C. Aubrey Hall's Blog
February 27, 2015
Let’s consider this scenario:
You have an idea for a new story. You’re excited. You’re eager to start writing right away, and you have several scenes in mind. You even know how you want things to end. There are vague spots in your outline, but you don’t mind. You want to get going.
Boom! You write the first incident in the story that will introduce your protagonist and–you hope–set up the story situation.
But then, although you can clearly envision the next important event that will occur, you can’t figure out how to put your protagonist there.
Let’s say your protagonist is on a journey to a new life in a new town, about to start wizard school.
You want to introduce your young protagonist as a youth with natural magical powers, as yet untrained and poorly controlled. So you write an incident where Yen the Youngster is bored by travel and so conjures up a spirit companion to talk to. But the spirit turns out to be one best left unsummoned. It’s loud, unruly, causes all sorts of mayhem among the other passengers. Yen is nearly thrown off the transport, and only the intervention of an older, experienced wizard who happens to be traveling can banish the spirit back to where it belongs.
Okay, so what happens next?
Easy, you think. Wizard school!
Not so fast.
It’s like standing on one side of a creek when you desperately want to get across. There’s no bridge in sight, not even a log spanning the two banks. The water’s too deep to wade, so what do you do?
Run along the bank until the creek narrows and then jump across?
Sure, that’s fine for crossing streams. But jumping across story, leaving gaps to be “filled in later,” isn’t such a great idea.
If you “jump” to Yen’s first day at school after the spirit misadventure, your reader will be wondering about what happened to Yen after the spirit left. Did Yen get into trouble? Did Yen have to pay the other passengers for the damages? Is the master of the wizard school aware that Yen is a wild card? Will Yen cross the threshold already in disgrace? Were any other students aboard? Are they talking about Yen, gossiping and spreading rumors to prejudice the student body against him?
But perhaps you don’t want to bother with such questions. Yen’s arrival isn’t important. You want to focus instead on his first day in the classroom.
After all, Yen is destined for Great Things. His first class will be in wand waving, and you’re eager to write about that. You’ll go back and fill in the “trivial” stuff later, when you have more time.
So you jump from the spirit’s banishment to Yen in the classroom. You want Yen to demonstrate his raw talent and impress his teacher, at least until he loses control and his new wand flies out of his hand and hits the ceiling. All the students laugh at him, and Yen will be sad and frustrated.
Except again there are questions left unanswered, questions that might need to be considered before Yen steps into the classroom: How is he learning his way around the school? Has anyone befriended him? Does he want to start with wand waving or does he wish he could take a different subject instead? And if he got into trouble because of the spirit he summoned, what happened with that? Is he already on probation?
When questions are raised due to your protagonist’s actions, you’re responsible for answering them and not just ignoring them or leaving readers to wonder, wonder, wonder.
Also, the answers to such questions should affect what’s going to happen next.
But maybe you’re too busy thinking ahead. You want Yen to stay in trouble. Character in trouble is an important writing principle, right?
So without considering what’s happened thus far, you’re blazing forward by thinking that maybe halfway through his first term he’ll blow up the potions class. No, wait … that’s too close to the Harry Potter plotline. You’ll rethink that part … but later. Because you can’t be bothered to work through the middle right now and you really, really, really want to write the battle scene when Orcs attack the town where the wizard school happens to be. Yen and all his classmates are going to be drafted into helping defend the place. You know this part is going to be nifty.
Stop the madness!
What was once a promising premise is turning into a very poorly plotted story.
Thus far, although there are incidents where Yen hits trouble, there’s no cohesion, no actual conflict, and no unfolding of plot. The whole thing is a cobbled-together mess that’s totally author contrived.
Although a writer wants his protagonist to hit opposition, obstacles, and trouble, such difficulties should connect plausibly with each other in cause-and-effect logic. A story is not a random scramble of action and dialogue.
If you skip ahead, and only write the parts that are vivid in your mind, you will never go back and fill in what’s missing.
Not because you don’t intend to, but because you probably can’t.
Skipping blitzes cause-and-effect. Trying to wedge consequences for character actions between otherwise disconnected events simply doesn’t work.
Let’s go back, back, back to the beginning when Yen uncorks that unruly spirit. What if the wizard that pulls matters back under control happens to be the school headmaster?
What if he’s so angry with Yen that he almost expels him?
And why is it so important for Yen to attend this school instead of one of the five alternative wizard schools in the realm? Why this one? Did Yen’s father and grandfather and six great-uncles attend this school? Is it a family tradition? Or is Yen the first in his family to manifest magical powers that need formal training? Is his mother so seriously proud of him that he’s desperate not to let her down?
Furthermore, if Yen has to plead and beg to be allowed to enroll at the school, what awful threat will the headmaster hold over him if he messes up again?
Now, with these answers in mind, reconsider what stakes are involved in Yen’s wand waving class. If he’s on probation, then he could be afraid stand out or try, afraid to make a mistake. The teacher, however, is insisting that he not be bashful. They have goals in opposition, which means the scene between them will contain solid conflict. Yen makes a mistake, and it’s a whopper. His wand careens all over the place. It nearly puts Maranda Mogwimple’s eye out, and poor Yen is in greater disgrace than before.
Also, if you work your way one step at a time with Yen and his struggles, by the time your story reaches the imminent Orc invasion, you will understand Yen as a character and readers will empathize with him and–most importantly–care when he faces his first battle. You will know his strengths and his weaknesses. You will know his motivation for trying his best even if his time at school has been difficult and unpleasant. As a writer, you will be prepared to push Yen into the biggest test/challenge of his life.
But if you skip, you won’t know him well or understand what combination of experiences and conflict has forced him to grow through the arc of your story.
Beware. The next time you’re tempted to skip over a vague portion, ask yourself why.
Why haven’t you bothered to think through the consequences of what your character has done to that point?
Why aren’t you willing to think through your character’s next options?
Take the time. Solve the plot problems as they arise. You’ll find that doing so makes quite a difference in the quality of your plotting.
February 18, 2015
As anyone writing fiction knows, a tremendous amount of patience, perseverance, and self-discipline goes into crafting a story–from the first glimmer of an idea through the slog of writing, writing, writing, rewriting, and writing to the marketing.
Dreams are fine and good, but it takes effort and sheer gut-crunching determination to stick with a project from start to publication, especially novels.
And some days, writers are just weary, unable to put more than a few words or paragraphs on the computer screen. The plot is a blur. The characters are flat constructions, speaking tepid lines of dialogue, and the pacing seems to drag. Certainly I have reached points two-thirds of the way through some of my fantasy novels where the deadline was looming larger than a mountain and I just wanted to type, “Then they all died suddenly of the plague. The end.”
There are writing sessions where the only thing that keeps us going is a stick. We grit our teeth, think of our book contract or deadline, remember our flat bank account, and continue typing.
And there are the days of joy, when the writing soars, our heart is light and happy, and the words spiral from our imagination into our tapping fingers. Those are the carrot days.
For the past few weeks, I have been laboriously proofreading scans of my back list for re-publication in digital format. Although hampered by tender eyes recovering from surgery, I dutifully read and read and read. For the most part, I enjoyed being reacquainted with some of my earlier work. A few that I feared would be dogs turned out to be decent, and one science fiction tale in particular that I remembered as being fun to write is actually pretty lame. Alas!
Still, my first published fantasy novel, REIGN OF SHADOWS, is now on Kindle and today it’s ranked #1 in dark fantasy. I realize that this is due to its promotion as a free title and that the ranking won’t last, but at the moment I don’t care. I am simply enjoying it.
Best of all, it’s given me a psychological boost and I’m happily writing on a new project with restored confidence. We writers have to be as tough as old boot leather, able to take blunt editorial comments without blinking and find inner strength to keep going when no one else believes in our story premise, but despite the swagger and the growing of rhino hide, we remain at heart fragile creatures. We must keep our sensitivity and our ability to empathize with others, most particularly our characters, if we’re to bring our pages to life in readers’ imaginations.
Carrots help. Whether that reward comes in the form of a cookie permitted at the end of a writing day or through an exciting ranking on Kindle, it doesn’t matter. Whatever gets us up, eager to sit at the keyboard, whatever fuels our passion for the words, whatever gives us hope and spurs us on … it is both necessary and good.
And so much better than the stick!
February 16, 2015
When I was a child, one of my favorite cartoons was “Dudley DoRight,” probably because he was a Mountie–which was almost a cowboy in my young eyes–and rode a horse. The villain was called Snidely Whiplash, and I loved his name. It always made me laugh (and still does).
Snidely twirled his black mustache and leered from my television screen. He was always kidnapping Dudley’s love, Sweet Penelope, and tying her to train tracks and giant buzz saws in the best tradition of the old action serials.
But although Snidely has enough vivid character tags to stick in my memory, he remains a simple cartoon villain. He has no depth, no complexity, not even a motivation for why he is so evil.
He’s not just a villain. He’s a bad one. In other words, his design is so flat and thin he could never work in prose fiction. Especially today.
Often, new writers are bombarded with plenty of advice on character design. They do their best to juggle personality traits and external tags. They try to remember character goals. They worry with physical appearance, and sometimes become stymied over the right name. There are so many elements and details to pull together, and all while trying to wedge the character into a plotline.
I constantly chivvy my students with reminders of how an antagonist must bring conflict to the story, how an antagonist must oppose the protagonist.
With all of that to handle, is it any wonder that inexperienced writers often construct a tissue-thin villain performing wicked deeds?
If you are writing conflict between your protagonist and a villain, and the scene or story feels lifeless and difficult, or if you are plotting your story events but you can’t seem to bring the bad guy to life, consider these tips:
Look at what’s behind the villain’s goal:
Let’s say that your villain plans to steal the story McGuffin–secret plans for a new super rocket.
Uh, because the hero has designed them for the Right Cause and if the villain steals them the hero will be in trouble.
Is that all you’ve got?
Because that’s a cartoon motivation behind a flat villain.
Let’s reconsider what drives this villain. Let’s dig into his past, or invent a past for him. Let’s raise the personal stakes because even villains need emotional reasons for the actions they take.
Make the villain’s goal personal:
Okay, Vic Villain wants those secret plans because …
1) he can sell them for a lot of money.
2) he wants to mess with Harvey Hero because he can.
3) years ago, he was Harvey’s roommate in engineering school and they worked together on the prototype. Now Harvey’s getting all the credit and Vic wants a piece of the action.
4) all of the above.
Let personal stakes spark emotions:
If Vic thinks he was done wrong by his ex-roomie, then he’s going to be harboring years of resentment.
Maybe he’s watched Harvey’s career zoom to dazzling heights. Maybe he’s nursed a grudge all this time, blaming Harvey for his failures instead of himself.
(Okay, yes, I hear those of you who are clamoring with the question: what happened between Vic and Harvey? How come Harvey has the plans and Vic’s out in the cold?)
Good question, and one you shouldn’t answer for readers until the middle or near the end of your story.
Determine why the villain will strike now:
Sure, you want Vic taking action from the opening scene of your story, but if he and Harvey go back years … why has Vic waited until now in your story to act?
You need a catalyst, something that changes the circumstances for both Harvey and Vic.
For this example, let’s say that years ago Vic abandoned the project as impossible and walked away from it at a critical point. Maybe Harvey pleaded with him to have faith and keep trying, but Vic saw a better opportunity and ditched the partnership.
Now, all these years later, Harvey has finally solved the final glitch and created the super rocket. He’s making a billion-dollar deal with the Pentagon. It’s in the news. He’s nominated for a major science prize.
Reading this in the newspaper at breakfast, Vic looks at his messy pile of unpaid bills, the dirty dishes in the sink, and his dead-end job. Something snaps inside him. He forgets that it was his decision to quit, and he shifts his sense of inner guilt to blaming Harvey for his troubles.
He makes the decision to take revenge on Harvey by stealing the plans and selling them to a higher bidder.
Build your bad guy from this foundation:
Vic isn’t a fabulous character construction yet, but he’s more filled in than before. Now it’s time to layer on more complexity.
Create complexity in a character through contrasts:
If Vic is the story’s villain, what are his good qualities? Is he ever nice? To whom? Why?
Take the time to think about your villain as an entire person.
What are some of Vic’s positive accomplishments?
Has Vic ever helped anyone?
Who does Vic care about?
Does he love his mother, his wife, his child, his pet canary?
In the classic noir film This Gun for Hire, Alan Ladd plays a stone-cold killer who assassinates people for money. Yet while he’s a loner, impassive, wily, and ruthless, he likes cats. He buys milk and leaves a saucer on the open windowsill of his cheap rented room for the stray cat that comes by. He considers cats to be “his luck.” Slowly his backstory unfolds, and the audience learns that he was an orphan raised by a cruel aunt who physically and verbally abused him. From that, it’s evident why he can’t befriend people and why he can only show kindness to cats, perhaps the only creatures that have ever shown any affection to him.
If you can create Vic Villain into a multi-layered individual of contrasts, understandable motivations, emotions, and the capacity to do the right thing, then when he decides to do the wrong thing that makes him so much more villainous than if he’s portrayed as a cartoon figure or a sociopath.
February 3, 2015
Since the writing bug first bit me, I have been passionate about writing. I lived, breathed, dreamed, and talked story, story, story. My characters were often my only childhood companions and my story worlds gave me imaginary outlets to explore during a sometimes lonely youth.
So whenever I hear the adage, “Follow your passion,” I know exactly what that’s about. I feel privileged to have been able to turn my passion into a career and to achieve my dreams of publication.
However, recently I came across a quote from successful entrepreneur Mark Cuban, who said, “Follow the effort, not the passion.”
It made me think. I understand Mr. Cuban’s point, which is that dreams alone won’t get us where we want to be. But there’s more to it than that.
When I was a novice writer, my passion drove me to make the effort and to keep making it despite challenges, failures, and discouragement. My passion to write motivated me to work extremely hard to learn the writing craft. And I have been thankful, on numerous occasions, when the effort and hard work to acquire craft paid off by enabling me to complete challenging projects.
Today, I was listening to a talk given by romance novelist Darlene Gardenhire (who writes as Darlene Graham). She mentioned that writers have to deal with both hemispheres of their brain, which she termed “The Imp” and “The Taskmaster.”
Whenever I’m off deadline and between projects, I relax and permit an imbalance of those brain hemispheres. The Imp runs wild while The Taskmaster takes a vacation. All that means is that the passion for writing is all over the place, yet nothing is actually being accomplished. But soon it’s time for The Taskmaster to return, settle down The Imp, and get the work in progress moving forward.
Anyone who achieves a long writing career goes through phases. He or she may grow bored with a genre and desire to switch to a different area of fiction. He or she may fall into a rut and desire to write a longer, more intricately plotted, or complex novel than before. He or she may hit a dry spell. Markets change and fall into or out of fashion with readers. All sorts of things happen because the publishing industry is always in flux. These changes can dampen or curtail passion for a time–especially if there’s a learning curve before breaking into a different genre–but a professional writer has to keep working.
I know writers and wannabes who have always depended solely on their passion. They wait for inspiration to strike. They perhaps gain a good plot idea from a dream and then expect fortune to smile on them the same way once more. Such writers generally have low production and erratic quality of work. Maybe when they’re “on” they’re geniuses, but the rest of the time their works are a “miss.”
And I know writers who don’t count solely on inspiration. They instead believe in the novelist’s adaptation of Einstein’s quote: “Writing is ten percent inspiration and ninety percent perspiration.” They put in the effort of learning craft, practicing craft, knowing how a story works, understanding which approaches will create dynamic characters and how a story should be paced. And maybe, after 30,000 words of what possibly feels like sheer slog, inspiration glimmers briefly, and the writer finds the heart and will and passion to soldier onward through the remaining 70,000 words.
New York Times bestselling author Jim Butcher calls it the BIC (butt in chair) factor. You can dream all day long about being a published writer, but if you don’t actually write … and try … you won’t achieve anything.
Getting novel manuscripts plotted and written takes brain-numbing effort. Almost every time. There’s no shortcut or easy button. And no two books are ever the same. The Imp–if relied on alone–will skip out on you. The Taskmaster–if allowed to completely override and/or ignore The Imp–will turn a good story into a emotionless grind.
Writers need both the passion and the effort. They need the agony and the ecstasy. Glove in hand–it’s a dual process, and the best, surest way to real accomplishment.
January 22, 2015
Are bad guys becoming extinct?
Are villains on the endangered species list?
Have writers forgotten the meaning of “antagonist?”
Why is it so difficult for neophyte writers these days to invent and design a story antagonist? If the hero is the driving force of the story, then the villain will make all the difference in whether the story is compelling or simply meh.
An antagonist is an opponent. A person or entity standing in determined opposition to whatever the protagonist is trying to accomplish.
It’s. That. Simple.
If a writer, on the other hand, doesn’t know what her protagonist wants, then she won’t get far.
Let’s consider a zombie premise:
Harriet Heroine discovers that her roommate Zoe has been infected and is now a zombie trying to eat her. The apartment–formerly a haven–is now a trap. Harriet has to get out of there–to save herself. Zoe wants to keep her there and eat her.
Two goals in direct opposition. The story will be focused, clear, and easy to follow.
Compare it with this version:
Harriet Heroine is afraid of the recent zombie outbreak near her apartment building. She barricades herself inside her home and stocks up on Twinkies, pretzels, and bottled water.
See the difference? Both versions have similar premises, but one is just a situation. The other has the foundation for a plot and can at least be a viable short story.
Here’s a fantasy premise:
Harvey Hero has inherited an old pendant made of Sacred Stone, the last piece of Sacred Stone known to exist in mortal hands. When his dying grandfather gave the pendant to Harvey, he whispered that Harvey must take the pendant back to the Island of Weir, where their family came from, and claim the treasure hidden there. Viktor Villain–aware that the pendant has the magical power to unlock the treasure chamber–pursues Harvey, intending to capture him, steal the pendant, and reach the treasure first.
But compare it with this:
Harvey Hero has inherited an old pendant made of Sacred Stone, the last piece known to exist in mortal hands. Ever since he started wearing the item, he’s been troubled by strange dreams and feels compelled to journey to the Island of Weir. Viktor Villain has taken possession of the island and has enslaved its inhabitants.
Which version has story potential? In the first version, two characters are vying for a fabulous hoard of treasure. In the second version, the protagonist is moving around without any clear purpose and the antagonist is not in direct opposition.
Another problem that often comes with the nebulous villain is when the antagonist isn’t in the same proximity as the protagonist. How can they be in conflict if they’re on opposite sides of the world?
They must intersect, frequently. They must oppose each other, directly. They must be in conflict, all the time.
Now, perhaps you’re thinking of the Harry Potter series, where Voldemort stays hidden for much of the time. Is Harry in conflict with him? Through Voldemort’s representative, yes.
Hidden villains send minions to do their dirty work of opposing the protagonist. That’s fine. It’s exciting, suspenseful, dangerous, and readable.
The problem falls when no rep shows up. Without conflict, the plot sags, stalls, and crumbles.
January 15, 2015
Do you love proofreading, or do you hate it? Do you force yourself to check over your written copy, or do you attach your manuscript blithely to emailed submissions to editors and press “Send” in the hope/belief that all is well despite neglecting to skim over that story one more time? Are you dyslexic? Are you a poor speller? Are you never sure whether an appositive clause should be closed by a comma? Should you or should you not use the “Oxford comma” and do you even know what that means?
Why don’t we check our copy thoroughly and carefully before we submit it?
The push to meet a deadline can be hanging over our heads like lowering barometric pressure, but that doesn’t excuse any writer from completing the job. And no story is complete until it’s checked for factual, spelling, punctuation, and sense errors.
On the door of my campus office is a saying: ALWAYS PROOFREAD. YOU MIGHT HAVE SOMETHING OUT.
Computers perform many useful, wonderful functions for us but even they can’t catch sense errors or understand the difference between two, to, and too. As humans allow technology to sweep them into faster and faster lives, it’s easy to get in a rush and convince yourself that a quick glance at your computer screen is sufficient to catch everything.
Except it’s not. Scientists are finding out that our brains process information differently from reading paper than a computer screen. That, in turn, affects what details we notice and what we overlook.
Expert proofreaders know that the best way to catch errors is still by reading a paper copy. However, the real world doesn’t always grant us that leisure. For example, for the past two weeks, I have been carefully combing through certain novels in my back list, checking to be sure the OCR scanner doo-dad hasn’t made any peculiar errors. An entire science fiction series from my past endeavors–the TIME TRAP books–will be going up in new electronic versions next week, with more of my older science fiction and fantasy to follow in February. Needless to say, I have been busier than a squirrel storing acorns in trying to catch up, keep up, and stay up.
I’m checking a pdf conversion, line by line, onscreen. I can’t use track changes to edit or correct the errors I find and I can’t print out a paper copy. So I’m doing my best not to let myself be caught up in the rapidity of the story pacing or in the dilemmas faced by the characters. I’m staying emotionally uninvolved, looking for errors the scanner failed to catch or else garbled. Things like “tenor” instead of “terror” or “he” instead of “be.”
Tedious work? Yes. Yet it must be done if my readers are to enjoy the stories with as few distractions as possible. And what can be more distracting than a misspelled word? It’s like trying to conduct a job interview with an applicant that has an enormous red zit glowing on the end of her nose. You can’t help but stare, no matter how hard you try.
Writers work very hard on plot, characterization, viewpoint, pacing, and setting. Perhaps they shouldn’t have to do the proofreading as well. And yet, who better for the job? Who has a bigger stake in presenting a smooth, error-free story under your name than you?
My writing career began long enough ago that I experienced publishing done the “old way” when my manuscripts passed through the hands of editors, copy editors, and proofreaders in addition to my own checking. Now, with reduced editorial staffs, writers must take on more production responsibility in seeing their work brought to print. Or, if writers are self-publishing, they must take sole charge of checking for errors and glitches.
But what happens if you aren’t by nature a meticulous, detail-oriented reader? What if you can’t detach yourself from your story or your characters’ emotional angst in order to look for correct comma placement? And, heaven forbid, what if you simply don’t know what correct comma placement IS?
If you’re shaky on punctuation rules, then it’s time to learn them. Too back-to-school for you? Yet a writer unwilling to learn punctuation is like a carpenter unwilling to measure.
The best guide remains Strunk & White. It’s short, simple, and relatively inexpensive. Or look up punctuation rules online. Information is plentiful.
Besides study, turn on the computer checker for grammar and punctuation errors. It’s not 100% foolproof by any means, but at least it will flag the most egregious mistakes and offer you suggestions for correction. The computer will also search for spelling goofs. Again, it’s not perfect. You can’t rely solely on the computer software to catch everything, and you’ll still have to read over it yourself, but it’s very useful.
You can also hire a proofreader. Universities usually have writing centers that offer tutorials, but you can hire students majoring in English or librarians or teachers at your child’s school in need of extra cash.
If you have trouble from getting caught up in your story so that you can’t objectively examine your copy, then you’ll have to work through the manuscript backwards. This means you read the last page first and work your way through the manuscript to page one.
And if even that approach fails to detach you, then use a ruler and place it beneath a sentence while you read. One line at a time. That is indeed agonizing and slow, but do what’s necessary to deliver a smooth, clean story to your audience. The longer the manuscript, the less likely it will be absolutely perfect, but give it your best effort. Don’t your characters and plot deserve that?
January 9, 2015
Without description, fiction becomes cold and abstract, and readers find it difficult to visualize the setting, characters, or character reactions. Nor can they bond with character emotions if those emotions aren’t described. Such problems create a sense of detachment, which makes it easy for readers to lose interest and drift away from the story.
On the other hand, description slows down story pace. Too much description can sink a story or cause readers to skip passages. If readers skip, they’re likely to miss important information. If they miss that, a few pages later they don’t understand where the story’s going. Once they stop understanding, they lose interest. Unfairly, they may declare that your characters are “stupid” or your story just doesn’t make sense.
Therefore, when dealing with description writers need to focus on three factors: utility, vividness, and position.
Before incorporating a passage of description into your story, ask yourself what purpose is it going to serve. Is it creating a sense of place, showcasing your world building, introducing a new character, or conveying character emotions?
Sense of place:
How easy it would be if writers could just tell readers that the story is taking place in London at 4 p.m. and leave readers to supply the rest.
Screenwriters have an advantage over prose writers in this area because of the camera. Movie or television audiences can see a vista or a house or a neighborhood or a menacing robot looming from the shadows of a poorly lit alley. It’s there on the screen. No need for the writer to expend words and energy depicting it.
However, prose writers must work much harder in conveying sense of place. We don’t want to ramble on and on, because readers will grow tired and skip our lovingly crafted paragraphs. Therefore, we need to put the image across quickly, economically, and effectively.
One of the best ways to do so is through the physical senses of your viewpoint character. Don’t just rely on the visual. Does the setting have a putrid stench? Is the air extremely cold? Are factory pistons pounding away at a deafening sound level? Does the drugged coffee have a bitter taste?
Don’t throw all the sensory impressions at your readers at the same time. For any given setting, determine the most prominent detail you want to convey and focus on that. It should be a logical one in terms of what’s happening in the plot. For example, perhaps you’re writing about a home invasion where the homeowner–your protagonist–pulls a handgun from his nightstand drawer and exchanges gunfire with the individuals who have broken into his house.
In this situation, what would be the dominant impression to describe during the gunfire? That’s right: sound.
Afterward, when the situation is over, what might the dominant impression be? Probably the smell of cordite.
By utilizing a dominant physical sense, you can describe on the fly–briefly and effectively–without employing a long, rambling passage that will slow down the story’s movement.
Painting a word picture requires strong, specific nouns and active verbs. Avoid the flabby qualifiers of adjectives and adverbs.
The big red dog walked slowly along the sidewalk.
How large is big? Does red mean the dog is a burnished color or does the dog have red paint spilled on his coat? Is he moving slowly because he’s fat, or is he limping, or is he frightened, or is he weak, or is he lost and unsure, or is he lazy?
Do you see how vague description conveys very little? No wonder readers grow impatient with it.
A mixed-breed dog roughly the same size as a bull calf and sporting crimson splotches of glistening paint on its head and shoulders roamed along the sidewalk.
Hmm. Is this vivid or confusing? In an effort to be unusual, the writer has jammed too much information together. The images clash and crowd each other. It’s not effective.
An Irish setter–red coat gleaming like a new-minted penny–ambled along the sidewalk.
Here, the writer has used the dominant impression of color to convey the dog’s appearance. The verb “ambled” indicates movement that’s content and unhurried.
However, if the writer really wants to describe a dog that’s been in the paint, let’s try that one again.
The stray dog–its head and shoulders glistening with splotches of red paint–fled down the sidewalk, spattering drops in its wake.
Don’t you expect that animal to pause under some nice old lady’s clothesline and give itself a good shake?
Now, are some of you jumping up and down, eager to remind me that I didn’t mention the dog’s size?
If the size is more important than the spilled paint, then focus on that with dominant impression. Otherwise, let that detail wait.
Where you insert description matters to your story’s dramatic (or comedic) effectiveness.
Remember that description is perceived by readers as slowing down the story action, even if momentarily. Therefore, savvy writers place small passages of description in natural pause points.
For example, a new character enters the room where other–already established–characters are talking. Everyone stops and turns to stare at the newcomer.
This is a natural pause point in the story action. Insert a paragraph of description, thus introducing the new character to readers.
Or, to return to my example of the home invasion. After the shooting is over, there’s a natural pause point as the protagonist emerges cautiously from cover, switches on the bedroom light, and stares at the shambles. The wreck of the room needs to be described to readers. Certainly the character’s emotions need description here.
However, you don’t always want to put a slow passage at a slow spot in the story’s flow.
Sometimes writers deliberately slow down their stories in order to build anticipation for a coming event or to heighten dread toward a threat that’s about to drop.
Let’s say that your protagonist has been coerced into fighting a duel at dawn. He’s not feeling confident. You want readers to worry, to anticipate the danger and action about to explode across the page once the fight starts. But you don’t want to hurry the anticipation because readers enjoy it. Well-built and well-placed anticipation draws out and intensifies story suspense, thus providing readers with more entertainment value.
Sitting in the gondola, listening to the soft chuckle of water beneath the oar, Noel cradled the rapier beneath his cloak and gazed at the narrow buildings rising up from the gray mist of dawn. The cold air stank of fish. Overhead, veins of pink and turquoise faintly marbled the sky, which was lightening from gray to pearl. The clouds were soft. Across the indigo sea, the sun climbed slowly. Its mantle of gold and coral blazed with magnificent radiance. Before it, the sea changed color, becoming turquoise curling with lacy foam. A fleet of galleys floated in silhouette upon the harbor, their sails furled, their masts at rest.
Slow? You bet! That paragraph, taken from my science fiction novel TERMINATION, is static. There’s no action other than from whoever is rowing the boat toward the assignation. Had the passage been placed in one of the story’s pause points, it would be dull reading indeed. Instead, it’s spinning out anticipation of the duel that’s about to take place. The description of a Venetian sunrise has been positioned deliberately to heighten suspense.
The greater the impending danger, the slower you can be in letting your characters approach it.
December 28, 2014
As we move through the final days of this year, some of us may be lurching along in post-holiday stupor while others are still riding the endorphins of shopping-rush. Then there are the well-ordered, organized souls who are balancing checking accounts, writing donation checks, purchasing tax-deductible items, or shopping for new cars while pre-inventory prices are rock bottom.
When it comes to creating fiction, do you consider yourself a lurching, euphoric, or organized writer?
Let’s narrow the topic further by examining how stories reach their conclusions. Some, you see, are written with a dramatically definitive ending. Others simply stop. And yet others fade, leaving readers to flip back through the last two or three pages, checking numbers to see if the last page has been torn out.
Lurching to a stop:
The lurchers of fiction tend to open with some sort of very exciting hook and a rapid plunge into story action. When that event plays out, the story’s momentum slows or even stalls until the writer thinks up another exciting event to happen next. The story jolts forward, only to slow once more, then picks up again. Story action tends to be rough and feels tacked together (which it is). The conclusion may not make a lot of sense dramatically, but it will be exciting and packed with action, usually putting the protagonist into dire danger.
Generally, there’s the effect of a rushed, incomplete finale. Questions raised within the plot may or may not be answered to reader satisfaction. Some are often forgotten or overlooked.
Because the writers of lurching stories tend to be pantsers instead of planners, the general effect of this approach is slap-dash. It may work … somehow, despite itself … but it may not. It’s a reckless way to write, and it runs the risk of leaving readers dissatisfied with how the story is finished.
Euphoria, Hysteria, and Froth!
The story that relies on its writer’s emotions alone focuses on characters more than plot. How the characters feel propels their motivations, complexities, and actions–although they may not do very much more than make tea and think a great deal about problems that are never actually dramatized on the page.
And while some lovely introspective stories have been published–THE NUMBER ONE LADIES’ DETECTIVE AGENCY by Alexander McCall Smith, for example–an inept or inexperienced writer can float, mull, and philosophize her way into a muddle.
Muddled stories tend to end up trapped in corners, with the writer unsure of how to back out. Therefore, they may simply stop with the protagonist waving tearfully to her lover as he catches his train and is borne away from her.
But is this the end? readers then wonder. How does it work out? Are they parting forever? Is she just going to stand there and weep? Will he come back? Is my book defective and missing the last chapter? How does this thing end?
As writers, we can ache for our beleaguered characters. We can grieve for them, worry over them, cry because of them, but we shouldn’t leave readers asking any of the above questions. It’s possible to finish stories plausibly and conclusively, tying up the loose ends and resolving the main plotline, without sacrificing one droplet of emotional potential.
The Organized Climax:
When one’s artistic soul is pulsating in the raw throes of creation, “organized” is an unpleasant, off-putting word. There’s no glamour to the term organized. It possesses no zing, no zip, no bling, and certainly no appeal. It’s mundane and boring–positively nauseatingly dull. It carries the connotations of hard work, discipline, labor, planning, and drudgery. Rest assured, there is no fun to be had from organized anything.
Or so says the imagination.
Yet the imagination is a lazy trickster that is not always truthful.
Bringing your story to a dramatically satisfying, exciting, intense, enthralling, cathartic conclusion takes planning, thought, and hard work. It should never be drudgery, but it’s seldom easy. If we writers do our jobs well, our stories take readers through the agony of near defeat and the relief of a logical, but unexpected reversal. Loose ends are tied up. The questions are answered. Characters get what they deserve–either good or bad. The story is finished. Readers aren’t left hanging. They’re satisfied because the story has taken them on an emotional journey and delivered the full, entertaining experience it promised.
When you sit down to write your next story, know where you want it to end before you write the beginning. Don’t lurch, leap, and contrive your way there. Think the plot events through so that your protagonist takes logical steps from start to finish. Or if your protagonist’s emotions carry her away from the story goal in pursuit of some tangent, take the time to delete that version and put her back on the path you intend her to follow.
Remember, it’s always the writer’s responsibility to wrap up a story dramatically to the reader’s satisfaction.
December 21, 2014
This is just to let you know that my second eye surgery was successful, and I’m on the mend. I’m hoping to resume reading and computer work in another week or so.
Meanwhile, I have once again put up the space tree in my office, one adorned with robots, astronauts, rocket ships, and aliens. If you look at the bottom left corner of this photo, you can see the Dalek ornament. It’s my favorite. I’ve always had a soft spot for Daleks.
Editorial feedback is coming in for my manuscript, THE FANTASY FICTION FORMULA. So far, things look positive. I’ll keep you informed of its progress.
Sorry that I can’t share more news with you, much less offer you a better post than this, but my time on the computer is up.
May your holidays be merry and bright, and happy New Year to you all.
December 12, 2014
When I was a fledgling writer, struggling to learn the writing craft, I came across the following advice:
Write what you know.
Like many sage pronouncements from the oracle of wisdom, this one is invaluable and true, but it’s subject to misinterpretation.
I failed to understand it for many years, although I tried hard at first to follow it. Then I realized that I couldn’t experience the events or visit the settings of the fantastical or historical stories I wanted to write about. I decided this saying wasn’t for me.
What I didn’t realize at the time was that the only thing we can truly know is what lies inside our hearts. What we feel. What we care about. What motivates us. What we yearn for.
Those are the things we know and understand. Those are the things we can write about with conviction and honesty … if we’re willing to explore them and share them.
Everything else–the vista across the dusty plains of Sparta, or the battering rush of wind while sky-diving–can be researched through library and online sources, walking around a location, and interviewing experts and survivors.
Therefore, let’s amend the sage piece of writing advice to
Write about what you know emotionally.
Now, does this mean you should only spill your personal experiences? Not at all!
Real life is filled with trivialities and little incidents that don’t necessarily add up to much. Real life isn’t designed to be an escalating drama in quite the same way as writers shape a story. Let us not hobble ourselves by such limitations.
Instead, we can utilize a technique I call Emotional Transference. (Sounds impressive, doesn’t it?)
It’s a simple, three-step process of analysis combined with memory. Firstly, you determine the precise and appropriate emotion needed for any given situation in your plot. Secondly, you draw on your memory of having experienced that particular emotion. Thirdly, you transfer those feelings into your character.
For example, let’s use the situation of a man who has just discovered his wife has been unfaithful to him. We begin by analyzing this character, whom I’ll call John.
How does he feel about his wife prior to this discovery? Does he love her? How much? Has he been happy with her? How long have they been married? Do they have children? Did he adore her from their first meeting, or did it take him time to fall in love?
What type of man is John? Is he hot-tempered, impetuous, impulsive? Or does he rely on reason, keep his cool, and stay laid-back?
Do you see how the answers to all these questions will have an impact on his reaction to the news?
Let’s say that he first met her at a party, where he was sitting shyly in a corner and she was the darling center of attention. She was the most beautiful girl he’d ever seen. He was drawn to her immediately, so attracted that he left his corner and found the nerve to speak to her. For him, she has been the love of his life. And although it took him a long time and much effort to court her and win her, he has always adored her.
They’ve been married five years and have a three-year-old daughter. John–content with his job and home–has had no inkling that the woman he would do anything for is dissatisfied with her life … or with him. He’s been blind to everything, ignoring the signals she’s given him.
But now, he’s discovered the truth. What will he feel?
A single, overwhelming emotion at first … then a rush of several.
Let’s choose some for him:
Of course, we could simply sum these feelings up in a single word: heartbreak.
We could write, John was heartbroken.
How dull! Readers skim over such statements, with no vicarious sharing of the character’s experience. They won’t care about John, and will shrug off his plight with no more than a twinge of sympathy.
That is not how you enthrall readers.
Instead, we must show John’s heartbreak by describing and showing his emotions. Doing so will make John come alive.
Remember step two of this process? The remembrance of your emotions?
Let’s go back to our list. The first emotion on it is shock.
Sift through your memories to a time and place where you experienced shock.
Not mere surprise dropped on you suddenly, but shock.
Shut your eyes, and conjure up that event. Did you disbelieve what you were being told or witnessing? Did you need the news repeated to you several times? And inside, was your stomach hollow? Did your legs feel weak? Were you dizzy? Did you start sweating? Were you cold? Did you have to sit down?
Did you start crying at some point? Or did you stay locked up, numb and frozen?
Draw on those sensations, and transfer them to John, whose happy world has just shattered.
Will he be boring then? Not at all. Give him emotions that bring him to life and fit his story situation, and readers will remember when they, too, have undergone broken trust and betrayal. Their own awakened emotions will mingle with John’s, and they will care. They will feel that John is vivid and interesting, and they will want to see what John does next.
That is how you write the fiction that you know.