Invisible Ink: A Different Kind of “How to Write” Book

Posted: May 13, 2016 in fiction, Writing

I’ve read my share of books on the writing process. Invisible Ink by Brian McDonald takes a slightly different tack. McDonald dives deep into the idea of theme, more so than other writing books I’ve read. He describes theme as the armature of a story upon which all else is built. He goes on to make the case that everything in a book (or any story) should serve the theme. While I can see exceptions to that advice, I do think it’s a great approach to take. Rather than letting theme bubble up unconsciously through your writing, McDonald advocates for consciously crafting your theme and continually circling back to reinforce it.

The book describes different ways to reinforce the theme. The first is through the use of Invisible ink covermirror (or reflection) characters. A mirror character is similar in some way to the protagonist, but differs in some important respect so that she serves to show what could/should/might happen if the protagonist takes a particular path. By using a mirror character, the author can create context for what constitutes failure vs. success. It’s a great way to, as McDonald puts it, dramatize (aka, show, don’t tell) the theme. A mirror character can also confront the protagonist with their own problem, to show him the error of his ways. After reading this part of the book, I realized I’d already used this tool in some of my writing without knowing it, but not as effectively as if I’d done so deliberately. Now that I’m aware of this concept, I’m already having fun imagining what I can do with my current roster of characters.

Another section of the book discusses “ritual pain” and makes the point change for the protagonist should never be easy. McDonald suggests making things as painful as possible for the main character—bring her to the brink of physical and emotional death. Kill off one aspect of the main character’s personality to make room for something else. A good exercise suggested by McDonald is to ask: what is this character’s personal hell? Then give it to her. I agree with this part of the book wholeheartedly. Of all the short stories and novels I’ve critiqued, a common problem is when the author makes things too easy for the protagonist. I’ve suffered from this problem myself. I think it has to do with our identification with the character, especially our heroes, and the resulting empathy we feel towards them. Unconsciously, we want to protect them, keep them safe, and have them succeed. After all, we’re living through them vicariously. Unfortunately, as a result, the protagonist solves all her problems with ease, rarely suffers more than a scratch, and ends up resolving the conflict (if there is any) without working up a sweat. A good author, IMO, must do the opposite: you should be generating conflict, not smoothing your hero’s way. Kick those crutches out from under her. Is the situation bad? If not, make it bad. If it’s bad, make it worse. Make that character suffer. Raise the stakes so she has everything on the line and is ready to risk it all to overcome her obstacles.

“Tell the truth,” McDonald advises later in the book. Characters should do what they would do in their reality, not what the author might want them to do. I often experience this trying to make an interesting plot idea work. I do everything I can to graft the plot device into the overall story, but the character resists, or the device creates logical contradictions in the surrounding plot. I struggle onwards trying to justify why he would do this despite the obvious resulting flaws until finally I admit it just doesn’t fit. That character would not, or could not, do what I want him to do. This is the point where I start thinking: Okay, what would he do, what could he do? It often surprises me what I eventually come up with—often something better than what I’d originally thought of.

Another chapter discusses “male” vs. “female” creative processes. I’m not sure I like the use of gender here (McDonald states it doesn’t correlate with male and female writers), but I agree with the underlying concept. Any good story needs a mixture of the so-called “male” external (events, action) and the “female” internal (thoughts, feelings).

McDonald’s section on sub-plots asserts each of these should support the theme. I think this is good advice, although I think sub-plots can do other things. For example, using a sub-plot to add humor is a great way to lighten an otherwise somber plot, basically giving the reader a chance to relax before plunging them back into that nail-biting plot you’ve created.

One chapter instructs storytellers to “show them once so they know.” Show the reader/audience what should happen so they know when things go wrong. This is good advice, but I think the opposite works equally. Show them what goes wrong, so the protagonist can face the same problem and get it right. Hopefully, the audience is full of anticipation—will she succeed where she (or someone else) failed before? This is actually a fairly common plot device (possibly because it’s so satisfying to see repeated failure finally overcome by success). The risk is you end up with a trite climax (to be avoided at all costs), so use with caution.

Invisible Ink contains plenty of other good advice (for example, how to best use critique feedback). I also liked McDonald’s use of clear, mostly contemporary examples from a variety of sources. I recommend the book to storytellers looking to hone their craft.

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