Tales From My Writing Head: Tone (Part One)

There’s an old joke about a teacher berating a pupil: “Boy, don’t look at me in that tone of voice.” And it’s funny because it’s true, of course. My parents used to make a point of getting me to say sorry, for all kinds of things I didn’t feel sorry about. I would eventually say it – ‘Sorry’ – but in a tone as if firing it out of my sphincter. It didn’t matter, though, because for them it was just the word that counted.

But for an author tone is everything. And yet it’s not an easy quality to dissect. You know when it’s right and you know when it’s wrong or muddled or absent. I don’t think it necessarily has to be smooth and suave, by the way – the correct tone can be choppy, long-winded or even boring, as long as it’s serving the job the reader expects it to do, or at least is surprised by in the right way.

When I was at art college, they got us to do an exercise to improve our ability to differentiate tones. Most of us are not so good at this because we’re subjected constantly to such a huge range of different colours which are already clearly differentiated. So, at college we used to paint a picture but only using one colour. This automatically made us focus more strongly on tone. I believe the key to establishing effective tone in writing is similar: not to restrict your writing to say one word but more to become adept at expressing a multitude of emotions and characteristics through a single approach to the story.

So, I’m going to try to break tone down into five constituents that hopefully will make it easier to get hold of:

Consistent and genuine theme

Theme is the mother of tone. It gives birth to it, basically. But it doesn’t necessarily know what the kid is going to turn out like.

Let’s look at an example from so-called real life. You’ve finally got a date with the woman you’re convinced is the one. Although you’re not doing it consciously, as you prepare to go out, you’ll be establishing the tone you’re going to set. You’ll look through your wardrobe and, hopefully, decide against the ‘I’m with Stupid’ T-shirt, or the England football shirt. You’ll consider whether you need to look smart, casual, casual-smart, formal, cool – yeah, right – confident, sensitive, etc. And you’ll do this because you know that she will immediately get whatever tone you’re projecting when you meet, and if it’s not right then the date won’t work.

You’ll also worry about how you’re going to sound; how you should come across. Should you learn a few jokes (probably not). Should you work out where you stand on the UK going over to the Euro? Again, football’s almost certainly out. Is she religious; hell, you don’t know. Should you say you’re agnostic to be on the safe side; are you agnostic, or atheist? You don’t really know? What are you going to do if she’s a Scientologist, apart from run?

All of which of course leads to panic, sweaty thighs and mental convulsions. So, if you’re wise, you’ll sit down and ask yourself what is the theme of the evening. Is it to get smashed together and have meaningless sex? Well . . . no, not really. In which case you can put away the chest wig and the little blue pills. Is it to establish a friendship based on a mutual love of pub quizzes? It better not be.

But if it’s to put yourself totally on the line for the chance to begin a relationship that will be deeper and stronger and more committed than any other you’ve ever had, well, once you’ve admitted that to yourself, you shouldn’t have too much trouble picking out a shirt.

Of course, the difference between real life and being an author, is that in real life the success of your theme is dependent on her having the same theme in mind. Whereas authors can always cheat because they’re in control of both sides of the argument, or romance.

The consistent holding of tone relies, I believe, on the second ingredient which I’m calling:

The author instinct

Normal instinct mostly works to get us out of the way of lorries, angry wasps and the boss. It’s well trained to sense when something’s wrong, then to avoid it.

But the author instinct doesn’t have to avoid danger, because the only dangers in a story are the ones the author introduces himself, deliberately or otherwise. Therefore, the author instinct is free to work positively, which it does by sitting squarely in the middle of the theme and expertly controlling the reins of tone.

Which is a lot better than being on that potentially real life-changing date I mentioned earlier. There, one’s safety-first instinct can easily be at war with one’s creative instinct. So, instead of spontaneously telling her (because it’s what you feel right at that moment) that there’s so much depth in her eyes you know you’ll spend the rest of your life just getting to know what she’s really like, you spend the evening going through your bank statements to show her that you’re a good, solvent bet for the future.

So, if your novel’s theme is, say, the ultimate destructiveness of revenge, you can use it to shape the tone in every scene. And if one of those scenes is a fictional version of the first date, the tone will have a consistent shade of slightly dark foreboding about it, which you could show, say, in the way the guy doesn’t leave a tip because the waiter spilled a bit of wine while pouring it.

The right balance of funny/serious

I went to a fairly formal grammar school where the teachers all wore big black capes but the only weapons they kept in their utility belts were cane extensions for the better beating of the students with. Corporal punishment was second only to major torture (sorry).

Anway, one day we were having a serious discussion about religion in our history class. Or at least our history teacher was having a serious discussion with himself about it. Tony Jones, the class existential joker, kept asking facetious questions like, “If the wafer and the wine actually change into the blood and flesh of Jesus, doesn’t that mean all Catholics are cannibals, Sir?”

Eventually, Sir had had enough. He stormed over to Tony’s desk, clearly ready to inflict severe pain upon the boy, very red in the face and close to boiling point, and said, “Jones, I can’t stand any more.”

Tony said, “Well, you’d better sit down then, Sir.”

Which given the tone of the situation, was not really the best response he could have made. It was very funny, though; but here’s the thing: none of us laughed at the time, because we didn’t dare to.

By contrast, the balance between funny and serious in a story should be immediate and appropriate. The best sitcoms do this very well, by allowing just enough serious to highlight the funny. The worst sitcoms, unsure of their funny in the first place, over-compensate with sentimentality.


Tales from My Street: Does Writing at Eighty Per Cent pay the Bills Better than a Hundred?

“How come quality doesn’t really sell?” I say.

I’m not sure Nige has heard me, since he continues frowning at the three pints of lager lined up before him in a dead straight row. He’s not feeling comfortable, I know, since I insisted we sit at a table tonight, instead of his preferred position, leaning at the bar. I think he believes that the bar offers some protection against possible public criticism of his drinking methods. Which is, essentially, to wait until it’s almost closing time, then down all three pints in a minute or two, thereby, I suspect, feeling he’s had a really good night out. That and receiving a hefty alcohol kick. Three pints on the bar might just comprise two that the barman has temporarily placed there for other customers. In a dead straight row.

But my legs are aching from cycling to work most of this week and I need to sit.

“Because, Tel,” he says eventually, pushing the base of one of the glasses slightly, straightening the straightness of the line. “The extra time, money and sheer bleedin’ effort required to make something a hundred per cent good is disproportionate to what’s needed to make it eighty per cent good.”

“You sound like you’re quoting from an instruction manual.”

He looks up. “I am. But it’s one that ain’t never been published.” He taps the side of his head. “Every builder has it burnt into his brain cells. These days, you learn the hard way through experience, but in ancient times, apprentices would be brainwashed at a very early stage by their masters. A young, keen guy would for instance take ages making sure he got some door painted perfect: no brush strokes showing, nice even application. But the gaffer would say, ‘No, no, no; you have to do it like this.’ And he’d show him how to paint it much faster. If the apprentice was conscientious, he’d notice that the final quality of the gaffer’s work weren’t actually as good as his own.”

He stops speaking, nods at me knowingly, waiting for me to put the pieces of his quality puzzle together.

Fact is, he and I know that I’ve raised this subject in relation to writing. And lately I’ve been trying to figure out a certain mystery where authors are concerned.

“I’ve been on writing workshops,” I say, “where we studied passages by highly commercial authors that were brilliantly written. But then I’d take a book by one of them, open it randomly and most of the time the writing was at best functional, rarely anywhere near as brilliant as the passage we studied.”

“Sometimes I paint a door perfect just because I want to,” he says. “And to remind meself that I can. But I ain’t going to make a living if I don’t keep to the eighty per cent rule.”

“But don’t your clients notice?”

“People that settle for eighty per cent aren’t clients; they’re punters. Sometimes I get a client and he gets a hundred per cent. But the cost of that extra twenty per cent is a whole wallop more.”

“But why would anyone settle for eighty per cent?”

“Because it’s still thirty per cent better than they can do themselves. And because they believe us professionals know what we’re doing. Which we do. We just don’t always do what we know we can do.”

What he says makes sense, even applied to writing. Commercial writers produce a lot of writing. Practicality says they’ll do better aiming at eighty per cent, not a hundred. After all, novels aren’t priced according to the quality of the writing; they’re all costed pretty much the same.

“But hold on a minute,” I say. “I understand that your clients – punters – might turn a blind eye to the quality of your painting not being a hundred per cent because they know that would cost them a lot more. But why would a reader settle for eighty per cent when they could get a hundred for the same price?”

Nige glances at the clock above the door. Three minutes to drinking up time. He reaches for the first pint and I realise he’s going to be distracted now by the need to concentrate on producing a one hundred per cent performance in downing nearly half a gallon of carbonated liquid in the time it would take a normal drinker to go for a pee.

But then an unprecedented event takes place. Nige withdraws his hand, sits back, folds his arms.

“You got me there, Tel,” he says. “What do you think?”

While I’m thinking, tradition grabs him once again and he reaches for the first glass, then sinks the contents in one visit. I’m fascinated by the rhythmic waves of amber in the lager pushing back from the opening and closing of his throat.

“Maybe it’s the unwillingness to pay a different kind of cost,” I say. “Your clients don’t want to spend money. Perhaps readers don’t want to spend too much effort on what they read. You don’t have to think about an eighty per cent book. It’s going to get the job done, on time, without any complications. But a hundred per cent could mean getting more involved; making a contribution.”

“Which ain’t giving ’em what they want, is it?” he says, between putting down the first glass and reaching for the second.

“So, if you’re aiming for a hundred per cent,” I say, “maybe you need to convince your readers that the extra effort is worth it.”

I wait until he puts down the second glass, with surprising delicacy as it happens.

“Fortunately,” he says, “that ain’t a problem we gentlemen builder/decorators have to meditate on. It’s one for you conflicted artists to sort out.”

He’s right. And I don’t know the answer right now. But I do believe it’s a question that’s worth struggling with.

Nige finishes his third pint and I can tell by the expression on his face that he’s struggling with an eternal question of his own: whether to have a slash in the pub now or risk carrying a full bladder all the way home.


Tales from a Podcast: PLOT (PART TWO)

Below is the script of my article for Starship Sofa, on Plot (Part Two):

As usual, I’ll be doing this in one take, partly because I believe in spontaneity but mostly because I don’t know how to use the pause button on the recording software.

So, apparently George Clooney was driving home from the film set one day when he spotted a painting thrown away in a skip. It was of a huge, naked woman; the worst painting he’d ever seen. Instead of driving by, he did what an author would do: got a flash of inspiration and nabbed the painting.

Then, he stopped meeting his mates on Monday nights, telling them he was going to art classes instead. He said it was having a therapeutic effect and even insisted on taking the boys to art fairs and shops. This went on for six months, then he proudly presented what he said was his first painting to a friend, but which of course was the one he’d found in the skip, signed by him. His friend thought it was awful but agreed to hang it on his living room wall to please George. Weeks later, Clooney finally confessed on live TV, no doubt deciding that all those months were worth it for the audience’s reaction and the expression he’d see later on his friend’s face.

So plotting a story is exactly like pulling off a practical joke. You need an idea, a situation, a planned series of events in which your main character has no idea what is happening to him and why he is being tortured, then a climax where all is finally revealed.

This story also illustrates, by the way, something said by Jeanne Cavelos, who runs the marvellous six-week Odyssey Fantasy Writing Workshop:

You’re not just reporting events, you’re shaping events.

So how do you shape a plot? Well, everyone knows the most basic plot shape of all: beginning, middle and end. However, even such a simple shape requires you to make conscious decisions about every step your characters take. This is because in shaping a plot, you’re making an essentially artificial structure. Nothing in life has a beginning, middle and end. Only stories do. Which is why we like them so much: they’re a way of bringing order to the mystery and mania of life.

As for beginnings, the big question of course is ‘Where?’ Well, Kurt Vonnegut said you should start as close to the end as possible. The beginning and the ending of your story are the most powerful parts – like birth and death; so it’s important to get them right. The beginning throws down a marker to the reader: this scene is vital; this time is the only time; this setting is part of the story; and this character is at the most critical juncture of her life.

The plot is the most meaningful segment – or arc – taken out of your main character’s life. It’s not an open-ended arc, nor is it a self-contained circle. This is very important, since the reader has to get a strong sense that the characters existed before the story starts and will exist after it.

Kate Wilhelm in her book “Storyteller” suggests telling stories to children because, she says:

Children are a demanding audience. They insist on an identifiable situation, a problem, a solution to the problem, and a satisfying, identifiable resolution . . . And you have to do it in such a way that your audience would not have thought of. Surprise them. If you can hold their attention, you can plot.

Incidentally, the sub-title of this book is “Writing Lessons and More from 27 Years of the Clarion Writers’ Workshop”. Kate Wilhelm was married to Damon Knight whose book I recommended last week, and I recommend this one too.

Ursula Le Guin in her book about writing, “Steering the Craft”, says:

I define plot as a form of story which uses action as its mode, usually in the form of conflict, and which closely and intricately connects one act to another, usually through a causal chain, ending in a climax . . . plot is a pleasure in itself . . . it provides an armature for narrative that beginning writers may find invaluable.

However, she also warns:

But most serious modern fictions can’t be reduced to a plot, or retold without fatal loss except in their own words. The story is not in the plot but in the telling. It is the telling that moves.

I recommend reading Joseph Campbell’s “The Hero with a Thousand Faces.” It was published in 1949 and is a distillation Campbell makes of the hero’s journey as it appears in world mythology. The great thing about this book is its mixture of enthusiasm and erudition. You’ll find yourself absorbing its wisdom about plot without really being conscious of it. George Lucas based the original Star Wars films on Campbell’s pharmacy hero’s journey. In fact, there is an excellent DVD you can find in which Campbell discusses his work, filmed at George Lucas’s ranch. Of course, there is just the smidgeon of a chance that Lucas did not base the new Star Wars trilogy on Campbell’s work.

You might also want to try “The Seven Basic Plots by Christopher Booker”, which is fascinating although a little heavy-going in places.

Also, I’d recommend looking at a book I mentioned in the first part of this article, “Save the Cat” by Blake Snyder. In it, Snyder gives his own definition of the 10 types of movie plot and the titles alone are very evocative, for example, ‘Monster in the House’, Dude with a Problem’, ‘Buddylove’, ‘Out of the Bottle’.

Okay, I hear you thinking, but where do I start with plot? All this stuff is interesting but I want the bare bones plot shape to help me write stories that go somewhere interesting. After starting somewhere interesting, of course.

Well, you can’t go far wrong with the Seven Point Plot shape. This appears to have first been put together by Scott Meredith, who was a top literary agent. It was later modified by Algis Budrys, a terrific science fiction writer and teacher. There are of course many other versions of a basic plot, and there are plenty of people who think this one is too simple. But the truth is that the vast majority of commercially successful stories fit into it.

I learned about it in detail at a workshop in Oregon, USA, in 2008, taken by Dean Wesley Smith and Kristine Kathryn Rusch. Dean and Kris teach with natural authority, in that everything they propose about being a professional author has resulted from their own direct experiences. They’ve each published dozens and dozens of novels and hundreds of short stories. Their workshop is incredibly hard work but very, very rewarding.

So, the first three elements of the seven point plot are together what should constitute the beginning of your story. If it’s a short story, you really need to establish these three in the first paragraph or two; in a novel, maybe the first chapter.

1. Character – in a
2. Setting – with a
3. Problem

Character . . . Setting . . . Problem

The main character is the one we need to care about. We need to know where he is – the setting. And this should not be arbitrary; it needs to be relevant to the story, as well as being interesting in itself. Beware of the white room, i.e. characters existing nowhere because you haven’t bothered to describe their setting. And also beware of assuming the reader will ‘get’ your setting, for example, ‘Intergalactic Commander Buggins strode on to the bridge’ may be enough for a Trekkie but the rest of us will be wondering whether or not to picture a large stretch of concrete over a river.

The middle of the story is the where main character:

4. Tries
5. Fails

He or she must make an intelligent try – one the reader is impressed with, would have thought of himself if he’d had enough time to. And the failure should be unexpected, both by the character and the reader. It’s here the problem gets much worse, and the villain if you have one succeeds. This leads to the climax where the main character makes his:

6. Last try – this should arise from the depths of his despair, when all is lost and there’s no way out. Finally,

7. Validation or resolution. This doesn’t mean the hero has won necessarily, but it’s where the core conflict of the story is resolved.

* * *

Now, I realise I’ve been talking about ‘rules’ or techniques – which a lot of writers like to believe they don’t need to learn. I know websites where writers regularly post self-indulgent stories that are impossible to read, in the belief that their natural greatness will get them noticed sooner or later.

Yes, it’s true that the best writers produce work that seems very simple – stories that zoom along, full of characters you really care about, and written so smoothly you don’t notice you’re reading at all.

But that level of simplicity only comes after a writer has moved away from the original simplicity of basically knowing nothing about what he’s doing, through the hard work and frustration of dealing with the complexity of writing well; finally, to arrive at a simplicity that can seem like magic.

Picasso was once on French television when very old. He was interviewed by a cocky young man who at one point handed Picasso a piece of paper and a pen and asked him to sketch something. Picasso obliged and handed it back. The young man said, “I could sell this for thousands, yet it only took you twenty seconds.” Picasso said, “No, it didn’t; it took eighty years.”

Tales from a Podcast: PLOT (PART ONE)

Below is the script of my article for Starship Sofa, on Plot (Part One):

Dear Deirdre,

I went on a writer’s retreat, slept with one of the students, found out later she’s my girlfriend’s grandmother and now she tells me she’s pregnant and wants me to marry her. Help!

I’ve always found it curious that everyone who writes to The Sun‘s problem page has such great writers’ instincts. They open their letters with a teaser, like a movie trailer or the blurb on the back of the book. This gives you the bare plot of the situation but without the resolution. Which of course makes the reader want to get involved, to find out how anyone could be so stupid or so randy as to sleep with a granny, and how Deirdre is going to make everything all right again. Or not.

Then the letter takes us back to the beginning of the story . . . My girlfriend and I had been arguing a lot so I thought a week in the country with a group of quiet introverts would help me regain my spiritual equilibrium . . . etc.

And here is the fundamental requirement of a plot: that something interesting, exciting, different, startling is going to happen to your character. Because, let’s face it, Deirdre isn’t going to publish a letter about how you went on a writer’s retreat, met some lovely people, cooked a nice tofu casserole that received lots of compliments, and you learned a bit about writing too.

So, today I’m going to talk about plot. Which is the main ingredient that separates a story you tell that complete strangers will pay to read, from a story that your mates will pretend to be interested in down the pub after you’ve bought them a round or two. It’s a vast subject, however, so this article will be in two parts, and I suspect we’ll come back to it again and again in future.

Here are two quotes about plot:

Writers are always grappling with two problems: they must make the story interesting (to themselves, if no one else), yet keep it believable (because, somehow, when it ceases to be believable on some level, it ceases to be interesting).

In a very real way, one writes a story to find out what happens in it.

Samuel R Delaney ‘About Writing’

On the other hand, Jon Franklin, in ‘Writing for Story’ says:

Every writer of any merit at all during the last five hundred years of English history outlined virtually everything he wrote.

Which just goes to show how complex this subject is. So to begin with I’m going to keep it simple and look at the basic attitudes you need as a writer if you’re going to produce great plots, whether you outline them first before starting the story, or write the story first to find out what the outline is. In the second part, we’ll look at the mechanics and possible shapes of a plot, and we’ll stick with short stories for now.

A short story goes for a single emotional effect, ideally felt at the climax where it will have the most impact. A short story plot is about economy – one main character and one Point of View, maybe two secondary characters, and probably no more than three or four scenes. A short story is like a single, punchy memory: short beginning, accelerating middle, dramatic end with short resolution.

Because of this, short story writers need to be ruthless with their plots. They need to be like the wife who’s husband comes home late, smelling of strong liquor, face covered in lipstick. “What happened?” she demands. “Well,” he says, “it was a fine, sunny morning and I got the 8.35 to Liverpool Street as usual. I even got a seat and — “. “What happened!” she repeats. Of course, what she wants is for him to start this story as near to the end as he can get. Which will be to do with drinking too much at the office party and not realising the policewoman who’d come to arrest him was not really an officer of the law.

We’re all too polite when we hear other people tell us stories about their day. We nod encouragingly when they go on about the cyclist who nearly knocked them over on the way to work, and their boss who gave them a really weird look, and how hilarious it was when they hid the secretary’s miniature teddy bear but it’s okay they put it back before she noticed . . .

Or when your mate tells you about how he slept with his girlfriend’s granny on a writers’ retreat and got her pregnant – you’ll laugh like a drain for a bit then settle down to suggest ways he can keep his life on an even keel.

But a writer will do the opposite: he’ll look to ways he can not only prolong his mate’s agony but compound it. If he’s a crime writer, for instance, he’ll suggest wiring the granny’s Zimmer frame to the mains then leaving the country before the police start their murder enquiries. If he’s a literary fiction writer, he’ll have his mate move in with the grandmother and parallel his struggles to write a zeitgeist-defining novel with his spiritual torment at living with someone so close to death.

And if he’s a science fiction writer, his mate actually went through a dark matter conundrum, thirty years into the future to sleep with his girlfriend as an older woman, who then stepped back in time with him so he now has to keep the two girlfriends apart or risk destroying the universe and his sexual credibility to boot.

So, a writer has to go against his social, moral and physical instincts to live a life free of danger, pain and anguish. He has to find ways to make life for his characters worse, to push them to the very brink of destruction. And even then, he doesn’t let them off the hook; instead, he makes them think they’ve succeeded – has them actually close their fingers around the staff of power which will restore their souls and destroy the marauding demons closing in on them by the second, only to find this one is a fake and powerless. All is lost; the darkness closes in . . . Then, out of the very depths of their despair, a possible solution is found – but it’s risky and will cost them dearly even if it succeeds . . .

When you’re writing a story, you need to actually torture your characters. And you torture them with plot. You make bad things happen to them. Then see how they react. All sorts of surprising things happen to people when they have plots dropped on their heads. They get angry and react and change, and then affect the plot in return. Suddenly, you have a real story on your hands.

But you need to be careful. When the plot controls the characters too much, the reader feels as if she’s doing the Times crossword – intellectually stimulating but rather predictable. When the characters run amok without a plot to guide them, the reader feels as if she’s reading someone’s diary or blog and wonders why she’s paid money for this story when she could be reading someone’s blog or diary for free.

A plot, then, is a series of imaginary events designed to create anticipation at a high pitch, either in the form of anxiety (in a story of conflict or mystery), or of curiosity (in a puzzle story). If you can build such a series, you can plot . . . In a plotted story, the ending may take the form of a revelation, a decision, an explanation, or a solution.

Damon Knight, ‘Creating Short Fiction’ – also check out his ‘Common Plotting Faults and What to Do about Them’ (in the same book).

This book is one of those essentials for any writer, by the way. Damon Knight was a great science fiction writer who also taught at the Clarion workshop for many years. I know lots of writers, from all sorts of fiction fields, not just SF, who say this is the one book they keep close at all times.

It helps to see the plot as a causal chain rather than a series of events.

Blake Snyder in ‘Save the Cat’ says:

The basis of the ‘Turn, Turn, Turn’ rule is: The plot doesn’t just move ahead, it spins and intensifies as it goes. It is the difference between velocity (a constant speed) and acceleration (an increasing speed). And the rule is: It’s not enough for the plot to go forward, it must go forward faster, and with more complexity, to the climax.

Now, I don’t think it would be too controversial for me to state that the plots of the second and third films in the Pirates of the Caribbean series were rather light on causal effects. Why? Well, my theory is that they’d struck accidental character gold in the first film with Johnny Depp’s Captain Jack Sparrow. In that film, he wasn’t the main character, which meant the plot could progress without depending on him being affected by it too much. But by the time of the later films, the studio had decided he was the main selling point, so of course they did the subtle thing and built both films around him. However, because his character was clearly a brand he was not to be tampered with. The solution? Was it to sacrifice him as the main character so the story could develop around someone else; was it to change him anyway on the basis that he’d still probably still be popular? No, much simpler to just dispense with the plot. Hence, there are lots of chases, fights, monsters, comedy characters, etc, but virtually no story development in the later two films.

To round off this section, here are a few more ways of looking at plot:

The main plot of any story is like the strings of a violin, carefully made to bear the weight of the bow and to transmit sound accurately. But a violin gets its timbre from the music box under the strings. Timbre, the resounding box in literature, is cultural allusion.

Carol Bly ‘The Passionate, Accurate Story’

The plot is the alignment of progressively developed actions – conflict or instability, climax or crisis, resolution, showdown action – with the theme or focus of a story. It is the development of events and character.

Ndaeyo Uko, ‘Story Building’

Characters caught in a crucible won’t declare a truce and quit. They’re in it till the end. The key to the crucible is that the motivation of the characters to continue opposing each other is greater than their motivation to run away. Or they can’t run away because they’re in a prison cell, a lifeboat, the army, or a family.

Sol Stein, ‘Stein on Writing’