Archive for November, 2016

Some advice about characters

November 30, 2016

In 1983 I wrote a story about the University of Houston creative writing program in which the essayist, novelist and poet Phillip Lopate is quoted:

Lopate tells of the one-sided story in which a woman is married to a brutal man, or a man is married to a shrew. “I try to get them to see the other point of view. I make them write a monologue from the point of view of the despised character…I’m trying to get them to inhabit other people, and at the same time I’m trying to get them inhabit themselves.”

Lopate left Houston many years ago and has gone on to publish widely about essays.


No class Thursday, but quiz today Wednesday

November 30, 2016

Some students are confused. As I posted earlier, no class for Art of Narrative on Thursday night December 1. Just send me manuscripts. We’ll work it out one on one. Somehow.

But tonight, Wednesday November 30 I am giving a quiz based on last week’s lecture on narrative. This is a simple short answer quiz based on obvious stuff that I went over. It counts as a percentage of your grade in CM 501, Master’s Project class.

Friday candlelight vigil for Vonn Butler

November 17, 2016

VBCandlelight Vigil.jpg

Memorial Service for Vonn Butler

November 17, 2016


Our last meetings: individual conferences

November 10, 2016

Instead of having a final meeting of the class in December I want to have a conference with each of you. This is going to be challenging, but I think we can do it if we stay organized.

I am the bottleneck. I must read what you have and coach you on a revision. This is important. I will post a schedule on the blog with names and times.

November 28- December 2



December 5-9

Developing character

November 10, 2016

I once asked a student journalist who was writing well to tell the class what her secret was. She said, “Oh, I just follow the directions.”

I’ve mentioned this before in class. Follow the directions. We will go over the Syd Field’s instructions about how to develop characters. (Those are posted in the right-hand column of the blog.)

If think about the stories we’ve read, they all have at least one strong central character, the journalist in War of the Words, the poet in Death of a Poet, the alcoholic in The One Left Behind.  They each have a need. The journalist wants to tell the stories of death by stoning, the poet wants to surround herself with friends who will help her through her death, the twin brother wants to drink himself to death because the other part of him has died. Do you know your character’s need? Can you write it down?

Field recommends that screen writers write the biography of their main characters, from beginning to end. That’s an exercise that will help the writer understand how the character acts. Field urges writers to be systematic about thinking these matters through: interior and exterior action, and so on.

He’s very schematic. This doesn’t sound very creative. It doesn’t fit our romantic desire to have the story flow from a deep well of the unconscious. Yes, some writers can do this, but that’s usually because they have read and thought deeply. Most of us have to consciously try to write and plan. With planning and thinking, creative ideas happen.

If you have a memorable character, a character you know, a character who has a need and a history, you are on your way to being a story teller. Think of fairy tales. Jack’s mother is broke so she sends him to town to sell the family cow. Cindarella is abused by her stepmother and stepsisters. Fairy tales often involve orphans. That immediately creates a need.The Sleeping Beauty is less about the title character and  more about the vengeful fairy  who feels slighted by the king and queen.   These formulaic tales have endured because they appeal to something basic. The characters are flat, but they are characters with a need. If you can get inside a character’s head and emotions you can show us the character in action: how she goes about meeting her need, confronting obstacle after obstacle.

In The Color of Water, James McBride needs to hear his white mother’s story because he needs to know who he is.



Choose character over plot

November 6, 2016

By definition narrative tells what happened over time. But it’s a mistake to think that plot is so essential. Take the story of “The One Left Behind.” Plot is not essential. Character is essential. We read, I believe, to get to the heart of our humanity, to understand our brokenness, and why we make the decisions we make.

Brit Bennett’s new novel, The Mothers, is reviewed in today’s New York Times book review, and I urge you to read the review. The plot is important, all right. A mother kills herself, and that leads her 17-year-old daughter to get into a  reckless love affair, and that leads to an abortion and more. But read what the reviewer says about the author’s insight into her characters:

Despite Bennett’s thrumming plot, despite the snap of her pacing, it’s the always deepening complexity of her characters that provides the book’s urgency. Bennett’s ability to unwind them gently, offering insights both shocking and revelatory, has a striking effect. I found myself reading not to find out what happens to the characters, but to find out who they are.

How does a writer get deep insight into characters? It’s a creative mystery. By observing, by talking, by thinking, by asking questions, by listening. Especially by reading. This is a book you might want to read.

“Point-of-view” characters

November 3, 2016

The novelist Thomas Mallon has written political novels and theorized in a recent essay that he could write one about Hillary Clinton because he can imagine her fully as a human being. He calls her a “point-of-view character.”

If I were compelled to produce a book of fiction about the 2016 election, Hillary would be my full-throated choice for its principal point-of-view character. I’m with her, because I feel right at home in the dank gymnasium of her mind, where she is forever teaming up and exercising and rearranging the different parts of her personality, benching whichever ones have no usefulness to the present moment, the latest disaster or crisis, and telling all the others to suit up. If Nixon was shredded and poisoned by each of his pre-Presidential defeats, Hillary died a little with each of Bill’s victories, one after another, in Arkansas and beyond, all of them forcing her to stand at a spot on the stage that she knew she should not be occupying. Her life was supposed to take place behind the lectern, not beside it, hoisting the hand of the man who’d just got the votes.

Then he invokes the round and flat tests of an interesting character:

E. M. Forster memorably said that “the test of a round character is whether it is capable of surprising in a convincing way.” Trump cannot surprise in any way; he is a flat character, and to put him in charge of any stretch of a novel, the way a point-of-view character is by definition in charge, would be as irresponsible as putting one of his small fingers on the nuclear button.

A broad idea and an emotional detail

November 3, 2016

A couple of things struck me in this New Yorker profile of screenwriter Kenneth Lonergan. One is his broad observation that comedy and tragedy can blend together. This is well worth thinking about.

“I’ve never seen there being a tremendous dividing line between comedy and tragedy,” Lonergan said at a question-and-answer session after “Manchester” was presented at the New York Film Festival, in October. “Even if it’s the worst of the worst, it’s not happening to everyone. It might just be happening to you, or to someone you know, while the rest of the world is going on doing things that are beautiful, or funny, or material, or practical.”

The other is detail about a simple instruction to an actor in a screenplay. Instead of having the actor screaming and yelling, he has the character trying to contain his emotions, but the emotions are revealed in the way he clutches a sack of groceries:

Affleck, another of Lonergan’s longtime friends and collaborators, says that he and Lonergan spent hours discussing how Lee Chandler’s character is revealed not just in his words but also by his unthinking actions. In one harrowing scene, Chandler is shown clutching a bag of groceries. “That was written into the script—that he is holding this bag. It was one of the few scenes where, when I read it, I thought, What is going on here?” Affleck told me. “I thought, Well, if I have to get upset, I can get myself to feeling upset. But why does he want me holding a bag? Then, when we came to do the scene, it made perfect sense. The character—he doesn’t scream and gnash his teeth and pull out his hair. He is just clamped down on himself. From that moment, he tightens up. So once I just held on to the bag I thought, This is how the rest of the moment ought to play out. He is just trying to hold on, and that ends up carrying over to so much more. He never lets himself have any sort of catharsis or release in any way.” It was, Affleck said, “an example where I learned to have faith in the writing, and in Kenny. It seemed like a little detail, but it made so many other things work.”