The Focal Points of Narrative Consciousness

One of the first issues to resolve in approaching an extended narrative is the focal points of story consciousness. The original story consciousness always resides outside the narrative, springing from the author writing the text. Some writers don't conceal this, presenting themselves as the teller of the tale, but most writers construct a fiction about who is telling the story, which we’ll call the primary story consciousness. The story is filtered through one or more of the characters, or being told by a witness to events, or being narrated by a central consciousness that knows all. Because events rise from this storytelling consciousness, it's important to figure out the source of the story at the very start. Begin by asking yourself who is telling the story. In first person narratives, the answer to this question is usually straightforward: the story is being told by the first person narrator. Third person narration is not as clear cut, springing from one or more characters; from a narrator who knows enough of the story to explore it but doesn’t know everything; or from a God-like narrator, who may be visible or invisible.

Once you’ve established who is telling the story, figure out the rules that the story consciousness must obey. The narration has access to the thoughts of this and that character, for example, but not those characters. The narrator knows the past but not the future. The narrator knows how everything will work out, or knows nothing. Define the limits of the narration and you'll see this eliminates problems with perspective shifts, because you'll build the range of narration into those first pages and not stray from that range for reasons of convenience.

The Scene is Over When Your Protagonist Cries II

Last night I watched the final episode of the first season of "True Detective" (I'm slow getting around to some things) and noticed that the creators of the program designed Matthew McConaughey's character to repress his emotions through the entire series, until the last scene, when he finally loses control and cries. The creators – and I'm counting Mr. McConaughey as chief among them – build the tension in the character to nearly unbearable levels, never allowing him to release it through tears or even rage, waiting until the character rises from the dead at the very end, having faced both evil and the void. They do not allow the character any easy tears. When he cries at the end, those tears are hard fought, and lead to catharsis for the character. "True Detective" is one of the best crime dramas I've watched in any form, and a great example of how to sustain tension in a character by repressing emotion, rather than venting it.


The filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein once conducted an interesting experiment. He cut together strips of film showing an old woman with various objects, then asked test subjects what they thought. When the image of a woman’s face cut to a loaf of bread, the subjects thought she was expressing hunger. When the image of her face cut to a picture of a dead child, the subjects said she was expressing grief. Her expression never shifted, but the interpretation changed with the accompanying image. In practical terms, this suggests that readers often interpret emotional reactions based on context. You don’t always need to show a character crying to suggest grief. If you show action, and that action is tragic, then the reader will assume that the character is in pain.

As a general rule, a scene is over once a character begins crying. Why? Because once a character cries, the scene can’t easily progress to a more intense emotional value. The writer has already played the peak emotion. The scene flounders because the fiftieth tear isn’t more meaningful than the first one. Remember, the task is to move your reader, and if the character is doing all the crying, it doesn’t leave much room for the reader to feel much except sorry.

Here’s another concept: you can keep scenes moving by encouraging your primary character to resist the pain, rather than by yielding to it. Why? Because resisting the pain creates tension within the character, and tension within the character creates tension in the scene. Yielding to the pain releases the tension in the character and in the scene.

If the character moves from tears to some specific action that's stronger than crying, then the scene doesn't have to be over at the first tear. For example, the character moves from crying to throwing things, or some other kind of violence. Rather than releasing the tension, the character’s tears build to the expression of a stronger action.

The same principle applies to sequences of scenes, though not as strictly. For example, if a character cries in the first scene of a sequence, what's left? If the character simply cries again, it won't turn the scene or sequence in a new direction. It simply repeats. And emotions that repeat without progression quickly become tiresome.

It's often more effective to build strong emotion in a character but not to release it at the first opportunity, because once you release it, you're faced with the law of diminishing returns; every time you return to play that same emotion, the effect on the reader will generally decrease if the level of emotion is the same. If you want your character to cry, then you must build to it, and realize that once that character cries, then either the character must progress to a stronger emotion, or the scene/sequence has effectively peaked.


"I was told that if I didn’t learn technique, I would be in trouble later on when the inspiration had gone and the technique was needed to compensate. If I hadn’t learned that in time, I would not now be able to outline a structure in advance." – Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Paris Review Interview

A student of mine recently articulated in workshop one of the central dilemmas of a creative writing pedagogy, or any arts pedagogy: Does the conscious study of an art form contribute to the improvement of  a largely subconscious creative process? It seems clear that the study of concepts underlying dramatic composition will not necessary lead a writer to penning a brilliant novel. It also seems clear to me that the conscious mind is capable of paralyzing the subconscious mind for extended periods of time, if the writer is not aware of its sometimes dictatorial powers.

I believe in the primacy of the subconscious mind when writing. Robert Olen Butler notes that you can't think your way to great novel, or even a particularly good one. Only the subconscious mind is capable of making the indirect connections that surprise, so necessary to literary composition. If you find that the process of studying creative writing interferes with your subconscious creative process, then put aside your studies for a time and just write.

The study of dramatic structure is most effective when a writer internalizes the concepts and then mostly forgets them when writing a first draft. Don't think too much when composing fiction. Instead, find your writing zone and lose yourself in the delight of creating worlds. The next day, review what you wrote the day before, and apply some of the concepts you’ve been studying. The first draft belongs mostly to the subconscious. In revisions, the lead in the pas-de-deux between the conscious and subconscious minds shifts to the editorial mind. Much of what you consciously learn will help you to become a better editor. Writers need good editors, and the study of literary and dramatic construction helps a writer become her own best editor. 

Method Writing and Sense Memory

Scientists recently staged an experiment that recorded individual brain cells in the process of remembering a specific event, revealing not just where experiences are stored, but how the brain recreates them in memory. In the experiment, scientists recorded the brain activity of subjects who watched a series of film clips, and then asked them questions about what they’d seen. In each case, the neurons that showed activity when a particular film clip played fired again when researchers asked the subject to remember the clip. The memory of an event, then, is stored in the same cells that first experienced that event. Though summary memory most likely follows a different mechanism, encapsulating the rich panoply of sensory details under a headline (“Bitten by a Dog,” for example), the neurological link between experiencing an event and the brain’s memory of the event is firmly established: Direct memory is stored in the same brain cells that experience the event.

For the writer, the implication is clear. Memory is neurologically linked to the actual experience of the event. A writer can exploit this neurological link through the technique of sense memory, unlocking place details about a past event, and visceral emotions that can animate your characters. Sense memory can help you recapture direct experience, from the color of the sky when you first glimpsed the ocean to the sensation of the first ocean breeze that brushed across your face.

Once you drill closer to the original memory, you’ll likely notice emotions that you thought you’d lost long ago. That emotional memory will help you connect with characters experiencing a similar emotion. A writer who imbues her characters with genuine emotion will generally avoid stereotype and cliché because she’s writing from her own emotional center, rather than from a stale idea. If, for example, you’re writing about a character who has just come face to face with a velociraptor, you don’t have to fall back on abstraction and summary with lines like, “John was terrified by the long fangs and slashing claws of the beast.” Instead, settle into your place of writing, close your eyes, and let your mind relax. Don’t think about anything for a few minutes. Imagine you’re on a raft in the middle of a warm pool, if that helps you relax. Then let your mind drift toward that time when, as a nine year old child, you came face to face with the neighbor’s growling dog. Don’t think in words. Don’t think at all.

Your first emotional memory will probably be a summary of the event, such as, “Wow, was I scared.” Most memories are filed under summaries like this, similar to a headline. Summary memories are the way you learned to tell the story of an event. It’s not direct memory. Move past this summary memory. Look at the ground where you were standing when you first faced the dog. What did it look like? Move your eye from side to side. Where are you? Is it cloudy or sunny? What does the day smell like? Can you hear anything? Now, what does the dog look like?

This isn’t a precise script for accessing affective memory. Instead, use it as a guide to get deep inside your memories and improvise as necessary. When you remember what you were feeling as you were watching the dog, you should be fully in the moment, and the memory should resonate with rich emotional and physical detail. You’ve just remembered, with clarity, what it’s like to face a creature capable of ripping out your throat. Use the emotions you’ve uncovered to write the scene from the perspective of the character experiencing the same emotion.

When using sense memory, remember that if you can’t see, smell, hear, taste, feel, or touch it, you’re probably in abstract memory and haven’t gone deeply enough.


Coping with Critiques from Readers

It's easy to feel overwhelmed after a critique. We write a story feeling that we've communicated something vital, hoping that readers will connect with every word that we've written. When we discover that readers are confused, or that they’re less than enthusiastic about the work we've submitted, despair often follows. This is normal. I can't recall ever feeling particularly good about any critique I've ever received. I'll fight the critique in my head. I’ll question the judgment of the person who delivered it. Then, after a couple of days, I'll realize that the story I want to tell may still be powerful, but that my mastery of the craft has failed.

If readers aren't following, it's because you haven't led them. Every now and then you encounter a reader who won't be led, but most often, readers want to be led through a good story. If they aren't following, it's because you haven't yet discovered the way to lead them. Our primary responsibility is to guide readers through the complex world of our story. We do this by finding the right word/sentence/detail at the right time, the right path through the woods of story. Sometimes, we know exactly how to guide the reader; other times, it takes trial and error. Don't despair over the trial and error part; it's the nature of the process.

When reading the comments readers have penned about your story, it's important to remember that you don't need to act on every criticism or suggestion. Look for common threads in the comments. You've probably noticed (tearing your hair, screaming, banging your head against your desk) that some of the comments contradict each other. This is when paying attention to consensus helps. If a couple of readers object to something, it's a good idea to take a serious look at it.

Remember, however, that the changes you make don't have to be the ones the readers recommend. Often, when an editor tells me a particular scene isn't working, I'll decide that the problem isn't in the scene but in the setup to the scene, which happened a few pages earlier. Sometimes readers will make comments about your work that might apply to what they want to see developed in future chapters, not in the chapters you've just presented. For example, someone might complain that they don't know enough about one of your secondary characters. This doesn't mean you should stop the scene to drop in a detailed passage of back story about that character. Instead, you might insert the character in an earlier scene, or focus on developing that character a little more in a subsequent scene.

You will find that some readers know what you're trying to do and are helpful to your efforts to get there. Those are YOUR readers. Remember though, not all readers are your readers. Give serious consideration to those whose comments make sense to you, and put the rest aside.

The Sentence as a Unit of Energy

Every sentence is a unit of energy, moving from one point to the next. The sheer length of a sentence is rarely the cause of a lack of clarity; instead, it's more likely to be flaws in the structure of the sentence as it evolves. The energy in a sentence might peak in the second clause, for example, and then dither along with several inessential details, expiring well before the period. The sentence may force the reader's eye into painful contortions while it leaps from conjunction to conjunction, the reader having to work too hard and suffer too much to keep up.

That said, long sentences are more likely to lose the reader if not effectively structured. A short sentence that lacks focus and loses the reader ends quickly, giving the reader a breath to catch up by the next sentence. A long sentence that goes awry can lose a reader for lines at a time, making it that much more difficult to catch up. The writer can take this into account by making sure every clause in an extended sentence, every detail given, leads the reader inexorably and clearly on to the period.

Write What You See, Not What You Know

You don’t play what you know, you play what you hear. – Miles Davis

Most of us first learn to write simple sentences such as “See Spot run” in grade school and hone our writing skills through high school and college on academic essays that require sophisticated analysis, abstraction, and summary. In essay writing, the student is taught to begin a paragraph with a summary premise that expands to an analysis of the subject being considered and concludes with a statement that summarizes the argument made in the preceding sentences. In fiction, this summary-exposition-conclusion style is useless. Those who wish to write fiction will discover a more useful model in a first-grade primer than the MLA (Modern Language Association) Handbook for Writers.

When I first began to teach fiction writing, I wondered why some of my smartest, most academically gifted students wrote stiff and graceless stories, whereas some who had middling academic records wrote stories and characters that leapt from the page. The answer, I later discovered, lay in their very excellence as students. They’ve been trained throughout their academic careers to write what they know. Summary, abstraction, generalization, and repetition are not only allowed in essay style, they’re often key to the structuring of the essay’s argument. So when writing fiction some students summarize a character or action in the first paragraph, then demonstrate the truth of the summary by giving examples, and then wrap up with another summary at the end. They’ve learned to write in an essay style that doesn’t translate easily to fiction. They write out of their heads, rather than from their eyes.

When writing fiction, don’t write what you know. Write what you see. Don't write, "John was sad." That's just a summary idea. Instead, watch John in your imagination and write what you observe. Robert Olen Butler, in his treatise on the art of fiction, From Where You Dream, says, “Art does not come from ideas. Art does not come from the mind. Art comes from the place where you dream. Art comes from your unconscious; it comes from the white-hot center of you.” Butler argues that novels are too complex to think into existence, except in the simplest forms.

The mind of the artist is at its most creative when it’s not consciously thinking. Our conscious minds are capable of dealing with known facts and processes but only the unconscious can combine facts and processes in the creative ways necessary to a novel. Writing that derives too much from the conscious mind generally lacks suppleness, genuine insight, and surprising twists of action, thought, or character. When a writer is writing from her unconscious, from what Butler calls the white-hot center, she taps into the primal source of creativity.

The obvious question for the developing writer (and for all writers) is, “How do I get to this white-hot center, this primal source of creativity?” The answer is both simple and complex. You’ve probably already been there. How many times have you sunk so deeply into writing a story that you completely forgot about time, thirst, and hunger – even forgot, for a time, that you were you? That’s your true writing center, the region of self that connects most directly to the images, insights, and emotions that form the raw material of narrative art.

Jazz musicians aren’t consciously thinking when they improvise on a standard tune; instead, they’ve launched themselves into their subconscious mind, playing what they hear. When Miles Davis says you play what you hear, not what you know, he’s telling you to stop thinking and to listen.

Dialog Tags and the Bossy Writer

In technical terms, the part of the sentence that identifies the speaker of a line of dialog is called a dialog tag, or dialog attribution. I’ve read manuscripts in which characters have sneezed, wheezed, and choked lines of dialog. When a writer uses verbs like this in dialog attribution, she smothers the voice of her characters, and shifts the emphasis from the dialog to the author’s interpretation of the dialog...

Think of it this way. In a well written scene, the reader is actively imagining the characters move and speak. The reader reads the line of dialog and hears it in her head as she reads. If the dialog exchange is logically structured, the reader usually knows who is speaking before reaching the dialog tag. Imagine what happens when the author intrudes at the end to tell the reader how the character spoke the line, and it conflicts with how the reader heard it, or repeats the obvious. This creates dissonance, the reader objecting to the author's insistence that the line be read a particular way. Overly descriptive dialog tags commit a literary sin similar to the use of adverbs in dialog attribution (he spat hotly); they force the author's interpretation on the reader. The reader might resent such a writer.

Literary characters are like actors. They need conscious and unconscious motivations, direction, and space to create. My role as a writer is to direct the characters, devising conflicting motivations that will help the scene they play escalate in tension, and then to give them space to create. On the stage and film set, a good actor will despise the director who tries to force her into saying a line a certain way. A director who gives specific line readings treats his actors like puppets. A writer who uses overly active verbs and adverbs in dialog attribution forces her interpretation of the scene not just on the reader, but on the character as well. This can result in wooden, lifeless characters, mere mouthpieces for the bossy writer.

Every now and then, a dialog tag begs for an active verb or a rich adverb. Save these instances for when they matter. Sometimes the writer might want to contradict the reader, or to emphasize for dramatic effect how a line is delivered. For most dialog exchanges, the emphasis might best remain on the dialog itself, rather than the author’s interpretation of the dialog. To put the emphasis on the dialog, use plain verbs such as said, whispered, and shouted. Step back and let the characters speak for themselves. You might be surprised how much they have to say, and how much more crisply they say it. 

The Endless Challenge of Writing Fiction

Every writer whose art remains alive is still learning about the craft. Each blank page presents a new challenge, and the challenge defeats the writer often enough to keep the outcome in perpetual doubt. Most likely none of us will ever reach the moment of satori in which every word we inscribe is the perfect one for that moment. To write is to ride parallel lines that may meet on the horizon, but never right in front of you. Perfection is a goal not meant to be realized.

This is why writers often say that a work is never finished, it's only published. Why? Because every day an active writer learns something new about writing, and that something would have caused a change to this word or that word in the manuscript.

Your manuscript is a document that expresses where you are as a writer while writing it. But if you're growing as a writer, the manuscript you finished two weeks ago no longer completely represents where you are as a writer now. This makes some writers compulsive rewriters, revising again and again until the work is published. You probably need a second draft to incorporate what you’ve learned in the process of writing the first draft, and you need a third draft to tie together lessons learned while writing the second draft. No amount of improved technique, however, can replace the white-hot moment of creation, so if a major revision is needed, you’ll need to find that moment again and write from the center of it.

Remember, the things you're struggling with today will be second nature to you tomorrow. Tomorrow, however, you'll be dealing with a whole new level of issues.

The Concept of the Three Manuscripts

When you read and edit your own work, be aware of a simple concept: every manuscript has not one, but three versions. By this, I don’t mean drafts of a manuscript. Every draft of every manuscript has three versions. The first version exists in the writer’s mind. This is the version the writer thinks she has written. The second version is the version that exists objectively on the page. The version in the writer’s mind and the version actually on the page are never exactly the same. This is the primary reason writers make lousy copyeditors of their own work: they’re seeing the sentence in their minds, not the one on the page. I don’t know how many times I’ve proofed a sentence only to have a copyeditor show me that it’s missing a comma or conjunction. The difference between what a writer thinks she has written and what exists on the page can be far more significant than a missed comma or conjunction. Sometimes the writer sees in the manuscript of her mind important details of character and place that simply aren’t on the page.

The third version of a manuscript is the one that exists in the mind of the reader. You can already see the potential for misunderstandings, disconnects, and miscommunications here. If the version in the writer’s mind differs significantly from the version on the page, the reader won’t be reading the work the writer thinks she has composed. The reader isn’t perfect, either. Even a very good reader won’t read with perfect accuracy the version on the page. Studies in eyewitness testimony – and the Kurosawa film, Rashomon – have demonstrated the inability of eyewitnesses to agree on simple facts, such as the color of a suspect’s shirt. Different readers will read different things in a manuscript. You can’t prevent all misreading. But you can ground the reader in solid details of time, place, and character to keep him on track. If the version on the page closely adheres to the version in your mind, you can eliminate the one degree of confusion that can lead to a reader getting hopelessly lost.

A Blog about Technique in Writing Fiction

I dedicate this blog to the developing writers I’ve taught at the Prague Summer Program, Western Michigan University, and the UCLA Writers’ Program, writers whose passion for writing has inspired me, whose dedication to improving their work has moved me, and who have taught me to think more deeply about the craft of writing fiction. For many years I resisted hosting a personal website, preferring instead to promote the characters I’ve written and hiding behind them like a mask. The last thing the world needs is another blog by a soon to be dead (in the cosmic sense) white male writer, but a blog that discusses the techniques involved in writing fiction might earn its space on the Internet.

The craft blog may be only one of several pages on this website, but it’s the most vital one. I intend it to serve not only developing writers – and I hope that I’m still among the developing – but also teachers of creative writing. If I frame a technical issue in a way that you might find useful in your teaching, please don’t hesitate to crib from these pages.

Some of the posts will present elemental issues of craft, and others will explore more complex technical issues. The posts won’t aim to be definitive because that would take pages and pages of text; instead, I intend to articulate a specific angle on each issue. I hope you find them of some use.