“For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction…” Newton’s Third Law, thus stated, uses the words action and reaction to refer to the physical forces operating on two interacting objects. These forces exist simultaneously (equal magnitude, opposite direction), as in the image below.
*** Be forewarned: The writing analogy strays from the simultaneity implicit in Newton’s Third Law. ***
In WriterSpeak (with a little simplification), Newton’s Third Law could be translated as follows: “Every (protagonist) action sparks an opposing (antagonist) reaction.” Conversely, each enemy attack creates some situation to which the hero must respond.
Why? Not necessarily because the antagonist is a bad person (he may not be a person at all), but because he and the hero have clashing goals (e.g., The Fugitive‘s Dr. Richard Kimble vs. Deputy Samuel Gerard).
On a basic level, the central conflict of every novel is founded on this tug-of-war interaction between a hero and his opposition. The antagonist acts (cause). The hero reacts (effect). For every action taken, some change occurs that invites further response. Plot is, by definition, a sequence of events linked by action and reaction—by cause and effect. (More on that here.)
On a large scale, we can see this basic tug-of-war structure across Star Wars episodes 4 to 6. In A New Hope, the rebels destroy the Death Star. (Hero victory!) But then The Empire Strikes Back. (The hero withdraws to lick his wounds.) Finally, in Return of the Jedi, hero Luke not only overcomes the antagonist (Darth Vader), but also rescues him from the dark side. (Permanent victory! The central conflict is resolved.)
Back and forth like lumberjacks moving a two-person saw, the hero and villain push and pull, perpetually digging in deeper. It’s not always as straightforward as hero vs. villain, but the point is, your hero isn’t working in a vacuum (er—unless you’re writing sci-fi). But even if he is in a literal vacuum, it’s not clear sailing to the finish. He’s dodging space debris where there should be a planet, getting caught in a tractor beam, and being diverted into smelly garbage mashers by a pushy princess (all because he’s coming up against that antagonistic force).
Motivated by some personal need, the hero presses forward in pursuit of his goal. That goal is what’s driving him forward. But he must meet with opposition or else the story sags. After all, opposition stems from that all-important ingredient of good fiction, which finds its origin in that action-reaction push and pull: Conflict!
What do you think? What are the forces of antagonism in your own story? Do you enjoy a story more when the antagonist is blatant (as in Star Wars and Silence of the Lambs) or when it’s more subtle (as in The Help or Forrest Gump)? Leave a comment below (and drop your email here) for a chance to win a 2500-word critique or an e-copy of Janice Hardy’s book Understanding Conflict. To enter the “special giveaway” with the option of winning a $25 gift certificate from Better World Books, visit the permalink here and follow the instructions.
Last time, we talked about the external events surrounding our hero’s humble beginnings. Rather than starting out heroic, he or she tries to avoid the journey set before them.
During the reaping for The Hunger Games, the last thing Katniss wants is to volunteer to be a tribute.
In The Lord of the Rings, Frodo’s first reaction to Gandalf’s news about the ring is to give it away (to reject the journey).
Luke, too, in Star Wars: A New Hope, makes excuses for why he can’t go with Obi-wan.
They’re not looking for adventure, but their outward circumstances change in a way they can’t ignore. Outside force. Outward circumstances. Protagonist decisions leading to action. All these things fall within the realm of the plot—the physical journey: External changes. But the “outside force” triggers internal changes as well…
…just like the debris expelled from Earth’s surface into orbit during the creation of the moon… (*WARNING: TANGENT ALERT!*)
Okay, so maybe an Earth particle blasted into space by a meteor doesn’t make for a great character…
But, I digress…
Internal Change (the realm of character arc)
In the first chapter, our protagonists are likely to be stuck in a rut—internally at least. They believe some lie, or they’re haunted by their past, or they’re hampered by besetting flaws that prevent them from fulfilling their dreams. Or maybe they’re hampered by a flaw because they believe a lie that was first stamped into their brains during some past traumatic event (i.e., their ghost or wound). The point is, most characters need to change (internally), but they can’t do it on their own.
Then along comes the “outside force” (e.g., meteor), and soon thereafter the protagonist’s decision launches him on a journey that takes the rest of the book to complete. Like the initial “outside force” that first sets your protagonist in motion, new external circumstances and events (all related to the central conflict) present new challenges for your hero to overcome. During the course of the journey, he struggles against various obstacles that force him to address his inner issues until he emerges, a changed man.
But how does all this relate to Newton’s second law?
F = ma, a = F/m
Newton’s Second Law is most familiar to people when it’s expressed as a formula. Force equals mass times acceleration…
With a little rearrangement, this becomes: acceleration equals force divided by mass. In other words, there are two variables responsible for changes in the acceleration of a body: The Force (may it be with you) and the mass:
(1) Variations in the Force (↑F, ↑a … ↓F, ↓a)
In physical terms, the rate of change in velocity—i.e., acceleration—of a particular body is proportional to the total force acting on that body. Imagine shoving a shopping cart with a big vs. little oomph. (These are technical terms here, so you might want to jot some notes.) Obviously, the bigger oomph produces the greater acceleration.
In WriterSpeak, a character’s overall internal change will be proportional to the magnitude of difficulties he or she must overcome. In other words, the greater the forces acting on a character, the more he or she changes.
(2) Variations in the Mass (↑m, ↓a … ↓m, ↑a)
In physical terms, the greater the mass on which a given total force acts, the more sluggish the acceleration. That is to say, your shopping cart is harder to push once filled.
In WriterSpeak, the more sluggish or stubborn the character, the greater the forces needed to bring about a given change. In other words, more challenging trials will be required to reform Jack the Ripper than to convince Elizabeth Bennet to marry Mr. Darcy.
So, Newton’s second literary law speaks to the magnitude of a character’s internal change (or arc)…
The bottom line here is that every heroine needs impetus to overcome her issues. The more we want her to change, the more pressure we need to apply in the way of plot hurdles and difficult choices (i.e., internal and external conflict).
After all, characters are the most stubborn of people. They don’t learn from their mistakes the first time around. They aren’t self-enlightened individuals who spontaneously decide to become better people overnight. They scoff at their mentors, presuming they themselves know better—until struggle and hardship teach them otherwise. Only after they’ve experienced the full constriction of their flaws can they embrace the idea of change.
How about you? When you recognize flaws in yourself, do you find them easy to overcome? What about your characters? How is the magnitude of their arc proportional to the difficulties they have to face? Leave a comment below (and drop your email here) for a chance to win a 2500-word critique or an e-copy of K.M. Weiland’s book Creating Character Arcs.
Let’s start with the basics. What is Newton’s First Law? It could be stated like this: A body at rest stays at rest, and a body in motion carries on in the same speed and direction—unless acted upon by an unbalanced force.
In WriterSpeak, we might say that a character “at rest” (or in motion) will remain “at rest” (or in motion) until acted upon by an outside force.
Let’s explore this analogy further…
At the beginning of each story, the main characters are living out their lives. They may not be physically resting (i.e., inactive / external rest). They may not even be at peace with their life (i.e., contented / internal rest). But they’re not yet motivated to stray from their everyday course…
UNTIL an outside force (likely caused—directly or indirectly—by the antagonist) sets off the central conflict that forces the protagonist to change plans. The initial force permanently alters the hero’s courseand initiates his mission against the enemy.
But what does that mean?
The phrase “outside force” speaks of the external nature of the dilemma. This isn’t mere angst over some long-standing issue, but rather an unexpected plot event that presents a new challenge. The outside force is also important in terms of cause & effect. That is to say, realistic characters won’t drastically change course without good reason. The hero only acts in response to the proper motivation.
For example, in Star Wars: A New Hope, Luke discovers a secret SOS in a droid his uncle recently purchased. After Old Ben thwarts the sand people’s attack, Luke mentions the message—then declines when Ben invites him on his quest. Why?
Because Luke is not yet motivated enough to go to Alderaan. He has plans in the works he’s not ready to scrap, even if they happen to spring from a sense of obligation toward his uncle. Sure, the plot would’ve been easier to write if Luke had just said,“Sure, why not?” But his motivation throughout the rest of the story would’ve suffered as a result.
The point is this: Luke doesn’t/shouldn’t decide to change his plans on a whim. And so, at this particular point in time, he realistically rejects the journey.
Whatever story you’re writing, it’s just about guaranteed to involve some kind of literal or figurative journey—one your hero would rather avoid. We’ve already seen Luke reject his mission. But what finally gets him involved? In generalized terms, why don’t our heroes perpetually turn and run when the going gets tough? Because the outside force imposes a situation he can’t ignore, thereby forcing the choice that propels him on his journey.
The first set of key words here is “he can’t ignore.” Why doesn’t the character just walk away? Because too much is at stake—and not in a purely altruistic way. Whatever it is that’s gotten your hero’s attention, it’s personal. Sure, in the beginning he might’ve said, “It’s not that I like the Empire. I hate it. But there’s nothing I can do about it right now.” But then the antagonist hits him where it hurts and he makes a choice: “There’s nothing for me here now. I want to learn the ways of the Force and become a Jedi like my father.”
That choice always leads to action and thereby alter’s the hero’s course.
Examples from Film
Consider the change of course for the characters in each of the movies listed below, and ponder this question: Would the character have made his or her decision if not for the pressure exerted by the “outside force”? Also, see if you can identify the personal stakes for each character (easier for some than others).
EXAMPLE 1: The Hunger Games
Character Status Quo: Go hunting. Feed family. Don’t starve. Outside Force (External Events): Little sister’s name is drawn as tribute for the Hunger Games. Character Decision: Katniss volunteers to take her sister’s place.
EXAMPLE 2: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe
This particular example is complicated by multiple characters, each with their own interacting decisions. It also involves a complex series of forces that thrust the Pevensies on their journey. As such, this particular film is a good example of how the motivational transition that turns apathy into action isn’t always a straightforward singular event.
Character Status Quo: Boredom in the Professor’s mansion. No one expects good from Edmund. Intermediate happenings: During a game of hide and seek, Lucy discovers the wardrobe portal. No one believes her. Edmund follows her in one night and meets the White Witch, who deceives him with flattery. (He thinks that she, unlike his siblings, sees his value.)
Series of forces and Decisions leading up to the journey: Edmund sends a ball through the upstairs window. Mrs. Macready’s offstage shrieks send the Pevensies running for the wardrobe. The two elder Pevensies are wowed by the snowy world within, and Peter—after calling Edmund out for lying—apologizes to Lucy by indulging her desires to visit Mr. Tumnus. There they learn the White Witch has captured Mr. Tumnus. Though Lucy is personally invested in what happened to Mr. Tumnus, Peter is not. He’s preparing to get his family safely back through the wardrobe when Mr. Beaver shows up. Warned about the trees, they reluctantly follow Mr. Beaver back to his house where he and the missus explain the perpetual winter and the prophecy.
Note: If the external forces had stopped here, the Pevensies would’ve had no reason to stay in Narina. They’ve learned about the prophecy, but they have no personal motivation to help fulfill it… Until…
Character Decision: Edmund—motivated by Turkish Delight and his underlying need for approval—sneaks away to see the White Witch. His decision serves as the Outside Force that shoves his siblings on their journey to find Aslan and thereby save Edmund’s life (Decision).
EXAMPLE 3: The Lord of the Rings
Character Status Quo: Enjoying a simple life in the Shire. Avoiding adventure. Outside Force (External Events): Frodo inherits the ring of power and Ring Wraiths are headed their way. Character Decision: Deliver the ring to Rivendale in the hopes of dumping the dreaded relic on the elves.
EXAMPLE 4: Star Wars: A New Hope
Character Status Quo: Working for his Uncle. Apathy regarding the Empire. Outside Force (External Events): By chance, Luke’s uncle purchases the very droids the Empire is seeking, Luke discovers Leia’s hidden message, and his Aunt and Uncle are murdered. Character Decision: Go with Obi-wan, learn the ways of the force, “and become a Jedi like my father” (but not too much like his father, we hope).
So, a heroine at rest tends to stay at rest—indulging the same old habits and plodding along in the same direction as before—until derailed by an outside force. That force is external, personal to the protagonist, and eventually leads to the key decision that cements her new course.
What do you think? In your own WIP, what external force of change begins your hero’s journey? What about the protagonist in your favorite novel? Can you think of any stories that don’t meet these qualifications? For a chance to win a 2500-word critique or an e-copy of Weiland’s book Structuring Your Novel, simply join the discussion below (and drop your email here for the draw.)
Come back next week to peruse the next article in this series: Story Physics, Part 2: How a character’s internal change mirrors Newton’s second law.
The airship crew saved Ben’s life from a dragon, of all things.
When Ben wakes up, he has no memory of his family, his home, or how he got to this strange world. All he knows is what his new crew members tell him: the magical Barrier that protects their land is weakening. Unless they find the artifact that can repair it, all of Terrene will be destroyed and enslaved by the enemies beyond.
But when Ben suspects that danger may lurk closer than dragons or sky pirates, he has to decide: stay and fight with the airship crew, or focus on regaining his lost memory? If he leaves, he risks losing his newfound friends—but if he stays, he might never return home.
Welcome to Terrene—where dragons exist, the past haunts, and magic is no myth.
If the beautiful cover and intriguing summary aren’t enough, let me tell you… Renegade Skyfarer is so much more than an amnesiac on a blimp striving to salvage a ruptured barrier. Steampunk is, in itself, something of a flashy genre right now, but this novel exceeds and surpasses the Victorian airship backdrop. Safety lines, goggles, and hydropacks aside, Renegade Skyfarer boasts multiple layers of unique concepts piled one atop another to generate a truly novel experience.
Take the stones for example.
In Terrene, different stones possess a variety of magical functions—from ship powering capabilities to anesthesia and even healing. In a way, though, all those little world-building details are just icing on the cake. In my opinion, what really powers this story (pun intended) is not the characters’ overall goal of keeping the barrier intact, but rather the trickling of backstory and well-timed reveals. In that respect, R.J. Metcalf is master of story questions.
Right from the start, several burning questions loom: Where did Ben come from? Why can’t he remember his former life? What past failure is the Sapphire’s Captain trying to correct? Oh yeah—and what’s the deal with Jade and Zak? As someone who’s spent a fair amount of time contemplating story structure and plot, I was amazed at how often the reveals alone kept me engaged.
In my opinion, it takes real skill to achieve that fine balance between too much information and too little…
Too much too soon weighs the story down and begets boredom. Too little breeds confusion or equates to improper setup for the big reveal. Readers need enough context in the moment to grasp what’s happening now, and they need a trail of hints that add up to the big payoff later—but without becoming predictable.
Sound like a tall order? Oh, boy, yeah.
In Renegade Skyfarer, while there were times I had a good guess what was coming, it was never well-in-advance of the reveal. Not to mention the story surprises that caught me completely off guard. Looking back, though, all the little hints added up to the shocking truth.
That will always be true of a good reveal.
In her book, Wired for Story, Lisa Cron has an entire chapter devoted to the subject. In it, she says, “One of our most hardwired expectations is that anything that reads like the beginning of a new pattern—that is, a setup—will, in fact, be a setup, with a corresponding payoff… We love [setups] because… they stimulate our imagination, triggering one of our favorite sensations: anticipation. They invite us to figure out what might happen next, which leads to an even better sensation: the adrenaline-fueled rush of insight that comes from making connections ourselves. When we identify a setup, guess what will happen, and end up being right, we feel smart. Setups seduce us with the granddaddy of all sensations: engagement.”
By introducing a clear element of mystery or problem to be solved, setups encourage reader participation.
Now, just so you don’t think these reveals are all impersonal plot facts, let’s look at a few excerpts…
Master half-turned to regard Blade with a slanted eyebrow. Then Master pulled something small from his white coat pocket with a detached flourish and pivoted back to Lupin. A finely wrought silver bracelet of woven metals with an inlaid red gem rested in Master’s open palm. He held it out to Lupin. “It’ll give you the same type of control over Blade that I have, but my controller overrides yours. Don’t get any ideas.”
No. Get ideas.
“Thank you, sir.” Lupin slipped the thin band over his wrist and inspected the gem with a critical eye. “And it will work? Even with you wearing yours?”
“Try it and find out.”
Lupin grinned and gestured at Blade with a lazy flick of his wrist. “Polish my boots with your shirt.”
Blade barely had time to relish the resentment that warmed his gut before a familiar haze rose from the edges of his mind and pushed his emotions aside. It moved him forward without conscious thought to kneel before Lupin. He shrugged off his jacket and his shirt, shivering when the icy air bit into his skin. He scrubbed his last clean shirt against Lupin’s mud-caked boots while his teeth chattered.
Lupin chuckled as he pushed his boot toward Blade’s face. “I could get used to this. How long do you expect your mission to take, sir?”
“A few months, at least.” The deck vibrated underfoot as Master paced. He pivoted, and his heel squeaked on the worn wood of the airship deck. “I need you to keep searching for that bloodstone—it’s the centerpiece of my plans for the barrier.”
Memories of blood, wavering curtains of light, and pain, so much pain, flashed through Blade’s mind at the mention of the bloodstone. He hunched over Lupin’s boots for a long heartbeat before the weight of the command bracelet faded the flashback…
“[Don’t] use Blade recklessly,” Master added in a firm tone.
Blade looked over his shoulder into Master’s dark eyes. It was like looking into the depths of the Aerugan Hollows—deep, dark, and deadly.
“He’s my masterpiece, and more important than you will ever know.”
My questions after reading this: Who is Blade? How did he wind up in this situation? How will he affect the events to come? (Story questions are like promises. Readers know the answers are coming… and so they read on.)
In this excerpt, “Master’s” ability to control a human with a magical stone intrigues (in a fictional sense)—a great example of an intellectual hook. But what really sets this scene apart is the emotional hook, which adds weight to the earlier story questions. What does that mean? I’ve only just met Blade, and yet I care about him. Why? The injustice against him—for me at least—engenders immediate sympathy. (More on universal emotions here.)
Now consider this:
“Jade held her breath as Zak’s face smoothed of all expression. She hated how good he’d become at hiding his feelings in the last six months. His gaze rested on her, and she forced herself to not react to the concern she could see in his dark eyes.”
And a little later:
“Others may have found the scenery soothing, but after parting ways with Zak, [Jade] couldn’t shake her disquiet. Whatever had climbed into his gearbox and died shouldn’t be her concern. But something had changed in their dynamic, and it rankled. After last summer, they’d grown closer… She could count on him to be there at any time, with an encouraging word, snarky quip, or just to lend an ear. He was her faithful shadow. She hadn’t even realized how close they’d become till he cut her off that one night. Stopped coming by the engine room, turned her away for his shift, barely talked to her. Yet he was still there—watching.”
Is anyone else dying to know what happened six months ago? If you’re like me, any hint of romance is a great hook. When authors tantalize readers with unresolved issues, the effect is visceral. We feel the tension and have little choice but to keep reading.
What do you think? Are you ready to join these characters on a high-flying adventure? Check out the giveaway below!
About the Author
During the day, Becky is a stay at home mom of two active little boys. When she has ‘free time’, she enjoys reading, writing, baking and sewing.
After many years of creative writing classes, writing fanfiction drabbles and daydreaming, it was high time to start writing her husband Mike’s story. She dove into the world of Terrene and hasn’t looked back—except for when she runs out of dark chocolate.
Any free time not spent in Terrene is typically expended on hosting dinner and game nights, running amok with the two little monkeys or watching nerdy movies with Mike.
Everyone says, “If you want to write, you need to read.” This is particularly true if you hope to commercialize your story via traditional publishing. However, even if you devour novels like a starved paper shredder on steroids, your writing success isn’t a given.
Why? Because getting caught up in a good story isn’t the same thing as understanding how it came to be written. When you open a brand new book from Amazon and swipe your eager eyes over those crisp white pages, you can’t see the horrid first draft, the scathing editorial comments, or the poor writer yanking out fistfuls of hair as he or she attempts to weave their tattered story into a beautiful yarn. Oftentimes, if a writer has done their job well, you don’t even see the purposeful arrangement of key story elements. Instead, you find yourself 100 pages in, clueless as to why the story works so well… because it sucked you right in. Forget about GMC and character arcs. All you know at this point is that you must read on to see what happens next.
Lisa Cron describes this phenomenon in her book Wired for Story. “The first job of any good story,” she says, “is to completely anesthetize the part of our brain that questions how it is creating such a compelling illusion of reality. After all, a good story doesn’t feel like an illusion. What it feels like is life.” And—I would add—when we force ourselves to stop and analyze a story, we risk ruining the escapist experience it was meant to inspire. How can we analyze a tale’s beauty if it disappears when we stop to look?
And how do we as writers circumvent “the Cron problem”? One option is to reread and study our favorite novels with the goal of learning from the masters. On second read, a novel’s anesthetic capabilities are lessened, though some of the original novelty and beauty is lessened as well. Another option is to spend regular time critiquing works-in-progress (WIPs) and learn from the learners. Each approach has strengths (+) and weaknesses (-) as you can see in the chart below, but only critiquing mandates a written analysis.
In either case, whether you’re critiquing a novel or a WIP, something magical happens when you force your thoughts into words. At first, you might not know what to say. Or what you say might sound obscure… “Good characters” or “This scene drags.” But as you start to amass words on the page, you can begin to add new thoughts and also critique your critique.
“Good characters?” Too vague! What makes them good?
“This scene drags?” But why? What might make it better?
You ask yourself questions. Then you put the answers into words and critique those too. Maybe you Google-search “characterization” or “how to bring a scene to life” to help flesh out your thoughts. Maybe you think back to that awesome novel you just read that kept you turning pages for hours on end. (What kept you reading? Would that fix this current scene?)
In the process of formulating a critique, your brain starts making connections like, “Wait. This character has no goal. And didn’t I read something in that craft book about characters needing goals?” Through time, you learn to identify common problems—then turn them in on yourself: “Do I do that in my own writing, too? How can I fix that?”
Cultivating a taste for critique might not come naturally to all writers, but it’s still a way to reinforce what you’re learning. I would say, “Practice makes perfect,” but that’s only half the story. To really excel at critiquing (writing, too) you need to do more than just practice. You need to spend time learning about the craft of writing fiction and seek feedback on your own writing.
In my experience, learning to write is a back-and-forth process much like pumping on a swing or riding a see-saw. You write some. You read some. Novels, WIPs, How-tos. You learn about story theory and elements of style. Then you attempt to implement what you’ve learned. The learning process is, in short, a see-saw action between theory and practice, and critiquing is one tool that can help you learn to hone your own creative work.
How about you? Do you find the act of critiquing to be a valuable learning tool? Are you a left-brainer like me who enjoys the challenge of diagnosing potential problems…or do you struggle with what to say? Leave a comment (and enter the giveaway HERE) for a chance to win a 2500-word critique or a copy of Lisa Cron’s Wired for Story. Paperback books are for U.S. residents only, e-copy / critique for all.
Have you ever dreamed of being royalty? Maybe you’re an Anglophile and enjoy a little BBC or even just a monarchic fantasy (like Game of Thrones or Lord of the Rings). At some point in your life—if you’re a girl—you’ve probably imagined yourself in place of one animated princess or another. Maybe I’m just a dreamer, but the idea of living in a palace, surrounded by beautiful rooms (and—ahem—being married to a handsome prince) has a certain romantic appeal.
Now imagine what your life would be like if you could communicate with animals? What would you say to your beloved canine, feline, or equine friends? What might they say back? Could be kind of amazing, don’t you think?
But what if you were a crown prince or princess who possessed the gift of “animal-speaking” in a kingdom largely suspicious of such a feat? The law might state you’re destined to rule, but your gift makes you an outcast—it works against you. People’s narrowed eyes and whispered rumors follow you around, the animals you speak to are your only friends, and—unlike your respected “people-speaking” mother—you have no skill for ruling the masses… That, in a nutshell, is Shannon Hale’s novelized version of The Goose Girl, the story of Crown Princess Anidori and her coming-of-age journey of self-discovery and fulfillment.
It’s a clean young-adult-targeted retelling of the original brothers Grimm fairy tale, and I have to say, I was impressed. Depending on what you’re accustomed to reading, it might not be your particular blend of coffee (or tea), but for me two attributes stood out as potential lessons for aspiring authors. First, the lyrical style, rich with imagery and sensory details captivated me from the very first sentence. Second, the emotional journey grabbed hold and sucked me in—and still it resonates whenever I contemplate the basic message.
In my own words…
Princess Anidori couldn’t succeed until she stopped trying to be her mother, and you won’t succeed either—except as yourself. As for the writing lessons, we’ll dig a little deeper into Hale’s style and emotional impact in the sections below…
What I find so fascinating about Hale’s style is that it contradicts a number of basic writing guidelines (like the sheer abundance of similes and the far narrative distance, which, on the face, appears “telling” with a shallow point of view)… and yet the overall effect is vivid, sensory, and beautiful. Take the opening, for example:
“She was born Anidori-Kiladra Talianna Isilee, Crown Princess of Kildenree, and she did not open her eyes for three days. The pacing queen directed ministers and physicians to the crib. They listened to her breathing and her hummingbird heart, felt her fierce grip and her tiny fingers soft as salamander skin. All was sound. But her eyes did not open. For three days the grave-faced attendants came and went. They prodded her, lifted her lids, slipped thick yellow syrups down her throat.”
First consider, “She was born…” In this opening sentence, the author is conveying facts—telling readers something they need to know. One of the biggest rules in fiction is “Show don’t tell,” and any use of the verb “to be” can indicate telling in progress.
Hale could’ve opened with the baby’s red-faced squall (or some quieter “show”). She could’ve employed dialogue to convey the same information stated via narration. Instead, she puts readers at a distance by inserting a narrator between them and the action. (And did you notice the point of view character isn’t clear?)
Even so…this style is—in my opinion—not only perfect for a fairy tale, but also—in Hale’s case—it avoids the common pitfalls of its narrative-heavy approach by incorporating sensory details through unique (cliché-free) vivid words and similes. As a reader, I might not have been much impressed if the physicians had heard Anidori’s “rapid heartbeat, felt her strong grip and little fingers as soft as a baby’s bottom” (or “as soft as silk”—take your pick). But “hummingbird heart” for a sound? And for touch, “soft as salamander skin” or “thick yellow syrups [that slip] down her throat”? Much better.
The takeaway message is this: For anyone who’s ever tried to achieve deep point of view or “Show don’t tell” in their own writing, Hale’s style might seem to break “the rules” more often than not. But consider what Dwight Swain says in his classic book, Techniques of the Selling Writer: “To keep rules in proper perspective, violate them by design only. That is, make them tools for manipulation of your reader’s emotions. If that takes sentence fragments, non-punctuation, stream-of-consciousness, and one word paragraphs, by all means use them.”
If you can provoke emotion more readily by using (for example) a farther narrative distance—do it.
Is there any aspect of fiction more important than emotion? It’s true, a story with stagnant emotion can’t hold reader interest for long, but what about plot without emotion? There’s no need to debate which fictional element is most critical to success—no one aspect stands alone—BUT… I think any seasoned writer would generally agree that emotion is pretty high up on the list.
And I don’t mean the characters’ emotions, though that can be a factor.
On one extreme, characters melodramatically boo-hoo, with feelings so obvious as to bash readers over the head. Such tactics, however, are more likely to provoke eye rolls than engage reader emotion or interest. At the other end of the spectrum, a character’s emotional reaction might not be described at all and yet readers walk away with a deep sympathetic angst. The lesson? Sometimes story circumstances speak for themselves. Even when they do, there’s nothing wrong with showing a character’s realistic emotional reaction.
Still, as Donald Maass says in The Emotional Craft of Fiction: “The most useful question is not how can I get across what characters are going through? The better question is how can I get readers to go on emotional journeys of their own?” He goes on to say, “What the novelist is doing…is not causing readers to feel as the novelist does, or as his characters do, but rather inducing for each reader a unique emotional journey through a story.”
So… When our hearts fist around strangled capillaries, damming up angst and blood as we read some imaginary scene, we know the author has touched us on a deep emotional level. If a scene milks our emotions, perhaps it somehow speaks to the cavernous vacancies in our own soul.
Even so, certain scenarios tend to have a universal impact: love, loss, injustice, rejection… We can put our feet in the shoes of a character who has—in a very specific and lifelike way—been subjected to these broad universals, and experience for ourselves what they might feel.
Consider these snippets about Princess Ani from Hale’s novel (and the UNIVERSALS that describe them):
“In her world of cold marble floors and aged tutors and whispering children, only the animal-speaking felt like her own thing and the [swan] pond her own place.” OSTRACISM & LONELINESS
“The queen was like some terribly beautiful bird whose language [Ani] did not yet understand, and she felt her thin body fill with the desire to understand, and to please.” LONGING & FUTILITY
“It is time you learn your place, Crown Princess. You will be the next queen, and your people will not trust a queen who makes up stories and seems to talk to wild beasts.” DISAPPROVAL & REJECTION
“These people watch me, their future queen. I need to seem strong. She straightened and stopped her tears [at her father’s funeral], but next to her mother, she felt only half-formed.” INADEQUACY
“Ani saw herself clearly in that moment, as a face in darkness gains sudden dimensions in a flash of lightning—a young girl, a silly thing, a lapdog, a broken mare. She did as she was told. She rarely gave thought to her duties or spent deep hours or acted alone. She realized she would never have been capable of taking her mother’s place. That realization did not bring relief. Instead, the thought of the journey and her unknown future chilled her skin and pricked her stomach with dread.” FAILURE & FEAR
“The aunt pointed north, where few people lived and trees grew thick and prickly green all year, and where the girl could not follow. “I’m going home,” she said. She kissed Ani’s forehead, but her eyes did not leave the purple horizon. “Don’t forget all you have learned. If your mother discovers what I have taught you, she will take it away. I know her. The only thing she has ever wanted is shiny and fits around her brow. Still, you are better off with her, gosling. I would not wish my solitude on you. Stay and learn to be happy.” The princess sat on a stone, rested her arm on the back of a swan, and thought how her chest felt like a gutted walnut shell, and wondered if that sensation might last forever. She watched her aunt walk away, disappearing into a tiny spot of green that the eye tricked into a shadow of a rock a long way in the distance.”ABANDONMENT & LOSS
What do you think? Can you relate to these excerpts? Do you agree there’s power in the universal? For a chance to win your choice of a paperback* or e-copy of Shannon Hale’s The Goose Girl, leave a comment below. Double your chances by sharing this article on Facebook and pasting the link below. If I get more than 20 different commenters, I’ll give away two copies instead of just one. (*Physical copies for U.S. residents only.)