The Logic Stage
If, during the Grammar level of reading, you were asking “What happened? Who did it happen to? What was this story about?”—you must now ask “How was it done?” Your job is to separate story from plot, character from characterization. Instead of focusing on what was said, you must now learn to focus on how it was said.
For those of us who received the modern American education, asking “How” is totally unfamiliar territory. Usually we just skip right over it to offer our uninformed opinions. But you will soon discover that in asking “how” you will receive a wealth of new information that was previously invisible to you.
Asking “how” is especially critical for writers, because therein lays the key to learning from the masters and teaching yourself how to write anything. I’m not exaggerating when I say that, for me, learning how to recognize how stories were made was like that moment in The Matrix when Neo stops the bullet because he has fully comprehended what the Matrix is and how to control it.
Eventually this skill to “see” the Matrix will become part of your muscle memory and you’ll be able to notice and appreciate a writer’s technique on your first read of a book. But for now, it’s best to practice on a book you are already familiar with—your favorite book, for example, or something you’ve read before.
Here are the exercises I used to train myself how to read for technique:
Step 1: Read with a pencil in your hand.
I started reading with a pencil so that I could mark every time a writer used a technique I was trying teach myself with my own writing. If you object to writing in physical books, read on an ereader and use the highlighter function.
Every book I read during my MFA program (including the ones I read for fun) has notes in the margins and portions of the text that have been highlighted or underlined. I read more than a hundred and fifty books during my MFA program and I practiced this exercise with just about every one of them.
Here are some examples of things I was looking for:
- In Richard Matheson’s I am Legend, I highlighted every bit of internal monologue, especially when the main character switches to the 2nd person to talk to himself. (See an upcoming craft post about this.)
- In Ron Carlson’s The Signal, I marked every time the story switched between the real-time present narrative and flashback.
- In Charles Dickens’s Our Mutual Friend, I highlighted every bit of character description.
- In Anne Patchett’s Bel Canto, I marked every point-of-view shift, and I marked where each point-of-view character provided a new bit of plot information that the reader would need to understand the whole story.
- In Ursula Le Guin’s The Lathe of Heaven, I underlined every metaphor and every simile.
- In Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, I highlighted every time the main character thought an event that happened to her, or thought about what something meant. A lot of the actions in the book are pretty mundane (so-and-so claimed a lunchbox was given to her by a teacher, when really she had bought it herself), however, the great tension in the book comes from the main character going over these mundane moments over and over again, in minute detail, explaining how significant they were. This is how tension is built.
To do this exercise properly, you need to have a basic understanding of what the craft components are, see Step 2.
Step 2: Label the parts
In order to labeling the parts of a story as you read, you need to understand some of the basic techniques to look for. The list of craft techniques goes on and on and the more you know, the more nuance you’ll be able to see. Below I’ve listed some broad categories to get you started.
In order to keep yourself from getting overwhelmed, I recommend only focusing on one craft technique at a time, both in your reading and in your writing.
Showing vs. Telling
Tells tend to be adjectives. Shows tend to be nouns. One of my teachers, Junse Kim, told us to think of a “Tell” as being a thesis statement, and the “Show” as being the evidence used to support that thesis statement. Shows are external details, such as Appearance, Possessions, Character-specific settings, Scent, Actions, Behaviors, Habits, Dialogue, and Reputation.
In essence, Shows are anything you can see, hear, smell, touch, or taste. If it refers to one of the five senses, it’s probably a Show. If it doesn’t refer to one of the five senses, than there is a good chance it’s a Tell.
For example, if I Tell you that my sister is a jerk, then the Shows I would need to provide to earn this statement could be: “In eighth grade she told all her friends I smell like pee. Every summer she used to hold my head under water in our parents’ pool. She stole my diary and posted sections of it on Facebook.”
Shows tend to be more powerful the more concrete and specific they are. For example, if I were to write about a tree, notice how I can evoke a holiday (Christmas tree), a desert location (Joshua tree), or a state of being (dead tree)—by simply adding one more word. This example of carful word choice used to evoke a larger emotional connotation is sometimes called the “significant detail“.
- To teach yourself to recognize Tells verses Shows, I recommend underlining every Tell you see in a book and bracketing all the Shows used to earn that Tell.
- If you want to get extra nerdy, write in the margin which of the five senses the Shows are using: sight, sound, smell, touch, taste.
- Circle significant details as you read.
Plot and Structure
Plot is the events that happen in a story. Structure is the overall shape a story takes. Authors often chose a structure that will support the message they are trying to get across in the story.
If you wrote down what happened in each chapter (or paragraph) during your grammar read, you already have a list of plot events. Now look at that list of plot events and see if an overall structure begins to emerge.
- With a story you’ve already read before, look at the very end. What is the emotional resonance? Is the character sad? Hopeful? At peace? Just like the Showing and Telling exercise above, think of the emotional resonance at the end of the story as a thesis statement. Where would a character need to start and what events would have to happen to the character to earn this ending thesis statement?
- Is there a sense of rising intensity? Graph out the plot elements, as if on an x and y graph. It should look like a bell-curve, with the peak of the curve being at the climax near the end.
For example, in Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, there are two story structures, one going up and one going down. At the beginning of the book, Anna is a rich woman with a loving husband and son, but by the end of the story she has given up everything—this is a downward trajectory, self-destruction brought on by infidelity. By contrast, Levin starts the story as a lonely country lord who, through clean living and hard work, eventually ends up happily married and well-respected—an upward trajectory. As you can see, Tolstoy has used the structure of the story to get his point across (cheating=bad; chastity=good) rather than beating you over the head with it.
This is how the character is developed on the page. Characterization comes in three types: external, internal, and hybrid.
External characterization is any time a character is developed through external details using the five senses—sight, sound, taste, touch, and smell. Or, put another way, external characterization is composed of appearance, possessions, scent, character-specific setting, actions, behaviors, habits, dialogue, and reputation.
For example, if I describe a woman as wearing wearing a loose, flower-print muumuu, smelling like patchouli, and driving a dented Prius with a bumper sticker on the back that says “MOBAMA: Re-elect 2012″…you’re already starting to build a picture of who this person is and what might be important to her.
Internal characterization is a character’s thoughts, perceptions, and memories.
Hybrid characterization is the character’s subjective experience of an external setting experience, but it is coming across through the character’s subjective voice. Examples of this is when a character notices something important in an environment (“The black door loomed before me”) or has a physical response to something (“chills slid up my back”). See psychic distance and point-of-view, below. Hybrid characterization also uses all five senses.
- To learn how to recognize the difference between these three types of characterization, I recommend making notes in the margins, or reading with three differently colored highlighters.
- Another exercise you can use to see if something uses hybrid characterization is to look at the language used in metaphors, similes, and in significant details. Is it character-specific? An example of this would be a horticulturalist describing everything in terms of flowers, or a basketball player using the language of the sport to describe his world. A wonderful example of this is E. E. Cummings’s poem “she being Brand” in which the narrator (a mechanic) describes the first time he has sex with a particular woman in terms of a car mechanics. (I may post about this poem in the future.)
I recommend checking out Mary Robinette Kowal’s “four principles of puppetry” on the Writing Excuses podcasts. Although the “internal and hybrid characterization” aren’t explicitly mentioned, this is what she’s talking about.
Description, Setting, and Subtext
Think of the description as being like something a set designer or location scout would create for a play or a film.
Description’s primary purpose is to help transport the audience into this fictional world and give the actors an environment to interact with. The fictional environment is called the “setting.”
Description’s secondary purpose is to create subliminal messages that will help readers intuit the author’s intent, without having to overtly stating it. (This is often called “subtext“.) Remember what I said under Showing vs. Telling about how word choice and specific details can evoke broader meaning? You can think of Description’s second purpose as being the writer’s version of product placement. Hot-spots for subliminal messaging are similes and metaphors, but not always. Pay special attention to word choice used with significant details.
A film example of this is in Fight Club, where Brad Pitt’s character is flashed as a single frame multiple times before he actually appears to Edward Norton’s character. (You can do a search for this on YouTube.)
- To teach yourself to recognize the two purposes of description, highlight any and all description you see and ask yourself whether the description is working toward developing setting, subtext, or both.
- Underline any similes or metaphors you see. Are these working toward some larger, hidden intent? If so, what might that be?
Backstory, Flashback, Exposition, Context
These are all different words for basically the same thing. Every writer struggles trying to strike a balance between providing enough backstory to make the present events significant, but not too much that it weighs the front-story down.
- To see how different writers handle this, simply highlight whenever a writer inserts backstory, flashback, exposition, or explanation. Think about timing and execution. Why do you think the writer chose to insert backstory/flashback/exposition/explanation at this particular moment? How did the writer present this information?
Scene, Summary, Half-Scenes
Scenes are when you get to experience a story moment-by-moment, play by play. If the section you are reading has dialogue, description, and action, chances are you are in a scene. Scenes are primarily build on Shows, and are reserved for the important moments of the story.
Summary is like watching a movie on fast-forward. It’s often built with Tells and its purpose is to skip past the unimportant bits and to create a transition to the next Scene.
Half Scenes are a combination of Scene and Summary. Their job, similar to Summary, is to condense narration and to give you the feeling of a story on fast-forward; however, like Scenes, they are also built on Shows.
- To train yourself to recognize the difference between Scene, Summary, and Half-Scenes, look at each paragraph and think about how time is passing in the paragraph. If you feel like you are watching an actual real-time event or listening in on a real-time conversation, then you are in Scene. If minutes, hours, days, months, or years are passing within a paragraph, then you’re probably in Summary. If minutes, hours, days, months, or years have passed within a paragraph, BUT it has a lot of concrete Shows in it, then you are in half-scene.
Point of View
There is much academic debate over how many points of view there are, but I generally break it down to three based on what pronoun is used.
First person—This is when a story is told from the “I” perspective, as in “I was out walking when I bumped into a friend I hadn’t seen in a long time.” First person is used when you want the effect of telling your reader a story as if it happened to you, the writer.
Second person—This is when a story is told from the “You” perspective, as in “You were out walking when you bumped into a friend you hadn’t seen in a long time.” Second person is used when you want to put the reader in the place of the story’s main character. (I think of stories told with “we” as being an extension of second person.)
Third person—This is when a story is told from the “He/she/it” perspective, as in “John Smith went on a walk and bumped into a woman he hadn’t seen in a very long time.” Third person is often broken down into further categories, such as Third-person rotating, third-person subjective, third-person objective, third-person omniscient, third-person plural, etc. However, I consider these to be issues of psychic distance (see below). First person and third person are popular because of their great flexibility in psychic distance.
Psychic distance is how close the reader feels to the main character. In The Art of Fiction: Notes on Craft for Young Writers, John Gardner gives the following example to explain psychic distance:
- It was winter of the year 1853. A large man stepped out of a doorway.
- Henry J. Warburton had never much cared for snowstorms.
- Henry hated snowstorms.
- God how he hated these damn snowstorms.
- Snow. Under your collar, down the sides of your shoes, freezing and plugging up your miserable soul…
As you can see, as the reader goes from 1 to 5, the action feels more and more subjective. As we go from 1 to 5, we begin to feel closer and closer to the main character until we are so close that we are walking in his shoes, feeling the snow plug up our miserable soul.
New writers often have the problem of jumping from 1 to 5 too quickly, so it’s important to think of it as a going up and down a ladder: you can’t go from the bottom to the top without first stepping on all the rungs in between.
Third-person is really popular because of how easy it is to move up and down the ladder. However, you can also play with psychic distance in first person and second person. In the example above, note how #5 is actually written in second person (For more on how 2nd person can be used as part of interior monologue, look for my upcoming post on Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend).
Here is an example of shifting psychic distance in first person.
- It was 1983 when I stepped out of the doorway and into the snow.
- I never cared much for snowstorms.
- Truthfully, I hate snow storms.
- I hate snowstorms so goddamn much.
- Snow. Under my collar, down my shoes, freezing and plugging up my miserable soul.
With psychic distance, the more specific your language the closer the psychic distance is going to feel.
Also, there is a hierarchy to the senses. Sight and sound are the most removed because multiple people in a crowd can see and smell the same thing. Smell is an intermediate level of psychic distance. Touch and Taste are the closest because you have to feel as if you were inside a person’s skin to comprehend those
- To practice looking for psychic distance, label places of transition where the psychic distance seems to go up or down the ladder of closeness. Label each shift, from 1 to 5.
Conflict is the engine of narrative. It’s what pulls you in. It’s what makes a story a story. Conflict is the tension that comes from a character wanting something and not getting it. In Susan Wise Bauer’s The Educated Mind, she states that almost all stories are based on these three questions:
- What does the character want?
- What is standing in the character’s way?
- What strategy does he or she pursue in order to overcome this block?
This is the essence of narrative.
When trying to teach yourself how to recognize and understand conflict, I recommend reading with a pencil in hand and labeling the each part from 1 to 3. “1” for every time you see a character wanting something or thinking about what they want; “2” for the character’s interaction with an obstacle; “3” for when you see the character thinking or doing something to overcome that obstacle.
Step 3: Find a new technique and analyze how it works
Whenever you find a new technique, try to figure out how it works and to what effect the writer was trying to get by using it.
As part of my MFA program, we had to write craft essays analyzing new techniques. My teacher, Junse Kim, usually had us only write one craft essay a month, but when he was in grad school his teachers had him write 1 craft essay a week.
It’s important to make a distinction between a craft essay and a review or an English paper. In a craft essay there is no room for opinion or judgement. All you are doing is locating a technique, describing what the author is doing, and possibly describing why the author chose to use that technique. Craft essays are strictly about the nuts and bolts of how a story is made. It’s purpose is to put you in the writer’s shoes. For an example of a craft essay based on a sculpture, see my post “Into Consciousness.” Below are the components of a craft essay:
- Find your source material and type it out, word-for-word.
- What is the effect of this technique? Or, what was the author’s intent when using this technique
- Analyze how it works. (Extra credit: write step-by-step instructions for how you can do it too.)
If you need help with analysis, here are a list of questions from Susan Wise Bauer’s The Well Educated Mind to get you started:
- Is the story realistic, fantastical, or a combination? If realistic, how does the writer establish reality? If fantastical, what does the author get from using fantastical elements that he or she wouldn’t have gotten from having it be realistic? If a combination, what is the author trying to achieve through using one element over the other? Is the writer trying to show the world as it is, how it ought to be, or how he or she fears it to be?
- What does the central character (or characters) want? What is standing in his or her way? What strategy does he or she pursue in order to overcome this block? What does the shape of this narrative tell you about the author’s overall intent?
- Who is telling you this story? Which point-of-view is chosen? What are the benefits of using this point of view (over all the others) for this story?
- How credible is the narrator? Does the narrator or main character have a hidden agenda in the way the story is told? Are there any moments in the text where what happens (objective plot details) seems to differ from the narrator’s subjective version of the events? Are there any gaps of information indicating there is something the narrator or main character doesn’t want you to know, or is purposefully ignoring in him or herself?
- Where is the story set?
- What style does the writer use? Where, on the spectrum of ornate and simple, does this story fall?
- What images and metaphors are used repeatedly throughout the story? Why?
- What is the theme that ties the story together?
- Is there a turning point, epiphany, or catharsis in the story? If so, where? How was the significance of this moment established?
- Is there a sense of closure at the end of the story?
- How do the characters speak?
- What was the author’s narrative strategy? Does the story have a beginning, middle, and end? If so, where does each part begin and end? Is the writer making some kind of argument? If so, what is the writer trying to prove and what evidence does the writer employ to make his or her case? Is it persuasive?
While I don’t expect the average layman to write a craft essay every time he or she learned something new, just jotting down some notes about how something works can be really helpful. Keep a notebook of craft techniques you’ve learned.
For learning how to use these techniques in your own writing, please read my next post: How to Read: Part 4 – The Rhetoric Stage.
- Susan Wise Bauer’s The Well-Educated Mind, published by Norton Books
- Orson Scott Card’s Characters & Viewpoint, published by Writer’s Digest Books
- John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction: Notes on Craft for Young Writers, published by Vintage Books
- Margaret Wood’s Description, published by Writer’s Digest Books