There are several ways to help an audience connect with the relationships between two or more characters. (In)Famously, there is the meet cute, wherein two people meet in a contrived, coincidental, but “cute” way, like bumping heads when reaching for the same dropped book or something. There are also “frenemies,” who begin as diametrically enemies and slowly become friends, investing the audience in their transformation, like Crowley and the Winchesters on SUPERNATURAL. And there are always the diverse group of people thrown together, like the study group on COMMUNITY or Leia, Luke, and Hanh in STAR WARS.
With the right dynamics, these are all legitimate ways to invest an audience in a set of relationships. However, I think one of the most effective ways of connecting an audience with two characters is to pair contrasts together. The Amazon Prime show TRUTH SEEKERS relies on this dynamic for several of its characters to great effect.
TRUTH SEEKERS makes the audience care about the relationships between its characters by making them odd pairs of contrasts who have a singular thing in common. The two core pairs in the show lean on this with the relationships between Gus (a middle-aged widower who is interested in the paranormal) and Elton (a single wanderer that attracts the paranormal), and Richard (a lonely old man) and Helen (an agoraphobic young woman).
For Gus and Elton, they both have the paranormal in common. Gus is attracted to it, mostly because of his late wife, while Elton is repelled from it due to an experience when he was a child. Unfortunately for Elton, but to Gus’s delight, the paranormal is attracted to him. This automatically introduces conflict into their relationship, so the audience is immediately invested in seeing them work together and come to an understanding.
Richard and Helen have loneliness in common. Only in Richard’s case it’s because he’s old and stuck in his house all day, while Helen is young but afraid to leave her house. The audience roots for them to solve one another’s loneliness and for Richard to help Helen overcome her agoraphobia.
These types of dynamics are shortcuts for the audience to identify with and latch onto characters. TRUTH SEEKERS does it especially well, in my opinion, because of the commonalities between the characters and how that allows them to help one another grow.
I don’t remember when I first read Heart Transplant by Ray Bradbury. I remember buying the short story collection that contains it. There was a book sale at my local library in South Buffalo, and I grabbed it because I had read a story from The Martian Chronicles as part of a writer’s group I was in at the time, so I recognized Bradbury’s name. Little did I know that the collection I bought, One More for the Road, would make me a lifelong Bradbury fan.
Bradbury built his brand on bottled nostalgia. His words are able to conjure images of magic, of subtle emotion, of horror, of awe. Heart Transplant is a story that combines all of these things into a perfect short story–contained, lyrical, and deep. I won’t try to dissect the technical aspects of the story. What’s the point if it makes me feel something so strongly? Instead, here are the reasons why I love it.
Begins in Media Res
The first line of the story is dialogue: “Would I what?”
It’s said by a man, kept generic (at least I believe) for the reader to become. We’re immediately sucked in–we want to know what he’s referencing.
Bradbury draws it out. Not a lot, just enough to get you to lean more closely, like someone that wants to tell you a secret. Meanwhile, he’s setting the tone with his descriptions, “…holding his hand, but staring rather than looking at that ceiling, as if there were something there that she was trying to see.”
And then he reveals the thrust of the story.
An Imaginative, Emotional Plot
“… if you could fall in love with your wife again… would you?”
Ah, so they’re lovers. But one of them is wondering whether or not it’s possible to feel like she did for her husband before. We can tell quickly that she’s trying to convince herself that it’s possible, while the man is resistant to the idea. She talks of how her husband has acted “better” lately. The man, hesitant to make her feel guilty in any way, says that his wife has, too. We don’t know right away, but that’s a lie.
Later, she explains her plan, “… what if, just before we go to sleep, what if we made a kind of mutual wish, me for you, you for me?”
After an initial reaction of disbelief and mild mocking, he agrees. He loves this woman enough to make a wish that she were with someone else, all because he knows that is where her true happiness is. Aside from that, he can see the writing on the wall. His wish doesn’t matter. She’s already gone. How can he not let her go?
Since I first read the story all those years ago, this has been my favorite passage:
He awoke for no reason except that he had had a dream that the earth had shrugged, or an earthquake had happened ten thousand miles away that no one felt, or that there had been a second Annunciation but everyone was deaf, or perhaps it was only that the moon had come into the room during the night and changed the shape of the room and changed the looks on their faces and the flesh on their bones and now had stopped so abruptly that the quick silence had stirred his eyes wide. In the moment of opening, he knew the streets were dry, there had been no rain. Only, perhaps, some sort of crying.
Ray Bradbury, heart transplant
This description, in its uncertainty, in its metaphor, places me within the man’s emotions. I understand him in this moment. How the world is different now than when he closed his eyes, but in an abstract way. A way that’s monumental, but only for him. The map of his heart has changed without his wanting it to and he’s the only person that knows. It’s heartbreaking.
The story feels fantastical. It’s about wishes, after all, and as far as the woman is concerned hers came true. The man says his did, too, but it’s a lie. It was always a lie. Because he loves her.
“Because both of us believed,” he said, quietly. “I wished very hard, for you.”
Ray bradbury, heart transplant
At the end, when his lover leaves to go back to her husband, excited to feel new again, the man stays behind. He assured her that he would call his wife right after she left, that her wish for him had also come true. Instead, he sacrifices his happiness in service of hers.
And he turned and lay back down in the bed and put one hand out to touch that empty pillow there.
Ray bradbury, heart transplant
It’s clear that the woman believes him. Not because he’s convincing in his lies, but because she needs to believe him in order to hold onto her newfound happiness.
To me, the story is a perfect vignette. In only 2,000 words (if that) Bradbury manages to capture high emotion, long history, and uncertain future. Those types of heights are what I strive for in my own writing. With enough practice, and enough re-reads of Bradbury, maybe one day I’ll reach them.
Unless experimental or post-modern, most novels progress along an easily followed, predictable structure. The author chooses a point of view (first or third person, usually, but sometimes second) and structures their novel either by character perspective, like what GAME OF THRONES does, or by events, usually breaking out specific events in chapters. These are the most natural ways to tell a story and ensure that the reader won’t get lost too easily.
Peter Straub’s 1979 novel GHOST STORY does all of these things at once and even throws in a prologue and epilogue for good measure. In short, the novel goes out of its way to break assumed writing rules and does it effectively. So what is its structure and why is it the best way to tell this particular story?
In screenwriting parlance, the story is broken into three acts (or parts, according to the book) with a teaser up front (prologue) and a tag in the back (epilogue). Nothing crazy so far. Each of these acts is broken into three parts, except the first act which only has two. Again, in terms of ebb and flow in the story, this is an unexceptional way to tell a story.
The chapters themselves, though, do some interesting things with perspective and time. Each act is broken up into short chapters, and those are sometimes broken into shorter scenes. The chapters are told from specific points of view, with the person whose perspective we’re seeing identified in a bold header at the start of each section. However, within each act that perspective shifts multiple times, and then begins with new chapters.
There are other times, too, when the point of view shifts further out. For example, after spending nearly 200 pages bouncing around the four main characters’ points of view–the Chowder Society, as they call themselves–we’re suddenly thrust into a third person omniscient narration with “The Chowder Society Accused.” Not long after that, at the start of the second act, the story shifts into a first person viewpoint, as we read the journals of a relatively new character that had only been mentioned before. The story is a constantly shifting, full of differing perspectives.
The same goes for time. The story starts around the one year anniversary of a Chowder Society member’s death, and then the second chapter of the first act jumps back in time to the night he died. The second act, being a series of journal entries, takes us to yet another time period, although at first it is unclear when in relation to the other events of the novel. What we do know is that it’s sometime before the prologue.
All that said, the unusual style suits the story. It keeps the reader off-kilter, for one, just as the characters feel. But it’s also the most logical way to tell the story, in a sense. The story would need to leap ahead and juggle multiple, unrelated character arcs if it was told linearly, which would be confusing to follow and lead to several slow sections that would likely bore the reader.
The lesson here (to me, anyway) is that what perspective and what structure you use to tell your story is just as important as the characters and events that populate the story. The way in which a story is told can confuse or illuminate a reader, depending on the author’s intentions. As GHOST STORY proves, mixing and matching perspective, time, and structural elements in new ways can accomplish both, drawing the reader deeper into the mystery you’re presenting.
On its face, to build a career as an author is easy as 1-2-3:
Write something good.
Get an agent.
Fame and fortune comes shortly thereafter, obviously.
Seems straightforward, right? It’s some sort of natural law that anything seemingly simple is nothing of the sort. Any process, put under rigorous enough examination, can evolve into a complicated labyrinth of best practices and advice. Let’s explore.
Write something good
This is like starting off a career as a carpenter by building an entire house. Sure, most of us hone our skills by laying flooring, doing some drywall, maybe taking on a single room. But even those tasks, as complicated as they are, pale in comparison to the entire house.
That’s just covering the “write something” part. Writing something good is a carpenter building a house on the edge of a mountain.
It’s hard to know what’s good because art is subjective. I know what I think is good. But it’s not the same as what my sister thinks is good. I can’t know if it’s what the public at large thinks is good.
So we focus on the elements that, in the alchemy of storytelling, sometimes add up to a good story:
Develop deep, complex characters.
Drop them into an interesting situation.
Layer in conflict.
Assuming we nail those parts of it, what if we’re just not good writers? What if our grammar is a little weird, or we don’t vary our sentence length enough, or, gods forbid, our voice isn’t apparent? Then what?
Writing something good isn’t an easy ask. Say we succeed, though, and write something we’re damn proud of? Surely the hard part is over?
Get an agent
Now that we’ve written something good, the path is clear. Just gotta get an agent to help shepherd the work into the world, where it will be loved and appreciated. With a story as good as the one we have, shouldn’t take more than a few tries to find someone as passionate about the story as we are. First, though, the query.
How do we write a query? There are numerous ways, depending on the medium you’re writing in (prose, screenwriting, etc.) and sometimes down to genre or agent preference?
That’s fine. No problem. We just wrote something good, so a query letter can’t be hard.
Oh but it is.
And so this becomes a new struggle. Eventually, through much forum-diving, advice-seeking, and rage-crying, we write one we’re happy with.
Next, then, is researching agents. We’ll start by identifying agents that represent our genre. Do we know what specific genre our story is in? Gotta figure out which is best, science fiction or literary fiction with speculative elements? Did we write a psychological thriller or a mystery? Shit, there’s a lot of gore, maybe it’s horror?
Ok, we’ve got that all figured out and created a list of agents that will soon be fighting over our story.
Except for this first rejection. And the second. The first ten are flukes, surely. We’ll make some adjustments to the query letter. Send another ten queries…
… and that’s another ten rejections.
But it only takes one, right? Just one person to see what you see. We’ll keep going. The rejections hurt less after a while, anyway.
Here’s where I must say goodbye, for I have yet to reach this stage, and therefore cannot offer anything of substance. Hopefully one day soon I’ll be able to update this post with my experience being published.
I’m a planner. Wasn’t always. When I was younger, due to age and circumstance I just did things without a ton of thought toward long-term goals. Back then, I didn’t have any. I was too busy surviving.
Over the past few years, though, I’ve become increasingly concerned with my and my wife’s futures. I’m in a better position to feel that concern, as our day-to-day survival isn’t as suspect as it once was. So, last year, when I was going through a particular vicious bout with existential dread, she and I sat down and made a three-year plan. In three years, I wanted to be making enough money off of my writing to do it full time, in addition to my wife’s day job, should I wish.
It’s been just over six months since I enacted the first parts of the plan (this website, a set writing schedule). How’s it coming?
On a good day, when I have a plan for what I want to write, I can knock out 1,000 words in an hour. This is good, because I usually only have an hour to write in the morning. Most days aren’t good days. That said, I only count my word count when it applies to my fiction writing. I don’t count the words written for this blog.
To maintain the presence I know is imperative to success online, I’ve set a personal record for most on-time updates, publishing two blogs per week (Tuesday and Friday morning, if you haven’t kept track) and one vignette per month. This is my 45th blog post in six months (or thereabouts), which isn’t super impressive on its own but means I’ve been disciplined and my planning ahead for many of these has been successful.
Two years ago I wrapped up my first novel, last year I wrote a novella (still being posted a chapter at a time at Wattpad, for those interested), and this year I’ve done the planning for and gotten a few thousand words into my next novel, in addition to focusing more on short stories. I’ve completed five short stories (between 1,500 and 4,500 words a piece) plus the number of vignettes I’ve done.
In terms of pure productivity (and considering the circumstances of, well, gestures broadly), I’ve done a good job of maintaining a certain pace. There have been lulls (I’m in one now!), but that’ll happen in the best of times, which these certainly are not.
Because my focus has been on actual writing, attempts to get published haven’t been as successful. In fact, it’s been mostly rejections. Earlier in the year I was longlisted for a flash fiction contest, but wasn’t selected. Otherwise, it’s been a only rejections for short stories and in querying my novel.
Sounds dire, I know, but the numbers don’t play out in my favor. I’ve only attempted to publish short stories twice this year, which isn’t a large enough sample size to draw any conclusions.
The same goes with querying. I realized late last year that I may have been querying my novel to the wrong agents in the wrong genre. I’ve always thought of it as a science fiction story, but the more research I did into genre classification and the more feedback I got from people, the more I realized it falls into literary fiction with speculative elements. In other words, strictly in terms of language and style and not quality it has more in common with David Mitchell or Haruki Murakami than it does Ray Bradbury or Orson Scott Card. This required a change in approach. I researched a different set of agents and started to query again, all of which has led to more rejections, but it’s once again a fairly small sample size (five rejections of eight submissions, so far).
I’ve also dabbled in self-publishing. Obviously, my vignettes are self-published on this website, but I’ve also used Wattpad to start publishing my novella and a couple of short stories. And that brings me to…
My main goal over the next few years is to build an audience. How’s that coming? Here’s a graph that shows page views for this website:
I know that’s kind of small and hard to read, but I essentially average between 0-3 page views per day. Those big spikes are the times I or someone I know has promoted the site on social media. In other words, I have a few dedicated readers that will check in on me frequently, otherwise most people only visit when I explicitly ask.
That’s to be expected.
I don’t really like promoting myself on social media. I really don’t like social media, in general, but that’s a subject for a rant sometime. And the best way to build your readership is to continually remind people that you exist. I had a three-pronged plan for building an audience:
Online Community: Join and participate in forums, build relationships with other aspirings, and generally be active enough that people find my work organically.
Writer’s Groups: Again, this is about being active. Get out in the world, join some writer’s groups, give and get feedback, and hope that the community gravitates toward my work.
Social Media: Use Facebook, Twitter, and Wattpad to promote myself and drive people toward this site.
The online community, especially around Wattpad, seemed to show a little bit of promise, but I haven’t been consistent in hanging around the forums lately. It takes a lot of time that I don’t really have. Social media is good for short-term spikes, especially if I’m sharing something provocative, but not long-term readers. Writer’s groups was put to bed with Covid-19.
Promoting yourself is difficult, but necessary. How else will anyone find you?
Initially, I had a plan to self-publish my novella by next month. I was going to use it as a test run in hiring and editor, going through the process for Kindle Direct Publishing, all that fun stuff. Considering I’m publishing it chapter-by-chapter on Wattpad right now, that plan has changed. I may still do all that, but it’ll be a different timeline.
I’d also like to self-publish a collection of short stories this year. By December I’ll have 12 vignettes published on this site that I’ll collect, put with a bunch of new short stories and visuals, and put online. Then I’ll swap out the vignettes for new ones every month until I’ve collected enough to do another collection.
Otherwise, I’ll continue trying to build an audience through participating in the writer’s community and (maybe) promoting myself on social media. Hell, maybe one day I’ll write something actually good and it’ll catch fire.
Craig Gusmann is a writer currently stationed in PA with his wife and two cats. Sent from the future in a clear homage to The Terminator, he wanted to get a head start on perfecting his use of words. Feel free to let him know how he’s doing.