Inline Commentary Fiction Writing

In this post I’m going to introduce a possible method for fiction story writing. I got the idea while attending a fiction writing seminar where the speaker offered this tip: “I like to write sentences that beget other sentences.” I’d never heard this expression before but it seemed worth a closer look. I understood what the speaker was getting at: write a sentence that refers to, or alludes to, things that require further elucidation. Then, in subsequent sentences the writer has some idea of what to write more about — those things needing elucidation. (Clearly this is more suited for those of us who are pantsers).

As an example, consider the following sentence:

line 1

Notice two things about this sentence. First, it has a line number on the left (more about this later). Second, this sentence raises a number of questions. Assuming it is the starting sentence of a story, then: 1) who is “I,” 2) who is Mark, 3) why would I think he wanted to kill me, and 4) what did he do that shocked me? Also, 5) we know nothing about the scene these two characters are in, nor 6) the timeframe of the scene. There are also the 7) inevitable situational aspects we don’t know about.

In subsequent paragraphs we start filling in this information, mindful that in so doing we can allude to still more things that require elucidation. For now, which of the above questions do we address first? Well, let’s just draft an arbitrary sample of a plausible next paragraph and see what we find.

line2

line3

This paragraph addresses questions Q3 and Q4 above, but that’s about it. Further, it adds to our list of questions: 8) who is ringing the doorbell, 9) what do “fraudulent baseline” and “fair-dare mean, 10a) why did Mark kill himself, and 10b) why did Mark jump instead of putting his gun to his head and pulling the trigger? Of these questions it seems to me we first need to address Q8 – who is ringing the doorbell. It is human nature to respond to an incessantly sounding notification, be it doorbell or phone. Anyway, the “I” in the story can’t do anything for the guy who went over the planter so he may as well answer the door.

line4

line5

line6

Now we have a partial answer to Q1 and Q2. We know that “I” is Jeff Bailor and that Mark is Mark Wye, an accountant. However, before going further it is evident that we could use some help in tracking all these questions and answers. Below is a simple table that may do the job. This is where the line numbers come in handy. In MSWord these numbers can be readily added on any selected text. However, I don’t think it necessary to be too precise in referring to them. The idea is they help us refer back to the general area in the text where the question or answer was presented. For example, the line number could just as easily refer to the paragraph containing the question or answer. Also, note the line column to the left of the addresses column refers to the line (or paragraph) that gives an answer to the question. Note that the line numbers in this post apply only to story lines. Also note that many answers are not complete answers; that is, we can expect more complete information later on.  For this reason the column on the right is titled Addresses meaning the entry may not be the complete answer. Cells in the table that are left blank mean no entry has been identified for them yet. Thus we see, for instance, that I have not yet addressed Q6 – the timeframe of the scene.

 

line QUESTION line ADDRESSED
1 1 – who is “I,” 40 Jeff Bailor
1 2 – who is Mark 40 Mark Wye, accountant
1 3 – why would I think he would want to kill me 2 Mark was brandishing a gun at him, threating to shoot
1 4 – what did he do that shocked me 8 Ran out to the balcony and jumped over the planter, plunging to his death
1 5 – we know nothing about the scene these two characters are in 47 In Mark Wye’s apartment on the 7th floor
1 6 – the timeframe of the scene
1 7 – inevitable situational aspects we don’t know about.
1 7a – what is the relationship between the two men 35 Mark was Jeff’s accountant
1 7b – what brought them to be together at this time and place
5 8 – what did Mark mean by “fraudulent baseline” and “fair-dare”
19 9 – what caused the two cops to come to the door, especially with guns drawn

 

This is a lot to take in in one post, so I’ll end it here and continue the discussion in a subsequent post. I’m not sure if this method has been identified by others; I can only say that I came up with it on my own from the inspirational tip mentioned in the beginning. For lack of a better term I’d call this method the Fiction Inline Commentary Writing Approach, or FICWA. If I had to define it in a few sentences I would describe it as: a writing tool consisting of original numbered-line fiction text interspersed with inline commentary. The later focuses on the identification and accounting of explicit, implicit, or anticipated questions and answers raised in the fiction text. A simple table method is used to facilitate Q/A tracking. The table need not be embedded inline and in fact is more easily used if in a separate window (assuming a computer is used).

 

 

 

 

OADA and Character Drive

OADA_jpg

 

Character motivation is also part of the OADA model (see my August 25 and Sept. 2 posts). Fiction writing classes often emphasize the importance of knowing what the protagonist wants. What the protagonist wants gives focus to the story and forms a basis for whatever motivation s/he might have. All characters have wants even though it’s the protagonist’s wants that the story centers on.

The truth is that wants say a lot about a person; they can be incredibly telling. For example, suppose one of my middle-age characters has wanted to be a successful novelist all of her adult life, yet has failed to complete her first manuscript. We immediately know that she is not applying herself; no one has to tell us this. More telling is when we learn she has no plan to achieve what she wants. She is either a person who can delude herself or she is trying to delude others.

Some wants have a time limit. Suppose my nineteen-year-old character wants to break into major league baseball. He has joined a minor league team and is doing all the right things. However, we all know he only has a limited number of years to make it into the majors. That’s the nature of professional sports. It also happens to be pretty typical of other pursuits, like the performing arts.

Our character’s plans for achieving what s/he wants comprise his forecasted trajectory through the story. If the want is significant enough, at some point it shakes up his routine existence. Also, it is typical that a preliminary trajectory may be altered along the way. The character may realize that the grind of going to medical school, for instance, is more than he bargained for. Or the wannabe thespian character may decide to leave New York City after years of disappointing audition outcomes. Characters, like people in the real world, should be a work-in-progress. We learn from our mistakes; we try new things knowing they may not work for us; and we have varying levels of risk tolerance at different ages. Adult wants can be tied to human traits such as determination, work ethic, biases, beliefs, talents, and life styles.

How much of the above an author wants to deal with in a story is s/he’s call. However, a common complaint from fiction readers is that too many of our characters are overused. I think much of this stems from using simplified character. Humans are complex; we don’t always know what we want and we certainly can have multiple wants – sometimes conflicting wants. Our wants can be short-term and long-term. Logically, the short-term is more about intermediate wants whereas the long term is about goals and dreams. That said, many characters (like people) move their dreams into the short term. I once met a young lady working in a NYC smoothie shop who had been there six years trying to break into theater. After I made my purchase and left it occurred to me: how many more years was she willing to try before she either succeeded or gave up?

Interestingly, there can be interplay between wants and self-identity. Our character may desperately want a big house on a hill, a CEO position at a big company, a few million dollars to spend, or to be a star on a TV show. S/he may never feel happy about themselves if they go through life not achieving such goals. On the other hand, some who do achieve their goal allow it to define them. They can’t very well separate who they are from: 1) their occupation, 2) their domicile, 3) their need to be in the public’s eye, or 4) their expensive toys. As an aside, several best-selling authors have mentioned that, despite their photographs on their books and at bookstores, most of their readers wouldn’t recognize them if they were alone in an elevator with them (as many have been at events such as workshops). So, if one strives for fame and fortune, perhaps writing novels is not the optimal career path.

I’ve been focusing my fiction work on characters who are complex and adapt to the events that influence their lives. They have multiple wants and priorities for fulfilling them. They can see opportunities when they present themselves. They also fail. In contrast, it’s easy to find many drama series on TV that have grown stale. The reason is clear: even though the characters appear to have their wins and losses over many episodes, they never really change. I insist on one quality for all my protagonists: they must learn from their mistakes.

 

OADA and the Routine

OADA_jpg

 

In this post, I want to talk more about the OADA model for writing (see my August 25 post). The accompanying illustration shows more of what comprises OADA. While further OADA development is needed, this graphic introduces the ROUTINE SCRIPT as well as other stored matter that resides in our MEMORY. Let’s face it – no one can function without memory. Not only that – without memory we have no identity. Don’t believe me? Then talk with someone who has firsthand experience with the unfortunate souls suffering from dementia or Alzheimer’s.

When I sit at my computer and start writing with a fresh, blank screen I do what a lot of “pantsers” do: I think about my characters interacting with situations. I tend to think this way because that is how life unfolds to us humans. When folks hear about something happening to a friend or relative, only part of the news is the event itself. The rest of the news is how it affects them. For example, suppose Sam’s close friends know he lives paycheck to paycheck and is just scraping by. If they learn Sam was mugged by a street gang and his injuries will keep him laid up for a few weeks, their first thoughts revolve around his medical condition. Once they know he will recover, their thoughts shift to how will he pay his medical bills and recover his lost wages. The mugging was the event; being injured and penniless is the situation.

Another way to think about this example is that Sam has been temporarily removed from his routine (day-to-day) life and now faces new challenges. During Sam’s routine existence his OADA process pretty much ran on automatic. Sure, he still observed, assessed, made decisions, and acted; it simply wasn’t anything noteworthy. For example, he observed that it was going to be a cold day so he assessed that a light jacket was advisable. He decided to wear it, thus he grabbed his jacket and put it on. This routine existence is represented by the ROUTINE SCRIPT shown in the graphic under the MEMORY area. This doesn’t mean Sam doesn’t have hopes, dreams, plans, wants, and the like. It simply means all those things are stored another place in his memory, perhaps in the location called PLANS, WANTS, & EXPERIENCES.

Now, however, Sam is confronted with a new situation. Now his OADA process is running in high gear, thrashing around in his memory searching for ideas and options based on his experiences and knowledge. Sam’s mind, like most of ours, thinks in terms of questions: how can I recoup the money I’ve lost from missing work? How can I get money to pay my medical bills? How can I avoid another mugging – I didn’t have any money on me anyway?

Fortunately, Sam’s friends come by and let him know they can help with the bills. He has done a good turn or two for all of them over the years and thinks perhaps they can help solve his problem. Each of them gives him a slip of paper with the amount they can contribute. Luckily, Sam sees that his friends will indeed help him over the hump. With their help and his short-term disability income, it should be enough to get him back on his feet.

Stepping back for a moment, I don’t see that I have much of a story to write at this point. I don’t have anything against happy endings but I do want to avoid routine and predictable situations. The truth is that the day-to-day routine of our characters plays an important role in a story. It provides the backdrop, the reference from which we (as readers and writers) can recognize what’s changed. We can also better understand what the character is thinking and feeling when things change by knowing what passed for the status quo before the change.

I could build a story by making Sam’s situation more challenging. Let’s say he is about to divorce his second wife and will have to pay more alimony (he’s still paying alimony to his first wife). This pretty much means the help his friends offer is not going to get him where he needs to be. He has to consider more drastic action, like selling his car or subleasing his apartment and moving in with his brother Larry.

There are more options for Sam to look at, any number of which will cause him to depart his routine life. Then things will start getting interesting. However, I’m going to stop here with this example because it has illustrated my points.

There are two more points I want to make on this topic. One is that making changes in Sam’s life could eventually lead to his establishing a new routine. In other words, routines are not permanent but over time can be re-cast. This underscores an aspect of human nature: most days in our lives are, well, routine. The second point addresses the unique challenges that science fiction and fantasy writers face when they are worldbuilding. They have to consider what is routine in their world and what is not. Since their worlds are different from what we human readers know to be normal, they have to clearly make us aware of the distinction between routine events and the unusual.