Everything is illusion, the Buddhists tell us – our lives and loves, our fears and troubles, the very earth and air and we ourselves. None of this is real. This concept is intended to help us let go of our attachment to longing, hunger, desire. But to fiction writers, it is almost a validation of our work. If everything is illusion, then the fictional world has as much significance as any.
Think of the word “fiction” – something feigned, invented, a made up tale. And yet, in fiction we often discover and express the most profound human truths.
Fiction functions to create its own reality and, through it, to reflect on mankind’s foibles and trials, and to touch the human heart. There is power in this experience for both writer and reader. There is also freedom, sometimes learning, and often pleasure. Some novels are entertainments – escapes. We enjoy stepping out of one illusion into another, and for those brief, shining hours, we exist within them completely.
What does this say about the nature of reality, so easily created, so easily left behind? If anything, fiction serves to confirm the illusion of maya, as it’s called – as insubstantial and yet convincing as life itself.
In a recent conversation between Jeffrey Eugenides and Colm Toibin published in The New York Times, Jeffrey Eugenides said, “There is something about reality, and especially about human consciousness, that can be accurately described and the novel is the best way to do it.” Toibin added to the discussion, “The essential impulse [to write] is to rehaunt your own house, or to allow what haunts you to have a voice, to chart what is deeply private and etched on the soul, and find form and structure for it.”
In the illusion that is life (“real” life), there is rarely form or structure. Life comes to us randomly and it is up to us to make sense of it in whatever way we can. Only in the distilled, premeditated fabrication we call the novel can we cut away the tangles, straighten life’s many nubbly threads and look at our illusion from a tenuous (and somewhat safer) distance.
That distance doesn’t promise perfect clarity. It offers the same challenge as middle-aged eyes. If we hold the paper a little far, a little close, somewhere in between, we will see and understand what was there all along, that we couldn’t quite make out before.
This is one of the the great challenges of fiction – both reading and, more importantly, writing it. Well-wrought fiction should not be wooden, predictable or definite, even though we’ve learned to trust that good fiction should, in the end, make sense, more or less. As writers, it is our obligation to give the reader that sense of inevitability, as we emphasize themes and craft motivations for our characters, consistencies of purpose that in “reality” are rare, but in novel writing are inherent and essential.
We wish our own lives could seem this way. On our deathbeds, perhaps we imagine that it will all make sense. Or perhaps this is clinging too much to samsara, the Buddhist term for the eternal state of suffering. In good fiction, we treasure ambiguity, complexity and a sense of “chance” that the story may not go the way we expect or the way we want it to. This reflection of “reality” makes fiction all the more believable, and therefore relate-able – all the more authentically approximating the uncertainties of life itself.
Whether we are creating it or experiencing it, our fiction becomes our reality. Any writer will tell you that, when we are deep within our work, real life and real time completely fade. We are operating on a different plane, literally smelling, tasting and feeling our created world. Our characters become living, breathing people. They wake us up at night with something they just have to tell us. And yet, they only exist in our minds.
“You’re alone in a room with the stuff that won’t go away,” said Eugenides. As writers, we experience that stuff – those memories of the past, those concepts and characters – like whispers in the dark. They are as real to us as the life we wake up to each morning, so powerful that we fixate on them until we become possessed, obsessed enough to finally sit down at our keyboard or with a pen and try to make this other level of illusion real.
The job of the fiction writer is to create a completely believable illusion. And, if we work hard enough, if we’re really lucky, someone else just might one day find our words and choose to enter our illusive world.
Tips on starting with a bang, from TWC Associate Director Michelle Cameron:
Picture this scene:
A man lands at an airport. The plane taxis on the ground for nearly fifteen minutes, while all around him, people are talking on their cell phones, hoping to be picked up or explaining when they’ll arrive, or just letting the family at home know they’ve arrived safely.
The plane finally taxis to the gate. People take down their luggage and wait, impatiently, in the corridor of the aircraft. Finally, the line begins to inch forward. It picks up speed. Everyone moves out of the aircraft while the flight crew bids them farewell.
The man moves quickly through the terminal, exiting at the security gate. He goes downstairs to the luggage area, a cold, sterile place. He waits for his luggage to appear…
Are you bored yet? I am, and I haven’t even had my character retrieve his luggage, find a taxi, drive though the city, check in at the hotel…
Now, consider this:
A man lands at an airport. Two hours later, in his hotel room, he lies down on the king-sized bed and calls his mistress.
Bam. In two short sentences, we’ve moved the story forward – and haven’t bored the reader (or writer) to death.
It can be difficult for writers to know how many transitional details to add to a story or novel. Sometimes a writer feels obliged to include some of the day-to-day details that, frankly, have meaning in real life but not necessarily in a piece of fiction.
Generally, it’s good to recognize when you yourself are losing interest in just such a transition. That’s usually a great clue to examine why you’re writing such a scene. There are some times when you might want to include the transitional details. For instance, if they give some insight into the character or set a scene that is going to be important for your readers, then it’s worth it. But if they don’t serve the story in any way except to get your character from place to place, consider cutting them and getting right into the action.
How? A simple transitional phrase such as “two hours later” will usually be enough for the reader to fill in the gaps. We’ve all been to airports, we know the mindless details that have to occur as you go from place to place. We’re often happy not to have to revisit them in our fiction.
The best rule of thumb is always – does your transition serve the story? If not, as they say in the movies, “cut to the chase” and get moving.
We’ve all heard it before. “Your character’s flat. You need to make him three-dimensional.”
Sure, great. But what exactly does that mean?
We all know we live in a three dimensional world. We learn it in grade school: a line, a plane, a cube… But how do you make a character three dimensional? Do you make him really fat? Do you give him a limp so he wobbles when he walks, thereby taking up more space?
Believe it or not, I’ve tried both, and no, that’s not what it means. Three-dimensional means you have to dig deeper.
Take that character with the limp, for example. It’s fine to describe him walking, every struggle to get his footing, every attempt to hide his frailty and vulnerability. Ah! There’s the hint that I need… his vulnerability. There’s where I begin to ask: why is he vulnerable? How does he feel about his limp? And, even more pressing, how did he get the limp in the first place?
It was only when I start asking these questions that the concept of three-dimensionality begins to come clear.
For me, it often starts with the physical. I was a dancer, once upon a time, and an actress after that. I’m pretty sensitive to subtle inflections of voice and shifts of movement – how they can reveal what a character is feeling. I often get up and act out what my characters are doing in a particular scene. Still, the physical is just the start. It’s getting beyond the external to the why’s, the how’s; for my poor man with the limp, it’s the who-does-he-think-of-every-time-he-takes-a-step, the source of dread that haunts his soul every time he trips or stumbles. Answering those questions gives me a character, not with a flaw, but with a life.
But not everyone feels comfortable getting up and acting out their scenes. How can you develop a 3D character without feeling like an utter fool in the privacy of your writing room?
The answer came to me about a month ago when Michelle Cameron and I were teaching a workshop on Creating Character. I had come armed with a few simple physical exercises for the writers at hand, but sensed in their awkward giggles that I wouldn’t get much beyond giving them some key details and letting them walk around in a circle for a couple of minutes “in someone else’s skin”. It worked well enough. But I realized I had to break it down.
I was jotting notes while Michelle asked the group, “What makes a character three-dimensional?”
“They’re quirky…. Idiosyncratic…. They have a heart…. A sense of humor…. A purpose for being…. They’re relatable…. Unpredictable…. They have room to grow.”
All the while, I’d been thinking about time – how time forms us and forces us to take actions, sometimes ones we never would have planned, that change the course of everything. And about how time slowly nips away at us until the “I” who once was is unrecognizable to the “I” that is now.
“To make a character three-dimensional,” I popped up, “is simple. All they need is a past, present and future.”
I’d drawn a little diagram, nothing special, but it illustrated the point.
“We are formed by our past. Everything we are comes from those first experiences, those memories: the hug we never got, or the helicopter mom, the fire we escaped, or the first love that cannot be matched or compared. And we all have a future – our wants, our needs, our expectations, our plans. Everything we do today – we as people and as characters – is propelled toward our future but shaped by our past, so that the choices we make are rooted in a complete and authentic reality and the desires we attempt to achieve are bolstered or thwarted by everything we drag behind. It’s simple!”
OK, it’s not simple. And I doubt I said it as articulately at the time, but I saw it in my head. It was an epiphany formed instantaneously there in that class. And suddenly I knew that all those years I’d spent in acting classes, sitting in the back of the theater jotting down pages of character notes – their background, parents, old relationships, losses and loves – I was doing what we all need to be doing every day as we get to know our characters.
And, just like in those acting days, we should do it “off-page”. Not in the context of the beautiful words you are drafting for your elegantly crafted scenes, but messy, in a notebook or a bullet-pointed list, so you don’t have to worry if it sounds right or makes any sense at all to anyone but you.
You only have to explore, imagine, and decide, “Yes, he fell out of a tree when he was five. He broke his leg in three places. But he was in the woods. Too far to be heard. Crying… Crying and no one heard him. Finally in the dark, they came with flashlights and shadowed scowls. But the skin was cut. Infection had set in. The bones never set quite right, and since then, all the running, climbing, exploring. No more. And then in school…”
And suddenly the character has gained the inherent mass of a loss, fear, struggle and sadness. Limping forward, all he wants in all the world is to climb and run again.
Great dialogue tips from Writers Circle Associate Director, Michelle Cameron:
Writing dialogue is a critical aspect of fiction and memoir, and many writers struggle with it. So in a recent class, we considered what factors could comprise a successful section of dialogue. As we do in many of these more technical discussions, we deconstructed a few passages of published work. We’ll use some of them in this post to help us extract some guidelines for writing dialogue:
Dialogue should never happen in a vacuum.
“Oh, I wish I knew what I’m supposed to do with that child!” She took a deep breath: “I’m absolutely at the end of my rope.” She gave the shower curtain an x-ray like look.
– Franny and Zooey,
J. D. Salinger
Note how the speaker gives that shower curtain a piercing glance. Placing your characters in a setting – and reminding us of that setting with simple cues, like sipping from a coffee cup or turning to look out a window, will keep us grounded in the story.
Your character’s personality should infuse the way he or she speaks.
“Your new friends must be damned smart – they’ve managed to saddle you with their responsibilities in less than two months.” He shook his head – pitying me for being so gullible.
I just stared at him.
“She’s a cute kid, but she’s got no claim on you, Juliet, and you’re going to have to be firm about it. Get her a nice dolly or something and say good-bye, before she starts thinking you’re going to take care of her for the rest of her life.”
Now I was so angry I couldn’t talk. I stood there, gripping Kit’s porridge bowl with white knuckles. I didn’t throw it at him, but I was close to it. Finally, when I could speak again, I whispered, “Get out.”
– The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society,
Mary Ann Shaffer & Annie Barrows
The man speaking above is an American in a British novel – he’s sharp, cynical, and caustic. We always know when Mark comes on the stage.
Consider also that silence sometimes speaks louder than words. In natural life, we often don’t reply when we’re talking to someone – and our silence can suggest so many things: anger, resentment, confusion, pain… Juliet’s hand curves around that porridge bowl and we know what she’s feeling, without the author having to provide her feelings via dialogue.
I finish chewing and ask, “Do you know who the secretary of state is?”
“And see? You’re still allowed to vote.”
“What does that have to do with anything?”
Jen drains her beer and laughs.
“I think I get it.”
“Go to hell, Jen,” Rhonda says icily. “One beer and you’ll roll over for anyone.”
– Fragile Beasts, Tawni O’Dell
Use tags – he said, she said – sparingly.
You don’t need to identify who is saying what if it is clear to the reader. Note the exchange above – the swift back and forth over the secretary of state. By eliminating tags and just focusing in on the dialogue, we center our attention on the brief argument – akin to keeping your eye on a tennis ball during a swift volley.
Use tags, however, when it is necessary to identify who is speaking. When a third party is introduced into a dialogue, for instance, or when there is any doubt who is saying what, you need to make sure we know who is talking. Note, however, how skillfully Ms. O’Dell introduces Jen above: because she has just drained her beer and laughed, we know the unidentified “I think I get it” is her statement.
Watch the use of adjectives and adverbs.
Too many of them can dilute what you’re trying to express. But use them when they will convey emotion better than anything else. Strong verbs can and should carry much of the burden of the story, but this doesn’t mean a good adjective or adverb can’t help out once in awhile. When Rhonda says “Go to hell” icily to Jen, we’re left in no doubt as to how she’s feeling. But it’s because that’s the one and only adverb in the entire conversation that it works so well.
Let your characters think before they speak.
“I don’t believe I feel like it just now, Amanda.”
“Did I ask you if you felt like it?”
He spread his fingers and looked at the bitten nails, not answering. Speak sharply to Jeremy and you will bowl him over; he can’t stand up to things. You’ll get further being gentle with him, but I always remember that too late. He puts me in a fury. I can’t see how he could let himself go the way he has. No, letting yourself go means you had to be something to start with, and Jeremy was never anything. He was born like this.
– Celestial Navigation, Anne Tyler
Give your characters a chance to reflect on what is being said, to consider what it might mean to them, and even to change their minds about it mid-thought.
Also remember that what our characters say can sometimes hide the truth of what they really feel. “Language was given us to conceal our thoughts,” as Talleyrand said at the Congress of Vienna. In this passage and throughout the book that follows, Jeremy’s silence covers a myriad of emotions and thoughts. Sometimes a little misdirection can add suspense and engage the reader in trying to discover the truth.
And one final note – dialogue should sound natural but not be studded with the pauses and stuttering that we hear in everyday speech. Use your craft to hone in on any mannerisms that might be important to convey character – but make sure it’s not slowing down the passage unnecessarily. As with the passage above from Fragile Beasts, a single “huh” can go a long way.