Saturday, May 28, 2011

Ouch! Smashed My Thumb!

Hammers!  I hate them. They never hit where I’m looking. If my thumb is anywhere near the target spot, that hammer usually delivers another missing thumbnail. Here I go blaming the hammer, when, in truth, the problem is the carpenter, not the tool. Same goes for saws, screwdrivers, most power tools and, of course, the dreaded propane torch...ouch!

What does this have to do with writing?

It’s about the tools of our trade. Have you ever thought about our tools? I’m not talking about sentence structure, punctuation, grammar, spelling, plot, character development or all those other “mechanical” things that are often thought of as writer tools. Can you imagine a reader finishing a great story and remarking, “Wow! That was awesome sentence structure through that whole story!” Or, how about this, “I loved that story because there was not a single misspelled word in the entire book!” Sure, an English teacher might orgasm over such a book, but normal people “react” to a story, rather than notice the mechanics of writing. In fact, the mechanics of writing are best when they go completely unnoticed. They are SKILLS, not tools.

So, we’re back to my question...what writing “tools” am I talking about?

All people experience life based on a unique set of core personality traits and values. What are they? Here is a brief list of some traits and their opposites:

Outgoing personality / Introverted
Loyal / Disloyal or Untrustworthy
Courteous / Rude or Inconsiderate
Open-minded / Closed-minded
Compassion or Empathy / Emotionally Cold or Lacking Empathy
Generous / Greedy or Self-interested
Industrious / Lazy
Energetic / Sickly or Lethargic
Positive or Optimistic / Negative or Pessimistic
Brave / Cowardly
Strong self-control / Weak Impulse Control
Calmness or Serenity / Excitability or Nervousness
Independent / Dependent
Happy Overall / Angry Overall
Honest / Dishonest

Human characteristics like those listed above create emotional reactions in readers. Here’s an example:

Handsome male college student, Andy, is romancing a particularly vulnerable young woman, Sasha. Her life experience includes the death of her father when she was only ten. Her mother did a wonderful job providing for them, but our young college coed craved male acceptance, leading her into several abusive relationships in the past. Naturally, she is reluctant to dive into another relationship and has avoided dating for over a year. Andy is different. He’s gentle, understanding, upbeat, sensitive...everything Sasha needs. After months of starts and stops on her part, she finally commits to the relationship and spends a weekend with Andy at a snow ski lodge. It seems like she finally found that special man she craved.

Andy’s temperament changes when they return to college. He becomes less tolerant, sometimes even rude, as she tries to carry on ordinary conversations. One Friday night, Sasha drops by his apartment and discovers a rowdy party of a dozen of Andy’s male school friends. He tries to prevent her from entering but several of the party-goers begin hooting and hollering about the girl in the video. Sasha pushes past Andy and sees a video playing on his wide screen TV. It’s them making love at the ski chalet. Sasha soon discovers that Andy won a bet by bedding her, and, distraught, she leaves college. At her aunt’s home, deep in the mountains of West Virginia, Sasha endures fits of depression and struggles with suicidal ideas. Eventually, she finds peace in a friendship with a small ground squirrel that learns to eat out of her hand. A long-standing drought caused severe danger of forest fire. The aunt goes into town to get groceries and a fire breaks out, preventing her from returning home. She calls her niece and tells her to get out using the back road. Sasha agrees, but never leaves. Instead, she tries to lure the squirrel into a box so she can take it with her. The fire cuts off her escape road and she hides in the house.

Andy deeply regrets what happened and has been searching for Sasha for months to attempt amends. He finally tracks her to the aunt’s place, but fire officials prevent him from passing fire road closures. While he looks up the road at the distant smoke, an old woman frantically approaches the fire chief pleading for someone to rescue her niece. You can figure out where the story goes from here...

Let’s examine the “tools” used in this story to create connection with readers. Compassion + Empathy - at the beginning of this short story, most readers care about Sasha because she suffered an understandable and unfortunate reaction to the loss at a tender age of her father. As Sasha overcomes her caution and Andy displays several traits that Sasha can trust, readers experience a sense of happiness for our female lead. Sasha’s betrayal is also the reader’s betrayal as they had also come to “trust” Andy. Readers then worry about Sasha’s suicidal thoughts and her withdrawal from society. A little reader-hope creeps into the picture as Sasha builds trust with the grey squirrel. The fire changes the reader’s reaction, yet again, introducing tension and fear. As the fire approaches, readers respect Sasha’s concern for the squirrel, but are frustrated with her poor judgment. Andy’s arrival at the road blockade causes mixed feelings in readers...some anger, some hope, curiosity about how he can possibly overcome his betrayal.

The point of this little story is to illustrate how the tools that pull a reader into a story are based on emotion, not of the characters, but emotions of the reader! The goal of a writer should be to draw a reader into the story; to make the reader “feel” the story-character’s angst. To do this, the writer has to use the emotional tools effectively. This is the secret to all great stories. The tools of such writing are human character traits that make life interesting.

I found a great list of human traits on the following website. It’s a handy reference I use while writing:

Now that you know what tools I have in my toolbox, I hope it helps in some way.


  1. Loved it! My childhhood was the fodder for who I am today. Angst feeds the words that flow and readers identify with the authentic. Adversity challenges one to rise above the slag pile, reach for life and hold on tight. Thank you for the revival lesson. I take it to heart.

  2. Tools and skills. While I'd consider the grammar and punctuation the tools to use with skill to tell a's semantics. You're right on target.

  3. Wonderful post! Thank you for sharing your tools and thoughts.


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