Saturday, February 19, 2011

You write what you read -- or watch

Some weeks ago Valerie and I were doing what we often do on quiet evenings: sit next to each other while she watches TV and I type. On this evening she was watching "The Cape" – a show with a clever premise straight from the golden-age of comics. Not one of my favorites, but pleasant enough.

On this night I glanced at the screen in time to see a second unit shot of a desk calendar; a single page that read: "Saturday, September 3"
"Ah," I said. "They're staging this episode to be current in summer rerun."
"What?" Valerie asked.
"When this episode reruns in the summer," I said, indicating the screen even though the calendar was no longer visible. "September 3, 2011, will be a Saturday."
She didn't bother asking me if I was sure. Instead she hit me with: "So what's his name?"
"Him." She pointed at some guy talking to an adult River Tam.
"The Cape?" I guessed cleverly.
"You never pay attention to the important stuff," she said. Before I could protest she added: "You figure out mystery stories half way through but can't remember a single person's name."

I elected not to answer the charge – which was dead on. We've had variations of this conversation a few hundred times over the years. At its root is a fundamental difference in how we think that can't be talked through.

I've often heard from writing gurus that the key to a successful story is creating characters readers care about. If readers love your characters, they'll forgive any other shortcomings your story may have. I'll agree characters are important. Characters are what gives the reader access to the story you're telling. She experiences the tale through the perceptions of your characters. Well drawn, believable characters with whom the reader can identify -- or at least empathize -- are one of the most important tools in the storyteller's kit. But they are tools, there to serve the story. I'm not one who will overlook plot holes if the characters are captivating (though as a recovering Trekkie and Whovian in remission, honesty compels me to say this is not always the case). As a general rule, I cannot watch a show or finish a book if the mechanics of the story don't work.

A couple of decades ago Valerie and I tried our hands at writing romance novels together. Looking back now, I think the process might have worked if we'd stayed in different rooms. Or maybe different cities. The ways we approached our project – the ways we envisioned a story – were completely different. Each of us saw the other as obstructing the process by focusing on trivialities. The only way to save our marriage was to swear off ever trying to write together. (I exaggerate, but not by much.)

As writers of course we learn to balance character and story; to use all the elements of storytelling in crafting our tales. But before we were writers we were readers, and what we looked for in stories we read still shapes how we look at stories we write.

What do you look for in a story? What is it you like to read? And how much does that shape what – and how – you write?


G said...

I'm not sure that what I read shapes what I write.

My reading has been so erratic over the years that quite often what I read has no bearing on what I write.

I read mostly for pleasure and its kind of hard to say what I look for in a story. I usually pick up a book because either the topic is something I like (non-fiction) or the plot is something that really intrigues me (fiction).

Very rarely do I pick up a book to read strictly for learning purposes. I do try to examine the story to see how well written it was and why it came out the way it did, but that takes a back seat to simple enjoyment of the book.

Charles Gramlich said...

to me, 'names' per se are largely trivial. I actually remember characters well from the things I read and watch, but often I don't really know what the name is. I know the character's actions and behaviors but I really don't pay attention to the name. I can overlook plot holes in movies far easier than in books, largley because I don't really care about movies.

Liane Spicer said...

I read all genres, some more than others. So what makes me get into a story, or not? The characters, I think. Plot is essential and I won't overlook gaping chasms, but if I can't identify or empathize with (or even hate) the character/s the story leaves me cold.

Give me character driven rather than plot driven (not that I should have to choose). Watching people struggle and develop and change is so much more exciting to me than watching all the threads come together in a convoluted plot. Think I'm with Valerie on this one.