Issue 8, January 2011
Life and Death
By A.J. Brown
Life and death. You can't have one without the other. It's a simple fact that is overlooked until faced with the very real prospect of dying.
Heavy topic. Don't worry. Life and death is the topic of this article, but not in the way most folks think it is. I'm not here to talk about the births of folks nor their demise. Today I wish to talk about stories and whether they live or die.
Stories don't live and die, you say?
I counter that with, oh yes they do.
Sit back and relax for a minute and let's see if I can explain this in the manner I see it in my head. In order for a story to be good, it must live. In order for a story to live it must first breathe.
Have I completely lost you yet? Hang on, let me get out my bag of examples.
Example 1A: They stood talking about their friend.
Kind of bland. It's like See Spot Run. Very simple and extremely boring. Great for three-year-olds, but not so much for adults. It's a sentence on life support. Go ahead and unplug it and let the sentence (and the story) die.
Example 1B: The two brothers stood in the side yard talking about their sick friend.
Okay, that's a little better. At this point the story this sentence is in isn't necessarily on life support, but it's still in ICU. There is a little more detail, but not enough to really tell what is going on.
Example 1C: The two brothers stood in the side yard, the cool air wrapping itself around them, chilling their skin. They talked about their dying friend.
A little more detail and the events are shaping up. Not only do you know they are brothers, but they are outside, it's cold and they are discussing someone who is dying, someone close to them. We broke the one sentence up into two so it doesn't run on, thus putting the sentence back on life support.
At this point, the story isn't hanging out in ICU, but maybe has its own room for now.
Example 1D: The two brothers stood in the side yard, having made their way away from the house and prying ears. The cool night air caressed them, chilling their skin. Derry looked down at his shoe tops, his hands shoved into his pockets.
"Cal's, dying," Johnny said. "And they're going to let it happen."
Ooohhh… now we have a story developing. The added detail of the two brothers trying to get away from any eavesdroppers is essential in having the reader asks questions. Why would they want people to keep from hearing the conversation? Who did they want not to hear them?
Also, we now know it is not only cold out, but it is nighttime. We've put names to the characters, including the one dying, giving the reader something they can hold onto and having them asks more questions. Why is Cal dying? And why the heck is someone letting him die?
Now the sentence(s) is on its way home, hopefully with a bottle of pills to keep it headed in the right direction. We've taken the one sentence and made it into several and added a little more life to the story. It could have read:
Example 1E: The two brothers stood in the side yard talking about their sick friend. He was dying.
Essentially, it's the same thing but with no real details to sink your teeth into. The friend is dying and the two brothers are talking about him. There is no attachment to characters, there is nothing indicating time or even why they would be outside instead of inside. There is no indication of the weather. For all the reader knows it's the Fourth of July and sweltering hot. There are very few questions being asked. One of those questions may be, why does this story suck so bad…
Over the last few years I have grown as a writer and have developed my own style, my little niche, so to speak. And there is one thing I have discovered: that if you don't tell a story from the heart, just go ahead and hang it up. Your story has little chance to live. Some writers and editors don't care much for subtle details and that's fine. To each their own. I, however, love rich stories that do more than just jump right into the action.
But, adding details is not the only way to make a story live.
I think the biggest and most important thing to help a story come alive and capture your audience is realism. And reality is everywhere. No, I'm not talking reality television. That crap is as fake as the canned laughter in old sitcoms.
What I mean by reality is what you see around the world today. The recent shootings in Tucson immediately come to mind. The weather patterns as well. How about the war in Afghanistan? Or maybe something a little closer to you personally: a divorce, a debilitating sickness, a death in the family. These more personal things are full of emotions and these feelings can be used in stories, to better serve your characters, to make them appear more life like. Real events bring out real characters.
Besides, there is nothing more boring in a story than a character without any personality. Think about it for just a second. Michael Jackson was a great singer, an amazing entertainer and his albums sold millions and millions of copies. I still love Thriller and Dirty Diana is one of my favorite songs of all time. The argument can be made that he was a little odd. As time went by, people not only talked about his music, but about him, about his somewhat weird ways. He had character.
The same with Mike Tyson. No one really talks about his boxing career before Buster Douglas handed him his first loss. It's the events after that loss that everyone remembers. EVERYONE knows about how he bit off part of Evander Holyfield's ear in a match. He must have been pretty hungry. That and his habit of creating words or using words that don't fit with what he was saying. Tyson has character.
Simon Cowel? Yup, he is a character. What about that Lady GaGa or Marilyn Manson? Yup, they definitely have character. Charles Manson was an interesting and somewhat scary dude. Lots of character there.
By having realistic characters in realistic settings stories tend to be richer, livelier… oh wait, there is that word: Live. The stories tend to come alive.
But, wait a minute here. You don't have to overdo it when it comes to creating characters and scenes and stories that are realistic. Really, there is no need to over write things like some well know authors tend to do. No, the key is having the right amount of detail and action compliment each other.
In my opinion, too much action and not enough character development and the stories are so-so at best. Yeah, you get a lot of movement in the story, but no attachment to the people the story is about. Those stories may be read all the way through, but are rarely remembered, so they die quickly and get buried in the recesses of the mind. On the other side of that coin, too much detail and no action and the story just drags and you get bored very fast and it dies slowly. The key is to have a nice, even balance of the two. I think Iain Banks does a masterful job of adding just enough of both elements to keep the reader reading.
I also think Michelle Garren Flye does this as well. I met Michelle a few years ago and have had the pleasure of working with her on various projects. She likes to kill commas. In the story, The Steps My Lover Built, Michelle gives just enough information to help the reader picture what is going on and feel sympathy for the character, yet holds their attention throughout. You feel the sadness in the main character's words as the story unfolds. The ending… well, let's just say you'll have the read the story and find out just how she concludes the piece: The Steps My Lover Built
To me The Steps My Lover Built is a great example of a story breathing… living. There is enough detail and action to force the reader to go onto the next sentence.
Writing isn't that difficult. Anyone can do it. Writing well is a little harder. Bringing a story to life, yeah, that takes work. Open your eyes and view the world around you. Take in the way the sun rises and sets, look at the various colors that flood the clouds and the way the shadows stretch across the land. Take a look at that couple sitting on the park bench, the way they stare into each other's eyes, the way her smile makes her face glow. Watch the rude person on the phone in the line to order their food at the local fast food joint you frequent, listen to his or her loudness, the way they put off the person trying to take their order while they chatter away. Next time you see a mother doting on her handicapped child, look at her eyes, take in her mannerisms and watch how she reacts to the child and how the child reacts to her. If you have a headache, don't just lie down and wish it away (yes, by all means do that, but not only that). Think about the way the light hurts your eyes, how one side of your head feels like its swollen and that even having your head on a pillow makes it hurt worse.
One other thing: Listen to conversations. No, don't eavesdrop, but listen to the words you speak and that others speak during any conversation. Real conversation is like oxygen to a story. Without oxygen, a person can't live. Likewise, bad dialogue kills stories quicker than no character development and poor action.
If you have someone scared out of their wits, then the dialogue should come across that way. If they are happy, then the dialogue should reflect that. If the conversation is confrontational, then show it.
Example 2A: "What was that?" Becky asked.
"I don't know," Richard said, then added, "You wanna have sex?"
Okay, so this conversation could actually happen, but it shouldn't and it certainly doesn't stay on topic if you are trying to make things tense.
Example 2B: "What was that?" Becky asked.
"What was what?" Richard responded. "I didn't hear anything."
"That noise. It sounded like someone was tapping on the window."
Richard frowned. "You're just hearing things, Becky." He leaned in to kiss her.
"Not right now, Richie," she said and pushed him away. "I don't like it out here. I want to leave."
"Come on, Becky. This is the only chance we're going to have for a while."
Yeah, this is a little bit cliché but you get the point. In the first example the only real thing you get out of it is Becky heard or saw something and Richard wanted sex. Yeah, that story was doomed to die from the get go. In the second example, you have a little more, both in dialogue and actions that help paint a better picture. With a little more effort, you can make a scene livelier and hold your audience a little better—it gives the story a chance to live.
As I've said before, anyone can write. Anyone can learn to write well. But having a story that lives takes a bit more work. Sometimes life is hard. Sometimes it's easy. Writing is the same. The key is taking the reality of life and putting it in a story. Give it a try…