March 18th, 2009

And now a word from John Updike

Last night I finally read my Authors Guild Bulletin and there was a lovely tribute to John Updike.  His words stuck with me this morning, so I want to post a couple of quotes now, and post later today about reversals.  

Think about this in terms of pacing for a novel:

"Storytelling, for all its powers of depiction, shares with music the medium of time, and perhaps its genius, its most central transformation, has to do with time, with rhythm and echo and the sense of time not frozen as in a painting but channeled and harnessed as in a symphony...

Think about this in terms of art:

My first thought about art, as a child, was that the artist brings something into the world that didn't exist before, and that he does it without destroying something else.  A kind of refutation of the conservation of matter.  That still seems to be its central magic, its core of joy.

Let John Updike's words wash over you this morning.  Every Wednesday needs a little inspiration, and I can't imagine a better source!  

Check back later for more on pacing the novel.  Anon.  HH

Take a right turn. Or a left.

I have to admit, I love screenwriting craft books. There’s a lot of good stuff in these how-to books for aspiring storytellers—film or fiction. In his book, Your Screenplay Sucks!, William M. Akers (a shout out to Bill, who teaches film at Vanderbilt University) notes the difference between a change in direction for a scene and a reversal.

Change in scene direction is a plot development and moves the story forward. Reversal is a surprise….That’s when you set the audience up to think one thing will happen, and then, something else happens and you surprise them. It’s one of the main foundations of storytelling.

So, as you are working the middle of your novel, you probably are thinking about the conflict and moving your story forward. You probably aren’t thinking that your story should just change directions. But it should—that’s what will keep readers turning the page.

Bill has a very cool scene checklist in his book called the “Boyle Sheet,” named for his first writing teacher Jim Boyle. I’ve adapted it here a bit for fiction writing.

Bridging in

Sets the stage, who it is
The scene is about what? It will lead to conflict


Difference of opinion, argument, friction


Information needed to move plot forward


Both in narrative, action, and dialogue. A revalation


Someone wins the agrument or there is an outside force

Follow up

What's the next scene about

Using the checklist, you might already know to transition into any given scene, to have the scene have a specific purpose, and to include needed conflict, exposition, and characterization. But you can be doing all these things, and if readers know where you’re headed, if they can guess the outcome of the scene or the chapter, chances are your manuscript may still end up unread and unwanted. The trick is to keep the reader guessing, and the way to do it is reversal. Lead readers on…then pull the rug out from under them.

For example, Little Red Riding Hood goes to Granny’s house after talking to the wolf in the forest; she notices that Granny’s ears have gotten so big. She says, “What big eyes you have!” She notes that Granny has big teeth too. Right away, readers assume that the Wolf has gotten to Granny and is ready to eat Little Red Riding Hood for dinner. That is, until Little Red karate chops the Wolf in the throat, calls to her Granny who’s hiding in the closet and just happens to be an undercover cop and they arrest the Wolf on the spot as a pedophile and Granny impersonator. That’s a reversal. And that’s the basis for good writing.

Now, I’m not saying do a reversal in every single scene…but give it a try at least once or twice in the middle of your novel. Suddenly, things don’t seem so predicable. Readers don’t know what to expect…and they can’t stop reading until they find out.

Any reversal, of course, must be grounded in some assumptions and move the story into a new place. It just may not be in a straight line to the conclusion. A reversal allows the writer to take a sharp right (or left) turn. If conflict keeps the reader reading, then a well-placed reversal makes the writing fresh and dynamic.

So, turn your story with a reversal. Right or left, it will keep readers turning too—in a good way.

Check in tomorrow. We'll take a look at endings, and what leads to a perfect one.  On Friday, I'll give you a formula for story pacing, and some tips for making sure your narrative stays on track. Until then...

Anon.  HH