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Character Reactions Are the Laugh Tracks of Books

Any TV show that’s filmed live has little signs that tell the audience when to applaud. Almost all TV shows use laugh tracks so that audience members know when to laugh, and movies have soundtracks that tell the audience when they should feel happy or sad or scared.

What do books have?

Books have words. (duh) They have words that shape the mood like a soundtrack would. They have words that give the reader clues for what’s coming next (like signs). And they have words that show character reactions, reactions that tell you when you’re supposed to laugh.

That’s what a laugh track is doing, after all. It’s a recorded track of people laughing. That’s it. Other people laughing – and it works.

Have you ever been with a group of friends, and someone said something that made one of you laugh? Then, suddenly all of you are laughing and can’t stop. But when you try to explain to someone later, they don’t understand why it’s funny. And you can’t really tell them because, deep down, you were mostly laughing because someone else was laughing, and you got caught up in the moment.

It works with clapping, yelling, violence, and even yawning. Something about our psyche is tuned into other people’s responses (See crowd psychology).

So if you have a really funny moment in your book, show the reader that it’s funny through the other character’s reactions to whatever just happened. Granted, if it was really that funny, they should be reacting anyway. But the characters’ reactions help show the reader how funny it is. They make it seem funnier. Facial expressions, body language, statements, actions, etc. become the laugh track for the book. In fact, they help guide all reader reactions (scared, disgusted, annoyed, etc.).

Now, do laugh tracks always work?

No. If a laugh track plays at a sublimely unfunny moment, people won’t necessarily laugh anyway; however, it can help make a slightly humorous moment seem wittier than it was. Don’t ask me why (I wasn’t a psych major), but people definitely react more strongly when they get the impression that other people are reacting, too.

That’s why stage performers (actors/musicians/etc.) may joke about putting a “plant” in the audience. A “plant” is someone who knows when to laugh, gasp, cheer, and so on, and those reactions help influence the rest of the audience to be more involved in the show. The term comes from how historic snake oil salesmen or stage magicians would plant a cohort in the audience to pretend to be a complete stranger who is picked to help with the show.

Well, the closest thing we have to “plants” in books are the characters we create and the reactions we give them. So why not use them to our advantage?

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Double Meaning & Truth(s): How to Lie without Lying

If you need to hide a truth in a truth, double-meaning is your best friend. I know that doesn’t sound like it makes sense, but I promise it actually does.

A double meaning (also known as a double entendre) has a pretty accurate name – it’s when a statement or action has multiple meanings (or truths). The only part of the name that’s misleading is “double”: you don’t have to stop at 2. And you probably won’t want to – but we’ll get to that.

Now, let’s say you have a scene in a book where a character has to tell the truth, but you need that truth to serve multiple tasks. First, it needs to have an interpretation that the reader (and possibly the characters) can believe in. The sort of truth that gives them an understanding of what’s going on and what’s going to happen. Let’s call that Truth A. Truth A could easily be a plot option that you might’ve considered and decided not to go with (They’re often more predictable or obvious, but they don’t have to be.).

Then, you need that same statement or action to tell a truth that can lead to a whole different interpretation of the plot. Truth B. That truth (or possibly even Truth G) is what is really happening. By giving the reader a more obvious truth to focus on, you can keep their attention off what’s really going on – lead them astray without actually lying. Most of the time, you don’t want to straight-out lie to the readers: you simply want them to interpret the facts differently than you intend to at the end.

Think about how theologians can argue about interpretation – if this word actually means that, it changes the entire meaning! That’s the sort of opportunity you want to set up. But it’s not enough to set it up. You also have to set it up in a way that emphasizes certain truths over others.

Like a stage magician, it’s all about misdirection. In film and television, for example, they do a lot of misdirection with camera shots. The audience puts emphasis on different characters and actions by the amount of camera time they get (and the angle, focus, etc.). A great example of that is the pilot episode of Firefly. By emphasizing certain characters over others, they make you think  you know who leaked the information simply because that’s how most series would have slipped you clues beforehand (Important characters get more camera time. Duh.). By breaking those rules, Joss Whedon misled the audience and surprised a lot of people who aren’t used to being surprised by tv anymore (admit it).

In writing, you can swing the interpretation the direction you want with the same basic technique of shifting the focus. Some authors even have their characters dismiss Truth A to reveal Truth B beneath – and to disguise the fact that Truth C is concealed under that. It can get very complicated, and it takes a very sneaky brain to trick someone with a truth. Luckily, we have a very sneaky language (rife with double meaning) to help us out.

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Plot Uniqueness: The Macro vs. Micro Problem

For all that people say that there are only 2-3 stories, no one wants to be the author who makes people grimace and say that he (or she) writes the same plot over and over again. At the same time, a plot that jumps around completely out of left field can leave the story feeling disconnected and jarring (or just plain bad). No one wants to be predictable, but to be readable, we can’t be completely unpredictable.

So what can we do? How do we make our stories new if there are only 3 plots (max)?

I’ve already touched on one method in “Thought-provoking Fan Art” and “Schrödinger’s Setting,” and that’s to add uniqueness through your worldbuilding. Changing the setting and the surrounding culture can make a plot seem new even if it’s the same plot that’s been told for hundreds of years. I’m sure you can think of plenty of stories that seem different because of the world(s) they’re set in.

The other method for making the story seem fresh is related, and that’s to put effort into making the details of the story interesting. Character quirks, dialogue, small moments in the plot, writing style, figurative language – all of those aspects (and more) work together to make stories seem different from each other.

So if you want to emphasize difference, focus on the micro scale.

It’s when we zoom out to the macro that we can see the similarities in plot. From a distance, all the nuances and levels of difference become indistinguishable, and only the overall shape remains. That’s what they’re talking about when they say there are only so many plots. Yes, when you look at the overall shape, there tends to be a lot of similarity. The rhythms of pacing – the crescendo of the rise and fall and rise and fall of the action – these are parts of telling a story in an entertaining way. So, yes, there’s going to be overlap in the shape.

What those people forget, however, is that when you’re reading a book, you’re not looking at the macro alone. In fact, if you get sucked in, you’re mostly looking at the micro scale. So as a writer, that’s the place to worry most about differences.

So what if all your books are hero journeys? Are they different hero journeys? Do the details of the journey change? Does each book have separate twists and turns? How many books have you read with a save-the-world hero plot? Do you consider them all the same story?

The fact of the matter is that saying there are only 2-3 stories is a simplification. Yes, it’s interesting on a theory level (it can be fun to ponder the idea and what it might reflect in regards to the human psyche), but on a writing level, it’s more likely to lead a writer astray than to help him/her improve. It sets up and unhealthily strengthens the need to be different for the sake of difference.

I promise you that if you’re writing a modern romance novel, the demographic for that genre is not going to be mad because your macro scale followed the usual plot: man and woman meet, go on an adventure, and fall in love. Just like no one’s going to protest if your horror book is scary, and horrible things happen to the characters. Or if your mystery has a crime that gets solved. The big plot arcs have become more or less the definition of the genre. They’re what the readers expect and generally enjoy.

That’s why uniqueness is less the story you’re telling and more how you tell it.

If every single one of your leading men looks the same and has the same job and mannerisms, it’s going to get old. When every book is set in the same area with similar twists and similar characters, all but the most loyal readers start to get bored. And I guarantee that if your characters solve the same mystery or are attacked the same way by the same supernatural creature in each book, you’ll lose the mystery and horror crowds.

I guess what I’m saying is that it’s a lot more important to be unique and creative on the micro scale than on the macro. If you can figure out a way to write a completely new plot that works well, that’s brilliant! (Congratulations on your genius and well-deserved fame!) If you can’t, that doesn’t mean you have to write the same story over and over again (At least, as long as you don’t zoom out too much…).

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The Stuff An Author’s Dreams & Nightmares Are Made Of

The greatest power and the greatest terror of being an artist is the amount of ourselves that we put into our art. As good as our imaginations are, they are powered by our dreams and our nightmares: experiences, hopes, wishes, fears, and more. Our lives. Our souls. We expose little bits of ourselves with each piece we create.

Yet at the same time, those fragments of truth are intricately mixed and woven through utter fabrications. For a reader to catch those revelations, they must sort and sift through every facet of the work. As readers, there’s a sneaky, superior thrill to that, a feeling that we are too smart to trick. The sort of feeling where you grin and chant, “I’m finding your secrets!” in a sing-song way. We want to think that we know it all.

But we don’t want to know that we know it all.

When a work of fiction is so close to reality that its personal nature is blatantly obvious, it becomes uncomfortable for the reader. We want the author to make the lies feel so real that it blurs the line between fiction and reality. When an author does that well, you have a great book.

Unfortunately, that doesn’t stop readers from thinking that they know it all.

To be perfectly frank, I’m not entirely sure which is more frightening as a writer: readers finding those secrets or readers being absolutely certain that some of the lies are truth. On the one hand, they’d have a microscope aimed directly at part of your soul. On the other hand, they would think they did, but what they saw would be a big fat lie (along with their impressions of you). Both ideas sound extremely uncomfortable to me, and I’m afraid that they seem equally likely to pop up in any artist’s future.

What do you think? Would it be worse for them to find one of your secrets? Or for them to believe that they did and continue to believe it no matter what you might say?