Writing the Blockbuster Novel by Albert Zuckerman (Part 1)

Writing the Blockbuster Novel by Albert Zuckerman (Part 1)

I had my doubts about this one, as I do about any book whose title is printed in 48 point block font, but Writing the Blockbuster Novel is anything but a disappointment. It is a must read for any author who has pecked out a few books with meager (or non-existent sales) and wishes to break through to the next level. By next level I don’t mean the literary next level either. No, I’m talking about the bestsellers list. I’m talking about volume and popular success.

In many ways, this book is similar to Writing the Breakout Novel by Donald Maass, but Writing the Blockbuster Novel is different because it specifically does not try to address the needs of a new writer but one who has done something and needs some guidance. On the other hand, Writing the Breakout Novel does seem to skew a bit towards the new author. I will write a separate review of that book in the near future.

Like all reviews and analysis on How Not To Write, this article about Writing the Blockbuster Novel is long. Over 15,000 words! The purpose of a long article like this is to give you a deeper background on my thoughts and some practical advice based on my own failures and mistakes. I encourage you to read this book and form your own opinions.

About the Author

Albert Zuckerman is the man behind Writer’s House. His bio is here. Here is an excerpt:

I founded Writers House in 1974, and have been midwife to books in all adult categories, fiction and non-fiction. I’m especially interested in working with a few more novelists, preferably authors whose works have received reviews praising their artistry, but whose sales have been only so-so. I’m good at launching and relaunching writers.

Who is this book for?

Zuckerman’s bio really says it all. It’s for mid-list novelists looking to break out. However, there is great practical advice for any author although I think a first-time novelist will be better off with a different book to start with.

Storytelling, as defined by Ken Follett

Ken Follett, the perennial bestselling author, was once a hack at the bottom of the heap. He had a few books published in the UK though really the sales were quite paltry. It was only after working with Zuckerman that Follett found the keys to success, or perhaps found the magic combination to unlock the success that was already inside him.

In his introduction to the book, Follett places firm credit for his success in the continual dialogue he maintained with his agent, Albert Zuckerman. Zuckerman, like many a fine agent, used to be a writer (playwright and novelist). He begins by pointing out three qualities a storyteller must possess above all others. It almost sounds like an oath, and perhaps it is. A storyteller must be:

  • imaginative
  • literate
  • stubborn

Thrifty, brave, clean, and reverent are not only optional but thoroughly discouraged (in my humble opinion), and Follett points out that a storyteller can have all of these qualities and still fail miserably. I understand this because I have two awful novels of my own as proof along with a heap of crappy stories. He’s right and I wanted to learn more.

Bigger is Better

I’ve always wondered why the bestseller’s list always seems to be stacked with 500+ page monsters. It seems to me that a bigger book doesn’t necessarily mean its a better book (doesn’t mean it’s a worse book either), but the fact of the matter is that bigger is better.

Zuckerman doesn’t talk about the physical size of the book directly though by building out the mechanics of a “big book” an author should realize that he is indirectly referring to page count. Here are the general

High Stakes

Like Writing the Breakout Novel, Zuckerman reminds the author that is important to shoot high. The core conflict in the story needs to be just that – conflict. That’s a word every writer hears, but how often do they go to the dictionary to see the real definition? As defined by the OED, conflict is:

A fight, a battle, a (prolonged) struggle between opposing forces; fighting, strife; the clashing or variance of opposed principles, beliefs, etc.; the opposition of incompatible wishes in a person.

As always, the OED has a fantastic set of quotes to accompany the definition. Of the lot, my favorite is the first which is attributed to Winston Churchill, “At every point, the opposing causes came into conflict.”

This is the heart of the matter. Not only must there be a sense of urgency and an imperative, but there must be struggle and contact at every point along the way. An author can overdo this, but reading the current bestsellers of any day a reader with a careful eye will see that it takes quite a lot to push this over the top in the minds of today’s readers.

Before moving on, I’d like to wrap up with the idea that high stakes vary from genre to genre. Zuckerman tells us that the high stakes in a Thriller usually life and death (and often on both the grand and immediate scales). However, he also notes that each genre has its own set of rules regarding the stakes. In women’s novels, the stakes revolve around personal fulfillment. It might be finding love or recovering from loss, but the stakes surrounding the basic premise are high. Perhaps the heroine might lose her family farm or her sanity, but the key element here is growth. It’s a pity though that Zuckerman doesn’t expand on this concept by including other genres. If you have ideas about other genres, I’d love to hear about them.

Larger-than-Life Characters

As a writer myself, the term larger-than-life character sends a shiver down my spine. It’s not that I have a problem writing about characters who are over the top. It would be a little strange if I had that problem since I myself am rather over the top. Still, there is something about larger-than-life which smacks of stereotyping and vacuity (if I may be so snotty). Yet, there is no doubting that in order to produce popular fiction, one must write about characters who are larger than life.

So rather than bristle at the term, let’s dissect it.

To me, the term (hence referred to as LTL – wow, there’s some unexpected humor) conjures images of Paul Bunyan or P.T. Barnum. Zuckerman uses the example off Don Corleone from The Godfather, whom I wouldn’t have classified as LTL at first blush but obviously he is. Hannibal Lecter is definitely LTL, almost to the point of being a super-villain with optional cape. Sherlock Holmes is LTL. The point here is that LTL is about standing outside the rules and classifications assigned to us by society. Or, as Zuckerman puts it, “doing extraordinary things.”

Authors seeking popular success need to understand this. So much literary fiction is devoted to telling the small details of small lives. They are beautiful set pieces and they are seductive to the author with a lyrical bent. But to entertain? The set pieces are only going to be read on rainy days with a cup of tea, or by the devoted 1% of the public who actually read literary fiction (and in fact it might be far less than that).

Unlike some literary authors, I will not disparage the quality of the craft put into popular fiction. It is an altogether different craft, and one I am trying to learn. In order to make it work, one must have characters that stand out from the crowd and do things that are both unexpected and amazing.

The Dramatic Question

The DaVinci Code is one of the most popular books ever published, so is Harry Potter. Yet, what do these two works have in common with every other Blockbuster novel? They have a big question surrounded by lots and lots of interlinked dramas. Zuckerman points out that even the most complicated popular works can be boiled down to a single question:

Will the sleuth track down the killer?

Will the heroine get together with the man of her dreams?

etc…

In Harry Potter, we have a very easy question: Will Harry get Revenge? Is this what keeps readers rolling on through book after book? It is certainly part of the excitement that makes children and adults alike line up at midnight to get the latest installment. I love the details J.K. Rowling puts into her books. In fact, when it snows I often think of Christmas at Hogwarts, but then I still believe in Santa Claus too.

Anyway, the point is that all of the trimmings in the Potterverse keep kids engaged through each book, but it is the ultimate confrontation with Voldermort to which we are all frantically speeding towards as we burn the oil low reading cover to cover.

That main question, the spine (to use an image borrowed from Zuckerman) about which the novel turns, is what keeps readers going.

High Concept

Here, Zuckerman asks us to combine our big dramatic question with an outlandish premise. High = Stoned. He doesn’t say that of course, but that’s how it struck me when I read this:

High Concept, if you are not familiar with the term, is in essence a radical or even somewhat outlandish premise. Can a young lawyer escape a seemingly respectable law firm that secretly launders money for the Mafia, whose hoods kill any attorney who even talks about trying to leave?

The concept quoted is obviously John Grisham’s The Firm and it serves the point well. Personally, I couldn’t see Tom Cruise being smart enough to escape from anyone, especially since he seems unable to escape from Mission Impossible. Still, it obviously works both in print and in film.

Going back to Harry Potter, we don’t have to dig far for the High Concept: parallel world of magic exists alongside our own of which a loner orphan boy happens the savior but he doesn’t even know it. Can he learn about magic and arm himself fast enough to survive the onslaught of the most wicked wizard ever to grace the printed page, a mage so evil he has in fact forfeited his humanity and even parts of his soul to live forever? Seems like a pretty high concept to me. Better pass me a pint of butterbeer. This is going to be a fun ride.

Multiple Points of View

Like film, the Blockbuster novel is going to have a lot of camera angles. In print, this takes on the form of multiple voices. This allows the reader to feel the story from different angles and adds a personal dimension to the million little crises that occur in a Blockbuster novel.

I recently finished reading Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman. It came out a few years ago and was a bestseller. If you like fantasy at all, I highly recommend this book. It’s like Harry Potter for adults in a way that Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell (while also a super book) could never be. In any event, Gaiman works the multiple points of view angle quite well in this book. Not only do chapters switch between characters, but there are breaks within each chapter that lead up to dramatic collisions. I assume that his work in the field of graphic novels and comic books prepared him well for this, but then I also suspect he’s read a lot of Blockbuster novels too.

Setting

Zuckerman devotes a chapter a piece to each of the points raised above, but setting is something on which he spends considerable resources (along with character development). In Zuckerman’s view, an author hoping for popular success should write what the public is buying and that is contemporary fiction. Once the author achieves a certain level of fame (i.e. audience), it’s OK to switch or try other settings. His example is Ken Follett’s desire to write a medieval story (The Pillars of the Earth) early in his career. Zuckerman advised him to wait, and he did. When Pillars was released it made a big splash. We can’t know if Zuckerman was right though. It is entirely possible that Follett’s book would have worked. However, Zuckerman is working on formula here both for immediate and long term success. He give us the following basic criteria for what the general public likes to read:

Stories set in worlds of characters who are powerful, rich, and famous, as opposed to environments inhabited by convicts, small farmers, blue-collar workers, welfare recipients, or even average middle-class families.

He also tells us that he wouldn’t recommend any author to begin by writing books in a historical setting. I will give Zuckerman credit though, in the actual chapter on Setting he reminds us that tastes change. Obviously, we’re fifteen years out from when this book was written and historical fiction is huge. A few years back, when Oprah had her book club, all of the characters Zuckerman dismissed above were in fact the books at the top of the bestsellers list. Yet, it doesn’t mean that he isn’t right. If you go back and look at the bestsellers lists you will find specific trends that buck the system but the reality is that what Zuckerman defines really is what sells. Doesn’t mean you have to write it yourself, but there is nothing wrong with pointing out this fact – which brings us to the next point…

Fiction is Art, Not Mathematics

In closing what is really the introductory chapter to the book, Zuckerman reminds us that writing is about creating art not about executing a formula. He goes on through the rest of the book to detail all of the techniques and methods, but he makes it very clear here that authors create works of art and that:

In the end, in fiction as in art, there are no precise rules. If an author is brilliant enough to make his book work and at the same time disregard what is generally accepted as a key element of craft, then it works… For every precept I propound, you may be able to pick out a book you love that ignores it.

Here is where Writing the Blockbuster Novel really separates itself from Writing the Break Out Novel. Zuckerman takes pains to remind us that authors are artists and that creating art is often a subjective process. As an example, I love to get feedback about my work as I am working on it. I like to hear from people I know and respect how a character works or doesn’t, how much tension is in a scene, or how a bit of description made the angels shine on their day. Okay, that’s laying it on a bit thick, but the point is I like to get input. Yet, as an artist of the written word, I need to have a feel for what I should accept of those comments and what I should reject. Writing a novel by committee is a very bad idea, but so is writing a novel in a vacuum.

Setting

As I mentioned before, Zuckerman devotes an entire chapter (or more) to each of the points in the Big Book laundry list. Setting is the first. It fits well with the structure of the last section of the previous chapter and obviously plays a huge role in the development of a novel.

Personally, I usually begin writing a piece by imagining the character. They just come to me. Unfortunately, they keep coming to me – all the time. I have such a huge stable of characters that I have a difficult time keeping focused on writing about just one or two (or ten). But as I write about the character in question, the setting for the story fills in around them, maybe just as quickly as the new characters come prancing into my life. I am excited about the new world I’ve discovered and I want to get out, like Jules Verne did, and explore it all and damn the story to hell.

This isn’t going to work, but I guess that’s what the chapter on outlining is about.

How Important is the Setting?

Setting is often, “the key determinant in the foundation of a plot and in the establishment of characters.” This should be fairly obvious to any author, but Zuckerman carries it a step further by reminding us that the setting itself can be a character. He doesn’t state this explicitly in the text, but my interpretation of his examples leads me to believe that treating setting as a character can give a working author something to cling to when working through the hard labor of layering the all-important details of setting into the story.

Zuckerman gives rich examples of authors who have turned the setting itself into a character. We can break these settings into several categories (which Zuckerman does, though in a roundabout manner):

  • Epic – generally the background of war, or the threat of war.
  • Environmental – a deep dive into the workings of a specific world, such as Arthur Hailey’s Hotel or James Clavell’s Shogun or almost any of James Michner’s works (again, remember that this is 1993).
  • Technical – an deep reliance on gear, the machinations of gear, and more gear. Tom Clancy is the model Zuckerman provides.

This is not by any means an exhaustive list. In addition, we might combine elements from each to form a whole. The main thing is to remember that in order for a setting to live, we as authors must live it. This leads us on to the next topic.

Research

While we cannot all be so lucky as to have a profession that provides a ready-made setting for a Blockbuster novel, there is always the time honored craft of research to fill the gap. Books, letters, journals, and perhaps most important of all – site visits and interviews, are key to building up the details that make a novel live and breathe.

Even if your book is set in a world you know cold, research is critical. For example, I have lived in the same community for most of my life. I went away for two years, but then I came rushing back. I know my little corner of suburbia as few do. I know the people and places. I know which store used to have a five and dime, and remember when the bank was an old hardware store. I also remember when the library was just a little 5,000 square foot hut. So you would think that I am well equipped to write a novel set in this environment, but even with that background I didn’t know that a Polish general was granted a 500 acre parcel of the town for his help in the Revolutionary War, and this is just one fact among thousands that might lead in interesting directions and will certainly interest readers.

If you doubt that, come visit me and I’ll take you to the coffeeshop that used to be a drugstore and we can bring up the Polish general to the group of old men that gather there each morning. I have no doubt that they will be happy to listen and be quite awestruck, especially if you have the background on the general to boot.

Turning Research into Fiction

So you have piles of documents and notes. An archive of taped interviews with cads and codgers alike. What the heck do you do with all of this stuff? Just cram it in there?

No, of course, not. You have to weave the information into the action. Otherwise, you end up with something that is incredibly boring (at least for a novel). People read novels for action, and action means people. There are any number of writing books that will try to remind you that people will skip ahead to the action when you abandon them, and it is so, so true.

In essence, Zuckerman (through several examples) tries to get authors to see action as the perfect vehicle for disseminating information. If you have two characters that need to have some dialogue about a case, put them into an environment that allows you to share some of your research while they go about the business of discussing whatever it is they have to share.

That’s a little abstract, so let’s say you’re writing a book that is set in a corporate environment (fairly boring in my opinion, but it’s what came to mind). However, what you want to get across is the hectic life these people lead, the time crunch, the sense of urgency. You could describe these things in little snippets of action, or you could demonstrate it through an exchange between two characters over lunch. You could casually note how fast they eat, or what kind of crap they have to shovel down because they really only have fifteen minutes to bolt down their food before they have to get on to the next thing. During the course of the meal, the characters talk about something integral to the plot, perhaps they are planning to embezzle funds or maybe they are tracking down someone who is. Either way, you can register little facts about the environment with the reader while working through the exposition.

Another important aspect of creating ties between the setting and the reader is to use the emotion of the characters as the canvas on which the environment is painted. Zuckerman points out that a sunset described by the point of view character will always mean more to a reader than a sunset described by you, as in the narrator.

Choosing Your Setting

That is the actual title of this subsection. I kept in intact because I believe that Your is the operative word in the sentence. Remember how I rambled above about wanting to explore the little worlds I create? Well, if you don’t want to explore your settings like that, why on earth would any reader want to? I think that first and foremost, you as the author have to be in love with the place and time about which you are writing. If you are not, then you will not take the necessary care to ensure that the reader does as well.

Zuckerman’s concern here though is truly about picking a setting. He wants to help you work through the thorny choice of where, when, and why in a market context. In other words, what is topical? Wisely, he begins by reminding us that he is writing in 1993 and that whatever we do we should not be ignorant of what is going on in the world. Tastes change.

But we can learn from this section is that the daily newspaper is a great source for what is going on. What articles do you see popping up over and over again each week or month or even year?

At the time, the United States was in a very confrontational position with Japan. Zuckerman points out that settings that play to this can and were quite popular. He uses Michael Crichton’s Rising Sun as an example. In 2006, a similar book might be written about China though the context might be a little different.

In addition to the topical, Zuckerman also points out that heretofore closed communities are almost always ripe settings for new authors. Throughout the book, Zuckerman refers to Mario Puzo’s The Godfather. When Puzo wrote the book, no one was writing about the mafia, and even if they did it was always a cops and robbers sort of thing. Puzo got down into the trenches and exposed the real details. He was the first to really do this and his book caught fire because he had something no one else did (along with a lot of other good features). The same thing happened with Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club. I’ll bet you’ll find at least one book like that every year on the bestsellers list. Of course, this setting is very specialized and you as an author need to have insider details that probably can’t be gained from book research. I think that’s one setting you have to live.

What Settings to Avoid

This is the kind of thing that always gets me fired up, but keep in mind that Zuckerman notes that there are exceptions to every rule. He isn’t trying to set requirements. He is providing information from his deep experience.

That said, Zuckerman says that we should avoid writing about things that are either tired from overuse or are “too remote from the interests and concerns of people who can afford” today’s hardcover prices. He gives a number of examples. I won’t list them though because I think the core of his statement is the thing that authors should turn their focus.

Outlining

In the introduction to this chapter, Zuckerman points out the tried and true of outlining: no one builds a bridge without a set of plans. He goes on about skyscrapers and such, but really you can boil it down to my little statement.

What is really important though are the following points:

There are authors who commence a novel without working up an outline. They say it inhibits their creativity, takes the joy out of writing, removes the joy from discovering the hidden gems of plot and character that only come while writing the prose itself.

I’m paraphrasing again, but I’m also quoting too. Unfortunately, I’m quoting myself. My god how I hate to outline.

To me, outlining is all that is said above and more. Much more. Outlining is a huge time sink, it is addictive, and what’s more, outlining has caused me to rub out many a good story by just getting bored with it.

But you know, there’s something painfully obvious to be learned from statements like this. If you, as the author, get bored with your subject, how is your reader going to feel?

I don’t care if you are writing the greatest literary masterpiece the world has ever seen. If you are so gung-ho fired up about it that you just simply cannot be bothered with planning and must write then you are a hobbyist not a professional writer. I can say this with some authority because I have never been paid for my work and I’ve written two novels, perhaps several hundred short stories, maybe a thousand poems, and I have over 1MM (that’s million) words in my journal. I’ve been writing steadily, daily, for almost fifteen years now and not a penny. If this isn’t the definition of a hobbyist (and a maniacal one at that), then perhaps we should consult the OED again.

hobby – a favorite subject or occupation that is not one’s main business; a spare-time activity followed for pleasure or relaxation. Cf. earlier hobby-horse (this means it’s derived from the longer “hobby-horse”).

hobby-horse – (among other definitions) a topic to which a person constantly recurs or in which he or she shows and obsessive interest. “He also had a tendency to be down-right boring once he climb aboard his hobbyhorse.”

I don’t know about you, but that quote really hammers it home. How often do you rail on to others about the passion and pleasures of writing? And yet, when it comes to doing it you don’t want to take the measured approach, the professional approach, and just get on with it?

I write each day before I go into my day job. If, for some reason, I get interrupted or I have to cut it short, I become surly and moon for the dream world where all I do is write all day and how wonderful that would be.

Poppycock.

The writing I do and have done on a daily basis is a hobby. If idea that you are not working professionally in your writing makes you angry (and just the idea of the word professional sends me into a rage), then you are a hobbyist pure and simple. There is nothing wrong with this though. You might enjoy this hobby for years and years. And then, like many hobbyists, you want to turn around and make it your business. If you do, you will find out what all hobbyists and amateurs discover when turning their passions to profit – it is hard work.

Allright already! What the Hell is an Outline?

Ok, so what the hell does an outline look like?

Like a lot of young writers, my first outlines looked like the sort you are taught to make in high school. Proper headings and subheadings, bulleted all the way down, etc. However, as I’ve read through a number of actual outlines written by successful authors I find this is not what comprises an outline for a novel (or anything else for that matter, unless you are following the MFA guidebook).

So many writing books and courses tell you to show not tell. Well, this is where the good news comes in. Outlining is the one place where you want to do exactly the opposite. Outlining is telling the story, over and over again until you flesh out the plot to such a degree that is crackling with deep connections between the characters and all non-essential details are pushed far into the background. Zuckerman describes it as a process that is defined by layering. No author should be remotely satisfied with the first attempt, or the second for that matter. And most importantly it takes time.

Outlines in the Book

Zuckerman provides not one, but four examples in the chapter on outlining and they are all for the same book The Man from St. Petersburg by Ken Follett. This is a valuable resource as it demonstrates the evolution from a terrible and trite plot to one that is rippling with excitement and fun. It also gives a good idea how to take a hugely complex historical setting (in this case the run-up to World War I) and turn it into a narrative drama.

As you might expect, this is incredibly tedious to read. The first outline introduces an interesting but rather weak story. I found it a reason to take heart though. You see, though I claim to hate it I have in fact written many outlines for books. I just didn’t realize it. Like the hobbyist described above, I generally start writing a story by focusing on a character or a scene. From there, it sort of grows organically, which is swell if you are only doing it for fun, but hell if you want the plot strands to work out properly.

For example, I started writing a book for my son a couple months ago. The general idea was to write a kind of Alice in Wonderland as told by Tim Burton though with a bit of a Narnian twist. I am now seven chapters into the thing and I’m stuck. I know sort of where I want to go next, and I know how it ends, but I don’t have a map to get there. Problem is, I’ve been letting my son read each chapter as they rolled off the fingers, and so I have a little boy asking very pointed questions about what happens to this character or that. How does such and such get away? When do these characters get back together? Kids are great. They will tell you what they think without reservation or concern for your feelings. I love it, and I am terrified.

The reality is, I need to stop working on this now that I have the flavor of it and try to figure out the real way this ought to go together. In the past, I’d see this as a failure on my part, that I’d failed to finish the work and just dribbled away into writing about the story instead of writing the story. Zuckerman notes that this is often what writers do. They bang out some prose in order to get a feel for the characters or the setting and then set all that aside to do the heavy lifting of outlining. So, perhaps what I was doing all along wasn’t so bad.

Getting back to the Follett outlines, the second draft blows. I fell asleep reading it, and this was at 9AM after three shots of espresso. However, outlines three and four were great. In between each outline, Zuckerman recaps the high points and the low. He explains how Follett tightened up the drama and why. After reading the fourth outline, I now know this book backwards and forwards but I also want to read the actual book in a bad way, in a way I didn’t after reading the first outline. That says something to me. Outlining can be powerful if you actively engage in it and do not become frustrated.

The Goal of Outlining

Sometimes the last thing should be the first thing. This is true in editing where often the last sentence of a paragraph makes a much stronger first sentence. I’ve even seen this sort of thing happen within a paragraph where a series of internal sentences have more impact when arranged in a different order (often the last appearing first). This section is no different. The Goal of Outlining really belongs at the of the section – see, this sentence would work better as the first sentence of the paragraph.

But it isn’t going to happen that way.

There are a few core lessons to be absorbed from the outlining chapter, and I think, dry as it can be, you really should read the chapter and all of the outlines by Ken Follett. But if you can’t be bothered with that, and if all of my prattling up to this point hasn’t convinced you, here is the goals of outlining…

Focus on your primary characters: While building out the first few outlines, Follett keeps adding in minor characters to supplement the major players. It’s almost as if he doesn’t realize who the key characters are, or is unsure of their depth. Alright, let’s make it simple. In the first few passes, all of the main characters are cardboard versions of their roles. They do not have any depth whatsoever. As Follett moves through the revisions, he absorbs minor characters into the bodies of the majors. The result is a core of powerful entities whose interactions are deep, complex, and continuous.

That’s it. Sort of. You have to read through the rest of the book to see how this principle fits in with the body of fiction-making.

The Return of the Larger-than-Life Characters

I’ve already discussed my distaste for the term, so let’s leave it at that because this is a good chapter. Zuckerman makes the following promise:

Readers remember a wonderful book’s characters long after they forget a story’s exciting scenes or even its climax. Those characters who do stick in our minds over years and years appear in more than one way to be extraordinary. This chapter will explore how a few such representative characters are designed, built, shaped and brought alive.

A tall order, I’m sure you will agree, but Zuckerman sticks with the three books he’s discussed throughout Writing the Blockbuster Novel: Vito Corleone, The Godfather; Scarlett O’Hara, Gone with the Wind; and Feliks Kschessinski, The Man from St. Petersburg.

Using these three characters, Zuckerman demonstrates the power of the most enduring aspects of larger-than-life characters.

  • Motivation
  • Sympathy
  • Acts of Power

I’m not going to detail Zuckerman’s thoughts on the same characters though, but I encourage you to read this chapter carefully. However, in the case of Vito Corleone, I couldn’t help flashing back to scenes in the film version of The Godfather, mostly because I have watched the entire trilogy at least 20 times. I love the intensity of the characters brought to life by Brando, DeNiro, and Pacino. Yes, they play different people (well, at least Pacino does) but I see these actors playing the same role over and over again. The only break in this seamless structure is the breadown of Michael Corleone in Godfather III, where he complains about being out and then being pulled back in. I really loathe that part because the Godfather must simply act, must always be sure of himself. Not being sure of himself in such an overt and emotional manner really blows it. I think that is a lesson too for authors trying to create characters like this. A more recent example can be found in the breakdown of the newly minted Darth Vader in Episode III: Revenge of the Sith. When Darth Vader cries at the loss of his bride (along with the loss of his humanity), it tears down the wall that made him such a powerful figure in the first three movies. This overt play for sympathy was a crucial mistake in my opinion, and the scene, if rendered properly, could have made up for what was in fact a dreadful movie. Still, who am I to argue with millions of dollars. I haven’t made a dime from my work.

So getting back to the three elements…

Motivation is the thing that drives your character. It is their ambition, their passion, their guiding light. It is the thing for which they are likely to kill. Zuckerman leans towards making this desire so far over the top that the character cannot dare to voice it aloud (or even in interior monologue). It is something so deeply submerged that in fact it takes the drama of an entire novel to demonstrate its hold on the character. As most other points in the book, Zuckerman doesn’t tell you this directly but he makes it plain that this is his preferred method for depicting motivation. I tend to agree with him too. If you make a character’s desire too obvious and outspoken, it sort of spoils the whole thing. Think back to Darth Vader. Even as a little boy he longs to be the most powerful Jedi in the history of the galaxy. All the way through the series, he pouts about this. How much more powerful this desire could have been if it had been unspoken, yet relentlessly pursued? In any case, the idea here is that characters who are larger-than-life have impossible dreams and they achieve them through sheer force of will.

Personally, I believe that sympathy is the most difficult trait to render. It’s easy enough to put on the page, but if it’s overdone it can ruin a character and make them seem weak and unworthy. When I think of someone who has done an awesome job of rendering sympathy in a major character, I think of J.K. Rowling. Who else in modern fiction has elicited such a deep feeling of pity, concern, and well-wishes than Harry Potter? Harry does get a bit drippy from time to time about his lost parents, but he uses this as a source of power, as a means to pushing himself harder towards his goal of defeating Voldermort and his minions. And here, I think we find the key to rendering sympathy, turning it back towards the motivation of the character and combining it with some act of power.

Often, when a character is down, we as readers know an expect the Act of Power. We anticipate it eagerly, and the larger-than-life character delivers with ever-increasing displays of power until we reach the climax of the book. At this point, the character should be very close to grasping the brass ring, sympathy is at its peak and motivation is bristling. The act of power then is a natural extension of this state.

Using Harry Potter again, let’s look at the showdown between Harry and Lord Voldermort in the Goblet of Fire. Here, Harry Potter has watched Lord Voldermort kill a boy Harry has already shown deep respect for and who in turn has reached out the hand of friendship to him. Obviously, the motivation is high. After all, this is the man who killed his parents and who has been torturing all along since Book One. Add to this the sympathy we feel as he is being tortured by Voldermort, played with like a mouse. We are angered at this, because Harry has come through so much to reach this point.

What we need is an act of power, and what an act of power we get! Not only does Volermort challenge Harry to a duel but during the course of the duel their wands lock and ghosts of all the people Voldermort has recently killed emerge and fight on Harry’s side. This includes the specters of his parents, which makes us all cheer as Harry makes his escape.

Of course, Voldermort getting the axe would have been great, but then we wouldn’t have books five, six, or seven. And the point here is that Harry isn’t quite ready to take on the most powerful dark wizard in the history of the world by himself. That is really what we are building towards over the course of these books, a showdown between Harry and Voldermort where The Boy Who Lived is ready to become The Wizard Who Killed You-Know-Who.

How to build Larger Than Life Characters: How Many, Where, and How

Here’s another example of the last thought best thought school of writing. Is there such a school? I don’t know, but maybe I should start one.

Anyway, you might be tempted to add lots of Larger-than-Life (LTL) characters to your book. Zuckerman suggests that you only put one into the mix. This doesn’t mean that other characters can’t be quirky fun and powerful, it’s just that there is probably only room for one with the mission that drives the mainspring of the plot forward. All of the other majors should have similar drives and desires and those should dovetail nicely into the main motivation of the LTL. This is where all of that outlining will come in handy, remember?

Keeping the story to just one LTL has always been a problem of mine. I like LTL characters, which is probably why I hate the term itself. And so, I go about merrily creating one powerful character after another all with different motivations, which at first come together in a nice intersection at the start, but then drift away. As these characters are very motivated, they go on about their business which leads to them moving apart both figuratively and literally. For example, in the book I am working on now, my two LTL characters are separated by miles and miles. Hell, I don’t even know where one of them is!

The same problem happens when you get two life of the party types at the same gathering. People who don’t know any better say, “I can’t wait for you to meet so-and-so! You are both so funny! It should be great!” Of course, what actually happens is that the two people meet and then jockey for dominance. They might actually like each other, but in the end there is competition of space and attention, and either the whole thing falls apart or one person gives way to the other. I happen to go the way of the latter, but when I was younger I would press the issue until I got the upper hand. Yes, that made me look like an ass (which is one reason I changed my stripes to some degree) but it illustrates the point perfectly: Zuckerman is right – one LTL per story unless you want a fight on your hands.

The “Where” of introducing major characters is critical. LTLs should appear in the first or second chapter, though the first is preferred. This is the person your reader is going to follow from beginning to end. Messing about with anything else is pretentious and foolish. In addition, it’s better to start them off on the journey toward their goal. Some authors give us a bit of a muddle. There’s a lot of action and maybe it ties into the motivation or maybe not. When it doesn’t tie into the motivation, we may draw a reader in by sheer excitement, but we are liable to lose them when the next bit of story (usually backstory) doesn’t tie to the first bit and we reveal the character’s motive in slow-moving exposition.

I’ve done this myself. I wrote a thirty-five page short story where the protagonist is rushing to get on a bus. It’s an exciting scene because the bus is going to leave and it is the last bus. As a reader, you are drawn into the movement of the character through the magical world he inhabits and you root for the character to make it onto the bus. When he does, you sigh in relief and then wait anxiously for me, the author, to reveal why we had to rush around. Well, the problem is that the rushing around doesn’t pertain tot he plot. It’s a device to get rolling, but there was not actual reason for it other than to suck you in. In other words, I tricked you and you should be pissed about it.

This is a real story by the way. Two of my regular readers had very different reactions to it, but in the end it is really the same thing.

Reader 1:

Cut the first nine pages. Your story doesn’t begin until there and I almost killed myself trying to get to it.

Reader 2:

This is great, but what happened to the magical city he was in? I don’t want to read about the country now. I want to get back to all the goings-on in town!

These are real reactions. Reader 1 is telling me that the story I wrote actually starts out in the country so why don’t I begin there. Reader 2 is a bit more direct about the fact that he has been cheated. He wants to read more about the city I started in. The country is all fine and dandy but I hooked him from the start and I needed to finish it.

This is where the “How” comes in. While rushing through the action, I did not do a good job of building connections between my character and the world around him. That doesn’t happen till way out on page ten. Not good. Zuckerman explains that there are two elements that need to appear in the building of the LTL that I failed to acknowledge, which are frailties or weaknesses and self-awareness. My character did not have any of these things until deep, deep into the story. In fact, self-awareness doesn’t come on at all until the closing words of the story. Up until that point, he’s a brat. His weaknesses are exposed, but only just. If I had done a better job of this at the start, that character might have made different choices through the story that would have made it better (and perhaps sale-able).

Points of View

Marcel Proust is not a name you expect to see in a book that is trying to help you get onto the bestsellers list, but in the second paragraph that’s exactly who Zuckerman brings on stage:

Marcel Proust in his great Remebrance of Things Past provides an extreme example [of detailing things that cannot be seen, such as landscape and the hearts and minds of characters], describing, anatomizing, dissecting, layer upon layer of feelings and emotions in such elaborate and exquisite detail that few readers these days have the patience to wade through this vast work.

Ok, so it isn’t exactly a resounding endorsement of the master’s technique, but nevertheless I was surprised to find Proust’s name. But the inclusion of Proust underscores the opening paragraph quite well, where Zuckerman explains why screenwriters rarely (in his experience) write good novels – which is all about point of view.

In film, point of view is conveyed through the camera lens. The internals of the characters must be demonstrated on screen. It is possible of course to put in a running commentary Blade Runner comes to mind, but that is a rare exception and usually detracts from the quality of the film (which is why the commentary was removed in the director’s cut). Screenwriters are trained to emphasize the action or what we see. That point of view methodology rarely translates well to fiction.

Zuckerman’s goal in this chapter is to demonstrate how best-selling authors use point of view to strengthen their stories. He dives into this topic by explaining that there are two main vehicles for point of view: omniscient narrator and the tightly contained view of a single character. He also notes that there are multivariate sub-choices that might result as well.

Managing Point of View

To begin, Zuckerman contrasts the loose and the rigorous management of point of view (POV). The loose variety involves a lot of dipping between the hearts and minds of the characters (major and minor) along with authorial commentary and general narration. Zuckerman does not recommend this model for the aspiring bestselling author, and neither do I.

The loosey-goosey model gives too much freedom to the author and allows for sloppy workmanship that is often covered up under the heading of artistic prerogative. I can say this because I’ve done it myself.

POV in my first book danced around a lot between characters. In fact, the two lead characters in the book were actually one and the same person. Split personalities seem very common in first books, especially bad first books. I suppose its an issue of the author finding themselves, at least that explains my situation. Indirectly, I guess that’s why this method so rarely works for a new author. The skipping about produces an erratic result that is only comprehensible to the author, and nothing but a jumbled mess for the reader. That sais, in the hands of an experienced writer, this method could produce very deep and enriching experience.

Looking toward the more structured method, Zuckerman describes the benefits of developing a tighter focus around a few core POVs. In essence, this method helps bind the reader to the work by engaging them with just a few characters at a very deep level. I mentioned Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere earlier in this article, and it seems apt to point it out here once more. Although Gaiman’s imagination has provided us with a rich world to explore, its his use of POV (alternating between the main characters within the chapters) that help drive the plot and the action. Gaiman isn’t quite as structured as Zuckerman might like though, he does include a number of minor characters in the POV but it works.

Involving the Reader

Here is a quote worth remembering:

In a novel, as in life, we’re inclined to become more deeply involved with a few characters than with many, especially when the author sustains them all in the action from the opening chapter until the very end.

Actually, this quote is so memorable that I believe I’ve read it somewhere else, or perhaps it is a universal comment on the nature of emotional involvement. No, I’m sure someone ripped it off. Still, the idea is pure.

An author who introduces character after character after character is only watering down the potency of their story. They might believe that they are creating a richer universe, but in fact they are weakening the bond between their major characters and the reader. It’s something that is fairly easy to forget when you are in the throes of artistic creation. For example, as I was writing the first chapter to the book I am working on now, I casually mentioned a family that used to live in the house that my protagonist’s family just moved into. My test reader, who happens to be my son, told me that he was really excited to find out what happened to those people who used to live there and just disappeared.

Uh oh.

I hadn’t planned for anything to happen to those people. They were gone. Poof! Gone fishing. Left the building. No forwarding address…

So I ended up writing a backstory for these people, and inserting one of the family members into the ongoing story. Problem is, the further I got into the writing of the book, the weaker my main characters became and the more important this missing boy turned out to be. But I didn’t want to write a story about him!

Now, this is where an author might say, “The Muse moved me to write about little Trevor Lawson.” But what I have just demonstrated (aside from my lack of authorial skill and craft) is that the Muse had nothing to do with it. My mistake drove the reader to invest his interest in a character that probably shouldn’t have been in the opening chapter (if at all). Of course, I also broke the rules about outlining, diving in and writing sixty pages without a plan, and now I am stuck with something that needs to be completely unwound.

Welcome to the world of writing, folks. There is a reason for the process. Learn from my mistakes.

Point of View Summary

This is one of the shorter chapters in the book. Perhaps it’s not easy to write about POV. Maybe it’s something that has to be experienced by reading and thinking about how the author is pulling you along. However, I tend to believe that when someone is being too short or too verbose about a topic they really have no idea what they are talking about. People who know a subject are usually spot on, succinct and direct (unless it is in their nature to babble, and I fall into that category in my strongest of suits).

This isn’t meant to be a slight on Zuckerman, but it is a little confusing when he recommends tightening the focus and then closes by telling you not to tighten it too much:

You may now be wondering if there is any optimum number of point-of-view characters. I would recommend the smallest number possible, taking into account the story you’re telling, but no fewer than three or four.

An awful lot of wobbling there, but I do agree that with only one or two POV characters you are going to have a tough time developing the sense of drama needed for popular fiction. In addition, as an author, you’re going to find yourself getting rather bored of listening to this one character prattle on for pages and pages, months and months. Inevitably, you are going to work yourself into a corner with this method and want to kill off your character. Trust me. Been there.

So, I would strong encourage you to go back to the books you love and really tear them apart. The idea isn’t to copy exactly what someone else has done, but to learn from what works and use that knowledge to better your own writing. More specifically, if you love the way an author treats POV, then it is probably because you are emotionally invested in the story. Emotional investment is the key. If the POV in a scene is not tying you close enough to the story, just dragging you through it, then try it from a different angle (even the surprising angle of a minor character – hey, it might work).

Tightening Character Relationships

The work I am plodding through now is a mess of errors and mistakes. Yet, the worst is the lack of deep connections between the main characters which has lead me to a situation where one is AWOL and the other is suicidal. I’m desperate is an understatement and this chapter was helpful.

A Family Affair

All families are disfunctional, but Zuckerman reminds us that all great stories are family stories. And how true is this? When a man kills another man, it is so more poignant when they are brothers. You might think immediately of Cain and Abel, and I do too, but I also think of Adam and Charles Trask from East of Eden. Would that story be so powerful if those two characters were childhood friends instead of brothers?

Of course, Eden may not be the best example. It was not a huge popular success until Oprah picked it for her book club fifty years after first publication.

Zuckerman goes on to demonstrate a real-life example that no publisher would touch: a robbery-murder that occurred in New York City. A gang robs a tourist family from Utah in the subway. The son steps forward to protect his mother and is shot. An author has special access to the family and proposed to tell their story. While it might have legs as a newspaper article, there just isn’t enough connection between the primaries for a book.

I’ve experienced the same thing in my own work. I might come up with a nifty character that can generate a lot of color, but when this character bumps up against others who are essentially just more oddballs it looses its punch. There isn’t enough going on between these folks to make it interesting or to give them enough traction on one another.

Think about your own work in this context. Do characters fall flat when they meet up with others in the story?

How to Spot Weakness in Your Character Relationships

At this point, you might ask, “How do I know if they fall flat? That’s why I’m reading this!”

Zuckerman pushes you to learn by example, close reading of other books. He gives examples throughout the chapter, but essentially you are on your own. I don’t like that because while helpful in theory it is not very practical advice to simply say:

In your own novel you presumably have set up or are thinking of setting up a central conflict between two characters. Can you tie these two together by making them into two brothers, two sisters, father and son, mother and daughter? If your story won’t lend itself to so intimate a familial relationship, you might consider other ways of establishing closeness.

He goes on to list other deep relationships, but doesn’t tell you how to recognize the weakness in your own work. But in thinking about a book I am reading right now, Philip Pullman’s The Subtle Knife, I have a perfect way of recognizing the problem – exposition.

If your characters need to spend all of their time sharing past histories and details about their lives, you’ve got a problem. In The Subtle Knife, there are several places where people from entirely different dimensions come together. The two main characters, Lyra and Will (two children), accept that they are from different worlds and go about their business together. This is the magic of children of course. Kids are quite willing to accept differences if given a chance. But, because they are so different, Pullman can’t help but insert phrase after phrase of “I don’t have this in my world.” or “This is so different!” There’s a lot of this, but it is far, far worse when the adults get together. Adults are far less accepting of things that are different. Argue if you will, but you’re only strengthening my point.

So when witches come from Lyra’s world into a middle world where evil spirits called Specters have taken over, there is a ton of discourse between adults about what is what and why. How things work and how they used to work. Unfortunately, it’s really, really boring despite the exoticism, and this a book I am actually enjoying. Imagine (with a shudder) if it wasn’t an engaging topic? Yikes.

But the boredom can’t be helped because of the way the action is set up, and therein lies the fix. Zuckerman explains that if you do not have a deep character bond between primary characters then perhaps bonds between secondary characters and primary characters can carry the plot forward. This is exactly what Pullman does, though I must also point out that he does a great job of tying Lyra and Will together too.

Because of its setting across multiple worlds, I think that Pullman’s Dark Materials Trilogy is a great reference for ways to tie disparate characters together. He falls down in a few places and you will readily see those and should be able to apply the lessons to your own work.

One thought on “Writing the Blockbuster Novel by Albert Zuckerman (Part 1)

  1. Really an amazing review of Al’s book. I was just signed this week by him, to represent my latest thriller. In preparation for his collaboration, I read his book, then did a search and came across your thoughtful comments.

    I am stunned at how much time and effort went into this.

    I enjoyed the synopsis, it helped cement by reading of Al’s insightful work.

    Ken Morris

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