It came to me as I watched the musical Gypsy, the story about Gypsy Rose Lee, the top stripper of her day: great writing is a lot like a great strip tease. Before you think I’m vulgar or just plain creepy, think about it. The stories you love best—and your best stories—do an outstanding job of deconstructing and delayering the main characters. Strategically. Methodically. Sensually.
In the film and Broadway-stage musical versions of Gypsy, three stage-weary strippers give their hard-learned advice to a girl who’s about to strip for the first time. They explain the secret of their art as they sing You Gotta Have a Gimmick. The point of the song is that in stripping (and in writing) you need something special to stand out and be memorable. You need a gimmick, often called a hook. (To watch and listen, go to https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_wErVF7QwIY)
We know readers like tropes. But they love tropes with a twist. And to twist a trope, we need to tease and tantalize our audience.
A well-choreographed strip tease—and a well-revealed main character—is all about making the audience want more and then not giving it to them. At least not in a rush…or a story-stopping data dump. That simply would be exhibitionism, and few people like flashers.
Using those three ladies and their gimmicks, let’s see what this means for us:
- Miss Mazeppa bumps it with a trumpet. Miss Mazeppa strips while wearing a gladiator outfit and blowing a horn. It’s hard not to notice her. If you want your main character to be noticed and empathetic, she must be heard and must stand out from the other characters. It’s your mandate to make your readers care about her and root for her. You need to make her relevant and relatable, but not always likeable.
- Miss Electra makes it sparkle. It may not be as easy as flipping a switch, but making your main character shine despite the conflicts and obstacles you bombard her with is your job. You must do your best to make her not just electrifying, but more and more electrifying as you reveal her backstory and push her to her black moment. Electra has twinkling lights embedded in her costume. Your main character’s sparkle can be in her voice, her eyes and, most importantly, in her heart. Turn up her wattage as her story progresses.
- Tessie Tura does it with finesse. Tessie claims to be a trained ballerina who’s hit hard times and slid down the show-biz ladder from vaudeville to burlesque. It’s her grace and poise that set her apart. As a writer, what makes you stand out? You only have 26 letters to work with (if you write in English). The words you pick, the analogies and metaphors you employ, and the word-pictures you paint separate you from every other author. So, write freely but edit wisely.
Now let’s talk about Magic Mike. It’s also about the beauty of bodies in motion, but the roles are reversed: men exist to be looked at and women—for the most part—do the looking.
Photo credit: Warner Bros.
Like their female counterparts in Gypsy, the male strippers use gimmicks too. There are glitter-covered raincoats, cowboy outfits with check-baring chaps and convincing police-officer uniforms. And there’s the young virginal ingénue too.
Just like the heroes you write, these strippers are the husbands your readers never had and the dream-boat guys who never came along. They are THE fantasy…on the stage, in a world of blinding spotlights and pounding music. And that’s the ultimate tease, isn’t it? They cannot be touched. That’s usually the rule. But there are usually a lot of rule breakers in a strip club—and in our novels.
As you flesh out your heroes, they become more than flashy facades. They have scars. They have hopes. They want a happy ending. And usually, they have hearts of gold.
Ensuring that you have a gimmick, a hook or a trope twist is good for your stories and good for your entrepreneurial writing business. It’s just like what those three Gypsy strippers sing about (music by Jule Styne and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim):
You’re more than a mimic
When you got a gimmick
Take a look at how different we are
If you wanna make it
Twinkle while you shake it
If you wanna grind it
Wait till you refined it
If you want to pump it
Pump it with a trumpet
Get yourself a gimmick
And you too can be a star
Yes, you too can be a star. Strip your main characters down. Peel away their layers. Tease and taunt your audience. Heck, go ahead and strut down that runway and show your readers what you’ve got.
Do we push our characters out on an imaginary burlesque stage? Do we make them bump and grind as they reveal their true selves…dreams and motivations and all?
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Christopher Lentz is a matchmaker, midwife and murderer…when he’s writing historical and contemporary romances. His stories are about second chances, misfits who find ways to fit in, and how love changes everything.
Lentz made his mark as a corporate-marketing executive before penning the Blossom Trilogy (the first two installments are available at https://www.amazon.com/dp/B00W2I61PQ and https://www.amzn.com/1548539945). Please visit www.christopherlentz.org.