I recently studied a Jason Bourne fight scene in The Bourne Identity to learn all I could about writing a good fight.
Aside from the realism of fights, I wanted to learn the style. What words does Robert Ludlum, the author of the Bourne thrillers, use when describing punches and kicks? How does he organize sentences? Does the place where he put emphasis in a sentence matter when expressing the visceral, kinetic motion of a fight?
Matthew Rettino is a speculative fiction author and Odyssey Writing Workshop graduate based in Montreal’s West Island. After writing his Master’s thesis on modern fantasy, he published his first short story with Bards and Sages Quarterly in October 2018. Since then, he’s taught a creative writing course at the Thomas More Institute. Check out his blog Archaeologies of the Weird. He’s on Twitter @matthewrettino.
This is supposed to be the domain of realist literary fiction, I thought. Plenty of genre fiction is character-driven, of course. The best often is. But genre fiction tends in general to slant towards plot and storytelling for the joy of storytelling. As such, I felt more at home writing those kinds of stories. I’d never consciously tried to write what Orson Scott Card might call a Character story before, but I had written Event stories.
The result? My story “The Goddess in Him” will be appearing with NewMyths.com in September 2020 and I can’t wait to share it with you all.
Writing a character-driven story was simple in the end. Because of the way my mind works, it had just never clicked that this was one way you could write the kind of story editors always want: character-driven stories.
I had to begin not with a fully outlined plot, but with a fully-fleshed person.
You’ve written your story. However, when you hand out your story to first readers (or beta readers), you receive feedback saying that certain events seemed manipulated by the author.
Maybe your antagonist went easy on your protagonist for some inexplicable reason, resulting in them overcoming the antagonist faster than expected. Maybe your antihero had a spontaneous change of heart the possibility of which had not been foreshadowed at all.
Whatever the case, your characters just didn’t behave like themselves; it felt like someone else was pulling the strings.
We writers need a technique to test the integrity of our causal chains after we’ve finished our first draft. After all, we write what excites us, or what we “feel” should happen next. But when the writing is so raw, the causal link between events is not always there.
Haven’t started your draft yet? No problem. A slight variation on the same technique can help you in the outlining stage, if you’re the kind of writer who finds outlines useful. I go into it in “How to Build Your Causal Chain.”
It took me so long to realize I needed a causal chain in my fiction. Specifically, it took me a long time to know I should pay attention to cause-effect relationships when revising.
The causal chain is the series of cause and effect relationships that structure your narrative from beginning to end. It’s omnipresent in the fiction you probably read, and that means it’s almost invisible when done well.
“The strongest plots are created by cause/effect chains. This makes the story feel more like a row of dominoes falling over, unstoppable and inevitable, rather than a series of random occurrences arranged for the convenience of the author.”
When not done well, a poor causal chain results in events that seem manipulated by the author. The problem for me in 2016 was that I had no idea I was doing it.
There really is a dearth of writing advice on the causal chain. For example, though Plot by James Scott Bell from the Writer’s Digest’s Write Great Fiction series discusses the importance of the lead character and the “chords” of fiction (setup, action, reaction, and deepening), there is almost no mention of the importance of tying your plot together into a series of causally connected events.
Pre-Odyssey, Plot was my go-to book for learning about how to write effective plots. But I never learned the most basic facts about plot until I was told directly that causal chains were something almost all dramatically compelling stories must have.
Maybe for some writers, the causal chain comes naturally in the organic process of writing. But for me, and I suspect for many others, it’s an under-examined aspect of writing fiction.
When I learned about causal chain, it came as a revelation, as if I’d been let in on a secret code underlying the realism (yes, even in the fantastic modes I prefer to read!) and compulsive readability of my favourite stories.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I’d like to be disproven that almost nothing has been written about the causal chain.
Comment on this post if you find any books that do discuss causal chain, and I’ll collect the links in this post. Thanks!
I recently attended a screenwriting workshop in which I was told not to listen to screenwriting gurus. The key to writing a good story is not in placing an inciting incident on page 23. Rather, it is in understanding the inherent rule behind storytelling itself, the dialecticaljuxtaposition of opposites.
This is a principle present at every level of storytelling, from the three-act structure to individual scenes, beats, or, in prose fiction, even individual sentences.
The screenwriting charlatans will tell you: put the inciting incident on page 23. But they never ask, “Why?” This is the problem addressed by John Yorke in his excellent book Into the Woods, which discusses the dialectical basis of narrative. My screenwriting workshop instructor recommend it to me, since it offers a much better perspective on storytelling than most screenwriting gurus provide.
Yorke argues that the three-act structure is based on the dialectical juxtaposition of opposites and that the dialectical structure permeates every aspect of art and storytelling.
But what does he mean by dialectical?
In philosophy, dialectics is the process of arriving at the truth through counter argument. The stronger the counter argument, the stronger the argument becomes. It follows the following structure: a thesis is stated (“All swans are white”), an antithesis is presented (“But there are black swans”), and a synthesis resolves the two (“Swans may be both white and black”). At the end of this process, the philosopher arrives closer to the truth.
Yorke’s observation that narrative is fundamentally about observing the world, processing it, and arriving at a conclusion came as a revelation for me. I’d encountered Joseph Campbell’s monomyth and the three-act structure before, but I’d never had it explained to me like this. Few books on the writer’s craft explain the “Why?” behind narrative structure so compellingly.
Which is why I’ve decided to take Yorke one step further. In his book, he focuses on the three-act and five-act plot. However, if you look at prose fiction under a microscope, paragraph by paragraph, the dialectic juxtaposition of opposites reiterates itself fractally, even at the sentence level. This plays a crucial role in keeping readers engaged page by page.
You can write compelling prose by harnessing the power of dialectical opposites. Before I explain how, however, let me first go over how dialectics apply to the three-act structure, since the same principle will apply at the sentence level.
Dialectics in the Three-Act Story Structure
Many stories, from The Godfather to Shakespearean plays such as Hamlet, Julius Caesar, and Macbeth–and even Pixar movies–follow a dialectical three-act structure. Like a dialectical argument, the stories break down into acts consisting of a “thesis,” “antithesis,” and “synthesis.”
A typical three-act story begins with a first act that presents the status quo. The second act challenges the status quo, precipitating a crisis, and the third act reconciles the two states, resolving the conflict. In this way, the structure of a dialectical argument maps onto narrative; an overarching theme is argued, counter argued, and synthesized.
For example, in the first act of Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather, Michael Corleone is a war veteran who wants nothing to do with the mafia. In the second act, he makes the irrevocable decision to participate in the mafia. By the third act, he’s stepped into his father’s shoes as the head of his crime family and has become the devil; his innocence is forever lost.
In the thematic struggle between innocence and power, the dialectical synthesis results in Michael’s spiritual death—a tragedy.
Although some writers use the three-act structure to mark changes in interpersonal conflict or even setting, treating it as a dialectical structure that charts character change can be more useful. After all, taking The Godfather for an example, Michael’s inner journey is one between opposites: from innocence to violence. And the way these opposites resolve is through a dialectical structure.
Pixar movies work in opposites as well: a trash-cleaning robot who finds himself on a cruise ship in space (Wall-E) and a fish from the big ocean who finds himself in a dentist’s fish tank (Finding Nemo). The audience is compelled by these opposites to see how the stories eventually resolve.
It’s a principle that also works on the micro-level of a sentence.
Dialectics on the Sentence Level
Moving from screenwriting to prose fiction, I’ve observed that sentences may also exhibit a dialectical structure. In compelling prose, opposites are often presented within a sentence to create tension between two ideas or images.
Names of emotions might contrast, such as fear and curiosity, or a set of images, such as a rainstorm in the desert. In the reader’s brain, a synthesis occurs, suturing the gap between the disparate images in order to create meaning and flesh out an image that is only presented in fragments. The reader is engaged, because the prose inhabits a contradiction.
It’s relatively easy to learn this technique and apply it to your own prose. As an example, I’ve provided an excerpt from one of my personal favourite novels: Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer. VanderMeer’s prose style is laced with inherent tension, a simultaneous sense of forward momentum and dread.
In this scene, two characters, the surveyor and the biologist (the first-person narrator), are exploring an underground stairway for traces of a mysterious, possibly extraterrestrial organism.
“Should we go back?” the surveyor would say, or I would say.
And the other would say, “Just around the next corner. Just a little farther, and then we will go back.” It was a test of a fragile trust. It was a test of our curiosity and fascination, which walked side by side with our fear. A test of whether we preferred to be ignorant or unsafe. The feel of our boots as we advanced step by careful step through that viscous discharge, the way in which the stickiness seemed to mire us even as we managed to keep moving, would eventually end in inertia, we knew. If we pushed it too far.
(Jeff VanderMeer, Area X: The Southern Reach Trilogy, 39)
Starting from the top, the reader is immediately confronted with the question of why both the surveyor and the biologist could have spoken the dialogue. Why not specify who said what? The reader, even if only on an unconscious level, attempts to resolve this contradiction through synthesis.
As a reader, I formed the opinion that it must reveal more about their situation to know that it doesn’t matter who is talking at any single moment. They’re both reluctantly pushing the other deeper into the thrall of curiosity.
Next, inner emotional conflict is demonstrated by the contrast between fear and curiosity. These contrasting emotions are not precise opposites, but they’re far from identical in a conventional sense. Before the reader vicariously experiences these emotions, they must confront the intellectual problem of how the emotions “fear” and “curiosity” may be related.
Can fear and curiosity be the same emotion? VanderMeer doesn’t simply give the reader the answer. What he does is say that these emotions walk “side by side” (a personification recalling the biologist and the surveyor, who also walk side by side). This way, the reader’s imagination is engaged in imagining what this “fearful curiosity” must feel like.
Andrew Stanton and Bob Peterson, the writers of Finding Nemo, once said: “Good storytelling never gives you four, it gives you two plus two … Never give the audience the answer; give the audience the pieces and compel them to conclude the answer” (qtd. in Yorke 113). To give his readers a taste of the complex emotion he wanted them to experience, VanderMeer gave them fear and curiosity and let them imagine the rest.
The power of VanderMeer’s prose comes, at least in part, from his ability to suggestively juxtapose disparate words and images. The reader must synthesize these in order to create meaning. Providing the reader with the emotions “curiosity” and “fear,” VanderMeer allows the reader to decide for themselves what feelings the biologist is experiencing.
Now, at one level, synthesis is part of the fundamental process of reading and experiencing the world. Readers do it all the time, no matter the quality of the prose. However, when the text presents irreconcilable contradictions, the dialectics of the text become more powerful and the reader engages even more.
Just as the philosopher gets closer to the truth when faced with a stronger counter argument, so do readers become more engaged when words and images are more starkly contrasted.
To return to Annihilation, the ideas of knowledge and danger are juxtaposed again later: “The test of whether we preferred to be ignorant or unsafe.” Here, the word choice is more complex, since the phrasing emphasizes the opposites of the conventional values of knowledge and safety. The biologist may prefer ignorance, which is ironic given her profession as a scientist. It also suggests that, perhaps, the biologist also wishes to be put in danger.
The reader synthesizes these contradictions, which compels them to read on.
Lastly, there’s the image of how the viscous slime sticks to the soles of the biologist’s boots, resisting her desire to step deeper down the stairs to discover the organism. On a linguistic level, “moving” and “inertia” are both opposites. Their appearance within a single sentence creates contradiction, probably in a more powerful way than if they’d been placed in separate sentences.
Opposites charge sentences with dialectical tension. The biologist is both descending the staircase and being resisted. But will her movement or inertia win out in the end?
This tension compels the reader to read on. Oppositions of this sort carry the reader right on through the story.
You could imagine that the sustaining tension emerges from the inner and outer conflicts of the characters. But on a stylistic level, contrasting word choices and structuring sentences as contradictions are crucial ingredients. I would even venture to say dialectical language can sustain reader interest irrespective of the idea of “character and “conflict.”
In conclusion, juxtaposing opposites can imbue inherent tensions into the reading experience, making your pose irresistible to readers. By harnessing the power of dialectics, your story structure will be stronger at a fractal level: both in terms of plot, and in terms of style.
In the words of the great philosopher and literary critic, Gyorgy Lukács, “The essence of art is form; it is to defeat opposition, to conquer opposing forces, to create coherence from every centrifugal force” (qtd. in Yorke 231). Embed that centrifugal force in your sentences and plot, and you can infuse your prose with the storytelling power of Jeff VanderMeer in Annihilation.
Adventure fiction — defined broadly as any kind of fiction that focuses on the mounting physical challenges characters must face, usually in dangerous, exotic locales — allows the writer little room for characterization. How then is it possible to depict credible characters, especially when so much time is spent on riverboat chases and other stunts?
Given the breakneck pace of the adventure genre, depicting rounded characters can be a challenge. For an adventure hero or heroine to be fully credible, they must be more than competent. They must also be a three-dimensional, believable person.
This is complicated by how adventure fiction’s interest lies in action and suspense rather than characterization. In How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy, Orson Scott Card remarks on how the Indiana Jones movies “spend very little effort on characterization beyond what is necessary to keep the story moving.” It is the same way with the archaeological thrillers of Andy McDermott, James Rollins, and Matthew Reilly, as well as in other adventure genres. The cutthroat pace of adventure makes nuanced characterization more difficult to achieve than in other types of fiction. In fact, some writers barely even seem to try.
Breaks devoted to characterization may spoil an adventure story’s forward momentum. Yet, if adventure fiction writers want to find a way to explore their protagonist’s hidden depths, either the pace must slow in certain places, or characterization must be presented on the fly. This is no mean feat.
Samuel R. Delany, author of the speculative fiction novels Dhalgren and the Return to Nevèrÿon series, addressed this issue back in 1969. “Often,” he writes in About Writing, “in the rush to keep the action going, writers who specialize in what are seen as adventure stories forget to confront their characters (especially the women) with enough objects/emotions/situations or give their characters space enough to react in a way both individual and within the limits of psychological veracity.”
Indeed, credible female characters were — and perhaps still are — even rarer in the genre than credible male characters. Although I plan to examine some of the reasons why this might be, for now, I will only point out that characters both male and female tend to lose their individuality in adventure stories.
One snowboarder buried in an avalanche will try to dig out of the snowdrift in much the same way as another. A character needs to be involved in a wider variety of situations to really emerge as an individual.
True, heroes like MacGyver might improvise impromptu gadgets, or approach problems in a unique way, but all the same: in this genre, many opportunities for individualization often get lost in the shuffle.
One solution to individualize your adventure story protagonist would be to develop a wider variety of situations to test her. But of what nature should these situations be?
Delany has the answer. There are “three types of actions,” he writes, “the purposeful, habitual, and gratuitous” (my bolding). A credible character who performs several instances of each type of action, he states, “will probably seem more real.”
Why is this so? To answer this question, I’d like to draw attention to Delany’s observation that female characters in adventure fiction often only exhibit one type of action. Villainesses are usually all purpose, while heroines remain either exclusively habitual or gratuitous. Sexist stereotypes about cunning stepmothers, homely housewives, and male-fantasy fulfilling lovers spring to mind.
What this goes to show, aside from the sexism of many male authors, is that when a character only performs one type of action, it limits their agency to something less than what is believably human. Often, you end up with a stereotype of one sort or another, or perhaps an unoffensive character who serves as nothing more than a function in a story. If, however, a character performs the full range of purposeful, habitual, and gratuitous actions, then she becomes an individual rather than a type.
True, a secondary character with a walk-on role is still legitimate. They may be necessary for fulfilling a function. However, if the character is meant to generate sustained reader sympathy and interest — if the reader is meant to believe in the character as a fully individual human being — then the character must be able to perform purposeful, habitual, and gratuitous actions.
The adventure genre itself has no problems with purposeful or gratuitous actions. Gratuitous adventures such as Jack Kerouac’s On the Road are embarked upon for a simple reason: to see what’s out there. Purposeful adventures are often missions, such as the quest to destroy the Ring in The Lord of the Rings. Even Robinson Crusoe acts with the stout purpose of a homo economicus as he transforms his island into a profitable colony.
Mixing purposeful and gratuitous actions can nuance an adventure story, if the story leans too heavily towards one type of action. However, I am hard-pressed to think of any adventure that is fundamentally based upon a habitual action.
Habitual actions seem inimical towards adventure. After all, readers pick up adventure novels to escape from their daily grind, and the genre itself is synonymous with the idea of risk — anything that interrupts the regular, habitual routine. There isn’t much that is habitual in explosions and hungry alligators, after all. At least not for most people.
And yet, habits define our daily lives and are a crucial part of who we are as human beings. This places characters in adventure fiction risk at seeming incomplete as people and as individuals. But this again raises the question: How can you find time in your fast-paced adventure story to demonstrate your character’s daily habits?
Character “quirks,” like smoking cigars or taking swigs from a hip flask, may be one unobtrusive solution. But truly meaningful habitual actions can be difficult to illustrate without breaking the story’s momentum.
To answer this question, it is worth realizing that plenty of habitual actions happen on adventures. On the road, characters must set up their tents, cook their food, and maintain their gear. Many adventure writers skip these boring, everyday travel details in order to “get to the action.” However, they might be missing out on important opportunities for characterization.
For example, Ursula K. Le Guin in The Left Hand of Darkness devotes considerable space to the mundane details of Renly Ai and Estraven’s trans-glacial sledge trek. She dwells upon their dwindling food supply, their sleeping habits, the way they set up their tent, and so forth. Information as simple as how they lay their sleeping bags down for the night adds compelling insights into their relationship.
By having them perform such habitual actions, Le Guin adds depth to their characterization, individualizing them and rendering them far more credible as people.
Adding details of your character’s habits during such moments may be the key to fleshing out their individuality. But what other opportunities for demonstrating your character’s habits are there in adventure fiction?
Adventure often involves characters attempting to secure the basic needs for survival. Think about food, sleep, money, and society. Chances are that your character has a unique way of acquiring their basic needs.
Indeed, Delany provides a list of questions based on these same points that you can ask yourself when writing characters. These questions are designed to explore what your characters “should be exposed to and allowed to have individual reactions to, to make them appear particularly vivid”:
“Food: How does the character behave when eating with a group? If possible, how does she or he react when supplying food for others?
Sleep: What particularizes his/her going to sleep, his/her waking up?
Money: How does he or she get his/her shelter, food, and how does she or he feel about how she or he gets it?[and]
Society: How does he or she react to somebody who makes substantially more money than he or she does, and how is this different from the way he or she acts to an economic peer (and believe me, it is different, however admirable)?”
While by no means an exhaustive list of possible questions, Delany’s questions can be a prompt for exploring the unique ways your adventure story protagonist engages with the fundamental elements of life: food, sleep, money, and society.
In conclusion, all three types of action that Delany describes— the purposeful, the habitual, and the gratuitous — can be used to flesh out your characters in adventure fiction, even if habitual actions are under-used in the genre. You can thus individualize and nuance your adventure story protagonist without sacrificing suspense and momentum.
Thinking about how your hero or heroine would react towards certain situations that all human beings have experienced before can help you understand what makes your adventure protagonist a distinct, particularized individual.