Jeanne: Writing Wisdom from Lee Martin

9781496202024-Perfect.inddOne of my favorite teachers of the craft of writing is Lee Martin, Pulitzer finalist for The Bright Forever and author of a number of other novels and short story collections.

Lee teaches in the MFA program for creative writing at the Ohio State University. I’m not in that program, but he also occasionally teaches at regional workshops, and I’ve had the good fortune to see him at a couple. At one of them that I attended in the early 2000’s, he read a passage from “The Open Boat,” a short story by Stephen Crane. With his voice and Crane’s words, he recreated the rocking motion of that lifeboat so clearly I wound up feeling a little motion sick. That was an epiphany for me: that the cadence of words (not their meanings but just the sounds of them) can generate sensation.

I just discovered that Lee has a craft book out: Telling Stories, the Craft of Narrative and the Writing Life.  I’m just started working my way through it, but here’s a tiny example of the wonderful stuff you’ll find within its pages. These are the highlights of a deeper discussion on how to intensify the trouble your character encounters.

  1. Increase the pressure from a source outside the realm of the original trouble.
  2. Make the character’s choices lead her into deeper trouble.
  3. Make the character’s troubles worse by having her let people believe something is true when it isn’t.
  4. Have the character create trouble for herself by trying to run away from what she’s done, or us afraid she’ll do.

As I was reading through these suggestions, I realized I tend to rely very heavily on #2. Having the character’s choices lead her into deeper trouble creates a really strong cause-and-effect linkage.

I also use #1. Sources outside the trouble are great for throwing a wrench into the best laid plans, making your character scurry.

I’m not sure I’ve ever used (or even thought about using) #3 and #4.

Numbers 3 and 4 are less confrontational than the first two. Number 3 is less about action than inaction–failing to step in and set the record straight when the opportunity presents itself. And #4 is the opposite of confrontational. These seem like believable actions for a character with a gentle, non-confrontational personality.

Hmm. I’m starting planning work on a series about five siblings who inherit their parent’s tour company and I’ve been thinking about how to differentiate them. Their level of willingness to confront others is a definite category for exploration.

Which of these intensifiers do you use? Which do you enjoy reading?


4 thoughts on “Jeanne: Writing Wisdom from Lee Martin

  1. I have a hero who would use #3 quite a bit . . . correcting people who think the wrong thing is hard . . . sometimes impossible, thanks to confirmation bias!

    I think I’m influenced by Wodehouse in that respect. Bertie Wooster doesn’t want to make trouble; he just wants to soothe the aunts and enjoy drinking and playing around with his mates at the club. So, often things that could be avoided with a firm, “Aunt, I refuse!” often come to pass. Oh, he fantasizes about standing up to his aunts, but they are scary dragons of society.

    I am SURE I have read some entertaining books about a hero who is constantly running away from his problems, only to have them catch up, but I can’t remember the names or authors of any of them. Light, fluffy, and the very definition of “escapist” fiction, I suppose.

    I don’t know how the two intensifiers work in non-screwball genres, though. I would be very careful; I think it’s very easy to get mad at a character who is constantly shirking the truth and other duties. But in the right hands, it’s really funny, and very relatable, I think.

  2. Like you, I tend to rely mostly on #2, having the character’s choices make things worse. I also like then having the antagonist respond to the character’s choices, making things still worse. I think those make for the best story, at least in character-driven fiction. A source outside the realm of the original trouble is also good, as long as it’s somehow related to the characters and the story and not just a stressful coincidence.

    I dislike writing and reading stories where the characters lie, deliberately or by omission, and I don’t invest in characters who run away–I like people who front up to their problems, who stand and fight even when they are facing impossible odds. I guess many readers/viewers are the same–hence the trope ‘it’s a million to one shot, but it just might work’ 🙂

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