Sunday, September 23, 2007

On Yearning

There was a great post on September 12th at One Hand Typing where Mardougrrl talked about some of the ideas Robert Olen Butler lays out in From Where You Dream: The Process of Writing Fiction. I was so intrigued that I bought the book and so far, I am captivated by his thought processes. There are things in this book that I’d not previously read in other books on writing and I feel like light bulbs are going off every time I read a new chapter.

Note on this book: Based on many of the Amazon reviews, a lot of readers are put off by Butlers very direct and opinionated style. Unlike many books on writing where the authors recommend that writers do what works for them, Butler comes across pretty strongly about the way to write. If you can get past the tone, it’s a great book.

My first epiphany was about what Butler refers to as yearning. Since I literally keep Kurt Vonnegut’s “Creative Writing 101” list of eight rules in front of me at all times (OK, I have them memorized), I certainly am aware of KV’s rule #3: “Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water”. This fundamental rule is in all books on craft. Until I read Butler, I was thinking about the things that characters want in much more concrete terms.

There is something about the way that Butler describes yearning that broke through to me. He rightly credits genre fiction with being very good at establishing a character’s desires. Typically, what the character wants is pretty clear in a romance or mystery, for example. Butler says that almost without exception, aspiring non-genre fiction writers tend to fail because they don’t establish their character’s yearning, or desires the vast majority of the time.

We can write great characterization, describe emotion, attitudes, opinions, and ideas but many times we overlook that major component – desire-- that is at the core of narrative and plot; that drives them.

It’s usually more subtle in contemporary fiction than it is in genre fiction, but it’s just as critical. Our characters yearn for love, for a sense of belonging, for success, respect, a home, community, friendship, acceptance, revenge, forgiveness, a mother, a father, a child, God, the past, escape from the past – literally dozens of possibilities.

What the characters yearn for is typically never stated. The reader and I suspect more often than not, the writer discovers early on what the character yearns for through our narrative descriptions and through the character’s thoughts and actions. I suspect it’s not something most writers are conscious of from the beginning.

For me, this was a Wyle E. Coyote moment – a cartoon anvil with the word “yearning” dropped out of the sky and landed on me. It gave me a true – holy @#$% moment. It all became clear to me why some contemporary novels seem to fall flat and it’s a huge reason why I often (OK always) struggle in my own writing. Knowing what my characters yearn for answers so many questions and solves so many problems for me, I just had to sit down and think about it. In the case of what I’m working on now, it was obvious – once I asked myself the question.

How much do you consciously think about what each of your characters yearns for? How much do you think it impacts everything else in your story?


Anonymous said...

That's one of my own biggest failings, establishing a character's true motivation.

susan @ spinning

kristen said...

Okay, my friend, you are killing me with this...

Once again, I sit here wondering if I am doing anything right. What do my characters want? I don't think I've consciously determined the answer to that question. Perhaps, maybe, they want back everything they've lost?

No doubt, I will be doing much pondering and thinking and re-reading of the first two chapters today.


Yogamum said...

In the past, I didn't think much about what my characters yearned for (which is why I floundered around so much and finally gave up writing for a long time!). In my current project, I do know what they yearn for but it's sometimes hard to make those intangible desires manifest themselves in the characters' actions.

I might have to get that book. It sounds great!

Lisa said...

Susan, me too, although I hope now I'm on the road to being able to remedy this.

Kristin, you and me both sister, although I think we both KNOW exactly what our characters yearn for and now it's just a matter of being conscious of that. I know I've had a whole lot of new insight about what I've written so far ever since I asked myself what T and M yearn for. Hey, the good news is that this is a great time to have figured it out, right?

Kristi, actually, since I have your first chapter, the first thing I thought of when I read it was that I do know what your character yearns for. It's apparent in everything from the dust that blows in every night to the loneliness she feels at having only two people she ever comes in contact with. You did it!

Charles Gramlich said...

That's a really good point about "yearning." I will have to check out Butler's book. I'm a sucker for books on writing. If that is a bit of his advice then I think he'd be well worth checking out.

Lisa said...

Charles, it really is, but I'll double my "warning to readers" for you because I know how you feel about people making value judgments about genre/literary fiction. He doesn't denigrate genre fiction, but he makes frequent reference to entertainment vs. literary and what is "art" and what is not. Having said that, I believe genre fiction can embody art and much of it is literary and I believe you are the kind of writer who strives for this. Google books allows you to read a few pages of this particular book so check it out. If you can manage to overlook these types of statements, or take them for what they're worth, I think you will like this book a lot.

Melissa Marsh said...

Surfed over here via Ell's blog...

Great, great post. I have been trying to pinpoint what my main character's yearning is - and it's rather difficult because he is at such a hard place in his life. After living his dream, it's been cruely snatched away from him and now he's left in this void where he has no idea what to do. He has no idea WHAT he wants because for so long, he wanted to live his dream. It's made for a fascinating character study and I can't wait to jump into the novel and start seeing how he learns and grows.

moonrat said...

i'd never heard of vonnegut's 8...thanks for the tip.

Ello said...

Great post again Lisa! I've never crystallized it before either. I think I had the same Wylie Coyote moment, except mine was Porky Pig "ebiddity ebiddity...Ah!!!" Yearning! That's exactly right. I can only hope I got this right in my WIP. I'm thinking yes because I wrote my conclusion first and built everything backwards from there. Very interesting!

The Writers' Group said...

Lisa, I often thought about Butler's advice while writing. Yearning is more than motivation, more than desire. Yearning can often be intangible to the character himself, but the writer needs to know what it is and if he'll find it.

Yearning is one of my favorite words, right up there with possibilities and wondering. For me, all three of those words should be a part of the protagonist's transformation.

Great post.


Judy Merrill Larsen said...

I find that sometimes I don't know what my character is yearning for until I'm well into the MS--because i don't know them well enough until then or they haven't shared it with me. But, if I'm patient, it'll become clear.

I love the idea of wondering (and then discovering) what they're yearning for, too.

Larramie said...

Yearning causes characters to show their feeling(s) and, if they don't, will the reader yearn to read on?

Sustenance Scout said...

"Yearning is more than motivation, more than desire."

Lisa, thanks for writing about this. Looking forward to mulling it over. hmmmmmmm

steve said...

My initial thought was, "A lot of people, especially in the Baby Boom and Millennial generations, don't really know what they're yearning for." But then, that's a kind of yearning. I suspect that many of us want a kind of amorphous sense of peace and well-being. But for a novel to make sense, that amorphous yearning has to evolve into something more definite.

Vonnegut's rules remind me of Orwell's rules, from "Politics and the English Language:"

(i) Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.

(ii) Never us a long word where a short one will do.

(iii) If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.

(iv) Never use the passive where you can use the active.

(v) Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.

(vi) Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

Lisa said...

Melissa, I think it is hard and I also think that it's one of those things that quite possibly has to come to us through our own subconscious.

Moonrat, I'm not sure if they're published anywhere besides in the introduction to Bagombo Snuff Box, his uncollected short fiction, but I love the way he spells them out. In Kurt Vonnegut's words:

"Now lend me your ears. Here is Creative Writing 101:

1. Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.
2. Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.
3. Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.
4. Every sentence must do one of two things -- reveal character or advance the action.
5. Start as close to the end as possible.
6. Be a sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them -- in order that the reader may see what they are made of.
7. Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.
8. Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To heck with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages."

I also really like Steve's list below.

Ello, it's amazing how many times we can hear the same thing and then one day, we hear it differently.

Amy, it is a great word, isn't it? And to your point, most characters probably aren't fully aware of their own yearning -- like real people.

Judy, I didn't know I wanted to know what they were yearning for until this sunk in. Then I realized they gave me lots of clues and now that I think I do know, it adds to the layering in the revisions.

Larramie, I would guess the reader would not -- to Butler's point. I think if this is missing, we don't know why the story or characters feel like something is missing, but we sense it.

Karen, I think it will be with me for a long time to come.

Steve, I think you're absolutely right. Many of us do yearn to yearn for something. And I'm going to have to tack Mr. Orwell's rules up next to KV's. Thanks for sharing them.

reality said...

Your posts are turning into a nice package of learning. And the guests are great too. Thanks Steve.
Motive: I haven't been able to figure out one of my MC's motive so far and the thought of that screams at me daily. What is his motive? I'll have to discover that.
Rule No 8 from KV though is an interesting one. I wonder if others agree with it totally and why?

Anonymous said...

I loved this. I too am a sucker for books about writing. They can be both inspiring and problematic. Inspiring because they can give a boost when direction and imagination are flagging. Problematic because reading about writing (which I love to do) is not the same thing as actually writing anything.

I sometimes have to be stern with myself and say, "Enough of this. Now get to work."

Of course now I'm going straight over to Amazon to order this book. I just can't help myself.

Patti said...

yearning and motive are intertwined for me. i have always thought that one should never introduce a character unless that charater has a point in moving the story forward for at least one of the other characters.

this book sounds intriguing and i am putting it on my "to get" list. thanks.

Anonymous said...

Ooh, I am so glad that you are liking the book. I also found the "yearning" section helpful, because he's so clear about how intense that desire needs to be. I think sometimes I lay out the "concrete" want without paying attention to what my character wants at the deepest level.

When I really connect to that, the writing flows much better. In fact, I think part of the problem I had with my previous MS was that the MC's yearning was way more diffuse than everyone else's.

I'm so happy you found something useful in my blog!

Lisa said...

Reality, I think KV's #8 has to be put into the perspective of the story you're telling, but I do think it relates very much to the Annie Dillard quote that Kristen gave me last week. It bears repeating from The Writing Life: "One of the few things I know about writing is this: spend it all, shoot it, play it, lose it, all, right away, every time. Do not hoard what seems good for a later place in the book, or for another book; give it, give it all, give it now. The impulse to save something good for a better place later is the signal to spend it now. Something more will arise for later, something better. These things fill from behind, from beneath, like well water..." Of course I'm sure this doesn't apply literally in the case of mystery and suspense elements :)

Rebecca, I struggle always with the urge to keep reading and learning and just getting down to writing. Ugh! Prioritization is a daily struggle!

Patti, the book has really opened my eyes to a lot of new ideas and a lot of old ideas, presented in a new light.

Mardougrrl, I ALWAYS find useful things in your blog! And, beautiful piece today, by the way. Your voice is unique, real and lovely.

liz fenwick said...

Thank you, thank you, thank you. As I am plodding though a first rewrite and this is so important. When I wrote the first draft I had a vague idea of where the characters were pushing but now I see what they yearn for clearly but they can't see it to see if this follows through consistant through the remaining 300 pages!

Lisa said...

Liz, I am so glad this was helpful to you in some way! That makes my day :)

Alyssa Goodnight said...

Great post--definitely something I need to think about!

cs harris said...

Good post.

I stumbled upon the advice to have each character want something not long before I was published (not sure if there was a connection!), and I do still consciously think about it.

Lisa said...

Candy, I'd say based on the way you worded your comment there was definitely a connection!

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Literary Quote

It is worth mentioning, for future reference, that the creative power which bubbles so pleasantly in beginning a new book quiets down after a time, and one goes on more steadily. Doubts creep in. Then one becomes resigned. Determination not to give in, and the sense of an impending shape keep one at it more than anything.

Virginia Woolf