Even a simple change can add complications

Karalee’s Post #69

I’m away in Mexico for the next two weeks and my hubby brought it to my attention that it will be the first two weeks that we will be on our own without children for over twenty-four years. We both love travelling and have our itinerary quite full, but it is also a good thing that we both love to read which means we are never bored or in the need to “have to make conversation.”

This will also be the first time that I’m travelling with an armful of eBooks too, downloaded on the mini i-pad I got for Christmas. Yes, I’ve entered the new age, but not with complete trust. A friend I went on a trek to Nepal with a couple of years ago had all of her reading material on her Kindle that crashed and she had nothing to fall back on. There will definitely be a couple of real paper books in my suitcase just in case.

Of course this week I need to make sure that everything will be taken care of: the house, my two dogs, and my university-going son that still lives at home and needs to be fed (and help look after the house and dogs).

My organizing was falling into place to the point of having those dull bits that Silk referred to this week until I took my youngest dog to the vet to have a tooth pulled. A minor thing, a tiny front tooth that was crowded and already loose. Heck, I was thinking of saving a bundle and getting the pliers out and giving it a good yank myself.

Then the vet called and asked if I’d had other dental work done somewhere else since my dog had a broken back tooth and some missing teeth. I said ‘no’ and she recommended an Xray that revealed a tooth that hadn’t grown in and was becoming abscessed.

So instead of one tiny tooth that would have been easy peasy, my dog had three teeth pulled and a whole bunch of stitches, which complicates the follow-up home care.

Maybe it was the three teeth that made me think of the ‘The Three Little Pigs’ and how they needed to build a stronger house to keep out the hungry wolf. Sometimes it takes a slightly different look at life to make me understand that a simple change in one character’s situation effects what other characters do in a story, and that it doesn’t have to be high action shoot ’em up stuff to add tension and conflict and make a character suffer.







Now the difference between one and three teeth being pulled effects both my dog and myself. My dog’s routine is disrupted for ten days as she needs pain medication, a soft food diet, and no toys to play with or bite on. For her, no toys is real suffering!

For me there is added stress to ensure that my neighbor knows what to do for the first four days when my son is out of town at an ultimate Frisbee tournament in the US, that my son knows what to do when he comes home, and that my daughter is the go-to person if complications arise. Now I also need to buy medication and a different dog food and scout the house for the gazillion stuffed toys my dog loves to play with. Plus, there is the worry factor when I’m gone.

Of course, if this were a scenario in a book it would be the set-up for something more dramatic such as my dog becoming seriously ill, or the vet implanting something in my dog for a secret research project, etc, etc.

For me this is a reminder that to add conflict and make a character suffer, even a simple change can be effective and alter the course of action. I don’t always have to bring out the guns so-to-speak, and being more subtle can be more effective at the right times.

I will be back the first week in April.

Happy writing!









Surprises heighten emotions

Karalee’s Post #67

My 5Writer friends have been discussing the need to have and the difficulty of creating surprises, conflicts, and suspense in their writing. Even the joy of reading for reading sake seems like a lost pleasure in today’s generation, taken over by social media, video games, movies and TV.

So is all the time and effort worth it to keep writing stories that we fear the new generation has no interest in reading anyway?

Well I must confess that I have spent most of my reading hours in the last couple of months viewing Downton Abbey (now into its fourth season) and House of Cards (in its second season). Before now I hadn’t watched either and I wanted to understand what my friends were talking about.

Beyond a doubt I’m enjoying both series, and although the plot-lines are very different I keep watching them for the same reasons: the characters and the element of surprise and suspense.

downton abbeyI find that Downton Abbey is more predictable in its plot-line, but I’m still entertained due to the  the awesome setting in the abbey as well as the characters and their interactions and changes.



house of cardsAs for House of Cards, the element of surprise has me intrigued. The protagonist Francis Underwood (an antihero) is devious and malicious yet shows that he cares for his wife enough that he isn’t totally unlikable (although he is becoming more unlikable as the series continues). By the time Francis murdered Peter Russo, a Democrat running for Governor of Pennsylvania, I was expecting it, but when Francis pushed the reporter Zoe Barnes in front of an oncoming commuter train, I was completely blown away.

At first I couldn’t believe it. Why would the scriptwriters kill the person that I related to the most in the series? I LIKED Zoe. She had balls to stand up to Francis (now VP of the Unites States) and I was rooting for her to take him down!

To dissect this turn-of-events, it isn’t the fact that Francis murdered Zoe that bothered me, it’s the fact that Zoe is dead. Out of the series. Gone. Kaput.

zoe in house of cardsNow what? I was depending on Zoe to do great things in the series. She was bright, cute and gutsy. How could the scriptwriters get rid of her?

I found my feelings of disbelief, disappointment- and yes- anger, quite intriguing. Then, before watching the next episode I put my writer’s hat back on and asked myself: What has killing Zoe achieved?

  • total surprise, which caused my above emotional responses.
  • curiosity. Now what? Someone has to take Zoe’s place and go after the antihero Francis Underwood. Francis can’t literally get away with murder and ultimately become the president of the US!
  • Zoe’s replacement will also be in danger, so suspense is still high and I want to keep watching to see what happens.

Now with Zoe being literally killed off, it made me think about the characters I’m developing in my next story. I had NEVER thought about getting rid of one of my main characters that I’m literally telling my story through. It’s like killing the detective in a mystery.

But why not? It is absolutely a way to bring a new main character on stage to keep the story going. It may not be what I choose to do, but on the other hand it has opened my eyes to seeing other possibilities.

And it’s these other possibilities that not only keep writers writing, it also pulls in readers (or even starts people reading) and gets producers excited about turning our books into movies.

No, I don’t believe that readers are a dying breed, but they do expect a good story with unexpected twists and turns in order to devote their time to reading the book or even watching it in movie form.

Have surprises you’ve experienced through someone else’s storytelling enriched your own writing? 

The Secret of being a bore…

Square Peg in a Round HoleHelga’s Post #72: … is to tell everything (Voltaire)

Joe’s previous post, ‘Surprise, Surprise’ opened up a vast opportunity for discussion of planning a novel. Why? Because so much of a book’s ultimate success hinges on this one part of a story. After all, who doesn’t like a story that’s unpredictable? But, as Joe said, it’s not easy.

In my own writing, I never know during the planning stage how I will surprise my readers. If I would know myself there’s the danger that my readers will smell a rat and can figure it out well before they get to the dreaded, sagging middle. Ultimately, I want to surprise myself, and I often do when I have to research a certain element in my story. Suddenly information emerges that totally catches me off guard, and this forces me to change my plot. Often it leads to unexpected opportunities that make my story more quirky, more unique. I think that’s the main reason why I keep resisting the outlining process. I realize that mine is a flawed process, but getting an organic writer to do a scene by scene and chapter by chapter outline before writing the first sentence is like… well, you know the cliché of the square peg.

I would like to chat about another important element of a good story, related, yet different to surprise, namely Suspense. I know this has been over-discussed and over-worked, but I always find it fascinating to explore new angles.

First off, what elements create suspense in a story?

Two things have to happen: Conflict and tension (no, they are not the same as suspense). Interaction of juxtaposing opinions is conflict; interaction of conflict and players creates tension. Add a time element to tension and voila, we have created suspense.

Suspense is not created equal. It comes in a myriad of forms. Readers who love police procedurals will be thrilled with a nail-biting denouement of a shootout or last-moment capture of a villain before he blows up a school. Romance readers will get their pound of flesh (cliché intended), when their heroine faces the biggest betrayal of her life – the man she sacrificed everything for has impregnated her younger sister and she has to decide on how to take revenge, or, escalating the suspense, find ways to forgive. Perhaps a mother has to choose between saving her small child on the railroad tracks or cause the train with two hundred passengers to derail. Or something.

Suspense can also be much more subtle, yet no less intriguing. In literary novels it can take on psychological or emotional suspense, like the protagonist’s spouse slowly descending into mental illness, or her closest friend revealing a personality trait that devastates her and she may never recover from the loss of loyalty. Just as antipathy, dissimilarity of views, hate, contempt, all can accompany true love, according to Canadian media guru Marshall McLuhan. That too is suspense in the hands of a skilled writer.
Either way, suspense, will keep your readers’ noses in your book and have them line up at Chapters on the first morning your sequel is up for sale. I was surprised therefore when a friend and one of my beta readers of Taste of the Past (culinary mystery co-written with Paula) said there was too much conflict in the book. “These people are always fighting”, was her feedback. “It spoiled all that delicious food and the sunsets and beautiful Tuscan landscape.”

Did she have a point? At first reflection I dismissed her feedback as coming from a reader who does not appreciate the value and necessity of suspense and conflict. After all, ‘Cut quarrels out of literature, and you will have very little history or drama or fiction or epic poetry left’, said American sociologist Robert S. Lynd some decades ago.

Upon further reflection, maybe my beta-reading friend was right – or partially so. Perhaps we missed some subtle nuances. We wrote that book eight years ago, my first serious effort at writing a full novel. ‘Conflict in every scene’ was the credo we’d been taught and that’s the one Paula and I wrote by. Could it be that the conflict my friend referred to was too obvious, too in-your-face? Maybe the stakes weren’t clear enough or high enough and we might have over-compensated with too much outward and petty fighting. I hope we find the time to do a serious edit of our manuscript. After having the benefit of eight years of learning and practicing writing with our capable critique group, who knows what good will come of it.

But I am sure of this: I am loath to bore my readers. I’d rather start knitting socks. As Jean Baudrillard reminds us, the world’s second worst crime is boredom. The first is being a bore.


War stories


Silk’s Post #59 – I’m always conflicted by conflict.

doveIn my head, I’m a confirmed dove. I’m against violence. Of all kinds. Period. I’d be happier if the entire world dis-armed. Bombs, guns, everything. I can’t grasp any intellectual justification for war. It’s always destructive and never constructive.

There. I’m out of the dove closet. I freely admit that this is not necessarily a good characteristic for a writer. Conflict is our stock in trade. Like all human beings, however, I have another side.

hawkIn my heart, I’m often a hawk. Push me and I’m more likely to push back than turn the other cheek. I’m inclined to fight for the underdog. I hate bullies, liars and hypocrites. Sometimes an eye for an eye is the only conceivable response.

Sorry, any of you out there who used to think I was such a nice lady. Now you know I can be as bloodthirsty as the next person. And now you know why conflict is such a conflict for me.

But maybe this internal contradiction isn’t so unusual. In fact, maybe it’s common – even virtually universal. How else can you explain the enduring popularity of dramatic war stories – the kind of stories that mirror the external conflict of battle with the gut-wrenching internal conflict that tortures their characters? There’s a reason that the sphere in which fighting takes place is called the theatre of war.

I was mulling this over yesterday as I watched the classic 1942 movie Casablanca for probably the dozenth time. I never get through it with dry eyes. Has there ever been a more enduringly popular cinematic war story? Not according to legendary film critic Roger Ebert, who noted it was “probably on more lists of the greatest films of all time than any other single title,” and gave it the edge for first place, simply because it is so loved.

In November 1942, just as the Allied forces were invading North Africa in real-life World War II, Casablanca, starring the incomparable Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman as star-crossed lovers, opened in the Hollywood Theatre in New York City. Critic Bosley Crowther of the New York Times called it, “a picture which makes the spine tingle and the heart take a leap.”

While it was a box-office success story from the beginning, it wasn’t the biggest hit of 1943 (that was For Whom the Bell Tolls, another dramatic story about an entirely different war). Casablanca, however, won Best Picture, Best Director (Michael Curtiz), and Best Writing/Screenplay (Julius and Phillip Epstein, Howard Koch) at the 1943 Academy Awards.

What makes Casablanca unique, however, is that it has not only maintained its stature over the past 71 years (yes, 71 – count ’em), it has actually become more popular. It is the most frequently broadcast film on American television. It continues to be screened in movie theatres, notably around college campuses. It has been at or near the top of virtually every list of great movies over the decades, from Time magazine, to the Writers Guild of America, the American Film Institute and the IMDb website. And it is still a favourite home movie pick, the latest release being a 70th Anniversary Blu-ray/DVD collector’s edition in 2012.

So, what can we writers learn from Casablanca?

Does it endure because it’s an icon of the Golden Age of Hollywood, as the LA Times suggested on the film’s 50th anniversary? Is it the romantic chemistry between Bogart and Bergman that keeps people watching it again and again? Is it the direction? The cinematography? The script?

As good as all those things are (even the elements that, to our modern eyes and ears, seem dated, even hokey), I think the secret to Casablanca’s success is story, pure and simple.

Film critic Murray Burnett called it “true yesterday, true today, true tomorrow.”

Bestselling writer and critic Umberto Eco wrote that, as a movie, “by any strict critical standards … Casablanca  is a very mediocre film … a comic strip … a hotch potch.” But listen to what he thought about it as a story:

” … as we enter Rick’s Place  … at once a tangle of Eternal Archetypes comes into play. These are situations that have presided over stories throughout the ages. But usually to make a good story a single archetypal situation is enough. More than enough. Unhappy Love, for example, or Flight. But Casablanca is not satisfied with that: It uses them all. The city is the setting for a Passage, the passage to the Promised Land … But to make the passage, one must submit to a test, the Wait.

The passage from the waiting room to the Promised land requires a Magic Key, the visa. It is around the winning of this Key that passions are unleashed. Money (which appears at various points, usually in the form of the Fatal Game, roulette) would seem to be the means for obtaining the Key. But eventually we discover that the Key can be obtained only through a Gift – the gift of the visa, but also the gift Rick makes of his Desire by sacrificing himself. For this is also the story of a round of Desires, only two of which are satisfied: that of Victor Laszlo, the purest of heroes, and that of the Bulgarian couple. All those whose passions are impure fail.

Thus, we have another archetype: The Triumph of Purity. The impure do not reach the Promised Land … but they do achieve purity through sacrifice – and this means Redemption. Rick is redeemed and so is the French police captain. We come to realize that underneath it all there are two Promised Lands: One is America … and the other is the Resistance – the Holy War. That is where Victor has come from, and that is where Rick and the captain are going … 

Into this orgy of sacrificial archetypes … is inserted the theme of Unhappy Love: unhappy for Rick, who loves Ilsa and cannot have her; unhappy for Ilsa, who loves Rick and cannot leave with him; unhappy for Victor, who understands that he has not really kept Ilsa. 

Thus Casablanca is not just one film. It is many films, an anthology … in it there unfolds with almost telluric force the power of Narrative in its natural state, without Art intervening to discipline it … When all the archetypes burst in shamelessly, we reach Homeric depths. Two cliches make us laugh. A hundred cliches move us. For we sense dimly that the cliches are talking among themselves, and celebrating a reunion … the height of banality allows us to catch a glimpse of the sublime … If nothing else, it is a phenomenon of awe.”

No wonder Casablanca has proved to be difficult to classify in terms of genre. Is it a romance? A melodramatic war story? A morality tale about sacrifice?

It’s all of these, of course. But in my mind, it is the balance between internal and external conflicts which resonates so strongly with audiences that they fall in love with the story – perhaps in spite of themselves. It’s the eternal struggle of humans of free will trying to make their way in a dangerous and chaotic world beyond their control.

Or as Rick cornily says to Ilsa in the famous parting scene at the airport, as the night fog shrouds their embrace, “I’m no good at being noble, but it doesn’t take much to see that the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.”

So could this story be told as dramatically without the wartime background? Maybe. But you’d have to build another story world that delivers danger, chaos and moral dilemma as well as a war does.

Epilogue: Writers Take Note

In 1982, a freelance writer named Chuck Ross decided to perpetrate a hoax with a mission. Would literary agents recognize a great story like Casablanca if they saw it? Maybe he was sick of rejections and wanted to cheer himself up.

He submitted the Casablanca script under his own name to 217 agencies, reverting to the title of the original play by Murray Burnett and Joan Alison from which the movie screenplay derived: Everybody Comes to Rick’s.

Of the 38 movie agencies that actually read it, but did not recognize it as Casablanca, 35 rejected it outright, with comments such as the following:

“I gave you five pages to grab me – didn’t do it.”

“I think the dialogue could have been sharper and I think the plot had a tendency to ramble. It could’ve been tighter and there could have been a cleaner line to it.”

“Story line is thin. Too much dialogue for amount of action. Not enough highs and lows in the script.”

The lesson here? Never give up in the face of rejections. Here’s looking at you, kid.


Remembrance Day 2013. Lest we forget.