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The death of a villain can inspire a wide range of emotions, from happiness and gratitude, to sorrow and remorse. I love me a good villain, and some of my favourite story moments are the amazing death scenes some villains are granted. That is, of course, assuming the death is indeed amazing and not an affront to their character arc. I am so in love with the closure of a good villain death that a bad one can ruin the entire story for me.
So without further ado, here are some pet peeves of mine: cheap villain death tropes I’d love to see gone forever, and how they can maybe be flipped around.
Oftentimes a cheap villain death is the result of a deus ex machina: the hero doesn’t actually have the means to kill the villain because they’re too damn awesome, so the villain accidentally dies when they slip and fall off a cliff during the final fight. Unless the hero has actual control over how the villain dies, such as a clever plan to lure them to the edge, this is the cheapest of cheap deaths.
Accidental death can only work if the villain is immediately replaced by an even greater threat to the hero that has somehow been vaguely hinted at or foreshadowed beforehand so it doesn’t come out of nowhere. Perhaps they’re fighting on an active volcano that suddenly explodes and kills the villain. The foreshadowing is in the fact that it’s active, and the bigger threat is the indiscriminate firebombing and hot ash the hero now has to escape—bigger, because volcanoes don’t think, so the hero can’t guess what its next move might be. This will still feel a little cheap if it’s not well done, however, because as it’s your story, you can choose when the volcano blows, and choosing to kill an antagonist with a natural disaster over which the hero has no control is underwhelming. The other problem in this kind of scenario is that as soon as the hero is out of the volcano’s range, safety is within reach even if the volcano hasn’t been destroyed, compared to the hero still being in constant potential danger if the villain were still alive.
The only good kind of accidental death is when the new threat is worse than the old, it has an active agenda, and it’s not directly connected to the villain. In fact, in these situations, this big annoyance of mine can be totally turned around into something brilliant. If the new threat is something which even the old villain had no concept of, you’re not only effectively upping the ante by making the old villain look like a schoolyard bully, you’re also vastly expanding your universe. If you set up your story well, dropping hints here and there of all the possible people (or monsters) in such a way that a new threat is plausible, you can follow up the old villain with a new, terrifying and vast enemy that will make your hero feel incredibly small and will eventually make the victory that much sweeter. But in this case, the old villain isn’t the true villain of the story; they’re more of a stepping stone. And since stepping stones are not an ending but part of the journey, the old villain’s accidental death won’t feel cheap: it’ll lead to something bigger.
Death is also cheap when the villain’s intelligence is insulted. More than any, I hate this kind of death the most. If the villain is really smart, the hero’s going to have a hell of a time luring them to a cliff. Unless they have no choice, the odds that smart characters would willingly put themselves in dangerous positions are very low. There is nothing more frustrating than watching an otherwise remarkable and cerebral villain suddenly become a half-wit so that the hero can defeat them. Not to mention it makes the hero’s victory completely hollow. The most satisfying time to defeat an enemy is when their faculties are at full power, anyway. Why blunt their intellect if you’ve worked so hard to write them as smart, effectively making the reader anticipate an ending where they’re finally outsmarted?
The only time this convenient stupidity can be forgiven is in comedy. This kind of thing can make for a good punchline. However, it also relies on your story being a parody. Otherwise, it’s a glaring continuity error and an unfair way of treating both your villain and hero, because following the kill, the hero will develop a reputation of only being able to defeat enemies when they mysteriously become very weak.
My final pet peeve is a classic villain trait: arrogance. It’s a frustrating reason for a villain’s death, mostly because it isn’t very original, but also because I have a personal bias toward villains that don’t think of themselves as unbeatable, since people act in more interesting ways if they think they’re being threatened. If we revisit the accidental death scenario, and consider again why it’s better for the new, bigger threat to have little to no connection to the old villain, another reason would be that if the new threat were the villain’s fault, their character becomes an archetype for hubris: “His ego made him blind,” “He thought he could control the strain.” This isn’t a terrible thing, but if manmade threats are the worst possible ones in your world, you could argue that you’re restricting yourself.
They also make for really annoying characters. The ones that yell “I’m invincible!” as they’re dying are pathetic, and I always thought they cast a shadow over the hero’s victory. Not to mention, defeating a villain whose fatal flaw is hubris tends to involve a formulaic take-down by people who ultimately come across as preachy and say things like “You can’t play God,” or “He flew too close to the sun.”
However, hubris can be a genuinely interesting character trait. And there are times when I really enjoy it. But I’ve noticed that every single one of those times, the hubris was something I discovered afterwards upon reflection; something that wasn’t told to me, but that I began to understand as I considered the story from start to finish. In other words, if you’re going to give your villain a god complex, no need to shout it from the hills. Subtlety is a pretty nice touch.
So there they are. Three massive and common villain death pet peeves of my very own. Obviously, they are tailored to my personal tastes. I’d love to hear yours.
I’m in the process of outlining the sequel to my debut YA novel, Ivory and Bone, so I’ve been thinking a lot about conflict and the purpose it fills in a story.
“Joe went to the store and bought a dozen eggs,” is not much of a story, mainly because it doesn’t contain any conflict.
Joe went to the store and picked up a carton of eggs. On the way to the register, a cart came out of nowhere and smashed into him, breaking the eggs. He picked up a second carton, but slipped in a puddle of melting ice cream, and all the eggs broke. He picked up a third carton of eggs, but realized they were past their sell-by date. Just then, Joe noticed the doughnut case. Five minutes later, Joe was on his way home with a dozen doughnuts.
That second example is a story (albeit a boring story,) because it has conflict. But it is boooooring. And at least part of the reason this story is boring is because the conflict doesn’t have any meaning. It doesn’t tell us anything about Joe, his character, or the choices he makes. It doesn’t make us care. It doesn’t resonate.
I’ve been thinking about these concepts as I consider the conflicts my own characters encounter. There are so many ways to put an obstacle in your character’s path, but they won’t all serve the story equally well.
Let’s go back to Joe. All of the obstacles he encountered to buying the eggs were impersonal and did little to develop or reveal Joe as a character or make us care about him (except, maybe, for his final decision to buy doughnuts instead of eggs!) They also held no hint of something interesting about Joe and his quest for eggs that was yet to be discovered.
But what if we revisit those obstacles and tweak them just a bit?
Joe went to the store and picked up a carton of eggs. On the way to the register, a cart came out of nowhere and smashed into him, breaking the eggs. Looking up, Joe spotted a man running away down the frozen foods aisle. The man gave one quick glance over his shoulder, and Joe thought he looked like his grandfather, but that was impossible. His grandfather had died just last month of coronary heart disease complicated by uncontrolled high cholesterol, and Joe did not believe in ghosts.
Joe picked up a second carton, but he slipped in a puddle of melting ice cream, and all the eggs broke. As he lay sprawled on the floor, Joe noticed that a sign emblazoned “Caution-Wet Floor” had been folded and set to the side, where it wouldn’t be noticed. Had someone intentionally sabotaged the dairy aisle?
Joe picked up a third carton of eggs, but realized they were past their sell-by date. A strange chill ran over Joe’s skin, as he wondered if someone—or something—was determined to thwart his quest for eggs.
Just then, Joe noticed the doughnut case. Five minutes later, he was on his way home with a dozen doughnuts, hoping he had put the trauma of the dairy aisle behind him.
Joe’s story is finally becoming a bit more interesting, because the conflict is beginning to take on some meaning. We know that Joe recently lost his grandfather. We know that eating eggs may have contributed to the cause of his grandfather’s death. We know that Joe’s obstacles may have been more than coincidences, since there are signs that the cart and the ice cream puddle may have been deliberately intended to thwart his progress.
To us as readers, Joe’s struggles become more interesting when we see the personal meaning behind them. The conflict now reveals a bit about his character. It raises questions in our minds about the source of the conflict and what may come next. We care more about Joe—we may even relate to him and root for him.
Consider the first book of Suzanne Collins’s Hunger Games trilogy. The inciting incident occurs when the main character, Katniss Everdeen, is sent to the Games. It would have been enough if Katniss’s name had been pulled from the bowl at the reaping, triggering the main conflict of the story. But instead, the name of Katniss’s little sister, Prim, is pulled from the bowl, and Katniss volunteers to go to the Games in her place.
This is a fantastic example of conflict that resonates. If Katniss’s own name had been called, the story would have gone in the same direction. But because she volunteers, the conflict now tells us about her character, it makes the struggle she faces more personal, and gives us cause to relate to her and root for her. It’s a small choice that makes a huge difference.
What are your thoughts on conflict that resonates? Can you think of other examples from books or movies? Do you strive for meaningful conflict in your own writing? Please share your thoughts in the comments!
Recently, I have been contemplating what it means to serialize a novel. We wouldn’t have Charles Dickens without serial publishing – nearly all of his novels were serialized back in the day, when magazines published a chapter from stories like A Tale of Two Cities or Bleak House every week or month. Though we moved away from that form of novel publishing, websites like Wattpad have created a resurgence, particularly with YA stories. Writers are able to publish one chapter or segment at a time and obtain reader input as the story progresses, quite possibly changing what the narrative may have otherwise been in a traditionally published format.
I was lucky enough to have Heather Demetrios, author of Something Real and I’ll Meet You There to name a few, answer some of my questions regarding her experiences with this form of publishing, based on her serialized novel, The Lexie Project. If you’ve read Something Real by Heather then you’ll recognize some of the characters in The Lexie Project. Anyone considering launching a serialized or multi-platform project should take Heather’s answers to heart – she has put a lot of work and thought into the story and the social platform, and is ready and willing to share her lessons and expertise. Check out her interview below!
Me: First, tell us about The Lexie Project!
Heather: The Lexie Project is a young/new adult multi-platform story that is being written in real time with crowd sourcing. It’s a satirical look at reality TV and fame: think The Lizzie Bennet Diaries meets Clueless and Keeping Up With The Kardashians. My readers send me comments about what they hope Lexie will do in the future and I take that into consideration as I write. I also incorporate real life current events into the narrative, which takes it to unexpected and interesting places! I’m posting a chapter a week on Wattpad and on The Lexie Project website in addition to blogging as Lexie, tweeting as Lexie, and engaging with readers on Lexie’s other social media sites. I’ve hired an actress to play Lexie in videos and on Instagram. Lexie’s roommate is a YouTube star and so I’ve also hired another actress to play her and post videos. There’s even a podcast interview series with Lexie and “famed” celeb podcaster T.J. Maxxx. As you can see, the story very much incorporates our real life connection to social media and other forms of online media. All the social media and blogging is extra—the story reads as a complete novel on Wattpad itself, so for readers who don’t want to be online too much, they can still have full access to Lexie’s narrative.
Me: Something Real was traditionally published. The Lexie Project is a serialized web novel. What was it about a serial web platform that allowed you to tell this story in a way you couldn’t with traditional publishing?
Heather: I wanted the narrative to have the feel of reality TV and reflect the real-time life of a young celebrity. A novel takes lots of time to write and at least eighteen months between the time it sells and appears on bookshelves. Lexie is nineteen, very much enmeshed in our world of instant gratification fame. I wanted readers to get a sense of what her life is like, how she responds as things happen, whether that be an angry tweet using a hastag that is trending right now (like #SingleBecause) or selfie posted on Instagram. Lexie isn’t going to wait two or more years to tell you how she feels about something—she isn’t even going to wait an hour. In a way, we’ve all become our own biographers, curating our life story as we live it via our social media. Lexie’s doing the same.
Me: What should writers consider before choosing to serialize their own novels on a forum like Wattpad, versus attempting traditional or even self-publishing?
Heather: The first thing is that you don’t get paid writing a story this way and there’s no guarantee it will get picked up by a publisher down the road. Macmillan (my publisher for Lexie’s companion novel, Something Real) has been super supportive, but this project is not under contract with them—and I don’t know if it ever will be. I’m taking a risk here. Of course, I want the book to be published traditionally after I complete the online aspect of it. I think it has potential to do really well in that arena, as well. Not all readers are going to want to access Lexie’s story online. Plus, there’s the benefit of fun extras and editing and the other important things that go into a traditionally published, vetted book that readers who’ve already accessed Lexie online would like to have, as well. But I also see multi-platform storytelling as a part of publishing’s future and I want to get in on the ground level, be a maven of sorts.
Another major consideration writers should think about is the time a multi-platform project takes. Spoiler alert: it’s taking over my life. I currently have five books under traditional publishing contracts for which I receive advances to live off of. If I didn’t have those, I wouldn’t be doing this right now. Having those and Lexie…well, you can imagine how much sleep and free time I get.
Finally, your story has to work for a multi-platform project. Some stories aren’t best told this way. I mean, would you want to read M.T. Anderson’s Octavian Nothing this way? No. But you might want to read Feed like this. I have plans for a multi-platform sci-fi, but it’s going to look very different from Lexie. And I have plans for other novels—both adult and young adult—that are only going to be found in book form. You’ve got to do right by your story and characters first and foremost. The rest is gravy.
Me:Do you think the fact that you have been traditionally published provided the foundation for this project? Or is this something you could have done without first being traditionally published?
Heather: Frankly, I think starting this way would be a waste of time for any writer who hopes to be traditionally published and make a living off of their words. You do hear stories about publishers picking up books by Wattpad writers with a huge following, but the return on that investment—from what I’ve heard—isn’t always paying off for the publisher. That’s not to say you can’t break into publishing this way—I just wouldn’t bank on it. I think the fact that I’m traditionally published gives me an immediate fan base and readership. But even for me, it’s slow going. That’s part of why you can access the story both on Wattpad and Lexie’s website (which is a Tumblr platform). I knew my adult readers weren’t really on Wattpad and wouldn’t be super keen on learning how to navigate yet another social media site.
Me: What is the most important thing you have learned from this process? The biggest challenge you’ve had to overcome?
Heather: I’ve actually started a blog series called Lessons From Lexie, because I’m really interested in tracking this experience. It’s, as I often say, both the Wild West of storytelling and YA on crack. The biggest thing I’ve learned is that it’s going to take five times as long to do it as you think it would. You have to be on point like nobody’s business. There are so many things outside the story to keep track of, so if you’re not careful, it can be very easy to let the writing get lazy or to just go with the easiest or most sensational plot choices. My biggest challenge, then, has been not losing sight of crafting Lexie with the same care and attention on all story levels as I do with my other books. So far, so good—but it’s a lot of work.
Me: Finally, If you could give a writer planning to serialize his/her novel one piece of advice, what would it be?
Heather: Plan as much as you can and never put any writing out there that isn’t stellar. Usually, my readers don’t get to see my work until it’s been looked at by loads of readers, copy-edited, and vetted by gate keepers and my agent. My books go through a writing and editorial process that takes years. The chapters I post for Lexie—since I’m crowd sourcing and incorporating current events—get less than seven days. When you work this way, you’re putting your first draft out there, no matter how many betas you have or how much you revise your weekly installment. That takes a lot of hubris. You need strong, solid craft and experience. You also need to be deeply grounded in your story and characters. I had a whole novel—Something Real—to get me to where I needed to be with Lexie. So there’s a lot that has to happen behind the scenes before you get online. Multi-platform storytelling is not for the faint of heart or anyone who isn’t a perfectionist—so be warned.
All of Heather’s advice and wisdom is spot-on, so I want to thank Heather for taking the time to talk to our readers about serial publishing and The Lexie Project! You can find more information about Heather and her books on her website, listed below, or read The Lexie Project on Wattpad. Let me know your thoughts below!
About Heather: When she’s not traipsing around the world or spending time in imaginary places, Heather Demetrios lives with her husband in New York City. Originally from Los Angeles, she now calls the East Coast home. Heather has an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts and is a recipient of the PEN New England Susan P. Bloom Discovery Award for her debut novel, Something Real. Her other novels include Exquisite Captive, the first in the Dark Caravan Cycle fantasy series, I’ll Meet You There and the multi-platform serial novel, The Lexie Project. She is the founder of Live Your What, a project dedicated to creating writing opportunities for underserved youth. Find out more about Heather and her books at www.heatherdemetrios.com, or come hang out with her on Twitter (@HDemetrios) and any number of social media sites.
Kat again! I know I’m not the only one who’s always looking for ways to draft faster. So here today is indie writer Heather C. Myers to talk about ways you can increase your word count
Writing manuscripts fast is pretty much mandatory in the indie publishing world if you want to be successful. Because anyone can publish a book now, it’s important for an indie author to produce quality work in an efficient amount of time in order to stay relevant, cross-sell and show readers that they’re committed to their audience by producing multiple books for consumption. It’s also important for traditionally-published authors, as they have deadlines they must adhere to. The challenge is: how do you generate quality material at a fast pace?
Outline: Outlining is what I recommend to every author who asks for writing advice. It reminds you where you want to take your story and why you’re writing it. Also, it prevents writer’s block in that you always know what you’re going to write! Outlines don’t have to be constricting and they’re not set in stone. I outline by writing 2-3 sentences that describe the main points for each chapter. Everything else, I come up with at the seat of my pants.
Give yourself a timeframe: How soon do you want to finish your novel? Is it a month? Two months? 1 year? Whatever it is, make sure you give yourself room for unexpected and last minute events that can happen – finals you have to study for, a birthday party or a vacation you have to go to. Remember – the shorter amount of time you give yourself, the more you’ll have to write. If I want to finish my manuscript in 6 weeks, I usually give myself 2 months, just in case.
Come up with a daily word count that fits with your timeframe: It’s important to come up with a number you believe you can achieve each and every day, so make sure you set your timeframe accordingly. It’s nice if you want to finish your 60,000-word novel in 2 weeks, but unless you can write 4,300 words for 14 days straight, it won’t happen. For me, I write 5 days a week, and 1,500 words every day. That will get me 7,500 words per week, 30,000 words per month. This means I finish a 60,000-word novel in two months – with the weekends off!
Now, don’t pick a big number because you want to get the writing part over quickly. It’s necessary you pick a word count you believe you can achieve every day. This way, you won’t burn out and you’ll feel accomplished every time you do meet it. It will push you to continue to write because you can see your results. Maybe only 500 words each and every day works for you. 500 words written every day is still 3,500 words a week, 14,000 words a month. Which means you’d finish your 60,000-word novel in just over 4 months. This may not sound like it’s fast, but if you consider that it takes people years to finish their manuscript (I’m looking you George RR Martin!), 4 months is not that long in the grand scheme of things. Plus, you have to think of writing with the turtle & hare mentality: If you start of strong but burn out, you’re not going to finish in the amount of time you want to. However, if you pace yourself and do a little every day, you’ll finish exactly on schedule.
Create a writing schedule: If your intention is to write fast, you need to keep yourself in check. Schedule your writing for every day you plan to write. This could mean you have to wake up early or you go to bed late – whatever works for you and your daily word count to ensure your writing won’t be interrupted.
Public accountability: Studies show that if you make a public declaration of something you intend to do, you’re more likely to follow it. Tweet out your daily word count goal and then tweet out if you matched it. Post it on Facebook. Have an accountabili-buddy. Hold yourself accountable and you’re more likely to succeed.
And there you have it! I follow these tips to the letter, even though I have a baby and a part time job, and it’s allowed me to write manuscripts in 6-8 weeks – which is perfect for my publishing schedule. Implementing these little tricks will do wonders for yours!
Heather C. Myers is a chick lit/romance/new adult indie author with 12 self-published titles on Amazon, and plans for more. She recently signed with Anchor Group Publishing, with the first book in two of her series to be released this month. You can find her watching the Anaheim Ducks during hockey season, traveling or at Disneyland with her family. She lives in Orange County, California with her husband, her daughter, two step-sons and two rambunctious terrier-mixes. To learn more about her, please sign up for her reader’s list here: http://eepurl.com/0vqLX
Your world is your own; traditional gender roles need not apply. This means that even if your fantasy is inspired by 1300s France, you can still have women being professors at universities or leading armies. A classic image that comes to mind of a woman in history is the passive homemaker waiting for her husband to come back from war. There were certainly quite a few of those, but that image doesn’t account for what these women actually did while waiting. The result is a picture where a lady stands at the threshold of her manor looking wistfully out the horizon to catch a shadow of her husband. In reality, she was probably too damn busy making sure her crop yield would cover both her taxes and the food needs of her household. Since stories tend to focus on the epic, and since fantasy in particular isn’t usually about actual, historical daily life, the public perception of gender roles in history is still a little stuck in this romanticized notion of passive and desperate reliance on men. The people that read these stories then go on to write their own, continuing the vicious, misinformed cycle that can even go so far as to influence society’s perception of present-day reality. Literature is an extremely powerful brainwashing tool.
Here’s the thing. Only you can break this oversaturation and constant recycling of “women had no power back then.” A good way to do that is by doing some research in unbiased gender history and exposing the public to the shocking notion that humans didn’t have the luxury to lock fifty percent of the population into an ivory tower.
Another way to do it is to write an awesome book where you totally reinvent gender roles within your world. And you can start as small as with your main character’s background story.
Alter the Intention
If you have a girl whose character arc depends on her being extremely sheltered at the start, don’t let the reason she’s sheltered rely on the fact that she’s female. Not only is it kind of lazy, it’s dependent on exactly the sort of cultural norm you’re trying to steer away from. Instead, it could be that a kidnapping attempt in her early childhood led to her parents overreacting. If she’s not allowed to learn swordplay, it could be because her family believes she’d never have use for it since they’d always be protecting her. If she’s being forced to marry against her will, it’s because they want to make sure she’s always provided for. The idea is that the driving forces behind her important life events will have little to do with the basic fact that she’s female. If you change the intention and complicate the reasoning from “because she’s a girl” to something less gender-related, it becomes actual logic that can be used in plot and character development: The story starts with her running away from the arranged marriage, arranged because her family’s misguided but genuine concern for her well-being is blinding them to her misery. Just as she’s trying to adjust to the novelty of freedom, the attempted kidnappers resurface, suddenly throwing her into crippling self-doubt. She can’t physically fight back against them because she’s weak; but she’s weak not because she’s a girl, but because she was never taught how to fight. The story that ends up being told is not one about a girl struggling against the patriarchy but one about a girl overcoming insecurity ingrained from childhood by an overprotective family she feels she cannot return to.
Weaknesses Are Allowed
Women are traditionally viewed as the weaker and more submissive sex. Breaking out of this view in your story might lead you to the conclusion that your main girl character has to be physically and emotionally strong. A common thing I come across (and sometimes catch myself writing) is a female character who overcompensates for all those damsels in distress by being ridiculously tough in every way possible. This “strong female protagonist”, often patronisingly described as feisty, turns into a caricature of a person instead of a representation of reality. For example, the girl above who was protected all her life and never learned to fight still probably won’t be able to fight very well just a few months after she’s left home. Maybe she’ll never be able to fight well. Some people are just uncoordinated. This means that she’ll inevitably have to rely on those around her for physical protection. And that’s totally fine. Because again, the reason she’s physically weak is because she just is. That doesn’t mean she’s not crafty and can’t help out in different ways. It just means that when one of those kidnappers shows up, she won’t be the one fighting them; that role will go to the person protecting her. She doesn’t have to have all the qualities of the “strong female protagonist”. She first and foremost has to be a believable person.
By the way, that girl’s protector can easily be a lady. The kidnappers can also be ladies. All of the characters can be ladies. Why not? A lot of times the opposite is true, with men occupying all active roles and women left to the job of “plot device”, up there in importance with Tree #2 in the elementary school play. In an attempt to remedy this, some people, while still having women as mostly weak and submissive, will nevertheless have a couple of ladies in incredibly powerful leadership roles. This is excellent; it shows that women in that writer’s world are able to achieve a position that relies on their intelligence and strength. However, these stories often miss the women in less powerful roles. These women have to climb that ladder somehow. They didn’t get to the top overnight, which means they have to have had a lower status in the past. Regardless, women will often be absent from starting or midrange roles. You don’t usually see a woman as a foot soldier, unless she’s a main character. And even if you do, she’s always something more; undiscovered prodigy bomb technician that diffuses the bomb at the last minute; master sniper that helps them hit their target; top-class martial artist that leads them through a push. She’s never just a bumbling soldier who didn’t clean her gun properly, like so many of the other male peons are.
It all goes back to the initial lack of women in these stories, and the attempt to rectify this lack. During this attempt, the women become special, having skills that are sometimes better than those of most men. At first glance this doesn’t seem bad, because it seems to show women who are powerful and successful in roles traditionally held by men. But there’s a sneaky kind of damage to it: it implies that women can only be in these roles if their skill sets are abnormally high. The best thing you can do for gender equality in your world is to take a bunch of women, put them on the front lines with the men, kill them all, and then have everybody react with equal grief. None of this “Even the women were killed!” None of this “Women and children first!” (…Well, children first, yes.)
Which leads me to my last point.
Don’t Make It a Big Deal
If, in your world, traditional gender roles don’t apply, then you don’t have to justify why one of the best warriors in the land is a woman. Similarly, you have to remember to make some of the most mediocre warriors women as well. The worst thing you can do is have people constantly commenting on how strong she is for a woman, or how she’s the only woman in her class, or how even though she’s a fighter she still knows how to cook. Nobody cares. The men also probably know how to cook. It’s an important part of being an independent person. Drawing attention to the woman’s gender will take power away from why she’s as successful as she is: because she’s strong, because she’s skilled, and because she learned how to fight. You never hear phrases like, “Yeah he’s a pretty good fighter for a man.” Though, you might hear, “Yeah he sews pretty well for a man.” And that is just as damaging for the other side.
Gender Still Exists
Gender is a thing, and it’s foolish to ignore it…which seems to contradict everything I’ve just said. Still, physically, men and women are different. This will always result in situations where one character might be better at completing a task than another simply because of their gender. The key is that one gender should never be excluded from the possibility of doing that task, excepting in obviously physically limiting situations (because I just know that somebody’s going to say that a man can’t birth a child). And even in a world of equality, there will always be some outlying group of misogynists or misandrists itching to push people down. They can be part of your story too. And if your story is good at putting on display the strengths and weaknesses of the characters, and if those strengths and weaknesses are well-developed and don’t rely on gender, then it can expose the individual and shared features that your characters possess, and most importantly, uncover how absolutely ridiculous those misogynists and misandrists are.
Because oh my god. If you could build a world like the one I’ve described, I would read that book. I would read that book so hard.
Writing a book isn’t easy. I think we can all agree on that. So the realization that you might need to cut chunks — not just little pieces, like I talked about here, but big things — can hurt. I mean, after writing all those words, it can feel like a big waste to cut them!
Here are some reasons to go for it, though:
1. It’ll make the book stronger.
If you’ve already decided that a certain subplot isn’t necessary, or a scene isn’t doing enough work to deserve to stick around, or a conversation has too much blah blah and not enough interesting stuff, then you already know the story will be stronger and better paced without it. I’m not telling you anything you don’t already know.
2. You’re not wasting words.
I know it can feel like that, but you’re not. Sometimes you need to write something just so you know what you don’t need in the story. Or, in my case recently, I needed to see several parts of my characters’ history, but aside from a few important moments, it wasn’t big or interesting or important enough to deserve to stay on the page. I needed to get that part of the story out of my system so could know, but that was iceberg stuff — and not the tip that shows.
As for how to make the cuts?
1. Identify what you need to keep.
Be extremely honest. If there isn’t anything that needs to stay, just highlight and cut the whole thing. (I assume you have a different draft saved somewhere else that has all this stuff. Or, if you’re using Scrivener, you’ve taken a Snapshot and have plenty of backups.)
You probably already know what needs to stay, but some general advice:
a) Can the reader understand the story without this part? If not, keep it! b) Does it move the story forward and reveal something (motivations/worldbuilding/theme) in a new way? If so, keep it!
In my case, I was cutting a bunch of flashback scenes down to the most important moments. Down from over a thousand (or two thousand!) words to under five hundred. I looked for the meatiest bits. The big, pivotal moments. The one, most important thing I needed to share with the reader.
2. Make the cut.
Yeah. It’s a big step. It gets its own number.
3. Smooth out the edges.
Chances are you chopped up some transitions and messed with your pacing when you snipped out a huge chunk of text, so go through and fix them. Take a careful look at the beginning and end of the cuts for transitions. Read the whole thing through and see how it sounds. Is it too fast now? Maybe add a beat or two to make it feel more natural. (But not too many! You cut for a reason, after all!)
Don’t be shy about going through it a few times! You’ll probably find more and more places to smooth out. It’s a delicate process, so take your time.
4. Eat a cookie.
What? You worked hard. You deserve a reward.
What do you guys think? Any tips I missed? What other advice would you give to someone who’s looking at cutting a huge chunk of their beloved book?
If you’ve ever visited the DEPARTURES area of the airport, you probably know that it is not exactly an oasis of tranquility. There are cars trying to park; cars trying to double park, cars trying to squeeze out of where they’ve double-parked, orange cones, orange vests, whistles, and general chaos.
I was being dropped off at Burbank Bob Hope Airport by my mom and dad, 74 and 80 respectively, and wanted to debark as efficiently as possible so they could be on their way. Adjusting my new felt hat, I strapped my laptop bag across my chest, hauled out my suitcase, and hugged my parents a quick goodbye.
Approaching the Southwest counter, I reached for my purse.
And felt air.
My stomach dropped to my knees. I had made a big mistake. I left my purse in my parents’ car.
Stacey’s troublesome vessel of all things crucial, circa 2004, Anthropologie.
Frantically, I searched my laptop bag, hoping I had jammed it in without realizing. But, no. My purse was in the carpool lane of the Five freeway, headed down to the OC. How the heck was I getting on a plane without my ID?
I couldn’t make a phone call, as I didn’t have a cell phone. I couldn’t even use a pay phone, as I had no money. (And btw, the sudden absence of money tends to amplify one’s hunger pains).
I could ask someone to loan me change, but would they think I was a panhandler? And my hat, which I thought was stylish, suddenly cast a shadow of suspicion upon me. Suspicious people always wear hats.
I might have started to hyperventilate. My flight was leaving in an hour.
A petite Japanese security guard asked if everything was alright.
“I left my purse in my parents’ car!” I blubbered.
She tsked her tongue, but then fished out a dollar’s worth in coins so I could use a payphone. After profusely thanking her, I dropped two quarters into the first phone. A metallic crunching and gargling followed, which I believe was the sound of the phone eating my change.
Trying not to panic, I moved onto the next phone. This time, the call went through.
But no one picked up. Remember how I mentioned the age of my parents? Well, with old age comes certain …realities, such as, hearing loss. Mom’s voicemail answered, but that didn’t help me because even if she heard the ding of voicemail, she doesn’t know how to check it (another age-related reality). I tried calling my husband collect, like, a billion times. But it turns out, since his company pays for his cell phone, its collect call feature is disabled.
I explained my situation to Southwest. I must have looked honest, as they issued me the ticket, with the caution that security still might refuse me. Shame-faced, I stepped to the security counter and tried to explain why I wasn’t carrying my ID.
He frowned, and I grew smaller. “Where do you work?”
“At home. I mean, I’m self-employed.”
Another frown, another inch shorter. “Occupation?”
Another frown, this one with an upward flick of his pupils that says, isn’t everyone?
If only I had one of my books on me. I could show him my author picture.
Then it occurred to me, I could show him my author website.
After perusing the site, then conducting a thorough search of myself and my luggage, security finally did let me through.
Stephanie: When Stacey first told me this story, I felt horrible. But since I’m a teacher, I also thought this would make an awesome writing lesson.
The thing I loved about this story (from a writing perspective, because obviously I felt terrible that my friend went through so much stress) was that everything that could go wrong did go wrong. As Stacey said, everyone knows you can’t get on a plane without an ID. And this situation was so much worse because on top of not having her ID:
The hat of suspicion and lawlessness.
Stacey did not have her phone.
The only people who could help her (Stacey’s parents) were impaired, and therefore unable to come to her rescue.
She was hungry.
Her husband wasn’t answering the phone.
On top of not having an ID, she was also wearing a hat, which made her highly suspicious to airport personnel.
And the clock was rapidly ticking. Stacey only had one hour.
Now, imagine you’re writing a character and you’ve put them in this same situation. It could be really tempting to have another character (maybe the husband) make a miraculous appearance and save the day. Perhaps this husband calls in a favor with the head of security. And not only does your character get onto the plane, but they are upgraded to first class and handed a glass of champagne.
Unfortunately that did not happen to Stacey. But I believe what happened was even better. Stacey used her smarts to save herself, by directing the security to her author website, where her photo was able to confirm her identity.
Now if Stacey were a character, not only would readers think, wow this woman is smart! They would also know a little more about her character, because not only did this action save the day, it revealed more about her background, mainly, her profession.
People are always saying, put your characters in the worst situations possible, but then, too often, characters don’t use their intelligence to get out of those miserable scenarios. Because of this, writers often miss great opportunities to deepen their characters, and make their stories richer.
Think about whatever story you’re working on. Are there any scenes where you can pile on more conflicts? Are there scenes where you can show off your character’s strengths, instead of having someone else save the day?
Also, if any of you have stories similar to Stacey’s, we’d love to hear them:
There are many facets of a strong protagonist. And as we juggle the different pieces of characterization with the goal of building someone truly exceptional, one of the biggest jobs is to make sure readers connect to protagonist, understand his or her goals, and most importantly, find them worth rooting for.
Stating the obvious here, right? Sure. But achieving worthiness is easier said than done. Deeper and more complex than simple likability, worthiness means delivering on meaningful character qualities that will elevate your protagonist in the reader’s eyes.
Any Character Can Be Likeable, But Your Protagonist Must Be Worthy
There are many attractive traits and behaviors that hold universal appeal. Recently I wrote this post discussing how the Love Interest in a romance novel needs to capture not just the heart of the protagonist, but the reader’s also. Why is this so important? Because if an author does their job correctly, readers will want the protagonist to get what they deserve, and in romance, that’s a likeable match…the perfect partner.
The stakes are even higher when it comes to the protagonist, however. To win over the reader we need to stretch past likability and achieve true worthiness. We want readers to believe there’s something compelling and special about our character so they root for him. To do that, not only should the very best bits of a protagonist’s personality shine throughout the story, but something even more meaningful.
Your Hero’s Center: Their Moral Compass
What really resonates with readers is when a character shows deep convictions–a passion for something meaningful. Why is this? Because buried deep within each of us is our moral center, a belief system that influences our every thought, action and choice. And, for characters to be authentic, they too must display a highly tuned set of beliefs that guide their motivations.
While it’s easy to assume that “good” or “worthy” characters must all have a similar moral compass, the truth is that this part of an individual is truly unique. How a person was raised, who and what influenced them, and the positive and negative lessons learned along the way will shape their moral code. This is true of life, and so should be true in fiction.
In light of this, do you know what represents right and wrong to your hero or heroine? What moral lines will he or she never cross? What moral belief stands above the rest–kindness? Loyalty? Justice? Equality? Something else? Understanding your hero’s moral center is key to knowing which attributes will naturally line up with his beliefs.
Think of your character’s personality like the “bulls eye” target. The innermost circle (the eye) contain positive attributes that go deepest, influencing which other traits will also likely form. In The Positive Trait Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide To Character Attributes, Becca and I refer to these as Moral Attributes as they are tied directly to the character’s belief system. For example, if kindness is a core belief, it becomes one of the character’s moral attributes, and will help dictate what other attributes form. A kind person may also be perceptive, courteous, unselfish, and tolerant, because these traits are supportive of this central trait and moral belief.
On the other hand, attributes like analytical, flamboyant, and persuasive may not be personality stepping stones. An analytical person studies and weighs, and only then chooses to act (or not). A flamboyant person isn’t afraid to be themselves, even if it means making others slightly uncomfortable. A persuasive person likes to be involved and drive decisions rather than wait to see where a need might form. So in some way, each of these attributes doesn’t quite line up to a person who prizes open giving and goodwill above all else.
Understanding the character’s moral center helps you build a protagonist that sticks to who he is deep down no matter what. To peel back the layers on your character’s morality, think about the person’s backstory and which people and events taught the character something about life and how the world works, in good ways and bad. Here are a few more articles on this important aspect of character building:
Years ago, when I was in competitive dance, my instructor often told the group we should practice like we meant to perform. Which meant that from the very beginning of putting together a new routine — learning new steps and memorizing choreography — we had to smile (or make whatever facial expressions were appropriate for that style of dance). We had to dance “full out,” including jumps and turns, and other things that we could have “marked” that early in the process. In the months and weeks leading up to performances, we put on a show every time. We gave it our best even when we’d done the whole dance twenty times that day and had twenty more to go.
The idea was that we’d get so used to doing the dance correctly every time, right down to replacing expressions of concentration with whatever was appropriate for that style of dance, we’d unconsciously do the same during the performance.
We practiced like we meant to perform.
Writing is not a performance art (as author Elizabeth Bear says). And thank goodness for that. But writing as if someone’s going to read this draft still benefits me. Here are some things I like to keep in mind, even as I’m writing my first draft:
1. I have a plan before I go in.
This doesn’t mean The Plan can’t change. It usually does. But The Plan gives me an idea of what the whole thing should look like — what moods and feelings I want to convey to the reader. When The Plan has to change, I don’t just adjust that one spot. I go through everything I have and figure out how the one change affects the rest. I revise The Plan accordingly.
2. I research as I go.
For big things I know about ahead of time, I research during The Plan stages. (Sometimes research will change The Plan if what I originally thought I’d do doesn’t actually work like I thought it should.) But you know those sentences where you realize you don’t actually know what grows in that climate, or when the harvest is, or . . . how the whole situation works? And it’s really just one line, so maybe it’s not that big a deal. . . .
I research it right then. It’s one of those details that will make the world feel more real. More believable. And I do it then so I don’t have to do it later. You know, after I’ve forgotten that I wanted to research something. I don’t want to risk leaving in a lazy line. (Sometimes I really do need to move on, so I leave myself a comment on that detail.)
3. I keep a critical eye on my first drafts as I write them — and I fix things.
Some days, it’s important to just write through and not look back. It can be easy to get caught up in a revision loop, never moving forward. Fixing as you go may not work for people prone to the revision loop. I’m not one of them, though. At least when it comes to the first draft. I like to push forward and see that wordcount rise.
So when I notice that the last few paragraphs I wrote feel emotionally thin, I go back. I layer in the emotion right away. This is useful for me because it puts me back in touch with my character, but it also makes that first draft better. Same with choosing the right word, making sure the motivation is clear, grammar and punctuation issues — whatever. And the more aware of any particular problem I become, the more able I am to spot it sooner.
That sort of awareness eventually becomes second nature. I don’t have to think as much about going back to cut weasel words because I didn’t write them in the first place.
Yes, this does slow down my first-draft process. Gone are the years when I could write 7,000 words a day without breaking a sweat. Now I’m more unconsciously critical of my own work, even before it hits the page, but my first drafts are stronger. Getting those things right the first time — and continuing to make them better with every revision — makes my final manuscript that much better.
Note that I still said revision. I don’t expect to have a perfect first draft. (If only!!!) The first draft is only a foundation to build the real thing off, but if I have that first draft in good shape, I can focus on more interesting story issues. I work on spotting higher-level issues that I didn’t notice in the first draft. That way, when I start my next book, I can keep those things in mind, too, and fix them as I see them. They, too, can become things I unconsciously fix before they’re ever a problem.
All that said, there is no wrong way to write. Everyone writes differently, and this is simply what works for me — writing like someone’s going to read that draft. (And someone usually does. I have a friend who likes to read my stories as they drip out of my head. She’s brave. Crazy, but brave.)
What about you guys? Do you watch your first draft, like I do? Or do you power forward and do the real heavy lifting in the revision? What works best for you?
So why is it so hard to say it out loud? Why is it that every new person who walks through the door of my local writers’ group introduces herself, and then immediately disqualifies her attendance by adding, “But I’m not really a writer”?
Some refer to it as the Imposter Monster, and it took a big nasty bite out of my confidence early in my writing journey. Hell, it still does if we’re all being honest. I’m guessing we all suffer from Imposter Syndrome at some point, whether it’s because we don’t yet have any published titles in our sig, or because we’re uncertain if we’ll ever have another.
I first faced-down my monster when I was conducting research for a book, before the release of my debut. It was a crime thriller, and I had no background in law enforcement. Books and blogs were helpful, but limiting, leaving big gaps in my research that felt flat on the page. I was lacking the richness and depth of experience, and I would only get that from hands-on, interactive research – the kind that required me to get out of my writing chair. And this meant introducing myself.
I had to make phone calls and send emails, and I put off this step for a long, long time. Not because I was afraid of the research. But because I was afraid to say it out loud…
“I’m a writer, and I’m conducting research for a book.” I could have stopped there. After all, this was all the qualification I needed. And yet, I had to fight the urge to add, “… a book I haven’t written yet. And no, I am not published.”
Turns out, all that time, the only real gatekeeper between me and better research was the Imposter Monster inside my own head. Before my first book published, I toured a forensics lab, conducted a ride-along with a sheriff’s deputy, played a part in a firearm simulation, took classes on evidence collection, searched a mock-prison cell for contraband with a correctional officer, and interviewed a defense attorney. Not one single person asked for a bibliography or a resume as a prerequisite. And no one declined to help me when I told them I was not yet published. To my surprise, they were all more than willing to share their knowledge and time. People like to talk about things they’re passionate about, and you are a captive audience.
Hands-on face-to-face research opportunities are available to all of us, but the first step to getting through the door is giving yourself permission to try.
Here are a few research sources open to all of us that you might not have considered before.
Audit a class through your local university, trade school, or community college. Or ask to interview a professor as an expert in their field.
Visit a museum. Call ahead or send a letter and ask to meet with a curator or museum expert while you’re there. They might offer an interview, or a personalized tour. Not near a museum? Try a local Historical Society.
Call or email the Public Relations Department. Many corporations, governmental agencies, and public service offices offer tours, or opportunities for the public to learn more about them. (Note: there will be some that are off-limits to the public. I was turned away by juvenile correction centers due to the ages of the inmates and their legal rights to privacy. I was also denied access to a medical examiner’s office and the autopsy suite. Don’t let these minor setbacks deter you. There are always alternative sources for the information you need. Interviews with industry experts can give you a unique snapshot behind the curtain.)
Sign up for a workshop. Your local chapter of a larger professional writing organization may offer a variety of guest speakers, panels, and workshops featuring experts in various fields, and catering to a particular genre. Most workshops are open to the public for a reasonable fee.
Offer to volunteer and get your hands dirty, in exchange for the experience to shadow a resource for a day.
Ask friends and colleagues for referrals. You know that old saying about 6 degrees of separation? Chances are, someone you know knows someone who knows a whole lot about something you want to learn! Facebook and LinkedIn are great resources for identifying people who can offer you a warm hand-off to an expert in a specific field.
Now get out there and say it!
You’re a writer. And you have a lot of research to do.
ELLE COSIMANO writes YA mysteries and thrillers. Her acclaimed debut, NEARLY GONE, was recently nominated for an Edgar Award. The sequel, NEARLY FOUND, releases on June 2. Elle lives in a grass hut on the Riviera Maya with her husband and two sons. For more information, follow her on Twitter, Facebook, or visit her website.
There’s an ongoing debate about prologues. Do you need them? Are they superfluous? Do they set up the story, or should you cut ‘em and get to chapter one already?
Plenty of opinions exist, and many opinions have to do with taste. So, before we jump on the “prologues never contribute to the story” bandwagon, I think the first step is to identify what kind of prologue one is writing and the objective of that prologue. We need to know what we’re writing and why, before we let the opinions of what’s “in vogue” influence our writing decisions.
Let’s take a look at four different kinds of prologues.
1) Future Protagonist
This prologue is written in the same voice and style as the main story and from the POV of the same protagonist. When done really well, this kind of prologue changes everything the reader thought. As the reader continues with the story, there’s a point when he will come to understand why the prologue was included. When this reason becomes clear, the reader’s perspective of the story undergoes some kind of change. The reader has an “Ah-ha!” moment. An example of this type of prologue can be found in Unleaving by Joan Paton Walsh.
2) Past Protagonist
Something happened to the protagonist in the past that the reader has to know. Batman’s back story is an example of this. You have to know that his parents were murdered to understand the story and his motivations. This type of prologue usually includes a strong emotional event that starts off the story. Examples of this type of prologue: Pixar’s Up, The Scorpio Races, Smoke and Bone, and Batman.
3)Different Point of View
This prologue is not told from the POV of the protagonist. In this case, the writer has to justify this switch; the relevance MUST be made clear and the pay off has to be worth the disruption of the narrative voice. A successful example of this would be Boy in the Burning House by Tim Wynne-Jones.
4) Background Prologue
This is the kind of prologue that gives prologues a bad wrap. This prologue somehow explains setting and back story. But It can also be a “bit of a trudge.” The writer has to be careful to make sure that the information shared in a background prologue is relevant to the story. It’s not an excuse to share exposition, which is often found in science fiction and fantasy novels that start with trudging prologues. This information has to be truly necessary.
A spin-off of this type of prologue is the background montage, which in effect, is a back story prologue in a film. You see these in movies and television shows like: The Fellowship of the Ring, The Hobbit, Amile, Pushing Daises, and Maleficent. This technique is often more successful in film due to the short time frame. Where as, an author has more time and opportunity to share back story and exposition in a book. The film viewer tends to be more forgiving of a background montage than the reader is of a background prologue.
Looking for more resources on prologues? Try these:
Glassworks, the literary magazine of Rowan University’s Master of Arts in Writing graduate program, invites writers to submit work to be considered for publication. Glassworks publishes nonfiction, fiction, poetry, hybrid pieces, craft essays, new media, and art both digitally and in print. We are currently reading until December 15, 2014. More information about the magazine, sample issues, and our submission manager can be found at our website. Submissions link.
Writing compelling emotional moments is the lifeblood of any story and the key to building a relationship between characters and readers. Yet steering clear of the show-don’t-tell pitfalls requires practice and skill. I’m reposting this from where it originally appeared at Romance University to shed light on three scenarios that challenge writers as they search for the right balance of emotional description.
Telling is a big issue, especially when writers are still getting to know their characters. Often they do not yet have enough insight into the hero’s personality and their motivation to really be able to describe how they feel in a unique way. Instead of using a vivid and authentic mix of body language, thoughts, dialogue and visceral sensations, writers convey emotion in broad, telling strokes:
Bill had to steel himself emotionally before entering the church. He’d managed to avoid his family for seven years, but his father’s funeral wasn’t something he could blow off. Anger and jealousy welled inside him as he thought of his two older brothers, the ones who always impressed Dad by being just like him: athletic, manly, hard. Now he would have to face them, and hear once again how he was a failure, a disappointment, an abomination that should have done the world a favor and hung himself from the Jackson family tree.
What’s wrong with this passage?
While the above alludes to an unhealthy relationship between brothers and conveys that Bill is the family misfit, the emotions are TOLD to the reader.
Bill had to steel himself emotionally… What does that look like? Does he sneak a slug of whiskey in his car before going in? Shuffle around on the church step, tugging at his starched cuffs? Something else? With emotion, the reader should always get a clear image of how the character is expressing their feelings.
Anger and jealousy welled inside him… This again is telling, simply by naming the emotions. What does that anger and jealousy feel like? Is his pulse throbbing so loud he can barely think? Are his thoughts boiling with brotherly slurs that show his jealousy: dad’s golden children, his perfect prodigy, etc.Does his chest feel stuffed full of broken glass, and with each thrum of the church organ, the pain drives itself deeper?
Showing and Telling
Another common snag is showing the character’s feelings (thoughts, actions, body language, visceral sensations, etc.) but then adding some telling just to make sure the reader ‘got it.’ This often happens when a writer doesn’t have confidence in their own abilities to get emotion across to the reader, or they question whether they’ve shown the character’s feelings strongly enough for the situation.
Dean Harlow finally called Tammy’s name and Lacy’s breath hitched. Her daughter crossed the stage in her rich purple robe, smiling and thrusting her arm out for the customary handshake. Warmth blurred Lacy’s vision and she swiped at the tears, unwilling to miss a second of the graduation ceremony. Her calloused fingers scraped beneath her eyelids, a reminder of long hours at the laundry, all to ensure Tammy would have opportunities she herself never did.
When her daughter accepted her diploma, Lacy shot out of her seat, clapping and cheering. She had never been so happy and proud in all her life.
What’s wrong with this passage?
Emotion is shown clearly through Lacy’s hitching breath, the warm rush signaling tears, her rapt attention and then finally jumping up to cheer her daughter on. But that last line: She had never been so happy and proud in all her life. This unnecessary explanation of Lacy’s happiness and pride is like hammering a nail long after it’s flush with the board. In the book, Description by Monica Wood, there’s a great rule of writing called RUE: Resist the Urge to Explain. So when it comes to emotion, remember RUE.
Over showing is when a writer gets caught up in the moment and goes too far by showing everything. Too much emotional description can slow the pace of the scene, create purple prose or clichés, and come across as melodramatic.
Finn huddled behind the rusted oil drum, dripping with cold sweat as she tried to control her loud, rasping breath. The sound of Alex scraping the crowbar along the warehouse’s cement floor turned her heart into a jackhammer. A scream built up in her throat and she clamped her teeth tight, converting it into a nearly soundless whimper. Her body trembled and shuddered in the dark, and a cascade of thoughts piled up like shoreline debris– the odd things he said, the strange gifts and creepy poems, his interest in seeing blood—why didn’t these things didn’t send off air raid sirens in her head before tonight?
What’s wrong with this passage?
In some ways, this is a great moment showing fear. Body language, thoughts and visceral sensations all work to bring about intensity, but because there is so much of it, it feels overblown. Emotion doesn’t just build here…it roars. As a result, clichés form (the jackhammer heartbeat) and purple prose emerges from too many fanciful ideas (cascading thoughts, shoreline debris, air raid sirens, etc.) The combination of too much description creates the flavor of melodrama, which can cause the reader to disengage. Showing is great, but in moderation. Sometimes an author can say more with less.
Getting the right balance of emotion on the page isn’t easy, so I hope this helps! And if you would like to read about these common problems in more detail (or the other issues with writing emotion), you can find in depth information in the “Look Inside” sample of The Emotion Thesaurus at Amazon. Feel free to take a peek!
Also, Becca’s at Rebecca Lyndon’s blog today talking about characterization techniques writers can steal borrow from the stellar cast of Finding Nemo. If you’ve got time, please stop by and say hello!
“Metaphor lives a secret life all around us. We utter about six metaphors a minute. Metaphorical thinking is essential to how we understand ourselves and others, how we communicate and learn, discover and invent.” – James Geary
If you haven’t watched James Geary’s brilliant TED talk about metaphors, you should! Ten minutes might break open everything you think you know about this topic.
Don’t give your reader an excuse to put your book down! Make sure your book looks more appetizing than a cheese sandwich by avoiding these nine pitfalls.
1) Leisurely Descriptive Passages
Ever read a book where the author spends multiple pages describing a house? Or maybe it’s a spaceship, or the way the light plays upon the windows of a city. Snooze fest!
Of course we need settings so the action doesn’t happen in a vacuum, but we no longer live in a time without photographs or television. Back in the day when we’d never seen an elephant before it was great to spend a whole page describing the lumbering and exotic animal. But you don’t have to describe everything in extensive detail anymore.
2) Leisurely Passages of Back Story and Flashback
One of the easiest ways to get your reader to tune out is with an extensive passage of back story. As authors we need to know all the back story, and we spend countless hours creating it. And because we’ve put in so much time creating the back story it’s tempting to want to share all of it with our readers. But that’s like forcing your reader to look through all 1000 photos from your vacation. They’re going to tune out pretty quickly. Back stories can help us relate to characters, and many details are necessary, but keep them in shorter passages.
3) Scenes Where the Plot is Not Moving Forward
Plot is a shark, if it doesn’t move, it dies.
It’s tempting to include scenes that explore character, relationships, or mood, but if they don’t move the plot forward, they’re going to bore your reader. Do double duty with your scenes and interweave character development, mood, and themes into your plot-driven scenes.
4) Overstatement or Over Description
Imagine a nervous character who does too many actions to display his nervousness: puffing away on cigarettes, jiggling his legs, spilling his coffee, and twitching. Suddenly the character has turned into a caricature and not a real person. The over abundance of detail can annoy the reader and pull them out of scene. Once the reader is disengaged, you have to work extra hard to gain their attention again.
5) Neutral Information
Sharing history that doesn’t have an impact on what’s happening in scene is the perfect way to distract your reader from the story. Yes, that fight is happening in the story, but hold on a sec while I tell you all about steam technology. This is particularly tricky for a novel that you’re doing research for. Be careful about how much you explain. All information should be on a need-to-know basis.
6) Telling the Story in Retrospect
It can be hard to keep tension in a scene that’s told in retrospect. Because the event has already happened, the character isn’t in the moment anymore and is telling rather than showing. Consider re-writing the event in-scene to engage the reader.
7) Gratuitous Use of Disasters
One car wreck will grip a reader and put her on the edge of her seat. But gratuitous car wrecks, hurricanes, abuse, or explosive fights will desensitize your reader. Ever watch an action film with fight scene after fight scene, but it doesn’t really impact the story? It’s boring.
Disasters seem like prefect dramatic fodder, but are difficult to pull off. Disasters only create real tension if they’re truly interwoven into the story, characters, and situations. Otherwise they feel like a false tension used to deliberately manipulate the reader.
8) Resolving Problems Too Quickly
Did you spend a bunch of time setting up a problem only to remove the tension of that problem in the next scene? We’re told to torture our characters, but often we like to bail them out as fast as possible. Make your hero struggle and be uncomfortable. This is how he’ll grow. Show what he’s capable of and your reader will become more involved.
9) You’ve Created False Tension
Don’t deliberately crank up the plot at the end of your novel and create false tension. The plot’s tension needs to be there, in some form, all along. If you’re having trouble with the last act of your book it’s because you haven’t set up the conflict and tension correctly in the opening. Look back at the beginning, rather than forcing false tension at the end.
Interested in more topics like this one? Take a look at:
Are you participating in National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo)this year? It starts this Saturday (November 1st) and is a mad dash to write 50,000 words of a novel in one short month! I participated for the first time last year and loved it. It’s true, I was a big snob about NaNoWriMo before I tried it, but now I’m a complete convert.
If you’re taking the plunge and trying NaNoWriMo this year, I have a few quick suggestions that I learned from my experience last year. Hopefully these will help you stay on track and reach your 50,000 word goal.
1) Make an Outline
Make a list of scenes you want to write for your novel. This doesn’t need to be fully formed outline. All you need is a list of events or moments that you think might be a part of the book. The fun thing about NaNoWriMo is that you’re writing so fast that everything you try counts toward your 50,000 word! Even if you cut it later, you can try it now and it’s productive. You can pick a scene to write each day and see where it takes you. If it doesn’t go anywhere, try another scene on your list. You’d be surprised to see how many scenes will snowball into whole sequences, chapters, and eventually full novels! An outline gives you a place to start each day, and a new scene to jump to if the one your working on isn’t going anywhere.
2) Create Scene Cards
After you make your outline, create scene cards for each of your scenes. These cards outline the major action and emotional change of the scene. This will help you to make sure you have a plan and direction when you write. This way you won’t sit down and stare at a blank page. When I re-read my novel after NaNoWriMo, one of the big things I learned was that scenes I had a plan for were worth keeping. Scenes I didn’t use a scene card for often got cut. Read more about scene cards and see examples here: Scene Cards Blog Post.
3) Don’t Edit
I know it seems counter intuitive to not edit. Part of writing is choosing the right phrase and sentence to communicate your ideas. But when the end goal is word count, editing is your worst enemy. NaNoWriMo is about getting your ideas on the page and moving forward. It isn’t about writing a masterpiece in the first pass. That’s what revision is for. Who cares if you’ve added adverbs everywhere. Who cares if you spend half a page describing a character’s hair style. This draft is about creating the raw material that you can shape and mold later. It’s easier to revise a novel once you have that raw material to work with, rather than trying to come up with a brilliant and perfectly crafted page out of nothing. Yes, your NaNoWriMo novel isn’t going to be spun gold. That’s not the point. The point is to get material on the page that you can revise with.
4) Write the Fun Scenes First
We often think we have to write in linear order. We also think we have to finish scenes. I give you permission leave scenes half-finished and to write out of order! Write the scenes you’re most excited to write first. Those scenes are going to have the most energy and excitement behind them. They’re going to create inertia that gets you excited to get up and write again tomorrow. If a scene isn’t going well, don’t finish it. Leave yourself a big note that says: finish this scene later and move on. Don’t worry about it right now. There are going to big plot holes, sure, but you can fix them in revision. Focus on what is fun and keeps you excited to keep writing this project. That’s the trick to writing faster than you should. Have fun and forget all the rules you’ve made for yourself in the past. Create, enjoy, and fall in love with your story.
5) Write in the Morning
Not everyone is a morning writer. I understand that. But personally, I’ve have found that writing in the morning during NaNoWriMo keeps me motivated. It allows me to get through my 1600 words a day early on. This also means any additional words I write that day are a bonus and help get me closer to 50,000 words faster! If you get behind in NaNoWriMo it can be discouraging. So don’t wait. Write first thing and make it a habit. One of the great side effects of this exercise is the way it motivates you to work on your project every day.
Looking for more tips to help with National Novel Writing Month? Try these:
Hi everyone! Because it is crazy town in Angela’s house as she tries to keep up with deadlines and prep for Christmas, she’s giving a past Seekerville post some new love. Please read on to better understand why compelling Heroes (and Heroines!) MUST have flaws!
When we see the word Hero, we think heroic, which is ironic because our protagonists are usually anything but at the start of a story. Instead they are often jaded, lost or incomplete in some way, toting along a collection of flaws and false beliefs about the world and themselves. But that’s okay, because characters that fascinate readers most are layered, complex, and most of all, human. Brainstorming flaws can be difficult—which faults to choose, how many to give them and why, but here are ten reasons why all heroes need them.
1) TO CREATE REALISM AND EMPATHY:
In real life, people have faults-no one is perfect. It stands to reason that for a character to be believable, he also must be flawed. Readers are people too, ones who are as prone to poor choices, mistakes, and overreactions due to their shortcomings as our hero is. When they see the fallout created by a character’s faults, they empathize, knowing just how it feels to screw up. And as the character learns more about himself and works toward overcoming his flaws to reach his goals, the reader will cheer him on because the desire to achieve self-growth is universal.
2) TO UNDERSTAND BACKSTORY:
To write a compelling character, it isn’t enough to slap a few attributes and flaws into their personality and then throw them at the story. Fascinating characters come about by understanding who they are at their core. If you know a character’s flaws, you can brainstorm their past to better understand what experiences made these negative traits form. Backstory is valuable to know (for you as the author, not to dump into the story) because it helps you plot out what motivates them, how they will behave (their choices, mannerisms, pet peeves, etc.), and what they avoid to keep from being emotionally hurt. Knowing these details means you’ll be able to write them authentically, making them real to readers. (If you would like help brainstorming your character’s past, I recommend trying the Reverse Backstory Tool.)
3) TO CAUSE RELATIONSHIP FRICTION:
When everyone gets along, a story flat lines. Flaws act as sandpaper in a relationship, rubbing characters against one another to create delicious friction. A flaw vs. flaw (sloppiness pitted against a perfectionist) or a flaw vs. an attribute (inflexibility vs. free-spiritedness) both build tension and conflict which draws readers in, quickens the pace and raises personal & relationship stakes. For more detail, here’s an article on How to Create Friction In Relationships.
4) TO CREATE CONFLICT:
Flaws mean blind spots, biases, pet peeves and irrational emotional reactions to name a few. All of these things cause the hero to mess up along the way, creating conflict. A story road paved with mistakes, misjudgements and poor choices amp up tension at all levels, and make it even harder for the character to succeed. The antagonist can turn the hero’s mistakes to his own advantage, becoming an even greater threat.
5) TO PROVIDE A BALANCE:
If a hero has too many strengths (positive attributes), not only will he come across as unrealistic, it will be too easy for him to succeed. This makes the story predictable because as conflict pops up, there are no flaws to hamper the hero’s efforts or create setbacks, and he will always win. Readers want to see a hero struggle, because it makes the victories so much sweeter. Failure is also important to a character’s arc: he must hit bottom before he can succeed.
6) TO REVEAL EMOTIONAL WOUNDS:
Flaws bloom into being as a false protective measure when a person suffers an emotional wound. Why false? Because while they appear to “protect” a person from bad experiences (emotional pain), they actually hold back growth and damage relationships. Take a girl who grows up with parents who have high standards. They only bestow affection when she proves herself to be the best and so later in life, she equates anything less than perfection as failure. She may become a workaholic, inflexible, and overachieve, all to protect herself from feeling low self-worth at not measuring up (thanks for that, Mom and Dad!). Flaws are guideposts to these deep emotional wounds, something every author should know about their characters as it ties directly into Character Arc (see below).
7) TO GENERATE INNER CONFLICT:
Inner conflict is the place where the characters faults (flaws) and negative thoughts (I’ll never be good enough, I’ll never find love, I’m not worthy, etc.) reside. Good story structure dictates that a protagonist’s flaws should be counterproductive to achieving his goal and that his negative thoughts should sabotage his self-worth. These things are what the hero must face about himself and change. Only through subduing his flaws will he have a chance at achieving his goal.
8) TO BE A FORCE FOR CHANGE:
Flaws get in the way at the worst times, pressuring the character to act. Let’s say our hero is determined to take control of his family’s struggling company, but he’s notoriously irresponsible. To keep the business afloat, he must apply himself. His desire to not disappoint the people counting on him force him to take a hard look inward at his own irresponsibility, which he must change to succeed.
9) TO ENCOURAGE SELF-GROWTH:
As I mentioned before, one of the core needs of all people is to grow as a person. Growth is tied to happiness and fulfillment, so if your characters has flaws, small ones or big ones, showing him overcome them allows him to feel satisfied and happier, and will resonate with readers who are on their own journey of self-improvement.
10) TO COMPLETE THE CHARACTER’S ARC:
Flaws shouldn’t be random—each flaw forms from a negative past experience. In Character Arc, there should be at least one core flaw that stands in the character’s way (see inner conflict) of achieving his goal. For the character to win (his outer motivation) he must face his fears, deal with the emotional wounds of his past, and see that achieving his goal is more important that the risk of suffering another emotional wound. Only by subduing his core flaw and banishing his negative thoughts can he be free of fear. This necessary self-growth will help him find the strength needed to achieve his goal.
What types of flaws do you burden your character with? Is it a challenge for you to find a way for him to overcome these flaws?
Hi everyone! Welcome back from a wonderful break. I imagine, like us, some holiday rest and relaxation was just what the doctor ordered, but now you are getting a bit itchy, ready to jump back into the fray. To start things off right in 2015, we are diving right into the thick of writing technique with a guest post by author Raven Oak, who is joining us to talk about the successful pattern of Scene and Sequel. This is a must read, especially for those who do not know about this technique. Trust me, your writing will thank you!
Scene and Sequel
When I began writing seriously—not the scribbles in a notebook of plots I’d write someday or the half-started, never-finished stories I cranked out, but the “I want to write novels for a living” point in my career—my first completed book felt juvenile. Portions dragged. And those that didn’t, sped through the action without anyone stopping to smell any proverbial roses. So how does one develop solid pacing through a novel while building tension, developing characters, describing setting, and advancing plot lines? The answer is a little trick called Scene and Sequel. Why? Because humans like patterns.
Scene and Sequel is a technique developed by Dwight Swain in his book, Techniques of the Selling Writer. (If you haven’t checked it out, I would strongly suggest doing so as he covers a wide range of simple tricks writers can use to develop better stories.)
Readers pick up a work because they want a powerful and emotional experience. It’s an escape from the drudgery of the real world and a way to live vicariously through others. As a writer, you must create and maintain an illusion strong enough to fool the reader. Pacing helps create and maintain this illusion.
Novels are typically comprised of chapters, which are often made up of scenes. To keep the ebb and flow of a novel going, each scene should then be identified as being a scene or a sequel.
A scene has the following pattern:
Goal—what the character wants. Must be clearly definable
Conflict—series of obstacles that keep the character from the goal
Disaster—makes the character fail to get the goal
And a sequel has the following pattern:
Reaction—emotional follow through of the disaster.
Dilemma—a situation with no good options
Decision—character makes a choice (which sets up the new goal).
To understand how this works, let’s look at A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens.
Chapter 1 is a SCENE
Goal—Scrooge wants money and to be left alone.
Conflict—When the charity solicitors and Scrooge’s nephew visit, they stir up feelings in Scrooge and memories of his sister, Fran. As Scrooge arrives home, he sees his old business partner’s (Marley’s) face in the doorknocker, and then later in the pictures in his fireplace mantel. Scrooge tries to dismiss the conflicting emotions/thoughts this stirs up.
Disaster—The disaster is when Marley’s Ghost arrives to warn Scrooge that three ghosts will visit him. Each one has a lesson to teach him. If he doesn’t heed their lessons, Scrooge’s afterlife will be full of pain and misery.
Scenes tend to be full of action and tension that push the plot forward. Remember, every scene you write must further the plot and/or further the character development.
Chapter 2 is a SEQUEL
Reaction—Scrooge’s initial reaction is to write off Marley’s visit as the result of some bad food. When the Ghost of Christmas Past arrives, Scrooge tries to send him away. He claims he doesn’t want or need the lesson, but having no choice, Scrooge accompanies the ghost into the past.
Dilemma—As Scrooge journeys through quite a few joyful and painful memories, he begins to doubt the decisions he’s made. Scrooge faces a dilemma: whether or not to believe himself guilty of bad judgment and humbug, or whether to continue avoiding Christmas, its joy, and his family as he has for many-a-year. Neither are good options, so he picks the option he thinks he can live with.
Decision—Scrooge decides the past is too painful, because it’s made him doubt himself. In anger, he decides to extinguish the light given by the Ghost of Christmas Past, and thus, his own light. At least momentarily.
What a sequel does is give our character(s) an opportunity for reflection and self-introspection. The decision will lead us into our next scene, where the character(s) develop a new goal. In the case of Scrooge, Chapter 3 (scene) begins with a new goal: Scrooge reacted rashly in extinguishing the light. At the sight of the Ghost of Christmas Present, he decides he will go with him willingly and see what there is to see. And if necessary, think further on his own attitudes and prejudices. He’s not ready for a huge change yet, but change is happening—as change should be happening to your characters as well.
Scenes and sequels should continue to alternate the entire length of the novel, and in doing so, they’ll create a natural flow for both plot progression & character development. Many authors plan or outline the sequence of events using scene & sequel on index cards before writing.
Just about any novel you read will follow this rhythm. It seems simple, but structure usually is. Pick up a book and give it a flip through—I bet it follows the pattern!
Do you use Scene and Sequel, or is this something you’re planning on testing out? Let us know in the comments!
Guess what? Raven’s Epic Fantasy has just released, so please enjoy this blurb, and if you like, add it to your Goodreads List, or snag a copy from Amazon.
Her name was Adelei, a master in her field, one of the feared Order of Amaska. Those who were a danger to the Little Dozen Kingdoms wound up dead by her hand. The Order sends her deep into the Kingdom of Alexander, away from her home in Sadai, and into the hands of the Order’s enemy.
The job is nothing short of a suicide mission, one serving no king, no god, and certainly not Justice. With no holy order to protect her, she tumbles dagger-first into the Boahim Senate’s political schemes and finds that magic is very much alive and well in the Little Dozen Kingdoms.
While fighting to unravel the betrayal surrounding the royal family of Alexander, she finds her entire past is a lie, right down to those she called family. They say the truth depends on which side of the sword one stands. But they never said what to do when all the swords are pointing at you.
If writing the Positive Trait & Negative Trait Thesaurus books have taught me anything, it is that compelling characters are neither good nor bad, perfect or fundamentally flawed.
Instead, they are all of these things. Each has a set of good, admirable qualities, even while displaying frustrating or off-putting flaws. They have strengths and weaknesses in different areas, making them both skilled and inept at the same time. But that’s the point, isn’t it? The best characters are realistic and believable because they are just like real people. Like you or I. They have a balance of positive and negatives that give them a wholly unique viewpoint, attitude, belief system and personality.
Some writers want to create characters that ONLY have the best qualities, ones that prove they are good human beings that readers will admire and root for. They find it easy to create a blend of traits like loyalty, helpfulness, intelligence and determination, forming a true hero that can handle anything. But when it comes to choosing flaws, they pull their punches, worried that if they add a trait like selfishness, perfectionism, or impulsiveness, readers will view them as unlikeable.
Other writers EMBRACE the flawed character. They pile up flaws, forged by a hard past filled with emotional wounds that refuse to heal. They add layers of negative traits like suspicious, mistrustful and erratic, all carefully planned around an elaborate backstory that supports the necessity of emotional armor (flaws) that make them who they are.
But when it comes to admirable traits, they struggle. What positive traits would logically survive such a painful past? If say, the character was a victim of horrible abuse and to cope, they became a mistrustful, anti social liar, how can they also be friendly or kind? How can they logically be generous or carefree while harboring such deep flaws?
These are not simple questions to answer. Character creation, when done well, is not an easy process. Too many flaws (or even choosing the wrong type of flaw), and a character becomes unlikeable. Too many positive attributes, and they come across as altruistic, unrealistic or even (yawn) boring. So how can we achieve balance?
Understand Who and What Shaped Your Character
Just like every one of us, your character has a past. And while yes, backstory turmoil and pain should be exploited to create conflict and tension in the present, there is always good mixed with bad. In real life, the good experiences (and people) are what keep us going no matter how bad it gets. So think about your character’s positive experiences and past influences along with negative ones as you dig around in their backstory. Understand what the character learned from both past trials and successes, and how each lesson will help to shape his personality.
Uncover Your Character’s Moral Center
Every character has a set of moral beliefs, even the villain. Think deeply about the moral code your character lives by, and what lines he will not cross. (HINT: the “why” of moral choices will be embedded in his backstory, and who/what helped shaped his view of the world.) Morals are the pulsing heart of motivation and action, so determine your character’s sense of right and wrong. (Read more about determining your characters morality HERE.)
Prod His Wound to See What Hurts
Nothing modifies behavior like pain, so understanding what deep emotional wounds your character carries is key to knowing what he also yearns for more than anything (Acceptance? Love? Safety? Freedom?) This wound and the fear that it can happen again is what causes deep flaws to form. They act as “false protection” to keep the hurt from reoccurring, and usually hold people at a distance. Here’s a helpful list of Common Wound Themes.
For example, a character who experienced rejection might close himself off from potential lovers because of his fear of being rejected again. How would flaws “help” him by pushing women away? Is he arrogant? Promiscuous? Uncommunicative? Dishonest?
And what attribute, if nourished, might grow strong enough to vanquish these flaws that hold him back from connection? Respectfulness? Honor? Loyalty? Empathy? Finding a major flaw’s opposite is the pathway to balance & resolving Character Arc through personal growth.
Give All Characters The Chance for Redemption
Some characters are intentionally unbalanced. If you have a character who leans one way more than the other (such as a villain or anti hero) by story necessity, then make sure you also build in something that suggests no matter how flawed or terrible, there is a chance they can change or be redeemed.
Every negative has a positive, and no matter how dark or skewed a character’s view is, or what he feels he’s better without, there will always be a flicker of light that can help him find his way back to becoming whole and complete. Show this to readers, be it a motive that is pure, a relationship with someone that is on some level healthy and good, or a positive quality that is admirable.
Balancing your character’s positive and negative sides means some deep brainstorming! If it helps, here are some more ideas on how to plan a character before you start writing.
Show, Don’t Tell. This is something we say quite a bit at WHW. As most of you know, our thesaurus collections are packed with inspiring ways to help you ‘show’ so you can craft compelling fiction that readers feel they can almost see, hear, taste, smell and touch.
But while showing is key to writing a great story, telling has its place too, and so it’s important to know how to do both well. Becca has written a great 2 part post on Showing vs. TellingHERE and HERE, so I won’t reinvent the wheel. If you like, check them out!
So, back to TELLING. When is it okay to Tell instead of Show?
High Action or Fast Pace
When there’s a lot going on in a scene, like your hero is running pell-mell through the woods to evade an axe-wielding maniac, or you’re neck deep in a scene where a frantic flight attendant is trying to land a plane during a terrorist takeover, then pace is king. Slowing down to describe the soft melody of crickets and scent of pine needles won’t fit with scene A any more than play by play description of a passenger helping by giving CPR to a pilot fits with scene B.
This is not to say high action scenes are all tell, no show, because they aren’t! Only that word economy is important, and doing more with less is key. We maintain the intensity by choosing what is important enough to show, and what can be told.
Fight scenes are an excellent example of this. Describing every blow, dodge, twist, kick and stab in micro movements will cause readers to skim. Instead, we want to only show details that give the fight scope and intensity, and tell the bits that need to be conveyed quickly for readers to keep up and “see” what’s happening. Let’s say there’s a brawl going on between fueding brothers in the kitchen. If our hero Josh grabs a chair and smashes it over Tim’s head, readers really don’t need to know that it is a cheap wooden chair with one wobbly leg, or that Josh was actually aiming for Tim’s left shoulder, but because his brother shifted mid swing, it cracked him on the head instead. These details slow the scene down. Instead show us one swift image that paints the action unfolding: Josh hooking the chair with his boot to drag it close, and then swinging it at Tim’s head. BAM.
Time, Location or POV Leaps
Stories, by nature, often jump around, chopping out the boring stuff between critical scenes. If our main character Betsy went to sleep at the end of one scene and nothing important happens to further the story until she leaves for summer camp the next afternoon, we don’t need details of her waking up, eating breakfast, and the rest of her usual routine until the bus finally shows up at her door. Use narration to summarize the time between going to sleep (all full of nerves over a week at summer camp!) and pick up again when her butt hits the unyielding plastic bus seat the next day.
A single line of transitional telling can help readers skip the boring stuff and anchor them immediately into a new scene. The same goes for shifting the POV (after a scene or chapter break,) or if the story leaves one location for another. If it has no bearing on the plot, readers don’t need to read about a character getting in their car, starting it up, fighting rush our traffic and nearly getting rear ended before they meet someone at the library. If a bit of telling summary like, Jenny drove to the libraryto meet Amy helps tie those location shifts together better than showing can, do it.
Revisiting a Static Setting
If your story involves the character returning to the same setting repeatedly, you do not need to freshly describe the location each time. Consider a main character who runs a pharmacy checkout. If nothing has changed since the last time she worked a shift, don’t gob up the page with redundant setting description. Instead, focus on the action. (The only time this doesn’t apply is if the setting has changed significantly from the reader’s last visit. If for example, a car has driven through the pharmacy storefront creating a tsunami of pill bottles, condom boxes and maxi pads, then this is something that must be shown.)
High Emotion that Endures
Any scene that is packed with emotion can be a descriptive minefield. Too much showing can cause melodrama to rear its head, but too little and the moment can flat line. Whenever emotional tension goes on for an extended period of time, make it a jagged climb. This means showing readers a range of emotions, not just one, and to mix showing and with tiny (TINY!) bits of telling to give the moment scope and allow readers a chance to catch their breath. If an extended emotional scene is all show, show, show, you run the risk of confusing or overwhelming readers.
Details that Do Not Further the Story
When it comes to description, a scene should have color, but too much and the story canvas becomes a runny technicolor mess. Identify which details matter, and which do not. If something furthers the plot, provides needed characterization or helps the reader feel more deeply part of the scene, then show it as needed. But if a detail is more instructional or better served by telling, there’s nothing wrong with a bit of narrative to explain it so we can then focus on what is really happening.
What other situations can you think of where Telling might be better than showing? Let us know in the comments!
The connection between two characters is one of the most magnetic forces in storytelling, especially in romance novels.
Whether they welcome the relationship, fight it, or fall somewhere in between, emotional friction creates an energy that leaves readers anxious to see what will happen next.
Building a compelling romance is not easy, and to make the pairing realistic, a writer must know each character down to their bones, including any past hurts experienced at the hands of others. Pain is a necessary component of any fictional romance. Pain? I know, it sounds crazy. Here’s why.
1) Romance isn’t simple.
You can’t throw two people together and expect pheromones and sex drive do all the work. Readers have expectations that a rocky road lies ahead, because obstacles, suffering and hardship are what makes a romance so satisfying. Characters willing to walk through fire to be together convinces readers they belong with one another. Love is powerful, and there is great beauty in the struggle to obtain what the heart wants most.
To really dig into this, we need to first look at vulnerability in real life. It’s usually cast in a negative light, used in the context that if we don’t avoid it, bad things will happen. If we don’t lock our doors, we’re vulnerable to thieves. If we don’t protect our personal information, people may steal it. Negative experiences teach us to be wary of appearing vulnerable, so we take care in who we trust and what we share. We dress a certain way, act a certain way, hide our hurts and pretend we are strong. Characters, to be realistic, should think and act the same way.
But there is another powerful side of vulnerability: acceptance.
When a person accepts themselves, faults and all, they are able to show their true self to others rather than hide it. This openness, this sharing of one’s innermost feelings and beliefs, is the foundation of all meaningful relationships. Being genuine and honest allows a person to connect with another on a deep level. In romances, characters who are willing to be vulnerable and put their true feelings out there open the gateway to love and intimacy. Without vulnerability, a romantic relationship reads false.
So where does the pain come in?
Being vulnerable is not easy, especially for characters who have been hurt by those they once loved. A character’s past is often a quagmire of painful events making it difficult to let down one’s guard and trust.
For example, if our protagonist was manipulated by an abusive ex-husband, her painful experience with him becomes a wound she can’t forget. She will harden herself, maybe push people away, using emotional armor to keep from being hurt. But this also blocks any new trusting relationships from forming, something she may deeply want. Even when she finds a man to love, it is a difficult process to strip oneself of that armor and be vulnerable enough to forge a strong relationship, risking hurt once more. The character’s desire for the relationship must outweigh her fear of being hurt.
As writers, the need for vulnerability creates a giant obstacle. Why? Because it is our business to create characters who are broken, jaded or struggling in some way. Yet somehow we must show them it’s okay to trust. We must find a way to give them the strength they need to let go of their fears of being hurt and open themselves up to another. The question is, how do we do that?
1) Hone in on the desire for “something more.”
A common need we all have as people (and therefore all characters should have it as well) is the desire for growth and fulfillment. Fears hold a character back and leave them feeling unfulfilled, affecting their happiness. They must realize this, and yearn for something to change. This is the first step.
For example, if your character is having a hard time with trust and openness, have her look within and see the dissatisfaction she feels at not having close relationships, or people to hang out with, trade gossip or confide in. This realization will lead her to probe for what she truly wants (genuine friendship and connection) and create the desire within her to obtain it.
2) Create positive experiences for vulnerability.
There are many times when opening up and being genuine pays off. It feels good to tell someone a secret fear only to find out they understand because they fear it too. Or asking for help and then getting it. Even when we share a problem, we feel the weight of it lift because it’s no longer ours alone. Experiencing love, intimacy, trust, and friendship are all positive experiences that can build a person up, encouraging them to be more open and vulnerable with others.
3) Showing how the past has affected your character but having them see how negativity is holding them back so they can take an important step forward.
In the example above of the woman seeking friendship and connection, it will take time to learn how to trust and feel comfortable sharing details about herself, but if the desire for change is strong enough, it can be achieved.
The path to vulnerability is often the meat of a romance, so it’s important to get a good grasp on it as it plays into the obstacles, hardship and struggles that must be overcome to end with a deep, loving connection.
Becca and I are welcoming Susanne Lakin today, who is a writing coach, author and editor all rolled into one. Susanne is our go-to expert for all things editing, and has a great new book out called the The 12 Key Pillars of Novel Construction: Your Blueprint for Building a Strong Story (The Writer’s Toolbox Series). I’m reading it now and am far enough in to say this is a book that you want to add to your collection. Susanne does a great job of showcasing each critical piece of storytelling, and explaining how they all fit together to frame the structure of a compelling and meaningful novel.
Today she has some great thoughts on how to build an memorable antagonist, so please read on! Don’t you just love to hate really great bad guys in novels? A list of the most intriguing villains in literature includes characters such as Moriarty in Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories, Long John Silver in Treasure Island, Edmund from Shakespeare’s King Lear, and Hannibal Lecter in Red Dragon by Thomas Harris.
Not every novel has a villain. Often many characters take on the role of an antagonist at various times —someone who stands in the way of your protagonist. They may be well meaning or not.
But if your novel features one specific character providing the central source of opposition for your hero or heroine—in other words, a villain or bad guy—take the time to craft such a character so that he or she will be believable and memorable.
There are countless varieties of bad guys, but the best ones are memorable because of four specific traits:
They aren’t stereotyped. People are complex, fickle, selfish, self-sacrificing, and fearful. Depending on the situation and mind-set when something happens, each of us might react in an unpredictable way. The temptation, especially with a nemesis character, is to defer to stereotype. To make bad guys really bad to the point that they are comic-book cutouts. How can writers avoid the stereotype? Read on . . .
They have a reason they’re bad. Great villains are passionate about what they believe. They go after a goal much in the way a protagonist does, and believe that what they are doing is the right thing in the circumstance. They aren’t just bad to be bad. All characters, whether virtuous or villainous, need core motivation based on how they were raised and treated throughout their life, the lies they believe about themselves and the world, and the deep-seated fears that frighten them and cause them to act as they do.
They show a glimpse of vulnerability and inner conflict. The best villains in literature are the ones you almost like (but would never admit it!) and find fascinating. They are usually complex, full of inner conflict, but have moments of grace or kindness that seem contradictory. Those moments, though, turn a predictable stereotype into a riveting, believable nemesis. Give your bad guy a moment of doubt. Let your readers feel sorry for him . . . for just a second. Then get them back to hating him.
They are flawed, and they usually know it. Often a villain’s awareness of his flaws is what motivates him toward his goals. He overcompensates for those flaws with his negative traits: pride, impatience, cruelty, heartlessness, greed, lust—to name a few. Because he is unable to love, he hurts others. Because he lacks true self-worth, he hates to see others succeed and attain happiness. What has been denied him, he denies others.
Push Beyond the Stereotype
Life is messy, difficult, stressful. Everyone reacts to stress differently and often inconsistently. You may want to make your role as writer easier by manufacturing consistent, predictable, stereotyped characters, but I would like to encourage you not to.
Push yourself to create believable characters that are complex and sometimes unpredictable. If you can create a moment in your novel in which the hero and the villain agree on something and realize what they do have in common, you can have a powerful moment.
Likewise, those moments in which the bad guy is actually vulnerable and/or empathetic can go a long way to making your story feel authentic.
How Bad Guys Are Good for Your Story
Even if you don’t have one classic villain in your story, be sure you have one or more antagonists in your novel in some form or another.
Antagonists are so useful in many ways. By providing opposition, the hero can voice and demonstrate what he is passionate about, what he’s willing to risk, and why he’s after that goal. Nemesis characters provide the means to amplify and showcase the themes in your story, for they often take an opposing view on issues.
Your nemesis character does not want your hero to reach his goal. He himself should have needs, fears, and goals he is striving for based on what he believes. He may be evil, greedy, psychotic, or a sociopath. Or he might instead be a friend who is fearful of losing something precious to her, and who believes with all her heart the protagonist must not reach his goal. It depends on your story.
If you don’t have anyone opposing your protagonist, spend some time thinking how to create someone. Make his needs and goals clash with your hero’s. Make him believe he is right and has the right to his belief. Then readers will really love to hate your bad guy. Which is a good thing!
Who are your favorite bad guys in literature and why? Do they show a glimpse of vulnerability or some empathetic quality in the midst of all their evil? Share in the comments.
S. Lakin is the author of sixteen novels and three writing craft books. Her award-winning blog Live Write Thrive gives tips and writing instruction for both fiction and nonfiction writers. If you want to write a strong, lasting story, check out her new release The 12 Key Pillars of Novel Construction, part of The Writer’s Toolbox Series, which provides a foundational blueprint that is concise and practical, and takes the mystery out of novel structure.
Each day, we seek to put our best foot forward. We shower, dress for the day’s activities, style our hair. We plan, organize, gather our things, and check the mirror before leaving, making sure to pluck stray fluff off our sweaters and straighten our sleeves.
To enhance our strengths.
To appear confident.
To show the people who interact with us that we are collected and ready for whatever comes our way.
It’s human nature to minimize our weaknesses. We hide zits, disguise thinning hair and avoid talking about our embarrassing mistakes. But in writing, covering up flaws can keep us from success.
Writing weaknesses are normal. We all have them. But it’s okay, because each of us is on the same journey, and there is no finish line–no point we reach where we’re “good enough.” Regardless of how adept we become at writing, there will always be room to grow.
Let’s look at some of the key elements that will help you evolve as a writer.
All writers shares a common epiphany on the writing path. I call it Staring Into The Abyss. This experience happens when our writing has strengthened to the point where blissful ignorance rubs away and we begin to realize just how much we don’t know.
It’s a dark moment, a bleak moment. We feel shock. Frustration. Despair. Some stop right there on the path, their writing spirits broken. Others take a micro-step forward, progressing toward the most important stages leading to growth: acceptance and determination.
Once we come to terms with what we don’t know, we can set out to learn. Taking on the attitude of a Learner is what separates an amateur from a PRO.
Asking for help
Writers can strengthen their skills on their own, but it’s a lot of hard work. Reaching out to other writers will shorten the learning curve considerably. Critique partners can help identify your weak areas and offer strategies to improve. They also will know of resources which might help.
No matter what areas need to be worked on, books can help. Find inspiration through your favorite fiction authors and in ‘how to’ books (here’s a great list to start on). Pick up a few and take notes. If you can, pair up with another writer to read the same book and then discuss it. Learning together gives you a better chance to fully understand any topic. This is what Becca and I did for an entire year, and our understanding of writing craft soared. It was time well spent.
Resources, resources, resources
There are thousands of articles on writing that can teach strong writing technique. Plotting, Story Structure, Voice, Description, Showing vs Telling, Style, Dialogue, Characters…whatever areas you want to develop, there is content out there to help you. Click HERE & check out out Writing Heroes for starters!)
Many of us are introverts, and it’s easy to get caught up on the keyboard and screen. There’s nothing wrong with this, unless your rectangular life preserver is holding you back. Writing Groups, Conferences, Work Shops and Retreats are all excellent opportunities to hone writing skills and meet mentors. Writing events need not be expensive–get involved in a local writing group and see what events have a low or no cost for members.
When you’re looking for opportunities to learn, don’t forget the movies. So much can be gleaned by watching films to see what makes them work. In fact, some of our biggest epiphanies as writers will come from studying screenwriting. I highly recommend reading Save the Cat & Writing Screenplays that Sell. These books are pure gold. Trust me, your writing will thank you!
Write and rewrite
Transforming writing weaknesses into strengths will take time. Choose learning strategies that work best for you and never stop writing. Each step of the way, apply new-found knowledge to the page. We learn most of all by doing, so always make time to write.
Chances are, you have more than one area where you know you can grow. Sometimes the easiest thing is to look at one facet at a time, and hone your skills in that area.Then when you feel like your writing is on sturdier ground, shift your focus to another facet of craft. Bit by bit, you will elevate your writing and feel proud at how far you have come.
If there’s one thing that’s constant in all stories, it’s change. No matter what genre, a character experiences a series of events and things are different by the end of the tale. The more character-focused the novel, the greater and more personal this change is likely to be, but it appears in even the most plot-centric books as well.
A mystery starts off with a victim and ends up with a killer caught and justice served.
A thriller starts off with someone in jeopardy and ends up with people saved.
A fantasy starts off with a hero facing a quest and ends up with that quest fulfilled.
The “big change” is what the book is ultimately about, but changes exist at every structural level of the novel. Plot events change how characters act, character realizations change how the plot unfolds, information revealed changes how readers and characters see and understand the story itself and the people in it.
A scene is nothing more than a small example of change happening. A character starts with a goal, has something to do or experience, and then things change. It could be a small change or a momentous discovery that changes everything the character ever knew about herself and the world.
In character-driven stories, the changes are typically more profound, as the character arc and the growth of that character are paramount to the novel. The character will have a flaw that’s preventing happiness, and it’s only by experiencing the events of the novel can that character find happiness and feel whole as a person. The novel is about watching that person go from unhappy to happy, unsatisfied to satisfied.
Lonely people find love
A unfulfilled life finds purpose
The downtrodden stand up
In plot-driven stories, the changes are typically external, with the change occurring in the world the characters inhabit. There’s a problem that’s affecting others (it can be anywhere between one person or all people), and that problem must change or else. The novel is about watching how a situation is resolved and the consequences of resolving it.
The bomb is disarmed and the city is safe
The evil overlord is thwarted and the land is free
The killer is caught and the victim is found
What if things don’t change?
Then all we’re really doing is describing a situation. “Here’s a story about these people living their lives and doing what they do.” And this is why an exciting idea can fall flat.
Let’s say we’re writing about firemen (that’s a very exciting group of people). The entire book revolves around a crew sitting in the fire station waiting for the alarm to go off so they can go put out a fire or save some people who need saving.
But the bell never rings.
No fires, no crisis, they just hang around and do whatever they normally do while they’re waiting for action.
That’s going to be a pretty dull book and I’d bet no one would want to read it. But before you can say, “Yeah, but if the story is about the firemen themselves, and their relationships and what happens in the firehouse, then it could be a great book.”
Sure, if those relationships change. If not, it’s still reading about a bunch of guys hanging around a firehouse, waiting. If the situation at the start of the novel is six guys talking about their lives, and ends with the same six guys talking about the same lives and nothing is different, and nothing about the 400 pages we just read affected those six guys in any way at all–dull book.
Reader’s Friend: “What happens in the book?”
Reader: “A bunch of guys in a firehouse talk about their lives.”
Reader’s Friend: “Why?”
Reader: “No reason.”
Reader’s Friend: “Was there a point to it?”
Change makes things interesting. Change provide the conflict to drive the story. If the characters or the situation is exactly the same at the end as the beginning (be it a scene or a series), that’s a big red flag that there’s a problem and the story isn’t being served.
If a guy leaves his house and has five consecutive car chases, and ends up back at home by the end of it with nothing but an empty gas tank, nothing has “happened” even if those were five of the most exciting individual car chases ever written. Odds are by the second one, readers were skimming.
Action doesn’t equal things happening (thus driving the story), change does. This is why it works no matter what type of novel it is. Things change and the characters have to deal with those changes.
If you’ve ever gotten feedback from your beta readers or critique partners that said “it doesn’t feel like anything’s happening” or “this section felt slow” or something similar, there’s a decent change it’s because nothing has changed. Figure out what changes and how that affects the story moving forward, and you’ll fix your problem.
When you’re writing your stories, think about the things that change and what that change means.
Right now, I’m in the planning stages for a new series. I’ve barely started writing — just enough to get a good feel for the voice — and I’m making lists and lists of things I know I want to include. It’s a weird part of the process. There’s not a lot to say, “Okay, I did this today.” Ideas come randomly, and there’s not much to show for it besides a lot of daydreaming. Here’s how I’m trying to harness it all. (And make myself feel better about all that daydreaming time.)
1. A notebook.
I picked out a pretty notebook for this story. a) Pretty notebooks make me happy. b) It’s proven very useful for jotting down random ideas. (You know, those ideas you think, “There’s no way I’ll forget this!” and then immediately forget them. Know thyself. Write down those ideas.)
To be honest, getting a notebook for this story started out as an excuse to buy a notebook. But while traveling last month, I stuck the notebook in my purse — then found myself reaching for it when I experienced something that might fit with the book. I wrote down things I saw, heard, felt — and wrote lists of questions for myself. Almost out of nowhere, I wrote descriptions of fictional places I’d previously had no thoughts on.
I’ve been making note of title ideas, figuring out the story structure across the series, and stories about the world’s history. Every story-related thought that occurs to me ends up in this notebook. Unless I have my computer with me, and . . .
I know it isn’t for everyone, but it’s definitely for me. I vaguely remember how I wrote before Scrivener, and let’s just say it wasn’t pretty.
One of the first things I do when I open a new Scrivener project is make a bunch of chapters, character sheets, and location sheets. They don’t need to be filled in right away. It’s just nice to have them. I also open a bunch of documents under the “research” section with things like the original idea for the story (whatever it was that intrigued me enough to write a whole novel/series about it!), any notes I’ve taken, broken down by subject, a query-style pitch, and a synopsis.
It just makes me feel good to have all those things there, ready to be filled in when I know what needs to go there.
For this particular project, since the structure is a little different than I typically write, I pulled out the index card function and used the labels to help me keep track of point of view and timeline. (So some say “so and so’s past” while others say “present.”) And because it was difficult for me to wrap my brain around writing a synopsis for such a weird timeline, I began filling in the index cards with a chapter’s worth of story each. It may not stay that way in the end (few things do make it until the final draft), but it really helped me settle on how the various stories would work and overlap and influence each other.
This one has been difficult for me. I get excited about projects and want to dive right in, but I’ve been forced to take this one a little more slowly. (Mostly because I haven’t had the opportunity for diving. Every time I vanquish a deadline, two more take its place.)
But taking my time with the planning stage of this project has also been incredibly useful. In my experience, the more I try to force story to happen, the less likely I am to be pleased with the results. I’ll forget details. Skip the sort of depth that I want to write about. Cause the characters to do uncharacteristic things.
Giving myself the space to dip in and out of the story — forgetting about any self-imposed deadlines — is letting me dig deeper. After all, the goal isn’t to win some imaginary race, but to write a book I’m proud of.
So, what do you think? Anything to add? Anything you do differently in this weird pre-writing stage? I want to hear it!