Month: March 2008

My Best Advice for Aspiring Writers

I get asked a lot what advice I have for aspiring writers. Sometimes I’m not sure how to answer because I’m afraid they expect a golden nugget of wisdom—something truly inspiring and different from anything they’ve ever heard before. I know when I was starting out, that’s what I expected. There had to be some secret, some surefire way not only to get published but to make it big, as well.

These days, when I’m asked what advice I can give authors, the answer comes a little more easily. It’s because after so many published books, so much marketing, and so much interaction with other authors, I’ve discovered only one thing matters when it comes to writing: keep writing. There’s only one way to get better, one way to get published, and one way to keep your career moving once you are published, and that is to keep writing no matter what gets in your way. Finish one book and write another, and another, and another. Get lots of feedback, and keep writing. Everything else is secondary.

Posted by Michelle D. Argyle in Guest Posts by Me, 1 comment

How Fairy Tales Speak to Us

Fairy tales have been around for as long as stories have been in existence. Whether they end happily or tragically isn’t as important as the thread of truth at the heart of each one. I think this is why fairy tales have lasted for so long, and why, like Shakespeare, you can plop a fairy tale story into any setting, and it will most likely work. It isn’t about the characters and setting so much as what we learn from the tale.

One of my husband’s favorite Disney movies is The Princess and the Frog. I love Disney’s version of the tale so much because it is the first Disney fairy tale told in an American setting (New Orleans). Not only is it a different setting than audiences are used to, but it also twists the fairy tale in some exciting, unique ways. At its core, we learn how much appearances aren’t as important as what’s inside (listen to the “Dig a Little Deeper” song, for instance), and that hard work is important only if you take time to smell the roses along the way.

I think, as humans, we cling to storytelling as a way to express the most important elements of who we are. Fairy tales boil down the essence of who we are. We value happiness and reaching goals and wishes. We value learning hard lessons, even if the endings are tragic. Even from an unhappy ending, there is a golden nugget of wisdom to be found—something that can lead to happiness if we will only stop to learn from it. This is why I like unhappy endings. They make me think a lot harder than happy ones!

Fairy tales started out as “little stories” passed down orally from one storyteller to another until the Brother’s Grimm started collecting some German tales in the early 19th century. Since then, we’ve had tales written down to treasure. We continue to write them down today. I certainly can’t keep myself away from telling stories with a traditional fairy tale feel. What’s your favorite part about fairy tales? Do you prefer them happy or a little more realistic?

Posted by Michelle D. Argyle in Guest Posts by Me, 8 comments

Fiction Writing Management & How to Manage it Better

Nothing is a waste of time if you use the experience wisely. –Rodin
While I don’t have a set schedule for writing, I do have a good system in place. I believe there’s a difference. I also believe it’s important to realize that one writer’s way of managing their writing time will not work for everyone. But no matter how you write, no matter what works for you, if you use your experiences wisely, you will keep moving forward.

Keeping in mind that I am a certain personality type, I will share what works for me, and give examples of how they might work for you.

Scheduling

I have no set schedule for writing. I don’t wake up and allot specific times to specific tasks. I don’t write a to-do list for the day. Instead, I envision my finished product and give myself general goals instead of seemingly huge, insurmountable tasks.

For me, tight-scheduling allows me no freedom to move. If you’ve tried to work with a rigid schedule and it hasn’t worked for you, try backing off a bit. Instead of making the goal and deadline by a specific date, try expanding the timeline instead. Say, if I can reach five chapters in a few weeks, I’ll be doing great! You’d be surprised how giving yourself some wiggle room might free up some tension and release some creative energy.

Goals

Goals are wonderful. They can be a great motivation. Without them, we wouldn’t be aiming for anything at all! But goals can also hinder our ability to move forward, if we aren’t careful.

I used to make myself sit down and write a specific amount of words a day, and then beat myself up if I didn’t reach what I’d set for myself. Then I decided not to set word count goals at all. That was bad too. Once I realized I needed to set a word count goal, but that myattitude about it needed to change, a door opened for me. I set the goal to write 2,000 words every two days. That left me some wiggle room. I could write 500 one day, 1,500 the next. I let myself enjoy what I was writing more than focusing on how many words it all was. This simple change allowed me to write two novels (first drafts) in five months, when normally, it takes me about three months to write a first draft for a single novel. I also allow myself Sundays off if I needed a rest. The biggest change of all was that if I didn’t meet my goal, I didn’t worry about it or get angry with myself.

Rigid goals can be intimidating. Often, we start comparing ourselves and our goals (and how quickly we reach them) to others. That’s one of the worst things you can do! Instead, give yourself a break and figure out what works for you. Give yourself breathing room and work at a pace that keeps you passionate, but also relaxed. Being relaxed so you can enjoy what you’re doing is a key element.

Most of all, I’ve found managing your writing time isn’t so much about management, it’s about the right attitude.

I wish you the best in your writing!

Posted by Michelle D. Argyle in Guest Posts by Me, Writing Process, 1 comment

How the Bonded Fairy Tale Collection Compares to Disney

I have a lot of people ask me how my fairy tale interpretations compare to the widely known Disney versions, and whether or not I was inspired by the Disney versions. Honestly, it has been different for each novella in the Bonded collection, so I’ll start with Cinders first.

Overall, I was inspired to write Cinders, a continuation of Cinderella, because of Disney. I got the idea when I watched a trailer for Cinderella III: A Twist in Time. I thought to myself, what sort of story would I tell after Cinderella married her prince? The idea was planted, and it took off! After that, however, I stayed far away from pumpkins and talking mice and a cheery fairy godmother. I did, however, take the idea of a fairy godmother from Disney, since the original doesn’t personify the magic giver. Instead, it’s a tree and birds, which give Cinderella her dress and shoes. My version of Cinderella, hinted at in Cinders, is really my own mish-mash of ideas woven together to work for the story I wanted to tell.Thirds, a retelling of One-Eye, Two-Eyes, Three-Eyes, was obviously not taken from Disney, since Disney has not told the fairy tale. I used the Brothers Grimm version as my base, and twisted a bunch of the story to work for the setting I used. It’s one of my favorites because so many people do not know the fairy tale!For Scales, a prequel to Sleeping Beauty, I most heavily relied on the Disney version of the tale as my basis. The reason I did this is because I am fascinated with Disney’s rendition of the evil sorceress (Maleficent) turning into a dragon. This does not occur in any original tales I could find. I kept thinking, why does she turn into a dragon? Why is she so angry with the king and queen? In the Disney version, the only explanation is that she wasn’t invited to the celebration, but why wasn’t she, exactly? I wanted to know more of her story, so I decided to explore her point of view in Scales. The story that unfolds is interesting, indeed!

So there you have my explanations of how the three novellas in Bonded tie in with the Disney versions of the fairy tales. A large difference in my stories is that I try to stick to a darker, more realistic view of these tales instead of focusing on happy endings. If you love fairy tales, I hope this peaks your interest in the book!

Posted by Michelle D. Argyle in Bonded, Books, Guest Posts by Me, 5 comments

Lies You Believe About Publishing

I get a lot of emails from other writers asking for advice, and most of the time I have no idea what to tell them. Honestly, I’m making things up as I go along, fumbling around the same as everyone else. I suppose, however, that when we reach certain points we forget about things. For instance, I’ve forgotten how difficult it used to be to start a novel. These days it’s nothing. I’ve written enough first chapters and experimented enough with what kind of outlining and research works for me that starting a novel may still be frightening, but it’s not insurmountable by any means. I don’t paralyze myself at the thought.

As writers, especially new writers, we believe a lot of things people tell us. Many new writers read blogs like a hungry bear, craving whatever direction they can find. Sadly, I’ve fed new writers some pretty juicy lies. Not that I knew I was doing such a thing, but I’d like to dispel a few things here today in order to share some advice, in a way.

Lie #1 – write what you know

I am not a spy. I am not Cinderella after she has been married. I do not have a sister with three eyes. I have never been kidnapped or abused.

I don’t write what I know. All this deceiving phrase has ever boiled down to is to write confidently. Period.

Lie #2 – you must write like someone else to be successful

No, you must not. Writing like someone (or everyone) else is a Bad Idea. Buried in their actions, I’ve seen many writers believe that to catch the eye of an agent, they must write like the other popular voices out there. Imitation may be a good writing exercise, but if you continue to ignore your own path and voice you’ll never truly stand out. Temporarily, you might make it, but in the long run you will get buried underneath a pile of identical, life-crushing boulders.

Lie #3 – always follow the rules

We’ve all heard the rules.

Don’t use adverbs. Ever.
Flashbacks are bad.
Back story dumping is bad.
Don’t use prologues.
Don’t ever start a story with your character waking up.
Don’t repeat the same word in the same sentence.
You should always outline your book first.

and on and on and on…

The thing to remember is that these are not rules. Rules are things like you must put a period at the end of a sentence or use lay instead of lie if you’re talking about an object and not a person. Grammar stuff. Those are rules. Everything else is subject to change. Seriously. You can use adverbs, flashbacks, and a prologue if you want. If you read enough and write enough you’ll learn the right balance that works for you. For some writers, flashbacks never work. For others they are a brilliant literary device. Everyone is different. Don’t limit yourself to a box made of rules. Experiment. Learn. Write.

More of these “rules” are listed below.

Lie #4 – if you’re bored by your own work during the writing process, your reader will be, too

Lie. Lie. Lie. I’m bored by my own work all the time. I work on my novels hours upon hours, days upon days, sometimes years upon years. Yeah, I’m going to get bored. I know things the reader will never know. As writers, we get so close to our work that it’s often impossible to judge how a reader will react to certain aspects of the story. We shouldn’t be worried about that, anyway. When you’re finished, put your book aside for a few months and come back to it later. You’ll probably still be bored by certain things, but that gut-feeling inside of you will speak otherwise. Listen to it.

Also, this is why I have a few beta readers. They can often help me spot problematic areas I would never have seen before. I’d like to write in a complete bubble and keep all the credit to myself, but in all honesty, I’ll at least need one or two people to see my work before I can call it completely finished.

Lie #5 – your first sentence must hook the reader

Not true, and besides, it’s impossible to hook every reader with one sentence.

Lie #6 – your book must fit into a genre

Not true. Genres are best blended, bended, and torn apart, in my opinion.

Lie #7 – you must know your story’s theme before you write

Not true. I never discover my story’s themes until I’ve pretty much finished the book. Honestly, I don’t think it’s any of my business what the themes are. It’s my job to write the story, not preach it.

Lie #8 – there must be tension on every page

Not true. Leave your reader room to breathe, for crying out loud.

Lie #9 – I know everything

I wish.

 

Posted by Michelle D. Argyle in Writing Process, 3 comments

Getting Defensive Over Your Writing Isn’t Always Bad

I’ve been revising my work. I haven’t written anything “new” in weeks, and I’ve noticed my brain switching from one kind of thinking to another. I like this switch because it’s a break from drafting. As I’ve said before, drafting exhausts me. On the other hand, revising, for me, always means I’m dealing with some sort of feedback from others, and feedback always means shifting into defensive mode. I’m sure my betas would tell you I don’t actually get defensive with them, but I do get defensive in my head. This can occur even without feedback. That familiar battle:

Oh my gosh, this book sucks. Everything I’ve ever written sucks. No, it doesn’t suck! Have a little self-respect, would you?

How did I miss these plot holes! I’m so stupid. You are not stupid. If you say that one more time I’ll break your arm. And both your legs.

I can’t possibly revise this beast one more time. It’s good enough now. No it’s not. No work is ever done until you turn the final edits into your editor. You know this. Duh.

So the battle rages on and I revise page after page after page. This can, sadly, go on for years. Defensive mode can be a comfortable battle, one in which I feel empty without its presence. Being always happy with my work is boring. Being too confident is egotistical. I’ve got to keep pushing myself down to be a real writer. Right?

Tell Yourself You Suck

As much as I think it’s wrong to dog on your work all the time, I do think it’s a necessary step to grow. No completely 100% confident person has always been completely 100% confident. Allow the doubt to creep in. Wage a war. Let yourself land into a deep dark pit of doubt and despair and see the light up above.

And Then Get Out Of There

Yep, climb out. Fight your way out. Grow. Learn. And don’t beat yourself up for beating yourself up.

Nick made it clear in the comments that there’s a difference between beating ourselves up and beating up our work. I agree. What I’m mostly talking about here is being critical of your own work. Mostly, I’m saying give yourself permission to suck and get upset about it. A lot of what I write is never seen by any alpha or beta reader. A lot of it gets deleted into the abyss because I’m learning faster how to recognize what sucks. Still, it’s the recognition that counts, and that almost always includes waging a little battle. Celebrate the fight. Let it happen, and march on to victory where there will likely be another battle in a few days. Opposition is, after all, how we grow, and I suppose if you keep losing the battles you probably aren’t cut out to be a writer. I’m convinced it’s a violent career, no matter what anyone else says.

Posted by Michelle D. Argyle in Writing Process, 0 comments

Tension on Every Page (and all that crap…)

As you probably already know, I dislike rules. I don’t like people telling me what to do, and I especially don’t like people building a box around my creativity. It’s stifling. I can’t work that way. I’ve also read one too many posts lately about rules and how the new trend is barreling toward everyone ignoring them.

Yet, I don’t think we really are ignoring them. I think we like to pretend we are, but secretly, we’re looking over our shoulder at the rule makers (hmmm, agents, publishers, the marketplace, our fellow bloggers…) who keep yelling “If you do that your story is going to suck!”

And we quickly turn back around and pretend we’re ignoring them, but we delete that adverb anyway or cut the flashback or prologue or extra 10,000 words.

After judging all the entries for my short story contest, I realize there is always a need for discipline. Rules, maybe not so much, but discipline, yes. Stories can get sloppy around the edges and especially the middles. They can feel like jello, and I don’t like that feeling. I think one of the biggest problems I found with stories that didn’t make it into my final cut of “I think this is a winner” pile, was lack of discipline – attention to details, cutting unnecessary story, etc.

The difference, to me, between rules and discipline is this:

(RULE) – Hmm, it’s like a plug-this-here-and-it-will-fix-the-problem product. In fact, it IS a product. How many WRITING BOOKS have you read? Yeah, I thought so.

(DISCIPLINE) – It’s more like FIGURING IT OUT ON YOUR OWN and sticking with it, isn’t it?

See, I happen to believe that every story needs tension. It falls flat without it. I’ll read along in a story and about the time I realize I’m bored out of my mind I see that the story lacks one main element – tension. That’s a big RULE for me. But that’s for me. Your idea of tension is different than my idea of tension. We all like different things.

So I think you need tension, whatever that is. (And by the way, I don’t think tension means suspense. Suspense means you don’t know something. Tension is more like stretching. It’s uncomfortable. It means conflict and worry and your reader’s heart beating faster because they see that the character is going to lose something or never gain what they lost in the first place. The fact that your reader cares about your character and will keep turning the pages to get past that uncomfortable “stretching” probably means there’s some good tension going on. And that’s my lame attempt at 11:00 at night to explain tension).

So you think you’ve put tension in your story, but I’m still bored. Your other readers are bored, too, or at least you suspect they are. No one is publishing your story. There’s obviously a problem. Maybe not for you because you like what you’ve written, but for everyone else there’s a problem, and if you want to sell your story and have more than 5 people read it and enjoy it, you should probably change some things.

Please don’t go out and buy a writing book and think it’s going to solve everything for you. Sure, read it. Absorb it. Consider what it says. But understand that every word in there is what worked for THAT writer and what they think is good writing. The book isn’t going to make you a good writer. Your discipline is.

If your story lacks tension, go read a story packed with tension. Then read another one and another one and another one. Then go back to your story and you might see what it’s missing. Reading a book about tension and how to put it into your story will help you learn the rules, but on many levels it won’t get you far – unless you want to sound like a machine spitting out a mechanical story. Studying what works will get you somewhere. It will give you intuition where rules never could.

Posted by Michelle D. Argyle in Writing Process, 0 comments

Using Multiple Main Characters and Story Lines

Thanks to Christopher Goodwine who recently asked:

The more I research and explore the blogosphere, the more I notice an implicit sense that there is one sole main character in stories: “My MC,” “the MC,” “your MC’s emotional development,” “the crisis your MC must face,” etc.

What if a story incorporates several characters’ stories interwoven to achieve its ends? I mean beyond minor and supporting characters. Would a novel be acceptable if it gives equal importance and wordage to two characters or more? Or is it essential for today’s readership that there is one particular character for whom the story is ultimately about?

This is a great question, Christopher! First of all, I don’t think it’s essential for today’s readership that there is one particular character for whom a story is ultimately about. This is the conventional way to tell a story, and seems to be the most popular. I personally prefer it, but perhaps that is because I have not read or seen many stories that effectively use multiple main characters, and because I tried to do this in both the novels I have written – and failed.

I asked Davin if he had any good examples of novels that effectively use multiple main characters and story lines. He brought up Everything Is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer and The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan. I’ll take Davin’s word and state that both novels use three to four main characters to tell the story. Now why does this work? And how? I’ll try and shed some light using my own experience.

How Are You Holding Your Story Together?

Bear with me here as I talk about my first novel. I rarely do this publicly, so consider it a rare treat.

My first novel failed. It has failed even in the sixth draft. I had this “brilliant” idea to write two story lines – the story of a girl who is reluctantly kidnapped, and the story of her selfish mother, Karen, who doesn’t care that her only daughter is missing. Both story lines, completely separate for most of the book, bore the same weight for me. Both characters were The Main Character. And both had their own chapters in the book.

Chapter One – Naomi
Chapter Two – Karen
Chapter Three – Naomi
Chapter Four – Karen

You get the idea. That should work, right? Both characters are well written and compelling. Both story lines have tension and growth. Both tie together at the end. It should work. Right? Well, I thought so until I put the book aside for 10 months. I had plenty of feedback from earlier on, but decided to let two friends read it a few weeks ago. Why is Karen in here? they asked. I get to her chapters and I groan. I want Naomi’s story! This is HER story! And there’s plenty of it to go around without her mother interfering.

Since I wasn’t as close to the novel anymore, I took a good hard look at the characters. I love them both, but I’ve ultimately decided that my friends are right. I could go both ways with this book – get rid of Karen’s point of view and only tell Naomi’s story (which I’m most likely to do) or tell both stories, but shift the themes of my novel to something bigger than character-related subjects. Let me explain. (Thanks to Davin, I can begin to wrap my head around this)

The Way It Is Now – A Character Framework

The themes in my book revolve around creating your own happiness, not relying on others to hand it to you. Great theme. It works. There’s more to it than that, but that’s the gist. Both Karen and Naomi take this journey, and they help each other reach the same conclusions. But in the end, nothing would have happened without Naomi’s story, without her character. She is the framework that holds the story together, the one my readers root for and genuinely care about.

The Way It Could Be – An Overarching Framework

If I made the point of the novel something bigger that held the story together, I could get away with more than one story line. For instance, when I asked Davin what the point of The Joy Luck Club is, he said: “Ancestry. It was about the generational gap, between people born and raised in China and their daughters, born and raised in the U.S.”

That’s a pretty big idea, and if that’s the point of the story, I can see how four separate story lines could easily work. So for my book I might use a larger framework to hold everything together – how partner abuse affects relationships, or how Stockholm syndrome works. Already I can see that if I made this the framework of my story, Karen’s point of view would add more depth and meaning to what I’m trying to get across. So unless Karen enters Naomi’s world and fights the same antagonists as Naomi (which she never does), her story is simply getting in the way of Naomi’s voice and journey.

It’s up to me which way I want to go. Going with the overarching framework would mean I’d probably have to rewrite the book. Not sure I want to do that!

Multiple Points Of View Doesn’t Mean Multiple Main Characters

I think there might be a misconception out there that if a story (not told omnisciently) has multiple points of view that each point of view character bears the same weight. That’s rarely true, that I have seen. In my second novel I have three Point of View Characters. At first I thought I’d try what I had done in my first novel (since I thought it worked at the time), but as I neared the middle I quickly saw that the story obviously belongs to one character. The other Point Of View Characters are secondary; they add depth and texture to the Main Character that I couldn’t do any other way. I’m still in the beginning drafts of this novel. Who knows what I’ll decide later down the road. I’m still new to all of this!

So how do you figure out who your story is really about? How do you know if you’ve got an overarching framework or a character framework? It’s oftentimes very hard to pinpoint these things in a first draft, especially if you don’t plan everything out and begin with what framework you want to use. Many new writers sit down and say, “I want to write this idea, but I’ll use this character and this character and this character to tell it all. Yeah, that’ll be cool.” Sometimes we do begin with things planned out, and the story takes us in a different direction! But no matter what happens, when you finish that first draft you can sit down and figure out whose story you’re telling. I have different methods of doing this. One method is to ask:

Which character is struggling the most against the antagonist?

If your story doesn’t have what you like to call the “antagonist” then which character is struggling most against the set of rules governing the story? Fighting against a storm, or a group of terrorists or zombies, a generational gap like in Joy Luck Club, an evil government, or whatever. That’s usually your Main Character. There are exceptions, but I won’t get into those in this post.

If there’s more than one character struggling against the antagonist, and they seem to all be equal in their fight, you might have a problem with identifying your Main Character. If you have a problem with that, you can bet your reader will too. It’s absolutely essential to know your focus. If you’re using an overarching framework, you’d better know what it is and make it clear what you’re doing.

As for me, I’m still trying to figure all this novel-writing stuff out. These are just my thoughts, so if you agree or have more to add, or even if you disagree, voice your thoughts in the comments. I’d love to learn from you!

Posted by Michelle D. Argyle in Writing Process, 1 comment

When Does Drama Become Melodrama?

First of all, I don’t believe there is any fine line between dramatic and melodramatic (although straight melodrama plays are clear). Many different elements in a story, depending on the amount and how they are presented, can determine whether or not a work is more melodramatic than dramatic.

These days melodrama on the stage is rare, but more common in film and novels, that I have seen.

What is Melodrama? Melodrama means “song drama” or “music drama”. It usually refers to a theatrical form made popular by the French at the end of the eighteenth century. Melodrama focuses on serious dramatic elements, storylines, and characters. It is similar to drama, but these dramatic elements are pushed over the edge – often becoming comic, and may even seem facetious in intent.

Is melodrama bad? No, it does not have to be. But it often is when an author doesn’t realize that their work has been nudged from the dramatic realm to the melodramatic. I have noticed that when this happens, readers will laugh at scenes that are meant to be serious. They might wonder if this was the author’s intention.

What is an example of melodrama? Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is a modern example of something close to a full-fledged melodrama. Is the movie laughable? To some, yes it is. But does that mean it is bad? I don’t think so, because the melodrama works for the story. Many audiences may not think the movie is any good, but it grossed over $126 million in box office sales its opening weekend – a big success. Obviously the general American public, at least, likes melodrama.

Now that I’ve given you some introduction to melodrama, you may wonder what an author can do in order to either avoid or create melodrama in their work. Defining what gives a work melodramatic tendencies should answer this question.

Characters

The characters in a melodrama or a work with melodramatic tendencies will typically be stereotypes that embody the forces of good and evil according to their role. You won’t see them sitting down to ponder over their actions. Instead, they are good or bad through and through. Black and white is how I like to think of it, hence the picture above. These characters rarely change or grow, and their actions are predictable.

Oftentimes secondary characters in these stories and simple minded and flat, and provide comic relief.

Storyline

Predictable. Always predictable. Good wins. Evil loses. The hero saves the day. This is often the appeal of a melodramatic piece. It is basic and stable. These stories build and build, creating a sense of entertainment more than anything else. Drama tends to pull the reader in by reflection and identification with the characters. Melodrama merely gets the reader from point A to point B in an entertaining fashion.

The conflict of a melodramatic work often lies in the Hero vs. Villain, and is therefore predictable in nature. The hero always wins.

Intentions

In the end, what will make melodramatic elements work in a story is the intention of the author. Perhaps making a story more melodramatic can strengthen a weakened plot and flat characters if the author doesn’t want all the fuss of fleshing things out. Perhaps adding a melodramatic flair to a piece will add some needed comedic elements. Perhaps it would simply ruin the story. Who knows. What matters is the author’s intention. A friend of mine once commented that my novel was cheesy. I think that maybe she could have meant more melodramatic than cheesy. In any case, it isn’t working, and I’m scrubbing out those elements as fast as I can because “cheesy” and “melodramatic” was never my intention.

Posted by Michelle D. Argyle in Writing Process, 2 comments

Create A Foil

What Is A Foil?

A foil is a character who contrasts another character, usually the protagonist. This allows the protagonist’s weaknesses and strengths to shine brighter or look darker than otherwise possible. Some examples are Gaston as a foil for the Beast in Beauty and the Beast. Doctor Watson as a foil to Sherlock Holmes. In Pride and Prejudice, Mr. Collins serves as a foil to Mr. Darcy. And, the example that many say the term “foil” originated:

“I’ll be your foil, Laertes: in mine ignorance / Your skill shall, like a star i’ the darkest night, Stick fiery off indeed” (Hamlet, Act 5 Scene 2)

Laertes and Hamlet as foils to each other.

In each of these examples, you’ll find that one character serves to contrast the other. This, of course, allows a much greater opportunity for deeper character development. I think much more can be learned about Hamlet by contrasting and comparing his actions and character to Laertes. There are, of course, more foils than just this one in Hamlet, but I’ll let you have the fun of figuring those out.

More Than Just Characters

Foils can exist in other elements of a story besides the characters. For example, groups can act as foils to each other. A classic example is in Romeo and Juliet between the Capulets and the Montagues. One of my favorite examples, however, would be The Great Gatsby, with the West Egg and the East Egg serving as foils to each other.

Groups are usually pared down to individual character foils in the story, but if the groups are present enough, I believe they work on their own accord as well.

While researching foils, I also found that subplots can serve as foils to each other. Multiple plot lines can be layered against each other to bring out different elements of each. I have done this in my own writing. In my second novel I create a plotline between two secondary characters that is similiar to a previous event that occurred in the character’s past. This serves to sharpen both events in the character’s and the reader’s minds.

Use Them!

Foils can really strengthen a character and a story. I think Hamlet’s actions and character are strengthened by placing him next to Laertes. Would he have been as strong compared to just himself (as shown in the photo above)?

You probably already have foils in the stories you’ve written. I notice that mine happen naturally. But the trick is to realize these foils and make them work hard for you and your work. Highlight the differences more if you need to. Use symbolism, like a color or a seasonal change, to subtly draw attention to the contrast you want to create.

Contrast works well in art, too (photography and painting, for instance). Keeping this in mind, using foils is a great element you can use to paint more contrast into your written art.

Posted by Michelle D. Argyle in Writing Process, 0 comments