(Standard spoiler disclaimer applies to The Book of Life.)
A little while back, during one of those Twitter writer events I’m so fond of, the question was posed: “What does your main character fear most?” The responses were, well, a little disappointing, because so many people’s answers boiled down to “the bad guy.” Well, yeah. Presumably anyone would be afraid of some big scary monster or determined psychopath, but that doesn’t tell us anything about a character. A person’s worst fear is going to be something deeper.
The Book of Life tells the story of a bet between two gods of the underworld, centered on Manolo Sanchez, the pacifist young matador who’s never finished off a bull. When Manolo discovers that Xibalba cheated, he gets the dark god to agree to restore him to life if he can face one last challenge. And the task?
XIBALBA: Now, tell me, boy, what keeps you up at night? What eats at you from the inside? What, do tell, is your worst fear?
Then they’re all transported to a stadium where Manolo must defeat every bull who’s ever been killed by a Sanchez. The thousands of bulls merge into one giant motherfucker:
But Manolo does not fear the bull.
Manolo fears becoming the man who would kill a helpless creature. He fears his father’s disapproval and censure for not being a true bullfighter. But his biggest fear, the one that Xibalba sees in his heart, is that the two can never be reconciled, that he’ll be forced to choose between his family’s honor and his own, that he’ll lose something of himself no matter the outcome.
A titanic, flaming bull would be scary to anyone, but for Manolo, it holds a particular terror, one that is deep-seated, complex, and–above all–personal.
That’s why it’s not enough for him to merely slay the beast; he has to resolve that impossible choice. He takes a third option and sings the bull into submission, finding a way to defeat the monster while remaining true to himself, and earning the respect of his family in the process.
Monsters are not scary merely because of the physical threat they represent. They are scary because they reflect the darker parts of ourselves, the things we bury that we’re not willing to confront until they manifest in a form that can bite our tits off. The strongest and most effective external conflicts are the ones that mirror some internal conflict, where resolving one can help resolve the other.
So, with all this in mind, let’s ask it again: What does your main character truly fear? And do you make them face it?
(Standard spoiler disclaimer applies to Big Hero 6.)
Let me say this up front: I loved Big Hero 6. A lot. It was probably one of my favorite movies of 2014. Baymax is an instant classic character, and I want to have Honey Lemon’s girly science babies. It’s just a solid, heartfelt, entertaining film.
And I was ready to tap out within the first 10 minutes.
We start out really strong with Hiro’s bot fight. Then Tadashi rescues him from a beatdown and we get the line, “You graduated high school when you were thirteen, and this is what you’re doing?”
Um, I thought. Okay. That’s an awkwardly self-conscious line. But maybe it’s important that we know that right up front. And so I settled back into the fun moped chase, glossing with only a little irritation over the stiff explanation of bot fighting and Hiro referring to his big brother as “big brother.”
Then they get picked up from jail by Aunt Cass, who starts off saying, “For ten years, I have done the best I could to raise you.”
Oh, thought I. Oh dear. But no, it’s cool. That’s not a completely unreasonable thing for a person to say. And indeed, it seemed to be part of a sort of no-filter anxious monologue which turns out to be very much in character for her. We’re still fine.
Then we go upstairs, and there’s this:
TADASHI: What would Mom and Dad say?
HIRO: I don’t know. They’re gone. They died when I was three, remember?
Yup, I thought, that is a thing that happened. That is dialogue that someone got paid to write. Dialogue that survived who knows how many rewrites and script sessions. Dialogue that no one has ever said to a sibling. Ever. In the history of siblings. It was such an utterly painful As You Know that it threw me clean out of the story.
The biggest sin of that exchange is that it is completely, fundamentally, 100% unnecessary. A woman they’ve identified as their aunt already told us that she raised them, so clearly the parents aren’t in the picture. Does it matter why? Do the filmmakers assume that if we see anything other than a traditional nuclear family on screen, we’ll flip our shit and demand an explanation before we can proceed any further? I’ll give you that Tadashi’s line and the first part of Hiro’s response aren’t totally unnatural; Tadashi’s trying to help set his errant brother straight, and it makes sense he’d think about their parents in that context. But there’s no conceivable reason why they’d need to remind each other of how long it’s been. And there’s not even any good reason to remind the audience.
It makes me think of when I saw Up for the first time, with its long, wordless montage of Carl and Ellie’s marriage. When the film cut from the two of them painting a nursery to her sobbing in a doctor’s office, there was a voice from the row behind me, a girl who couldn’t have been older than about 7 or so. I didn’t see who she was talking to, but I heard her quite clearly: “She’s sad because she lost the baby.”
I will never forget that little girl as long as I live.
Audiences and readers are smart. Especially early on, they’re actively trying to connect the dots and put the pieces together. It’s okay to trust them to draw certain conclusions on their own, especially when the story won’t suffer if they don’t get to exactly the same spot you had in mind. And indeed, if you leave some things to your audience to fill in with their own imagination, that collaborative quality will make them more invested in the story (this is known as the IKEA effect). But it’s not “connect the dots” if the dots are so densely packed that they’re pretty much a line already.
Like I said, I do love this movie, and the clunky opening isn’t a dealbreaker. Almost immediately after that pointless line, we go to Tadashi’s lab and meet his classmates; the scene is still expository, but we’ve moved from As You Know to Naive Newcomer, so it makes sense within the story, and things get moving after that. But then, it would take a lot to get me to walk out of a movie theater. If I were flipping through channels on cable, or if this were a book? I’d have done an Immerse or Die and pulled the plug after the third WTF.
Personally, I favor erring on the side of too little exposition. Beta readers and editors can help you find the balance, but I’ve always found it easier to add in extra clarification than to try to figure out what can be safely removed. What’s important is that you trust in the power of your own words and images, and trust in the ability of your readers to follow your lead. You don’t have to hit us over the head with it, I promise. If you sell short your audience, you’re going to sell yourself short, too.
(Standard spoiler disclaimer applies to Neverwhere.)
Of all the tools at a writer’s disposal, simile and metaphor have to be among the most powerful. Sure, you might spend paragraphs or pages trying to convey an image or an idea in exact detail, or you could get the entire thing across just as clearly in a single phrase. What we do is basically magic, you guys.
True, as an extremely powerful tool, this one is also really easy to cock up. (Side note: It would appear that the answer to the question, “Is there a Tumblr of that?” is always yes.) However, I think more can be learned from examining the ones that do work, and breaking down what makes them work so well.
One of my favorite descriptions of all time ever comes from one of David Levithan’s chapters of Will Grayson, Will Grayson:
The whole place smells like debt.
Just bask in that one for a moment. This is not an explicit description; after all, the concept of “debt” does not emit molecules that are picked up by olfactory receptors and interpreted by the brain as sensory data. What it is, is evocative. If you’re given no other description of an apartment other than that it “smells like debt,” chances are pretty good you’re still going to have a mental picture of the place. Now, one person may envision musty hand-me-down furniture while another sees a home filled with battered Wal-Mart offerings, but the beauty is that that doesn’t really matter. Where the specifics aren’t important, you can fill in the blanks yourself.
Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman is another rich trove of great description. Take this introduction to the assassins Croup and Vandemar:
There are four simple ways for the observant to tell Mr. Croup and Mr. Vandemar apart: first, Mr. Vandemar is two and a half heads taller than Mr. Croup; second, Mr. Croup has eyes of a faded china blue, while Mr. Vandemar’s eyes are brown; third, while Mr. Vandemar fashioned the rings he wears on his right hand out of the skulls of four ravens, Mr. Croup has no obvious jewelry; fourth, Mr. Croup likes words, while Mr. Vandemar is always hungry. Also, they look nothing at all alike.
It’s a fairly long stretch of pure description, the kind of thing that some writing coaches might tell you to avoid on principle. Unlike the first example, this one is explicit description, of details that are very well-chosen. (The fourth point in particular gives you quite a solid lock on their respective personalities.) The poetry comes from the fact that you’d need a way to tell apart people who look nothing alike; this tells you that they’re a unit, two halves of a single malevolent entity, their interchangeability as torturers and killers more significant than their physical discrepancies. Plus, there’s a punchline, and the Rule of Funny overrides pretty much everything.
Here’s another passage that’s deceptively straightforward:
Richard could already tell that he was the type of person who was always in motion, like a great cat.
A solid, concrete visual aid to establish the mannerisms of just about anyone. But he’s not describing just anyone. He’s describing the Marquis de Carabas, a powerful figure who takes his name (and possibly more, for it is that kind of place and that kind of tale) from Puss in Boots. It’s a pattern that persists throughout the novel, as de Carabas is repeatedly described in decidedly feline terms, and other characters get their own epithets: Croup and Vandemar are frequently depicted as a fox and a wolf, for instance, and Hunter’s descriptions always come back to leather and caramel. This usage makes it easier to keep straight the large and colorful cast, and also helps evoke the almost totemic power of these ageless creatures.
It’s fine to have description that’s purely sensory, that only tells us what an object or action looks or sounds or smells like. But when you’ve got the opportunity to also tell us more about what that thing means, what that thing is? That’s when the magic happens.
(Standard spoiler disclaimer applies to The Lightning Thief (Percy Jackson and the Olympians Book 1), although we’re only really talking about the beginning.)
Anyone who reads heavily–be they agent, scholar, or just passionate bibliophile–is going to go through a lot of openings. You’ll inevitably start to spot patterns, and just as inevitably, start to hate some of them. One early-page tic I’ve been noticing, one that’s really started getting on my tits, is what TV Tropes calls Little Did I Know. You know the one: “Had I only known what happened next, I would never have gone in there.” I note that TV Tropes calls it a discredited trope. From my recent reading, TV Tropes is a liar, because it’s definitely still out there.
I most recently encountered this in the first Percy Jackson book, which I feel safe using to discuss a device that I detest because 1) it’s a pretty good book despite that, and 2) I’m sure that Rick Riordan can bury any despair over the criticisms of a random Internet plebe under his piles of bestseller and movie deal cash. The novel starts with a fourth wall breaking aside about the danger that lies ahead, and then twice in the next two pages stops to comment on how things are about to go wrong.
This is a sister trope in annoyance to the “teaser” prologue that flashes forward to the climax: both use a somewhat meta alteration of chronology to inject some excitement and intrigue, and thus both seem like a tacit admission on the part of the author that the opening pages are too boring to stand on their own. (Note that this isn’t the same as the intercutting style I discussed yesterday; here we’re talking about cases where the timehopping is never revisited again.) It’s classic “show, don’t tell”: rather than making the opening pages, you know, not boring, the author directly implores the reader to tough it out because better stuff is coming. It’s as subtle as a shovel to the prostate.
The thing that makes this so frustrating in The Lightning Thief in particular is that it’s so bloody unnecessary. In the first chapter, Percy throws a bully into a fountain and then kills a Fury with a magic sword. It is, in technical terms, fricking sweet. This might just be a factor of me not being the target audience, but I think I can survive a few pages of exposition without constant breathless reassurances that no seriously shit is about to get so real you just have no idea. I would say that perhaps things need to get spelled out a little more clearly in middle grade fiction, except this trope is the reason I gave up on the decidedly not kid-friendly John Dies at the End, which spent so much time telling me how fucked up things were going to get that I finally despaired of them ever actually getting there. A cheap tactic is a cheap tactic, regardless of category, and self-aggrandizement is pretty much always off-putting. No one likes the guy who does nothing but talk himself up.
Look, I get it. Openings are hard. First impressions count for a lot, and the overwhelming glut of books on the market means that readers are increasingly likely to abandon books that don’t grab them and move onto greener pastures. But I’d implore authors to trust their readers and have confidence in their pages. I promise that I don’t need to be reminded that your story has an inciting incident and/or climax just like 98% of things that have ever been written.
Don’t waste my time telling me that this is going to be awesome.
Just be awesome.
(Standard spoiler warning applies to Vicious by V.E. Schwab.)
Backstory can be a real bugbear for authors. You’ve built up all this history, the rich and complex details that have come together to make this world and this tale, but how to get it across? After all, readers aren’t here for the backstory, they’re here for the front story. And if you’ve got a plot that spans a long period of time, crafting it into something that feels like a single tale instead of several connected ones becomes a tricky juggling act.
It’s tempting in our post-modern world to eschew normal chronological progression to solve these problems, but this is basically trading out your juggling pins for chainsaws: a spectacularly impressive trick if you can pull it off, but if your execution isn’t flawless, the result is going to be a big mess and lots of screaming. This is where it pays to study someone who’s juggled the chainsaws and come out with all their limbs and digits. Vicious, the story of two superpowered rivals, can seem rather disorientingly unhinged in time, but there are several important points to consider that make the whole thing work.
The first third or so of the novel bounces primarily between the early stages of Victor’s plans to confront Eli and their college experiments ten years earlier. The chapter headers throughout identify where and when the chapter occurs, but rather than using concrete days and dates, scenes are described as taking place “last night,” “five years ago,” and so on. You see, dates can be difficult to keep straight, especially when a reader is also trying to orient themselves to a brand new world, but relative positioning is easier to parse.
These chronological headings aren’t relative to just anything, though. Once we get to “today,” the headers are broken down even further: “this morning,” “this afternoon,” and then “six hours until midnight” and going from there. That midnight countdown is where this tactic reveals itself most clearly, because midnight is when Victor and Eli finally face each other. Once the timeline has caught up to itself, it could easily switch to concrete times, but we still get “five hours until midnight” instead of “seven p.m.,” which gives us a rather literal ticking clock. The entire novel is building up to that final confrontation, and these relative chapter headers propel us there.
Consistent chapter headings also help emphasize the consistent pattern of the overall narrative. The primary conflict of the story is between Victor and Eli, but just as important is the relationship between the Clarke sisters, Sydney and Serena, who find themselves on opposite sides of the battle. While the novel could easily open with the two young men pursuing their joint thesis, the event that drives the sisters apart comes much later, and only really makes sense once you understand how far over the edge Eli’s gone. By making the fluid chronology a core structural component, Schwab can easily slip back to that key history of the Clarkes without breaking the narrative flow; indeed, the alternation between past and present develops its own rhythm, and having two distinct backstories to relate provides enough past material for that back-and-forth to carry us all the way to the climax.
Really, it’s that steady progression toward the finale that makes the whole thing work, giving us a solid core to build around, one defined not by chronology, but by tension. Thus, Sydney’s discovery of the extent of Victor’s powers unfolds in parallel to Victor’s acquisition of those powers, both reaching crescendo simultaneously. Frequently the issue with strict chronology is that it gives us the answer to a question we didn’t even know we needed to ask, which can lead to frustration as we’re laden with information that seems irritatingly tangential and irrelevant. By intercutting the backstory rather than dumping it all at once, that information has context. Reversing the cause and effect removes a bit of the “and then what happens” tension from the scenes in the past, so the point of those scenes becomes the character study and thematic development.
The biggest danger with backstory is overindulgence, including things because they’re cool or interesting rather than because they add to the story. Not so with Vicious, where every pop back in time serves some larger purpose. A good example is Mitch, who is a major character but whose personal history only gets about four pages. See, as I’ve touched on before, a major theme of the book is loyalty. So while Mitch’s life has certainly been interesting and colorful, all we really need is to understand his connection to Victor, so we get the Cliff’s Notes with that in mind. A different book might get into the histories of its side characters, but that’s eschewed here in favor of tighter narrative focus.
It’s a common refrain with me and something that will come up more than once this month: In order to employ a storytelling tool effectively, you have to know what effect you’re trying to have. You need an understanding of your story that is both broad and deep (which is why a lot of this stuff will only come into focus most of the time with the help of perspective and good critique/editing partners). Backstory should provide a purpose in the narrative beyond merely imparting information. When deciding whether or how to include a particular bit of backstory, ask yourself why the reader needs to know this, and you’ll probably have your answer.