On Ghost Hunting and Crafting Story Endings

This past weekend, I took my daughter ghost hunting—something we’ve been meaning to do for a long while. We started our adventure out with dinner at Ye Olde Trail Tavern in Yellow Springs. I used to hang out at the Tavern when I was younger. It’s the second oldest restaurant in Ohio and alleged to be haunted by two ghosts. Even better, the great Rod Serling worked behind the bar back when he was an Antioch student.

From there, we ventured into nearby John Bryan State Park in search of the ghost of Wiley the Hermit, who drowned there back in 1912 when his horse and carriage fell into the river during a storm.

It was already dusk when we parked in the forest’s lower parking lot—one of only two cars. We descended a steep stone staircase and hiked along the river. The cold chilled our bare hands. We cut down a side trail that followed the river. The sky dimmed. We strolled and chatted, until something splashed nearby into the water. Jogging ahead, we looked but saw no sign of what made the noise. Could it have been Wiley?

Nope. A few steps later, I pointed into the river. “Look at that. Do you see it?”

“I do,” my daughter said. She gripped my hand.

A sleek beaver—apparently spooked by our presence—swam lazy laps in the water. Neither of us had ever seen one in the wild. It moved like a liquid shadow, graceful and at ease. We watched until it swam out of sight, obscured by reeds and thickening shadows. A few steps onward, we saw some of the busy critter’s handiwork: a tree stump and a well-girdled tree. We ran our fingers over the thick, exposed wood. The ruthless result of the beaver’s effort stood in stark contrast to the slippery swimmer we’d just witnessed.

Tree girdled by beaver.We must’ve spent a good while there by the river, because night was fast approaching. With quickening steps, we hustled back toward the parking lot. The uphill trail was easy enough to follow, but the landmarks seemed unfamiliar. And sure enough, the trail ended not at the parking lot, but at a steep country road. We’d somehow taken the wrong trail back.

“It’s okay,” I told my daughter. “We just have to follow this road back to the lot. But let’s hurry. We don’t want to get hit by a car.”

We jogged through the dark night, feet slapping the concrete. I expected at any moment headlights to illuminate our backs or blind our eyes, but the darkness persevered. We were panting by the time we reached the parking lot. My CRV waited for us, the lone car in the shadowy lot.

The whole episode got me thinking about story resolution.

Most stories have a simple enough formula. A protagonist wants something. An antagonist throws up obstacles. The protagonist overcomes obstacles. The end. But in the best stories, the protagonist gets what she needs, not what she wants.

At some vital moment in the course of the narrative, the goal swerves on the reader. Why? Because a solid ending isn’t about living happily ever after. It’s about winning a little and losing a little. Maybe the protagonist gets some fortune and glory but at what cost? Maybe she saves the day but loses something vital about herself.

As you craft the ending of your story or novel, keep two key points in mind:

1) Your character’s journey should have changed her (see my blog post on finding your character’s song).

2) Your character should find some element of victory coupled with some element of defeat.

In our little outing, we wanted the dark thrill of seeing a ghost. Well, we didn’t get it. Ghost hunting fail!

But… we did see a magnificent bit of nature, and we did get a little nighttime misadventure. I’m calling that a parenting win!

Share Button

On Falling Leaves, Inspiration, and the Woes of Outlining

Darker PagesThis past weekend, my daughter and I went on a near-perfect autumn hike. Leaves crunched underfoot. The sun sliced between the soon-to-be barren forest canopy. A breeze nudged the dead leaves to scurry and the dying leaves to fall.

It was in this setting that we played one of our favorite games, in which we try to catch falling leaves before they hit the ground.

It’s a deceptively simple game, and one that can only be played for a few weeks out of each year. The leaves fall in an array of swirls, dives, dashes, and spirals, making it nearly impossible to predict where these rotting angels will land. We’ve found two effective strategies to catch the leaves: 1) simply stand in one place and let the leaf come to you; or 2) chase after them with mad sprints and flailing hands.

Catching falling leaves in forest.As is often the case, a balance of both is most successful. And as usual, in the simplest of things lies a metaphor for greater endeavors.

My point is this: conjuring a story is like catching a falling leaf.

The running and flailing can be compared to the actual writing. No story will be written if you don’t first sit your butt in the chair and get walking down that path. It takes effort and drive and will. The fingers must be fleet, for the story often takes a tangled path to the page.

But the standing in one place—allowing the story to come to you—is the other half of the equation. It’s what happens in the outer margins of the page. It’s the nuance of narrative that can’t be outlined or predicted or forced. It’s the inspired twist of the plot, the hidden meaning that you didn’t know was there. That’s some of the true magic of writing, when you craft characters that outgrow you and scenes that surprise you. The thing is, this magic won’t have a chance to occur if you over-plan your novel and suffocate your story with a cumbersome outline.

Let your story come to you.

Yes, there is a place for outlining in fiction. It helps to have a rough idea of where you’re going and how you’ll get there. But keep those outlines minimal, like the five-sentence outline that Les Edgerton suggests. That’s all you need.

Anything more than that, and you’re just stomping dead leaves when you could be chasing after dying angels.

Share Button

Immerse Your Readers by Yanking their Nose (And Using All Five Senses)

Darker PagesHave you ever sat and talked with someone to whom you’re very attracted—perhaps early in a relationship—and you wanted desperately to reach out and touch them? All you can do is listen and watch but you really want to immerse yourself in them—to smell their skin and kiss their smile. It’s a powerful sensation.

Do not make your readers feel this way!

In writing, it’s far too easy to focus on sounds (dialogue) and images (description). We often forget about those other three senses—taste, smell, and touch. Perhaps the most potent of these senses is smell. Consider this:

Randy walks into the deserted office. An air conditioning vent rattles. Outside, car horns blare and traffic hums. Haphazard stacks of paper cover the desk. Bits of white stuffing peek out of the brutalized chair. On the dented filing cabinet, something furry grows inside a Darth Vader coffee mug.

So that gives us a sense of the room, but check out how much deeper into the moment (and the character’s head) you get when the other sense are involved:

Randy walks into the deserted office. The chilled air cools the sweat on his shirt. He shivers, echoing the rattling air conditioning vent. Outside, car horns blare and traffic hums. Bits of white stuffing peek out of the brutalized chair. On the dented filing cabinet, something furry grows inside a Darth Vader coffee mug. The room smells like sweaty socks and too much hair product—like high school.

When describing a scene, the sense of smell can clue you in to the subtle histories of a place. It can tell you something beneath the surface. A hint of cigarette smoke, rotten trash, melted candlewax, disinfectant . . . these can all give clues about a setting’s recent history.

Smells can also trigger memories in the POV character, as well as the reader. The olfactory bulb is part of the brain’s limbic system, a region closely tied to memory. So, scents can be an easy, relatable way to segue into a flashback.

As you craft your scenes and chapters, make a point of including all the senses, especially smell. Your written world will be all the richer – and smellier – for it.

Share Button

Inflate Flat Characters by Breaking Stereotype

Darker PagesLast night, I took my daughter, my mom, and her husband to see a limited engagement of Gone With the Wind on the big screen. It’d been years since I’d seen the film, and I was most struck this time by the touching relationship between Melanie Hamilton and Rhett Butler.

The two characters couldn’t have been more opposite. Rhett is a classic devilish rogue interested only in himself, while Melanie is as selfless and wholesome as can be. If the story had lesser writing, these two wouldn’t have had anything to do with each other. Instead, their characters are so much richer because of how much they respect and appreciate each other. And that’s the point of this week’s post: keep your characters from being stereotypes by giving them moments where they can break type.

Gone with the wind

Melanie the Goodie-Goodie and Rhett the Rogue.

For example, if you have a character named Randy who’s a grim-n-gritty anti-hero loner, flesh him out by giving him an undying devotion to the original Beverly Hills 90210 series. Or a love of Lifetime movies. Or a habit of reading romance novels. Or a girlish laugh when his feet are tickled.

Back to Gone With the Wind, the kindly Melanie has a great moment right after Scarlett shoots a Yankee deserter. Rather than react in horror, Melanie says, “I’m glad you killed him.” She also comes up with a quick lie to account for the gunshot and then suggests pilfering the dead man’s pockets. It’s a brilliant moment in which the character really shines—and becomes more than a simple goody-goody.

Likewise, Rhett has some great off-type moments, too. Now, you could argue that his love for his daughter Bonnie is a break from his rogue character, but there’s a hint of selfishness in his parenting. At one point, he even refers to Bonnie as the one person who’s ever completely belonged to him. No, I’d argue that it’s his admiration for Melanie where the self-centered Rhett takes on real dimension. For example, when Melanie donates her wedding ring to the war effort, Rhett returns it and makes a donation on her behalf. Or course, true to form, he also takes a playful jab at Scarlett in the process.

Perhaps most touching, when Rhett has a complete breakdown after Bonnie’s death, Melanie is the only one who can reason with him. A few scenes later, her last words to Scarlett on her deathbed urge her to be good to Rhett.

Bottom line: the key to making archetypal characters work is to give them a few moments where they break out of their mold and become more human. Likewise, real magic can occur when you have characters, like Melanie and Rhett, who can find new depths to themselves in the context of each other.

Share Button

Writing Characters that Sing (without Actually Singing)

Darker PagesIf you haven’t seen the musical episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Once More With Feeling, you should really check it out. In a nutshell, a demon arrives in Sunnydale and infects everyone in town with the need to sing about their innermost feelings. Buffy’s opening song is a example of what I’m talking about in this post: giving each of your characters a song.

Here’s Buffy’s song, Going Through the Motions:

Going through the motions – Legendado PTBR from Sith BR on Vimeo.

The idea here is that everyone in your story should have something buried beneath the surface: a secret longing, a desperate need, or perhaps a guilty memory. These hidden feelings and thoughts should drive your characters’ actions.

I like to think of this as each character’s song. They don’t literally need to sing these songs in the story, but you as the author should know the song by heart. The song is the character’s emotional context. It’s where they’re coming from and where they’re going. So before you start writing your next story or your next scene, consider each character and see if you know their song.

If I’m going to write a chapter in which Randy has dinner with a merman and a mime, sure, I want to know his thoughts on mermen and mimes. But I also want to know what’s going on deeper inside him. What long-term path is he traveling? What scars are hurting him? What hidden desire is he longing for? Has he gotten over killing his werewolf brother with a spatula?

And keep in mind that by the end of your story, your main character should most likely have a new song to sing. Or—at the very least—a new refrain.

Share Button