Tuesday, May 05, 2015

Reviews 14 by Jacqueline Lichtenberg - Delayed Gratification

Reviews 14
Jacqueline Lichtenberg
Delayed Gratification  

These novels discussed below illustrate the integrating of 4 of the writing craft skills we have been discussing: Theme-Plot-Character-Worldbuilding.  It's about delaying gratification, which is an ingredient in building suspense. 

This combination of 4-skills is about mastering that singular skill usually called "Show Don't Tell." 

The writer, as an artist, observes "life" (the Universe and Everything) and apprehends an abstract idea from it all. 


This "Dance in the Rain" attitude is exemplified by Captain Kirk of Star Trek : The Original Series (ST:ToS)

You saw it, also, in Buffy The Vampire Slayer TV Series.  The thing people loved the most about that series was the smart-ass quips snapped out during action scenes.  The action (fighting, dusting Vampires) usually exemplified the subject of the quip -- it was Art In Motion.

And people loved that pithy take on Life.

Both characters, Kirk and Buffy, were Icons of an Attitude toward danger, toward uncertainty, toward overcoming obstacles.

Icons are arrays of Ideas, artistic compositions compiled from many components.  Icons are complicated, but look simple.  They are the height of the Art of "Show Don't Tell."

In this Tuesday blog series on writing craft, we are looking for how to create an Icon -- a "Show Don't Tell" -- for why the Happily Ever After Ending is actually realistic, is real, and is a perfectly rational goal.

More than half the potential readership (or viewership) does not accept the HEA as plausible.  That generates two questions:

A) Why do we accept the HEA as obvious and reasonable?
B) Why do so many people not know what we know?

"Why," "happy," "reasonable," "know,"  are all abstractions.  To dramatize that kind of abstraction is to "Show Don't Tell."

The method writers usually use to concertize such abstractions is Poetic Justice.

Poetic Justice is very familiar to most readers, but it takes a long and often intricate plot to get from injustice to justice and make the two harmonize poetically.

The key factor in an HEA is that it is an ENDING.  (maybe not THE ending, but AN ending).

In other words, some thread or "because line" of the plot has to come around to a point where there are no further consequences of the initial action to be narrated.  One plot-thread ENDS. 

That ending has to provide many emotional peaks all with one image, one line of dialogue, one culminating Aha! moment. 

Another defining property of the HEA is that abstract concept "After."  The writer's job is to find the artistic Icon to explain "after what?" 

What does Happiness come AFTER??  What has to be BEFORE in order for Happiness to be a consequence?  Do they have to have an obvious cause-effect relationship?  Or do things just happen?  Or does happiness have to be earned by being "good?" 

Nebulous philosophical maunderings of this kind are the prime ingredients in Theme -- just as flour is the prime ingredient in bread. 

Here's one possible theme to distill from abstraction:


"Delay Gratification" and you qualify for success.

If your definition of "success" is living the HEA, then this principle means you probably can't get to it today - maybe not tomorrow, either.  Arriving at an HEA will take years and lots of apparently fruitless effort.

Today's modern culture has often been accused of encouraging instant gratification, rather than delayed gratification.


Very little of our current school curriculum prepares students to pay off a student loan by living cheaply for 10 years after graduation while making a solid upscale income.  When they reach the goal of a degree, and get a good job (which hasn't been forthcoming instantly for 9 years or so now), they expect a new, top of the line car, the best mobile phone, the most expensive mobile services, brand name wardrobe items, and a lot of vacation time.

Delayed Gratification is not trained into elementary school students by strict discipline.  Likewise, our youngest students are not led into developing personal self-discipline so they don't need a teacher or parent to discipline them.  They are encouraged to act on their feelings, not think everything through and wait for the desire to ebb before evaluating whether to take the action -- or not.


Parents who haven't been raised to self-discipline can't pass on the training because they have no idea what that training entails (and many child-raising advice books and TV shows admonish parents not to do the things that instill self-discipline.)

Teens and twenty-somethings raised this way are your primary readership.

A few among them have managed to acquire self-discipline and routinely practice delayed gratification.

Among those few, I think you will find the greatest percentage of those who understand what the HEA is and what it costs. 

It costs giving up what you want now for what you want most.

If you want most an HEA for your own real life, what are you willing to give up for it? 

"What" is not an abstract.  If you can name and describe a concrete something for that "what" -- you are halfway to creating an Icon for a novel.

The icon for the novel is one component in the Set Piece.

See screenwriting books like SAVE THE CAT! -- the set piece is a scene in a film. 

The set pieces are the ones you find in movie trailers.  See all the set-pieces of a film, and it's hardly worth the admission price to see the whole film.  The set-pieces tell the story, chronicle the plot, and exemplify the characters, all in images.

A novel has to have set-pieces, too, because one of them is the cover image of the book.

"Delayed Gratification" is a combination of two abstract concepts.  Your job as a writer is to find a way to Show Don't Tell delayed-gratification, it's cost and its reward.

The reward usually involves poetic justice -- things coming full circle, and things ending as they "should."  A sense of rightness that increases the reader's sense of security in a world they understand. 

So here are some novels that actually do all of this.

First we have a series I've been pointing you to for a while.  The final book has been published and amply fulfills the promise of the series -- delivering poetic justice with an HEA.

This series is aimed at adults, but many mid-teens would be thrilled with it.

Here are the Rising Flame series books (all one story so read in order)

These books pretty much stand alone, but you might want to read the whole Flame saga to get the point I'm making here.

The Hero lives a very long, extended life, and dedicates all his efforts to the Cause which he understands is the key to humanity surviving among the species of a galactic civilization. 

His failures and long periods of making no apparent progress, his hammering away at the Cause, are all at the expense of parting from his Soul Mate. 

How and why he attains his personal HEA, what it costs him, who helps (and how painful that help is) all using the Icon of "The Flame" and showing via an eventful plot full of risky decisions, exemplifies a theme that shows the connection between the HEA, Doing The Right Thing, Self-Discipline, and that Icon I put at the top of this review -- "Every time I thought I was being rejected from something good, I was actually being re-directed to something better."

Good and Better are all about perspective and point-of-view. 

These novels are not so much genre "Romance" or even just "Science Fiction" as they are Literature.  These are novels about life. 

I highly recommend all of Sylvia Louise Engdahl's novels -- her YA novels are good for your children, and they will grow up to enjoy her adult novels.

The same is true of Katherine Kerr whose writing career spans many genres -- and many re-formulations of genres.

She's got the knack for Adult Fantasy with grit, action, and female-hero-driven plots.

I have been partial to Kerr's Nola O'Grady Series for a while, and the 2014 entry,  #4 in that series, is strong, a fast and enjoyable read.

Nola O'Grady gallivants across parallel universes in the company of her partner, the Israeli Agent Ari Nathan.  They are in hot pursuit of two criminals (while other things chase them).  Meanwhile the connections between the parallel universes are disintegrating, and a lot of things are going on that apparently nobody really understands.

I'm sure there will be more of these stories, but this one is a good study in the immense payoff karma brings to those who do not grab at instant gratification. 

Lastly, here are two audiobooks from Allan Cole (whom I've discussed before), that you can also get in Kindle.

It's very different in content and style from Cole's Fantasy works, but illustrates the consistency an author's skill brings across genres. 

And here is Allan Cole's MacGregor In: Dying Good -- a contemporary exploration of human trafficking, again "the same but different" from everything else he's done.  MacGregor brings down an international human trafficking ring preying on children.  It's not "Romance Genre" per se, but it is driven by love in transcendent ways.

Cole's characters (young, medium, and old) get themselves into very tight spots, face probable death, do "the right thing" (amidst some maybe no-so-right, and some out-right-bad things), and pull off a highly improbable stunt with the orchestrated aplomb of Master Operatives.  You can clearly see the Hand of God moving the characters -- but the characters can't see it. 

Taken together, these books form a set that illustrates many of the points brought forth in the Theme-Plot-Character-Worldbuilding series.

Part 1:

Part 2:

Part 3:

Part 3 is an index to relevant Review Columns I wrote for the magazine I used to work for.

Jacqueline Lichtenberg

1 comment:

  1. I've never quite thought about the connection between delayed gratification and literary suspense before -- cool. I admit I'm not very good at delaying gratification in that sense. I don't mind being "spoiled," because I like being reassured that a favorite character will survive (or, if not, knowing the worst in advance to get braced for it). Sometimes in the middle of a book I do peek at the last page. Except murder mysteries, of course.