Creating convincing inner conflict in characters

Literary inspiration comes from some weird places.

Case in point: What I learned about writing from mussar

On Shabbat, I mostly stick to reading materials with Jewish content. This is just one of the ways I make it distinct from the other days of the week. Over the last several months, I’ve been nickel and diming it through Strive for Truth, Rabbi Aryeh Carmell’s English translation of the Michtav Me’Eliyahu by Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler. This book is considered a classic of mussar, the refinement of character through the lens of Torah.

When I say “nickel and diming it,” I mean this: read a couple pages, realize I didn’t really get it, re-read. Take a nap, shmooze with my husband, or hang out with the kids; pick up the book again. Realize I don’t remember how we got to this part of the essay, then backtrack and again re-read the last couple paragraphs before hitting some new material and starting all over again.

Kinda like reading Durkheim. Really heavy stuff.

Anyway, this week, when I picked up Strive for Truth after Shabbat dinner, I was forced to re-read the first half of the essay I’d begun last week. The essay is about free will. Continue reading

Helpful tools to plot your story

man and woman in library

“Excuse me, sir. Do you happen to remember that story where that guy dies and one of his sons thinks the other did the crime, but it turns out to be the mother instead?”

I was reading a post by Noelle Sterne on Writer’s Digest today where she describes “How to Prevent Predictable Plots.” She cites Georges Polti, who listed 36 classic plots which are constantly used and reused in literature and drama. (Sterne suggests that it’s inevitable you’ll use one of these basic plots, but that you can set yourself apart and introduce unpredictability through the details.)

Intrigued, I went to a description of these “dramatic situations.” Continue reading

Flashes and foraging: where story ideas come from

I was reading this interesting little article a while back about the flashes of inspiration that triggered 10 authors to pen their most classic works. The article really focuses on novels that arose out of a spontaneous image or idea that popped into the author’s head. Perhaps the most dramatic was Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s inspiration for 100 Years of Solitude. His sudden insight prompted him to turn his car around and drive his family home to work on his new book instead of continuing towards the beach vacation they’d been headed for.

Now, I recognize that many stories are born that way–bolts of lighting unexpectedly sent from Above, and so on–and it has certainly happened to me before. An editor will select a topic for me to write on (1200-1400 words by next Thursday on this theme, please!) and I’ll sit stumped about how to approach it in some way that isn’t stale and predictable. Hours (or days) later, I’ll try to get back to sleep after someone’s car alarm has gone off and–zing!–HaShem will pop an idea into my brain. (Insert here a sound effect to emphasize the moment.) Sometimes, a detail of a conversation or picture in a book will provoke an entire story to arise almost fully formed from my imagination, with little effort on my part. Yes, this does happen.

Most of the time, however, I forage for ideas. I’ll flip through science news for a new discovery or technology that sounds too impossible to be true. I’ll read three novels all of the same genre or subject, and then compare them. I’ll snip articles out of my HaModia or Mishpacha or Ami. I’ll browse the pages of my journal for wacky things my kids do or things kids fight about, or scribble clusters of words that a topic evokes from my mind.

Once I collect these ideas, they require careful combination. At times the way to do this comes through hard work, strategically arranging plot elements based on the needs of the assignment. Other times, I sit and contemplate them and then let the ideas sorta drift together until something sounds right. I’ll meld a new technology with a situation my children recently dealt with. I’ll transport the subplot from a novel I liked into a fantastic setting, then give it a different ending. Sometimes, after sampling the rough draft, I’ll recognize there’s a missing ingredient and have to hunt around for something that adds just the right flavor. It’s not like there’s no Heavenly assistance involved…it’s just a lot more dramatic, with more input on my part.

In the HaModia Sukkos 5773 story supplement (out today!), you’ll find a piece by yours truly that was generated in just such a way. Discovering that earthbound scientists will likely be exploring new planets via remote-controlled robots, I filed it away for future contemplation. (This isn’t the original article, but it was about the same subject.) After a lot of publicity last winter and spring about how the internet and smart technologies affect human relationships, I revisited the initial idea and found a way to blend the two concepts into an entertaining (I hope!) sci-fi story. I’m hoping the readers enjoy it. It will be my first piece for adults in a magazine with an international circulation!