Guest Post, Darrin Doyle: Get the Most Out of that Smile! Descriptions with Meaning and Purpose

SmileCreative writers know that physical description is among the most essential tools for establishing a character.  How a person walks and talks; the clothing they wear; their hairstyle; how they chew and fidget and fuss, or sit stoically; the way they smile, frown, or stare blankly.  These can provide terrific insights into our characters.  However, merely listing the gestures often isn’t enough.

In workshop stories, I often see exchanges like this one (which I invented):

“I’m really happy you could meet me today,” he said.  He gave her a small smile.

She looked up at him.  “I love this restaurant,” she answered.

In this brief moment, we have two gestures – a “small smile” and a “look.”  That’s a fine place to begin, but as written, these are simply stage directions.  It’s as if the writer is merely puppeteering the characters, giving us a visual.  The actions aren’t telling us anything about the characters, about the situation, about the emotional register of this moment.  Is this guy actually happy?  Is she happy?  Or are they sad?  Worried?  Are they flirting?  Are they ex-spouses who haven’t spoken in months, with a history of conflict between them?  Is there resentment, love, nervous excitement?  What are these gestures telling us?

Students often express hesitance about “slowing down” the action of the story in order to give backstory about the characters.  They say they don’t want to bog down the piece with paragraphs of explication about who these people are and what brought them to this moment.

My answer is this:  You don’t have to slow down the action.  Weave the backstory into the action.  Make it part of the scene.  Connect the gestures to the characters’ backstory.  Every gesture should reveal something: the character’s personality, psychology, desires, conflicts.  Make the gestures work for you.

Here’s a passage from Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar:

Mr. Willard eyed me kindly.  Then he cleared his throat and brushed a few last crumbs from his lap.  I could tell he was going to say something serious, because he was very shy, and I’d heard him clear his throat in that same way before giving an important economics lecture.

Notice that Mr. Willard doesn’t simply “eye” the narrator.  That might be misconstrued as creepy.  Instead, he eyes her “kindly.”  That’s helpful to the reader; it gives us something about the mood, the tone.  Next, he clears his throat and brushes crumbs from his lap.  Is he nervous?  Is he about to say something?  People tend to clear their throats when they want to say something.  Sure enough, Plath makes it clear with the next sentence.

But most importantly, she adds another line that connects Mr. Willard’s throat-clearing to the characters’ shared history.  We learn that he is shy (therefore, they know each other).  We learn that he was a teacher, specifically an economics teacher, and she must have been his student.  The gestures aren’t only stage direction; they forward the plot and deepen our understanding of the characters.  And they haven’t slowed down the scene.

Sometimes simply choosing a compelling verb can do wonders for establishing character.  Here’s an example from James Joyce’s Ulysses:

Then, suddenly overclouding all his features, he scowled in a hoarsened rasping voice as he hewed again vigorously at the loaf:

                        ‘For old Mary Ann

                        She doesn’t care a damn

                        But hising up her petticoats…’

He crammed his mouth with a fry and munched and droned.

Notice how much work Joyce’s verbs are doing.  “Overclouding all his features” makes me think this guy is in a bad mood.  And then he “scowled” and “hewed . . . vigorously the loaf.”  He’s eating, but he’s not just eating:  he’s eating violently, piggishly.  He sings a dirty little ditty, and then he “crammed his mouth with a fry.”  There’s aggression in that verb.  He’s literally stuffing his face.

Overclouding, scowled, hewed, crammed, munched, droned. 

From those six words, I know quite a bit about what kind of dude this is.  And I’d rather eat over here, thank you.

Flannery O’Connor is among the best at giving gestures with meaning.  She often uses an “as if” structure, and it’s a technique you can easily apply to your own writing.  Quite simply, she describes a gesture or expression, but then she adds one – or two, even three – similes that start with “as if,” similes that develop the character and the conflict.

From The Violent Bear It Away:

Rayber continued to speak, his voice detached, as if he had no particular interest in the matter, and his were merely the voice of truth, as impersonal as air.

As a writer I would be tempted to quit after “his voice detached,” which gives us something important.  But O’Connor keeps pushing it.  In what way is his voice detached?  The first clause tells us Rayber is talking as if he doesn’t care about the topic.  Then the second part really elevates the simile:  he has “no particular interest” because his “voice of truth” is absolute.  He has no need to argue passionately.

And finally, still not satisfied, O’Connor pushes it once more: “as impersonal as air.”

To me, this last clause makes the whole gesture.  In his own mind, Rayber’s logic is like an invisible, ubiquitous, and necessary force.  No person can live without air; it is all around us at all times.  And now the reader truly sees the full extent of the character’s ego.

The most important habit a writer can develop is to read like a writer. So the next time you’re reading, pay special attention to the ways the author uses gesture and detail to build character, to bring us closer to their conflicts. And then, as always, don’t hesitate to rush to the keyboard (or pen and paper) and use their techniques in your own writing.

Guest Post, Darrin Doyle: The Dirty Truth About Film Adaptation

When I was in 7th grade I read Stephen King’s The Shining and it terrified me in the best possible ways. A few years later I watched Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of the novel, and it also scared the bejeezus out of me. While I probably re-read the novel again at some point (I can’t remember), I certainly re-watched the Kubrick movie numerous times in the ensuing years, reveling in the spooky music, the awesome sets, and of course Jack Nicholson’s insanely funny and disturbing performance.

Years later I heard that Stephen King himself was no fan of the Kubrick film. Apparently he found Nicholson’s scenery chewing over-the-top, and he thought the movie didn’t ground the Jack Torrence character as well as the novel did.

Even this film, which is considered one of the most successful book-to-movie adaptations – well, ever – failed to live up to the novel, at least in the author’s mind.

However, King remains in the minority. Most people agree that The Shining is one of the finest horror movies of all time. My belief is that the reason The Shining is a successful movie is because while adapting the novel, Kubrick did what any filmmaker should do: as odd as it may sound, he made a movie, not a book.

In other words, he changed the story so that it translated to the screen. He didn’t try to keep everything the same as it was in the novel. He substituted the topiary animals with a hedge maze. He changed the ending (no spoilers here). He largely skipped the backstory of Jack Torrence and let the Overlook Hotel become the star.

GodardThese days whenever a novel (or series) gets made into a big Hollywood film, I hear people mainly discussing whether or not the movie included everything from the book(s). It’s as if the movie is reduced to a visual checklist, a dumping ground for the events of the novel, and as long as it contains every major scene and keeps all of the characters, etc., then it is deemed a success. Rarely is a movie adaptation judged by its artistic merit. And if it strays from the books (such as adding female elf Tauriel to The Hobbit) then look out: the fan base may be sorely disappointed. This seems to be the tack that Stephen King took toward The Shining.

The problem is this: no film can be a novel. Plain and simple, writing and filmmaking are vastly different mediums, employing vastly different tools to tell their stories. If for instance a person wanted to adapt a painting into a dance, then quite a few creative alterations would be needed. Everyone knows that a painting isn’t a dance, but for some reason there’s a popular belief that a movie is essentially the same thing as a book. All a filmmaker needs to do is to put what’s on the page onto the screen and – voila! – a novel in pictures.

Unfortunately it’s not that simple. And unfortunately, as a teacher of fiction writing, I see all too often the effects of the belief that a movie (or a TV show, or a graphic novel) is the same thing as a novel.

At times I feel like one of those old-fashioned dolls with the pullstring on its back. Again and again during our workshops the string gets pulled and I end up saying, “Tell us what’s going on inside the character’s head. Use point-of-view to tell the story. Use summary. Use your tools.”

That’s because so often these days my students are writing a movie. By this I mean that they assume that whatever they (the writer) see in their minds, we (the reader) will see: the settings, the physical descriptions of their characters, the body language and gestures. On the page, however, the writers provide scant detail, focusing instead on dialogue. The dialogue becomes the main (and often sole) vehicle for showing character motive, backstory, conflict – for giving us the plot. These students, I’m fairly certain, are falling into this trap because it’s how movies do it; it’s what TV does.

Movies and TV, however, use dialogue because they have no other choice. Well, not no choice, but different choices. Visual media depends heavily on dialogue. However, visual media also lets us see the faces of the characters; we see them fidget with their napkins and stare distractedly into space when they’re in business meetings; we see the landscapes that the characters live in.

As writers we must create these landscapes from scratch. Our primary goal is to paint a picture, to immerse the reader in the world we want them to inhabit. And for this, we need words. Our words are our cameras; we need to use them.

Most importantly, fiction has the ability to do something that visual media cannot: It can read minds. It can inhabit a character’s psyche fully. It can probe her memories, her regrets, her desires, her insecurities. It can perform this trick moment-by-moment and line-by-line, putting the readers inside the characters, letting us inhabit them. This is a trick no movie or TV show can pull off, and it’s the reason so many adaptations of novels are ultimately unsatisfying.

As a storyteller, it’s great to draw influences from wherever you can – I’m as big of a movie buff as anyone out there. But if you want to be a writer, then the stories you should be watching . . . are books.

Guest Post, Darrin Doyle: Write What You (Don’t) Know

Darrin Doyle

As someone who has dedicated the majority of his life to – for lack of a better term – making shit up, the popular dictum of “write what you know” is troubling.  Or maybe troubling isn’t the correct word.  A better word is limiting.  If I were restricted to writing about places I had been, people I had met, and situations I had encountered, my writing options would feel pretty grim.

The great thing about fiction, and art in general, is that it gives us a way to escape the confines of our experiences.  It also allows us to overlay order, structure, and meaning upon the randomness of everyday life.  Fiction lets us enter the minds, the circumstances, of people we will never be.  Literary scholar Michael Bryson wrote that “Art . . . raises us out of ourselves for tantalizingly brief, yet intensely felt and long-remembered moments, reminds us that we are somehow part of something greater than ourselves – even if that something is illusory and mythical.” (http://www.brysons.net/academic/fictionofanabsolute.html)

The experiences of our lives do not follow a tidy arc.  They lack the focus of a central conflict.  They provide little, if any, symbolism.  The people we know are not protagonists or antagonists, even if they act antagonistic at times.  Art gives us the chance to shape the world, to highlight connections between events and people and places, to suggest symbolic value – multiplicity of meanings and the entire range of human complexity – within the everyday.  This is why stories are read again and again.  When we allow fictional elements to enter the mix, these connections, symbols, and shapes get stronger, more complete, and more nuanced.  It’s why art lasts while autobiographies and history books generally fade away.  When is the last time someone handed you a history book from, say, the 1970s, and said “You gotta read this!”?  Art is timeless, while fact-based historical books usually have short shelf lives.

And yet American culture largely prioritizes nonfiction over fiction.  Remember when James Frey couldn’t find a publisher for his novel, A Million Little Pieces?  Then he decided to pretend it was non-fiction, and it became a bestseller.  Folks say they don’t want to read about something that “hasn’t happened and probably won’t ever happen.”  I honestly can’t understand the reasoning behind this statement.

Even if the events in a story or novel haven’t literally happened, what has happened are the emotional truths of the story.  Huck Finn may have never walked the Earth, but his dilemma – his internal conflict between caring for Negro Jim while being told by society that Jim is less than human – are universal and powerful.

Even better, because Huck is fictional, this means we all can know him.  We can all possess him; we can all have our own vision of what he looks like, sounds like, etc.  Same goes for Romeo and Juliet, Harry Potter, Willie Wonka, Emma Bovary, Holden Caulfield, and so on.  These characters are more alive – more truthful – than historical figures for the simple reason that they are not literal flesh-and-blood people.  They are eternal because we help create them with our minds and imaginations.

This is why I get depressed when people insist that Old Testament stories happened literally, exactly as written – as if any admission of fictional elements would somehow diminish them, weaken their power.  In fact, I’m pretty sure the opposite is true.  Take Noah’s Ark for example.  As a story, it shows us the heights to which people can rise in demonstrating faith.  It shows the ultimately forgiving nature of a God who will also punish unrepentant wickedness.  It shows us the covenant, the promise that God made with humans.  Read as fiction the story is relatable and epic and larger-than-life, and it’s OK not to get hung up on the plausibility of a 500 year-old man building a boat the length of two football fields before rounding up a male and female of every species of animal on the planet.  If I’m assured that the story is fictional, I’m along for the ride and can reap all the great wisdom it offers.

The terrific writer Eudora Welty offered her own version of “Write what you know.”  Her version was this:  “Write what you don’t know about what you know.”  Read that sentence a few times.  What we know are people, places, conflicts.  What we don’t know are the whys.  By using a foundation of familiar human events and then allowing ourselves to expand into the realm of the fictional, we can begin an inquiry into everything we “don’t know” about what it is to be human in this odd, fleeting world.

Guest Blog Post, Darrin Doyle: What’s Not to Like?

Darrin DoyleOne of the first (of many) rejections of my novel Revenge of the Teacher’s Pet was from an editor who wrote, “I fear that not even Nabokov’s literary skills could make Mr. Portwit into a likable character.”  The character he referred to was Dale Portwit, one of the protagonists of my novel. Mr. Portwit is a 50-year-old middle-school teacher who is, to put it kindly, self-serving, obnoxious, and stubborn. One of his quirks, for example, is insisting that everyone refer to him as “Mr. Portwit” instead of “Dale” because he believes “first-name usage is a privilege, not a right.”

When my second novel, The Girl Who Ate Kalamazoo, was released, it received some fine praise in a few local newspapers and literary blogs. But the Publisher’s Weekly review was the one I had been waiting eagerly to read. They called my book “relentlessly inventive.” I was thrilled. However, the PW review went on to assert that my characters were “irredeemably unlikable,” which made it difficult to care about the “bizarre goings-on.”

Suddenly all the positive comments I had received didn’t matter: What stuck in my craw was that phrase – “irredeemably unlikable.” I pondered it: Are my characters really that unlikable? In what way? What makes a character likable, anyway? Is it essential to readers that they “like” the protagonists of the books they read? What does it even mean to “like” a character? The concept felt foreign to me.

In 7th grade, I read To Build a Fire by Jack London. It was life-changing. I loved the story so much that I even read it aloud for a class presentation. To Build a Fire is the story of a man (known only as “the man”) who is trekking in the Arctic on his way to another research outpost. The temperature is so cold, however, that all of the “old-timers” have warned him not to venture out alone. He ignores their advice, believing himself to be a capable enough outdoorsman to make it easily. Spoiler alert: the man makes a few crucial mistakes and ends up freezing to death in the snowy wasteland. His supersized ego, his belief that his intelligence and rational thinking are more powerful than nature, ultimately leads to his downfall.

In retrospect, I realize that To Build a Fire was a template for the type of story I loved. Nothing touchy-feely or overly sentimental, yet packing a powerful emotional punch. Something that pushes us to question our role on Earth, the very essence of human existence. No feeling of closeness or affection for the main character; “the man” is not someone I idolized or felt a kinship with or “liked” in any specific fashion. But certainly I was invested in him. Certainly I enjoyed living briefly in his skin. My 8th grade was spent blazing through Stephen King’s novels (and Peter Straub and Dean Koontz – I liked horror). By high school, I had moved on to more so-called “literary” authors: Kafka, Poe, John Kennedy Toole, Dostoevsky, Camus.

The opening passage of The Stranger encapsulates the personality of the narrator, Muersault: “Mother died today; or maybe yesterday.” This is only the beginning of Mersault’s journey of detachment through the novel. He ends up confronting and killing a man on a public beach, apparently for no reason. When Muersault is brought to trial, he offers no defense whatsoever for his actions. In other words, a loveable guy!

Fitzgerald’s Great Gatsby, Twain’s Connecticut Yankee at King Arthur’s Court, Wright’s Native Son, Nabokov’s Lolita, Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle, Frank Norris’s McTeague – the hall of my literary heroes, when I step back and catalogue it, is a rogue’s gallery of unlikable characters. I doubt that most people, myself included, would want to spend an afternoon with any of these folks if they were made of flesh and blood. So what does this say about me, as a person? Am I a miscreant, a misanthrope, a misfit?

The honest and boring answer is that I’m none of these things. I don’t like to use the word “average,” but I’m a pretty average guy, at least on the surface. But maybe it’s because I’m a fairly average person that I’m drawn to these unsavory characters. Fiction allows me to walk in the shoes of people who are nothing like me; to observe from a safe distance as characters explore the dark, the absurd, the tragic, and the comically misguided aspects of the self. I can safely live inside the mind of an oddball, a criminal, a buffoon, and then retreat into my own drab routine. The truth is that I read and write stories, in part, in order to live things – people, places, philosophies, beliefs, fears, desires – that I don’t get to experience during my daily grind.

So if my characters are “irredeemably unlikable,” if they are grotesque or “weird,” I can be OK with that – as long as they aren’t predictable or flat. Above all, they must be capable of redemption. Their likability may be “irredeemable,” but I hope their souls aren’t. I’m not interested in perfect characters. I’m not looking for drinking buddies or racquetball partners. I’m not interested in someone like me. Lord knows, I get enough of myself seven days a week.

I don’t seek repellant characters. I don’t set out to create monsters. But I do seek difficult, flawed characters that will push me out of my comfort zone. Three-dimensional people, warts and all; people that are good and bad, ugly and beautiful, sinful and heroic; characters in need of grace.

Don’t misunderstand: there’s nothing wrong with likable characters. I love a charming, personable narrator as much as the next person. I love Scout and Bilbo Baggins and all those adorable and valiant rabbits from Watership Down. Readers seek camaraderie and friendship in the novels they love; or a feeling of connection to experiences and personalities that are familiar.

But as I continue to write, I’ll remind myself that there’s no way to predict what readers want. It’s impossible, and it’s a losing game. The amazing thing about storytelling is that it’s a two-way street; the reader brings their own life to every text they pick up, and they actively help create the characters on the page. All I can do is keep seeing the world the way I see it, trying to push myself and write characters that are living, breathing people, and raise the unanswerable questions about why we’re here.