeth Whalen and Ariel Lawhon, the engineers behind this pre-conference storytelling track, to join me here on Edgewise to chat about this very thing. Marybeth and Ariel are gifted novelists as well as part of the conference design team and founders of the SheReads component of P31.

EDGEWISE: You both are devotees (as I am) of the power of Story to communicate truth. I am often asked why that it is so. Why do you think Story speaks to us in a different way that mere exposition?

Marybeth Whalen

MARYBETH: In some cases I think story can tell a less imposing, more clear explanation of a topic than non-fiction. I once read a quote that basically said that truth coming from our characters’ mouths is so much more powerful than truth coming from our (the writers) mouths. And I think that’s true. To witness a character going through the full range of a story is so compelling– we are drawn to the journey with them. I have heard people say “Oh I don’t read fiction. It’s a waste of my time.” That makes me sad for them. They are missing the power of a well-told story.

ARIEL: There is an old Jewish saying that goes, “What is truer than truth? The story.” I think the power behind story comes from the fact that it is disarming. It sneaks up on you and then lingers. Because stories are so emotional, we take ownership of them.

EDGEWISE: Does the nonfiction author need to know the anatomy of a great story? How come?
MARYBETH: I think that whether we’re writing fiction, nonfiction or speaking, we’re obligated to tell our stories in a way that is compelling and engaging. When we know the proper elements we can make it more so. Do they have to? No. But their writing will be more powerful when they do.
Ariel Lawhon

ARIEL: I think that anyone who communicates for a living needs to understand the anatomy of a story. To grow an idea from beginning to end, there are a minimum of seven steps: Weakness/Need, Desire, Opponent, Plan, Battle, Self-Revelation, and New Equilibrium. Even thirty-second commercials follow this structure. Whether you tell the story in front of an audience, in a novel, or a work of non-fiction these steps don’t change. We often hit them without even realizing it but when used intentionally, they become the storytellers’ most powerful tool.

EDGEWISE: What has Story taught you about life and life’s purpose?
MARYBETH: I want my life to tell a great story – one full of tension that includes overcoming obstacles. And yet the obstacles and tension are the very things I shy away from. Learning about the elements of a great story has made me realize that my full and complete “character arc” can’t be accomplished if all the elements are not there. It’s made me see that God’s writing a great story through my life and I need to just go with the flow of my personal story and not resist out of fear.

ARIEL: Story has taught me that “the middle” is the hardest part of life. I know where I came from and I know where I’ll end up, but it’s right here – in the tension of now – that things are hardest. All I can do is slow down and enjoy the story.

EDGEWISE: What prompted you to include this component into the SheSpeaks experience?
MARYBETH: As fiction writers, we see what power story brings to any audience. If you go hear a speaker, you will often come away unable to repeat the three points that speaker made, but you will almost always be able to repeat the story they told. I believe our brains are hard-wired to connect through story. Jesus knew this because He is our Creator. He made use of it and we want to more effectively as well.

ARIEL: I think the one thing we fail to tell aspiring writers is that there is a huge difference between Writing and Story. They are different art forms and we must master them both. We wanted to offer a storytelling track at She Speaks specifically to explore the art of Story – what you say, not how you say it. Writers conferences abound. Storytelling conferences? Not so much.

EDGEWISE: What are you hoping women who attend this pre-conference treat will come away with?
MARYBETH: Inspiration and encouragement to pursue their unique writing/speaking calling. We have gathered the best fiction writers to impart the strongest teaching and make this time worth their valuable time.

ARIEL: Story is the shortest distance to the human heart. I’d love to see these women moved and inspired not only to become better storytellers, but to live a better story. 

EDGEWISE: Thanks, gals, for stopping by. Dear reader, the first 50 spots at this pre-conference track were filled before it was even fully advertised. An instant waiting list prompted organizers to get a bigger room and expand the enrollment capabilities to 100 but those spots are expected to fill fast. If you have a speaking or writing ministry and are wondering which conference to go to this year, may I recommend SheSpeaks? It’s a great conference, and not just because the value of Story is known there! The dates are July 22-24. All the info is on the p31 website. Hope to see you in North Carolina this summer. 

See you on Friday. . .

What if I say something brilliant

Every now and then I pop over to Technorati to get a read on the pulse of my web presence. It’s a vanity thing. Like Googling my name. I tell myself I do this to see how my books are doing. But in truth I want to know if anyone really knows who I am. It can be a humbling experience. Or enlightening one. I don’t do it very often.

Anyway, there is a a quote from Matt Nolastname on the Technorati homepage that always makes me smile. It also kept me from creating my own blog for many, many moons. “71 million blogs . . . Some of them have to be good.” Perhaps you can see why I smile. And cringe. When I went live with Edgewise last week, the blogosphere went from 71,000,000 blogs to 71,000,001. There’s a touch of the absurdly funny there.

The world truly does not need another blog. This was my mantra all those months (okay, more like a couple years) while I read friends’ blogs and posted on friends’ blogs. The world does not need another new blog and I don’t need to have another child. What can I say that hasn’t been said before? Or will be said tomorrow?

Okay, stop right there. If I really believed that, I wouldn’t be writing books. Certainly not fiction. There are no new stories, only new ways of telling old tales. Every story has been told before. The remarkable task of the novelist is to discover new words to describe old plots. What can I say that hasn’t been said before is the wrong question to ask. The right question begins with the word how. How can I say what has already been said before? How can I reinvent Cinderella or Moby Dick or Tale of Two Cities? How can I tell a tale of redemption or quest or sacrifice using old words in new ways?

If there’s no way to to do this, then the world doesn’t need another new book, either. May it never be.

So. The truth is I finally realized I can live with knowing I am a just a voice among a million voices. How did I realize that? Because I am already doing it. With books.

And my other fear? That other thing that kept me from creating my own blog all those months? The fear that I would actually say something brilliant and no one would read it or, dare I say it, pay for it?

Let’s just say delusions of grandeur keep my world an interesting place and provide fodder for the muse. They remind me who I am. Eventually.