Author Archives: Leigh Galbreath

Knowing When to Break the Rules

I had a government teacher in high school that had a motto: Only by learning the rules can you figure out how to go around them. Rules are, by and large, a fantastic way to learn the craft, but at some point, we all learn that, as the man said at the beginning of the month, they are not really rules at all, but guidelines, and one of the most difficult things to learn isn’t so much how to break the rules, but when.

No one breaks the rules just to break the rules. We do it because it fits the story and helps us manipulate the reader into feeling or seeing or knowing something that would not be expressed as well any other way.

As an example, the James Joyce’s short story “The Dead” starts a tale of a Victorian Age party by jumping from one person to another as they arrive. Now, technically, this is what we term “head popping” and can easily get confusing. Yet, instead of being confused as to who you’re supposed to be following, or feeling distanced by the omniscient 3rd person viewpoint, Joyce quite literally introduces us as if we’re one of the attendees. The first time I read it, I was strongly reminded of the cinematic “one shot”, where the camera follows one person only to be smoothly handed off to another, and then another, without cutting. Think of the opening scene of the film Snake Eyes or the Syfy miniseries of Battlestar Galactica. Joyce, of course, stops the the shifting POV once everyone’s been introduced, and we settle on the main character until it’s time to leave, and we’re shifting around again as we chase after a departing carriage. He effectively sucks the reader in, makes them comfortable, and then lets them go in a whirl.

In “A Rose for Emily”, William Faulkner completely stops the action of a story that’s moved a pretty good pace, to give us a long, extremely detailed description of a room that is being viewed for the first time in forty years in order to help us feel the shock the characters feel as they take in the room and lastly, the forty-year-old corpse contained within.

Stephen King likes to do much the same when characters are heading into danger by adding long, detailed descriptions that pull the tension of a scene taut and deepen in the dread factor when other writers might play it safer by dropping the details and sticking to the rule that pacing should move faster as the character runs headlong into action.

Yet, when we see the experts do it so well, we tend to forget that these guidelines, after all, are there for a reason. For the most part, they are bits of wisdom that writers over time have learned readers react well to. When you go against that, there’s always a risk. Breaking one rule or the other can be a tactical gamble. For writers like King, Faulkner, and Joyce, it seems an effortless gamble. But not every attempt is as effective.

A rather popular YA series that I greatly enjoy follows the POV of one character in third person exclusively, until the tenth book of the series, when we suddenly get an italicized, first person, present tense POV of a completely different character. Sure, the author marks these shifts by making them separate chapters and putting the name of the POV character as a heading, but still, it was jarring the first time I read it. As a writer, I get it. First person, present tense, causes an urgent immediacy that highlights the dangerous, violent and unstable situation the character is in. But really, was the italics necessary? And it’s introduced after nine books of straight 3rd person. Is it something that would lose readers? After sticking through nine books, probably not. I kept reading. But still, it was a little weird, and I’m not altogether sure that the result outweighed the initial annoyance.

The point is, breaking the rules is fine, but as with everything else we writers do, it has to serve the story above all else. It’s good to experiment, to test our craft and expand our use of language, and often enough, for the nuanced writer, the rules can actually get in the way of a good story. But everything has a time and place, and knowing when to break the rules is just as important as how to break them.

The Undeniable Draw of Dysfunctional Relations

Relationships between people are utterly fascinating to me. It’s one of the parts of writing that pulled me to the craft in the first place—how people relate to one another. It may be because I’m not so good with relating to other people, but I love exploring how different characters relate to each other and how it complicates the story at large.

And I’m not just talking about romantic relationships but also relationships between hero and villain, between family, between friends (though, if you think about it, these are all types of love stories, just maybe not all that romantic). The delicate interplay between two (or more) human beings is one of the most important and central pieces of a puzzle that makes good story for me. Suffice it to say, Man vs. Nature is not really my cup of tea.

No, give me the young girl’s unrequited love affair, a son’s silent resentment, and a friend’s disappointed failure, and then play it against the oblivious boy, the overreaching mother, and the unknowing friend’s success. I want to see how two souls react to a given circumstance and the wonderfully wrenching devastation that follows.

Okay, so maybe I’m a bit of a sadist to fictional characters, but honestly, we all take a little bit of vicarious joy at seeing the good guys struggle through torn friendships and lost loves. Sometimes they recover, sometimes they don’t. It’s the things that pull the characters apart, that really play those heartstrings, isn’t it? It’s a well-known phenomenon in television that when your male and female leads who have been flirting for forever, finally take the dive, that your ratings will soon follow. Sure, we want to see the lovely couple come together in the end, but…well…that’s the end, isn’t it?

In most cases, we don’t want to see their happily ever after. We want to see them work for it. We want that sexy chemistry played against impossible odds that keep a wedge between our besotted hero and heroine. We want to see the arguments as our hero’s sidekicks lose faith when all hope seems lost. We want the subtext and the betrayal and the hidden truths.

Happy endings are all well and good, but in truth, for me, the real joy of a good story isn’t the obstacle itself. It’s the reactions each character has to said obstacle and how they mix together to make the fantastically messy soup that touches and enrages and saddens. It’s not necessarily the struggle itself, but the way that struggle effects and changes the people caught in the whirlwind of it. To me, there is no better fun to be had in both the reading and the writing of fictional characters.

So, when plotting out that next great story, let me suggest to you to not think about how you’ll bring your characters together, but rather how to pull them apart. After all, good story is made from good conflict, and the more emotionally devastating the conflict the more satisfying that happy ending will feel.

Walking the Tightrope – Making Characters Real Without Making Them Really Boring

We all face that struggle of how to make our characters into people, but if you are one of those writers who have tried to take a real person and plop them onto the page, you might have come to the startling realization that people do not make good characters. Real people are confused, slow to act, distracted by the everyday, often don’t know what they want or what their purpose is, thus making them, quite frankly, too boring and unlikable to serve a story.

So, this got me thinking. What is it about a character that makes them seem like people when real people make such bad characters?

I think it comes down to characters being not so much fictional people as distilled people. Characters are us, stripped down to the core.

Emotionally, people are unfathomable. We have so many layers to our psyches even we don’t know it all. Yet, when constructing a character, we writers like to start out with the barest sparks of a person. We trap our characters in roles and archetypes and then fill them out just enough to make them seem realistic without diluting them so much that they become one of us confused, distracted, and oblivious people. The trick, I think isn’t so much the creation. You can make a character as complicated and convoluted as you like. The tick is what you put on the page. As I’m sure we’ve all heard, what’s on the page is barely the tip of the iceberg. While the reader rarely gets to see everything below the waterline, it still has to be there, peaking through even when no one is really paying attention. It’s easy to get carried away, plastering every nook and cranny of the character’s psyche on the page. Where a writer puts the waterline is a personal choice, but real people have unknowable depths that even they aren’t aware of. It’s important that the character (and therefore the reader) be forced to figure things out without it being blatant.

But also, the moments that we choose to show the reader are also stripped down. I mean really, how many stories are about a person who has to deal with everything that a real person has to deal with. Most of use have multiple conflicts. Mortgages, injuries, family disfunction, bad coworkers, and what have you, all at once, all the time. Characters don’t. These issues are only important as long as they impact the story, and usually one or two at a time as the story dictates. As soon as one stops being relevant, it miraculously gets rectified one way or another, and we move on to the next. Thus a breakup or moral dilemma becomes all-encompassing – as if nothing else is happening in that character’s life, or the lives of the characters they interact with. Characters skip over the boring parts with such regular alacrity that those issues don’t exist for all intents and purposes.

And, yes, that scene where the character wakes up in the morning an goes about his normal day might indeed show how lonely yet witty and intelligent he is, but how does that serve the story, and therefore the character? Stories are, for the most part, about people doing something important. Maybe it’s a small thing, that only really impacts the character, or something big that saves the world, but in the end, the character and the story have to go hand in hand. What the reader is shown is hugely important as it both drives the story forward, but also deepens our relationship with the character.

Maybe part of the reason we like characters to be stripped down people is that we like having something knowable and explainable when real life isn’t. It’s nice to visit a world were things make sense. Maybe we human beings are just not capable of understanding ourselves well enough to make reality more appealing in the written form. I don’t know. Maybe I’m just overthinking things.

As a writer, I know that creating a believable character is very much like walking a tightrope. A little too much leaning either way, and you fall into confusion or boredom or, if you’re really unlucky, both. Yet, if you can find the right balance, it feels like the characters are real. Those are the ones that stay with you.

And Then Life Happened

So, I made, what I thought, was a fairly easy goal in January. Focus on improving on my weaknesses as a writer. It’s not like there aren’t a dozen different ways I could satisfy this goal: read a craft book, take a class, revise an existing work and give it to a friend for them to say, “Yeah, this is better.” I mean, honestly, this one even seems ripe for rationalizing how an action only tangentially related could be applied so I could say, “Yes. I made my goal.”

But I must be honest.

Books read: 0

Classes taken: Nada.

Friends who have read a revision to make me feel better: Niet.

My only defense in this, my great failure at such an easy task? You know that saying about how life happens when you’re making other plans?

This year has been a bad one helath-wise for me. I’ve suddenly become plagued with half a dozen, seemingly unrelated problems, the big one being that I’ve developed asthma due to allergies, which I’ve been plagued with most my life. Apparently, my allergies have shifted so that I’m now allergic to mold and cats. I own two cats and live in Houston (where it’s humid most the year and the mold count skyrockets every time it rains…and it rains a lot). Add to that a few other issues I won’t bore you with, and the result is that I don’t feel well most the time. And just as I thought one issue was figured out, something else went wrong.

Seriously, I’m too young for my body to be falling apart all of a sudden.

Suffice it to say, it’s hard to focus on writing when it feels like an elephant is sitting on my chest. Taking classes isn’t the easiest thing to do when all the money’s going to doctor’s visits and medicine.

We writers and our health – what’s up with that?

I’ve heard people talk about how we have to be careful with our health, because writing is a pretty sedentary line of work. It’s easy to lose track and end up gaining weight and not getting enough exercise, thus bringing on the host of health problems that come with it. Plus there are the writer-specific issues, like repetitive motion injuries and such.

What I don’t hear often, though is how it can stunt creativity, and in the end, sap the desire to be creative. Let’s face it, pain is exhausting, and creativity needs energy behind it. Psychologically, feeling bad all the time makes it very hard to feel good about much of anything—even something I love like writing.

But, things are looking up, as that medical issues get sorted, and I have kept writing, albeit slowly, sometimes painfully. At this point, anything is better than nothing, and I’m addicted to the written word, so I’m not going to be able to stop writing, even if it’s makes it harder to stay healthy, for whatever reason.

It’s the nice thing about writing—it can happily wait out those curve-balls life throws at us. Sure, I still didn’t meet my goals for the year, but I think I have a pretty good excuse. The thing that makes me feel not so bad though is that it’s not like I’ve set a hard deadline. Pretty much, the only real deadline is when I finally kick the bucket. There’s nothing that says I can’t just start again now, so it’s not a lost cause and I’m not a total failure. Yet.