Point of View, Perception and Values: How to Create Conflict Without Really Trying

by Christina Lay

You may have noticed that we live in divisive times.  The gulf between opposing points of view seems to be widening every day. People who hold extreme views are becoming more extreme. Middle-of-the-roaders are held in contempt.  Allies turn on each other for not being righteous enough. Opponents dig in their heels, become intractable. Fresh arguments break out every day and when we, as observers, try to make sense out of what is happening, we are told that Facts don’t matter, truth doesn’t exist, science is fake, and that we can’t believe what we read, what we see, or what we hear.

Pretty fun stuff, eh? I often find myself with a headache, a touch of nausea and an overwhelming sense of frustration.  Luckily, I have the refuge of fiction. I escape into a world where I’m in control, where I know what the truth is and I know who the bad guys are. I can exist in this simple world of my own making for a long time; it is balm to my soul.

But then reality begins to creep back in, with its confusions and complications. And that’s okay, because nobody wants to read my fairy tales where nothing very bad ever happens. Readers, for whatever bizarre psychological reason, want conflict. They want the strife I am seeking to escape. They want danger, intrigue, a plot. Go figure.

And so I reluctantly take a closer look at the world around me. Sheesh, what a mess. But what a great time to study and learn about conflict!  Complicated conflict. Conflict between well-meaning, intelligent people. Many works of genre fiction rely on simple forms of conflict.  There is a bad guy, or force, or malevolent power afoot in the universe. In thrillers, it might be a corrupt foreign power, in mysteries, a murderer, in fantasy, an evil wizard bent on controlling the world and killing all the pretty unicorns.  It’s not too hard to create a villain who is so loathsome and evil that readers will cheer when your protagonist shoots him in the face. Or lops her head off.

Although great fun, this is not the kind of conflict I’m talking about now. Because in the end, the super villain tends to be a superficial character, and the plot, with all its twists and turns, is ultimately predictable. Because if you let your hero die and the despicable villain you’ve created win, your readers will want to shoot you in the face. I know. As a reader, I’ve been there.

I mostly read genre fiction, and often find myself more interested in the twists and turns of the hero’s other relationships. The friends, allies, mentors, co-workers, parents, children, who can all become, if not villains, antagonists of the most interesting sort.

And at last I reach my point: how friends, allies, parents, siblings, can become the most interesting antagonists without having to kill a single a person. They might even be good people. The hero might love or be in love with them. And yet these antagonists can be believable and diametrically opposed to the hero on some point of such import that they become the main obstacle to the hero’s success and the satisfying ending your reader craves.

Truth is slippery. If there is one thing to learn from reality today, it’s that facts can be hidden, misinterpreted, ignored. The interpretation of an event can be determined simply by where one is standing. “I heard that man shouting sexist insults!” “Well, I saw that woman whack a man on the head with her Love Always Wins sign!” “They were the aggressor.” “No, that group started it”. “The police were being needlessly brutal.” “No, the perpetrator had a gun.”  It is easy to see how two friends, experiencing an event from different locations, could come away with very different feelings. One might feel the need for action, or revenge, while the other does not.

Beyond the immediate physical view point, there is of course the viewpoint that comes from economic status, regional and racial outlook, religious upbringing, relative health or dysfunction of the birth family and so on. It pays to do a little homework, a little world-building, in order give your main characters diverse backgrounds or life experiences, especially from those closest to them. Honoring diversity in your fiction as well as your life can add so much richness to your stories.

Another way to create instant conflict between people with the same values is to give them different ideas about how to protect those values. Take traditional family values versus women’s rights.  One doesn’t have to be a super villain to believe that families are healthier when the woman stays home to raise the kids, but if that person is your progressive protagonist’s new husband, watch out.

I’m sure I’m not telling you anything you don’t know, but I’ve personally found it eye-opening to look at all this conflict around me through the lens of character development and plotting. It doesn’t hurt that incorporating the frustrations of the world into a work of fiction can be, not only informative, but somehow healing. As my characters work through their perceived differences, I can see how there might be hope for all of us to stop being each other’s antagonists.

Critical Thinking and the Noogie Man

photo of head bust print artwork

Photo by meo on Pexels.com

Eric Witchey

Recently, I went to a mixed company party where someone I barely knew actually gave me a noogie. Mind you, I’m a 60 year-old man. He wrapped a beer-fed arm around my neck, rubbed his knuckles on my balding skull, and playfully said, “There’s always at least one liberal egghead at these things.”

I refrained from ripping his balls off and feeding them to him because I actually like the hosts. That, and he was easily 20 years younger than me and outweighed me by at least 100 pounds.

Earlier that day, I had started reading an article about critical thinking. At the party, the concept came up in conversation. Being a communication consultant and writer, I felt very comfortable describing the content of as much of the article as I had read. This, apparently, made my new, large, personal boundary-challenged BFF uncomfortable enough to need to engage in some simian, physical dominance behavior.

Later on, awake at about 2am and staring at the ceiling of my Eric cave, I started thinking about what most people experience when their eyes pass over the phrase “critical thinking.”

My, perhaps ungracious, conclusion is that the phrase triggers a vaguely, barely recognizable in the mental background noise of their minds, self-affirmation of the belief that they are critical thinkers. They reinterpret the phrase to mean something like, smart people like me. It is a fleeting ghost of a thought that is barely recognized, if it is recognized at all. By the time it might be recognized, the eyes and mind are already on to the end of the sentence and the next sentence.

In the context of teaching, I have often wondered how to successfully demonstrate both the processes of and the value of critical thinking. Sadly, my success has been limited. It is a very hard thing to teach because learning it requires a proactive self-doubt combined with a desire to learn and, possibly, change.

Critical thinking, for a person who actually engages in it as a habit, looks something like this when they encounter a new phrase like—oh, let’s say, “critical thinking.”

What does that really mean? What does critical mean? Does it mean important? Of paramount importance? Necessary to survival? Does it mean analytical—to analyze, deconstruct, evaluate? Does it mean to attack—to minimize, to negate, to reduce to component insignificance?

Thinking. Hm… Present participle of “to think.” Could it be a progressive form instead of a participial form? Does it mean to engage in ongoing thought? Is the participial form a nominalization that means “the class of thoughts associated with the adjective critical?” If a noun prior to “critical” is the modified term, does it mean the modified preceding noun has thought capacity engaged in an ongoing process? Maybe it means that the preceding noun has capacity and the phrase is intended as a compound adjective in which the hyphen has been unintentionally dropped?

Interesting that I could generate so many speculations about such a ubiquitous phrase. I’ll run a search on the phrase in order to test the denotative and usage history against my own experience, assumptions, and speculations.

From Criticalthinking.org:

#1: A statement by Michael Scriven & Richard Paul, presented at the 8th Annual International Conference on Critical Thinking and Education Reform, Summer 1987.

Critical thinking is the intellectually disciplined process of actively and skillfully conceptualizing, applying, analyzing, synthesizing, and/or evaluating information gathered from, or generated by, observation, experience, reflection, reasoning, or communication, as a guide to belief and action. In its exemplary form, it is based on universal intellectual values that transcend subject matter divisions: clarity, accuracy, precision, consistency, relevance, sound evidence, good reasons, depth, breadth, and fairness.

#2: Critical thinking is self-guided, self-disciplined thinking which attempts to reason at the highest level of quality in a fair-minded way.   People who think critically consistently attempt to live rationally, reasonably, empathically.    They are keenly aware of the inherently flawed nature of human thinking when left unchecked.  They strive to diminish the power of their egocentric and sociocentric tendencies.   They use the intellectual tools that critical thinking offers – concepts and principles that enable them to analyze, assess, and improve thinking. . . .

From Wikipedia:

Critical thinking is clear, reasoned thinking involving critique. Its details vary amongst those who define it. According to Beyer (1995), critical thinking means making clear, reasoned judgments. During the process of critical thinking, ideas should be reasoned and well thought out/judged.[1] The National Council for Excellence in Critical Thinking[2] defines critical thinking as the intellectually disciplined process of actively and skillfully conceptualizing, applying, analyzing, synthesizing, and/or evaluating information gathered from, or generated by, observation, experience, reflection, reasoning, or communication, as a guide to belief and action.’[3]

From Daniel T. Willingham and The Federation of American Teachers:

In layperson’s terms, critical thinking consists of seeing both sides of an issue, being open to new evidence that disconfirms your ideas, reasoning dispassionately, demanding that claims be backed by evidence, deducing and inferring conclusions from available facts, solving problems, and so forth… (The article goes on to describe types of, studies in attempts to teach it, and problems in pedagogy).

From Dictionary.com:

disciplined thinking that is clear, rational, open-minded, and informed by evidence.

Okay, enough fiddling about with online sources that may or may not be subject to editorial scrutiny, peer-review, and general tests of accuracy and veracity. To my own bookshelves for real answers.

I think I’ll sample my very favorite dictionary, a big fat library edition of the 1947 Webster’s New International Dictionary, Second Edition. This book is the hernia-generating monster that, when I was a kid at Saturday morning story time readings, was chained to a pedestal inside the library front doors—as it should be.

Nothing. No entry.

I wonder why I had to wade through so many words that began with ‘co’ on the way to ‘cr?’ Well, that’s not relevant to the question I’m researching. Refocus.

Next on my shelf.

From the 1983 Webster’s New Universal Unabridged Dictionary, Deluxe Second Edition:

Nothing. No entry.

I would have thought that the Universal Unabridged Dictionary would be fatter than the merely International Dictionary, but it’s not. Maybe we lost a lot of words between 47 and 83. Not relevant. Still, I had to wade through a lot of words that began with ‘co’ on the way to ‘cr.’ I’ll figure out the root history to ‘co’ words another day. Refocus on the question at hand.

Okay, really, seriously! Enough fiddling about. Pull the definitive source from the shelf and torture my aging eyes with micrographic print.

From the Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary Vol. A-O, 1981. 21st printing. This is the dictionary that was never chained to anything because in full-print size, it spans 14 massive volumes. In micrographic print, which requires a magnifying glass to read no matter how young your eyes are, it is only two fat books made up of very thin paper. Herein, I shall find the complete history of the use of the phrase, “critical thinking:”

Not! Nothing. No entry.

So, the phrase is not treated as a word prior to 1983. Further research could tell me when it began to be treated as a single concept in phrasal form. Not now. Instead, maybe I’ll do a little bit of work to better understand the two words, “critical” and “thinking.” That’s the next logical step if my goal is to understand use in context rather than use over time.

Unfortunately, the OED micrographic print went on for a column and a half with denotative uses of “critical.” I can’t put that kind of time in on wading through lists of meanings in order to find deep understanding of something I’m not being paid to chase—at least not today.

Paid to chase. Hm? Is that why we don’t think? Are we all just chasing our next banana? No. Don’t go there. Not now.

Maybe I’ll write a blog entry about the semantics of denotative combinatorics some other time. I’ll match up each definition of critical with each definition of thinking to create all the possible matches as an exercise in possibilities.

Or not. Focus. Right now, I have to get to other things.

This is the point at which a habitual critical thinker might break out of the rapture of research. At this point, they have ceased critical thinking. They fall back on untested personal experience and speculation.

They read the comma and the next word and consider them as limiting variables in revisions of and reductions to the above possibilities and their relevance to a developing understanding of the possible intent of the author and to personal interpretation of their written effort.

I…

Oops. I mean, they. They do this because a part of me… I… they… them still feels the pain of Homo Neoneanderthalensis knuckles on my balding head.

Crap. Okay, I’m outed.

Reading smart stuff written by smart people makes me feel better.

Take that, Noogie Man!

Hm… Is imaginary revenge a result of critcal thinking? As my father used to say, “No matter where you go and no matter what you do, the monkey is still a monkey.” Interesting that my father used the second person, singluar pronoun. Until this moment, I have always universalized it and excluded myself.

Exhausted, I settled down and finished reading the article that had started all the trouble.

Critical thinking is treated in this culture as a symptom of some underlying disorder: Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, Attention Deficit Disorder, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, Asperger’s Spectrum Disorder, Autism, or Antisocial Personality Disorder. As a culture, we treat people who demonstrate passionate curiosity and who actually focus on seeking diverse or nuanced understanding as if they are broken. We dismiss actual, credentialed experts as too educated to be useful, and we use ad hominem attacks to socially shun the curious by undermining the credibility of any non-credentialed, non-academic who engages in critical thinking. We place value on the presentation of confident, socially dominant behavior as knowledge rather than on the processes of productive, egalitarian exploration through conversation. Smart people learn to be quiet at mixed social gatherings because they are statistically much more likely to meet with shunning, sarcastic attacks like, “I didn’t know you had a Ph.D. in bullshit,” “You must have swallowed a fucking dictionary before you showed up,” “You always did think you were better than the rest of us,” and, my personal favorite, “How about those (insert sportsball team here),” than they are to meet a non-combative conversationalist.

The same person, engaged in conversation with others while travelling in educationally developed nations like Denmark, Sweden, France, Norway, and Finland is greeted with statements like, “You aren’t like most Americans I’ve met,” “I can tell you didn’t go to an American school,” “What a pleasure to meet an American who can talk about more than TV, sports, and their children,” and, my personal favorite, “You are the first American I’ve met who didn’t need to win the conversation.”

Can I claim understanding and objectivity in my thinking if, for me, the article amounted to cherry-picking? So, I have failed as both a critical thinker and as a good American. My research was not pure. My curiosity was not open to all possibilities. In the end, I just wanted to win against the Noogie Man. I am Homo Neoneanderthalensis. Sadly, Noogie Man will never read this, so I have only succeeded in giving air noogies to mind shadows in the comfort of my own home.

-End-

Surprise and The Ah-Ha Moment

Surprise and The Ah-Ha Moment

Eric Witchey

An article I once read described one of the major categories of procrastination as “threshold procrastination.” Translating that concept into writer speak, a writer has to have a deadline and get close enough to it that adrenaline (fear) drives them beyond a certain threshold before they can perform. Since I juggle multiple kinds of writing, one way or another I’m pretty much always near or on the wrong side of one deadline or another. Worrying is a state of being. Adrenaline is a pain in the ass. Still, it works for me.

However, another experience I suspect is closely related is the clarity that comes from sudden, short-term notice of a new project.

A long time ago, I had a great uncle who was known to be “a little psychic.” The family stories I heard about him had me curious as hell. He was old when I was 16, but he still worked at his tool and die company in Wauconda, Ill. My mother had taken me to dinner at his house. Another relative, a sort of uncle from that same generation, was an administrator at a hospital in Chicago. Keep in mind that his was in the early 70s, and miniaturization in medical equipment was happening in real time. Personal computers were about to be invented for the first time. Phones still lived on little tables in hallways.

Uncle Red, the administrator, had been helping out at Uncle George’s house while his wife and George’s wife, Ruth, fixed a pot roast. Red had been mowing the lawn in a small orchard behind the house. The little riding lawn tractor hit a rabbit rut and jarred him pretty hard. A while later, he realized he had lost a hearing aid out in the lawn somewhere.

It wouldn’t be a big deal now. You’d just order a new one on the internet, take it to a tech for tuning, and Bob’s your uncle. Except Red and George were my uncles, and Red had a miniaturized prototype hearing aid that was worth 10k in 1974 dollars.

We, meaning myself, my Mom, Red, Ruth, and Red’s wife, whose name I can’t remember but who may have been Betty and will be so named hereinafter, spent over an hour on hands and knees searching the orchard for that irreplaceable hearing aid.

We didn’t find it.

Ruth decided we should all clean up for dinner. She said, and I will never forget how strange it sounded to me at the time, “When George gets home, I’ll ask him to find it.”

To my surprise, everyone seemed just fine with that.

Maybe a half hour later, George did come home. Ruth met him at the door. Here’s another bit of nostalgia for folks my age. Back then, there were still “business men” who carried umbrellas, wore long coats, and sported actual fedoras. They were a dying breed, but George was one of them. To make what seems now to be both cliché and a perpetuation of patriarchy worse, Ruth took his hat, his coat, and his bumbershoot. Then, she kissed him on the cheek, got right in his face, locked eyes, and said, “Red lost his hearing aid out back. Can you find it?”

George reared back a bit in surprise, but he recovered quickly, glanced at the back of the house, paused like a man trying to peer through fog, then replied, “Yes.”

Okay, this sounds nuts, but I swear this is exactly what happened.

George then walked through the house, into the back yard, into the orchard. A few minutes later—very few minutes later—he came back in and handed Uncle Red the hearing aid.

All the adults present thanked him. Otherwise, they treated it like the most normal thing in the world. Dinner was served. We are talking left hand in the lap formal family protestant-folks dinner, too. Afterward, Mom, Ruth, and Betty “cleaned up.” Red left to do some hospital thing he had to do, and I found myself alone with George in, and I kid you not, “the library.” And yes, the library was actually what you are imagining. It was a personal library. The walls were books. The furniture was leather. The liquor cabinet wasn’t inside a globe of the ancient world, but such a thing would have been quite happy in that room.

So, young upstart me is sitting there with the scotch-in-hand spooky uncle trying to figure out how to ask him about what happened, and he up and says, “I have to be surprised.”

I say, “If you can do that, you could make a lot of money.”

He chuckles and sips scotch.

“Can you do that any time you want?”

Again, he says, “I have to be surprised.”

“Can you bend spoons?” It was a thing then.

He says, “Ruth knows me. She knows I can’t think about it or it doesn’t work. She surprised me with the question. I saw the spot in the yard.”

Now, I did ask him a lot of other stupid 16 year-old questions. He was kind. He was patient. He answered them all. None of the answers fit my worldview, so I left that experience pretty sure it had been an elaborate conspiracy among relatives I barely knew to convince the kid of secret powers.

Except it never came up again. I wasn’t the butt of any jokes. There was no follow-through—no payoff. Nothing.

Years went by. I went to college. I went to grad school. I went to life. Other strange things happened here and there, but I let it all slide over me. It’s all good. Right?

Except that sometimes I’m reminded of that dinner party and the hearing aide in the strangest ways.

As always, I seek patterns in the creation of story. I seek patterns in the stories and in the process of creating them. I look for ways to describe the patterns of process and form so that other people can shorten their learning curves, reduce the amount of personal trial and error. I’ve had some success serving the writing the community in this way. Most of the time, that involves rigorous application of experimentation and application of linguistic knowledge and personal experience.

Then, I’m surprised.

Lately, I’ve been trying to figure out how to further shorten the development curve for writers who are struggling to put scenes together. The dramatic scene is, after all, the building block of all stories. I won’t explain that here. I’ll just say that building a solid, functional scene requires the writer to keep a lot of balls in the air. Normally, I teach people how many balls, the patterns in the air, the colors of the balls, and how to add a running chainsaw.

Okay, metaphorically speaking.

This week, Willamette Writers emailed me and asked me if I could take on a presentation slot in their calendar next week. The original speaker couldn’t make it. I said yes. I hung up the phone–the cell phone. With perfect clarity, I suddenly saw the path to the result I wanted.

An Uncle George psychic surprise? Mere Jungian synchronicity? Perhaps a deadline whose threshold for adrenaline had already passed?

I don’t know.

I do know that several teaching and writing techniques suddenly resolved into a seminar I’ll be teaching at Old Church in Portland, Oregon the evening of October 2nd. If the path is true and the hearing aide is where I have seen it, we’ll delve into character psychology and connect to setting and scene structure in a counter-intuitive way that will make writing and learning to write scenes faster and easier for most people. It will also allow revision that increases the emotional punch of the scenes. The talk will be called, “Because, Because and the Six-Layered Scene.”

Thank you, Uncle George. I may not be psychic, but, because of my experiences with you, I am open to those magical moments when a catalyst triggers the subconscious to deliver a result.

For more information on the event at Old Church, here’s the link:

https://willamettewriters.org/event/portland-monthly-meeting/2018-10-02/ 

Here’s the description:

Because, Because and The Power of Six-Layered Scenes

Join us on October 2nd, doors open at 6:30PM, at the Old Church in downtown Portland. to hear speaker and award-winning author Eric Witchey. Witchey will present this short adaptation of material from his Fiction Fluency Seminars. The evening will include an interactive demonstration of use of the “because, because” technique to uncover character psychology and emotional states before writing a scene. Discovered character attributes will then support creation of a six-layered scene that includes three simultaneous levels of conflict and three emotion-supporting layers of setting. Participants will walk away with a step-by-step understanding of the techniques demonstrated. Once understood, these techniques can be used for analysis and revision of existing scenes or for creation of new scenes.

About Eric Witchey

Eric Witchey is a writer, seminar teacher, course developer, process analyst, communication consultant, and conference speaker. He has made a living as a freelance writer and communication consultant for over a quarter century. In addition to many contracted and ghost non-fiction titles, he has sold a number of novels and more than 140 stories. His stories have appeared in 12 genres and on five continents. He has received awards or recognition from New Century Writers, Writers of the Future, Writer’s Digest, Independent Publisher Book Awards, International Book Awards, The Eric Hoffer Prose Award Program, Short Story America, the Irish Aeon Awards, and other organizations. His How-to articles have appeared in The Writer Magazine, Writer’s Digest Magazine, and other print and online magazines.

See you at this month’s Willamette Writer’s Portland meeting!

It’s Not About The Monster

by Christina Lay

It’s Not About the Monster

Beware of the stories you read or tell; subtly, at night, beneath the waters of consciousness, they are altering your world. -Ben Okri, poet and novelist (b. 15 Mar 1959)

I just finished writing an entirely different post about the TV Show Stranger Things. Then, after walking away from the computer, it occurred to me that I hadn’t said a single thing about the flashy bits. You know, the monster, the cool other dimension, the ick and awe factor, the “strange things”.

Spoiler Alert – If you haven’t watched Season One yet, you might not want to read this

If you don’t know, Stranger Things is an Amazon original series that I would put in the genre of “Cozy Horror”. It is cozy because our favorite characters tend not to die, and good triumphs over evil, eventually. However, people do die, either at the hands of a rogue government entity or at the ick-dripping talons of the monster.

However, it doesn’t really matter how they die or who/what is chasing our heroes around. The source of The Horror could just as well be an infestation of pissed-off dragons, or powerful magic gone awry, or a swarm of giant ants, or an out of control disease. Personally I prefer monsters. What is important in a show like this is the characters, and how they react to The Horror.

In the first post I wrote, I discussed how we as writers might make up for the fact that we don’t have a three-dimensional Winona Ryder who will leap out of the page and bring our brilliant prose to life for the reader. I’m full of admiration for Winona’s skill and her excellent job of bringing Joyce Byers, the distraught mother in Stranger Things, to life. She is a lot of what makes this show so compelling. So as writers stuck with mere words, we can focus on character development, adding layers and depth to our characters by giving them everything from quirks, gestures, odd habits and facial tics to long and murky histories, skewed motivations, poor coping skills and a smorgasbord of emotions that may or may not control their actions. Winona and the true-to-trope hard drinking sheriff with a murky history, skewed motivations and poor coping skills get most of the action, character-development wise. The true-to-trope gang of nerdy and plucky kids are all great, as is “The Chosen One” with the powerful magic gone awry. A couple side characters like the Princess and The Loner/Outsider have some good moments, and even the good-looking Jock/Jerk gets a shot at redemption. They’re all interesting in their way, adding to the fun by roping us in with their charm.

But it’s Winona as the mom and David Harbour as Chief Hopper who really get to face The Horror, which is what this show, and most stories like it, are all about. In facing The Horror, a character is either destroyed or they prevail. There are so many ways either can happen. One, they can get their head ripped off. That is the ultimate failure. But they can also fail to face their fear, they might run away, they might turn their backs on their friends, they might join the enemy, they might deny the existence of the Horror until it shows up and rips their head off. They might choose to destroy themselves, with alcohol or a supremely reckless act, all the while denying those repressed emotions that are controlling them. The sheriff is drinking and denying in order not to face the emotional truth of having lost a child. The mother, on the other hand, steamrollers her many flaws and actually utilizes them in a supreme effort to save her child. Sometimes, it is an asset to be slightly crazy.

To prevail, one must survive the season (or the novel). Beyond that, the hero must grow, realize her own strengths, identify what is most important, listen to her instincts and intuitions, trust in her allies if they exist, overcome all those cleverly developed character flaws, and defeat the monster. At least for now.

Some viewers might disagree, but I believe this is the key to a successful show, not the cleverness or wow factor of The Horror. Don’t get me wrong, I think the monster in Stranger Things is cool. The Upside Down is a creepy and clever concept that they do well. But it would all put me to sleep if it weren’t for the people who are dealing with, reacting to, dying in the face of, and kicking the ass of The Horror. If those people are one-dimensional, shallow, too true-to-trope to swallow, or just flat out dull, no amount of pyrotechnic evil wizardry is going to keep me tuning in.

This brings us to the question of why we do this to ourselves. Why do we like to watch clever, likable, heroic characters be tortured and tested in this way? I think the answer is pretty simple, and it’s why we tell stories at all. We all have a Horror in our life, maybe several. Maybe they’re small horrors, but the world is full of big horrors and it takes very little imagination to conceive of The Horror being visited upon ourselves. A cozy horror TV show like Stranger Things allows to process some of that pent up fear, and it lets us watch “ordinary” characters take the bull by the horns and defeat The Horror. Yes, it is cathartic, and it is just scary enough to let off some of scream steam and, possibly, allow us embrace the happy for now ending and the hope that good not only can but will triumph over evil.

Now Non-cozy Horror, where everyone dies? I don’t know what’s up with that. Liz?

 

 

 

 

 

Reconciling Fiction Techniques in Memoir

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Reconciling Fiction Techniques in Memoir, by Eric Witchey

Something new for my blog this time. Instead of waxing dreary on some topic of my own choosing, I’m answering a question from a person who took a class from me at the Write on the Sound Conference in Edmonds, Washington. The last time I was there, I taught a class that included a brief discussion of a concept I first presented in an article for The Writer Magazine in October of 2011. The concept is the Irreconcilable Self (I.S.).

The writer, a memoirist, dropped me a line last week. The question has two parts. The first part is whether the I.S. the writer is working with is precise enough. The second question is more of a presupposition about whether the I.S. tool can be used in memoire. Also, note that the writer used Wallace Stegner’s book, Angle of Repose, as a reference point. It has been a long time since I read it, so my examples from memory may or may not fit the experience of people who have read it more recently. I did not go back and check the book to verify my memory, which is a swiss cheese muddle of too many stories that often blend together.

The Question:

I’m presuming that the I.S. can apply to a memoir ‘character’ since I’m treating myself as the character? Good. So then, my opposing conflicts of ideals are — ideal notions of country/”smaller” living and (true) community not a neighborhood VERSUS ‘freedom’ of city life and anonymity.

My questions — is that SPECIFIC enough?? Or is it too linked to place and time? Do I need more soul-searching to really get at stronger conflicting notions here? I am conflicted in the idolization of country living vs the reality and want to expose that a little more via my experience, but also have notions and real experiences of longing for that country living.

The Answer:

Hi, again, Writer X:

First, I’ll be teaching an 8 hour seminar on this subject in Eugene, OR in May. I have a couple of memoirists already signed up. You don’t have to sign up for all six classes. You can just take this one alone, but I would recommend this one and the one in June for a full sense of how I.S. works in conjunction with other story elements. The people at WordCrafters can help with accommodations. The classes are set up so people can drive or fly in on Saturday and drive or fly out on Sunday. Anyway, here’s the link.

https://wordcraftersineugene.org/fiction-fluency-2018/ff-seminars/

Second, I always welcome “one-off” emails, but I can’t always answer them. Also, I’ll only answer one or two before I send you a contract to set up a formal relationship as a sort of piano teacher of words. Too many people think of me as a private encyclopedia of writing techniques if I let them, and I do have to fulfill my own obligations in life.

So, no worries. I’m especially happy to hear from people who have read my stories and taken one or more of my classes.

Interesting that you mention The Angle of Repose. Not many writers who contact me have read it. Stegner is brilliant. Before I talk about that, I’ll talk a bit about Irreconcilable Self.

When I teach I.S., especially in a short form venue like a conference (60 to 90 minutes, total), I teach it as a binary form to get the idea across. It can be more complex. The form I teach has two parts and relies on “I believe” statements in juxtaposition—something like this:

“I believe Romantic idealism is the only truth in this world.” Vs. “I believe deeply in personal honor and family honor and pride.”

This would be Romeo.

Notice that I have already put in more than one thing in the second “I believe” statement. The juxtaposition of these deeply held, untested beliefs is what’s important. The beliefs are deep and often, but not always, unconscious. They are, however, untested. The only way the character is able to believe both things at the same time is that the beliefs have not been tested in his or her life.

That’s the short version of I.S.

Now, Stegner. Keep in mind that Stegner is telling several stories. Lyman is narrating. He’s telling both his story and the story of Susan. Susan’s story includes the story of Oliver and Frank. Each of these major characters has an I.S. that generally functions beneath their consciousness and either drives or allows them to act in the ways they do. Each character has their beliefs tested. Lyman’s is tested by the telling of the story and the revelations that come because of that. His I.S. is something like, “I believe I am a good man from good stock” vs. “I believe the world and my family owe me for their betrayals.” His I.S. is tested by revelations and experience. He abandons the second belief, modifies the first one, and reconciles his experience into, “My choices create the love around me.”

Okay, I’m making this up on the fly, so don’t expect “correct” summary descriptions of a novel I read a long time ago. I’m just trying to give an example that might be useful for you.

Frank can’t reconcile his beliefs. He kills himself. That’s, more-or-less, the definition of tragedy. I’d say his belief was something like, “I believe I’m a good and loyal friend” vs. “I believe I love Susan beyond life itself.” Yeah, that doesn’t work out for him. If memory serves, he kills himself.

Oliver is something like, “I believe I’m an honorable, educated, man worthy of love and loyalty” vs. “I believe one more shovel full of dirt and I’ll strike it rich and save everyone around me.” Or, maybe, “I believe I’m a good husband and hard worker” vs. “I believe my worth is determined by the success of my next project.” I’d have to go back and reread it to do better.

Now, Susan, who is probably the most interesting character in the whole nested story mess, appears to be dragged through events, but she really isn’t. She’s just more subtle. Her I.S. is something like, “I believe in the trendy, romantic idealization of love and the West” vs. “I believe in family values and am a good wife and mother.”

The end position for a character who has resolved their I.S. (transformed) is one of the following:

  1. Experiences force the character to reject both beliefs and die (Frank). I might also argue that Oliver ends up in this position, but he dies emotionally and spiritually.
  2. Experiences force the character to reject both beliefs, but they find a new belief on which to base life choices and actions (Lyman).
  3. Experiences force the character to reject one belief and embrace the other (Susan).
  4. Experiences force the character to find a way to reconcile the two beliefs and live on in harmony with both (Nobody in that story).

Okay, on to memoir.

The chief problem I see when memoirists approach the use of fiction techniques in telling their stories is that they have difficulty stepping back to examine themselves for the underlying psychological, philosophical, and sociological understanding that fiction writers apply when working with made up characters. Finding your own I.S. is like trying to grab your shoelaces and lift yourself up so you can reach a book on the highest shelf. Even if you succeed in violating the laws of physics, you can’t let go of your shoelaces to reach for the book.

The various successful memoirists I have worked with have had to do extensive work in separating themselves from the character who represents them in the story. It’s much harder than making someone up from scratch, but the techniques are the same. For Memoirists, the trick is to do a lot of work figuring out what the core significance of the experience was both for the writer and for the reader. Sometimes, a very clear statement of the experiencing character’s main transformation will allow you to work backward into the land of unconsidered beliefs. Sometimes, deciding to assign an I.S. and then attempting to cause the story to conform to that I.S. will result in either success or failures that provide insights into what was really going on deeper down during the experience.

Regardless, one of the tasks the memoirist must always remember is that no matter what they think the experience meant to them, the end result is only useful if the reading experience means something to the reader. Those two positions are not in any way connected except through craft. Sometimes, they are two completely different meaning results.

I haven’t read your story, and I don’t know enough about it to name the I.S. for you. Frankly, that’s probably a bad idea anyway. However, I can say that once you know it, it is only one of three core control structures I teach. The other two are “arc” and “premise.”

That said, here’s how you described your I.S.: “opposing conflicts of ideals are — ideal notions of country/”smaller” living and (true) community not a neighborhood VERSUS ‘freedom’ of city life and anonymity

The description you provided could be translated into I.S. form like this:

I.S.: “I believe I will only be whole if I am a known, respected member of a small, rural community.” Vs. “I believe only the anonymity of city life will let me fully express who I am.”

Do keep in mind that at story open the character rarely knows they believe both things. Given the above I.S., I can certainly see how a story that demonstrates this conflict of values and transformation of a person could be told. I can’t, however, really speak to how your character and your character context will manifest these belief systems on the dialectic, tactical, conflict set, scene, sequence, or movement dramatic levels. I think that’s where you’re getting stuck. You have an I.S., but the translation of it into increments of stress and change caused by experience isn’t taking your story “from-to” in a way that feels both true and satisfying to you on the I.S. level. For that kind of analysis, I’d also need the premise, arc, and a synoptic outline that captures emotional change resulting from the conflict for each dramatic scene.

I don’t have time or space to do a full exposition of these ideas here, but I can say that by using the control concepts of arc, premise, and I.S., it is possible to analyze the story along the conceptual boundaries readers use to internalize emotions while reading. Subconsciously, readers look for moments of emotional change. In fact, physiologically, they respond to those moments before they have time to think about them. The speed of emotional response overriding the speed of cognitive response is one of the things that keeps readers in the story. Being able to name the I.S., being able to see how each moment of the story either stresses the character’s belief system or confirms it (which is another kind of stress since things will get worse because of confirmations), being able to incrementally move the stress levels toward a personal, emotional/psychological crisis in which the character experiences one of the reconciliation results described above, and being able to deliver the emotional power of that moment of transformation to the reader in a context that allows the reader to FEEL its value to them is, at core, what all story telling is about.

I’m sorry I can’t provide more insight than this. The woods are lovely, dark, and deep and…

Best of luck and skill to you.

Eric

 

Burn the Scarecrow to Keep the Reader Awake All Night

scarecrow on fire(image source sanniely istockphoto)

Burn the Scarecrow to Keep the Reader Awake All Night

by Eric Witchey

I write fiction, and I teach fiction writers. In fact, I teach a lot. One of the recurring frustrations I have is that students talk about their long-form manuscripts under development in terms of chapters.

“Well, Chapter 7 is about how she stands up to the bully in her gym class…”

As a teacher, I have two problems with statements like this. First, it is an event-driven description of the story content. That’s a topic for another time. Second, and this is the point today, the student is describing their story in terms of chapters rather than dramatics.

Chapters aren’t really part of the development of a story. They are part of the final polish, and a sharp writer will use them for pacing by placing the chapter breaks carefully at spots that will force the reader to keep reading.

Given the student’s desire to improve by discussing their story and the above statement, the frustrated teacher me must start asking a long string of questions about character, premise, psychology, sociology, emotional arcs, intermediate emotional states, opposition of will, and on and on and on in order to figure out what dramatic story elements are in play at the moment under discussion.

So, this essay is a bit of self-defense. While it doesn’t describe the myriad issues implied or named above, it does take a look at just exactly what chapter breaks do.

Writers who write enough come to realize that the dramatic scene is the building block of all stories. I’m not going to go into all the variants and exceptions here because that’s not what this essay is about. Rather, I’m going to talk about how story questions and chapter placement influence the reader’s immersion and need to keep reading.

Before I go there, I want to define what I said above. A classic, dramatic scene transforms character emotion through conflict. The Point of View Character (POVC) or Main Character (MC) enter the scene carrying an emotional state and a personal agenda of some kind. Note that I said “or.” The POVC may or may not also be the MC. That’s a topic for another day, but think in terms of the narrative difference between Hunger Games and Sherlock Holmes. Hunger Games is in first person, present tense from the POV of Katniss. She is both POVC and MC. Sherlock Holmes is Watson telling the stories of Homes. Watson is the POVC. Holmes is the MC.

Where was I? Oh, yes. Ignoring the POVC vs. MC difference for now, the POVC enters the scene with an emotional state and an agenda. They then proceed to encounter opposition to their agenda. Like any normal human being, the have an emotional shift because of opposition.

Think about what it’s like to be having a good day on vacation until you try to pay for lunch and discover that your debit card has been cancelled because the bank thinks your lunch in another state is unusual activity. Emotional response to opposition of your agenda, yes?

Okay, so the POVC goes through a few attempts to get what they want. They try some different tactics. Their emotions change. They might succeed. They might fail. However, they leave the scene with a new emotional state (or the same emotional state for different reasons).

All good. However, a scene is not a chapter. A scene is just a dramatic unit in which character change is caused. Sometimes, a scene is a whole story. Sometimes 70 scenes make up the whole story. That’s one of the differences between flash fiction and a novel.

So, why is it that most of the time the first scene of a novel is not able to stand alone as a short story? Emotion happened. Conflict happened. Change happened. New emotion came out of it.

There are a number of reasons a first scene probably doesn’t stand alone. I won’t address them all here. Here, I’ll say that the first scene of a novel includes material that causes the reader to feel a sense of curiosity or urgency about what will come in the next and subsequence scenes. The text installs “dramatic story questions” in the heart/mind of the reader.

For the sake of brevity, I’ll define dramatic story questions types as 1, 2, and 3. They are, respectively, 1) short-term, 2) mid-term, and 3) long-term.

Long-term story questions are questions installed in the heart/mind of the reader very early in the story. They will not be answered until the end of the story. “Will Dorothy ever get home from Oz?”

Mid-term story questions are questions installed in the heart/mind of the reader in any scene in the story. They will be answered in some subsequent scene. “Will Dorothy make it from the Munchkin village to the Emerald City?”

Short-term story questions are questions installed in the heart/mind of the reader in a scene. They will be answered in that same scene. “Will the Cowardly Lion eat Toto?”

The scene is the dramatic building block. It changes character emotionally and psychologically.

The story questions keep the reader reading (assuming many other things have also been done well).

Assuming the POVC and MC are the same character, as they quite often are, their path through the story is scene-to-scene. Each scene generates questions. The first questions generated will be very short-term. “Why is Dorothy worried for Toto when she gets home?”

Before that question is answered, a mid-term question is launched. “Why are there storm clouds on the horizon?”

Before or at the moment the short-term question gets answered, a new one is launched. Before or at the moment the mid-term question is answered, a new one gets launched.

Now, here is the very important bit. If at any time all the short-term and mid-term questions have been answered at once, the reader will leave the story. Mind you, they might come back and pick it up to see how the long-term question comes out. However, that’s not a good bet.

Here’s where the chapter problem arises. Writers who talk about their books in terms of chapters tend to place their chapter breaks at the moments where several short-term and at least one mid-term story question have just been answered. It’s like they are placing their chapter breaks in the best possible way to release the reader from the story.

Placing the chapter breaks after the story is completely finished allows the writer to choose the moments just after a new story question has been launched. In other words, the writer will set the Scarecrow on fire and end the chapter.

Consider a reader who is in bed reading and has decided, “Well, I’m up too late. I’ll just read another three pages—just to the end of the chapter.” In the last page of the chapter, the Scarecrow is set on fire. Chapter ends. New chapter opens with the battle to put out the fire. Essentially, the chapter ended right smack in the middle of a scene. It ended right after a powerful story question was installed in the heart/mind of the reader. However, the climax of the scene is only a page away.

The reader justifies: “One. Little. Page. More.”

By the time that fire is out, a mid-term question has been launched. “Can Dorothy and her friends overcome and malice of the Wicked Witch of the West?”

The reader turns another page and decides that they will just read to the end of this chapter. It’s only seven more pages.

Okay, the example I used here is a classic sort of cliff-hanger, but the concept is not at all limited to cliff-hanging. Social and psychological story questions are often more compelling than such action-oriented, life-threatening story questions. It’s just easier and more fun to set the Scarecrow on fire in this essay than it would be to describe the deeper identity dissonance of a character’s realizations about themselves and whether they will take responsibility for damage to the fragile psychology of a child under their care.

Chapter breaks are pacing tools. They are not dramatic units.

-End-

The Sound of Writing

By Cheryl Owen-Wilson

I recently attended a writer’s retreat where each morning after breakfast we’d sit around a large table, laptops open writing. The unique sound of many fingers hitting keys surrounded me. At some point in the morning, my coffee fueled brain kicked in and the end of a chapter began to unfold. In that moment I realized there was a specific rhythm to the tapping of my fingers against the keys. Is there anything more satisfying to a writer, than that very distinct sound when words naturally flow, revealing story, like the petals of a perfect flower opening?

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On the flip side, when all around me was silent and my own fingers lay frozen on the keys I yearned for the sound to return. Many things have been written about famous author’s choices of writing tools. But while sitting in the silence of that room I wondered if the actual sound created by the tool itself, if that sound might have aided in the words created.

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I recalled reading how Ernest Hemingway wrote on a typewriter while standing. What a visual it creates. But can’t you also hear the sound the keys made while striking the page to form each and every letter? Those old typewriters had a most distinct reverberation when the keys were struck. Could it have contributed to the intensity in his novels?

I wrote my first short story on an electric typewriter. To this day I can hear its soothing whir as it helped my words come forth.

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Then there are writers who compose with a ballpoint pen. I’m always in awe of them. I’ve tried it. For every page I filled to the margins, I salvaged maybe five useable sentences. The remainder, were rendered as blobs of ink marked through again and again. I realize now, it was the scratch of the pen on paper. The sound. To me, it is nails on a chalkboard. And yet, when writing a quick note to work through an anger issue I might have, a pen, is my perfect instrument of choice —oh, wait—I get it.

shakespeare-writing

Now let’s go back in time a little, to say, Shakespeare.   When I read his plays I know I will be immersed in the—to my ear—lyrical cadence of his words. They easily bring to my mind the visuals of his time; cobbled streets, thatched roofs, etc. But the other visual, I always have, is of a solitary man bent over a desk, quill in hand scratching words onto papyrus by the flickering of candlelight. Scratching, the scratching of the quills point against the porous page, seeing him having to stop and dip it into the inkpot again, and again. Could it have aided in the cadence of the words written? Would the same sentences have come forth, if perhaps he had at his disposal a graphite pencil? Heaven forbid he would have used it to erase, or replace, even one word of his poetic prose.

Now let’s go back even further to when words were carved into rock or stone. How precise must the writer have had to be before taking chisel in hand? Can you not hear the pounding as stone gave way to create a simple idea, word or visual of what the writer intended to convey? The crude instrument along with the sound it created. How could it not have shaped what was being written?

What sound does your chosen writing instrument make? If you changed it, would your writing change? If your writing could have the impact of Hemingway’s would you not gladly pound away on old typewriter keys?

Now I’m not suggestion you go out, with chisel in hand and find some stone. But then again—maybe I am. After all it does feel some days like that is exactly what we are doing, doesn’t it? Chiseling words from our brain and placing them carefully into our story. Now, I like the sound of that.

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