Matthew and Suzy spent Saturday evening celebrating Mr Fox’s fiftieth birthday. He was a chemistry teacher and Matthew’s friend.

Suzy took his hand and they wove through the crowds of strangers on the dance floor. She wanted to get to the tables where they had the party food because she loved eating those cocktail stick things, and because she wanted one of those cute little umbrellas to fiddle with. Matthew, vigilant cat, tried hard not to bump into anyone’s elbow or back. And when he made the inelegant blunder, he would soon apologise to their faces. ‘Oh, sorry,’ and ‘pardon me.’

After munching through a fair amount of food, Suzy reached for the drinks.

‘No, Suzy, you can’t have that,’ said Matthew, swiping the glass of champagne before her eyes.

‘But…why not?’

‘I should think not because you’re not old enough.’

‘Not fair!’ she declared, crossing her arms over her chest. ‘I’m old enough for you to be sticking your thing inside my…thing. I should be allowed to have a drink if I want one. Let me have it!’

‘No.’ Matthew placed the glass down on the tray. He then took, from another tray, a cup of orange and pineapple juice – and held it out with a firm hand. ‘I must look like a responsible parent. Be a good girl for daddy.’

Suzy understood that if she behaved in an infantile way, Matthew would treat her accordingly. She fell silent for a moment…and then marched off to be alone. She had hidden for five minutes in the corner beside the large indoor tree when a married couple approached her. They were both smiling excessively. The lady looked about the same age as Matthew, whereas her significant other looked a good ten years older and in his early fifties.

‘Suzy…is it?’ the lady spoke.

‘Yeah…’

‘Gosh you’re tiny!’ added her husband.

‘I’m still growing.’

‘I doubt you are at sixteen,’ the lady raised her super-thin eyebrows. ‘Still, some find it adorable.’

Her husband said, as his eyelids flickered, ‘Your father works at…?’

‘He’s not my real father.’

‘Right, of course, your stepfather he is.’ He made a quick yet accurate guess. ‘And he works for…?’

Suzy didn’t want to tell them he taught maths at a secondary school, she went for something a bit sexier.

‘He’s a mathematician.’

‘So he’s clever then. If you say he’s not your real father, then do you mind me asking who is?’

‘I don’t know him…he, um, he left my mum when I was a baby.’

‘Mm, a problem these days–’

‘Milo, don’t despair. At least her mother had the initiative to marry a well-educated man.’

‘Mm, you’re quite right.’ He agreed, turning to his wife, and then, to Suzy. ‘Why haven’t we met your mother?’

‘She’s dead.’

‘Oh, I see…’

The offending snobs had a reflective moment, and then…

‘Milo, darling, did you meet Mr and Mrs Hammond?’

‘Yes, they were not bad, not a people of poor class or education…but they didn’t interest me.’

‘Mrs Hammond is carrying another man’s child.’

‘You’re bloody joking!’

‘The pathetic lady broke out in tears and confessed the truth to me. It was really rather frightful. She plans not to tell her husband, of course.’

A little boy with curly blond hair came charging up to them and tugged on the lady’s arm. ‘Mummy, mummy, I need the toilet!’

Your father will take you. Milo, please…’

‘Alright, c’mon then,’ he took the boys hand and left the conversation.

‘That’s our youngest son Julian.’

‘He looks so cute,’ said Suzy.

‘He doesn’t act it though. He squeals and yells and can never sit still.’ The lady lowered her voice to almost a whisper. ‘He’s one of these attention deficit children, you see. His father refuses to put him on medication because he thinks the disorder is, in his words: bullshit. But I do wish we could medicate Julian because he tires me out–’

‘Sorry, am I interrupting?’

Suzy felt tender hands on her shoulders. She looked up. ‘Matthew!’

‘Oh, is this your stepfather?’ the lady smiled.

‘Err yeah…’

‘My goodness – aren’t you a dashing man?’

Matthew was modest. He responded with, ‘Your words are generous.’

‘No, no, you deserve them. Suzy has told me all about you.’

‘She has?’

‘Well, I mean to say she has informed me of what you do for a living. You’re a mathematician! My husband, Milo, has never been particularly good with equations and geometry. It’s just as well that he is good with language and business…or perhaps I would not have married him. I hear that you’re widowed. I’m so sorry for your loss. I now wonder…are you single?’

‘I am.’

‘No! How have the ladies stayed away from you?’

‘The reverse: I have stayed away from them.’

‘Oh–’

‘The situation with my stepdaughter is complicated.’

‘Why you two haven’t got any ghastly secrets, have you?’

‘Oh,’ he pressed his right index finger to his glasses, ‘only that we’ve got a dead body buried in our garden. You promise not to tell?’

The lady chuckled as she gulped her wine. She looked at Matthew with eyes so lustful, so entranced, she could have been thinking about what he’d be like in bed. Possibly for a brief moment, when her bedroom-eyed gaze wondered downwards and she bit the inside of her glistening bottom lip, she imagined herself tasting his tongue with her own. Possibly, even, she imagined herself lying underneath his perspiring body as he were penetrating her, as his soft voice were moaning in her ear. Knowing how good that felt, it only seemed to add to the sickening thought of someone else doing the very same thing with him. Although the lady should have been the jealous one, Suzy found herself experiencing the gripping depth of this emotion.

‘What about you, Suzy, have you got a boyfriend?’

Matthew began, ‘She–’

‘Yeah, I do, actually.’ Suzy answered for herself. ‘He’s gorgeous. He’s much older than me. We have tons of really good sex. And he’s my lover – not my boyfriend. Also, he isn’t attracted to women of his age.’

‘You’re quite the comical pair.’

The lady nearly tripped over her own feet. She was wearing these ridiculous stiletto heels. Matthew caught her in his arms. ‘Be careful…’

‘How dreadfully clumsy I’m being! I think I’ve had too much wine!’ she blushed looking at him. ‘Oh what a gentleman you are…I admire your courtesy…perhaps I could do with a man like you.’

‘Hello? Who’s this tall fellow?’ voiced her husband. He’d returned with their son.

‘Milo, darling, this is Suzy’s stepfather.’

‘The mathematician if I recall. Mm, yes, with those spectacles you do look the part. Your name is?’

‘Matthew,’ he shook the man’s hand.

‘Milo, as you may have heard my wife state, repeatedly.’

‘Yes,’ smiled Matthew.

Suzy felt a child: meek, passive, taciturn. For the time being their relationship didn’t exist. He was the respectable mathematician, she was merely his stepdaughter. All of them were having a terrific time. Suzy could see Matthew needed these conversations and interactions with others – as she didn’t have the knowledge and good wit to stimulate him on an intellectual level, and what if, eventually, he were to grow bored with his young lover? She knew for definite a man his age will yearn for more than cuddles and kisses and sex. Then all of a sudden, her mind disassociated from her surroundings. Her insides panged with an indescribable feeling. Her tears threatened to spill down her cheeks.

 

I was misguided for a long time by plain bad writing advice but I’ve managed to put it all behind me. I really want to write genuine literary stories and I’ve been trying to create deep and complex characters with hidden feelings, yet I feel there is something that I’m not getting right, something maybe I’m not showing. I was hoping you could help me figure out what that something is. Thank you, Lisa

Instructor Response

Hi Lisa. Great to hear from you. I’ll give you a lot of thoughts and examples. Don’t feel overwhelmed and don’t feel you’ve failed. You’ve done a nice job with this. The story is intriguing and provocative. I simply I want to respond (excessively, maybe) to your desire to increase characterization. With that in mind, I’ve approached the writing with lots of suggestions to give you an idea how attention to the writing and the story structure can build the characters. I’ve spent a lot of time on dialogue. I admire your use of dialogue as choice for developing character. My suggestions are to make the dialogue as effective as possible. Make sure, when you revise any story, you look for purpose in dialogue segments and appropriate motivations and emotions at the moment the character is speaking. It takes practice and you have the ability.

__________________________________

Matthew and Suzy spent Saturday evening celebrating Mr Fox’s fiftieth birthday. He was a chemistry teacher and Matthew’s friend.

Suzy took his hand and they wove through the crowds of strangers on the dance floor. She wanted to get to the tables where they had the party food because she loved eating those cocktail stick things, and because she wanted one of those cute little umbrellas to fiddle with. Matthew, vigilant cat, tried hard not to bump into anyone’s elbow or back. And when he made the inelegant blunder, he would soon apologise to their faces. ‘Oh, sorry,’ and ‘pardon me.’ Avoid redunancy. It is stronger prose just to say “apologize.”

         About organizing information, prioritizing, and then being sure not to have too much. In the above paragraph, you have setting, Suzy’s want for a table, her love cocktail food, Mathew’s hesitation and feeling not comfortable, and a prediction (by narrator) of Mathew’s blunder and apology.  It’s a lot and it’s rather disjointed in its presentation.  What if we want to characterize Suzy first, Mathew second, and have information about setting third? It might go something like this using narrative for setting and in scene (showing) showing rather than telling.

After munching through a fair amount of food, Suzy reached for the drinks. This staging. Keep it short. Maybe. Suzy ate Swedish meatballs and chicken wings, and reached for a drink. Note the narrator judgment of amount of food is removed; will a reader care what the narrator thinks? In essence, it’s working against Suzy’s characterization.

‘No, Suzy, you can’t have that,’ said Matthew, swiping the glass of champagne before her eyes. It’s good to keep the scene momentum going but this is not exactly the right place for it. The line has a stage-delivery feel. You want to augment the conflict in Mathew’s response.  Maybe: “No!” Mathew said.

But…why not?’

I should think not because you’re not old enough.’

‘Not fair!’ she declared, crossing her arms over her chest ?? scowling??. ‘I’m old enough for you to be sticking your thing inside my…thing. I should be allowed to have a drink if I want one. Let me have it!’ This is too much for a cocktail-party response. This example moves away from the Suzy you’re developing, and I want to show how brevity and attention to real speech can heighten reader knowledge about Suzy. You might work with something like this: “Back off,” she said scowling. “Give me the damn drink. I’m old enough for you to screw (make love to?) me.”

‘No.’ Matthew placed the glass down on the tray. He then took, from another tray, a cup of orange and pineapple juice – and held it out with a firm hand. ‘I must look like a responsible parent. Be a good girl for daddy.’ Here you’ve got conflict beginning to rage. Great. Don’t weaken it with too much staging.  Maybe: “Damn it,” Matthew said. He took the drink and replaced it with a cup of pineapple juice. “I don’t want that.” “Do what I say. I’m your father.”

Suzy understood that if she behaved in an infantile way, Matthew would treat her accordingly. She fell silent , then marched off left to be alone. She had hidden for five minutes in the corner beside the large indoor tree when a married couple approached her. They were both smiling excessively. The lady looked about the same age as Matthew, whereas her significant other looked a good ten years older and in his early fifties. I’ll suggest something that will keep imagers and action flowing a little more evenly: Five minutes later. she saw a smiling coule,

‘Suzy…is it?’ the lady spoke said, grinning now excessivly.

‘Yeah…’

‘Gosh you’re tiny!’ added said her husband.

‘I’m still growing.’

‘I doubt you are at sixteen,’ “Not at your age.” the lady raised her super-thin eyebrows said. ‘Still, some find it adorable.’

“I’m sixteen.”

“And adorable,” the lady said insincerely.

Her husband said, as his eyelids flickered, ‘Your father works at…?’

‘He’s not my real father.’

‘Right, of course, your stepfather he is.’ He’d made a quick yet accurate guess. Right here you’ve moved briefly into the man’s POV with “accurate” and you may not need to do that. Stay with the narrator. A quick guess.  ‘And he works for…?’

Suzy didn’t want to tell them he taught maths at a secondary school, she went for something a bit sexier.

‘He’s a mathematician.’ A lie really. He taught math at a secondary school.

‘So he’s clever then. If you say he’s not your real father, then do you mind me asking who is?’

‘I don’t know him…he, um, he left my mum when I was a baby.’

‘Mm, a problem these days–’

‘Milo, don’t despair. At least her mother had the initiative to marry a well-educated man.’

‘Mm, you’re quite right.’ He agreed, turning to his wife, and then, to Suzy. ‘Why haven’t we met your mother?’

‘She’s dead.’ Great story telling here!

‘Oh, I see…’

The offending snobs had a reflective moment, and then…

‘Milo, darling, did you meet Mr and Mrs Hammond?’

‘Yes, they were not bad, not a people of poor class or education…but they didn’t interest me.’

‘Mrs Hammond is carrying another man’s child.’ This may be too wordy. See if you’d like something like”

‘You’re bloody joking!’

‘The pathetic lady She broke out in tears and confessed. the truth to me. It was really rather frightful. She plans not to won’t tell her husband, of course.’  This is attention to using the fewest words. But if it doesn’t sound right to you, ignore the suggestion. Your style is your style and don’t change it if you prefer what you do.

A little boy with curly blond hair came charging up to them and tugged on the lady’s arm. ‘Mummy, mummy, I need the toilet!’

Your father will take you. Milo, please…’

‘Alright, c’mon then,’ he took the boys hand and left the conversation.

‘That’s our youngest son Julian.’

‘He looks so cute,’ said Suzy.

‘He doesn’t act it though. He squeals and yells and can never sit still.’ The lady lowered her voice to almost a whisper. ‘He’s one of these attention deficit children, you see. His father refuses to put him on medication because he thinks the disorder is, in his words: bullshit. But I do wish we could medicate Julian because he tires me out–’

‘Sorry, am I interrupting?’

Suzy felt tender hands on her shoulders. She looked up. ‘Matthew!’

‘Oh, is this your stepfather?’ the lady smiled.

‘Err yeah…’

‘My goodness – aren’t you a dashing man?’

Matthew was modest. He responded with, ‘Your words are generous.’

‘No, no, you deserve them. Suzy has told me all about you.’

‘She has?’

‘Well, I mean to say she has informed me of what you do for a living. You’re a mathematician! My husband, Milo, has never been particularly good with equations and geometry. It’s just as well that he is good with language and business…or perhaps I would not have married him. I hear that you’re widowed. I’m so sorry for your loss. I now wonder…are you single?I’ve highlighted ideas that might all together might be too many for one paragraph.

‘I am.’

‘No! How have the ladies stayed away from you?’

‘The reverse: I have stayed away from them.’

‘Oh–’

‘The situation with my stepdaughter is complicated.’

‘Why you two haven’t got any ghastly secrets, have you?’

‘Oh,’ he pressed his right index finger to his glasses, ‘only that we’ve got a dead body buried in our garden. You promise not to tell?’

The lady chuckled as she gulped her wine. She looked at Matthew with eyes so lustful, so entranced, she could have been thinking about what he’d be like in bed. Possibly for a brief moment, when her bedroom-eyed gaze wondered downwards and she bit the inside of her glistening bottom lip, she imagined herself tasting his tongue with her own. Possibly, even, she imagined herself lying underneath his perspiring body as he were penetrating her, as his soft voice were moaning in her ear. Knowing how good that felt, it only seemed to add to the sickening thought of someone else doing the very same thing with him. Although the lady should have been the jealous one, Suzy found herself experiencing the gripping depth of this emotion. Same thought about number of ideas in a paragraph. Note verbs, modifiers, and images. All are valuable probably, but could be reorganized in presentation to increase impact.

‘What about you, Suzy, have you got a boyfriend?’

Matthew began, ‘She–’

‘Yeah, I do, actually.’ Suzy answered for herself. ‘He’s gorgeous. He’s much older than me. We have tons of really good sex. And he’s my lover – not my boyfriend. Also, he isn’t attracted to women of his age.’

‘You’re quite the comical pair.’

The lady nearly tripped over her own feet. She was wearing these ridiculous stiletto heels. Matthew caught her in his arms. ‘Be careful…’

‘How dreadfully clumsy I’m being! I think I’ve had too much wine!’ she blushed looking at him. ‘Oh what a gentleman you are…I admire your courtesy…perhaps I could do with a man like you.’

‘Hello? Who’s this tall fellow?’ voiced her husband. He’d returned with their son.

‘Milo, darling, this is Suzy’s stepfather.’

‘The mathematician if I recall. Mm, yes, with those spectacles you do look the part. Your name is?’

‘Matthew,’ he shook the man’s hand.

‘Milo, as you may have heard my wife state, repeatedly.’

‘Yes,’ smiled Matthew.

Suzy felt a child: meek, passive, taciturn. Telling of emotion. For the time being their relationship didn’t exist. Exposition.  He was the respectable mathematician, she was merely his stepdaughter. All of them were having a terrific time. Exposition back story. Suzy could see Matthew needed these conversations and interactions with others – as she didn’t have the knowledge and good wit to stimulate him on an intellectual level, and what if, eventually, he were to grow bored with his young lover? Suzy supposition. ? better in action scene of its own in story present? She knew for definite a man his age will yearn for more than cuddles and kisses and sex. Is this telling by narrator of Susy’s knowledge important at this moment? Then all of a sudden, her mind disassociated from her surroundings. Change of time? Her insides panged with an indescribable feeling. Her tears threatened to spill down her cheeks. Here note how different elements are mixed.  Her insides panged, now in story present, and then tears might happen. Why not make the tears happen?

I was misguided for a long time by plain bad writing advice but I’ve managed to put it all behind me. I really want to write genuine literary stories and I’ve been trying to create deep and complex characters with hidden feelings, yet I feel there is something that I’m not getting right, something maybe I’m not showing. I was hoping you could help me figure out what that something is. Thank you, Lisa

There are two things I think you’re looking for to develop the characterization you like to attain. 

1) Purpose for every word and sentence that fits the meaning and flow of the prose.  If you have a paragraph where the purpose is tell the reader about Suzy’s feeling about Matthew (last paragraph), a summary paragraph that give a lot of terrific information, but covers a lot of time, and some of the intent of sentences could be expanded (developed) because they’re so important, (Suzy could see Matthew needed these conversations and interactions with others – as she didn’t have the knowledge and good wit to stimulate him on an intellectual level, and what if, eventually, he were to grow bored with his young lover?) and others could be condensed because too many words and thoughts can decrease understanding and impact (Then all of a sudden, her mind disassociated from her surroundings. Her insides panged with an indescribable feeling. Her tears threatened to spill down her cheeks.).

2) Remember the tools for story telling: narrative telling, in-scene showing, setting description, action (to keep story momentum), drama (conflict and action), etc. These elements are usually most effective when not mixed in sentences and paragraphs.  For most stories, in-scene action that lets the reader see the emotions without naming them is preferable to telling more than 75%of the time.

How to achieve this?  Write a lot of stories. You’ll want to insert new writing ideas and principles in revision, but there is a limit for any story where you can sink into a labyrinth of changes that become less and less effective for the specific story. We’re trying too hard. Move onto another story and come back later to the story you’re having trouble with. New perspective will give new ideas.

Be assured, every writer goes through what your experiencing.  Have confidence. You are a very good writer and storyteller and you’re on the right track to finding what you want. And remember, no one else knows what will make your talent mature so select criticism the you feel is valuable for you and ignore the rest.

All the best.

Bill Coles

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