Perhaps I should start an “Exercises” category for posts? I’ll think about it. While this post is much closer to an exercise than the sort of thing usually found in “Reading Like a Writer,” I hope it is useful in the same way.
The questions below are a revision of Arthur Aron’s research into creating emotional intimacy between individuals. His work suggests 36 questions. They are best asked and answered in the order below. After you have answered them, consider which answers might be expanded into engaging scenes for readers.
Answer these questions to help create a character or characters.
- Given the choice of anyone in any world, whom would this character want as a dinner guest?
- Would this character like to be famous? In what way?
- Before making a telephone call (or communicating in general), would this character ever rehearse what they are going to say? Why?
- What would constitute a “perfect” day for this character?
- When did this character last sing to themself? To someone else?
- If this character were able to live to the age of 90 and retain either the mind or body of a 30-year-old for the last 60 years of their life, which would they want?
- Does this character have a secret hunch about how they will die?
- Name three things this character and you or another character appear to have in common.
- For what in this character’s life do they feel most grateful?
- If this character could change anything about the way they were raised, what would it be?
- Take four minutes and free write this character’s life story in as much detail as possible.
- If this character could wake up tomorrow having gained any one quality or ability, what would it be?
- If a crystal ball could tell this character the truth about themself, their life, the future or anything else, what would they want to know?
- Is there something that this character has dreamed of doing for a long time? Why haven’t they done it?
- What is the greatest accomplishment of this character’s life so far?
- What does this character value most in a friendship?
- What is this character’s most treasured memory?
- What is this character’s most terrible memory?
- If this character knew that in one year they would die suddenly, would they change anything about the way they are now living? Why?
- What does friendship mean to this character?
- What roles do love and affection play in this character’s life?
- Draft a brief exchange in which this character describes a positive characteristic of another character while listening to themselves described positively. Share a total of five items.
- How close and warm is this character’s family? Does this character feel their childhood was happier than most other people’s?
- How does this character feel about their relationship with their mother? Their father?
- Make three true “we” statements for your character and one other character. For instance, “We are both in this room feeling … “
- Complete this sentence for your character: “I wish I had someone with whom I could share … “
- If this character were going to become a close friend with another character, what would be important for the second character to know.
- What might this character like about another character? What might this character like about another character they have been friends with for decades?
- What has been the most embarrassing moment in this character’s life.
- When did this character last cry in front of another person? By themself?
- If this character were to die with no opportunity to communicate with anyone, what would they most regret not having told another character? Why haven’t they told them yet?
- This character’s house, containing everything they own, catches fire. After saving loved ones, they have time to safely make a final dash to save any one item. What would it be? Why?
- Of all the people in this character’s family, whose death would they find most disturbing? Why?
“They arrived at the mouth of an oversized freight elevator, scrambled inside, and begun to plunge earpoppingly hellward, aged fluorescent bulbs buzzing and flickering till the brakes caught just when it seems too late, and they bloomed to a stop and came out into a tunnel, deep underground, which led them under the creek bed and then slowly uphill for half a mile, where they exited at last into brightly sunlit terrain where they could hear in the distance the invading motor convoy and the blades of the helicopters, merged in an industrious roar that could as well have been another patch of developer condos going up.”
from Vineland by Thomas Pynchon
- This sentence is a summary of a journey. Summary, creative writers rightly worry, can be uninteresting. What makes this walk after an elevator ride engaging?
- The context is one answer. The sentences before this suggest a chase is beginning. The characters are in danger, but even without that context I think this summary holds readers’ attention. Context alone is not enough.
- While it is a summary, the sentence uses particular sensory details. It is specific and evokes sight and sound and perhaps a sense of movement.
- Word choice matters. “Oversized,” “scrambled,” “plunge earpoppingly hellward,” “bloomed,” for example. Almost every word manages to be interesting or a small surprise.
- Finally, figurative language helps make the sentence interesting. After all, according to the first few pages, the elevator is a mouth and characters are inside.
- The sentence begins at the beginning of the journey and ends at the end of the journey.
- The length or structure or shape of this sentence is part of what is interesting about it. To illustrate, what would it be like as a series of shorter sentences? Would it be less or more engaging?
- They arrived at the mouth of an oversized freight elevator. Scrambling inside, they began to plunge earpoppingly hellward. Aged fluorescent bulbs buzzed and flickered till the brakes caught just when it seems too late. They bloomed to a stop and came out into a tunnel, deep underground. It led them under the creek bed and then slowly uphill for half a mile. They exited at last into brightly sunlit terrain. In the distance they could hear the invading motor convoy and the blades of the helicopters. The sounds merged in an industrious roar that could as well have been another patch of developer condos going up
- Obviously, rendered in shorter sentences, the reading experience has changed. Is it more or less likely to interest readers?
- As the sentence ends, it returns to a larger theme, in this case the environment.
Consider trying something like this.
“The Tree of Knowledge of Life” is available from MacQueen’s Quinterly.
I reached my goal to draft 100 micro fictions. None of them are shorter than 100 words; some are longer but nothing over five hundred. I like some but flinch slightly at others.
The traditional suggestion for revision is that once a draft is done it should sit as long as possible. The thinking is that the passage of time will help make the draft new or fresh or strange the next time it is read. This strangeness will show possible next steps for future drafts.
Another common suggestion once a draft is done is reading it aloud. Hearing sentences can reveal ways they might be improved.
Today, I’m not sure which of these I’ll do next. Letting this draft of 100 micro fictions sit for a while is an easy default. I have one or two other big projects (Friends of the Clam and Children of the Witch) I ought to return to as well.
Writing gives me such enormous pleasure, and I’m a much happier (and therefore nicer) person when I’m doing it. There’s a place in my head that I go to when I write and it’s so rich and unexpected – and scary sometimes – but never ever dull. I first went there when I was seven and I wrote a poem which startled me a bit because it felt like someone else had written it. The adrenaline rush that gave me was incredible and I wanted more. These days, maybe because I can now access that place quite easily, writing feels like something I simply could not live without. It is a joyous thing. I feel very lucky to be paid to do it, but even if I’d never been published, I think I’d still be writing. I love being read, but the person I’m really always writing for is me.
“John Rainbird thought later that things could not have worked better if they had planned it . . . and if those fancy psychologists had been worth a tin whistle in a high wind, they would have planned it. But as it happened, it was only the lucky happenstance of the blackout’s occurring when it did that allowed him to finally get his chisel under one corner of the psychological steel that armored Charlie McGee. Luck, and his own inspired intuition.”
from Fire-starter by Stephen King
This paragraph begins a chapter. Here are some quick thoughts.
- Readers know almost immediately that things worked out for this character but how things worked out is only presented very generally here. At the same time, the general language makes a promise: readers will have details. But the sentences also delay their presentation. The sentences build anticipation, in other words. Readers read on, looking for details.
- The sentences that delay the details characterize both the characters involved in the event that will be described. John Rainbird thinks he has finally got “his chisel under one corner of the psychological steel that armored Charlie McGee.” Rainbird’s thoughts let readers know how he thinks of himself and Charlie McGee. Hi goal is clear. Consequences and change (McGee trusts or has opened up to Rainbird) are implied.
- While the event is only described generally, readers have reasons to think it will be interesting: it’s a blackout, there is luck and “inspired intuition” involved, “those fancy psychologists” should have thought of it themselves.
These are a beautiful few sentences that drive readers farther into the chapter.
“I told a woman who plays in the orchestra how uncapturable music is, how I cannot think of organizing the music I hear, but only be its audience. But she said that writing is the most abstract form; the other forms have concomitant human sense organs; music has the ear, and painting the eye, sculpture the hands, and acting and dancing the voice and body. But writing, she said, does not have its organ. She began to cry; I’ve not sure why.”
Maxine Hong Kingston, quoted in Metro: Journeys in Writing Creatively
If you know where this anecdote originally appeared, please let me know.
- The stories characters tell are especially effective ways to characterize.
- This story starts with one character (“I told . . .”) describing another (“a woman who plays in the orchestra”) and making an assertion about a form of art. There is a clear connection between one of the characters and the subject of the assertion (orchestra/music). It’s a simple straight-forward beginning.
- The paragraph takes the form of an assertion in the first sentence, a general qualification (“But she said . . .”) in the second, a more specific qualification (“But writing, she said, . . .”) in the third, and a reaction to conclude.
- The story is told and reacted to by the teller and hearer. Their reactions are close to the story and to each other (“She began to cry; I’ve not sure why”). This proximity highlights the contrasts and focuses the characterization.
- As short as this anecdote is, it shows the value of asking big, philosophical questions and capturing insights or close observations about the world.
- Finally, the story shows or lists examples of a word (“concomitant”) it uses (“music has the ear, and painting the eye”) These examples show the meaning of the word with specifics. Those specifics are far more interesting that the abstract definition: “concomitant: naturally accompanying or associated.”
Here’s an effort at some of what I’ve talked about: “I told the blacksmith that I could never make a sword, that I’m not a creator, that I’m afraid to risk the time it takes, that even standing in the heat for hours is beyond me. But he said that once you’ve seen it done, once you’ve followed the steps–they’re the same each time–over and over, you don’t have to think about it much. And once you’ve been rewarded for your work, he said, once you’ve been paid, your days are just repeating the steps over and over as fast as you can. That’s all. He wouldn’t look at me after that and wouldn’t sell me a blade; became too good for me, I guess.”
What do you think? Can you provide an example?
The Practice of Creative Writing by Heather Sellers is an excellent introduction to Creative Writing across genres. It includes the following advice: “When you write about one person who is alone, you tend to rely on thoughts. It’s harder to create tension with a character alone on stage, lost in thought – difficult but not impossible . . . As a rule, however, a character alone with their thoughts is boring” (255). This is a good principle. One of the weaknesses in one of my projects lately is time a character spends alone, specifically while driving across much of the country. I’ve been thinking about how to revise to add tension to that journey.
At the same time, I’ve just started rereading Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake, the first of her MaddAddam trilogy. Atwood’s Snowman/Jimmy is very alone in a postapocalyptic cli-fi setting. Atwood’s text suggests a character who is alone can spend lots of time thinking about an interesting past that is full of other characters (these include for Snowman/Jimmy, his father, mother, father’s lover, teachers, a male friend, a female friend, at least one crush, and others). He is comfortable commenting on his own time thinking about his past (he generally doesn’t like it) and is comfortable guessing about the thoughts and feelings of people from his past. Most importantly, while much of the book takes place in Snowman/Jimmy’s past, the contrasts between his past, our near future (in which the book is set), and his present gives the narrative real tension.
I’m not sure how that set of three sources of tension could work in my project, but another strategy Atwood uses, that you’ve already probably noticed, is that her character gives himself a different name. He thinks of himself as a different person as a result of an event in the story. Before, he was Jimmy. Now, he is Snowman. Another source of tension or interest for me as a reader is discovering the details of this change. Why the change? Why Snowman?
That’s something I can use as my character drives and it might add tension or at least help characterize him. Before a big event he saw the world one way. After he sees it another. He might rename himself as a result. He’ll definitely think of himself differently in ways I can make explicit.
Are there ways Atwood’s strategies might apply to something your working on?
“The very next day, a woman ahead of Graham in line at the deli order a Reuben sandwich with French dressing instead of Russian, and Graham recalled that his ex-wife had often order that very sandwich, and then he realized the woman was his ex-wife.”
from Standard Deviation by Katherine Heiny
Here are some thoughts about this graceful sentence.
- The surprise in this sentence is a result of its shape, its structure. The information it presents is ordered so that readers move from “a woman ahead of Graham” and the details of a sandwich, to the memory of a woman, to the actual woman in the character’s present moment. In other words, readers move from trigger, to memory, to instance/event.
- The process of recalling a memory takes place within the process of ordering a meal. The character’s mundane becomes a source of possible drama and his reaction to this event characterizes. Graham, in the sentences that follow this one, vacillates between inviting his ex-wife to eat with him and avoiding her by slipping away.
- The italics provide an emphasis that perhaps characterizes but also gives readers an additional clue that while we’re within Graham’s consciousness his ex-wife is also present before him and us.
Consider building a sentence using a similar structure, one that moves from trigger to memory to surprising presence.