Six Points About Character, Plot, and Dialogue
You Wish You'd Have Known Yesterday
by Sol Stein
If you could sit down in a chair next to the editor of work by James Baldwin, Elia Kazan, Jack Higgins, Jacques Barzun, David Frost, Budd Schulberg, Dylan Thomas and Lionel Trilling, what could that editor say that would be immediately helpful to you in your work? If you're a film writer or a novelist, would there be a benefit in sitting down with the man whom Kazan in his autobiography called his producer and director.
(Kazan may have been the only American to hit home runs in all three fields, film, theater and fiction. He directed five Pulitzer-prize-winning plays, received two Academy Awards® for directing plus a Lifetime Achievement Award, and capped his career with a novel that was #1 on the New York Times bestseller list for 37 consecutive weeks.)
If you think Kazan's and Baldwin's editor could have a few words you might find useful, take heed because you're listening to him.
1. The job of the editor is to help the writer realize the writer's intentions. The problem is that the intentions of many writers are wrong. The job of the writer is not to express himself or get something off his chest; his job is to provide the reader with an experience that is superior to what the reader experiences in everyday life. His job is to give the reader (or viewer) pleasure; only then will his insight mean something. As a writer, you are, in one sense, a troublemaker. A psychotherapist tries to relieve a person's stress, strain and tension. You are not a psychotherapist. Your job is to give readers and viewers stress, strain and tension. They love it because it is not in their life; it is in a book or on screen.
2. There's a book called 'Characters Make Your Story.' You don't have to read it. The title says it all. If you start with characters and put a protagonist and antagonist in opposition to each other and let the plot grow from that, you can build a contender. If you start with plot and sprinkle characters in it, the likely result is hackwork.
In my novel 'The Best Revenge," a successful Broadway producer and a gangster seem to come from opposite sides of the human spectrum. They start out as the worst of enemies and ,in the course of a Broadway production financed by ill-gotten money, become the best of friends. How that happens is the plot, but the success of the plot is entirely dependent on the credibility of the characters. If you're going for an Academy Award, base your so-called 'high concept' on the character of your characters. And here's a hint. If you look at the fiction that survived the 20th century, you'll find that almost all the main characters are eccentric. The creation of characters is an arrogant and highly skilled function because what you're doing is competing with God.
3. You are in a long line of storytellers whose job was to keep the listeners attention. The storyteller around the fire droned on. If his audience guessed what happened next, they either fell asleep or killed him. You are lucky. Your job is to arouse the reader's curiosity and not satisfy it. That's how suspense is created. Make sure your story has uncertainty about something, a prospective danger to the leading character, confrontations, set up something that cries for a resolution and then don't resolve it -- for a time. Remember that suspense occurs when the reader or viewer wants something to happen desperately and it isn't happening yet.
Suspense works best in a closed locale, like an elevator, or a weekend getaway where an unexpected person appears. You build suspense throughout a novel by remembering this: Never take the reader where the reader wants to go.
4. When I was invited to teach a course on 'Dialogue for Writers' at UCI (the University of California at Irvine to you non- Californians), I was told by the dean who invited me that, to his knowledge, there hadn't been a course on that subject before. I still find that hard to believe, but in the early 90s, I ended up giving that course in a medical amphitheater because of the demand of writers in every genre for instruction in a language that is not English or Spanish.
Dialogue is a foreign language, different from whatever language a writer has grown up using. It can make people unknown to the writer cry, laugh and believe lies in seconds. It is succinct, can carry a great weight of meaning in few words, and, above all, it is adversarial. That doesn't mean shouting. Adversarial dialogue can be subtle. It also has modes that are akin to pitches in baseball, fastballs, curve balls, sinkers, which are dealt with fully in my books and software because there isn't room in an article for this delicate and hugely important process. But let me give you a couple of examples.
Here's an Elmore Leonard character propositioning a woman with a curve ball: 'Let's get a drink and talk for a few days.' A sinker is useful for comedy: 'Are you going to let go of me, or shall I scream and let the neighbors see you in your undershirt?'
Characters reveal themselves in dialogue best when they are under stress and blurt out things they never meant to say.
What counts in dialogue is not what is said, but what is meant.
Dialogue is not at all like recorded speech. Evidence: Court transcripts are recorded speech, and awfully boring.
5. I sometimes run into writers who bristle at the idea that conflict is necessary. They say, 'Why should I have conflict? Why can't I deal with human relations without conflict?' The answer is simple. Conflict is the essence of dramatic action and has been involved in theater and fiction since the beginning of time. What is easy to lose sight of in an era of slam-bang conflict is that conflict needn't be violent action. Even subtle conflict is interesting to readers and viewers. Here's an example from a story by Richard Bausch, a short story writer and novelist whose work has merited a Modern Library edition of his selected stories. The exchange is between a wife waking a husband who has to wake his children.
'Casey,' she said. 'I'm up,' he told her. 'Don't just say 'I'm up.' 'I am up,' Casey said, 'I've been up since five forty-five.' 'Well, good. Get up up.'
Dialogue is permeated with an adversarial spirit that comes out as confrontation, suspicion, opposition and refusal. Readers love dialogue when it throws sparks.
6. A distinction used to be made between commercial fiction and literary fiction. That distinction doesn't make sense at a time when some well-crafted literary fiction makes a lot of money. 'Popular fiction' doesn't make sense either because literary fiction is also popular if measured by the number of copies sold. The distinction I draw is between what I call transient fiction and literary fiction. Novels that are transient are like one-night stands, sex as entertainment. The novel with higher aspirations involves a union with the reader that lasts beyond the last page. It's the kind of book we say we love. It deserves the durability of hardcover binding and acid-free pages and a long afterlife beyond the year of its publication.
'Do read this, it's a wonderful book,' is word-of-mouth that is responsible for books worth not only reading but also keeping. Fiction that has a chance of lasting is usually characterized by the writer's close attention to the choice of words, and with what I call particularity, a subject I have written a great deal about and show how to use in 'FictionMaster'®. Fiction thrives on precisely observed detail, not generalizations.
I was recently editing a novel by a lawyer that has moments of precisely observed particularity. His main character is someone I'd like to meet and know. If we're invited to spend 12 hours with a story, we want to fall in love with that principal character, and I feel that way about this novelist's protagonist. But when the writer deals with the antagonists (there are several), we get generalities that tarnish their credibility. Remember one word on your way to literary success: Particularity. I wish I had more time with you. There are two more things I'd like you to remember. A writer writes what other people only think. The best writers I have worked with try to do that and often succeed. They also focus on detail, especially unconventional detail. I have barely touched on the complex craft of writing in this short article. The good news is that I have cloned myself in two books, 'Stein on Writing' and 'How to Grow a Novel,' and I now instruct more than 100,000 writers interactively in three computer programs to which I invite your attention.
Sol Stein is a prize-winning playwright produced on Broadway, an anthologized poet, the author of nine novels, including the million-copy-seller, 'The Magician,' plus nonfiction books, screenplays and TV dramas. He has edited and published some of the most successful writers of our century.