Monday, February 28, 2011

Driving a Stake Through the Heart of Your Characters

Stakes.  As the only thing that will kill the living dead, it's the bane of vampires and sometimes zombies.  Apparently, it also stabs fear into the heart of the writer trying to breathe life into their characters.

Strong character hearts require strong emotions, and strong emotions result from high stakes. You want your emotions to hit the highest pitch possible. You must have the reader experience fully the passions of your characters, whether those emotions be love or hate, trust or betrayal, laughter or sorrow. Escalate your reader's experience by raising the bar for what's at risk.

We can't all write a story about a poor, unloved, defenseless orphan who must save the entire wizarding world, indeed the Muggle world as well, from the darkest and most powerful wizard who ever lived. Not all stories can be set in this frame of stake-hood.

However, whether writing a cozy mystery, a witty women's fiction, or an emotionally charged thriller, your stakes need to be as high as is appropriately possible. Brainstorm--what is the worst thing that could happen to your hero or heroine, and then make it your plot. The higher the risk, the more rewarding that character's triumph will be.

One aspect of high stakes I feel is extremely important is that not just the hero or heroine benefit from their resulting success. The good of a community, no matter how large or small, must also be at risk. It's the carrying the elixir back to the tribe of the "hero's journey." Triumph over the antagonist is so much richer when there's a community of people who benefit from it.

With Harry Potter, we have the large end of the spectrum when it comes to a community benefit. Wizards and Muggles alike will enjoy a more peaceful world when Voldemort is no more. However, even a story that is focused tightly on the burgeoning romance between two people can include the return of the elixir. A family can be reunited, a neighborhood can be returned to order, or as in Two Weeks Notice, a community center protected and restored. The possibilities are as endless as your imagination.

High stakes should also show your characters not only at their best, but also at their worst. Many readers had trouble with Harry in Order of the Phoenix. This was Harry's fifth year of school, and at age fifteen, he was every bit the angry, angsty, antagonistic teenager that no one but his own equally angsty friends wants to be around. I got tired of Harry's tantrums in that book as well.

But it was real. After all, here was a teenager who had a lot of weight on his shoulders, so much that Dumbledore did not make him a prefect because he thought Harry had quite enough to be carrying on with.

Note that when writing a series, as in HP, the stakes must increase with each subsequent book. The hero's task cannot get easier, or there'll be no satisfaction for the reader. Harry goes from maintaining his own against a mere parasite at the end of Philosopher's/Sorcerer's Stone, to saving an innocent man from death or de-souling in PoA, to leading the capture of a pack of Death Eaters in Order of the Phoenix, to facing the ultimate showdown and making the ultimate sacrifice in Deathly Hallows.

Harry has been tested and tried since the very beginning. He has been pushed into developing skills, such as producing a Patronus that other witches and wizards his age would never consider. He must be pushed in this manner because he has an enormous task ahead of him.

No one will believe that a seventeen-year-old wizard could defeat the darkest wizard in 100 years, unless he'd been properly prepared and thoroughly tested. And no one will believe your heroine deserves her triumphant ending unless she's proved to herself, along with the reader, that she can survive and triumph over any obstacle her mean-hearted author has thrown at her.

Your protagonist doesn't have to “save the world.” For writers, stakes are emotional, not physical. What your protagonist does have to do, however, is face his or her worst possible fears, probe their deepest inner wound, pass through the fires of refining conflict, and emerge a better, stronger person on the other side.

Have no mercy! Raise your stakes to bring out the full emotional depth your hero must face and rise above. Torture and torment your characters to make them prove their worth.

After all, you won't have to meet him in real life. :-)

Thursday, February 17, 2011

An Exciting New Venture!

Belle Books, the publisher of my short stories, including my upcoming "Running Raw," has decided to host a regular column for Harry Potter for Writers! The first post is live today!!  Yes, I'm thrilled!!!! :-)

Are you like the millions of other fans who between the releases of Half-Blood Prince and Deathly Hallows agonized over that gut-jarring ending? Did you scour the pages for JKR's slyly laid clues as to whose side Snape was truly on? If you did, I'm hoping I may still have found one expertly hidden gem to surprise you.

Or, if you're a writer interested in how to plot twists and mysteries into your story without showing your hand prematurely, I hope this post will offer a tip to help you along.

Either way, please check out my post, One Potent Word, and please leave comments.

BellBridgeBooks is an imprint of Belle Books, an independent, multi-genre publisher based in Memphis, TN -- a small press doing wonderful work.  Their authors include NYT bestsellers Deborah Smith and Jill Barnett, Pulitzer nominee Janice Daughatry, and Edgar winner Mark Nykanen. I've worked with BelleBooks for years on my short stories and they are wonderful to publish with -- personable, responsive, and eager to do the best for all their authors. I highly recommend that you check them out!

Here's a snippet of my post:
The end of Half-Blood Prince has been finely picked over by a rabid Harry Potter CSI team. The emotions burning through this ending surely obscured most of our views for anything less pressing than dealing with the murder of Dumbledore at the hand of his trusted confidant Snape. But clues litter the crime scene and we must push the emotion aside to uncover them.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Celebrations and Speculations

It was wonderful to see the Harry Potter franchise honored by the British Academy of Film and Television Arts with the award for Outstanding British Contribution to Cinema.  What was even more special was getting to hear David Heyman and JK Rowling speak during the acceptance.  If you haven't seen it yet, check it out on Youtube:

But perhaps the best part was hearing JK Rowling's interview on the red carpet, where when asked what she was writing now, she said she had "several things on the go at once." Although she doesn't know which will actually first appear in print, she's "writing hard."

As it's now been four years since she submitted Deathly Hallows for publication, it seems to me that we should be hearing about a new release sometime this year. But what would it be if she's working on several things?

We know she's said at some point in time she would do a Harry Potter Encyclopedia. She's also said previously that she was working on some sort of "political fairytale" for younger readers. Then, during her Oprah interview and when receiving the Andersen award, she heavily hinted at revisiting Harry's world but with a different character.

I don't know about you, but I think this last possibility gets my hopes up the highest, though I'd also love to see the encyclopedia, if only to find out if any of my Egyptian mythology subtext theories are correct. :-)

What would you most want to see next from JK Rowling?

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader?

So, today I helped out at my kids' school for a highly anticipated Saturday snow make-up day.  Believe me, the kids were not the only ones who did not wish to be there.  But I did find the silver lining.

The teacher who I was covering for had left a writing worksheet for a small group of 5th and 6th graders.  I was impressed that these young writers were learning concepts which many older, more experienced writers (including me) still struggle with, so I thought I would reproduce it here.

Using Strong Verbs:

Each sentence below uses a weak verb and an adverb to show action. Rewrite the sentences using the strong verbs at the bottom of the page that do not need the help of an adverb.  The first one is done as an example.

1) The fox walked sneakily toward the chicken coop.  Answer: The fox crept toward the chicken coop.
2) The little girl spoke softly during the movie.
3) Tommy cried loudly when his toy broke.
4) The eagle flew gracefully over the valley.
5) Jason moved quickly out of the ball's way.
6) Melissa went across the room quietly.

Strong Verbs Word Bank:
whispered    tiptoed    pounced    raced         laughed
dodged        soared    crashed     screamed   crept
worksheet designed by Gary Robert Muschla

I thought these were some great, basic examples to help young writers learn the impact of strong verb choices.  But then, knowing that JK Rowling often gets criticized for her overuse of adjectives and adverbs, I decided to peruse her text for a few examples of strong verb choices, and they weren't hard to find.

First, from Sorcerer's/Philosopher's Stone, in "Through the Trapdoor," when Harry, Ron, and Hermione confront McGonagall's giant, magical chess set:

He [Ron] stepped forward, and the white queen pounced.  She struck Ron hard across the head with her stone arm, and he crashed to the floor -- Hermione screamed but stayed on her square -- the white queen dragged Ron to one side.
From pounced, struck, crashed, screamed, and dragged -- all these verbs are strong and punchy.  They convey strong, visually evocative action without the need for adverbs.  You'll notice that even though JKR uses a wonderful "struck" instead of "hit," she still added an adverb, "hard," which probably was not necessary.

Then, from Deathly Hallows, in "Bathilda's Secret," when Nagina escapes her disguise as Bathilda Bagshot and attacks Harry and Hermione:

The snake lunged as he [Harry] took a running leap, dragging Hermione with him; as it struck, Hermione screamed, 'Confringo!' and her spell flew around the room, exploding the wardrobe mirror and ricocheting back at them, bouncing from floor to ceiling; Harry felt the heat of it sear the back of his hand.  Glass cut his cheek as, pulling Hermione with him, he leapt from bed to broken dressing table and then straight out of the smashed window into nothingness, her scream reverberating through the night as they twisted in mid-air...
Strong verbs aside, one quibble I have with the above paragraph is that it's basically two very long sentences.  I would have broken each sentence up at each semi-colon, if not further.

Still, JKR pulled no punches, either from her use of strong verbs, or her disturbing imagery.  As the books have darkened from Philosopher's Stone through Deathly Hallows, so too has her imagery.  While visualizing a man with a parasitic face stuck to the back of his head was gross in PS, I can't imagine anything much more grotesque than a snake bursting out of an old woman's corpse-skin!

As I force that image out of my mind, think about your choice of verbs.  Are they the strongest (appropriately) that they can be?  Or do you have something that you, too, can learn from a 5th grader? :-)

Wizard Chess picture credit
Bathilda & Harry picture credit

Monday, February 7, 2011

Humor in Crisis

One thing I love about JKR's writing is her deft hand with humor.  Even in a serious, high-stakes scene, she's likely to insert some light banter, which helps to bring the action fully alive and reflect the reality of the characters involved.  Take, for example, any scene that Fred or George are in -- as we looked at in an earlier post, Those Tricky Twins and that Peevish Peeves, their role as tricksters is to invert the status quo, to upset the apple cart and make the reader see things from a different perspective.  Their primary tool for handling this is a wicked sense of humor, which crops up at even the most inopportune times.

We see the twins up to their tricks in the delightful scene of "The Seven Potters" in Deathly Hallows, when Harry escapes Privet Drive for the last, and most dangerous, time.  Of the thirteen witches and wizards gathered to escort Harry to safety, led by the uber-serious Mad-Eye Moody, all are somber and focused on the danger they are about to face.  All except Fred and George.

Mad-Eye's plan is for six of Harry's friends (plus Mundungus) to drink Polyjuice and become Harry.  Thus Voldemort and his Death Eaters will not know which Harry to follow as they flee in seven separate directions.  When Harry protests the risk those who will be impersonating him must take, Fred responds:
"Well, none of us really fancy it, Harry," said Fred earnestly.  "Imagine if something went wrong and we were stuck as specky, scrawny gits forever."
When Harry refuses to give-up the hairs they will need for the potion:
   "Well, that's that plan scuppered," said George.  "Obviously there's no chance at all of us getting a bit of your hair unless you cooperate."
   "Yeah, thirteen of us against one bloke who's not allowed to use magic; we've got no chance," said Fred.
Then, once everyone's gulped down their Polyjuice, and Fred and George are transformed into Harry:
"Fred and George turned to each other and said together, "Wow -- we're identical!"
"I dunno, though, I think I'm still better-looking," said Fred, examining his reflection in the kettle.
As Harry watches his six doppelgangers change clothes to match his:
He felt like asking them to show a little more respect for his privacy as they all began stripping off with impunity, clearly much more at ease with displaying his body than they would have been with their own.
Even Fleur gets into the act:
"Bah," said Fleur, checking herself in the microwave door, "Bill, don't look at me -- I'm 'ideous."

And when Bill assures Fleur that she will be riding with him on a Thestral:
 Fleur walked over to stand beside him, giving him a soppy, slavish look that Harry hoped with all his heart would never appear on his face again.
This light-heartedness works well here because even though the group is about to face tremendous danger, they haven't faced it yet.  No one has yet died.  The banter is a way to relieve tension, show the reality of the characters involved, and amuse the reader.  It all comes together for a wonderfully entertaining scene.

JKR always keeps humor flowing through her novels, no matter how dark.  Thus, the absence of it from the most serious, high-stakes scenes make them all that much darker.

Humor is a difficult spell to cast as it performs differently for everyone involved.  Humor is subjective.  But when it works best, it is because the author has been true to her voice, the characters are speaking out of their reality, and the humor bursts forth from intrinsic action of the novel.  In other words, to someone who hasn't read the story, they probably won't get it, because the humor is very much based on the details of your story.  Read the quoted lines above -- if you've never read Harry Potter, you probably won't understand where the humor is in each of those bits.

So, how have you used humor in your stories, especially in a scene of tension or crisis?

Seven Potters image credit 
Harry as Fleur image credit