Fiction Writing and Other Oddities

Friday, February 26, 2010

Groups and Conflict

Groups and Group Think

I have had cause to think about group dynamics over the last week or so. Some of what I've learned is usable in the creation of fiction. Oh, it's nothing new or brilliant. And it's nothing that other writers have not used to their advantage.

Nonetheless, it is useful to me to document what I've learned.

If you want to read how other, much more brilliant writers have recognized and used group dynamics in their writings, take a look at Ayn Rand. She was very fond of writing about the implications of being the odd man out who has a brilliant idea that is unacceptable to Society (the group) at large.

Many writers have written about the loner, the odd man out.

This last week, I got to be the "odd man out" and suddenly, understood on a very personal level, what group dynamics really encompass.

I encourage other writers to think about this, as it can be a powerful concept in the hero's journey.

The hero frequently starts the story as someone outside the group, be it Society or just his family. The journey is often his (or her) attempt to rejoin Society. Sometimes s/he is successful, sometimes success comes from recognizing that s/he is doing better outside of the group.

So here is what I have learned, the painful way, about groups and group dynamics.

Groups encourage commonality of thought. At the beginning, the group will strive for consensus. The dominant member(s) will espouse ideas that are adopted by the group, thereby cementing relationships. This allows members to feel they understand each other and are all of a "common mind" which heightens the feeling of cohesion and understanding.

Once this happens, the group's "position" is cemented. They understand and accept each other.

At this point, if new members try to join the group, or members within the group, get a "new idea" or idea that is contrary to "group think", then the group pulls back. They look for a reaction of any long-standing members of the group to accept or refute the new idea, and they will support existing members of the group in order to maintain group cohesion.

If the new ideas do not come from leaders or well-established members, they are perceived as threatening. The person with the idea is reviled and thrust out of the group, because they threaten the stability of the group.

We have seen this time, and time again, throughout history. People with new ideas are ridiculed until the idea becomes commonplace and adopted by the leaders and members of Society, or groups within the Society.

This is where the conflict occurs and where authors can make use of such "natural conflicts" to build their story.

If a hero or heroine honestly knows the difference between fact and theory, and believes in "the truth" then that character may be in serious conflict with their social group or Society at large.

I have recently been in that position—where I was a new member of a group and showed ideas (with proof) that contradicted the established norms within the group. I was reviled and thrust out. And I re-learned what I had read about in Ayn Rand's writings, about the actions of the group versus the individual. You cannot hope to change ideas overnight, even if you have proof.

If you really wish to change group think, then you must convince the leaders that new ideas are THEIR ideas and allow months, if not years, for these new concepts to become accepted by the group at large. Think of how long it took Society to rationally discuss Darwin's theories.

It was a pivotal moment for me, because I realized how powerful group psychology is, and how this conflict can be the driving force in a novel.

Some of us are simply not meant to be members of a group, because we are unwilling to accept "group think" in the face of actual evidence and facts. Some of us will always be outsiders, because we believe in trusting the facts instead of hearsay and "belief". We're not team players unless the rest of the team is willing to test new ideas and accept them when the facts support them. What is interesting is that even scientific groups eventually become resistant to new ideas and can refute facts, although they are, generally, quicker to (eventually) accept new ideas if the evidence and proof is overwhelming.

Theories are theories. Much of what humans "know" falls into the category of theory. A theory is an attempt to explain the data collected through testing, but it is still open to interpretation.

Facts are facts. A fact is indisputable. There are surprisingly few facts. Much of what we *think* we know is actually just a theory that can be overturned if additional data is collected that refutes the theory.

There is a difference between theory and fact. And then there is opinion an all those other things…

So group dynamics can make an incredible source of conflict for your characters. There is a reason why Ayn Rand's books still sell. Whether you agree with her or not, it is still a powerful idea to write about a character that refuses to nod his head and go along with the rest of the sheep, just to be acceptable as a member of the group.

Some of us are not meant to be part of groups, though we always regret it. We want to be a member, but we are too willing to accept review new information and adapt to new ideas that may threaten other members of the group.

This probably makes no sense. But I'm already thinking about a character who, regardless of the pain of rejection, cannot in good conscience allow herself to believe what the rest of the group believes, just because that is the acceptable thing to do.

Thursday, February 25, 2010


Was thinking about my post last night about "showing versus telling" and how brilliant Crusie, Mayer, and Berney are in unveiling the characters in their books from page 1, and it reminded me of something.
Get your characters in trouble from page 1 and then make the trouble worse.
That's what they do. But here's the thing. Instead of random trouble that could happen to anyone, Crusie, Mayer, and Berney get their characters into specifically the kind of trouble that's generated by the character's flaws. And what is really cool, is that the flaw is often just the flip side, or by-product, of what is also best in them. How cool is that? Sort of like the old Star Trek episode where Captain Kirk is split into the "Good Kirk" and the "Bad Kirk". You can't have one without the other. You can't have a good trait without the bad. A person might have a violent streak—which is bad—but if they use that to defend the weak or save someone, well, that's good. And that's the kind of thing you can build a plot around.
Those gifted writers make it seem ridiculously easy, but I can tell you. It's a b!tch to write.
It means you have to understand your character's strengths and weaknesses, and then build a story around those strengths and weaknesses. Not just launch your characters into a situation that could happen to any old character. You can't just squeeze them into a plot to suit you. The plot has to suit the character's character. ;-)
I tend to forget (and maybe others do too) that what makes a good story, and great literature, is the characters. In fact, if you look at the classics, the plots are often goofy or non-existent—certainly not always memorable. It's the characters—how they are portrayed, what they do and say—that makes a book great. Only rarely does a wonderful book pop up that has a great plot and interchangeable/forgettable characters. Because we don't read for the plot, we read for the characters. We're all hopeless voyeurs, driving by houses at night, staring in the windows the authors lit for us. We don't care so much about the houses, but we're fascinated by the characters glimpsed eating, laughing, or crying, just past the shadows of the curtains.
Good luck—it's a daunting task, but well worth the endeavor.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Great Writing Techniques

This is actually "showing versus telling" phase II (or whatever phase I'm on at this point), but I didn't want to confuse blog titles. And I'll say upfront that I'm going to get a little cagey with references because although I'd like to include massive amounts of text from a couple of books, I'm afraid of getting the heck sued out of me.
So bottom line, get the following two books if you're interested in examples of total mastery of the technique of "showing".
Gutshot Straight, by Lou Berney
Agnes and the Hitman, by Jennifer Crusie and Bob Mayer

You only have to read the first chapter of both, or either, of these books to understand this entire concept. It's right there, in brilliant writing examples.

What is "showing"? "Showing" is, in essence, telling a character's story.

That's it. Simple, right? Well, not exactly. And a of folks get the concept all mixed up with the mechanics of writing.

"Showing" is not your writing style, the grammar you use, sentence construction, or use/non-use of adverbs and adjectives. It is, quite simply, story-telling. (Which is sort of awkward, since we say "story telling" but it really should be "story showing", I guess, considering that's what writers are really trying to achieve.)

This difficulty in finding an exact, easily understood definition is exactly why it's so massively difficult to teach to others, or even describe in any coherent fashion. And why I keep going back over it, time and time again as I try to work it out in my own little pea-brain. But then I read Crusie/Mayer and Berney—and Berney really brought it home to me. I was completely blown away by the first chapter. It is the most beautiful example of what you should be doing that I have ever seen. Ever.

The first chapter is where most writers go "wrong". They are so anxious to plunge their characters into the story, that they try to tell us what the main characters are like. Hence "telling". For example, a writer may say: Shake was a smart wheel man who gallantly took the rap for his boss and ended up in prison.

That sentence is "telling" the reader that Shake is smart, gallant, and got jail time. The reader might justifiably argue, "How smart could Shake be if he wound up in prison?" And the reader would be justified, because there is no evidence presented indicating that Shake is smart. Or gallant.

So…Berney didn't make that mistake. He starts Gutshot Straight with Shake involved in a card game in prison. And Shake is playing cards with a tough psycho in jail for manslaughter. During the course of the game, Shake reveals move by move, his astute, experienced judgment—"showing" us that he's smart—in a way. And it shows us Shake's fatal flaws in judgment that keep putting him in bad situations—like jail.

The card game lets Berney reveal the kind of man Shake is, without long, drawn out explanations about how Shake could be wily and shrewd, but still stupid enough to get into trouble, repeatedly.

The really, really cool thing about this intro chapter: not only is it a brilliant portrayal of Shake's character, but Berney does two other things with this scene. Shake is playing cards with a real badass, and Shake (unwisely) wins. And Shake is two days away from getting out of jail, so if he gets into a fight, he won't get out-even if he manages to survive.

"So what?" you ask. I'll tell you—the tension is unbelievable. You want Shake to win, because the other guy is a vicious idiot. But if Shake wins, he may not live long enough to get out of prison. Shake has to do some quick thinking. So…not only does this scene introduce us to Shake, but it ramps up the tension! You're terrified that Shake is going to get the cr@p beaten out of him.

And wait! There's more. We don't just have this scene and then move into the "real story" which takes place after Shake is released from prison. Berney takes elements from this scene and those elements & characters become important again, later.

Holy moly, Batman! Berney is really workin' it…hard.

I'm going to give you just a little of the first part—hopefully not enough to infringe on any copyrights or get myself into trouble. I'll insert a few comments to help clarify how this text is working in the "show versus tell" arena.
Shake, on the other hand, was not just a rangy white guy up on another GTA, forty-two years old and feeling every minute of it. But he'd survived the last fifteen months here at Mule Creek and wasn't going to roll over just because some pumped-up, puffed-up con glared at him.
{NOTE: If Berney stopped here, he might have devolved into "telling" but the scene continues to show you exactly what Shake is made of.}
He called Vader's bet. "I'll pay to see that last card," he said, and gave Vader a friendly smile.
Missouri Bob, the dealer, took his time with the turn. Missouri Bob's hand was tooled with crude blue tattoos—roses and rose stems and thorns.
Finally, dramatically, he showed them the last card.
It's Shake's actions that show who he is, not the miniscule bit of description there in the first paragraph. We see his strengths, and more importantly, the flaws that drive the entire story. If Shake wasn't so smart, he'd be dead. But likewise, if he wasn't such a smartass, he also wouldn't wind up in so much trouble.

That's at least part of Gutshot Straight.

Crusie and Mayer are also masters extraordinaire of the art of showing the reader the character of the characters. In the very first paragraph of Agnes and the Hitman, we're shown Agnes's character in another scene that like Berney's, does triple duty. Like Berney, we're immediately thrust into a situation that shows the essence of Agnes's strengths and weaknesses.

We immediately like Agnes because she's defending her fiancé in a conversation that gradually reveals how unworthy her fiancé is of her affection. And she's got a sense of humor about it. Here are the first few sentences.
One fine August evening in South Carolina, Agnes Crandall stirred raspberries and sugar in her heavy nonstick frying pan and defended her fiancé to the only man she'd ever trusted.
It wasn't easy.
"Look, Joey, Taylor's not that bad." Agnes cradled the phone between her chin and shoulder turned down her CD player…
Now, if Crusie and Mayer were less adept writers, they might have resorted to describing Agnes and telling you that Agnes was a nice woman in a relationship with someone who was not right for her. Instead, we get a very brief conversation that is almost immediately (by page 2) interrupted by a nut with a gun breaking in to steal Agnes's dog. And she bops him on the head with her frying pan. (By the way, this is a hilarious scene, in a sick sort of way.)

Which shows us that while you may have thought she was a wuss stuck in a relationship with a man using her, she's not. Because she reacts quickly, and quite thoroughly, in defense of her dog. Gee, she really is kind. J She's got a dog. (That's sort of an inside joke—so many writers who have difficulty writing sympathetic heroines are often told to have the heroine own a pet of some kind…) But wait! There's more! Agnes has anger management problems and has been seeing a psychiatrist for therapy! Wow! Just like Shake, Agnes has major issues which are directly responsible for what happens in the story.

The character flaws are the story.

So we get to see Agnes in action—literally—which reveals a quick-thinking, smart woman, who has a lousy fiancé, and someone is after her dog. All in one and a half pages. Just like Berney, we get to see the hero/heroine behave in a way that perfectly reveals her strengths and weaknesses, creates tension (what is going to happen to Agnes' in her confrontation with the gun-toting idiot?) and sets up information & characters that come into play, later, in the major plotline.

Now that's "showing". No wasted time getting the tension going, and no telling the reader what he or she should think about the characters. The characters show us what to think about them by their actions.
-------That's all I have on that subject for this evening.

Sunday, February 07, 2010

Awkward Sentences

I was just trying to avoid a flame war about passive voice when I happened to pull an old, much-beloved book from my shelf, "The Last Word on the Gentle Art of Verbal Self-Defense". So many people are was-phobic these days for absolutely no reason at all. And insist on confusing passive voice with the use of "was".

Anyway, I wrote about that a few blogs ago. There are many fine grammar references covering that topic in nauseating detail. Suffice to say passive voice has next-to-nothing to do with the use of the verb "to be". Passive voice is strictly about action. Active voice = the subject performs the action. Passive voice = The subject is the recipient (object) of the action.

So, I was reading this book again because it has very interesting information about how language is used. If you write, you really need to understand your medium and how people (your characters) use language. Books like the verbal self-defense ones give you insight into how language is used with a bit of grammar thrown in.

It's brilliant for coming up with speech patterns for bad guys or even those secondary characters who may not be all that nice, after all. Like the heroine's evil boss. Or the hero's rampaging mother.

What fascinated me, and gave me an A-HA! moment was a section on some of the things that make sentences awkward. Now, there are lots of things that can contribute to awkwardness, such as simply not understanding how to form sentences. But this assumes you do know how to form a decent sentence. But what you may not be thinking about is the number of words between the subject and the predicate phrases. If there are more than nine words, your short-term memory may have difficulty remembering which subject goes with which predicate, leading to re-reading and awkwardness.

Let me explain.
Here's your standard, complex sentence.
Beth told Larry that mom forgot the Theatre was closed on Sundays.

That breaks down to these embedded sentences:
"The Theatre was closed on Sundays" is embedded in "mom forgot the Theatre was closed on Sundays".
And that last sentence is embedded in "Beth told Larry that mom forgot the Theatre was closed on Sundays".

Most people can handle that--it's basically three sentences stuck together.

But if any of those pieces is longer than nine words--then we tend to forget what the subject was before we find the predicate. That makes the sentence awkward. For example:

That mom forgot to bake the cake even after we called to remind her several times and even sent her three e-mails about it made Beth furious.

The subject is "That mom forgot" and the predicate is "made Beth furious". You have to read through 21 words between "forgot" and "made" and remember "That mom forgot" to make sense of that sentence. That's hard for our short-term memory, and leads to folks having to read the sentence twice to pull it together.

Although this rewrite isn't great, either, it is easier on the reader:
It made Beth furious that mom forgot to bake the cake even after we called to remind her several times and even sent her three e-mails about it.

That's not as awkward since the subject and predicate are slam-bang next to each other--making it easy on our memories.

Another part of this is, best case scenario, you should try to make your sentential subject seven-to-nine words long or fewer.

Oops, forgot to define "sentential subject". Sentential subjects are basically subjects that contain another (embedded) sentence (or even two or three sentences). For example, That mom forgot made Beth furious. The subject is "That mom forgot". That means the subject = a sentence, making it sentential.
Versus a simple subject like: Wine makes Beth drunk. Where "wine" is the subject all by itself. :-) (And a very tasty subject, too!)

Anyway, I find language fascinating, even if I'm not the best grammarian in the world.
The interesting thing is that I find the best nuggets of information on grammar in books that are not about grammar at all, but about psychology and the use of language. Or books on how to spot liars and deception.

It's all about communication and language.

Very interesting, even if I do say so, myself!