I was soaking in the tub last night and pondering how to motivate two of my characters to go where I wanted them to go in my novel’s new chapter. Instead of logical or even decent ideas, the only ones that came to mind were paper thin. They practically scream, “You’ll go here because I told you to!” Like stubborn children, of course, they dug in their heels and refused.
So I decided to amuse them with a list of the worst, hackneyed, or borrowed motivations instead. The good news is they must have been fairly amused because a good idea decided to come along, too. So, for your amusement, I present the best of the worst.
They go to (place):
because three ghosts–past, present, and future–visited them in the night.
because they made the Kessel run in 12 parsecs.
because a group of Nazis shot his father in the stomach, and he has to use the Holy Grail to save his life.
because Shia LaBeouf saw it in a comic once.
because he has Dead Pool’s/Wolverine’s healing factor and can’t be killed.
because he just found out that he is the last of a near invincible race.
because he volunteered as tribute.
because he hopes his vampire and wolf boyfriends will be there–even though he can’t choose between them.
because, sorry, Mario, but your Princess is in another castle.
because he bought a junker car that, to his surprise, can transform into a robot.
because when he checked the killer’s hook was still hanging from the door…
If you have a minute, check out my “Behind the Scenes” post on “Writer, Writer, Pants on Fire” about writing beyond what you know. And unless you have been moonlighting as The Most Interesting Man in the World, it’s a problem that will hit sooner rather than the typical way this cliche ends.
Special thanks to YA author Mandy McGinnis for the opportunity!
Painters would never dream of putting brush to canvas without first mixing their paint, yet writers often begin a draft of a scene with little planning. If they are anything like me, writing is a creative rush, a thrilling ride into the unknown. It’s a little like hang gliding without scouting a landing spot first.
Plenty of times spontaneous writing works. You run down after an idea or fleeting image
and discover the world deepens and plot expands like magic. Of course for every story like Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” there are so many false starts, sputtering middles, and weak endings.
Especially in a novel, where readers expect scenes tie into others and foreshadowing pays off, the chance of failure increases exponentially. Writers who hope to be productive can’t waste fifty pages on a series of failed chapters. You don’t have to get it exactly right the first time, but there is a method to ensure that first draft hits close to the mark.
Define the scene’s purpose: What is the goal of the scene? Who needs to be present, and are there too many or too few people in the scene? (Hint: scenes with only one character present need to have compelling action.) What needs to happen? How does it move the story forward to expand the story’s world?
Location: Where will the scene take place? Is that the best, most dramatic place? I almost never use the first setting that comes to mind. A great location creates mood, conveys emotion, and can give your characters life. It’s critical so come up with something better than what you thought of immediately.
Envision the scene: Create a list of details, including how important items in the scene look, taste, feel, sound, and smell. Whenever the scene feels thin, like it needs more sensory information, refer to this list and use the best, most relevant one.
Point-of-view: Even better, how does each character feel about the place and the details? One may love the place and find the sights and smells enjoyable. Maybe the other doesn’t.
Example: In my novel The Sugarmaker’s Son and short story “Heartwood” several major scenes take place in the family’s sugarhouse, where they boil maple sap to make syrup. Often the scenes were shifted outside of the building or set to different activities in the sugarhouse to create variation. The protagonist Teddy Robinson brings enthusiasm in the earlier scenes, sullen anger in the middle ones, and desperation just before the climax. As his attitude changes, his feelings about the setting changes as well. To begin with a clear idea of what needs to happen and who needs to be present gives that palette of sensory details thousands of variations I could use. Any detail Teddy noticed filtered through his emotion, so does the same detail when experienced by his brother or friends.
Doesn’t this take all of the spontaneity out of writing? Not in my experience. It gives the creative mind endless room to explore … and discover.
“Nobody tells this to people who are beginners, I wish someone told me. All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know its normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work.”
“Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take awhile. It’s normal to take awhile. You’ve just gotta fight your way through.”
She had worked a double shift earlier, and they’d headed to a party at the house of one of Moises’s friends around two a.m. Nols remembered she wanted to visit the boardwalk in the morning. “We’ll rent bikes and ride the whole thing. Twice,” Penny said, popping the cap from a beer bottle. “If you can wake up that is—riding ends at 10:30.”
Nols groaned. “I’ll try.”
Then they sat on the couch together, talking with two guys from Rehoboth. The four toasted each other, then toasted England, then American involvement in World War II. “Yanks drink horrible tea, but other than that you’re all right,” Penny concluded. Moises had a beer sitting next to him on the coffee table and, without looking up, worked a pen over paper, drawing.
He and Nols didn’t recall when Penny left the party. Nols remembered the slow way the room moved, how this hippie bartender brought along his bow-legged pit bull. When he woke at ten in the morning, Nols found her coat and clothes, but her shoes were missing.
Nols learned the basic facts about Penny’s death from the police, and all night, while he and Jorge drove, he had pulled apart those facts. Listed details. Replayed his memories of her, searching, hoping to fill what was missing from that night. The way he would later tell it over and again, the only sequence that felt true was this: Before dawn Penny walked down to the sand, right along the ocean. He imagined the mole crabs dug holes under her feet. She probably felt serene when she stepped into the water, sensing the waves’ chill, the sea foam that tumbled up then slid back. She wasn’t thinking about tides when she swam out to see the city lights from beyond the breakers, wasn’t thinking about rip currents, narrow rushes of water that surge offshore. He imagined Penny looked back to the boardwalk, the electric light shimmering in broken zigzags across the black ocean. Then she felt weakness in her thighs and arms and started back to shore. Pulling at the water, she looked up only to find the boardwalk was further away, her fatigue worse. Aching. Her lungs burned. Nols wondered if Penny realized then she was helpless, that she wasn’t going to make it back. He imagined the salt water eclipsing her vision, hinting at the inky darkness below, and when she stopped treading water then slipped underneath the surface, weighed down by her own body.
When they were three blocks from Penny’s apartment Nols asked if they could drive a while longer. “I feel sick,” he said. “The rum, maybe.” He could see that Moises knew he was lying, asking for time. But soon they would be standing in that compressed living room with her four roommates. Soon they would admit to everyone Penny’s body was found on a barrier island.
“Sure, I still have a quarter tank,” Moises said. “Just don’t throw up in my car.”
They neared the inlet and headed west, over the bridge and along the beginning of Route 50, leaving Ocean City. Dawn spilled over the bay, and Nols felt the sun through the window.
They drove through a tangle of houses, along streets and canals. Light flickered through spindly trees. They stopped at an elementary school where no children were playing; swings hung empty.
He could see Penny again, as the police had revealed her at the station. A dribble of foam clung to the edge of her mouth, a slice of seaweed to her hair. Penny’s eyes were glistening and half-open as if she were only nodding off.
Then he couldn’t bear sitting in the car any longer: the seat felt hot on his back; the belt squeezed his chest. Nols stumbled from the Camaro and gasped in humidity. Shaking, he knelt in the grass and looked out at the field—the patches of soil and clumps of dandelions.
As he stood and ran, eyes closed, feeling rushing air on his face and popping dandelion stems against his sneaker tops, he dreamed a thousand things. Behind Nols seeds caught breeze and painted the lonely morning with wishes.
Published in Think Journalin 2010; Finalist in the Delaware Beach Life Writing Contest 2007
Penny’s four roommates were waiting back at the apartment so Nols and Moises drove north on Coastal Highway instead. Neither mentioned they had passed the clumps of buildings where Penny lived, even when they had gone sixty streets beyond the hotels at the end of the boardwalk.
Nols slumped in the seat of Moises’s Camaro. Street light sliced across the peeling dashboard. Grunge guitar crackled from blown-out speakers. They drove faster, past 100th Street, where crowds and cops thinned. That’s when Moises reached under the seat and pulled out a fifth of rum. Glancing in the rear-view mirror, he drank then passed the bottle.
“I was saving this for a special occasion,” he said, flipping shaggy, brown hair from his eyes. “Tonight’s as good as any, I guess.” Moises was twenty-five, from San Juan, and had yellowed teeth from drinking a pot of coffee every morning.
“I’m not sure I can do this,” Nols whispered, holding the rum against his thigh. “What do I tell them?” He watched tourists playing a cheap miniature golf course: pink with sunburn, they still wore fuchsia swimsuits and flip-flops from the beach. Mosquitoes tumbled in the fluorescent lights above the parking lot.
“You should start with that rum,” Moises said. “Some things nobody should do sober.”
Ocean City, Maryland, and its boardwalk puts on a grand show for tourists. On the stage they find clean entertainment: smart aleck tee shirts, picture key chains, incense, hermit crabs, caramel popcorn, salt water taffy—everything costs a mint, payment in cash.
Behind that façade, where smorgasbord eaters can’t see, live the stiffs who work at crab shacks or wrap threadlocks in your kids’ hair. Girls from Europe and former soviet countries; boys on work permits from England, Scotland or Ireland. They slum in efficiency apartments by the half dozen drinking Rolling Rock beer. They smoke pot on balconies, blaring Alice in Chains three blocks from the minivans in the inlet.
That’s how Nols met Penny: they both waited tables at a seafood restaurant on the bay. Moises cooked in the kitchen. All day the fishing boats and jet skis motored across the water, cutting wake. Nobody called him Allen that summer—plain, boring Allen. Penny, who came from London, started calling him Nols because his last name is Nolan. Everyone else did, too.
On slow days, the waitstaff pretended they came from different countries. Nols faked being from Dublin but sounded Scottish; Penny played American. “Welcome! I’m Lisa, a college student from Indiana,” Penny told a table of four guys on a golf vacation. “Customers tip better when they think you’re poor, young and American,” she told him later and put her finger to her lips in a silent Shh.
Nols was a local, living with his parents before going back to Frostburg State in the fall: he knew she was right.
In his wallet, Nols kept his two favorite pictures of Penny, half a column of those four black-and-white shots that only come from photo booths. The kind that go in sequence. The kind that couples buy on the boardwalk to mark their romance’s giddy beginning.
That July evening Nols had spun the stool to the right height, crammed in the tiny booth with Penny on his lap, then pulled the powder blue curtain closed. The light was hot, like he imagined a movie set would be, and there they were together: his hands pressed against her ribs, feeling her breath; Penny grinning, her crooked eyeteeth turned out. Then the camera flash, sharp, unexpected.
They held the photographs, still wet with chemicals, and agreed Penny would keep the first two snapshots, and Nols the others. He had memorized the entire progression. In the first two, Penny and he were smiling, her temple on his cheek; the third, they wagged their tongues. The fourth picture captured them kissing, like kids’ faces pressed on a window, their teeth clicking against each other. Nols and Penny laughed afterward, surprised and embarrassed by what just happened: their first kiss.
As a border guard on the east side of the Wall you had only heard the word as a faint echo,
somewhere beyond. But it grew louder at midnight as people gathered at the gate, their traveling papers in hand. Thousands stood shoulder to shoulder.
Other guards looked to you then lowered their rifles as Berliners, east and west, fell into one another, embracing, laughing through sobs.
An old man wept, pausing at the checkpoint, rebalancing on his cane, before walking to meet his family again. Twenty years. He had bought and kept all of their birthday gifts for two decades, waiting. Boys with hammers and axes climbed the wall. They scanned, turning, taking in the whole of Berlin, and smiled, shouting, then striking the wall. They chipped the concrete until it finally cracked.
You nodded then reached in your parka for a cigarette. A united Berlin; this was truly a night to celebrate.
Classic German Army Cold Weather Parka. Four front pockets and one inside meant you never ran out of space for gear. Heavy duty material with hood and removable fleece liner promised years of all-season wear.
Zipper and button fastening. Shoulders finished with tri-color, stitched German flag. Drawstrings at waist and hood. Durable. Comfortable.The start of a revolution.