5 Ways To Avoid Writing A Boring Story by Author Jennifer Brody
Film Courage: Writing style versus voice? What are the differences?
Jennifer Brody: Well I always talk about what is the difference between character and voice. So character is someone in a story and they are going to have a voice which is going to be the way they talk, but then the over-arching voice of the story is more about the way it is told like the style and voice in terms of the writing. And sometimes that is also the character’s voice, especially if you’re writing in first-person or a third-person clothes, because you are trying to encapsulate what they see and feel. What was the other thing you asked about?
Film Courage: Oh…yes…writing style?
Jennifer Brody: Style! Yes, they kind of overlap a little bit. I mean the style of writing and the voice…voice is really trying to capture the feeling of the narrator’s voice or the character’s voice or the way that the story is told. The style of it (I guess) would be more like the way that you’re writing the book. But there’s a lot of overlap between all three of those areas. When you pick up a book that has really strong voice, you are usually hearing the character and hearing the world. And every book exists within its on world, even books that aren’t specifically sci-fi fantasy. You’re still crafting a world even if it’s something like a thriller, it has a feel and an internal logic to the world and it’s not necessarily the real world even, if it’s a contemporary story.
Something like GONE GIRL exists in its own real world. I don’t think those people exist in the real world. Those characters to me are very unrealistic in a lot of respects, but in the world of that story they are all like that. And so I don’t think that is a real world thing, even if it takes place in the here and now. But there is a specific way that she (Author Gillian Flynn) writes her stories and that she transports you into them.
“I think you need to have conflict and tension almost (if not) in every scene of your book but pretty much in every scene, even scenes that are character-driven. I always think you want to look for how can you ramp up the tension in that, even if it’s just a dialogue exchange. You try to have moments that are ratcheting up the tension.”
Film Courage: Hooking in the reader from the beginning? I’m sure it’s going to vary especially within the YA world and the different genres that there are whether it’s fiction, steampunk, whatever it may be.
Jennifer Brody: Oh yeah! Steampunk, what fun! I think hooking the reading is just so important regardless of what you’re writing. I just think for me, if I’m not really feeling a book (and I don’t put a lot of books down) but 50-100 pages is a long time and if I’m not feeling it and you’d be surprised how many books don’t really work on that level, I may not finish it. And especially if you’re dealing with more commercial genres it becomes even more important. Younger readers, I think it becomes even more important. That said I don’t think you need to rush or sacrifice the storytelling to make it so hooky. In a certain respect I personally wouldn’t want to do that but I think getting into the story right away, having something exciting happen in the beginning. In my book I chose to write a prologue that showed kind of what happened before when the surface of the earth was destroyed. So I told it from (if you can imagine) the president’s daughters point of view as they’re evacuating the White House. So a young girl being evacuated and I did that for a couple of reasons. One was that I wanted to have something really exciting and really relatable that happened right off the bat because I think that this will hook you in and make you want to read more. But there are other ways to hook in somebody, like having a great character. Having central mystery is something I teach about a lot which is there obviously is a mystery genre where the whole story is crafted (but that said) you can have a story that has smaller mysteries that are revealed in the beginning of a book. A good examples is in THE HUNGER GAMES. They talk about the reaping which is the big thing that happens right away in THE HUNGER GAMES but they say the word “The Reaping” 7 or 8 times before they finally tell you what it is and you find out fairly early in the story but still you’re kind of reading like “What is this? What is this thing that is happening? What is this big event?” So I think that’s another way to kind of get somebody interested and trying to figure out what’s going on.
Film Courage: Too much conflict? Too little conflict? Do YA readers possibly want more conflict than adult readers?
Jennifer Brody: I think you have more leeway to do some bigger, kind of more epic, sweeping sort of things like what you see in a STAR WARS movie, for example. You know having too little conflict in any story or too little tension and the story is going to be really boring and nobody is going to be interested. I think you need to have conflict and tension almost (if not) in every scene of your book but pretty much in every scene, even scenes that are character-driven. I always think you want to look for how can you ramp up the tension in that, even if it’s just a dialogue exchange you try to have moments that are ratcheting up the tension. So a good example of that is something like in the beginning of THE SHINING (the movie). I also love the book, but in the film there’s a scene where it’s the mom talking to Child Protective Services. So you’re learning information about the fact that the father may have been abusive toward the son. But it’s just a dialogue scene but the whole time she is smoking a cigarette and the ash just gets longer and longer and you’re like “Oh my God! Ash your cigarette!” You get so tense for her. You’re like “It’s going to fall all over you!” And she doesn’t and it’s somehow this genius way of just keeping tension. So there’s always little things you can look at in a scene to kind of keep the tension going and then obviously there are big conflict scenes where there is a fight or actually something major happens or a major obstacle but I think throughout a story, that’s what keeps you reading and people would be like “Oh, it’s getting worse. It’s getting so much worse for these characters.” Or even like a book series like Game of Thrones, you’re like “Oh, my God! Things are still happening and happening.” But it’s like, that is what keeps the story going. A story without conflict is a really boring story. I think Kurt Vonnegut famously said “Make great characters and then make bad things happen to them”
Film Courage: If a book is not part of a series, let’s suppose it’s just going to be a standalone book, is the protagonist always victorious in the end?
Jennifer Brody: No and you see that a lot (my book is considered dystopian), especially in dystopian series where a lot of times they’re not victorious and I when I teach structure I talk about where there is going to be a moment at the end of the story where a character makes a decision. They need to make a choice that really reveals their moral caliber, but that doesn’t mean that the choice they make has to be the right one.
A good example is Romeo and Juliet, right? Romeo does make a choice at the end and it’s a terrible choice and it ends tragically for him. He made the wrong decision. So no…it doesn’t always have to result in a happy ending and I think some of the greatest stories sometimes don’t. That said, I think if you are going to go for a really kind of…I won’t call it a negative ending, but an ending where the protagonist is not victorious, it makes your job so much harder in a lot of ways. I think you really need to pull that off because your readers are probably going to be a little bit mad at you to a certain extent. So I think it needs to have a compelling reason why to have that sort of ending or a compelling reason why you wanted to do that for your story because we’ve all been there where we’ve seen something with an ending where we go “Wow! That was really dark.” And sometimes I love it and even in films where classically a lot that is focus-group-tested out of the film, but films like I AM LEGEND or the third TERMINATOR film where something really dark happens at the end, then it’s awesome. And of course if you get into more like horror movies and things like that, then it’s almost expected because a lot of times in those, the antagonists becomes the protagonist. So when we’re watching NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET, right..okay..maybe originally we were rooting for Johnny Depp and the teens. But at a certain point Freddy is who we are rooting for. At a certain point you’re showing up at these films to see Michael Myers or Leatherface or Pinhead (I’m a huge HELLRAISER fan). But you’re showing up for them more so almost then who are the classic protagonist and you kind of want to see them win in the end. And boy would we be upset if Freddy was gone at the end. I know Freddy’s dies at the end of the movie, but he’s not really dead.
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