WHAT I LEARNED FROM J. K. ROWLING

Good writers never stop learning their craft, and the best teachers are other writers. My most recent lesson came from J. K. Rowling, a.k.a. Robert Galbraith.

silkwormVery few books in a lifetime of reading have delighted me as much as the Harry Potter series, so naturally I was eager to read the adult novels that followed them. The Casual Vacancy was a disappointment, lacking even the ordinary magic of storytelling. But the two books that followed, The Cuckoo’s Calling and The Silkworm, published under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith, showed Rowling back on track. They are wonderfully absorbing novels, hard to put down once begun.

Of course, writers can’t simply enjoy stories without poking and prodding the mechanism, trying to see how the thing works. I recognized some of the standard ingredients of good fiction: tangible settings, the skillful use of suspense, colorful secondary characters, and two exceptionally likable main characters in private detective Cormoran Strike and his assistant, Robin. As I read The Silkworm, it struck me that Strike and Harry Potter actually have a lot in common. They are both orphans, in Strike’s case functionally rather than formally, since he has a living but estranged father. And  both have painful physical problems. For Harry it starts with the scar on his forehead that burns periodically but goes far beyond that.  Everything he does to achieve his goals comes at a cost that is very often dangerous and painful. There’s a line in one of the books in which Ginny, seeing Harry enter the Great Hall, says, “He’s covered in blood. Why is he always covered in blood?”

Cormoran, who lost part of a leg to a war injury, has an ill-fitting prosthesis that causes him great pain throughout much of both novels. At one point in The Silkworm, he is unable to fit the prosthetic onto his swollen stump. Does he seek out medical help, like any normal person would? Of course not. Lives are at stake, a fiendish murderer is on the loose, and an innocent woman stands charged. He continues the chase on one leg.

RowlingCormoran, like Harry Potter, sacrifices himself to save others. I would hardly be the first to observe that the Harry Potter books are imbued with Christian theology and symbolism, or that Harry himself plays the role of Jesus, sacrificing himself so that others may live (although the Harry Potter books have a happier ending.) But Cormoran’s disability is less germane to the novels’ plots, and thus in a way more interesting. Its main purposes, as far as I can tell, are to make the character nobler and more sympathetic, and to create additional obstacles in his path to success. Rowling succeeds in both respects.

When solving a crime is just a job and the process unfolds intellectually, readers can enjoy the puzzle-solving aspect without getting deeply involved with the characters. But when the detective has flesh in the game, it’s a whole different level of story. Because I felt Cormoran’s pain subliminally throughout the story, there was an under-layer of discomfort to the experience of reading that lent a sense of urgency and fed my impatience for a resolution. I wanted him off that leg!

Mark Twain once said that his way of telling a story is to chase his protagonist up a tree and throw rocks at him. The harder we make life for our protagonists, the greater the obstacles they have to overcome, the more readers will care. One of the problems I see in a lot of student fiction (and occasionally in my own) is that writers feel too much for their protagonists and thus take pity on them. But writing requires a certain level of ruthlessness. Sometimes, to be kind to our readers, we must be cruel to our characters.

 

New Mind-Altering Substance Identified. It’s Called Writing.

 

outsiderFiction writers share several traits. Just about all of us were avid readers as children; and most are, or feel like, outsiders. We might have families and active social lives, but there is something in us that stands apart from even the most moving or fraught events: an observing, sorting, shaping eye. I imagine it is similar to the way professional photographers see the world, through movable frames invisible to the rest of us.

I’ll give you one example; every writer I know could cite his own. One of the most distressing days in my life came when my toddler son was acutely ill with respiratory distress. We spent 24 hours in a Brooklyn ER while he struggled to breathe, a tracheotomy kit tacked above his crib, and doctors worked to establish the cause. I was at his side the whole time, exhausted and deeply anxious; and yet, even then, part of me saw the scene through a writer’s eye. Certain things struck me during that long day, and they would provide both the inspiration and the setting for my third novel, A Heartbeat Away.

New research in neuroscience has discovered some interesting objective correlates to writers’ subjective experience. If writers feel different, it may be because they are different. Experiments by researchers at the University of Greifswald in Germany, as reported recently by Carl Zimmer in the New York Times, used fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) technology to observe activity in the brains of two groups of subjects: experienced fiction writers and a control group of novice writers. All subjects were read several lines of a story. They were asked to brainstorm for a few minutes about continuing the story and then to write for two minutes.

The results for the two groups were markedly different.

During the brainstorming sessions, the brains of the novice writers lit up in the visual area. It seems as if envisioning an imaginary scene uses the same mental muscles as actually experiencing it.

mad scientistThis, by the way, seems to me to correlate with earlier research, also through fMRI technology, into the brain activity of people reading fiction. Readers’ brains reacted just as they would if the experiences in the story were real. When descriptions evoked the senses, the appropriate sensory areas of the brain lit up. Interactions between characters activated the same part of the brain as interactions with real people, which may explain why readers can form deep and lasting relationships with fictional characters. When non-writers write fiction, they use the same parts of the brain as they would in reading fiction.

The brains of experienced writers reacted differently. During the brainstorming sessions, their brains showed increased activity in the areas involved in language, not vision. To me, this finding relates to my own experience and that of many other writers: that sense of standing outside events, observing, even describing them to oneself. Like photographers, writers frame life, processing it into narration even as they live it.

After the brainstorming sessions, when the two groups began to write their own lines, their brains continued to draw on different regions. In the expert writers’ brains, a region called the caudate nucleus was activated; not so in the brains of novice writers. This area of the brain plays a role in skills acquired with practice, including sports, music, and games. Actions that in the beginning require conscious effort become less conscious with practice, migrating to a deeper level of the brain.

As a teacher of fiction writing, I see this clearly in the development of beginning writers as they learn their craft. Initially, most struggle with maintaining a consistent point of view. POV in general is terrifically hard and confusing… until suddenly it’s not. After enough practice and feedback, it becomes second nature, not something one needs to think about while writing.

Kind of ironic, if you think about it. Remember the old warnings against taking drugs, because mind-altering substances can, well, alter minds? Turns out writing does, too.

brain

For more on this subject, see this post.

For additional, sporadic outpourings from this brain, subscribe to this blog through the links to the right. 

Finally, I’m delighted to announce that A DANGEROUS FICTION is now out in Penguin paperback.  (It’s perfect for book clubs, if you belong to one–I’ll even skype-bomb the discussion if I can.)  NPR called it a “clever exploration of our capacity for self-deception… an absorbing mystery that keeps its secret until the very end.” You can read the opening here.

 

 

Diversity in Books

 

A group of authors concerned about the lack of diversity in children’s literature launched a campaign on social media recently to raise awareness and influence decision-makers in the publishing industry. On Twitter, their  hashtag,#WeNeedDiverseBooks, trended for several days. They had a big presence on Tumblr as well (http://weneeddiversebooks.tumblr.com/), where numerous contributors posted pictures of themselves holding signs explaining why we need diverse books. I encourage you to visit it; many of the entries are moving and thought-provoking.

diversity

The State of Diversity in Publishing

There’s no doubt that minorities of all kind are underrepresented both as writers and characters in children’s literature and fiction in general. The School of Education at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, tracks the number of books about and/or by people of color published in the US. In 2013, out of approximately 5000 children’s books published, only 93 were about black people, 69 about Asians, 57 about Latinos, and 34 about Native Americans.  (If there is a similar survey of LGBT characters, I don’t know of it, but I think we can safely assume the results would be similar.)  These numbers were substantially worse than the results 10 years ago.

Publishing has contracted in general, but it seems as if a disproportionate number of the voices forced out were minority writers. American publishing lags behind the other arts and media in its representation of this country’s diversity. Not so long ago it was taken for granted that all political TV pundits were white males; this is far from the case now. Racial and gender diversity is the norm on television dramas and comedies; shows that lack diversity (“Girls”) are singled out for criticism. Music has long transcended class and racial boundaries. And yet publishing still skews overwhelmingly white.

When I first started working in publishing, many years ago, the industry was progressive in that it employed many women in senior positions; but the only black employees I ever met worked in the mailroom. It was a big deal when Random House hired a black editor in 1979. Most opening positions were filled by Ivy League graduates from families who could subsidize their offspring’s pittance of a wage. When you walked through the editorial and executive floors, the faces you saw were overwhelmingly if not exclusively white.

 

If that were still the situation in publishing, it might explain the paucity of books by and about people of color; but it is no longer true. A great many young editors still seem to come from the Ivy leagues, but those schools themselves have become more diverse. Why, then, have books become less so?

Publishing Economics 101

The answer, I believe, lies in a basic understanding of the economics of the industry. Publishing is a profit-oriented business, even though the profits tend to be relatively small compared to other industries. All the large houses are owned by corporations. Publishers of imprints are judged by their bottom line; consequently they judge their editors the same way. An editor whose books do not make money will not thrive in commercial publishing. As for literary agents, having been one for many years, I can tell you how they think. They ask themselves two questions about everything they read: Do I love it? Can I sell it? If the answer to the second question is no, the answer to the first is irrelevant.

kite runnerAs long as editors believe that books by and about LGBT and non-white people will appeal only to “niche readerships,” that belief will factor into their decisions and those of their publishing boards. The best way to dissuade them of this belief is by proving it wrong. Awards are nice, but nothing garners respect like sales figures that exceed expectations. Books about people of color that break through to wide popular readership — books like Terry McMillan’s Waiting to Exhale or Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner — probably open more doors for other diverse writers than anything else could. But the odds of such breakthroughs shrink to insignificance when so few diverse books are published to begin with.

Remedying this situation will take concerted action by publishers, writers and readers. But before I get into that, I want to take a step back and talk about the goal itself. What is diversity in fiction?

What Diversity Is and Isn’t

Let me start with a true story. Years ago, I wrote a novel called A Heartbeat Away, a modern adaptation of my favorite book in the world, Pride and Prejudice. The novel was set primarily in a large inner-city ER, secondarily in a number of jazz clubs. The two main characters were black, and many of the secondary characters were black or Latino. When the book was finished, my agent sent it to my long-time editor at one of the Big Six publishers, who called me a few days later to tell me I had just written the best book of my career.

Heartbeat AwayI expected that an offer would follow soon. In fact, six weeks passed before we had any further response. It came in the form of another call from my editor. She said she had shown the book to others in the company, who all agreed it was a first-class novel. Some, however, wondered whether I, as a white writer, should have been the one to write it. There had been some debate, but eventually they had agreed to publish.

I was astonished. If they had said the characters were unconvincing, that I had failed in that way, I could have accepted it. But to say in one breath that I had succeeded in creating true and affecting characters, and in the next that I did not have the right to create such characters, seemed to me a total misunderstanding of what fiction does and how it works – and this from publishing people.

The characters in that book were black or Hispanic because they had to be for the story I wanted to tell. For a long time I had been looking for a modern setting with the extreme class stratification of Jane Austen’s world. One day, a very long day spent with a sick child in a grim Brooklyn emergency room, I found that highly stratified microcosm. I spent some time in the cafeteria and noticed that the groups at various tables were segregated by rank, not race. Doctors sat with doctors, nurses with nurses, aides with aides. There were doctors of many races and ethnicities, but on the lower rungs of the hierarchy, the employees were almost all black. Since my story, based on Pride and Prejudice, was about a love affair that crossed class boundaries, I chose as my protagonist a woman whose housekeeping job put her on the bottom of the ladder. Her lover was at the top: the director of the Emergency Department. Given the novel’s setting, the housekeeper pretty much had to be black, which meant her lover must also be black. If he weren’t, the novel would come to be about the crossing of racial boundaries as opposed to class boundaries, which was my interest.

I didn’t want to be published halfheartedly or apologetically, so we took the book away and sold it to Morrow. It came out to wonderful reviews, was optioned by MGM, and published in five languages, so my story had a happy ending. Not so for a writer friend of mine, who wrote a wonderful folkloric novel set in what seemed to be but was never identified as a Native American village. She submitted to multiple literary agents, a number of whom liked the book very much but told her that they didn’t believe publishers would buy a book about Native Americans written by a white woman.

Does diversity refer only to the race or sexual orientation of the author? Must that race or gender identification match that of the book’s subject? Should writers restrict themselves to their own race, class, nationality, religion and gender?

I understand the objections of some Native American writers to those who “appropriate” a culture that is not theirs. When that culture is distorted in the resulting work, the distortion itself is legitimate ground for criticism. But I disagree with the concept of appropriation, because it implies an ownership that does not exist. This is, of course, an old, ongoing argument. When William Styron published Sophie’s Choice, many people criticized him for “appropriating” the Holocaust – as if anyone could own that.

children readingOne of the goals of diverse fiction is to allow all readers, especially young ones, to find people like themselves in books. But another is to allow readers to experience lives very different from their own, to see through the eyes of characters different from themselves. Diverse fiction expands the reader’s world, dissolves barriers and promotes empathy. Stories transcend boundaries in their origins as well as in their effect on readers. Writers are most fairly judged on how well they succeed, not on what they attempt.

The Remedy

Publishers, writers and readers all have a role to play in creating a more diverse pool of literature.

Publishers are the ultimate gatekeepers, which to my mind imposes a positive obligation to seek out and publish diverse literature, instead of taking refuge in notions like “niche readerships.” Designations like that can result in lowered expectations and consequently less support.

rainbow-157845_640Writers need to broaden their spectrum. “Write what you know” doesn’t mean stick to your own backyard. It means doing what actors do: finding a commonality with diverse characters and working outward from that common core. Of course, writers need to populate their stories with characters appropriate to the plot and setting;  I’m just saying they shouldn’t automatically default to the writer’s own race and gender. If you have a group of kids in the story, why not put one in a wheelchair? Why not mix it up a bit racially? Why not give one of the characters two Dads instead of a Mom and a Dad? That level of diversification can in itself be effective; and it needn’t be the focus of the story unless the writer wants it to be.

Readers need to seek out and support excellent diverse books, and by support I mean buy, review, discuss and recommend. Reading endless variations of genre books may be comforting, but it’s mac and cheese for the soul. We need to challenge ourselves more. Ursula Le Guin once said that, “First sentences are doors to worlds.” Readers are adventurers by nature. With so many worlds to explore, why limit ourselves to Planet Vanilla?

The Biology of Fiction: Putting Stimulus Before Reaction

 

Before we were writers, we were readers; and to understand how fiction works, we must first understand what happens to us when we read fiction.  When we immerse ourselves in an absorbing story, the real world fades out and the fictive world fades in. We are not conscious of reading; rather, we feel as if we’re inside the story, experiencing its events through a character, or watching like a fly on the wall as they unfold. To say we are transported is to express a literal truth.flying carpet

How does this transportation happen? Not by accident, flying carpet, or magic, but rather by art, the writer’s art. I couldn’t hope to summarize in a blog post even the little I know about the craft of fiction. But I can address (and do, when the pedantic spirit overcomes me) very  specific issues, those small things that, taken together, make the difference between the talented amateur and the professional. Previous posts have addressed settings and the use of body language. Today’s topic is chronology, aka putting the stimulus before the reaction.

Below are two versions of the same scene. The first one is an example of the sort of writing I often see in classes.

Version 1:

As Lola descended the basement stairs, bile rose in her throat, and her nose wrinkled at the stench of something rotten down below. It made her sick, but she kept going. At the bottom of the stairs, she moved into the open center of the room and shined her flashlight around the perimeter. What she saw filled her with revulsion.

Three dead squirrels, dressed in doll’s clothes, had been arrayed in miniature chairs around a dollhouse table, tiny cups and saucers in front of each. Lola’s flashlight clattered to the floor and the light flickered and died. She screamed in horror as an icy hand clasped her own, and a cold little voice said, “How lovely.  Lola’s come to play.”

 

What do you think? Nothing wrong with it grammatically, nothing glaringly wrong at all…but are those chills running down your spine, or prickles of irritation?

Now consider this alternative.

Version 2:

basementLola descended the basement stairs, one cautious foot after another.  The stench of rot intensified with each step, but she forced herself to keep going. She reached the bottom, moved into the open center of the room and shined her flashlight around the perimeter.  The beam snagged on something unexpected, moved on, came back.

Three dead squirrels, dressed in doll’s clothes, sat in miniature chairs around a dollhouse table, tiny cups and saucers in front of each.

Lola screamed. Her flashlight clattered to the floor; the light flickered and died. An icy hand clasped her own, and out of the darkness, a cold voice spoke.

“How lovely.  Lola’s come to play.”

Are you feeling the difference?

The reason Version 2 works better is clear when you consider it from the reader’s perspective. For the writer, words are the medium; but the experience for the reader transcends words and involves all the senses. The reader is in the story;  it’s happening all around him. Writers, working behind the scenes, create that world. We paint the scenery, write the dialogue, give the characters conflicting agendas and set them into motion. And we do all this to draw the reader in and keep him immersed in our invented world. The last thing we want to do, then, is to get in the way of the reader’s direct experience of that world. Nor do we want our POV character to interpose himself as a filter.

In the first version of the cellar scene, the writer tells the character’s reaction to something before showing the thing he’s reacting to. The reader’s experience is thus second-hand, channeled through the intermediary of the POV character, whose reactions, spelled out by the writer, are meant to dictate the reader’s own.

In the second version, readers experience everything first-hand. This allows for the elements of surprise and suspense that the first version lacked. Equally importantly, it allows the reader to react directly to the sights and events of the scene, rather than cuing him with the character’s reaction. The POV character is still there—readers see through her eyes, feel through her skin—but she doesn’t stand between the reader and the action. Things happen in the proper biological order: stimulus first, then reaction.

But notice what else happens when we put the stimulus before the reaction. Some lines from the first version were cut from the second: “bile rose in her throat, and her nose wrinkled,” “It made her sick,” and “What she saw filled her with revulsion.” Lola still screams, but the words “in horror” are gone. None of these explanations are needed in the second version. By allowing readers to experience the events directly and viscerally, we no longer need to tell them how Lola reacted. They feel it for themselves.

Screaming_In_My_Head_by_Etherhel

 

For writers interested in improving their craft, I teach several online workshops.  These classes are small, rigorous and intense.  The next course I will teach will be One Good Scene, starting April 2, 2015. At the moment I have one spot left, so if you’re interested, drop  me a line at ASAP:  Barbararogan (at) gmail (dot) com .

I’m delighted to announce that A DANGEROUS FICTION is now out in Penguin paperback.  (It’s perfect for book clubs, if you belong to one–I’ll even skype-bomb the discussion if I can.)  NPR called it a “clever exploration of our capacity for self-deception… an absorbing mystery that keeps its secret until the very end.” You can read the opening here.

Looking For Friends In All the Wrong Places

 

In a recent interview with Publishers Weekly, Claire Messud was asked a question about her novel, THE WOMAN UPSTAIRS, that she didn’t like. Would you, the interviewer asked, want to be friends with your protagonist, Nora?

ClaireMessudByLuigiNovi1Messud exploded. “For heaven’s sake, what kind of question is that? Would you want to be friends with Mickey Sabbath? Saleem Sinai? Hamlet? Krapp? Oedipus? Oscar Wao? Antigone? Raskolnikov? … If you’re reading to find friends, you’re in deep trouble. We read to find life, in all its possibilities. The relevant question isn’t ‘is this a potential friend for me?’ but ‘is this character alive?’”

Reactions followed swiftly.  A panel of writers was assembled by the New Yorker and asked to weigh in on the issues raised by Messud’s comments. Let us assume that the tactful tone of their opinions was uninfluenced by the fact that Messud’s husband, James Wood, is the literary critic for the New Yorker. Jonathan Franzen’s admirably brief remarks began, “I hate the concept of likability,” which will come as no shock to those who remember Franzen declining Oprah Winfrey’s endorsement on the grounds that her viewers were not the right readers for his book.

Margaret Atwood allied herself firmly with Claire Messud. “Intelligent readers do not confuse the quality of a book with the moral rectitude of the characters.… We love to watch bad people do awful things in fictions, that we would not like if they did those things to us in real life. The energy that drives any fictional plot comes from the darker forces, whether they be external (opponents of the heroine or hero) or internal (components of their selves).”

Donald Antrim seemed to suggest that concern over a character’s likeability arises from the author’s personal insecurity and need for approval.  “The author maneuvering for love is commonplace and ordinary, and the work of fiction that seductively asserts the brilliance or importance or easy affability of its creator is an insubstantial thing. I have no problem with liking a character. But if that’s the reason I’m reading, I’ll put the book down.”

jennifer_weiner_042011Next, in an article on Slate, best-selling author Jennifer Weiner weighed in on the side of likability, as one whose characters are often accused of same. She delivered short, devastating critiques of Messud’s latest novel and a memoir by Donald Antrim, along with a cringe-making quote from another Messud interview. “Don’t go around asking the question, ‘Is this character likable?’ and expect that to be compatible with serious literary endeavors,” Messud declared. “That’s not what it’s about. If you want self-help that’s going to make you feel good, or you want the Ya Ya sisterhood, fantastic, that’s a great thing to read, I have no complaints about that. But it’s not compatible with serious endeavor.” Weiner went on to deconstruct these words as “the latest code employed by literary authors to tell their best-selling brethren that their work sucks.”

crayonsHer argument is against what she calls the “imagined popular/literary dichotomy.” The dismissive attitude of some female literary writers toward their more commercial sisters is not only pompous and self-aggrandizing, it also distracts from the real problems women writers face getting critical attention and respect. When publishers adopt the same attitude, the result is a narrowing of the field for all writers. “Authors are placed on one side or another of that pop/lit divide, and prohibited from using all the crayons in the box. They’re stuck with their particular color palette: pretty pastels if they write commercial fiction, and darker browns and grays to be considered literature.”

So where do I stand on all this? With one foot firmly in each camp, as it happens.

I agree with Weiner about the fallacy of the commercial/literary divide. My own books have been categorized variously as literary fiction, women’s fiction, and mystery. Those labels don’t define me as a writer; they’re just publishing shorthand for the convenience of booksellers and reviewers. Those of my novels critics deemed “literary fiction” are no better written than the ones called  mysteries. A poet is no less a poet for experimenting with different forms. Neither is a novelist. There is no dichotomy between literature and popular fiction; rather, there is a continuum calibrated not by genre but by the quality of the writing.

SerenaOn the other hand, I agree with Messud and Atwood that the demand of some readers for likable characters is problematic for writers with a harder edge. I found Gillian Flynn’s GONE, GIRL to be a brilliantly crafted novel and totally compelling read. It sold like hotcakes, too, so millions of people must have agreed with this assessment. But on Goodreads and many other online forums, one criticism came up with surprising frequency: “I didn’t like any of the characters.” Well, duh! Flynn’s protagonist was a psychopath, the equivalent of a Tom Ripley. So was Ron Rash’s Serena, who for pure evil could spit in the eye of Hannibal Lector.  You’re not supposed to like such characters; you’re supposed to watch in fascinated horror as they operate. Their difference from us—rule-abiding, housebroken, socialized us—is sort of the point of books like that.

But there are all sorts of books, and it’s nonsense to say that great literature is incompatible with likable characters. Elizabeth Bennett, anyone? Jo March? The Glass family? It takes a jaundiced soul to dismiss a protagonist like Huck Finn on the grounds of excessive likability.Huck Finn

It also disturbs me when writers instruct readers on how to read. Readers and writers occupy separate spheres. Reading and interpreting is the reader’s domain, writing is the author’s. As much as I appreciate my readers and value their feedback, I follow my own muse while writing. Writers who don’t want to be told what to write or how to write it  should extend the same courtesy to readers, including reviewers and interviewers.

As it happens, I was interviewed by Publishers Weekly about my novel, A DANGEROUS FICTION, within a week or so of Messud’s interview. The questions were not, perhaps, what I would have chosen, but unless we go around interviewing ourselves, they never are. I answered courteously and as thoughtfully as I could, which I’ve always seen as part of the job. I could be wrong—snarkiness gets more attention—but it’s my own form of noblesse oblige.

Finally,  I would respectfully suggest that it’s better to let others praise one’s work as a “serious literary endeavor” than to do so oneself.

 

Thanks for reading! I post on my own irregular schedule, so the best way to stay up to date is to subscribe to the blog via RSS feed or email—links to the left.

Also, I’m delighted to announce that A DANGEROUS FICTION is now available on Audible.com.

Game of Words: Writing Lessons From TV

My name is Barbara, and I’m an addict.

I’m addicted to Game of Thrones. That’s not all; I’m also hooked on Bates Motel, and recently I kicked Downton Abbey, not through any effort or willpower of my own, but because the supply dried up.

The Game of Thrones trouble began with the George R. R. Martin books. I was writing A Dangerous Fiction at the time, and was in search of a bit of light reading as a palette cleanser.  I started reading the first book in the series, and several million pages later, I looked up blearily from the last and realized that three weeks had passed and I hadn’t done a lick of work. The TV series only made the situation worse. I started out watching each new episode on Sunday nights. Before long I was mainlining repeat showings two or three times a week.

I’m not proud of this. When I was younger, I took an elitist view of television. I owned a set, of course, because not to would seem like snobbery, and besides, TVs make great babysitters. But I rarely watched it. I am a writer; I read.child reading

I still don’t watch many shows, but those I do follow, I watch with a writer’s eye. I ask the same questions I ask when a book floors me: What makes this story so compelling, and where can I get me some?

MartinIn the case of Game of Thrones, I recognized all the basic ingredients of good fiction. Great characters? Check. High stakes? The highest: life or death, honor or disgrace, the fate of kingdoms. Interesting settings? Fascinating and vividly imagined. All sterling qualities, and enough to make any story compelling, yet I felt that something more was needed to explain the three-week hole Martin’s books had blasted in my life.

And then, as I watched a recent episode, the answer finally dawned on me. The scene was one in which Cersei visits Tyrion in his much diminished quarters to suss out what he plans to tell their father. Tyrion, in turn, wants to know precisely what she’s afraid he’ll say. It’s not an action scene; there are no dragons or swordplay. Yet the scene is terrifically tense. The dialogue shows each one trying to elicit information from the other while concealing his/her own intentions and concerns. Each character had a vital agenda, and those agendas were perfectly at odds.

What I realized at that moment was that the same could be said of nearly all Martin’s scenes. The man seems incapable of framing any scene that is not full of conflict and hidden agendas. In scene after scene, his characters use manipulation, intimidation, flattery, violence, seduction and every other means of persuasion to impose their will.

I was drawn to Bates Motel by its two stars, Vera Farmiga and Freddie Highmore, who are both outstanding, but I stayed because the story wouldn’t let me leave. It sent out tentacles, first implanting questions in my mind (“What happened to Norman’s father?” is a big one), then taking its own sweet time answering them: an old writer’s trick.

And even when answers are provided, they are only as reliable as the character providing them, which in the case of Bates Motel means not at all. The unreliable narrator is a useful literary device that works because readers initially trust the narrator’s version of events. Their gradual realization that a particular narrator may be lying or deluded casts a whole different light on the story. The Remains Of the Day, Gone Girl, and Shutter Island are excellent examples. Usually the device does not work as well on film, because it’s harder to keep up the illusion when readers can see events with their own eyes instead of through the narrator’s. But Bates Motel manages it beautifully in the death of Norman’s father.

We see two versions of that death, which takes place before the start of the story. The first is Norman’s memory of discovering his father’s body. In that version, he is shocked and heartbroken, while his mother, Norma, is clearly not surprised at all; the only emotion she shows is pity for her son’s distress. Viewers are led to the supposition that she staged the accident.

Many episodes later, we see the death from Norma’s point of view. In that version, Norma casts herself as victim and protector. But since viewers know by now that this is how she justifies all the crazy things she does, they still can’t be sure about what happened and who did what. Both Norman and his mother are quite mad. He suffers from blackouts and hallucinations, while she has a major personality disorder or three. That makes them classic unreliable narrators, which allows the real narrators—the series’ writers—to play all sorts of tricks on viewers. We can’t trust anyone, and that uncertainty keeps us watching. In stories, as in music, it’s the unresolved chord that draws us onward.

Now, I’ll concede that writers are adept at justifying bad behavior in the name of art, including addictions to worse substances than popular TV. Nevertheless, I will maintain that my affliction has its beneficial side; indeed I’ll go so far as to recommend it to any writer interested in improving his or her craft.

From Game of Thrones, writers can learn to seek out our characters’ hidden agendas; to frame scenes to take maximum advantage of those conflict; and to do this not once in a while, but in every scene. Bates Motel, is a masterclass in the use of unreliable narrators and delayed gratification to enhance suspense. Lessons worth learning, I’d say, whatever the price. Besides, when I said I’m addicted to these series, I was taking poetic license. I can stop watching anytime I want to. Really I can.

Reprinted from a post on www.Bookcountry.com.