Goldilocks and the Three Books

See the source image
Forget Porridge, Papa, We Have Meat!

After a just-right meal and before going to the just-right bed, Goldilocks thought it would be nice to have something to read, so off to the den she went. She found three books side by side. The first book made no sense, the second book was too heavy, and the third book was just right.

Goldilocks has hit upon the writer’s greatest issue. What’s too little and what’s too much when it comes to description? That’s never an easy answer.

Hemmingway was the master of sparse prose. He had very little description, but what he had was spot-on. Tolkien was a verbose writer, yet he has a devoted audience. Therefore, it isn’t in the quantity of text as much as in the quality of text. Papa Ernest had concrete settings; Old Troll wrote fantasy settings. Each followed a single unstated rule: The right amount of description is that which says the most with the least.

A common cry of young authors is that they must make the reader see what they, the author, sees.

That’s ridiculous, though. Look at any adaptation of fantasy novel to movie. Is that what the author saw? Consider the author of Mary Poppins, who despaired because screen Mary was nothing like book Mary. It would be news to her to discover no one’s Mary was her Mary.

My sister read the opening of a novel I was working on and described the hero as “shallow.”  I didn’t think he was shallow at all!

It’s the author’s job to give just enough description for the reader to build their own version of the literary world. It’s going to be different for everyone.

Do you need to tell us what pattern of the couch? Maybe, if it directly relates to the character’s state of being, but just as description? Maybe, if that’s the defining characteristic of the setting. If it’s just a detail of insignificance, don’t tell us.

Little Bear’s book wasn’t descriptive enough. Goldilocks didn’t know what was going on.

Papa Bear’s book was over-descriptive, which Goldilocks found heavy and exhausting.

Mama Bear’s book found the balance. She helped Goldilocks build a picture rather than try to specifically implant her picture of the setting and characters.

I would love to give a rule, like: If it has no significance, delete it. But that rule doesn’t account for flavor.

A few details beyond just the important gives a flavor of the setting. It sets a tone. Further, things your subconscious puts in a scene may have significance later in the scene. I know a fellow who writes a scene and films it, writes another and films that. The problem with not knowing the ending is that you can’t sprinkle foreshadowing in. I’ve found often what I thought was inconsequential ended up being useful later (and I don’t mean introducing a gun in a scene. If there’s a gun, it must be used, or get rid of it).

The only rule I can possible give is: Keep it fresh. If your old man is in the sea, you better give me a unique scent of the tide. “The sea smelled of fish and salt.” Bleh.  “The sea smelled of rabbis and popcorn.” That’s a unique image.

The mark of a great writer is the ability to find the balance. Just enough, but not too much. Or the bears might eat you.

Building Trust with your Readers

One of my favorite authors died a couple years ago, but his characters live on under different writers. Some have been OK, some have been Not OK, a couple, IMO, have been bad.

Get tight with your reader

When I saw my favorite character’s first other-written novel, I quickly picked it up off the library shelf, looking forward to reading about my female PI friend.

Let me say that I usually read a book through to the end. Of late, if I don’t like a book, I’ll set it down after a few chapters.

This was the first time I dropped a book at the first sentence.

What should have been an easy opening was so badly written I lost complete trust in the author. I don’t know how that line got by editors, but WOW it stank. I showed it to a friend and he blinked, snapped the book shut and said, “That stupid sentence is going to haunt me for days.”

I’m dead serious. It was that bad.

More than anything else, the first sentence, paragraph and chapter is all about building trust with your reader. That is done with:

  • A strong opening that is…
  • Well written with…
  • Proper grammar in the narrative that includes…
  • A hook that grabs me and has…
  • No typos that…
  • Gives me a solid glimpse of a character I can care about with empathy, curiosity, anger, disgust, or any other strong feeling. What we have to avoid is, “who care?” or apathy toward the characters.

This is how you build trust, because a book is all about trust. The reader is trusting the author that reading this won’t be a waste of time, that you the writer knows what you’re doing, that the reader will be satisfied by the story.

In The Amazing Voyage II, Isaac Asimov’s lead character came off like an idiot. He wasn’t asking any of the questions that a normal human being would ask, or catch any obvious issues presented by the character. Then at the end, we suddenly find out that the main guy DID catch everything. Through the whole book I’m calling that guy an idiot, then the flip came, and I felt cheated. I want to read the Foundation series, but I don’t trust the writer. I read that book 30 years ago and still don’t trust Asimov. Without trust, you aren’t going to invest hours in the book.

Asimov’s mistake was in making the errors so obvious that I caught them all. Had he been more subtle and the main character had to uncover the errors for me, I would have been fine, but we expect our main characters to be at least as smart as we are. Typically with mysteries, the detective solves the clues as we go along. In the first place, Asimov’s character had to use copious exposition at the end (where it never belongs). By doing so, he told us we had never known the character, which is a requirement of a story. Even the unreliable narrator makes everything fall into place at the end. It works because we never distrusted the UN or thought the UN was an idiot). He wasn’t an unreliable narrator, Asimov was an unreliable storyteller.

Trust is vital. Earn it.

Cinematic Writing: Keeping Your Story Reel

Storytelling is a visual medium

Who doesn’t want their novel turned into a movie?

While I wouldn’t say you should write your book with the goal of someone buying it to make a movie, I think it’s valuable to borrow techniques from screenwriters to improve your story.

A movie script is the most structured form of writing you’ll encounter. The three-act structure is tightly adhered to, and as Blake Snyder reveals in his book Save the Cat, certain things happen on certain pages and only on those pages.

The storytelling medium is supremely limited because the writer has 90 to 110 pages, or 90 to 120 minutes to tell the story. In contrast, your book will likely take hours to read. Because of this time compression, screenwriters have certain techniques that we as novelists and non-fiction writers can borrow for our books.

Yes, I said non-fiction writers. Moneyball was written from a book about statistics. Yes, it was baseball, too, but if the author hadn’t done such a cinematic job on his book, it might not have happened. Further, screenwriters can take the principles of a non-fiction book and be inspired to write a script that incorporates them.

First and foremost, for a script, every scene must be essential to the story. A screenplay’s chief structure is the spine of the story, or the dramatic question. Anything that doesn’t hang from the spine has to go.

But that isn’t enough for the screenwriter. Every scene has to do double and triple duty, packing as much into a scene as possible, including plot, character development, foreshadowing, and more. As book writers, we can borrow that double duty for our scenes. We also have more leeway to interpret what hangs from the spine and what doesn’t. I’m not saying you should compress your story, this is a book, not a movie. Borrow the techniques, not the rigidity.

Movies are visually striking. Your scenes should be, as well. That doesn’t mean ever scene must be set somewhere exotic, but you need to paint your scene with just enough unique detail for us to visualize it. The reader will fill in a lot from just a few cues.

Every scene is active, layered with conflict, visual metaphors, and energy. Talking head, just two people chatting, is rare. Consider the scene in Avengers, Age of Ultron, when Steve and Tony are having a tense conversation. They aren’t sitting drinking tea, they are chopping wood with more and more intensity until an angry Captain America rips a big log apart. You can turn off the audio and see what the scene is about. Then Tony has a conversation with Fury as he works on a truck engine. Characters should do something metaphoric as they speak.

Dialog is almost always short and snappy, to the point. Few characters are long-winded. Your dialog should have no small talk, nothing unrelated to the spine.

Strong, clear character arcs are important. Unlike the comic book Tony Stark who never changes, the movie Tony Stark has a vast character arc that includes being selfish, heroic, traumatized, broken, and sacrificially heroic, the complete opposite of where he began. Comic books need to maintain the status quo, movies don’t. Books don’t, even if they are series, the characters should change. If you have a strong character arc, you can include a lost novelist technique of foreshadowing. Again, the Marvel movies are outstanding at this. Every argument Cap and Iron Man have is a foreshadowing of the character’s eventual change.

Finally, the ending is clear, wraps up all major plot points, and leaves us energetically satisfied.

Studying screenwriting will improve your book writing; there are a lot of tricks I haven’t touched on here. You have more freedom, but using the concentrated techniques of a screenwriter can help guide you through your story.

Isolation: A Vital Element of Story

Your main character, the hero of the story no matter the genre, must be isolated to make a logical, powerful story.

I don’t mean stranded on a desert island isolated, but cut-of-from-help isolated.

It’s amazing how many pictures of “alone” and “isolated” are negative. Am I the only one who likes to be alone?

Consider, your hero encounters a problem in the first act of the story. We learn who the hero is, what their normal is, and then something happens… this is the inciting incident. What happens next is the isolation of your hero. It isn’t enough for the problem to be solvable, it must only be solvable by the hero.

Such isolation takes on many forms. It could be they (the hero and the merry band of support characters, or the ensemble) are literally cut off. Their plane crashes in the dinosaur-infested jungle and there are no other humans for miles.

Or it could be a matter of skill set. The president is dying on Air Force One and the hero is the only doctor. It all on the hero.

It could be relational. The hero estranged from his dying father is the only one who can fulfill his last request. Or a terrorist will only deal with the hero, no one else.

This is vitally important because, hey, if there is someone better suited to save the day, why is your character the hero?

This is particularly difficult in today’s society where everyone has a cellphone. You either need to get rid of the phone, out of range, broken, or dead battery, or isolate through time; there are others more suited, but they don’t have time to get there, or are unmotivated, or in league with the villain.

How is your character isolated? Make sure it’s clear and strong or your story will be unbelievable.