Word by Word

Practical insights for writers from Jessica P Morrell

Nail your character’s essence

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Feb• 25•19

Fiction equals characters. Characters make us care, worry, empathize. And characters need to be knowable. When a character is introduced in a story he or she needs to make a strong impression. (Walk-on and minor characters are sometimes the exception.) This means when you create  characters, after you make decisions about physical appearance and their essential role in the story, then start refining his or her essence and key personality traits. Some of the decisions about your character will happen without you making decisions because characters have a way of emerging and evolving in our deeper consciousness.

No matter your process, it’s crucial to nail a character’s humanity and complexity on the page. And to nail his or her essence from the first breath he/she takes in your story. 

Within the personality spectrum there are endless possibilities. There are also layers to one’s personality, and it seems to me that the inner layers are a character’s essence. Let’s list some possibilities: quiet, serious, boisterous, buoyant, innocent, worldly, full of laughter, cautious, always ready for adventure. Let’s consider other options: practical, frivolous, introverted, extroverted, questioning, plays by the rules, respects the status quo, rebellious, rigid, creative, uptight, light-hearted.

Virgil Wander

I recently read Leif Enger latest beautiful novel, Virgil Wander. It’s now number one on my Top 10 Favorite Novels of All-time list. One thing I like best about Enger’s stories is that he creates fascinating and sometimes oddball characters you’ve never met before and will never forget. He toes the line between creating ordinary-extraordinary story people you want to spend a lifetime with. 

And while complicated, they’re knowable  They typically face uncommon, vexing problems and dilemmas and seem as human as my next-door neighbor. Virgil Wander, the protagonist of this wending tale, is no exception. I don’t want to give away too much, but he starts the story with a head injury and owns a failing theater in a small town. The failing town is perched on the ever-changing and blustery Lake Superior and skies, wind, and storms play a big role in the story. If you’ve never visited Lake Superior, the largest body of fresh water on the planet, it’s a primal, massive inland sea. 

Toss in a pipe-smoking, kite-flying Norwegian, a mysterious prodigal son millionaire, a missing baseball player, several boys who need a father, and a local handyman on a downward arc. The setting is tightly woven into all aspects of the tale, but it’s the characters who will live in me forever.

Here’s an example of how Enger introduces a character, the aforementioned missing ballplayer, while capturing his essence and adding to the mystery of his disappearance: Most people knew about Alec Sandstrom, or thought they knew, could be traced to a silken Sports Illustrated article published on the anniversary of his death.

The magazine’s expenditure of four thousand words on a failed minor-league pitcher testifies to Alec’s magnetism. In two seasons of small-time baseball, Alec was often compared to eccentric Detroit phenom Mark Fyrich, who is remembered for speaking aloud to the ball itself as though recommending a flight path. Alec didn’t talk to baseballs–his quirk adored by fans of the Duluth-Superior Dukes, was to break out laughing during games. Anything could set him off: an elegant nab by the second baseman, a plastic bag wobbling like a jellyfish across the diamond, a clever heckle directed at himself. His merriment was unhitched from his success. Sometimes he laughed softly while leaning in for signs. His fastball was a blur, its location rarely predictable even to himself. Sprinting on-field to start the game, limbs flailing inelegantly, Alec always seemed sure his time had arrived. 

“Reality wasn’t strictly his deal,” Beeman recalled. “My God he was fun to watch.”

Engaging as Alec could be, he’d never have received the elegiac Sports Illustrated treatment had he not strapped himself into a small plane at dawn, lifted off in a light westerly, and banked over Lake Superior never to return.  

Untethered from his success. Sigh. Pardon me while I indulge in writer’s envy. As you can tell, Alec is an original. And notice how his essence is joyful?  Stay tuned, I’m going to reveal a few more of his characters’ essence in an upcoming post.

keep writing, keep dreaming, have heart


Quick take: make it hard on your protagonist

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Feb• 18•19

Common writing advice has been circulating for decades: pile on obstacles in your main character’s path. Here’s a reminder: those obstacles, causing tension and suspense, should also come from within the protagonist. Which brings us to character flaws.

Characters are far from perfect, which is why we love them and relate to them and worry over their fates. We see ourselves in their bumbles and screw-ups.

When you first begin imagining your main player, he or she also needs a moral deficiency along with an inner frailty. Let’s say your character grew up overlooked in a family of geniuses or super stars or beauties. Real or perceived lacks or feelings of inferiority can stain a lifetime.

If your character feels second-rate how will he react to an antagonist who won’t take him seriously? How about an antagonist who denigrates him? How will he react? It’s likely his reactions won’t be entirely rational. Or what about a suitor who comes along with grand promises of an easy life and a forever love? Or an antagonist who suggests shortcuts or instant fame? Will his moral weakness stand in his way or will he ultimately choose a principled path?

Moral dilemmas and hard choices make the story unputdownable. Toxic shame or low self-esteem or stuck thinking are barriers to happiness and redemption as we all know. We see them all the time in real life and of course these demons also translates to the screen.

For a contemporary example of moral & emotional deficiencies, check out Season 3 of HBO’s True Detectives. In the series, the leads played by Mashershala Ali and Stephen Dorff, are damaged men who wrestle with their demons as much as with the evidence in the case. Two children disappear as the story opens and the twists and various timelines in the story create a labyrinth the viewer cannot resist wandering through. Feeling doomed.

Writing advice from Paul Coelho

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Feb• 15•19

“If you overload your book with a lot of research, you are going to be very boring to yourself and your reader. Books are not there to show how intelligent you are. Books are there to show your soul. “

Quick Take: Use Your Pain

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Feb• 13•19

After my first book Writing Out the Storm was published, I got a phone call from an executive at iVillage. It was a high-profile site and the biggest women’s web site in the world at the time. I was hired to be the writing expert and teach hundreds of writers. The gig included live online lectures where I learned to type about 100 word per minute, assignments, feedback, and a whole lot of writing. I refined a lot of my methods for teaching beginning writers and helped launch the careers of several successful authors. And did I mention it was fun?

The writers at the site were given assignments and posted them for all of us to comment on. One of the assignments was to write about the discovery of a corpse. And oh man, did that open up the floodgates of weird. Bodies turned up in car trunks, landfills, wells, and city parks. It was a hoot. Many of the writers were stay-at-home moms and the corpse assignment tapped into their hidden imaginings.

Fast forward several decades and these days I know and work with a lot of suspense and thriller writers. And for the most part, they’re the kindest, funniest people around. But their stories are full of cold-eyed killers, mutilated corpses, and creepy motives. Obviously these (relatively) normal writers haven’t experienced these things, but they still access darker parts of themselves to bring their stories to life.

Which leads to this point: Be willing to track your own  uncomfortable emotions and experiences to use in your writing. Were you ever an outsider?  Had a lonely childhood? Crazy parent? Family’s expectations were wildly unrealistic or confining?  Have you been rejected or betrayed? Did tragedy or devastating illness visit your family?

Mine those potent and awful memories working from the gut, remembering your body’s reactions and truths. When you discovered a dear friend slept with your fiancé what did your stomach feel like? Hollow? Nausea? Roiling? How did you try to comfort yourself? How did you recover from the shock and sudden unknowns? How did you navigate your new landscape? Because how the heck do you move forward after a brutal betrayal or terrible ending to a relationship? 

You want and need to write outside of your normal reality? Use your pain. Especially notice the times when you experienced the ‘fight or flight’ reactions because fictional characters have them all the time. And then write from your body because it holds those awful truths.

keep writing, keep dreaming, have heart

Add sizzle: Tips for potent dialogue

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Feb• 10•19

Dialogue electrifies and ignites fictions. It brings characters and conflicts into focus, especially when characters argue, coerce, and threaten. Here are a few reminders about how to keep dialogue sizzling:

Skip the throat clearing, greetings and pleasantries. Don’t warm up; jump right in.

Ditch the names.

Write dialogue that creates consequences. If there are no consequences, question why you’re including it.

Dialogue reveals the inner person. Distinguish your characters from each other by nailing their primary personality traits and bearing before you sketch the scene. Distinguished, serious type? Witty? Argumentative?  Shy? Eccentric? Commanding presence? Their word choices will reflect this.

Dialogue reveals the characters’ emotions, even when characters try to hide them. Know where they stand on the topic before, during and after the exchange. Some examples: defensive, guarded, nervous, furious, torn.

Speaking of topics up for discussion, don’t be afraid to allow the convo to shift directions or uncover hidden motives–the real reason they’re talking.

Dialogue works best if at least one character is uncomfortable, off-balance, guarded, or unsure.

Typically dialogue is adversarial; it’s  about characters vying for power, dominance, or control. Give at least one character an agenda.

If you’re not using dialogue to reveal the truth of relationships, you might want to analyze writers who do.

Dialogue zings when characters are saying no to each other.

Know the dynamic that exists between the characters. Sometimes just nailing the essence  or context of an exchange makes is easier to write. Ask yourself what lies beneath the scene.  A refusal? Subterfuge? Prying or demanding answers? Explaining a situation? Asking for something that’s hard to ask for?  Is this a power play?

As in real life sometimes characters interrupt.

Take care with beats–the small inclusions of gestures, actions, reactions. Too many eye rolls, gazing off in the distance, gazing into each other’s eyes, fighting back tears and the like, can annoy the reader. You want readers to imagine many of these reactions.

Add small actions or activities for a natural flow–fixing dinner, washing dishes, walking, shopping, getting dressed.  In my editing gig I’ve seen too many characters sitting across from each other staring unblinkingly into each other’s eyes far too often. It’s not the way most of us talk most of the time.

Justify every repetition. 

Don’t be afraid to include weird or inappropriate dialogue if it makes sense for the overall plot. Ron McLarty’s The Memory of Running is one of my favorite novels. It’s essentially the story of a family who is forced to cope with a daughter and sister’s mental illness–schizophrenia. It’s a sad, hilarious, and poignant story with one of the best character arcs around for Smithy Ide the protagonist. The absurdity of Smithy’s uncle’s comments and jokes help balance out the bleakness and unpredictability of Bethany’s illness. Uncle Count is the kind of guy who always has a dirty, racist, or offensive joke no matter the occasion and is clueless about how inappropriate he is, how unwelcome his jokes are. He usually starts with, “Have you heard the one about the two priests who walked into a bar?”

If you’re staging an argument it needs to escalate. Words need to land like blows.

I’m going to be adding examples of effective dialogue here, so stop back. 

Subtext is part of dialogue. A particularly powerful subtext trick is for a character to hedge, avoid answering, try to change the subject.

Avoid lengthy answers, exchanges to keep the pace perking along. The whole conversation can go on for several pages, but keep each of your characters’ back-and-forths to 3 sentences (or so) or under.

Keep tags simple. The she said, he said parts of fiction should appear invisible or natural. Say no to chortles, rejoiners, retorts, and demands. Allow the dialogue to inform the reader about the speaker’s tone.

In case you haven’t read this beautiful book,  The Memory of Running. I cannot recommend it enough. And yes, I realize I’ve recommend it before. 

Keep writing, Keep dreaming, Have heart. 

Breathe life into your stories through the senses

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Feb• 01•19

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Jan• 30•19

“Sometimes I get the impression that I write out of simple intense curiosity. It is that, in writing, I surrender to the most unexpected surprises. It is at the time of writing that many times I become aware of things, which, being unconscious, which before I didn’t know I knew.” ~Clarice Lispector

If I could offer one piece of advice

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Jan• 22•19

Remembering Mary Oliver

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Jan• 21•19

It’s Monday, a day off for many people as we honor the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Junior and it’s dawned gray and wet. Storms walloped through our region lately with high winds and battering downpours. We’re now in for a week of quieter weather and I’m thinking ahead to new plants and flowers to sow. Wondering what’s going to emerge from the ground as the days lengthen and warm.

In February of 2008, on an evening thick with gloom and rain, I drove downtown to meet another writer. She’d contacted me with a generous offer: dinner and an evening listening to Mary Oliver at Portland’s Arts and Lectures series.

I ordered risotto for dinner, we talked about our lives and writing, and later found our seats in the old theater that hosts the series. When white-haired Mary Oliver stepped out on stage after an extensive introduction and thunderous applause, I was struck by her smallness. From my seat in the upper balcony she also appeared frail, but then she began reading her poems and that notion vanished. Some were her best known like “Wild Geese” and some from a new collection and in the hushed auditorium we were swept up into images and moods and emotions.

Then came the portion of the evening where she answered questions that had been posed by audience members. I remember several things that really struck me: how she possessed a wry, sturdy, self-deprecating wit; her open grief at her partner Molly Malone Cook’s death in 2005; and her frank admission of the terrible loneliness that followed. I knew that Cook’s death followed years of deterioration from Alzheimer’s. Through her answers and comments she talked about her dog, her walks in the woods, the practice of paying close attention to everything around us, and how writing and art can heal.

You know how sometimes when you’re in the presence of great art how it’s deeply quieting? How something weighty shifts in your chest and your breathing comes easier? That’s what happened that night. I walked out into the night, feeling both stilled and uplifted and somehow full of grace.

I mulled over how poetry is such a solace and refuge. I’d also felt these effects listening to W. S. Merwin when he visited Portland. Since then neural research has shown that poetry and music have a similar effect on the brain. Yet another reason to read and listen to poetry.

In February of 2013 I visited San Francisco and had a chance to see Vermeer’s Girl With a Pearl Earring. The painting surprised me because it was much smaller than I had imagined, but it was also far more profound than I had imagined. I hovered nearby drinking in every brush stroke, gazing at the pearl for the longest time imagining how he painted it with that tiny glimmer of luster, loathe to move on, loathe to leave it’s presence. And yes, that beautiful quieting happened that day too.

Because in the end the artist, the poet, the musician has allowed us into some inner sacred space, where art and artist are revealed, where art speaks like music speaks. Where a shared a vision and communion feels like walking together.

Here are musings from Oliver on the necessity of creativity. I hope when you have the opportunity to meet artists and writers and musicians whose work speaks to you, that you’ll make time to be in their presence.

And another thanks to that generous writer for a powerful experience.

Neil Gaiman on stories

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Jan• 13•19

Stories, like people and butterflies and songbirds’ eggs and human hearts and dreams, are also fragile things, made up of nothing stronger or more lasting than twenty-six letters and a handful of punctuation marks. Or they are words on the air, composed of sounds and ideas–abstract, invisible, gone once they’ve been spoken–and what could be more frail than that? But some stories, small, simple ones about setting out on adventures or people doing wonders, tales of miracles and monsters, have outlasted the people who told them, and some have outlasted the lands in which they were created.