Wild About Harry

Harry Potter. Everyone’s talking about Harry. With Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone coming out on video and DVD, the fifth book looming on the horizon, and the second movie slatted for fall, the Harry buzz is gearing up again.

His stories have transformed the video-game generation into readers. His books have revolutionized the publishing industry (foreign rights are now sold by language rather than country because so many people ordered British copies of HP IV on-line). And his movie has broke a slew of records (it broke Jurassic Park II’s ‘best single day’ record twice).

So what’s so great about Harry? What exactly did J.K. Rowling do to deserve so much hype? Surely nothing is worthy of all this fuss.

I beg to differ.

Six months ago, I was heading the ‘get over it, it’s just a book’ camp. But I’d promised a friend, I’d read it, so I picked up a copy and read the damn thing. You know what? As much as I hated to admit it, it’s good. Really good.

But I was still left wondering, what is so great about Harry? Hype, buzz, and word of mouth aside (which other authors can pray for, but can’t duplicate through sheer force of will) what is so great about the books themselves?

After carefully analyzing the books and the movie (hey, I needed an excuse to reread them) I’ve narrowed it down to three issues.

First off, she uses classic story structure–the same story structure George Lucas used to make the first Star Wars so wonderful and that Tolkien used in The Lord of the Rings. She tapped into classic archetypal characters and pitted them against overwhelming forces of evil. She utilized the basic mythical story structure to create and fulfill reader expectations.

If you want to learn more about the Hero’s Journey, check out Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces or Christopher Voegler’s The Writer’s Journey. Both are excellent books.

Secondly, J.K. Rowling created compelling characters. Every one is well-rounded and complex, from Harry himself to Hagrid the groundskeeper to Scabbers the rat. She created characters we can’t help but love. Characters who face seemingly insurmountable odds and … well, surmount them. Characters who are willing to make huge personal sacrifices for the good of all wizardkind. You can’t help but love a trio of eleven-year-old with that kind of courage.

The third thing J.K. Rowling’s books have going for them is that they’re well-plotted. Well-plotted to an amazing degree that only becomes clear in the later books. Minor details and characters that show up in the first chapter of the first book reappear–with new meaning–in the last chapter of the third book. Again and again she uses and reuses every detail, every character. There are no coincidences in J.K. Rowling’s world. Nothing happens without a reason. She makes her characters and plot points work hard to earn their place in her books.

So, you’re probably wondering, is there anything J.K. Rowling doesn’t do right? Actually, yes. Her prose is not well-crafted. Maybe it’s a British thing but she uses too many adverbs. Way too many adverbs. The interesting thing is, no one seems to care. She’s such an excellent storyteller, no one gives a flip.

It’s the characters and the story the readers care about, the language itself is inconsequential. (“It sounds kind of sing-songy,” was the best a non-writer friend of mine could come up with.)

Don’t get me wrong, I think crafting our prose, knowing our grammar, and reigning in our adverbs are incredibly important. I’m by no means advising any writer to chuck all that out the window. But when it comes down to it, to reader, the story is more important than the craft.

So what am I advising? Understand story structure, know your characters, and plot, plot, plot. If you’re not the kind of a writer who can plot out a story in great detail before writing it, then at least plot the thing out after you’ve written it. When you finish that first rough draft, look carefully at all the characters, all the details, all the minutia of your story and make sure you’ve used each to its full potential. Don’t be lazy about writing your story and don’t let your characters be lazy either.

After all, you’ve worked hard to write your book. Shouldn’t your characters have to work just as hard to earn their place in it?

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Whoa, whoa … Feelings

Don’t you love it when you read a book that runs you through the emotional gamut? Whether it be side-splitting laughter, or having to sleep with the lights on because you’re so damn scared, or even using that extra box of Kleenex. There’s nothing like that emotional high you can get from reading a well-crafted book.

When it comes to the romance novel, emotion is king. You’ve got to have it on every page. Which emotion depends on you and your characters and their individual situation, but emotion is the kicker. It’s the reason we read romance. We’re emotion junkies.

Learning how to add emotion to every page though can keep that elusive first sale just out of your reach. Use our tried and true methods and it just might lead to “the call.”

I. Holding your emotions at bay

  1. It’s all personal
  2. What about Aunt Mildred? (learning to let it all hang out)
  3. Layering in emotion, the best way to do it (on both a macro and micro level)
  4. Macro – large in scope. This is looking at each scene as an individual unit and deciphering what you can do to make the emotion have the biggest impact. Consider scene transitions and plot points and characterization.
  5. Micro – small and localized. In terms of emotion this is your specific word choice. Once you’ve identified the key emotion for the scene, consider individual word selection to mirror that emotion.

II. Use the 5 senses – going beyond the visual and how to make a basic description do double duty
III. Be specific – the more specific something is, the more general it becomes
IV. Character voice – you say T-O-M-A-Y-T-O and I say T-O-M-A-H-T-O
V. Deep point of view – completely removing author intrusion, and enveloping your reader into the story
VI. Pacing – fast and hard or slow and steady
VII. Subtext – what really lies beneath

Use the 5 senses – push yourself and don’t rely on the inventory list at the front of scene. The senses should do more than assist your setting.

Excerpt from Seduce Me Robyn DeHart 2009

Sometime the next evening, after an exhausting journey, the coach rattled to a stop. At some point during their long ride, the men had untied her hands and removed the cloth in her mouth making it far easier to breath. Esme was most eager to escape from the vile enclosure so that she might stretch her legs and relieve herself. Neither man offered her assistance, but she managed to climb out of the rig.
Of course her hope that they had stopped at an inn and she’d be able to seek help from a stranger were dashed when she saw no welcoming lamps. Instead she faced a barren landscape without a house or even a barn in sight. Her first few steps were unsteady, but she was able to maneuver herself behind the nearest bush.
“Stay with the girl and see that she doesn’t try to run away,” Thatcher yelled.
Desperate to avoid being seen by her abductors in such a state of dishevelment, Esme hurriedly tugged her clothes into place. She stepped back onto the path. Waters grabbed her arm and led her through a clearing. She surveyed their surroundings as best she could in the dusky evening light. The moon hung heavy and low behind her, still rising, but illuminating the stone walls in front of them. Off in the distance she could hear water lapping at rocks and gulls crying. She inhaled deeply and filled her lungs with salty-crisp air; they were on the coast.
It had taken them a while to leave London, but once they were on the road, they’d traveled all day and into the early evening. Not long enough to reach a western or northern coastline.
Waters grabbed her arm. “We won’t hurt you if you just do as you’re told.” He led her forward toward crumbled rock walls.
“Considering I’m not certain what you want, cooperation might be challenging.” Esme waited for his response, but none came. Indignantly she jerked away from the man.
The ruins stretched on as far as her eye could see, in some spots nothing more than a pile of stone, whereas other sections still had full walls standing. He led her to a spot where the wall had crumbled down to nothing and stepped over the threshold into the ruins. Cold stone chilled her feet through her thin slippers, and the damp night breeze scattered gooseflesh across her body. In a futile effort, she pulled her thin robe tighter. The scent of damp earth and moss permeated the air as they moved further into the decaying building, past more piles of rubble, through tumbled down archways and heaps of rotting timbers.
“What is this place?” she asked.
“It was a monastery,” Waters said.
They came to a steep staircase, which proved difficult to maneuver. The moss-covered stairs were slippery and lacked a railing, but with careful steps, she made it to the bottom unscathed. Water dripped into several puddles in an odd cadence, giving the large cavernous room a hollow feeling.
They had said they were taking her to a dungeon and they made good on that promise. In the flickering light of the men’s lanterns, she saw that a torture cage hung loosely from the ceiling across from her, although thankfully, it looked to be in rather poor condition. Several sets of manacles were fastened to the wall, the ceiling above them partially collapsed. She suspected the thing off in the far corner was a pit. She shuddered to think of being crammed into the tiny box with nothing but the dark surrounding her.

Be specific – using universal details to maximize reader experience.

Excerpt from In the Tycoon’s Debt Emily McKay 2009

Suddenly, she wasn’t kissing a cold-hearted stranger. That man disappeared. And in an instant she was kissing Quinn.
Quinn. Who she’d loved like she’d loved no one else. Who’d been the single bright spot throughout her very rough teenage years. Who’d always made her laugh. Who’d listened to her ideas. Who’d expected more of her than anyone else. Who’d made her stretch. Made her yearn.
For her, Quinn was youth and hope. He was strength and defiance. He spoke to the wildness of her soul. To the restless, untamed corners of her spirit.
With his lips moving over hers, with the scent of him in her nose, she felt sixteen again. Full of hope and lust for life. Thrilled with the pleasure humming through her veins. Giddy with the power to give as much pleasure as she received.
Lost in that memory, her whole being sank into the kiss. Her arms snaked up around his shoulders. And dang it, those really were his shoulders. No fancy padding lining his jacket. No flabby belly beneath his shirt. Just Quinn.

Character Voice – making certain every character sounds different and can be easily identified in dialogue or internalization

Excerpt from Treasure Me Robyn DeHart 2011

Vanessa Pembrooke crept down the staircase, careful not to make a noise. She would marry in two more days, and thoughts of the ceremony plagued her mind, keeping sleep at bay. It would take hours for her mother and her army of servants to primp and curl and shine every last inch of Vanessa’s person. Not to mention the dress that she was expected to wear. She’d be head-to-toe ruffle and lace; a doily with feet. Needless to say, all these wretched thoughts left her wide-awake. Currently she tiptoed to the library to find something to occupy her mind.
The house sat void of sound, the servants all off to bed, her family long ago retired. Her fiancé was staying in the house, but he had gone to bed early with a sour stomach. So at this late hour she would have the library to herself. All those books waiting just for her. She’d already read the latest scientific journal from front to back. Perhaps she’d pick up a history text.
A soft noise caught her attention, and she paused at the door. She turned behind her, but saw no one there. Perhaps her nerves about the wedding made her more jittery than usual. With a silent turn of the knob, she opened the library door.
Vanessa paused just short of entering the room when she caught sight of something, or rather someone, on the floor in front of the fading fire. Naked limbs writhed around one another, glistening with sweat. The man groaned, and the woman, who sat atop him as if riding a horse, whispered a series of soft “yeses” again and again.
In all her imaginings, Vanessa would never have guessed that couples could copulate in such a manner, having only been told of the traditional man-on-top-under-the-covers-in-the-dark position. Vanessa wondered at what might compel two people to do such a thing in a public room. It was rather scandalous, and were her mother to discover such activity, she would have the servants fired immediately. The woman leaned back giving Vanessa a clear view of the man’s face–Jeremy, her fiancé.
Vanessa knew her mouth had fallen open, and protocol demanded that she turn away and leave him to his transgression. It was precisely the advice her mother would have given her. Turn your head and look the other way. Pretend as if you don’t notice.

Deep POV – removing author intrusion to ground reader directly inside the character’s skin

Excerpt from Killing Fear Allison Brennan 2008

She smelled bleach, and while her mind started to send her a warning, her first thought was for the cat, that he was going to get sick if he knocked over the bleach and inhaled too many fumes.
She took two steps forward feeling for the lamp she couldn’t see but knew was on the end table right there on the left of the door, but she tripped. The cat jumped from her arms as she fell, her hands falling into something sticy and wet. The smell. Why hadn’t she noticed the smell? It was foul, sickly sweet. Metallic—and bleach. Her chest tightened and she couldn’t breathe. She reached back to push herself up and touched a person. A hand.
Her stomach heaved as she fumbled standing in the dark. Someone was here, on the floor. A person. Blood and bleach. Blood and bleach. No, no, no!
She found the lamp, shaking so hard that she knocked it over. She ran to the door, feeling the wall for the light switch. Turned it on.
Anna. Her blood pooled on the hardwood floor. Her eyes were wide open, staring at Robin. Duct tape over Anna’s mouth. She was naked, red cut marks all over her body. One deep bloody slash across her throat. She was dead.
Robin flung open the door and screamed. She ran down the stairs, hoping Will was still there. In the back of her mind, through the pounding in her head, she heard the shrill shriek of her alarm.
The street was empty. Will was gone.

Pacing – utilizing the speed of a scene to maximize emotional impact

Here’s the original scene:

Maddie turned to lead the way to her car when a reporter stuck a
microphone in her face and a camera crew lit up the area.
“Excuse me, Ms. Adams would you care to give us a few answers as to why you would kill murdered your husband and claim that he’d disappeared?”
Unable to move Maddie faced the reporter and opened her mouth.
No words came out, as she melted to the floor.
Her legs turned to oatmeal and she heard her mom calling as she fell.

Here’s the revised scene

Maddie had never liked airports to beginning with. The cacophony of the elevator music, droning chatter and repetitive PA announces set her nerves on edge under the best of circumstances. Today, it was like a knife slicing through the numbing daze of her shock. Even the comfort of her mother’s embrace did little to ease Maddie’s anxiety.
Maddie’s mother pulled back, frowning as she searched Maddie’s face. “You look terrible.”
“How am I supposed to look?” she snapped, then immediately felt a stab of guilt. Her mother wasn’t to blame.
“When was the last time you ate?” her mother pressed.
“I–” She didn’t know, so she lied. “I ate a bagel for breakfast.” Someone had shoved a bagel at her at some point, right? She hadn’t eat it, but that counted. She grabbed her mother’s arm. “Let’s get out of here.”
Her father had been stopped by the baggage attendant to have the tags checked. He could catch up when they were away from the noise and bustle of the concourse.
Maddie pulled her hat low on her head and turned to shoulder her way through the crowd to the doors. The reporter came out of nowhere. He was a small, weazly looking guy, with greedy eyes. A bored camera man stood just behind him the red light blinking about the camera lens.
The reporter yelled to get her attention. “Ms. Adams!”
She turned, trying to avoid him, the crowd seemed to close around her as heads turned in her direction. She looked back, but she’d been cut off from her mother. Her father, still detained by the security official met her gaze across the crowd but couldn’t reach her.
“Ms. Adams!” he repeated, close enough now to shove the microphone in her direction. “Why did you lie about your husband’s disappearance?”
Lie? What was he talking about? “I didn’t–”
“Why did you and your husband fight that night at the restaurant? Did he beat you?” he demanded.
Amy opened her mouth, but no words came out.
“If that why you murdered him? The public will hold you responsible for your crimes! The truth will come out when her body is found!”
An image flashed through Maddie’s mind of Will’s face the last time she’d seen him. The betrayal that had flashed in his eyes. Now it was too late. She’d never be able to tell him the truth. Her head swam as her legs turned to oatmeal. As she melted to the floor, she heard her mom calling her name.

Subtext – underlying meaning or what’s really going on when your characters are discussing

Excerpt from International Kissing Club Ivy Adams 2012

“By the way, Izzy, don’t think we haven’t noticed that you weaseled out of telling who you kissed while we were away. A super-hottie, huh?” She waggled her eyebrows in exaggerated interest. “Anyone we know?”
Izzy threw down her spoon and pushed back her chair. “Screw this. I need a burger.”
She snatched the still full yogurt cup off the table and dumped it in the trash on the way out. Even though there was a recycling bin just beside the trash can. Five inches away.
“What the hell?” she heard her three friends squeal from behind her.
Izzy stopped outside the yogurt shop. The nearest hunk of charred cow flesh could be had about a hundred yards down the road at the Dairy Queen. She set off at a brisk pace. She heard Mei, Piper and Cassidy spill out onto the street behind her.
She wasn’t entirely sure if all the exclamations of confusion were coming from them, or from the voice reason in her head. She didn’t care.
Naturally, Cassidy caught up with her first. She didn’t try to stop her, but fell into step beside her. “Is this going to be another diving-into-the-pool incident?”
“Nope. This is just going to be an eating-a-burger incident. A I’m-tired-of-making-sacrifices-when-everyone-else-gets-to-do-whatever-they-want incident.”
“Fair enough.” Cassidy stepped forward and opened the door to the Dairy Queen for Izzy.
Izzy marched up to the counter. Ryan—a sophomore from their school–was manning the register. She tried to smile at him, but it felt like a snarl instead. “I want a double bacon cheeseburger.”
In that instant the door swung open and Piper and Mei came stumbling in.
“OMG,” Piper screeched. “Is she really doing it? Is she really ordering a burger?”
“She will if this idiot ever places the order.” Cassidy glared. Ryan started typing.
“A real burger? With beef in it? From an actual methane-spewing cow? Not some hippy, vegan burger made of spelt but a real honest-to-God burger? That a real person, with actual taste buds would want to eat?”
Izzy gritted her teeth and slammed her cash down on the counter.
Then she spun to face Piper, Cassidy and Mei. She didn’t even bother looking for a booth at the back of the dinning room, but let her have it, right there in front of the whole restaurant. “One time, I made veggie burgers for you. One time, and you’re still bitching about it a year later.”
“What is wrong with you?” Piper asked, annoyance making her voice low and clipped.
“I just …” She blew out a breath. Trying—really trying—to find words to explain other than self-centered, self-absorbed, and ego-centric. It was really, really hard. But she didn’t want to throw around those kinds of insults. Not when she was pretty sure her own behavior was just as bad. “I just really,” she tried again. “Had a hard time being alone. And—” Okay. Here it was. The horrible truth about who she’d kissed.

Final tips for adding in emotion:

  • Identify the point of view character (But don’t forget the other characters need emotion too!)
  • Identify the core emotion of the scene
  • Map out the emotional progression of the scene
  • Use props to convey emotion
  • When you end a scene in a character’s POV, make sure they experience the same emotion in the next scene in their head.

Combined, Emily McKay and Robyn DeHart have presented workshops all over the country to writing groups, librarians and readers and at several RWA National conferences. They have been critique partners for over a decade and enjoy teaching together.

Award-winning author, Robyn DeHart has been nominated for three RT Book Reviews Reviewer’s Choice Awards and in 2010 she won her first, in addition to winning a RomCon Reader’s Crown award. She is known for her unique plotlines and authentic characters. Robyn is a favorite among readers and reviewers. Publishers’ Weekly claims her writing to be “comical and sexy” while the Chicago Tribune dubs her “wonderfully entertaining.” A self-proclaimed craft junkie, Robyn is a popular writing instructor, having presented workshops on-line, at several RWA chapters and many times at RWA’s National Conference. She lives in Central Texas with her brainy husband and two very spoiled cats. In March 2011, the final book in her popular Legend Hunters series, TREASURE ME hit stores. You can find her on-line at www.RobynDeHart.com or www.JauntyQuills.com.

Award-winning author, Emily McKay has been a Golden Heart finalist and a double RITA finalist. In 2010 she was nominated for an RT Book Reviews Career Achievement Award. She is Walden’s Series Romance bestselling author. She has written several articles about the craft of writing. She’s presented workshops on-line, at numerous local RWA chapters, as well as for the Central Texas Library System and the Burnet Cultural Arts Festival. Her most recent Silhouette Desire releases were THE BILLIONAIRE’S BRIDAL BID (2010) and SEDUCED: THE UNEXPECTED VIRGIN (2011.) You can find her on-line at www.EmilyMcKay.com or www.JauntyQuills.com.

Emily & Robyn’s suggested reading list…

GMC: Goal, Motivation and Conflict by Debra Dixon
The Complete Writer’s Guide to Heroes and Heroines by Tami Cowden, et. al
38 Most Common Mistakes of Fiction Writers by Jack Bickham
Scene and Structure by Jack Bickham
Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne and Dave King
The First Five Pages by Noah Lukeman
Techniques of the Selling Writer by Dwight V. Swain
What Type Am I?: Discover Who You Really Are by Renee Baron
Creating Character Emotions by Ann Hood

Books by Emily McKay
International Kissing Club (co-written as Ivy Adams 2012)
Seduced: The Unexpected Virgin (2011)
The Billionaire’s Bridal Bid
Affair With the Rebel Heiress
His Accidental Fiancée
In the Tycoon’s Debt
Tempted into the Tycoon’s Trap
Baby Benefits
Baby on the Billionaire’s Doorstep
Surrogate and Wife
Her Wildest Dreams
Perfectly Saucy
Perfectly Sexy
Baby Be Mine

Books by Robyn DeHart
Treasure Me (2011)
The Mammoth Book of Regency Romance, Her Gentleman Thief
Desire Me
Seduce Me
Tempted At Every Turn
Deliciously Wicked
A Study in Scandal
Courting Claudia

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Making Symbolism Work

When I was a sophomore in high school, I tried out for the Junior/Senior drill team. When I got home after try outs, I discovered I’d left my brand-new Reebok cross trainers at the school. My mom drove me back to look for them, but they weren’t there.

My self-centered teenage mind quickly decided that the shoes had been stolen as a cruel prank. Probably planned by a girl who didn’t like me. By the time we arrived home, I was in tears. More than just my shoes had been stolen. Those stark white, size 9 Reeboks represented my place in the world. Their theft represented my disenfranchisement. My loneliness. My teenage angst.

Handling their theft was a test of my strength, my resilience. I don’t remember the shoes I took my first steps in or the shoes I wore when I got married, but I can picture those Reeboks in my mind as if they were sitting right in front of me.

In the story of my life, those shoes are a powerful symbol. They represent a crucial step in my development as a woman.

Symbols are powerful in fiction as well as in life. In Gone with the Wind, Tara represents Scarlet’s independence, her strength, and her social position. As devestitated as she is when Rhet walks out her door, the reader has no doubt that Scarlet will be just fine. She may have lost love, but she still has Tara.

In Linda Howard’s MacKenzie’s Mountain, the long, trecherous drive up the mountain represents the boundary between Wolf MacKenzie and the people of the town. Everytime Mary drives up that road, she’s proving to Wolf and to the town that she’s willing to cross that boundary.

In Julie Ortolon’s Drive Me Wild, Brent Michaels’ sports car represents his success. For him, it’s the symbol that he’s finally made it, that he’s no longer that poor kid from the wrong side of the tracks. At the end of the book, when he’s rushing to Laura’s wedding (so he can stop it, naturally) his Porche breaks down. Despite all that car means to him, he leaves it behind and finishes the journey in a broken down Ford Pinto. We know that Laura means more to him than the trappings of his success.

You may have noticed that in each of those examples, the symbol has meaning for the reader and for the characters. Symbolism doesn’t work—or at least, doesn’t work well—if the characters don’t get it also.

Naturally, symbolism can be handled like an inside joke between the author and reader. Look at Morely cigerettes in the X Files. On the show, every character who smokes Morely cigarettes is one of the bad guys. It works well on the show. A mere puff of smoke, the striking of a match, or a glimsp of that distinctive red and white package is enough to send shivers down the spine of an X Files fan.

But in the X Files, these symbols hold meaning only for the viewer. The characters never conect smoking with evil. They’re unaware that there’s any connection at all.

Morely cigarettes are a kind of code, shared between series creator Chris Carter and the audience. They are his way of nudging us in the side and winking at us. “Here, this guy’s bad. Watch out for him,” they seem to say.

But what works on the X Files, won’t work in your romance novel. Those nudge, nudge, wink, wink symbols will only remind your reader that you are there. You’re goal is to creat a relationship between your reader and your characters. Not between your reader and you.

Citizen Kane is arguably one of the best movies ever made. The shattered snow globe and the muttered word, “Rosebud” are powerful symbols of lost innocence. They tie the story together, they make it work, they draw from the viewer sympathy for a very unsympathetic character. The symbolism makes that movie.

It just so happens that Citizen Kane is also a scathing critism of media giant Willam Randolf Hearst. That’s not what makes the movie great. Most of today’s audience has never even heard of Hearst, or if we have it’s only in reference to the movie.

As it turns out, Rosebud was Heart’s nickname for a particular portion of his mistress’s body. Using the word Rosebud in the movie was Orson Wells’s way of thumbing his nose at Hearst. One final insult to the man Wells couldn’t stand.

Yes, yes, you’re very clever, Mr. Wells.

But ultimately, knowing the story behind Citizen Kane gives as much insight into Orson Wells’s arrongance and egomania as it does into Hearst’s.

Personally, I liked it better when Rosebud was just a kid’s sled, just a symbol of lost innocence. The story works better that way.

And just in case you’re wondering, I did find those Reeboks, the very next day. They’d been turned in to Lost and Found. Looking back on the incident now, they no longer represent my teenage disenfranchisement. Now they represent the emotional volitility of those teen years.

As a middle school teacher, whenever I got annoyed by my students’ mood swings, I’d think of those shoes and remember how emotionally vulnerable teenagers are. My changing view of those shoes represents my personal growth—the transformation of my character from fragile teen to strong, independent adult.

They are exactly the kind of symbol you can and should use in your story telling. Just don’t pull an Orson Well’s. Don’t let your own need to be clever and self-referential overpower your story. Symbols which have meaning for your characters are the only symbols you need.

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Everything I Ever Needed to Know about Writing

In the weeks following the national convention, I found myself seated on my sofa, barely recovered from my post-conference, knowledge ‘hangover,’ watching rented movies I’d seen several times before. I was about halfway through a bowl of popcorn and just starting to appreciate how good Brendan Frasier looks covered in a fine film of dust when it hit me. Everything — well, nearly everything — I’d learned at the conference was right there in the movie.

I don’t mean to imply that The Mummy is a classic, though it is certainly enjoyable. But watching The Mummy allowed me to piece together some of the concepts I’d either recently learned or recently heard reiterated.

Newly enlightened, I’d like to talk about foreshadowing and goal/motivation/conflict. More importantly, I want to talk about how both concepts work together.

Foreshadowing

First off, let’s talk about why our readers read our books. If you think it’s because their lives are filled with fun and excitement and they just want to escape into our stories for a moment of peace and quiet, you’re wrong. That’s why people listen to new age music. That’s not why people read our books.

People read books — and go to movies — because their lives are stressful and they want the catharsis of watching as characters they love experience danger and come out okay. The characters can be at physical risk, emotional risk, or simply at risk of not getting what they want …. but they must be at risk.

Furthermore, the audience wants to see the danger coming from a mile away and relish it as it approaches. The audience wants to wallow in impending danger. Foreshadowing allows that.

The Mummy uses foreshadowing to build suspense from the moment the movie starts. As the movie’s ‘prologue’ comes to an end, the voice over tells us that should Imhotep (the antagonist and the titular Mummy) ever be released from his sarcophagus “he would arise a walking disease, a plague upon mankind, an unholy flesh eater with the strength of ages, power over the sands and the glory of invincibility.”

Let’s face it, with a warning like that, there’s no one in the audience thinking, “Well, thank goodness that’s never going to happen!” Instead, we’re probably all thinking “Ooh, that sounds bad! That sounds dangerous! I wonder who he’s going to kill?”

Just in case there’s anyone in the audience who didn’t get the message right off, the movie is filled with characters who issue warnings like, “Many men have wasted their lives in the foolish pursuit of Hamonaptra [the fabled city of the dead]. No one’s ever found it. Most have never returned.” And just in case that’s not enough, there’s a band of creepy, tattooed fellows called the Magi, who skulk around dressed all in black, ambushing the heros at every turn and saying things like, “Leave this place or die.”

There’s even a curse that reads:

He [Imhotep] will kill all who open this chest and assimilate their organs and fluids and in so doing, he will regenerate and no longer be the undead, but a plague upon this earth.

The foreshadowing escalates throughout the movie, becoming more and more specific. By the time the mummy actually does rise and begin sucking the life force from his victims, the audience knows exactly what to expect. We know he’s going to be a plague upon mankind. We know he’ll be a ‘flesh eater’. We’re even pretty darn certain he’s going to start with the four guys who opened the chest and were foolish enough to walk off with his sacred canopic jars.

We’ve spent the first half of the movie anticipating the moment he wakes up and now we’ll spend the second half anticipating the nasty things we were told about. That’s what foreshadowing does. It allows the audience to anticipate.

Think back to your prom, to the first time you saw your favorite band in concert, to your last big vacation. Chances are, in each of those cases, the anticipation you felt in the days and weeks beforehand was just as much fun as the big event itself. The same is true for fiction. Anticipation really is half the fun. So let the audience have fun. Let them enjoy waiting for disaster.

Which leads me to my second point …

Goal, Motivation, and Conflict

Let me begin by saying that if you don’t already feel like you have a working understanding of Goal, Motivation and Conflict, I highly recommend Debra Dixon’s definitive book on the subject.

But maybe you’re like me — you’ve got a handle on the theory, but you’re not sure you really know how to subtly intertwine GMC into you story.

Well, that’s your problem right there. You don’t need to be subtle about GMC. You don’t need to be sparing either. The audience needs to know what’s at stake for your characters. They need to know what your characters want and why they want it. If you don’t let your audience know what’s at stake, the audience won’t get to enjoy anticipating everything that could go wrong.

In the Mummy, we know what Evelyn wants right from the beginning. She wants to be a Bembridge Scholar. Her application has been rejected again, because she doesn’t have enough experience in the field. So we also know that she wants field experience and adventure, because she thinks that will help her achieve her main goal. Of course, what she really wants is recognition. She wants to live up to the legacy of her parents who were both great Egyptologists.

Keep in mind, a character’s goal and motivation will change and evolve as the story progresses. When we first meet Rick O’Connell, his only goal is to stay alive. Once Evelyn saves his life, his goal changes. Because he’s an honorable man (which another character tells us right off — “His word is his word.”), he wants to protect the woman who saved his life. As he grows to love Evelyn, his motivation changes, but his goal (to protect Evelyn) stays the same.

If you have a heroine who wants adventure and a hero who wants to protect her, you’ve got the start of an interesting story. You’ve the got the seed of conflict between them, but for an action/adventure movie you’re going to need more. That’s where the other characters come into play.

It’s not enough to have a good GMC for two characters in the story. You need GMC for all of them. That’s what gives you conflict. (Remember the C in GMC?) Characters who have opposing goals come into conflict with each other. And conflict is the key to interesting fiction.

If this still doesn’t seem like enough conflict for an action/adventure movie, well you’re right. That’s because I haven’t even gotten started on the villain. That’s right, your villain does need his/her own GMC. In fact, second only to protagonist’s, your antagonist’s GMC is one of the most important in the story.

Of course, in The Mummy, the antagonist is, you guessed it, the mummy, Imhotep. Because his GMC is as important as Evelyn’s, it’s stated just as clearly, maybe even more clearly. He wants to resurrect Anck-Su-Namun. Why? Because he loves her and wants to be with her. Everything he does in the story, all the flesh eating, all the sand storming, all the plaguing of mankind, he does not because he’s evil, but because he’s trying to achieve his goal. He’s trying to resurrect the woman he loves. Gosh, if he wasn’t releasing hoards of locust, you’d almost feel sorry for the guy.

All the things the mummy is willing to do to reach his goal create conflict for Evelyn and O’Connell. It’s important to note that as soon as Evelyn realizes that she’s the one who woke this “unholy flesh eater” her goal changes. Suddenly, her goal is to find a way to kill or incapacitate Imhotep, because there are things Evelyn isn’t willing to do to achieve her initial goal. She sets aside her goal of becoming a Bembridge scholar in favor of trying to save the world.

Her new goal (save the world) is in conflict with Imhotep’s goal (resurrect Anck-Su-Namun). Since Imhotep is going to use Evelyn as a human sacrifice to resurrect Anck-Su-Namun, he is also in conflict with O’Connell. And there you have it — characters the audience cares about in conflict with each other. Instant story.

It’s crucial to remember that the audience needs to know what the characters’ goals are. Once the audience knows a character’s goal and motivation, they can usually see the conflict coming from a mile away. Which, of course, is your goal.

Never make the mistake of thinking that because you don’t write Suspense, you don’t need to have suspense in your romance. The Mummy is certainly a suspenseful movie. The sweeping music, dim lighting, and creepy fellows skulking around dressed in black all add to that suspense. But the true suspense in the movie comes from wondering how the characters are going to reach their goals. That’s equally true in a romance novel.

You also want to make sure that you deliver exactly what you foreshadowed. Foreshadowing is all about letting the audience know exactly what the worst case scenario is for the characters. At the climax of movie, we’re not worried about whether or not someone will accidently bring him back to life. We’re not worried about whether or not he’ll manage to regenerate. At that point, we’re worried that he’ll manage to sacrifice Evelyn and he’ll become all-powerful in the process.

If, in your romance novel, the heroine’s goal for ten years has been to hide the existence of her child from hero, then the worst case scenario is going to be that the hero find out about the child they created together. You need to state the heroine’s goal, you need to foreshadow the conflict (the worst case scenario), and you need to deliver the pay-off.

Don’t cheat the audience out of the thrill of seeing all their worst fears come to fruition. That’s what they enjoy. Your story is only as good as your character’s GMC and your protagonists are only as strong as the antagonist they overcome.

Remember, GMC and foreshadowing work hand in hand. You use your characters’ goals and motivations to foreshadow the conflict. Without foreshadowing you have no suspense. And suspense makes great fiction.

Archetypes

Let me start by saying there’s no shame in relying on the tried and true. In fiction, in character development in particular, the tried and true are character archetypes. For more information on character archetypes, see The Complete Writer’s guide to Heroes & Heroines, by Cowden, La Fever, and Viders.

Using archetypes for character development works because it helps the reader know what to expect. Keep in mind, that reading fiction should be easy for the reader. They should be able to slide right into the story. The transition from their world to the fictional world you’ve created should be seamless. You do that by using characters archetypes, by letting the reader know what to expect. Making it easy on them, allows that seamless transition.

When using archetypes, it’s important that your characters really be that archetype. Their archetype should be obvious from the moment they walk on scene. It should be obvious in the way they act and the things they say. Don’t be wishy-washy with your characters either. If there’s information the audience needs to know about your character, then let the audience know right away.

Remember Evelyn from The Mummy? She’s a Librarian. That’s her archetype as well as her profession and we know it from the minute we see her, perched on a ladder shelving books. We know it from the way she’s dressed in prim Edwardian clothes, hair knotted tightly at the base of her neck. We know it from the ease with which she rattles off the names of ancient Egyptian pharaohs. And from the way she talks to the books, gently chiding them for being in the wrong place.

Within five minutes of screen time, we know everything we need to know about Evelyn. We know she’s librarian. We know she often gets herself into trouble — her single-minded focus on the task at hand (shelving books) causes her to knock down all the book shelves. Finally, from her interaction with her boss, we know she’s under-appreciated. He tells her the only reason he puts up with her is because her parents were great Egyptologists. Our first impression of Evelyn is as complete as it is strong.

The same is true for Rick O’Connell, the movie’s hero. He is a Warrior. We know he’s a Warrior from the first moment we see him, rifle aimed at an unbeatable enemy. A moment later, when his commander runs away while O’Connell stays to lead the men under his command, we learn more about him. By the time that first scene ends, we know everything we need to know about Rick O’Connell. He’s a warrior, a bit of a swashbuckler, but a man of honor. He’ll stay and fight when other men turn and run.

“But,” you may protest, “I want to write multi-dimensional, fully-layered characters.” Of course you do. We all do. And the truth is, most characters, O’Connell included, are more complex than even a strong first impression allows. And make no mistake, the first time your characters appear they will make a first impression. You have plenty of time to layer your characters later in the story. Your job as an author is to make sure that first impression is the right one. If your hero is a Warrior, then the first time the reader meets him, he should not be doing research in the library.

Think about Indiana Jones in Raiders of the Lost Ark. Indiana Jones is a Swashbuckler through and through. Ironically, he also happens to be a professor. But professor is his profession, not his archetype. Who can forget that image of Indiana Jones racing through the ruins of an ancient temple with a giant ball of stone rolling after him? That opening scene in the jungle has very little to do with the plot of the movie but everything to do with establishing expectations.

Imagine how differently the movie would play out if our first impression of Indiana had him standing in front of a classroom of students. Interestingly enough, the second time we see Indiana, he is in the lecture hall. Because we’ve already seen him racing through the jungle, we know there’s more to him than meets the eye. We’re in on the joke. Therefore, when the men from Army Intelligence come to ask him to find the lost ark, we’re not shocked and confused — or worse, skeptical. Because we already have that first impression of him in our mind, we know he’s up to the challenge.

So remember, never be afraid to make a strong first impression. Furthermore, never be afraid to reinforce it whenever necessary. It’s even a good idea to give your characters a talisman, some physical object they carry with them that represents who they are. (Remember Indiana’s hat and whip?) After all, your characters exist in a physical world. They need objects to clutch when they’re nervous or stroke when they’re contemplative.

O’Connell’s talisman is his guns. He uses them to defend himself not only from physical danger, but from emotional intimacy as well. Once he’s cleaned-up and well-groomed, O’Connell feels nervous around Evelyn. After all, he’s a man of action and doesn’t quite know what to do with this intelligent, cultured, beautiful woman. Around her, his easy confidence slips. How do we know? By the way he handles his weapons. It’s no coincidence that before he’ll even sit down at the table with her, he rolls out his bundle of guns between them. Those weapons are his talisman; they make him feel safe, even when he’s not using them. In fact for most of the movie, his guns are useless against an immortal enemy. The Mummy obviously is not suseptible to bullets. Nevertheless, O’Connell’s always armed.

Evelyn’s talisman is her books. Makes sense — she is a Librarian. She’s surrounded by books throughout the movie, from the books she’s shelving when we first meet her, to the book she uses to save the world. Her books give her the same confidence that Rick’s guns bring him. After her first intimate conversation with Rick (the same one that made him nervous) she feels so rattled when she goes back to her room, she tries to read, but can’t. Like Rick, the way she interacts with her talisman shows us how she’s feeling.

In the case of both Rick and Evelyn, their talismans are related not only to their archetypes but also to the lessons they have to learn.

None of this is an accident. It’s just great fiction. Which is what we aspire to write.

Let’s face it, we all want to write a really great novel–the kind of novel that lives on in people’s memory long after they put the book down, the kind of novel people love without ever really knowing what made it so good.

To the reader, a wonderful novel seems like magic. We sit in the audience, amazed by the tricks and illusions being executed on stage by the master magician. Yet, we have no notion of how those tricks are performed.

To the writer, what was once magical can become merely frustrating. We want our own work to appear as seamless and wondrous. But how?

One of the ways is to have a well-developed premise and theme. I’m sure there are people out these who can write magical novels without know squat about premise or theme. Unfortunately, I’m not one of them.

The good news is, if you’re not one of those people either, then understanding premise or theme can give your writing an extra edge. That magical glow.

It can tie together your prose and add resonance to your words. It may even make the difference between writing a novel people enjoy and writing a novel people love.

Premise

According to James Frey, in How to Write Damn Good Novel, a premise is “a statement of what happens to the characters as a result of the core conflict in the story.” In other words, it’s the lesson the audience or reader can learn by watching the movie or reading the book. It’s the point that’s proven by the events in the story. Most stories (certainly all the good ones) have a premise. For example: there’s no place like home (The Wizard of Oz), it’s a wonderful life (It’s a Wonderful Life), beauty is only skin deep (Beauty and the Beast), freedom is worth dying for (Braveheart).

You may have noticed in the examples above, that the really clever writers work the premise into the story so that it’s kind of hard to miss — if you’re looking for it. Most people aren’t. The average reader will probably never know you have a premise in your book — but they’ll enjoy it more.

The premise in The Mummy is that everybody gets what they deserve. The premise is illustrated most clearly through the character Benni. If you remember him from the movie, you’ll remember that Benni is a bit of a weasel. In fact, all through the movie people are saying things like “You’ll get yours Benni!” and “Nasty little fellows such as yourself always get their comeuppance.”

Just as everyone predicts, Benni does indeed get his. By the end of the movie his self-serving greed leaves him trapped in the treasure room of lost city of Hamonaptra. Though he’s surrounded by the gold and treasure he couldn’t leave behind, he’s also surrounded by flesh-eating scarabs. After betraying all of humanity, he has gotten exactly what he deserves.

What is true of Benni is equally true for all of the other characters. They too get what they deserve.

Anck-Su-Namun gets hers fairly early in the movie. Because she is the pharaoh’s mistress, her body is not her own. In the first scene of the movie, just before plunging a knife into her belly she says “My body is no longer his temple!” With her death, she gets what she never had in life–control over her own body.

Imhotep gets what he deserves as well. After spending over three thousand years as the undead, Evelyn removes the curse and O’Connell stabs him. Wounded and dying, he staggers backwards and falls into the well of souls–the same well Anck-Su-Namun’s soul rose out of when he was trying resurrect her. Ultimately, he has gotten what he deserved, death.

Of course, Evelyn and O’Connell get theirs too. Evelyn gets to use her intelligence to save the world. Thus she gets the adventure and the recognition she deserves. O’Connell, a self-proclaimed treasure seeker, gets the ultimate treasure–love.

Theme

Ah, theme. The bane of high school students everywhere.

For writers, theme is often both harder and easier than premise. A theme is woven through a story with more subtly than the premise. In Sound and Sense, Laurence Perrine defines theme as “the central idea of a literary work.”

Common themes, particularly in romance novels, are trust, self-acceptance, faith, and forgiveness. The easiest way to figure out your theme is to go back to your premise. Premise and theme are usually closely related.

A couple of quick examples: The premise of The Wizard of Oz is “There’s no place like home.” The theme is home. The premise of Braveheart is freedom is worth dying for. The theme is freedom.

If you’re having trouble with theme and premise, it may be easiest to decide on your theme first. Figure out what big issue you want to deal with in your book. Let’s say you want your book to be about Trust. Then decide what it is you want to say about Trust. Do you want to say that ‘Once trust is lost it can never be regained’? Or that ‘Without trust, love is meaningless’? Or maybe that ‘Love never really exists without trust’? What do your characters need to learn about Trust before they can have their happy ending?

The beauty of having a clearly defined theme and premise is that you’ll be able to use them to guide your story. Once you know what your theme is, you’ll want to make sure the every scene and character in the book reflects that theme. If you have a great scene that’s poignant and touching, but you’re not sure whether or not to keep it, ask yourself, “What doesn’t this scene say about my theme?” If the answer is “nothing” you’ll need to cut or rewrite the scene.

Which brings us to The Mummy. If the premise is that everybody gets what they deserve, then the theme is justice (Not in the Criminal Justice System sense of the word, but in the ‘the world is a fair and just place’ sense of the word.)

I’ve already talked about how all of the major characters get what they deserve, so you can probably see how they all reflect the story’s theme and premise. What you may not have noticed yet is how the writer uses even the minor characters to reflect the theme as well.

Remember the drunk British pilot? He’s a small character, on screen for mere minutes, but he serves an important function in the plot. O’Connell and the others are in Thebes and they need to cross the desert to Hamunaptra quickly (earlier in the movie it took them days to get there). A plane is the obvious solution to this plot problem, but plot demands a new character to fly it. It can’t be any of the other characters, because if they had access to a plane, they would have used it the first time they crossed the desert.

Enter the drunk British pilot. He shows up just in time to fly O’Connel and the others to Hamunaptra. But remember, he has to do more than that, otherwise, it would be lazy story telling.

Every character and scene must serve multiple purposes. So instead of just being the guy that flies them across the desert, his character must also illustrates the theme (justice) and the premise (everybody gets what they deserve). ‘But he’s a minor character’ you say. ‘How do we know what he deserves?’ Well, minor though he is he still has goal, motivation, and conflict. And the audience knows what his GMC is right from beginning. As soon as his character enters the story we learn that he’s last surviving member of the Royal Air Corp and he wishes he had died a glorious death along with the rest of his companions. So when he dies, we know he’s getting what he deserves–a glorious death.

Remember, in fiction, every scene, every character, every moment is precious. Your story needs to be tightly woven. You have to make every character work for his or her place in the story. So if you need a character to move the plot along, make sure you use that character for something else as well. These minor characters are perfect for illustrating your premise and theme.

In short, a well-defined premise and theme are like the wires the suspend the magician’s assistant three feet above the floor–the audience probably never sees them, but they’re crucial to the success of the trick.

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