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A Little Lesson in Why

Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman in "Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice." (Warner Bros. Pictures)

Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman in "Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice." (Warner Bros. Pictures)

(Warning: spoiler alert for Batman v Superman fans.)

Readers of this newsletter know that I am constantly hammering away at the fact that you have to ask why about everything you are writing – why are you motivated to write this particular book, why you want to make the point you are making, why your ideal reader should care, why your characters do what they do, want what they want, and struggle the way they must struggle.

I do this because readers come for the why, and it’s the why that gives story its emotional power. Without it, your writing will be flat and unable to draw the reader in. It’s easy to know the what of the world – we see it every day as we go about our lives. It’s almost relatively easy to know the how of the world – biology gives us that, and chemistry and physics and medicine and economists. By the why? That’s what we’re all desperately trying to figure out all the time and that’s what stories allow us: a chance to see why people do what they do.

Last night I saw Batman v Superman -- not my usual choice in movies but my daughter and her boyfriend are visiting and he’s a big fan, so off we all went.

These superhero’s stories are entirely built on why.  Batman and Superman’s why stories are well known and straightforward – one lost the love of his parents early on, the other gained love he never thought he would have.

The one I didn’t know much about was Wonder Woman. She is introduced in this movie, and in the LA Times yesterday there was an interview with Gal Gadot, the actress who plays her. The interviewer asks Gadot about a battle scene in which she smiles before going in for the kill. Here is her reply, in which she is recalling a conversation with director Zach Snyder:

 

“After we did that take, Zack came to me and he said, "Did you just have a smirk?" I said "Yeah." And he asked, "Why? I think I like it, but why?" "Well if he's gonna mess with her, then she's gonna mess with him. And she knows she's gonna win." At the end of the day Wonder Woman is a peace seeker. But when fight arrives, she can fight. She's a warrior and she enjoys the adrenaline of the fight.

 

Even in comics come to life, in a superhero movie where the strokes are painted broadly, why is at the heart of everything.

It was one smile, one smirk, but the director stopped everything to understand it, and the actress had a deeply thought-out why.  It wasn’t random, it wasn’t accidental, it wasn’t an afterthought: it was the story itself.

 

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Leveraging Curiosity

I was working with a writer this week whom I shall call Steve. Steve is writing a novel and we were working on a bit of dialogue that, in my mind, stopped the story cold. 

The scene was between two old friends. Character B was prodding Character A (the protagonist) about a situation that will later explode in Character A’s life. Character B sees clearly the train wreck that is coming, and tries to call her friend out on it,  but Character A deflects the prod from her old friend in this way:

 “I said nothing in reply. I was not going to get into that conversation. Instead, I changed the subject.”

It was a very small moment, but my notes in the margin were strong: “Wait WHAT? Why wouldn't’ she go there? The reader is DYING to find out! Why are you keeping it from us? This is going to piss off your reader…”

Steve’s answer to me: “Because if I explain it there, it will give everything away. I’m saving that reveal for later.”

Steve, in other words, had a secret he wanted to keep from the reader and he wanted to keep it because he felt that the opposite -- holding his cards really close to his vest -- would pique the reader’s curiosity.

This is a very commonly held belief, but unfortunately, it doesn’t work that like. In fact, it works precisely the opposite way. That’s the secret about keeping secrets in writing.  They usually only work if you let the reader in on it. Otherwise, the reader will be feeling left out, dismissed, disregarded.

If Steve had instead told us something of the secret, we would have been curious in the way Steve really wanted. If he had written this….    

“I said nothing in reply. I was not going to let memories of my mother’s death influence my career choices, and didn’t even like suggestion of such a thing on the table. Who did Sally think she was to question my integrity in that way? She of all people should have known better. Instead, I changed the subject.”

…the reader  would have thought, Oh NO I don’t have a good feeling about this, I think this is going to come back to bite Character A, I wonder when that will happen and what she will do and what the consequences of that will be. I’m going to keep reading to see if I’m right and to watch this drama unfold.

We read, in other words, for the WHY of the story – why people do things, what they make of it, what it MEANS to them. We don’t read for the what – for what happens. We talked about this last week on a bigger picture scale, but I wanted to drill down this week to show you exactly how this works.

You can give away what happens all day long as long as you let us know there IS a why and that it’s coming.

A fantastic example of this truth is in the memoir When Breath Becomes Air, which I am currently reading. This book is the story of Paul Kalanithi, a 36 year old man who was diagnosed with Stage 4 lung cancer when he was a chief resident in neurosurgery at Stanford Medical School. It’s a tale about life and death – but mostly death. Kalanithi dies in the end. And the reader knows that the moment they read the book jacket copy:

Kalanithi himself reinforces that truth in the very first sentences of the book, in the prologue:

“I flipped through the CT scan images, the diagnosis obvious: the lungs were matted with innumerable tumors, the spine deformed, a full lobe of the liver obliterated. Cancer, widely disseminated. I was a neurological resident entering my final year of training. Over the last six years, I’d examined scores of such scans, on the off chance that some procedure might benefit the patient. But this scan was different: it was my own.”

So is not a secret to the reader what happens in this story – not in the slightest. We know everything about what happens.

What we read for is how he makes meaning of his reality – in other words, the why of it. In particular in this case, we have the following questions in our head:

  • Why did he decide to write about his own death?
  • Why did he decide to have a child when he knew he was going to die?
  • Why did his wife agree to that?
  • What did it feel like to make that decision?
  • What does it feel like to chronicle your own death?
  • What does someone who knows so much about what sustains life bring to the task of dying?

I just read a passage last night in which, having gone back in time to Kalanithi’s decision to go to med school and having followed his journey through it, we arrive again at the day of diagnosis.  This is now the second time he has written about this day – first in those sentences from the prologue I quoted above and now on this page – page 119. Only moments have passed between the two instances and we are right back with a man reading his CT scans.

He writes:

“Lying next to Lucy in the hospital bed, both of us crying, the CT scan images still glowing on the computer screen, that identity as a physician – my identity – no longer mattered….”

The only difference to the reader is that this second time, we know even more about why this moment matters to this man in particular. We know that Kalanithi has witnessed many deaths, has wrestled with the meaning of life, has made professional choices based on his beliefs about life and death, and has just suffered the loss of a colleague who took his own life. We know even more acutely what death means to him and we know with more assuredness that death is coming for him.

But again, no one in their right might would stop reading just because we know what’s going to happen. It’s not the WHAT we care about it. We KNOW what. It’s the why we continue to read forward to find out.

In your own work, look for places where you are holding back information from the reader.

  • It might be in dialogue like it was with Steve. Make sure you are not being coy with information, that you are not holding back things on purpose. It almost never works – because if the good thing happens on page 100 and your reader never makes it there, who cares?
  • It might be when conclusions are being drawn from a scene or situation – it’s easy to assume the reader knows what the conclusion is (Isn’t it obvious? the writer thinks), but we usually don’t. We need to be told. Every time your character thinks a thought or makes a decision or takes some action, we want to know the conclusions the protagonist is drawing from it. Why does it matter, why are we being asked to pay attention?
  • It might be in how you are structuring your entire story – giving us far too much what before you let us have any why. We want why

Odds are good that you can add in the why in small and large ways throughout your work. My advice is to err on the side of saying too much. You will do more damage holding back than you do in spilling your secrets.

I’ll leave you with one last moving passage from Kalanithi’s book, where he employs this tactic with masterful precision. He and his wife Lucy are having a discussion about whether or not to have a child, given Kalanithi’s diagnosis. She begins the conversation:

“Don’t you think saying goodbye to your child will make your death more painful?”
“Wouldn’t it be great if it did?” I said. Lucy and I both felt that life wasn’t about avoiding suffering.

That last line – that add on – is what gives that passage such depth and nuance and power. Kalanithi doesn’t leave us to wonder what the conversation means or why it matters. He doesn't leave his question unanswered. He answers it himself, right on the page, and thereby invites us into the heart of his devastating experience.

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The Drama of Story

On Valentine’s Day, I saw a world premier of a play at The Old Globe Theater in San Diego. It was staged in a tiny little theater in the round – just 250 seats, with no seat more than 5 rows from the stage – and the premise of the play is that it takes place during a semi-final tennis match at the US Open.

Think about that for a minute – a tennis match, played on a tiny stage with audience members on every side. How on earth could that even work?

The Last Match by Anne Zeigler not only worked, it was riveting and moving – and it was a master-class in what stories are really about and what it takes to tell a good one.

Here are four key lessons reinforced by the play:

1. There are two levels to every story.

The first level is plot – in this case, the tennis match. This is what happens, what transpires, what we see at first glance. If someone were to ask me what The Last Match was about, I would probably say, “A tennis match.” That was the frame of the piece – the shape of it. I would, however, be missing the whole point, and if you are writing a memoir or a novel (and in many cases a self-help/how-to book) and you are only focusing on the plot you would be missing the whole point, too.

The second level is the real story – the why underneath the what of the plot. Why do the characters do what they do, why do they care about what is happening, why does it matter to them – and why, by extension, should we (the reader/viewer) care? This is where the true power of story lies. Zeigler clearly knows this in her bones – because on the stage made to look like a tennis court, she brought to life all the desire and rage and fear and yearning of two tennis stars who both want to win.

Why they each want to win is what it was all about.

2. We bring our past selves onto the stage of every story.

It’s so easy to think of any narrative as chronological – a straightforward shot from here to there – but that is, again, to only focus on the plot and to miss the heart of the thing.

Story – which as we just saw, unfolds on a different level – is often not chronological in the least. Since story is about a character’s inner struggle to  make meaning of certain events, it naturally involves their entire past, and it often loops around on itself and back again like a Mobius strip.

In The Last Match, Zeigler made this truth manifest.

One tennis star, Russian phenom Sergei Sergeyev, is a young upstart trying to fulfill the destiny of his great promise by beating the man who had been his idol as a child. He was battling the demons of insomnia and abandonment – things that had plagued him since his parents died in a car crash on the way to see him play. He was battling a demanding girlfriend who we couldn’t quite understand why anyone would bother with (why, why, why?) until we saw exactly why he would.

The other tennis star was the aging legend Tim Porter, thinking about when  to call it quits, trying to hang onto his glory, trying to quell the fear he knows he will feel if he gives up his identity as a tennis star. He was battling the demons of expectation and responsibility, now that he was (after a painful journey of infertility and loss) a new father – expectations of himself, of his son, and of his wife, and responsibility for his family’s financial and spiritual wellbeing.

So much hung in the balance for these two tennis players, and because we were let inside the consequences of the match, the audience came to care for both of them immensely.

All of this was done through some brilliant staging – the two men’s significant others marching, leaping, and slouching onto the tennis court/set to re-enact key scenes from their lives, to bring key questions and answers into the players’ minds.

This is exactly the way memory works – intruding, arriving unbidden, flashing across the stage of our lives.

Yes, the plot moves forward in time, but the story spins around it as it goes.

 3. Nothing is neutral

One of the most powerful elements of The Last Match was the way that Zeigler had the two tennis players literally playing off each other, like improvisers – where one actor starts a conversation and another picks it up and runs with it, crafting their own tale from the raw material he was given.

Tim Porter would be in the midst of a memory and Sergei Sergeyev would be sitting on a chair on the “sidelines” with his head bent and covered by a towel until that part of the story was done -- UNLESS a Tim Porter memory triggered something in Sergei, either literally, because they shared the same memory, or conceptually. If this happened, Sergei would leap up and take over, telling his own tale. It was a little like a relay race, with the baton being handed back and forth between the players, and it was dazzling as the audience was taken deeper and deeper into each man’s story.

Similarly, events in the tennis match itself triggered thoughts, ideas, opinions and emotions. These events included interactions with the crowd, the referee, and the other player, glances at the women in the stands (who sat in the theater aisles as if the players’ boxes), a wrenched back, a won point, a lost game.

So you had these two actors who on one level looked as though they were playing a simple game of tennis, but who on another level, were being plunged into darkness, lifted to heights of joy, and made to struggle with the most seminal moments of their lives.

The key concept for all of us here who are trying to write good books is triggered.

Things in a life (if you are writing memoir) or a novel (if you are writing fiction) or an argument (if you are writing non-fiction) trigger thoughts, ideas, opinions and memories. And by things, I mean events in the plot, other characters, dialogue, decisions – everything. Nothing is neutral to you or mein our real lives – so why should things be neutral in the books we write?

The answer is that they shouldn’t. Everything has the potential to trigger a deeper dive into a character’s life, into your own life, or into the argument you are trying to make to your reader.

Writers often struggle mightily with how to fold flashbacks and backstory into their work. They think of it as a separate thing – something you stop the story to drop in. Backstory and flashbacks, however, are the story. They are the heart of the story. They are how we get to the why that we (the reader) are desperately tracking as the plot unfolds.

If you think about flashbacks and backstory exactly the way I am describing the playwright did – as opportunities to add meaning and power to your story – you will find that they have a place on every page, in small and large ways.

4. Lessons about story are everywhere.

I learn so much about story every day – by reading the newspaper (okay, three of them), reading books, reading blogs, going to the movies, going to plays. It's all a chance to understand story better – to feel how it works, to know how to wield its power. And every once and awhile, you come away absolutely dazzled – which is what happened to me with this play.

Make sure you are consuming stories while you are trying to write them. It makes you a good literary citizen, for one thing, and it will teach you so much of what you need to know.

 

 

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