I first met Jan Cheripko, author of Rat; Sun, Moon, Stars, Rain; and Imitate The Tiger, when we both presented at a South Carolina Reading Association conference several years ago. I admire his tight prose in which young men face peer pressure and/or tough choices. His workshop at camp was on secondary characters and transitions. Since I'd never studied either of those in particular, I thought I’d learn some tips for Half-Truths and some advice to pass on to all of you. Below is a synopsis of his two presentations.
|Photo by Gayle Krause|
On Secondary Characters
Pay attention to your secondary character’s motivations and make sure you develop a distinct identity for them. If you are only using a secondary character to advance the plot, you might be short-changing the plot. Secondary character must be there for his/her own growth.
Focus on an individual in a crowd and realize how that person may personify the crowd. For example, in the opening scene of Casablanca moviegoers see a pickpocket. The thief represents how people are stuck in Casablanca and bad things are about to happen. Each minor character should reinforce the theme of the story.
Shakespeare gave some of his best lines to his secondary characters. Can you be so confidant in you writing that you give some of your best lines to someone who only shows up on the page briefly? In King Lear the Gentleman says: “Her tears were like diamonds dropped from pearls.”
Your assignment: Create a list of all your characters and assign a value to them.
1- Most important
3- Less so
4- Brief encounter
5- Part of the crowd
- Who are they?
- What’s their purpose?
- Where do they come from?
- When did they exist?
- What’s their history?
- What do we know about them?
- Why does she or he speak that way?
- Should she be eliminated or developed?
- Is this character consistent with purpose and theme of the book?
Play with a secondary’s character language. Allow him to be extravagant in ways the main character isn’t. Experiment! Be poetic, use humor, innuendo, puns, and slapstick. Take chances! Be philosophical, offer insights, use recurring symbols and leitmotif. Then, if necessary, be prepared to cut it all.
An example from Half-Truths
Maggie, Kate's younger sister comes into the library after exploring her grandmother's attic. She and her brother are excited to find their great-grandfather's civil war uniform. While she is chattering about what they found, Kate looks at their great-grandfather's portrait which hangs over the fireplace.
Maggie follows my gaze. "That's it! That's what we found. Wait 'til I tell Frankie. He's going to be flabberdoozled!"
"Flabberdoozled?" Grandaddy repeats. He bites his bottom lip to keep from laughing.
Maggie looks at him with impatience. "You know, Grandaddy! Flabbergasted plus bamboozled. Flabberdoozled!"
Transitional Scenes: Half the Fun is Getting There
First, Jan gave a short primer on plot:
Beginnings. Will it get us to turn the page?
“Call me Ishmael.” Moby Dick. This is a command to the reader.
“And the clock struck 13.” 1984.
Middle. Is there a clear inciting moment? It must happen in the first third of the story. Tension builds with the inclusion of backstory, new characters, danger, actions, dialogue, and interior monologue. Then relations become more complicated. Motives are introduced and action intensifies. Conflicts build to inciting moment until you get to a point of no return.
Rocky When the guy pulls Rocky’s name out of the hat and there is no choice: Rocky must fight.
Titanic Jack looks up and sees Rose in the balcony. Once they meet, it’s the point of no return.
End. Is the reader left thinking, feeling, wondering, sad, happy, perplexed, or satisfied?
When crafting a scene ask:
- Why is this scene in here?
- How is it constructed?
- Is it consistent with the story, plot and pacing?
- Can it, or should it be eliminated?
- Where is the story line going? Does this scene take my story forward?
- Is the scene consistent with my purpose and theme?
|Scene A: The Barn|
When you look at a transitional scene you have four options:
- Leave it the way it is.
- Eliminate it entirely and cut to the chase.
- Expand it, develop it, and integrate it even more.
- Judiciously trim it; let the left out parts speak volumes.
Your assignment: Write a transitional scene. Slow down, pay attention to details, and make the scene worthwhile.
An example from Half-Truths
Kate is walking home from just having been in Lillie's neighborhood without her family knowing. (For those of you who are unfamiliar with the story, Kate has just moved to a wealthy area of Charlotte, NC after spending her growing-up years on a farm in Titusville, SC.)
It's getting dark and I hurry along the street. I've got to get back before my grandparents come home from the club. Even Grandaddy wouldn't be too happy with me walking around a colored neighborhood by myself at night.
I walk past a white brick mansion high on a hill. Small lights line the long driveway casting a warm glow on the spacious lawn. This isn't at all like Titusville, but I feel like I belong here more than I do in Lillian's neighborhood. It's strange. I never thought I'd feel like I belonged in Myers Park.
******Jan is a gifted teacher and mentor. It was a pleasure to chat with him and hear from other campers how much he encouraged them.
|Photo by Jolene Ballard Gutierrez|