Why’d She Do That?

Did you ever read about a character making a decision or taking an action and wondered “Why did she do that?”  For example, why does the girl in the skimpy dress unlock and crack open her door after she’s seen the TV news and knows there are zombies loose?  If you have to ask why, the author hasn’t made the character’s motivations clear enough.  Today I thought I’d give you one technique for avoiding that problem.

Engineers have a method called Root Cause Analysis (RCA) they use when something goes wrong with machines or systems they designed–ships sink, spacecraft blow up, cars crash, etc.  They review the accident to understand if they could design the machine or system better to lessen the risk.  It occurred to me one day that RCA could be applied to fiction writing.

Imagine an event–one person taking a specific action.  Let’s represent that event with a rectangle.  For the moment, we’ll call our event the “effect.”  For that event to take place, a set of conditions must be present, and a few other events must have taken place first.   These can be represented by other box-like rectangles off to the left, connected by lines to the effect box.  The prior events can be termed “causes.”

Each of the prior causal events are also themselves effects of even earlier causes and conditions.  This means there is an endless stream of causes and effects, creating a rather messy diagram of infinite boxes and lines. But for our purposes we can keep it from getting too complicated.

Let’s take our seemingly idiotic girl (whom we’ll call Mary) who unlocks her door in a zombie-infested neighborhood.  We put the words “Mary cracks open door” in our effect box.  We know some conditions have to be present for that to happen, but some of them are too obvious to write down–Mary has to exist, she has to be inside a house or apartment, the dwelling has to have a door.  As you do RCA you’ll become more skilled at figuring out which conditions to write down.

Let’s suppose there are other, less obvious, conditions that lead to Mary’s action.  Suppose there’s a storm or fog and the view out her nearby window is obscured.  These could be shown as condition boxes with lines connecting to our effect box.  Suppose Mary’s personality includes the fact that she’s a naturally curious person.  We’ll come back to that one later.

Aside from conditions, we can think of a few preceding events that might prompt Mary to crack open her door.  Suppose she knows her boyfriend is outside somewhere, because he called her earlier and said he’s on his way to her.

Suppose she just heard a noise from outside, a voice that sounds like it might be her boyfriend.  If the call from her boyfriend is one of the prior events, that one will take some explaining, too.  Why would he venture out on a stormy night when zombies are about?  That event cries out for its own prior events and conditions.

The point is for you the author to think about each major decision or fateful step taken by a character and come up with reasons, motivations (whether they are prior events or conditions) that help explain why the character takes that action.

Remember I mentioned that one of our story’s conditions would be that Mary is a curious, inquisitive person?  It’s not enough to just put that in a box on our cause-effect motivation chart.  You need to establish that point earlier in your story.  Provide some scene, or part of a scene, showing that Mary’s personality includes that trait.  Only then will readers understand why she cracks the door later.

When you finish your chart, it should look something like a big ‘greater than’ (>) symbol leading to the final event of your story.  Now make sure the manuscript mentions all the events and all the conditions, even if briefly, and even if only hinted.

RCA helps engineers figure out why bad things happen with complex engineered systems, but I think authors can use it to help explain why their characters do things, too.  What do you think?  Could that technique help you?  From personal experience, I can tell you it has helped–

                                                                   Poseidon’s Scribe

November 27, 2011Permalink

Show and Tell

Did you have Show-and-Tell in elementary school, where you brought in some object of interest, showed it to the class, and told them all about it?  The shown object gave something for the class to look at while listening to the speaker’s narration about it.  The whole process wouldn’t have worked as well if it were just Show or just Tell, would it?

Today I’m tackling the age-old caution given to writers to “Show, don’t Tell,” which I briefly mentioned here.  As with many of my blog topics, I’ll write about it as if I’m an expert, though I still struggle with the concept in my own fiction.  First let’s define terms.  In writing, “Show” means to convey to the reader a sense of being inside a character, experiencing what the character is going through, portraying the character’s senses, thoughts, and feelings.  “Tell” means to describe or inform in narrator fashion, mainly using facts much like a journalist would use his “who-what-when-where-why-how” model.

In Showing, you really engage the reader.  Remember that the purpose of storytelling is not just to convey information, but to create a reaction in the reader, to entertain (and I mean that in the broad sense, not the comedic sense).  Showing does that in a way Telling never can.  Think of the best stories you ever read.  Chances are you felt a part of the story as you read along, and that made you care about the characters and about the outcome.  Unfortunately, Showing typically takes more words.  It’s very hard to be blunt while Showing.

On the other hand, Telling can be very compact.  You can convey a lot of information with very few words.  However, Telling is often boring.  It doesn’t engage your reader for long or help her care about your characters.

My advice is to use both techniques, but learn when to use each.  Showing is necessary for the more dramatic moments of story scenes.  It’s vital to show the key moments of your protagonist’s struggle to resolve the conflict of your story.  However, events have to happen between these key dramatic moments.  Use Telling to catch the reader up on these in-between events.

The suggestion to combine some Telling with Showing isn’t just my idea, but any writer will pretty much tell you the same thing.  Why, then, do you still hear the “show, don’t tell” advice?  It’s because Showing is harder to write than Telling, and it’s easy to lapse back into that narrative, journalistic way of writing. It’s difficult getting into a character’s head and conveying the character’s feelings and impressions.  You have to force yourself to Show.  Although writers must Tell on occasion, they need not be reminded to do that.

One key to writing well in both the Show and the Tell mode is to choose details wisely.  That is well worth a future blog entry all by itself.

So just like in elementary school, it’s important to both show and tell.  For now, class dismissed.  Your homework assignment is to leave a comment with your opinion about the “show, don’t tell” admonition, to–

                                                                Poseidon’s Scribe


November 20, 2011Permalink

That’s a Great Story!

What makes a story great, or even good?  For this discussion I’ll concentrate on short stories, my main medium, but the principles apply to all fiction.  Fair warning:  I’ll explore the topic to the best of my ability, but if I was an expert on writing great short stories, I would be better known.

Philosophers since at least the ancient Greeks have puzzled about what makes one thing better or of greater value than another.  Is it really all subjective, in the mind of each individual reader, or are there some objective aspects on which we can all agree?  Further, what is meant by ‘great?’  Do we measure great stories by sales, by the number of favorable reviews, or by how the story stands the test of time?

For an interesting romp through the fields of quality, goodness, and value (in general, not specifically as related to stories) read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig.

Of course, people differ in the stories they like, and a given reader may change her own tastes over time.  So there must be a subjective component to any definition of a good story.  I touched on this in a previous blog entry.

Still, perhaps we can agree on a few elements that should be present in a good story.  Not every element need be present, and excellence in some of them can make up for mediocrity in others.  Further, as you’ll see, these aren’t exactly objective elements, so people could disagree about whether they are present or absent in any given story.  Here are my ten elements, expressed in one long sentence:

  • A good story deals with one or more aspects of the human condition and starts with
  • an attention-grabbing hook that introduces
  • a compelling protagonist, with whom the reader can identify, who is
  • dealing with a difficult problem, a problem
  • with some relevance to the reader’s own life
  • in a vivid setting that puts the reader right there while the protagonist
  • encounters more difficult obstacles along the way
  • with enough tension and suspense to keep readers reading
  • and with the protagonist resolving the problem in the end in a satisfying, logical way, with bonus points if the protagonist learns something, and more bonus points if the reader can’t guess the ending early
  • with the whole story told in strong, clear language that produces an emotional reaction in the reader.

As it turns out, it’s easier to write down that list than it is to write a story that hits most of those marks.  Thinking back over the best short stories you’ve read, are there common elements they share?  Have I left out any elements in my list?  As writers, we ought to be striving for greatness as we tell our tales, so it helps to know what separates good or great stories from the rest.  I welcome your thoughts, which you can provide by clicking “leave a comment” below, whether or not you agree with–

                                                                     Poseidon’s Scribe 

November 13, 2011Permalink

10 Reasons to Keep a Writer’s Journal

From my lengthy “do as I say, not as I do” file comes this item–keeping a journal.  I decided to blog about this topic to kick-start myself into restarting this important habit.  So read on if you like, but this entry is meant to persuade me.

Steve, I know you’ve kept journals in the past, but you’ve fallen out of the habit and out of practice.  You’re also now denying yourself a journal’s many benefits.  Yes, you kept secret “event”-type journals about each of your children’s activities as they grew, and gave the journals to them when they became adults.  Yes, you’ve kept “log”-type journals of writing progress, including daily word counts and submission status.  Yes, you still keep a computer file of story plot ideas that occur to you.  And yes, you write this blog.

But you’re not doing the type of journaling that could improve your writing.  You should keep a private writer’s journal, Steve, and in David Letterman style, here are the Top Ten reasons why:

10.  If you keep your journal in your computer it can be multimedia, including video clips and digital images.

9.  A journal can be a handy place to track your writing progress, by noting word-count per day, and by noting what stories you submitted to which markets, and what the response was.  This particular journal use is so important, I’ll devote a future blog post to it.

8.  You’ll remember things better.  The brain stores stuff in one place when you sense it, another place when you talk about it, and another place when you write it.  That “wet computer” between your ears is pretty good about cross-linking such storage places, so writing a journal will improve memory, whether or not you review previous entries.

7.  It’s a place to note things you may use in your writing — bits of dialogue, descriptions of people, gestures, facial expressions, descriptions of settings, and interesting words.  When you encounter anything of interest during the day, note it in your own words.  If you like the way some other writer phrased things, write that in quotes and note the source; you can paraphrase, but not plagiarize.

6.  Within the journal, you can find out which ideas don’t work.  Admit it, some ideas only seem wonderful when you first think of them in the shower.  Once you write them down, these great-sounding thoughts about plots, characters, settings, and scenes have now picked up some unsightly warts.  Good thing you found that out before going too far with a dumb idea.

5. You can use the journal to solve story problems with such aspects as plot, character, motivation, hook, and the “so-what? problem.”  In the private idea space of your journal, you can clarify the problem, brainstorm possible solutions, and examine each potential solution until best one emerges.  You can use mind maps in your journal to do this.  (I promise to write a blog entry about the use of mind maps to help your writing.)

4.  The act of keeping a journal instills a measure of self-discipline about writing.  Every time you walk into the room where the journal is (if you use the book-type handwritten journal) you’ll feel guilty if you haven’t written in it that day. Once the habit forms, it will nag your conscience until you make your daily entry.

3.  The journal is a safe place to write, a “word sanctuary” where there are no criticisms, no nasty reviews.  There you are free to roam with your muse discovering and charting regions of thought not suitable (yet) for public commentary.

2.  Journal-writing helps hone the process of capturing thoughts into words.  And that’s what a writer is all about.  You might learn to write with greater clarity and focus.  After all, it’s a private journal; there’s no need to write in a fancy, confusing, or euphemistic way.

And, Steve, the number 1 reason you should keep a writer’s journal is…

1.  By exploring your inner feelings in a private journal, you might increase your self-awareness.  It’s said that Gnôthi Seauton was inscribed on the Temple of Apollo at Delphi, meaning “Know Thyself.” If you probe deeper into yourself and combine that knowledge with a better ability to convert thoughts to words, it should make you a better writer.

Perhaps you readers of this blog can comment on other reasons for keeping a writer’s journal, or about your experiences with journaling.  Excuse me now while I go make a journal entry.  Signing off here, I’m–

                                                          Poseidon’s Scribe

November 6, 2011Permalink