Aaa! Ha!

First, I’ll hearken back to my recent post about poetry. In my final (sob) class of poetry school, we’ve been assigned a textbook that I think may interest people on the blog who’ve caught the poetry bug. It’s Introduction to Poetry by X. J. Kennedy and Dana Gioia–high school and above–very comprehensive. There are a few poem prompts but not many. The value is in the discussion of all the topics in poetry and the selection of poems, from classic to modern. Also phenomenally expensive, so I’d suggest asking your library to get it for you or buying it used. Try to find the latest edition, which contains the most up-to-date poems.

On January 27, 2016, Bookworm wrote, I need help with some things in my novel. I have it pretty much figured out, but the scenes seem to zoom by. I don’t think my MC is really getting enough challenge in some of the scenes.

I also need some help with a side MC. He’s the main comedian, and I don’t have many jokes and puns for him. I could really use some help to get some good puns and jokes. Can you help me?

First question first. Writer of Magic weighed in with, What I would do to make it more challenging is to go through each sentence and see if you need more detail. Example: Her jeans ripped. Or: The seam on her jeans ripped. Blood seeped out. Sorry for the gore.

I’m all for detail, which does more than add length. Detail puts the reader in the scene. There’s nothing like it to increase tension. What do the jeans rip on? How deep is the cut? How painful? Who sees the event? Is anyone there to help? What else is going on? Does our MC–let’s call her Rose–have time to see how badly injured she is? Is she in danger of passing out from loss of blood? If a lot is happening, we can slow down to a kind of play-by-play.

A scene won’t zoom if we present our details through Rose’s head and heart. What is she thinking? Is she worrying about something even more pressing than bleeding? Is she phobic about blood? What’s her state of mind when the injury happens? Is she angry? At whom? Frightened? Sad? Even happy? Maybe cutting her leg solves some other problem for her. Now she thinks she won’t have to spend a week with her despised cousin. She wonders if she can make the injury worse.

Detail also contributes to humor. Rose’s jeans rip, revealing the laughing frogs on the long underwear her mother makes her wear. A dot of blood seeps through the flannel and reddens a frog’s nose. Can she conceal the whole disaster? What can she wrap around herself? A tablecloth! Can she pull it out without disturbing all the dishes, the way they do in movies?

And how might we challenge our Rose more?

We’re always finding a balance between barriers and abilities, locks and keys. Leaving behind the bleeding situation, let’s say Rose is loyal to Queen Lorraine, but a lot of people are dissatisfied with her rule. Attracted by the noise, Rose joins a crowd surrounding a street speaker who’s inciting the mob to storm City Hall, where the queen’s representatives hold sway. The mayor happens to be away, leaving Rose’s mother, the chief constable, in charge with only three guards to help her. Rose decides she has to persuade the crowd not to attack.

Suppose we want Rose to fail ultimately. The Hall will be attacked, which will propel our plot into its next phase. But we don’t want her to fail quickly. We want to make the most of our dramatic situation.

We might consider what Rose has going for her and what her obstacles are, but let’s start with the obstacles. The anger of the rabble rouser is infectious. He’s a good speaker with valid arguments on his side. The queen’s subjects are tired of a war that’s continued for a decade–although she’s been on the throne for only six months. Many able-bodied people have been forced to become soldiers. A promised school in the town hasn’t been built.

Rose thinks the queen should be given more time. If the throne is overthrown, who will step in? Chaos will follow, and the enemy is sure to take advantage. Rose has made this argument to a few friends, whom she’s persuaded to agree with her. Plus, she knows a lot of the people in the crowd, and she’s well-liked.

Going back to obstacles, she’s soft-spoken. No one will hear her if she speaks up. So we start the scene. Rose clears her throat. “Excuse me.” No one hears. What is she feeling? Thinking? Who’s standing next to her? What’s the weather?

We use these details to create a scene with ups and downs and plenty of challenges for Rose. When one effort fails, she tries something else, seems to make progress until some other upset comes along. We end with her the loser, but she isn’t entirely defeated.

Moving along. When it came to jokes, Writer of Magic asked, What era is this? Then I could probably make up some jokes.

Bookworm answered, The era is modern times, but the action takes place in different dimensions. For example, there’s the real world, then there’s Destiny Forest, and another dimension is Musical Hills. There’s not more than one of the MC though, like a doppelganger.

Humor helped poured in.

From Mary:
What type of bagel can fly?
A plain bagel!!!

What’s brown and sticky?
A stick!

Two man walk into a bar. One turns to the other and says “Ouch.”

“A train just passed by here!”
“How can you tell?”
“It left it’s tracks!”

“Did you get a haircut?”
“No, I got all of them cut.”

If you need more try searching Google.

As for puns I find that they work best in the situation. If the character drinks chicken soup they can say it tastes “fowl.” Fish is always really heavy because it has so many scales. Cheese has many “ Gouda” puns attached, and can be “grate” to use. Horses also have many puns attached. (Behooved is a good word, and people can mention neighbors, both of which can be used in many “tales.”) A mention of eyes can lead to many puns, such as “eye see,” mention of pupil(s) (for teachers or students), and complaints that people will always “lash” out. Cars are “wheely” good, and if you’re getting “tired” of my examples Google can help with some more specific examples. I hope this gives you a few ideas!

These are great! I’d just add that a list of homonyms (words that are spelled and sound the same but have different meanings, like bear) and homophones (words that may be spelled differently but sound the same, like plain and plane in Mary’s pun or bear and bare), which you can google, can be helpful for thinking up puns. Heteronyms (words that are spelled the same but pronounced differently, like bass, the fish, and bass, the low musical pitch) probably won’t be as useful, because our puns will probably crop up in dialogue, but there may be times when we can use them, too. Of course, some puns are pure inspiration, which can arise only from sub-basement Y of our brains, like the joke about the chicken, the frog, and the librarian, which is best said out loud. If you don’t know it, here’s a link: For best effect, sound like a chicken for her lines and like a frog for his (hers? its?).

Here are prompts:

∙ I find it helpful to think of categories when I fool around with puns. So, looking at your googled lists, come up with three puns in each of these categories: food, occupations, and animals.

∙ Remember a time when you were injured: sports injury, clumsy injury (as most of mine have been), kitchen injury–whatever. Not life threatening, because we want to take something with medium intensity and deepen it. Write it and milk it for every smidgen of detail you can dredge up: the moment before the event, how it happened, how it felt and looked, who was there, who said what, what you said and thought, what made it better, what made it worse, plus whatever I’m leaving out. Now move into fiction. Make yourself a character, and make the other people who were there characters, too. If it fits, turn one of them into a villain. By using detail, make this a scene that doesn’t zoom by and that maintains tension.

∙ Injure your MC in your WIP and use some of the moments from your life and your fictionalized version of your life. Write the scene.

∙ Write the scene in which Rose tries to calm the crowd.

Have fun, and save what you write!

Perpetual-motion characters

Before I talk about this week’s question, I want you to know that you can now pre-order A Tale of Two Castles through the website (and other places, too). And – thank you, April, for this question on the blog! – for me it’s best if you buy from the website because I get a tad more money when you do.

Also, on the appearances page of the website are the places I’ll be on my book tour in May – no details yet, just the cities.

And there was an article in yesterday’s Health and Science Section of the New York Times about self-compassion and diet, which reminded me of last week’s post. If you substitute writing for diet and eating, everything applies. You can read the article by following the link:,%20tara%20parker%20pope&st=cse
On December 10, 2010, Ruthie wrote …I tend to get overly obsessive about my stories–or, more accurately, my characters. For example, I have been vomiting up increasingly esoteric facts about the same fictitious people for over a year. I can tell you everything from their childhood hobbies right down to the shoe size for even my most minor characters. Whenever I write (whenever I think, really), it ends up being superfluous conversations between them or them just doing everyday tasks. And nothing happens. They all have their own flaws and friends and jobs and niches in their world; they could all continue the way they are right now, like a literary perpetual motion machine that never goes anywhere. If this isn’t to vague a request… help?

You may have heard this before: When we fall in love with our characters it can be hard to make bad things happen to them, which of course is what we have to do. I fall victim to this sometimes. But an in-depth understanding is a fabulous asset. When our characters’ situation does worsen, we know exactly what will work best to make them unravel.

We don’t have to start big with the misery. Often we want to begin with a little crisis and work gradually into tougher trouble. You know your characters’ flaws, so that’s a great place to start. Put two of them together. They’re outside the principal’s office, say, for talking during an assembly when a visiting children’s book author was speaking. Nan is self-centered, and she goes on about how her dad will combust if the principal calls him. Fran listens sympathetically, then starts to recount her own worry, which could be about the Algebra test she’s now missing. Nan listens for a minute, then says, “Yeah, I failed my French test last week,” and starts in on how mad her dad was. Fran feels rising anger and says, “You always do that.” Nan, although self-involved, is good about recognizing her faults, and she apologizes unstintingly. Then the principal comes out and calls the two girls in. Whatever happens there happens. Back to the argument. Fran’s flaw is to hold  a grudge. Even though her friend apologized, she doesn’t forgive or forget. Later in the day, she texts, “I’m still mad at you.” Nan now adds Fran to her list of troubles, even ahead of her dad, and she confides what Fran did to their mutual friend Dan. Dan, alas, likes to separate people. And the story is launched. Your intimate knowledge of these characters fuels the conflict until this tempest in a teapot threatens to go nuclear.

An important plot question, much discussed in books about writing, is to ask yourself what a character wants and erect barriers to her achieving her goal. This is a cinch for us if we have an exhaustive knowledge of our characters. What obstacles will most drive Nan nuts? If, for example, she has to really pay attention to somebody else, someone important to her, she will be very challenged. She can fail and fail again, starting in small ways and moving up, until the reader is biting his nails up to his elbows.

We can also throw our character in at the deep end. Instead of asking what Nan most wants, ask what she most fears and make it happen right at the start of the story. I’d guess that Nan is needy, probably insecure, but one person makes her feel safe, her Aunt Jacqueline. So give Aunt J cancer. How does Nan deal with this? We know her inside out, so we know. Up until the diagnosis she’s terrific, calling her aunt every day, visiting her every other day. But aside from that, she isn’t sleeping or keeping up with her schoolwork, and she has to visit the principal’s office again. Then the diagnosis is bad. Nan gets the news from her mother and doesn’t call Aunt J. In fact, she won’t pick up when Aunt J calls. Nan becomes self-destructive in the ways that we who get her completely can most easily imagine.

The problem doesn’t have to be close to home, either. Aliens can invade. Centaurs can take over Nan’s village. If she has an inflated idea of herself as well as being self-centered, she can think the incursion has to do with her, and she can act accordingly with hilarious or tragic results. Only you will know what she’ll wear for her first meeting with the alien captain. Only you can guess how she’ll react to a ceremonial dinner of rattlesnake-eyeball stew.

If you love your characters so much that you freeze when you try to make trouble for them, think about their inner resources. Maybe this is the only area you haven’t developed. Nan is insecure, but maybe she’s got a stubborn core that keeps her from being overwhelmed. Or she can laugh at herself, which rescues her in her worst moments. If you figure out how your characters can rise above whatever befalls them, you may be more willing to unleash the worst.

There’s conflict in your question, Ruthie. Your characters may not be in the middle of a problem, but you are, so you can write about yourself as a fictional character. How does the character Ruthie learn how to put her marvelous creations into a story? Maybe she takes a creative writing class from a teacher who humiliates her in front of everybody (remember, this is the fictional Ruthie) and the pain gets her writing, but the characters she knows so well refuse to do what she expects them to. She discusses the problem with one of her classmates, Nan, who seems a lot like one of her characters, which is not good. The reader may not care much about the characters who continue to chat and shop and eat their favorite foods, but he does care about Ruthie.

Or Ruthie can go to a party and find the entire cast of her fictional world there, in the flesh. How did this happen? What does it mean? How is her friend Nan, who came with her, doing with all these people? Has Nan figured it out? Is Nan even experiencing these people the way Ruthie is?

Here’s another thought: Throw your characters together without Ruthie and write their dialogue. Don’t force anything. Just let it happen. Write at least ten pages without worrying about plot. When you’re ready to go through it, look for places where there’s the slightest hint of trouble, or more than a hint. Exploit these moments. Make them worse. Make someone cry. Keep going.

Here’s an off-the-wall idea: Invite some friends over, or try this with family. Give each friend one of your character descriptions. Suggest a situation with inherent trouble. In character, your pals are trapped together in the bottom of a mine. Or they have a school assignment to write together about mining, and half their final grade will depend on it. Or they’re going against one another in some kind of competition. Don’t you be one of the characters. You’re the observer, writing notes. When you see something promising for a story, write it down. You can stop the action whenever you want and ask a character to repeat a line that went by too fast. You can tell them to take their improvisation in a direction that looks promising to you. Or you can just let them rip. The advantage of this is that you’re bringing in people who will be perfectly willing to create drama, who won’t love the characters as much as you do, and you’ll be able to see what can happen to them. Of course, it also may not work, but everyone may still enjoy trying.

A bunch of prompts are embedded in this post:

∙    Use my argument starter and make up your own situation to put it in, or use mine, the two main characters outside the principal’s office. The argument starter is, “You always do that.”

∙    Pick a character you don’t know what to do with and ask what he fears most. Or use a secondary character from one of your other stories. Bring his worst fear down on him. Write about how he responds. Does he overcome? Or are you writing a tragedy, and he succumbs?

∙    Stage an alien invasion or village takeover by non-human creatures. Invent or use as an existing character as your main character, someone who will respond to this trouble in a surprising way.

∙    Write about a writer who can’t figure out what to do with her characters. Have her take a writing class from a sadistic teacher and meet a classmate who could be straight out of one of her failed stories.

∙    Send your writer to a party attended by her characters. Make them get mad at her. Write what happens.

∙    Write dialogue for your purposeless characters. After ten pages, go back and look for hints of conflict and blow them up. Keep writing.

∙    Turn your characters into an improvisation for friends or family. Take notes while they perform. If trouble erupts, write it down. Push the plot they’re creating with suggestions. You can even videotape them in action.

Have fun, and save what you write!