Feeding Your Readers Information: A Look at a Master

lecarre    As so often happens, the comments on last month’s piece (What Do Your Readers Know and When Do They Know It) showed that there was a lot more to the topic than I could cover in a single column.  So I thought it would help to look in some detail at how a master of the craft created tension by how he fed his readers information.

If you’re not already familiar with John le Carré’s The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, the quickest, easiest way to get to know the story is to stream the movie.   The plot follows the book very closely.  Besides, Richard Burton and Claire Bloom are always a pleasure to watch, and keep an eye peeled for a very young Robert Hardy.  If you’d like to check it out now, I’ll wait.


So, The Spy Who Came in From the Cold opens with Alec Leamas, the head of the Berlin bureau of MI6 (i.e. the Circus), waiting for Karl, his last remaining operative, to make a desperate run across the border from East Germany.  Karl finally appears but is gunned down before he can reach safety.  All of Leamas’ other operatives have also been hunted down and eliminated by Mundt, a particularly vicious chief of the East German secret service (i.e. the Abteilung).  So when Lemmas’ boss, Control, offers him a chance to destroy Mundt once and for all, he jumps at it.

Given that setup, le Carré then proceeds to feed his readers information at three different levels of reality:  what the world thinks is happening, what Leamas thinks is happening, and what is actually happening.

We first watch level one develop as Leamas comes apart at the seams.  He’s given a makework job in accounting at the Circus, starts to drink, is accused of embezzlement and fired, drinks more, and winds up in a grimy apartment working a menial job at a library.  There he meets and starts to fall for a young, idealistic communist named Liz (‘Nan’ in the movie).  Despite the light she brings into his life, he continues to spiral downward until he assaults a grocer and is jailed.  When he’s released from prison, he’s approached by a bumbling East German agent, who has heard about his situation from Liz.

At this point, le Carré pulls back the curtain on the second level.  Leamas sneaks off for a secret meeting with Control that makes it clear his disgrace and collapse are a ruse to get the East Germans to recruit him.  In this meeting, Control challenges him on his relationship with Liz – it’s out of character for someone spiraling into degradation to fall in love – and offers to help her out.  It’s during this meeting that readers also learn, almost in passing, that George Smiley, the Circus’s legendary strategist, wants nothing to do with the operation (a detail omitted from the movie).

Le Carré still hasn’t revealed how Leamas’ staged collapse will lead to his getting revenge on Mundt, so curiosity about the plan will keep readers turning the pages.  But they’ve also come to realize by this point that Leamas is intelligent, brave, idealistic, and loving.  They care about him, and are worried that he’s essentially turning himself over to the enemy.  At the same time, they’re eager to see him defeat Mundt, who has done so much damage to his life.

While all these sources of tension are in play, le Carré slips in the first hint of the third level at work – that there is a plan beyond the one Leamas knows.  [Read more…]


Corrections Are Good: How to Take Critique Like a Dancer


Today’s guest is Kim Bullock whose novel-in-progress (working title The Oak Lovers) has already been receiving praise. Historical fiction author Stephanie Cowell says this, “I’ve seldom read a novel with such intense passion. I was unable to put down The Oak Lovers; this is a riveting book.”

The story, based on family member Carl Ahrens (Kim’s great-grandfather) is a compelling tale of art, love, and sacrifice. The artistic gene has been handed down through the generations. Kim’s oldest daughter inherited her grandfather’s artistic skill, and both her daughters are gifted dancers.

My thirteen-year-old daughter is a serious ballet dancer and I find it interesting how ‘corrections’ are interpreted as a positive thing in the dance world. It occurred to me that some of the lessons she has learned could easily be adapted to help writers not feel so overwhelmed when they receive feedback…

Kim, one of WU’s valued Admin Assistants, has an MA in English from Iowa State University, where she received the Pearl Hogrefe Grants-in-Aid for Creative Writing Award and also taught composition for a couple of years. In addition to contributing articles to historical publications in both the United States and Canada, she takes on freelance assignments for Living Magazine, a regional publication, and has been a finalist in Glimmer Train’s Short Story Contest for New Writers.

Kim’s website for Carl Ahrens, a major character in her current novel, regularly attracts the attention of collectors and art historians, and she has given several keynote speeches on his life and place in art history. She lives in Dallas, Texas, with her husband and two daughters.

Connect with Kim on her blog, on Facebook, and on Twitter.

Corrections Are Good: How to Take Critique Like a Dancer

My daughter, who had not known a plié from a tendu until age nine, was understandably terrified when she entered her first class at one of Dallas’ most prestigious classical ballet schools.

She had been the prima dancer during her one year at a beginner studio, performing front and center in the recital. “Work hard and you can go anywhere you want in the dance world,” her teacher had told her privately after ballet lesson number three. I was in the room at the time, and I watched that spark of a dream ignite in her eyes.

I feared her passion for dance might be snuffed out by trying to compete in a room full of girls who had been on tiptoe since toddlerhood, but my sensitive perfectionist emerged from class dry-eyed and grinning. She did chinés turns all the way back to the car, narrowly avoiding trash cans and hedges.

As she twirled, she rattled off an extensive list of things she had done wrong in class that day: everything from her hyper-extended elbows to her weak turnout and lazy fifth position. Her old teacher had apparently failed to correct her bad habits, so she would need to relearn everything

Though she did not seem upset in the least, I had to ask. “Did you receive any roses with all those thorns?”

“She didn’t name my butt. If it sticks out when you plié, she’ll give it an old man name,” my daughter explained. “The girl next to me was told to ‘put Fred away’ three times.”

Her beaming expression warned me that laughter would in some way lessen her tremendous accomplishment. I refrained, but the effort it took ranked somewhere between writing my Master’s thesis and childbirth.

If I were a ‘dance mom’ I’d have understood the reason for her joy that day, but my ballet experience had been limited to one year of reluctantly flitting around a studio pretending to be a butterfly. I knew even at six that elephants possessed more grace.

Corrections are a good thing, just one small rung under a compliment on the desirability ladder. [Read more…]


Everything I Need to Know About Plot, I Learned From Buffy

photo by Jaina

A couple of weeks ago, a client told me one of his beta readers had said his book read like a comic book.  I asked why that was a bad thing.

Granted, you don’t want your characters to be shallow caricatures or your plot to be mechanical or contrived, which is what many people mean by “reads like a comic book.”  But all of this client’s characters were fully rounded and plausibly human.  Even the psychopath who hunted people down in the woods had his vulnerable moments.  And while his plot had problems, contrivance wasn’t one of them.  I suspect his beta reader was complaining about the fact that his manuscript was an exciting adventure story.

Years ago, I stopped reading New Yorker fiction because I lost patience with beautifully written stories in which nothing much happens.  For the sake of this article (oh, the sacrifices I make.), I picked up a recent issue to try again.

Joseph O’Neill’s “The Referees” tells the story of Rob, who has just returned to New York and is trying to get two character references so he can move into a co-op.  We meet a lot of Rob’s former friends and get a good idea of who he is and what kind of life he’s led.  He has a clear and engaging voice, and it’s hard not to like him despite his drawbacks.  The story makes good use of some advanced techniques, like present-tense narration and a highly unreliable narrator.  It also says some intriguing things about how we judge one another and ourselves.  But by the end of the story Rob still has only one reference, which he wrote himself, and we don’t know if he gets the apartment or not.  Maybe he’s changed by the experience.  Maybe he’s not.

In short, nothing happens.  It does it quite beautifully, but . . .

I understand why some people might love quality characterization and beautiful writing so much that they’re willing to read a story for these pleasures alone.  But most readers need something more to keep them going.  They want to hope that something good – or fear that something bad – will happen to characters they care about.  They want to watch those characters take action to change their fates. They want to be surprised.

They want plot.

This hunger for plot is, I think, one reason comics and YA fiction, and the movies based on them, are so popular.  The best practitioners of these arts know and value the power of story, and one of the best of these is Joss Whedon.  He’s the force behind the current revival of the Marvel Universe (The Avengers, the Agents of Shield), but the work I know him for best is the television series Buffy the Vampire Slayer. [Read more…]


In Praise of Paper Books

spectatorflyleafI recently started rereading a book I bought many years ago – one volume of an eight volume collected set of The Spectator, a London daily periodical from the early 18th century.  William Addison and Joseph Steele wrote most of the The Spectator’s 2500-word, witty and wise essays on serious topics of social value.  A typical piece warns against the dangers of using “party lying” (i.e. propaganda) to advance a political cause.  Another is an extended meditation on eternity.  Several offer a serialized, detailed review of Milton’s works.

This may sound like somewhat hard going, but The Spectator is nothing if not eclectic.  It includes comic short stories involving a good-natured but dim country squire named Roger de Coverley.  You can find parody advertisements a quarter millennium before Saturday Night Live — for an elocution school for parrots or a dentist who offered to extract teeth from masquerade goers without removing their masks.  And in one memorable exchange of letters, a prim young woman named Matilda Mohair wrote to condemn the unseemly practice of young men pushing women on swings as an excuse to catch a glimpse of their legs.  Within a week, four other correspondents wrote, claiming to know Matilda and saying she was only objecting because she had crooked legs.  One even said she was with child “despite her crooked legs.”  It’s an exchange I could easily see happening on Twitter.

The Spectator was wildly popular in its time, with an estimated daily readership, in London’s fashionable coffeehouses and salons, of nearly 20,000 at a time when books were typically printed in lots of 500.  Even before the daily issues stopped running, publishers were collecting the essays into an eight-volume set that was reprinted every few years for more than a century.  It only began to fall out of favor in the late 19th century.

My volume is part of a small (duodecimo) leather-bound, illustrated set from the 1767 London printing.  Because The Spectator was so popular, you can still find individual eighteenth-century volumes in good condition for about the cost of a modern hardback.  This particular volume played a role in my own life.  When my wife and I were courting, I used to read the essays aloud to her.  She particularly liked one that explored the value of a garden — the essayist suggests using evergreens to create a winter garden and recommends using plants native to the area, “such as rejoice in the soil.” (By the way, reading your favorite works aloud is not a bad way to find a soulmate.)

The thing that delights me most about this particular book, though, is the inscriptions written in the flyleaf by the book’s previous owners. [Read more…]


Anything for the Story: Tension

Photo by clurross (Flickr Creative Commons)

Today’s guest is Clayton Lindemuth, with a post about tension and author integrity because first, they are linked, and second, learning to let go of our nice selves is critical to good writing. If the reader doesn’t perceive the reality of the challenge or conflict facing the protagonist, the story is weak. His debut, Cold Quiet Country, set in winter of 1971, is a is a go-for-the-jugular country noir… “Lindemuth carefully weaves characters’ backstories into this thrilling narrative, and his visceral prose and unsparing tone are wonderfully reminiscent of such modern rural noir masters as Tom Franklin and Donald Ray Pollock,” from Publishers Weekly starred review.

Clayton lives in Chesterfield, Missouri, with his wife and dog. You can connect with him on Twitter and Facebook and for more information visit his blog and website.

Anything for the Story: Tension

How do you make your reader bite her nails so hard she doesn’t know what she’s doing until two knuckles are gone? Let’s frame the question.

Our impulse as writers is to think of something interesting, tell the reader, hey, check out this interesting situation—a boy feels this way; a girl feels that way—and then wonder why our beta readers tremble in the corner and won’t make eye contact.

The reason “show, don’t tell” is the First Rule of Fiction is that showing accomplishes something telling doesn’t: no matter how precisely we draw a picture, we are still forcing our reader to interpret it. “Show don’t tell” creates reader engagement; it compels her to think, to ponder, to test hypotheses.

So what does an engaged reader asking questions have to do with tension? Bear with me just a little longer, and let’s expand focus.

Sometimes we find ourselves writing dinner table scenes because they’re comfortable. However, if there isn’t a bomb under the table, or a pistol in Mom’s bra holster, or at least Mom daydreaming about her Sicilian lover—something with latent tension—we’re probably boring the reader.

Lob a Bomb

The first step in creating tension is to avoid writing about things that are dull. It’s like Stephen King’s advice to remove everything that isn’t Story, or Michelangelo removing everything that isn’t David. In the human experience, about forty zillion things are heart breakingly rotten. Find one of them, light the fuse, and pitch it under your protagonist’s dining room table. [Read more…]