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First-Time Fictioneers: The Temporal Cue

I want to quickly cover a beginner mistake I see commonly, prior to the creation of an enduring character or plot. Plot and character fill entire worlds on their own, but there are certain skills very easy to instill which are even more essential than character and plot, like how hydrogen and oxygen are essential to the world, too. Without these elements, the latter cannot yet exist.

This easy-to-remedy essential is called temporal cuing. This is letting your reader know–constantly–where your character is in time and space.  It’s important to do this in your very first paragraph, if not sentence. Open any fiction book you own and try to find one that doesn’t give a strong sense of time and place in which to locate the character. Otherwise, the reader is floating in an ambiguous soup of internal monologue. Even acts as mundane as sitting up, standing, and walking into another room should be summarized, albeit quickly. This continues to be important in dialogue. Our characters shouldn’t be just strings of quotes, as readers eventually lose their sense of physicality in the scene and it becomes unreal: the kiss of death to any fiction. Even the arguments (especially the arguments) should be a thrust and parry of blotted lipsticks, of lighters refusing to flair, and of course, of shrugging, blinking, and pausing.

Even periods of stewing and break-down (especially periods of stewing and breakdown!) need to be tagged with markers like “lounged after dinner,” “strode across the river,” “glared into the traffic,” even “just sat and stared until the alarm clock shrilled.” My first novel maintained a huge mistake until its latter stages, and that was a page or two of solid abstraction (oxymoron unintended) to summarize. Your reader doesn’t want to be told what the book is about, whether at the beginning or end, no matter how eloquent your grasp of language. Lyricism cannot replace tight prose that supports an intriguing concept. Cleverly told stories are never as good as good stories, regardless of how cleverly told. This is an epiphany I only had this year. I’d struggle over whether or not to cut a pointless but poetic sentence. Functionless? Cut it. People remember stories more often than they remember sentences.

Love, Sex, and the Concrete

I can’t impress upon you enough the importance of the concrete.  I’ve heard some writers say “Tell, don’t show,” but I maintain that they are trying to be edgy, accrue some curiosity, and sell more books. It is still show, don’t tell, with the exception of the occasional puddle of exposition or backstory, which would probably be just as good if revealed in the concrete, but is acceptable in the abstract.

When we’re talking about a character in the concrete, it manifests most heavily in gesture and diction, and on a larger scale, in what they do throughout the course of the story. I don’t buy much into what the character is wearing or their overall appearance. But, as in real life, when you fall in love with someone, it is the result of certain charming attributes. The way they lounge on things that are not meant to be lounged on, like other people. Punctuating an otherwise awkward sentence with a wink. Empathy, wit, depth–the things we love in people–exist in the most minute of word and deed. Diction gives us a very fleshy sense of character, for something that is entirely fleshless. J.K. Rowling crafted about fifty fleshy characters in her Harry Potter universe, largely the result of a couple characteristics (such as Snape’s constant curtain of oily, dark hair) and individual diction.  Hermione, Dobby, and Hagrid spring immediately to mind. Imagine how much would have been robbed from us if Dobby did not always address Harry as “Harry Potter,” or “the noble Harry Potter,” or if Hagrid had not been allowed to pronounce “to” as “ter”! It lends such flesh, such ring, to the sentence. Word choice and cadence give us a strong notion of what someone is like.

Then there’s what they say. What they say, how they say it, and why they say it. It’s hard to tell which one is most instrumental in romance, the topic of this evening’s post. In short, they are all important. If you described my face without noting the eyes, you’d be remiss, though they do not outweigh the lips. It’s all part of the same sum, and it’s all connected. If there is a discrepancy between what they say and what they think or the situation they’re in, this lends you some intrigue and unpredictability.

I had been writing a relationship into one novel, and was disappointed with how flat it felt.  I realized that I had been summing up a lot of the feelings, as if I were informing the reader of the relationship, rather than allowing them to experience it.  You never want to tell your reader (who is your vicarious main character) how they feel.  You want to illustrate the story as clearly as possible, and allow them to feel what they will.

Love lies in character, and character lies in the little words and deeds of every single scene.  These patches will eventually form the quilt of the larger story, and that’s when a reader really wishes the character was real, because they’ve fallen desperately in love with them.

Here are some other tricks for illustrating a certain character’s desirability without telling your audience that they are desirable:

    • Other characters comment on their appeal.
    • They are not constantly available, physically or emotionally, but cause the reader to yearn for them.
    • Leave the audience wanting more. Almost-not-quite love is the staple of enduring drama. If they’re leaning in for a kiss, have someone open a door and walk in.
    • Put obstacles between your romantic characters, preferably very solid ones. The Scarlet Letter was such a good book not because of its inspection of morality and individuality in society and religion, but because Hester Prynne and Reverend Dimmesdale were in love, but could never be together, for what was, back then, damn good reason.

I do mention sex in the header of this post, so let me brush on that for a moment. Sex–or physical intimacy, whether it reaches the point of sex or not–is difficult to digest as a casual reader, much like violence, gore, and gratuitous, out-of-character profanity. There is a certain audience given these topics, but like in real life, most people prefer it kept behind closed doors or “fade-to-black,” and have a tendency to shutter the windows themselves if it gets too vulgar for them. After all, your readers are your voyeurs, and they want to see a little, but they don’t want to get the whole show and feel uncomfortable. At the same time, many stories are about adults and adults have sex. This is how an entire sexual episode, or violent episode, can be covered in a story without making the audience uncomfortable reading. This is also something you can do when you want to give your reader the sense of time passing without actually writing the details of a month.

Plant a few concrete details which sum up the general feeling you’d like to impart, without being too graphic. Most readers don’t want to know the specifics of sex and violence, but rather, like a scene in a movie, to catch the glimpses that paraphrase it. It also helps to evoke lyricism, euphemism, and wit at such junctures. People like those things and will let more slide if it sounds pretty.

But remember to keep it concrete!

Always Run Into Explosions (And Let One Character Know It’s Coming)

…unless there is something more interesting somewhere else. We always want what is most interesting, while still credible in the context of the plot/character.

Basically, and this is something I see frequently, beginners are shy about introducing their characters to conflict, as if this is a living person they are trying to protect. Know that you control this world and can always invent devices that will save your characters, provided you backtrack and plant the information in the narrative, so it doesn’t seem to have manifested from thin air. This is constantly used in all forms of storytelling, and is not cheating.

You want to think about your reader, who is your vicarious main character, and maintaining their interest. The more your character runs from certain conflicts, the less your character actually does, and the more boring the story becomes. Resolving or prolonging conflicts is more difficult than disengaging from them, but since conflict is the pivot on which all fiction rests, it is a tool you’d do better to sharpen than ignore.

Dramatic irony is also a useful tool which some forget is at their disposal, involving conflict. What does your character know, compared to what other characters know, and what the audience as a whole knows? This can be very fun. For example, the current setting is a crowded dance club with balcony seating for dining. X has been fraternizing in a rather intimate sense down on the dance floor, and with a character she doesn’t realize is an enemy (Y). In fact, Y would like to murder X, if he had the chance. Ah, murder. Where would fiction be without you? Another character (Z) sits in the balcony. Has he been watching X? And so theoretically would have seen this exchange with Y? Or did he only just barely miss the exchange, his eyes losing X in the crowd just as she embraces her new dance partner? Either way, moments later, the couple return to the balcony table, pretending that they have been nowhere and doing nothing in particular.

How interesting could the story be if Z had seen? After all, isn’t this why we have balconies? To literally eavesdrop?

It would only be better if there were some plot-related reason to keep Z unaware of the intimate relationship developing between X and Y. Or perhaps Z is fully capable of ending the tryst, which would ruin the suspense, and so he can’t have seen yet. He can’t have seen until the last minute, when it’s the climax, when it’s almost too late. You’re the writer, so you hopefully know the lay of your plot and what would be best in the long run.

It’s always fun for the audience to know a lot more than each individual character does separately. This is a huge trope with situational comedy and with drama. It is deceptively simple to employ, because in life, we all know different things and don’t know others, and art imitates life. Therefore, if each character is granted life-like agency, they will naturally accrue dramatic irony together.

Social Media vs. Government Tracking

Perhaps someone can clear this up for me. Do the benefits outweigh the likelihood that I’ll eventually be hunted down and chipped? Consider Facebook, the self-sustaining tracking device which only asks you the same questions a cop would: where were you, when was this picture taken, and who were you with.

I’ve recently submitted to the fever, due largely to being a Kindle author and desiring to synch with GoodReads. These are the less invasive beasts available compared to Twitter and what is the name of that other one with the pictures? Instagram.

I also hesitate to subscribe to the notion that every moment of my life is worthy of documentation and a following, which is a) ironic, being as that I was a writer before the Internet was this messianic tumor, and b) neigh senseless, as “networking” has become a necessary evil in any field as well as a large facet of American culture. I am, however, of the belief that the stuff of writing comes from the quiet moments. I’m on the verge of teaching a Creative Writing course at a local private university, and I think the first class will be about the importance of boredom to the inspiration process. I propose that Youtube is the reason every movie sucks now.

Not only are some things private, as well as reflective moments precious and few, but I worry that the belief that every thought we have, every notable image we see (like how we look in department store mirrors wearing sunglasses we don’t intend to buy, which is as unfathomable a trend as “planking”) is worthy of documentation leads us deeper into the chasm of narcissism which has come to define a generation.

I’m poised to dismantle my cell phone, and challenge you to do the same. The oncoming panic attack should serve as a wake-up call that not only are we inhabiting an Orwellian present, we’re actively participating in its maintenance. Says the girl who is blogging.