Category Archives: Tropes & Archetypes

Table For Two

A guest post by Lehua Parker

As an author of books in a three series and workshop instructor, I’m often asked by other writers about character development—specifically, how should characters change from one book to the next. I always say it all depends on whether your series is more like a fast-food burger or a chef’s table dining experience.

You know us Hawaiians; it’s all about the food.

When you walk into a burger joint, you pretty much know what you’re going to get—some variation of a basic grilled patty in a bun. In its purest form, a burger series is a book version of a television show like The Simpsons. Within an episode there’s usually some character growth—for example, Homer learns that honesty is the best policy when his lies cause a nuclear meltdown in Springfield. But magically, from one episode to the next, Homer’s character is reset to his original factory-flawed default settings. From season one to thirty, Homer chases one doughnut after another, hangs out at Moe’s, and never learns or suffers from the consequences of his actions for more than half an hour. For some audiences, consistency is part of the charm.

Don’t knock it. It’s why McDonald’s sells over a billion Big Macs a year—and counting.

To keep pages turning, burger books focus on plot, not character development. Detective, children’s, and adventure genres boast some of the best-loved burger series. One of my favorites is Robert Parker’s Spencer novels. First book to last, Spencer changes his underwear and not much else. A crime is committed. It gets solved. Some shooting, drinking, sparkling repartee, and bed-hopping happens in between. The order in which readers devour the novels doesn’t matter much to their enjoyment, no more than having a bacon cheeseburger one day and a jalapeño ranch burger the next. Other burger series include Nancy Drew, Clifford, Curious George, and most chapter book series.

Burger book authors understand that with infinite combinations of new toppings and special sauces to season the plot, there’s no reason to mess with the character of the ground chuck. Burger books follow the same beats throughout the series, making outlining a breeze. Without long-term consequences, well-known characters are easily dropped into plot lines limited only by imagination. Best of all, with no over-arching storyline, the series never ends.

Like a stop at Five Guys, I know what I’m getting when I pick up a Spencer novel—and I know I’ll like it. For authors trying to make bank with a series, a reader’s taste for charbroiled is gold. The Simpsons is in production on season thirty, folks. That’s how deeply some fans fall in love with characters—the same, unchanging characters. And when you think about it, almost 700 episodes is a lot of lettuce.

But no matter how juicy, few people crave burgers all day every day. Variety being the spice of life, it should be no surprise that some series are the literary equivalent of a multi-course chef’s table meal. When you sit at the chef’s table in a restaurant, you relinquish control over your dining experience to the chef who determines the pacing, ingredients, and presentation of each course. For readers, it’s about surrendering the meal to the author and savoring each dish on the way to dessert.

Think of the Harry Potter series by JK Rowling. In each book, the wizardlings go on grand adventures as they defeat obstacles like finding the Philosopher’s Stone or winning the Tri-Wizard Tournament. But underneath every scene is a more important tension, an overarching conflict between Voldermort and Harry that advances until the series climax.

Now imagine if you’d read the last book, Deathly Hollows, first. The entire meal is ruined. You can’t go back and experience the delicious tension that builds in the previous six books knowing Dumbledore’s end game and Snape’s true character. The pay-off of the climax is reduced to a whimper if you haven’t seen Harry, Ron, and Hermione grow from knock-kneed first years to full-blown wizards.

Reading a chef’s table series out of order is the equivalent of eating dessert first and spoiling your appetite.

Just as a chef considers the textures, flavors, and juxtapositions of each dish in his set menu, the author of a cohesive serial story forces characters to change and grow from book to book, ultimately piquing the reader’s hunger for the next course. Chef’s table series can—and should—have fantastically engaging external plots, but the real nuance and satisfaction comes from the unfolding of the characters’ internal journeys.

Chef’s table series tend to be epic in scale and page count. Big thick books offer immersion into not only a world and plot, but into the characters’ innermost desires, thoughts, and beliefs about themselves and the world around them. The conceit that chef’s table books change lives has a grain of truth. Harry Potter, Star Wars, The Dark Tower, A Song of Ice and Fire—all multi-course chef’s table meals. For a satisfying binge-worthy read, these are the droids—and books—you’re looking for.

So as an author, which kind of series is right for you? Do you focus on interchangeable, plot driven books or on crafting one long extended meal served in courses?

Burger books are fun and fast to create—over the lips, on the tongue, and gone the next minute—designed to delight readers and probably stick to the ribs no longer than lunch. The payoff’s fast and delicious, and the time commitment for the reader is seldom more serious than a few hours, making burger books easy for casual diners to take a chance on. Burger book characters don’t change much from book to book, and that’s a good thing.

Chef’s table series allow authors to explore deeper themes as they build flavors and textures through multiple books on the way to a death by chocolate climax and pay off. Chef’s table series are designed for pondering deep truths, and authors and readers can lose themselves in the stories for days, weeks, months—even years. These hearty stories stick to ribs, and unlike many burger books, carry the heart and soul of the author. Through a chef’s table series, characters go through the wringer and come out 180° from where they started, and that’s a good thing.

Me? I cook like a write: a little of this, a pinch of that. Along with works that combine to tell one continuous arcing storyline, I write shorter burger books that tie in with my chef’s table offerings. Often a burger book will bring casual readers to one of my chef’s table series, hungry for more. At the very least, burger books give fans something to snack on as they wait for the next chef’s table seating. Most importantly, I find an occasional burger book is a much-needed break from all the angst of a chef’s table series. Sometimes an author needs to write about a shark munching a disrespectful tourist without contemplating the meaning of being a monster.

But I digress.

Happy writing! And bon appétit!

 

LEHUA PARKER is the author of the award-winning MG/YA Pacific literature magic realism fiction series, The Niuhi Shark Saga: One Boy, No Water; One Shark, No Swim; and One Truth, No Lie, and other speculative works. Originally from Hawaii and a graduate of The Kamehameha Schools, Lehua is an author, book doctor, public speaker, and business consultant. Trained in literary criticism and an advocate of indigenous cultural narratives, Lehua is a frequent speaker at conferences and symposiums. She cannot wait for June to see how the Honolulu Theater for Youth has adapted her work into a play.

To find out more about her works or to follow her adventures via social media, visit her website at www.LehuaParker.com.

 

 

Those Last Three Minutes of Casablanca

Author’s Note: If you haven’t watched Casablanca, do so immediately. This is the movie that changed the way Hollywood made movies and it’s something every writer should understand. There are SPOILERS below, but you need the explanation to really make my points stick.

Casablanca (1942) is a landmark film and one of the top movies of all time. What most people don’t realize is that this movie, specifically the way it was written, changed filmmaking forever. Before Casablanca, the prevailing sentiment in Hollywood was that telling a character-based story required a much longer film. Take Gone With The Wind (1939) with a running time of 3 hours and 58 minutes as a good example of this. Most movies of the time period were shorter, nearly devoid of plot or substance, and played to the audience on a purely esoteric level.

My two favorite movies from this period come from my love of big band music (I was born 50 years too late). Sun Valley Serenade (1941) and Orchestra Wives (1942) feature Glenn Miller and his orchestra. Each of these movies are around the standard ninety minute timeline of most Hollywood features of the 20th century. If you watch them (and I do recommend them – pure popcorn fun), there is virtually no substance. This was a standard practice during this time. Casablanca came along and changed all of that by focusing on the character, Rick Blaine played by Humphrey Bogart.

What Casablanca did was very simple. Rick had several things (goals) that he wanted to achieve. Despite being an ex-patriot, Rick wanted to stand up against the Nazis, he also wanted to win back Ilse, his former lover, and he desperately needed friends in the local area to survive (mainly Henri, the police chief). The movie weaves the story of the “letters of transit” which are basically a “pass” from Nazi-occupied North Africa. Rick obtains them and they essentially are the ultimate “get out of jail free” cards. He’s prepared to use them when Ilse suddenly comes back into his life – with her new husband Victor (a famous Resistance leader).

Ultimately, the story puts Rick in the unenviable situation of having the letters of transit and not being able to win Ilse back. He goes to the airport to meet her and her husband and all of the audience’s emotional involvement in the storyline comes to a crescendo in the last three minutes and forty or so seconds. In that time period, Rick gives Ilse and Victor the letters of transit (“We’ll always have Paris”). When the Nazi officer responsible for the area arrives and demands the plane stop its departure, Rick kills him in front of the police chief, Henri. Instead of arresting Rick, Henri tells his men that Major Strosser is dead and they should round up the usual suspects. Henri and Rick walk off into the darkness – “I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”

The movie ends right there – fade out, roll credits, end scene. It’s brilliant.

Instead of a four hour character drama, Casablanca did the same thing in ninety minutes and it became a benchmark for storytelling. Not to say that movies after it, especially in the 1940s and 50s didn’t try to hold on to the fun, no substance formula – they did, but Casablanca proved that a character drama could fit in the same amount of time given to those popcorn flicks. How does that apply to fiction writers?

Very simple. Your book is likely going to be a movie in your reader’s head. Tie those emotional knots and deliver them to the reader as close together as possible for the maximum emotional response. If you’ve cried at the end of a movie, you recognize this. Try to do the same in your writing – your readers will thank you.

Storytelling and Comic Books: What to Learn and What to Leave Behind

Can we just geek out over comics right now? Let’s.

I was introduced to comic books a little late in the game. My college roommate Danica was a proud, certifiable nerd. I was still in the closet and unsure if it was something I was willing to let myself become. One day, she invited me and our other roommate Ashley to Comic Book Club on campus. With only around ten members, the club had a comfy, family-vibe. What surprised me most was how welcoming everyone was, accepting of whoever came, conversing with them about whatever form of comics they were into. This included the guy who showed up who just really liked Dilbert.

Slowly, the members of Comic Book Club fed classics and newer works into my nerd IV, filling me with a new love for the medium. They took me to free comic book day, showed me the local comic book stores, and took me to see the new rash of comic book movies coming out at the time (X-Men: The Last Stand was our biggest Comic Book Club outing). I ended up writing my senior year Sociology paper on my university’s Comic Book Club, and my professor not only gave me an “A” but wanted to talk more about it after class.

What I wasn’t was a closeted book nerd. As an English major, you kind of give yourself away in that respect. I might even dare call myself (or would’ve called myself at the time) a book elitist. I didn’t read genre fiction, and found anything genre to be more on the entertainment side than on the enrichment side. So imagine my surprise when I loved comic books right away.

Over ten years later, skinnies and trades are a regular part of my balanced reading diet. In 2017, I read 104 books, 30 of those being comic book trades. I count them equal to any book in terms of enrichment and importance, something my 20-year-old self would call taboo.

However, there are some real and important differences between comic book and novel storytelling beyond the obvious, and they are important for writers to pay attention to.

Pacing.

Comics, by nature, are fast-paced. The reason for this is half of the story is told visually, and our brains process visual information much more quickly than reading words and conceptualizing those words into scenes in our minds. Also, in most comics, the majority of the words are conversation between characters, cutting out long descriptions, body language, and physical cues.

As writers, what can we learn from this? I’d argue learning pacing from comic books with caution. In many comics coming out today, the speed is breakneck. This is not always the best way for novels. Personally, I like a slower, blossoming effect, as I think it is more artful and immersive. Some indie comics are better for this effect (Shortcomings by Adrian Tomine and Blue Pills: A Positive Love Story by Frederik Peeters come to mind). However, if your book requires fast-paced scenes, sharp scene breaks, and minimal to moderate character development (aka when story is king), then comic books are a fantastic source to learn from.

Dialogue. 

I love comic book dialogue. This is a no-brainer for me. Yes, all writers can learn sharp, concise dialogue from comic books, especially how to write humorous exchanges. In humorous dialogue, the pictures don’t matter – the snappy wit and curt replies do. You don’t even need to look at the characters faces to know if it’s effective. Brain K. Vaughn is a master at this, and his work should be on your to-read list.

Character Development.

In my mind, this is the most obvious hinderance when learning storytelling from comic books. In order to serve the story, most characters have classic and even clichéd flaws and personalities. That’s totally fine, and I’m not meaning to suggest it’s right or wrong. Because it’s fine, and most comic book writers use these tropes very well. However, most characters’ backstories aren’t fleshed out when compared to novel characters. Usually their backstories are only fleshed out as much as is needed in order to make the story believable, or to serve a story element or conflict.

Brevity. 

One of the most beautiful things in comic books, in my humble opinion, is the brevity. In half the time and space of a novel, a comic book writer can tell a complete story. It’s masterful, really, when done well. Many of my writer friends become bogged down in their long-ass word counts, wondering how they can cut 20-30k words from their manuscripts. Comic books only keep the most important stuff – and that’s a big lesson for novel writers to learn.

What are some lessons you’ve learned from comics? And what comics are you reading right now? Personally, I’m geeking out over Lumberjanes, Saga (of course, duh), Faith, and Paper Girls.

Pre-Writing and Screenwriting

Until 2012, I was a pantser. Truth be told, I still write short fiction without a plan sometimes, but I’ve been fully converted over to outlining. It’s a long story, but it’s worth the effort. The very first novel I wrote, RUNS IN THE FAMILY, took me 18 months to write. Without a roadmap, I would write all the little ideas and delete troves of words before latching onto another idea and doing the same thing over and over again. It was a slog and I hardly remember finishing it. When I had the idea that became my debut novel SLEEPER PROTOCOL, I vowed that I wouldn’t do that whole awful process again. I determined that I was going to figure out how to write a novel. I’ll cut off some of the story here, but a book on screenwriting changed the way that I write. That book was “My Story Can Beat Up Your Story” by Jeffrey Alan Schecter. It’s a quick, easy read that gives you insights into character development, story pacing, and a structure that resonates with your reader.

Schecter’s book impressed the folks at Mariner Software enough that they built a screenwriting program called Contour that follows his method to the letter. When I found out about Contour, I quickly downloaded the free demo. From there, I ended up purchasing the program. It’s a part of my pre-writing process, which is the theme of the month, so let me break down how I get ready to write a novel.

Let’s say I have an idea already pretty formed in my head. Chances are that I’ve started gathering some notes on that idea in a notebook (yes, I have a notebook problem – there are never enough). I take that pretty formed idea in my head and start to make sure I can craft it into some of the key notions that Schecter teaches about character development. The takeaway here is that without good characters, your story doesn’t live to tell the tale. Forget to develop your protagonist and your book never reaches the end of Act One because there’s nothing to change them. Fail to develop a solid antagonist and your story dies in Act Two. By building the character development first, even before I start the plotting pieces and exercises, I have a solid idea of where the story is going to go based on the goals of my characters. From there, I go through Contour’s beats and guide sheets to develop a “straw” outline – that’s my first pass entirely through Contour. I come back and add more detail to the areas that need it – thanks to big text boxes and the like. Once I’ve done that, it’s time to open Scrivener, my writing software.

Once in Scrivener, I use what’s in Contour to help flesh out a basic structure. I create the building blocks in various ways – either folders and chapters for scenes, the cork board function for random thoughts or unplaced ideas, and any references I need to consult as I write. With the data from Contour about specific plot points, character goals, and what the characters need to discover/solve/act upon, by the time I’ve laid out my pre-writing, I have a serious amount of data already in the program ready for me to use. Yes, it seems like a lot of work, but for me it’s better than trying to handle those dozens of notebooks and pieces of scratch paper. If I take the time to enter the ideas in Contour, it asks the questions for me and my answers further flesh out the plot. From there, writing is relatively easy.

How easy? At this point, I’ve invested several hours in building out Contour and laying out Scrivener the way I want it to. For me, the end result is that I write faster. Remember RUNS IN THE FAMILY? Eighteen months from start to finish? With the method I laid out above, I wrote SLEEPER PROTOCOL in seven weeks. I wrote the recently published sequel VENDETTA PROTOCOL in about nine weeks. It’s a much faster process when I know the route that I’m going to take. By laying out the entire novel, if a character decides to do something differently that I want them to, I can let that play out a little and still have a clear ending in mind. I can adjust things as I go, which is much easier than stopping and starting all over. With a full outline, I know where I have to get back to, and it makes a difference.

No two methods are the same, though. You have to figure out what works for you. For me, that intense planning and note taking process leads to big changes with my speed and productivity, but it may not work for you. There are a million ways to write a novel, but they don’t all require any prewriting. They do require writing, so get to it.