Everyone Loves A Good Fight

The old adage that “misery loves company” is played out on a daily basis in the media. Harsh words and feuds, which were often spoken in private, are now public domain. Twitter wars are commonplace, with the POTUS leading the charge.

But it’s not just words tossed around. Reality show throwdowns continue to be the accident we can’t look away from. Shows like the Bachelor and the Real Housewives franchise provide opportunities for otherwise unknown individuals to attain instant celebrity as a result of their expletive calling, hair pulling and wine glass shattering escapades.

It can all be a bit unnerving but illustrates the importance of conflict in story telling. Without conflict, there is no plot. The greater the conflict, the more compelling the plot.

Conflict is commonly explained as the main problem in any story. It represents the struggle between opposing forces or characters as they navigate through the story line. The overall problem in the story is the main conflict. It is the thing the main character must overcome in order to grow, change or succeed. This is often referred to as the hero’s journey. Within that main conflict exists minor conflicts. These roadblocks thrown up along the way make the hero’s journey more difficult. The more complex the plot, the greater the number of minor conflicts and the grander the task of the author in resolving all of them.

Conflict within a story falls into two categories: internal and external.

Internal conflict is a solo activity, a struggle that takes place within the character’s mind as they try to overcome the problem.  It can be communicated by the narrator or as inside thought.

External conflict requires a partner. In overcoming the conflict, the main character must struggle against another force. External conflict can take a number of forms.

  • person vs. person (Lord of the Flies)
  • person vs. nature (Moby Dick)
  • person vs society (Fahrenheit 451)
  • person vs. supernatural (The Walking Dead)
  • person vs. technology (The Giver)

All of this conflict can be overwhelming when plotting a story. Graphic organizers can be helpful for clearing up any confusion. In dealing with person vs. person conflict, a Character Pressure Map is a wonderful tool for seeing just how the interaction between characters impacts the plot.

To create a Character Pressure Map, draw a large circle in the middle of a piece of paper. Insert your main character’s name there. Then, like the spokes of a wheel, draw lines out from the main character to corresponding circles for other characters in the story.  Those lines can turn into arrows that show the direction the pressure or conflict is exerted. Each character in the story has their own circle and connection. While this method works particularly well with person vs. person, it can also be adapted to each of the other external conflict categories.

So the next time you are reading, or writing, a story and having trouble figuring out who did what to whom (and whether it really matters), create a Character Pressure Map. The conflict will become as real to the reader as it is to the characters.

Location. Location. Location

Ask anyone in retail the three most important factors contributing to success and they’ll give you a one word answer: location. The often parodied marketing professional’s mantra – location, location, location – is also paramount to the success of any well-written piece of fiction.

For writers, that word is setting. The setting of a novel grounds the reader in the story, putting them vicariously in a place and time other than the present, not only communicating the location, but creating the mood. It can be illustrated both directly and indirectly.

Finding a location for your story seems simple. Pick a place, any place. Real or imagined.  That is the direct setting. If the location is real and you have some time and frequent flyer miles, jet off to the proposed setting and take in the sites. Walk the streets, talk to the locals and sponge up the atmosphere. But for most writers, that type of hands-on research is not available. So, if first-hand experience isn’t a possibility, the Internet is a wonderful tool. Like your aunt’s weighty photo albums of her trip to the Grand Canyon, people love to share pictures of the places they’ve visited. There are no shortage of travel websites and blogs chronicling even the most hard-to-reach spots on the map. Another wonderful tool is Google Maps. Use street view to go on a virtual tour of a location. There is even a wonderful tool that allows mapping of distances on foot, bicycle or car so no matter the mode of transportation, even the time frames will be accurate.

Once the physical location is chosen, it’s time to add indirect attributes. These are the things included in a journal. The effect the place has not only on the eyes but on the senses. Be authentic. The setting is not simply a place or time. It’s a feeling whose details contribute to things like values and attitudes. Use sensory inputs to bring the location to life. What does it look like? How does it sound? What does it smell like? Does it have a taste? How does it feel, tactilely, to be there? Once these questions are answered , a framework for the indirect setting, upon which to build a feeling of the place, exists.

“I lie on the balcony in a hammock overlooking the sea. The moonlight reflects off the rolling waves, casting a shadow across the sand. A breeze rustles the palm trees as they swish and sway, swish and sway, their leaves dancing in the wind. Air rushes over me, my skirt fluttering around my ankles.”

The above passage not only grounds the reader in the tropical location, it makes them feel what it means to be there. By incorporating both direct and indirect components, the reader can readily imagine the setting. Getting the reader to inhabit the space in the same way as the character is the first step in providing an authentic and immersive experience. Once the reader is transported to the setting, they can experience the world the way the characters do.

When you choose the setting for your next piece of fiction, ask yourself some of the questions above. Once you have the answers, you’ll know you’ve fully explored your setting, embraced its nuances and are ready to take your reader on your journey.

Characters Wanted

Creating strong characters is complicated. The best characters are the ones we relate to. They remind us of someone we know or hope to be. They, often, take the form of the protagonist; the ones we root for to save the world, or at least themselves, from certain destruction. We forgive them their shortcomings and give them pep talks, in the hopes that, unlike us, they will learn from their mistakes and get their act together in time to make things right.

Sometimes those characters take the form of the antagonist. They remind us of those we steer clear of or who we work hard not to be. Those parts of ourselves we only show to our mirror (and sometimes not even then). These antagonists access the shadowy bits of our souls our parents or priests have warned us not to embrace. Those lies told or cookies stolen represent the most innocent or sinister of transgressions sure to put us on the Devil’s shortlist.

Regardless of which arc the character takes, writing strong characters requires a great deal of practice and attention to craft. A good character is never the one you sketch in, rubbing your pencil lightly over the surface of the plot and hoping they’ll find their way to the end. They are the ones we frame out, methodically developing their structure and then filling it in like plaster over a wire frame.

Their strength exists in the dynamic nature with which they navigate the plot, exploring the nuances of subplots, conflicts and any road furniture we may throw in their way. Even when they would rather not, they change. Sometimes for the better, and sometimes not, but they know that to do nothing would weaken them in our eyes.

While I’m a novel writer, I love a good book adaptation for the screen. Currently, one of the best, in my opinion, is The Walking Dead. Adapted from the post-apocalyptic graphic novel of the same name by Robert Kirkman, The Walking Dead series exemplifies how strong characters can be built. The ensemble of main characters in the series is extraordinarily diverse. They are housewives and business people, civil servants and clergy, mothers and fathers and sisters and brothers. The only thing they have in common is their desire to survive in spite of seemingly insurmountable odds.

Some of the characters resist true change until the very end of their existence, which in itself tells us a great deal about them. For even the act of resisting requires a shift as plot, conflict and other characters exert forces upon them. These characters, like Morgan in the series, refuse to compromise their morals, values or individuality to the moment.

Others are in a constant state of flux, adapting to their environment on the fly, reaching deep withing themselves to find a new solution. That character is Carol, who transforms from a helpless, beaten wife to a calculating, killing machine in a relatively short period of time.

The pressure exerted on each of these characters throughout the story seems to have them on a collision course. Until now (Season 7), they have chosen to respond to conflict in different ways. Early on in the series, Carol realizes that in order to survive, she must leave her former self behind. No longer being a passive participant in her life. The opposite is true for Morgan, who believes that pacifism is his only chance at survival. However, at the current point in the plot both characters find themselves in exactly the same place. They must stare solidly at the choices they’ve made and decide whether they will serve them.

How can two dramatically different characters experience diverging story arcs and wind up in the same place? The answer lies in the strength of their characters. Kirkman (and his writing team) has succeeded in crafting characters with depth. Even the conflict (and believe me there’s lots of it), can not chip away enough of the plaster to reveal the wire frame upon which these characters have been built. When it comes to creating strong characters, the deeper the author goes in their development the stronger they are. Creating strong characters is complicated but, in this case, complicated is a good thing.

Who are your favorite characters and what makes them complicated?

Life at the Beach

In spite of Punxsutawny Phil’s dire prediction of more winter, we’re having gorgeous early spring weather in the Northeast. It inspired me to write this post.

If I can’t live at the beach, I’ll always be within a short drive. Its power draws me in and instantly recharges my soul. A day at the beach can do what hours of expensive therapy can’t (though I’ve never been the type to bare my soul to a stranger).

Maybe it’s the constant pounding of the surf, continually resetting your perception of the landscape and view of reality. Or maybe it’s the rhythmic rolling of the tide – in and out, in and out – lulling you into the belief that with the next wave the slate will be wiped clean. Maybe it’s the constant re-imagining of the sand so that the sins of the past and present are washed out to sea to be drowned and free you from their anchor.
Maybe it’s the feeling of being so close to something so powerful yet forgiving that one blast of water can knock you down while the next can spray you clean.

The ocean has the power to do all those things and more. Over the millennia, it has redefined vast expanses of land, carved great canyons through layers of seemingly impenetrable rock and changed the course of civilization. Yet in all its vastness and ability to make you feel inconsequential, water’s essence is its healing power. From your singular place on the beach, looking out onto the horizon, the beach sets the world open, presenting an eternity of possibilities.

On my writing desk at home sits a jar of sand and shells I brought back from a trip to Turks and Caicos. I had to navigate the tide in that inlet (pictured) peppered with especially sharp coral to reach a pristine pink sand beach only the most intrepid could enjoy. After exploring, I scooped up by prize and swam the gauntlet in reverse. I pop that jar open every now and then and swirl my fingers around in its silky grains to summon inspiration from all that sand has endured.

Each of us has a place we go, either physically or spiritually, to recharge. Mine will always be the beach.

Where is yours?

Say It in a Song

A song is a powerful communicator. Much like poetry, it has the ability to elicit raw emotion through the judicious use of words. In a four-bar chorus, those words can lay bare a soul begging to be forgiven or express a longing beyond compare.

My musical library is full of singer-songwriters, who through verse and chorus paint a picture with their words and music. They use the notes and rhythms as punctuation for their thoughts, telling a story from beginning to end in less than four minutes.

Long the backbone of folk music, these musicians have been gaining momentum in popular music. No single genre can categorize them. The iTunes charts are full of the likes of Ed Sheeran, Eric Church, Ryan Tedder and Alicia Keyes. While their popularity and commercial appeal are varied, the sad irony is that the music industry bestows the majority of its riches on those who can do little more than rhyme (and often badly, at that). How many of the songs topping the current charts will have longevity?

Song has long been a way for people to communicate. It has been used by the enslaved to provide a voice to their otherwise silenced souls and by the rebel to make their discourse heard above the din. Early news and legends were sung by minstrels traveling between kingdoms.

With the passing of Leonard Cohen a few short months ago, one can scarcely turn on the radio without hearing his seminal work “Hallelujah”. The Canadian singer-songwriter enjoyed a career that spanned 50 years and saw him rise to the heights of popularity. He was sought after by the likes of highly respected singer-songwriters Judy Collins, Willie Nelson and James Taylor. Despite his talent, it was rarely recognized. Although, the great Bob Dylan saw his gift. Cohen continually sought the meaning of life in his lyrics and even served a brief sojourn as a monk in that very pursuit. But it was fellow, and perhaps equally obscure, singer-songwriter, Jeff Buckley, who would forever change Cohen’s life and cement his talents in the minds of the collective consciousness. Buckley’s rendition of “Hallelujah” in 1994, nearly 20 years after Cohen penned it, will forever place him in the company of the greatest songs ever written.

It’s a song I can listen to on repeat until my heart breaks. The haunting melody, visceral emotion and unanswered questions are the stuff of true genius. It speaks to me in a way I’m unable to articulate. It would be impossible to count the number of times I’ve listened, yet every time it brings me to tears. That, in itself, is a testament to its power.

Songs have the power to break you, build you back up and inspire you to go on in the face of insurmountable odds. Although I rarely listen to music while I’m writing (I prefer not to have competition for my words), I’m unable to go a day without music. The lyrics of some song are often the first thing my mind wakes to in the morning. Music grounds me and gives me the ability to believe in the power of words.

Consider the times a song has lifted your spirits, transported you to another place or time or calmed your mind. We all have songs that define us. They speak to each of us in a way often personal and profound.

Remaining Anonymous in a World That Wants Us to Be Seen

The truest form of anonymity is achieved while writing fiction. As authors, we are given that ability, in the form of a fictional character, to say what we’re thinking, without judgement or criticism. We can act boldly and irreverent, demure and saintly or arrogant and unapologetic. After all, it’s not the author saying those things, it’s our character.

How often have we opened the back of a book or clicked on an author’s profile and come face-to-face with someone other than who we’ve imagined them to be? My first shocker of this kind came with Wally Lamb’s She’s Come Undone. I still recall how incredulous I was to see a man peering out from the book’s jacket. Lamb so clearly embodied Dolores’ feminine voice, there seemed no way he could have breathed her to life from a male perspective. Yet there she was.

That startled feeling is a testament to the author’s ability to create a fictional fascade, stepping deftly into an alter-ego which bears little resemblance to its host. With a bit of literary schizophrenia, a skilled writer has a platform to give a voice to any variety of characters while maintaining their anonymity and, sometimes, gender.

In The Outsiders, young female author SE Hinton provides the voice of rebellion and disenfranchised youth for a group of male characters from the wrong side of town. She successfully communicates the angst of growing up in a town of ‘haves’ as a ‘have not’, showing us what it’s like to be a Greaser. Whether she’s channeling the jail hardened Dally, the sensitive Johnny or the youngest Curtis, Ponyboy, who hopes for a life on the inside, she does so with a grit and authenticity that forever changes the lives of teen readers. From the very first page, she embodies her characters and drags them inside a world where social injustice and prejudice permeate their lives. We know exactly who each character is, what they look like and what drives them. We cheer for them, cry with them and see some of ourselves in them.

Great writers use their anonymity to shine a light on characters that may have otherwise existed in the dark. They take the bones of an idea and add flesh to give that character depth and meaning, and make them matter to their reader. If the writer has done their job well, the character they’ve created is as real to their reader as anyone they’ve ever met. They recognize their flaws, forgive their weaknesses and root for their successes.

Who are your favorite literary characters and why does their story matter to you?

Permission to Speak Our Truth

Writing is a mysteriously powerful outlet. It can give a voice to an otherwise silent part of us; the one we are reluctant to share with the outside world. These written words give us an opportunity to say the things we need to, haven’t had the chance to or, maybe, shouldn’t say to the world. Writing gives us permission to be ourselves, vulnerable and insecure or powerful and confident. Until we share them, these ideas remain no more than words on paper.

However, once they are shared, these words have power. They can build us up or tear us down. It doesn’t matter if they are true or false. It only matters whether they have been read. More often than not, once they leave their author, they are left to be interpreted by the reader, without further explanation or discussion.

The power of the written word is seen on a daily basis, often minute by minute as it ‘trends’ or ‘goes viral’. With the proliferation of social media, everyone now has the power to be a writer – a chronicler of ideas, thoughts and emotions. With a social media account and a keyboard, they have a platform and the power to be heard. In fact, anyone can write down their ideas, sometimes in less than 140 characters, and send them out into the world.

But the true power of words exists in their intention. Words can inform or persuade. They can excite or incite. They can build walls or tear them down. The true power of words exists in what you choose to do with them. When a writer sits down to a keyboard, they do so with a purpose. They have a story to tell, an idea to explore or a voice which needs to be heard. While each and every one of those goals is important to the writer (or they wouldn’t sit down to write them), it is important to remember we have a responsibility to those who read our words. When we accept permission to speak our truth, whether anonymously or credited, we make a choice to accept responsibility for those words and their effect on others.

What do you choose to do with your words?

I Wish I Said That

Hello world! After years of writing for other people, I’m excited to have a forum for my own writing in the form of this blog.

However, being a writer isn’t simply putting pen to paper or fingers to a keyboard. Any random Facebook post or Twitter feed is evidence of that. Being a writer is finding something valuable to say and communicating it in a way which makes someone you’ve never met say “I wish I said that”.

So, along with regular blog posts, I’ll be offering what I consider to be ‘quotable quotes’. When I taught middle school English, I used them to train my students to be writers. By asking them to interpret the quote, they were exercising their writer’s mind and seeking inspiration from someone else’s words. Some of my students loved the exercise and others hated it. Either way, I hope they realized its value. The quotes were meant to be seeds of inspiration. Reaching out from the page, they would makes us think a little longer about our place in the world and the profound effect our words have on each other.

As I mentioned, I was a middle school teacher so I tend to read young adult fiction. It’s the genre I write in, as well. While many of my quotes come from novels I’ve read (and I’ve read a lot), others are words which reached out to me from sages, both famous and obscure.

Whether you consider yourself a reader or a writer or, maybe, just a thinker. I hope these quotes will move you the way they have me. Feel free to pass them along. I hope they inspire you. If they do, I’d love to hear about it.