If you read, educate, are going to school, or have a pulse, this post is worth your time.
Today, we are going to take a bit of a sideline from our acrostic. Over the holiday weekend, I was resting up from a nasty bout of bronchitis and puttering around Facebook. I’ve been long frustrated with this new culture of “Everyone’s a Winner.” Back in 2005, my young nephew was in soccer. I recall being horrified that everyone received a trophy.
What was the point for working harder? What gain did it give my nephew that I ran extra drills with him after school and off the practice field? He “won” the same trophy as the kid who showed for one game out of the season.
Trying is all that matters.
We see all over the news where schools are attempting to cancel Honors events because those kids who didn’t achieve honors…
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At the end of the month, I will be removing my short stories from Amazon as I prepare a collection. The collection will feature the twelve stories I wrote in 2013, including the award-winning “This Elegant Ruin,” along with 13 brand new vignettes, one between each of the stories, plus two to bookend the collection, that will connect to make sort of a “thirteenth tale,” if you will. I’m hoping that collection will be available in both ebook and print by the end of the summer. So if you want to read any of the stories as an inexpensive single on Kindle, you have ten more days to buy before that option disappears forever!
Find information about the short stories here and click through to buy for Kindle.
Last week I shared the story of a shooting near our house. If you haven’t read that post, hop on back and read it first, then move on to this one.
When the dust settles after a tragedy in which the human will was involved–as opposed to a natural disaster–the very first question we ask ourselves is Why? What drove the villains of innumerable wars and genocides and school shootings and kidnappings and murders to commit such heinous acts? We want a reason, even if it’s an inadequate one, for the crime. And when we don’t get it, it makes the tragedy more frightening. Whatever the reason, it is so much easier to process and understand if it isn’t random.
When it comes to storytelling, motivation is key to understanding characters, accepting the plot, and fully immersing ourselves in the story. If there’s no clear reason for an action, the reader will be continually on the lookout for it. Now, if we want to make unclear motivation part of the tension for a while, that’s fine. But if we never manage to explain to a reader why a character, say, betrays his brother or cries when he sees a field of ripe wheat or sabotages his best friend, we’re betraying their trust in us as storytellers.
In high school I was in a number of plays and musicals, and beyond the very obvious difference of one having musical numbers and one not, I noticed a very pronounced difference in stage direction. In a play, if I stood up and walked to another spot in the “room” for no apparent reason, the director would call me on it. I needed to have a reason to change my position beyond me just feeling like the audience would be bored if I sat the whole time I was delivering these lines. In fact, it was so ingrained in me that it has affected my enjoyment of other productions! A common problem when memorizing lines and movements for a play is to answer the question What’s my motivation? because, of course, as an actor you are given lines and stage direction in a non-organic matter. To you, they did not arise naturally. Someone else wrote them out and you have been tasked with performing.
In contrast, the director of the musicals needed little reason for movement beyond the need to get people into the proper spots to start the next dance number. If you’re manipulating events in your manuscript just so you can get to the next scene that you planned, step back a moment and examine each character’s motivation. Would someone really act that way, say that line? Why? What would drive them to do that?
Using my example of the recent deadly shooting from the post on tension, after the shooter was taken into custody our questions changed from Who? and Where? to Why? Why the pharmacist? Was the shooter attempting to steal drugs? Was he under the influence of drugs? Why his neighbor? Had they been at odds?
The day after the shooting I was attempting to organize my desk (because deeper thought eluded me, preoccupied as I was with the events of the day before). This process involved going through a stack of items to be read and filed, including several issues of The New Yorker. I was flipping through them for articles and stories and comics I wanted to rip out and keep when I ran across an article about Adam Lanza’s father. I didn’t want to read about Sandy Hook, especially after the experience of my son’s school being on lockdown. But for some reason I began to read anyway. The article essentially attempted to explain what created a killer and a scenario like Sandy Hook. It talked about Adam Lanza’s childhood and teen years, his slow descent into a mental prison, the enabling actions of his mother, the frustration and despair of his father, everything, it seemed, except personal motivation. And that’s because that’s all we’re left with when a mass murderer kills himself and leaves no explanation. We’re left to grasp at wisps of clues and will never know the full truth.
But as writers, we must know why our characters are behaving the way they are, doing the things they’re doing, saying the things they’re saying. Read through each scene of your work in progress. Are the motivations of your characters clear? You don’t have to tell the reader outright why someone did something. You just have to make it easy enough for them to figure out on their own.
In my current manuscript, I wasn’t happy with one aspect of the ending. A young character committed a heinous act because I needed another character to suffer the consequences of their actions. The only problem was, I didn’t give this young character enough motivation. I tried adding a bit here and there, but what he did was so awful, my sprinklings of motivation were not enough, and I knew it. Rather than change the ending so that my other character didn’t suffer the consequences of her actions, I simply switched the young man’s target and made the consequences to the other character accidental. Problem solved.
Not everything needs an explanation of course. You don’t need to tell us why your protagonist rescued a dog from a shelter. It’s a pretty common thing humans do because most people like pets. However, you might have a reason for your protagonist choosing a large and imposing dog rather than a little yippy one. Or choosing a dog rather than a cat. That may factor into the plot or it may simply tell a reader something about the character that’s important.
Remember, if your character moves stage left, there had better be a reason for it or the spell you are trying to cast will be broken. Your audience will remember that they’re reading a book. And that’s exactly what we don’t want them to do.
Look friends, winter’s over, the trees are leafing out, the flowers are blooming, and Michigan’s cities and coastlines are calling. If you live here, you already know how amazing it is. If you don’t, take a couple minutes and watch this:
And then head on over to my page of Michigan links and start clicking and planning a vacation here.
Michigan is more than Detroit (although, Detroit’s pretty freaking amazing, even for a city in crisis) and it has something for everyone. Here are some of the beautiful places I like to frequent.
Don’t forget to pack your sunscreen, bike, hiking shoes, ATV, fishing pole, camera, nature guides, water skis, appetite, and penchant for fun and relaxation.
As I was headed to the post office late Monday morning in the pouring rain, I couldn’t help but notice half a dozen police cars and twice as many police officers in an otherwise empty parking lot in front of Rite Aid. Yellow police line tape cordoned off both the parking lot and the building, which is situated uncomfortably close to my house. Uncomfortably, because of what had happened there to necessitate the police presence.
I got to the post office in East Lansing and called my husband for a phone number I’d forgotten to write down and mentioned the strange situation at the Rite Aid. As we do nowadays, he proceeded to look up what information could be gleaned from online sources. Very little, as it turns out. A pharmacist, a kind man who had filled prescriptions for our family, had been shot in the face 30 or 40 minutes earlier and died. The shooter fled on foot into a residence on a nearby street, a street we used to use daily when our son was younger as we took him to daycare. There the shooter had apparently shot someone else just fifteen minutes later. Several schools were on lockdown. But my son’s school, closer in distance to the now supposed location of the shooter then the other schools listed, was not on the list. A call to the school went unanswered.
I finished my business at the post office, ran through the downpour to my car, and headed for his school. Thankfully when I got up to the front door, the building was locked. The principal let me in, I quickly made sure they knew what was going on, and then I left.
In the tense hours that followed, news was sketchy. “Isn’t this what Twitter is for?” I wondered in frustration as my husband and I scanned every news site, every feed we could think of, reloaded articles every two minutes to see if anything had been added. Robocalls from the police department and the school came ten to twenty minutes after events had already been reported on the Internet. We got the call that the school lockdown had been lifted, but still could find no indication that the police were positive that the suspect was in the residence that they had surrounded with cops from three cities, S.W.A.T., a U.S. Marshall, K9 units, and armored vehicles.
I second guessed myself for leaving my son at school. Why didn’t I ask if he could come home with me? What if he’s in danger? With every half hour that passed by with still no updates, anxiety mounted within me. A headache came on. I erupted in tears a few times (folks, I rarely cry). I couldn’t concentrate on anything. I was steadily losing it.
Let’s pause this story here and take a look at the facts.
By the time I drove by the Rite Aid and saw the tape and the cops and the cruisers, everything except the apprehension of the suspect had already taken place. Two men were already tragically dead. The shooter was already barricaded in the location of the second shooting and surrounded by law enforcement. The only thing yet to be decided was whether he would give himself up, go out in a hail of bullets, or shoot himself. He was contained.
But I didn’t know that. And my baby was not home with me.
Tension–severe and almost unbearable tension–can happen even when nothing is actually happening. Tension stems from uncertainty–not knowing someone’s true identity, not being able to predict what someone will do next, not understanding why something is happening, not knowing if a loved one is safe, not knowing when something will end, not knowing how someone will react…not knowing the end of the story. In our writing, tension is as much about what is not apparent to a character as an immediate physical threat to a character. Stories with absolutely no big action can have more tension than the most explosive big-budget Hollywood shoot-em-up ever made. Yes, there’s Speed, but there’s also Phonebooth.
Inside the Rite Aid, there was a brief moment of tension. An argument perhaps, the sight of a gun. But when that poor pharmacist died, the tension for him ended.
Outside the Rite Aid, every parent in two cities was terrified and anxious and even hysterical for over three hours. Each child in those locked down schools was wondering why their teachers were so tense and why they had a Code Yellow. People at work or at home within a five mile radius of all the action, including the campus of Michigan State University, were told to “secure in place,” stay inside, lock the doors. For tens of thousands of people outside, though they were not directly involved in any of the tragic events of the day, the tension worsened with every moment that passed with no information and no resolution.
Tension kept my husband and I reloading scant articles online. Tension keeps a reader turning the pages. And if tension stems from uncertainty, as writers we need to keep readers in suspense as long as possible.
It can be uncomfortable to write like that. We naturally desire resolution. Even a song that ends on an unresolved chord can drive us nuts. But in order to keep a reader engaged, we need to resist the desire to explain. Tension is in the pauses, the silences, the moments before the Moment. Have you ever read For Whom the Bell Tolls? That entire book ends on an unresolved chord! And it’s the ending that makes the rest of the book worth reading at all.
Take a look at your work in progress, scene by scene. Do you allow tension to hang heavy in the air? Or do you resolve problems as quickly as possible? Is your story lacking tension of any kind? How could you add tension? How can you increase the uncertainty of a situation? Raise the stakes? Make the consequences more dire? Give the character (and the reader) less information? End a scene sooner? Pay special attention to the ends of your chapters and try to end each one with an unresolved chord. Compel the reader on to the next chapter by leaving them unsatisfied in this one.
That’s what makes a thriller a page-turner. It’s not the action itself. It’s the uncertainty. And you can use that to your advantage even in a quiet book.
Back to Rite Aid. When my husband left the house to pick up our son from school, word filtered through that the shooter had given himself up. He was in custody and the threat had ended. I texted my husband to let him know, to ease his anxiety and break the tension. It took me the rest of the evening to truly recover from the day. And in the light of the next morning, the big question became one of motivation.
As I said, this story is still developing. Here is a good article about the first victim and here is one about the second, men who had dreams and families and were made in the image of God, cut down in the prime of life. Why? We don’t know. And that is the subject of my next post on revising your manuscript…
In a few short weeks, I will begin a new folder in my electronic photo filing system as my son goes from age five to age six. At this point, this is the last photo of him as a five-year-old.
His life is martial arts, Transformers, Voltron, playgrounds, TMNT, dancing, Legos, and scooters. He can’t wait to get back up to camp. He wants to do everything for himself. He continues to love animals and church and gardens and singing at the top of his lungs.
And life with him makes us wonder how we ever could have thought that our lives were complete before him.
This weekend has been busy. Filled with springtime chores at home and church–cleaning house, moving mountains of mulch, transplanting perennials, refreshing gravel, spreading manure–plus a very busy day at church teaching, serving communion, preparing meals for shut-ins, cleaning up after the potluck.
I’ve definitely been run through my paces.
But I’ve also had lots of exercise, as well as time to read.
And time to quilt.
I’m working on a gift this week. I love the colors, so I kind of want to keep it.
Here’s hoping you’re not too busy to enjoy yourself lately.
Check out my thoughts on character development over at Andrea Peterson’s blog today…
There have been characters I feel so deeply for, I dream of them. Some stay with me even if I have to put the book down, and, when I’m invested in my character, putting the book down is very hard for me to do. They are part of my circle of friends, my family…
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