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PNWA Summer Writers Conference, Day 1

Well, I survived day one.

The 54th annual Summer Writers Conference, hosted by the Pacific Northwest Writers Association, is in full swing! I had a wonderful time there last year as one attendee among many. I’m at the conference this year as a “Book Doctor” (that is, a editor who can tell you how to improve the writing and story-craft in your novel) rather than a starry-eyed hopeful novelist. Despite experiencing the conference from a different perspective, if today is any guide, this year I will also have a wonderful time.

I will, however, probably be twice as exhausted at the end of it as I was last year

Today was a half-day, with registration opening at 1:00, and conference sessions scheduled until the evening. I checked in a little before 1:00, and learned that not only was I going to be speaking on a panel of other book doctors who are also working the conference, the organizers also volunteered me to be the panel moderator. I suspect this is what I get for being the only local boy in the bunch, someone the organizers could be pretty sure would actually show up on time.

After checking in, I talked with three writers who had been assigned to me. That is also why my blog has been a little quiet the past several days: because I have been working furiously to finish reviewing the 25-page excerpts from the novels of 23 aspiring writers, and typing up my notes into something resembling cogent analysis with recommendations.

After finishing my half-hour sessions with today’s three “patients” I had a little break before the panel discussion started. Turns out it wasn’t much of a panel. There was only one other book doctor there besides me, a delightful lady named Kate Austin who drove down to Seattle from Vancouver, B.C. this morning. The other four book doctors were flying in from parts far and wide, so I was told, and just didn’t arrive in time.

Honestly, I think that was probably for the best, because with just two of us we were able to have a really nice, in-depth Q&A session with the audience members rather than a more formal panel discussion. By and large, the audience asked really good questions on pretty much every aspect of writing craft mentioned in the tag-cloud next to this blog post (and then some). Everyone was enjoying it so much we ended up running quite a bit over the allotted time. At the end of it I felt that Kate and I had established a real connection with the audience.

After the Q&A, I met up with a local writer friend of mine, and we adjourned to the hotel restaurant for dinner before returning for the evening keynote address by famous writer-guy Terry Brooks. He probably needs no introduction for anyone reading this blog, so I won’t. He gave a charming and pretty funny speech about how his writing career has affected his fame, fortune, friends, and fulfillment.

The end of the speech particularly resonated with me; he talked about how, for him, writing is the one thing that gives him the greatest sense of personal fulfillment. That the writing process itself, that sensation of losing yourself in the page while you’re writing, gives him an unmatchable sense of fulfillment.

I know that sensation, too, and probably so do you. But for me, embarking on this possibly mad quest to make a living as a freelance editor has a similar quality to it. It is hard, laborious work. But I get a charge out of reading unpublished novels that—if I can help them along a little or sometimes a lot—may someday be published. I get a sense of pride from helping writers improve their craft. And I definitely feel a sense of personal fulfillment from the simple act of taking my destiny into my own hands.

That’s something I never got from working a day job.

I turn 40 later this year. It may have taken nearly four decades, but I feel like I know what I want to be when I grow up, and I’ve finally realized that it’s up to me to make that happen.

July 31, 2009 06:03 UTC

Tags: PNWA, conference, Kate Austin, Terry Brooks, book doctor, fulfillment, quest, panel

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Novelists' black holes

This month, an enormous amount of my work time has been sucked up in preparing to do book doctor consultations with aspiring novelists at the annual PNWA 54th Annual Summer Writers Conference. They signed me up for 24 of these one-on-one consultations, each one accompanied by a 25-page excerpt from the aspirant’s novel for me to read and critique.

Anybody who has made a serious attempt to write a good novel knows that there are endless pitfalls one can blunder into on the trail from blank page to finished first-draft. I’m getting down to the last few excerpts in the pile, and I have to say I’m surprised some of these pitfalls haven’t been eliminated simply because they’re full to the brim with the bodies of those who have fallen into them before. I’m thinking you ought to be able to cross right over them on a crusty bridge of bones.

But, alas, some of these pitfalls seem more like black holes than holes in the ground.

Since they never fill up, I’m going to take a little diversion from my usual character-development fare to point out some of the more obvious ones, so future aspiring novelists can at least try to step around them. I’m not going to talk about little stuff: how to avoid run-on sentences, or even how to “show, don’t tell” or what have you. There are hundreds of credible books on creative writing that can help you with the basics.

I’m not so interested in the basics because those issues are comparatively easy to fix in an edit pass. What isn’t easy to fix in an edit pass are the big blunders. The ones that affect the bones of your story (if I may mix metaphors for a moment). If you all tell me in the comments that you want me to write about the basics and the intermediate stuff too, I’ll be happy to do so, but for today I want to talk about the big blunders that you ought to think about before you start writing chapter one.

Your line has no hook, or your hook has no bait.

I have yet to come across one of these excerpts that opens with a sufficiently well-constructed hook. I talked about how to do this the other day, in Hook ‘em with Character, but it’s important enough to be worth talking about briefly again. As I said in that earlier post, a great hook shows character through conflict. That is, it opens with a situation of meaningful conflict, one in which the POV character is forced to speak, act, and react in ways that show what that character is made of. You’d think that at least 5% of unpublished manuscripts would manage to do this, wouldn’t you? Yet, I haven’t found a single one that has put a sharp hook on page one, and baited it with a compellingly interesting character.

It’s not difficult to add a mere hook scene to the beginning of a novel that lacks one, but if the rest of the novel doesn’t contain interesting characters to work with, then there’s nothing to bait the hook with. That’s why I include this issue in the hard-stuff-to-fix category, because your opening hook isn’t going to catch many publishers if you can’t bait it with compelling characters.

Before you start writing chapter one, make sure your characters are worth writing a whole book about. I’m continually surprised at how rarely this happens.

"Country two-step” Pacing

These are books where the plot takes a step forward, then two steps back, then a step, step forward and a Do-Si-Do. If I had a dollar for every one of the excerpts in this set of 24 that opened with some plot, then took an immediate, pace-killing detour into flashbacks and backstory, well, I wouldn’t be rich but I could certainly buy myself a pizza.

It’s hard enough to craft a well-paced opening to a novel even if you only do the essentials: establish the premise, setting, and characters. The burden of starting the story inevitably makes the pace in the beginning slower than in the body of the novel. But, throw a bunch of infodumpy flashbacks, character background, or premise exposition into the mix, and the novel’s pace stops dead. Readers yawn—or at least, they would if they got to see it. They won’t, because agents and publishers will throw it in the trash and send you a “not right for our needs at this time” letter.

What kills me is that the material that’s in these pace-killing bits of backstory is almost never actually necessary. Usually, it’s material that is just plain irrelevant. The reader doesn’t need it. In the maybe 10% of cases where the material is relevant, nearly all of these do nothing but answer questions the reader hasn’t thought to ask yet, and as such, rob the story of a lot of mystery, drama, and suspense. These aspiring writers haven’t learned that leaving the reader with some questions and puzzles is a good thing. If the questions are compelling, if the puzzles are enigmatic without being trite, then the reader will read on and on to find the answers.

But when you kill your novel’s pace with an infodump flashback that reveals all of your character’s tragic secrets, you also spoil the mystery. Cut out all those pace-killers, throw away the truly irrelevant material, and sprinkle the other 10% here and there throughout the body of your story. Reveal it by degrees, to create a deliciously evolving portrait of your characters.

"Waiter, I wasn’t done with that!” Plots

These are books that open like one kind of novel, but then—surprise!—turn into something entirely different mid-way through. If it’s going to happen, this will usually happen right around the end of act one. If the best possible thing has happened, that is, the reader has actually enjoyed act one of your novel, switching it on them is an extremely risky move. It’s like your reader going to a restaurant only to have the waiter (you) take their plate away mid-way through the meal and replace it with something entirely different from what they ordered. Oh, and then also for the waiter to be surprised that the reader gives them a lousy tip.

If a reader actually gets as far as the end of act one, they have invested a lot of time and energy into your story, with an expectation of some sort of payoff: that the story will finish well. If, instead, it finishes by turning into an entirely different story, you’ve violated the implicit contract between author and reader. You’re saying to the reader “I know you were enjoying my hard-boiled detective story, but come on, don’t you really want a rollicking historical romance farce with aliens?”

I’m not saying you should never surprise the reader. Obviously, you should. The right kinds of surprises are good. I’m just saying that the middle and end of your plot should live up to the promises made by the beginning.

Film Negative Plots

Every novel has to find its own balance between showing, creating fully life-like scenes of important events, and telling, summarizing events that don’t need to be shown. A film negative plot is when the author confuses the black with the white, and shows us the boring parts while telling us the exciting parts.

You would think it would be utterly obvious not to do this, but again, this black hole knows no bottom. This is in the hard-to-fix category because it means re-writing everything, turning shows into tells and vice-versa.

I had one of these 24 excerpts start out with so much that was right: it had an interesting premise, and a main character who was doomed to struggle through events his background didn’t prepare him for. But, in the book’s opening, the author chose to show us a dialogue scene between the main character and his amicably-divorced ex-wife. In this scene, the main character recounts for her the most dramatic event in the whole first act: a dying man using his last breaths to give our hero a cryptic set of instructions. He literally tells it. The dialogue scene itself was well crafted, but for crying out loud, open with the dying guy! If you’ve got that in your back pocket, why on earth would you ever open with a congenial chat with the ex-wife?

So there you go. Four killer black holes in the universe of novel-writing. Now you know where they are, so please, try to avoid them. And if you’ve got any favorite pet-peeve ones of your own, please add a comment and share!

July 23, 2009 20:15 UTC

Tags: plot, hook, character, pacing, infodumps, backstory, flashbacks, bait-and-switch, PNWA, conference, show don't tell

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Hook 'em with character

“You’ve got to open with a strong hook.”

Ask anyone in the publishing industry—agents, publishing house editors, sales reps—and they’ll all tell you that opening a story with a strong hook is a great way to make your manuscript stand out from the rest.

But what does that actually mean? It’s pretty vague advice. If you press them on it, they’ll give you something like “Well, the story has to open strong. It has to pull the reader right in, grab them by the shirt collar, and make them want to read the next page.”

That doesn’t help much, does it?

Then there’s the other school of thought, summarized very well by Elizabeth Lyon in her book Manuscript Makeover:

I know a few people, very few, who can spout plot summaries of novels on request. What most people remember, I contend, are their favorite characters.

She’s right. The thing is, these philosophies mesh very well together, because a strong hook also shows your characters.

Today I’m going to tell you exactly what a strong hook is, and give you practical, hands-on tips for how to open with one, and how to how to make your hook show your characters.

A strong hook is nothing more than something that grabs the reader’s attention. That usually means crafting a surprising situation that is thick with conflict. Why? Because conflict drives the reader’s curiosity: what’s the conflict about? What’s at stake? Who’s going to prevail?

Raising questions in the reader’s mind compels them to keep reading. And in your opening scene, more than anywhere else in the book, you want the reader to keep reading.

Yet, all too often I see manuscripts that open with some of the most boring situations imaginable. People waking up in the morning, walking down the street, going about ordinary, day-to-day activities. Don’t do that. Somewhere in your plot, is some interesting, pivotal event that gets the main storyline going. Right? Say yes. There had better be, and it had better come soon.

Find a way to put this event front-and-center on page one. In paragraph one. Ideally, put it in the very first sentence. Open with a scene of conflict. Work to immediately raise those questions in the reader’s mind. Don’t think it’s better if the conflict sneaks up on the reader. It isn’t. Jump right in.

That’s one component of a great hook: opening big, picking the right scene from your overall story to open with. Do that and you’ll raise the right questions in the reader’s mind. But the hook won’t have any bait if you fail to make the reader care about the answers.

In my experience, this happens when the big opening scene fails to establish the main character’s personality. You can’t fix this by throwing in a sentence or two of description. You can’t fix it by telling the reader that your character is a smart-ass, or is utterly fearless, or is a rotten drunk.

To establish your main character’s personality well, you have to show it, not tell it. And that, in turn, means creating opportunities for your character to display his or her attributes in action.

There’s lots of ways of working a character’s attributes into a scene, but in an opening scene one of the best ways is to make sure that your main character drives the scene, rather than letting the scene drive your character.

I can’t tell you how many opening scenes of manuscripts I’ve read that have a lot of conflict in them, but in which the main character doesn’t actually do anything, doesn’t affect the outcome of the scene. Openings where the main character is buffeted about by events, making no effort to participate in them, letting the chips fall where they may.

That is not a recipe for making readers care about your main character. Who wants to root for a character that doesn’t do anything? One way or another, you have to make your main character drive that scene.

This doesn’t mean that your main character can’t be in a world of trouble. It’s probably better if he or she is. This doesn’t mean he or she has to prevail in the scene’s conflict. In fact, he or she should probably not prevail.

What it does mean is that you need to show the character trying to affect the outcome of the scene. You need to show them making decisions, taking actions, reacting to events, engaging in dialogue.

Every one of those elements is an opportunity to show character.

Actions speak louder than words, right? There’s no better way to learn what someone’s really made of than to watch how they act in an atypical situation. You won’t learn anything about someone from watching them walk down the street, get up in the morning, or any of those other un-conflicted, daily life situations.

But watch them act in the middle of a crisis, and you’ll come to know what kind of person they are really fast. Authors have the extra luxury of not only showing how a character acts, but also of showing how they think. Use it. Give the reader that extra insight into your character’s mind.

Here it is, boiled down: A great hook shows character through conflict.

Tattoo that on your forehead if you need to, but learn it. Take a look at the opening scene of whatever book you’re working on right now, and ask yourself, is this a great hook? Is there enough conflict here, and have I used it to show my main character’s personality? Is my main character driving the scene?

This is how you not only pull the reader into the story by raising questions, but also make them care about the answers.

July 20, 2009 18:04 UTC

Tags: hook, conflict, questions, answers, character, choice, action, reaction, show don't tell

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Un-Clone your characters with distinctive dialogue

In yesterday’s post, I wanted to cover everything about using dialogue effectively to show character, as well as warning of some of the pitfalls. Oh, naive blogger, ye! That’s a whole book, not a blog post, so I’m taking it in smaller bites. Today I’m covering some tips and tricks for creating distinctive dialogue for your characters.

Writing dialogue is hard for a lot of reasons. One, as I said yesterday, is that all readers are experts in dialogue. But another is that we are each so deeply steeped in our own patterns of speech that we have trouble thinking in different patterns of speech for the characters we create.

If we don’t work to avoid it, all of our characters end up sounding like us. And thus, they all sound like clones.

There are a lot of strategies for avoiding this bland fate, and you’ll have to experiment with what works for you.

Strategy #1: Imitate people you know.

Where you come from influences how you speak. American English has different patterns than British, Australian, New Zealand, and Caribbean English. America and the United Kingdom have many linguistically distinct regions within them, and I imagine the same is true for Australia and the rest. So think about people you know who didn’t grow up where you grew up, and try to imitate them.

If you have a character that comes from a place with a distinctive patois, you should take particular pains to learn enough so you can imitate it. Just think about the immediate difference between “Good morning,” “G’day, mate,” and “Good mawnin’, braddah.” Even an otherwise throw-away line of dialogue can be made to show character if it is distinctive.

Strategy #2: Create mannerisms

Most people have at least a few verbal tics that are unique to them. I knew a guy once who sounded entirely normal to me, except he used “whenever” in places everyone else would simply use “when.” Myself, when I was about 12 years old, I developed this habit of inserting the word “basically” into nearly every sentence that came out of my mouth. Fortunately I got over it but you get the idea: for each of your characters, create some particular phrasing that is slightly unusual yet still immediately understandable. And make sure to keep straight which characters have which particular tics.

Strategy #3: Formal vs. informal vs. slang

Some people are very formal in their speech. Some are more casual. Some use a lot of slang. There is a whole spectrum of formality you can draw from, and you should. Degrees of formality are excellent tools for showing a character’s level of education and social background. Yes, it’s stereotypical that upper-class people with more education tend to speak more formally, while lower-class people with little education speak in a streetwise vernacular. I know, we shouldn’t stereotype people, but then again the stereotype wouldn’t exist if it weren’t more or less true. Again, consider the immediate difference between “Would you be so kind as to get me a drink,” and “Yo, my man, grab me a beer!”

If you play it right, you can create some very distinctive characters by explicitly manipulating the character’s level of formality in different scenes. For example, if you have a character from the wrong side of the tracks, who has worked hard to put himself through college and become an upper-middle class professional, this person may well use different speech patterns at work versus hanging out with his old pals on the weekend. It’s a great device for showing the character’s dilemma of trying to fit into two different worlds.

Ok, so how do I actually do that?

Obviously, it’s best if you can work out each character’s manner of speech before you write the novel. That way, you can get it right from the beginning. If you’re one of those writers who creates extensive character biographies beforehand, this is something you could easily incorporate into your pre-novel-writing preparation. Write some sample scenes for your characters so you can practice their voices.

But not everyone works that way. Some writers only come to know their characters in the process of writing the books, so what then? That’s fine, so long as you’re willing to accept that you’ll need to do an edit pass specifically to address these questions of distinctive voice. Just write the first draft, do your best as you go along, but don’t stress about it.

When you’ve finished the first draft, make a list for each character of the verbal patterns you have discovered for them. These could consist of notes like “sounds like my friend Elwyn,” or “says ‘very very’ instead of ‘really’ or ‘a lot’.” Stuff like that. Now compare your lists to make sure they aren’t too similar, and adjust if necessary. When you feel you have a good handle on each character’s voice, do an edit pass on the whole book and adjust every line of dialogue to fit with the speaker’s verbal patterns.

Finally, a word of caution:

There is a difference between how people sound when they talk, and the words they choose to say. The physical sound—how they shape their vowels, whether they roll their Rs—that’s accent. The patterns of words they use, that’s dialect. As an author, you have to learn to control both.

Dialect is straightforward, because it’s just words, but accent is harder. To represent accent on the silent page, you must often resort to intentional misspellings. When done well that can be very effective, but it is all too easy to take the business of accenting way too far, turning it into an ugly caricature that borders on a racist portrayal. Few things will turn a reader off faster than a suspicion that the author is a bigot.

Also, it is just plain hard to invent accent-oriented misspellings that give the sound you’re after but are also easy for the reader to understand. Some writers have a flair for this, but most don’t. For this reason I encourage most of my clients to stick with word-pattern distinctions but shun the accents.

July 15, 2009 18:17 UTC

Tags: character, dialogue, distinctive, clones, accent, dialect, imitation, mannerisms, verbal tics, formal, informal, slang, stereotypes

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Making or breaking your characters with dialogue

People have very keen ears for dialogue. They know what sounds right and what sounds strange without having to think about it. That only makes sense; all of us have spent countless thousands of hours both talking to and listening to other people.

You’ve probably seen that recent research finding 10,000 hours of practice at anything makes someone an expert. Do the math: You likely racked up 10,000 hours of listening, developing your ear for dialogue, by the time you were five years old.

No wonder so many writers say that writing good dialogue is one of the hardest parts of fiction: every single reader is an expert in the subject! If your protagonist is a boat builder or a bricklayer or a horse trainer, very few readers will have enough expertise in those fields to know whether you’ve portrayed those activities well. But the second your characters start talking to each other, every one of your readers will know immediately whether your dialogue works.

This is why dialogue is such a powerful tool for creating vivid, believable characters, and showing aspects of their personalities. It is also why a single bad line of dialogue can sabotage hundreds of pages worth of laborious character development.

Some examples are in order. Imagine that Steve and Dan have decided to take a year off between high school and college to go have adventures traveling in Europe. Near the end of their year abroad, they find themselves in Spain. Hard up for money and desperately seeking an alternative to what he perceives as a boring future back home, Steve enters an amateur bull-fighting competition. He does well, placing third and winning fifty Euros. However, the bull does well too, and Steve ends up with a few cracked ribs and a black eye. That evening, Steve spends his winnings on a hotel room and a few beers to share with his friend:

Steve tipped his head back, wincing, and drained the last of his cerveza. He took up a fresh one and held the cool bottle to his swollen eye. “What do you think, do I look like a bullfighter?”

“I think you look like shit, man.”

I intentionally told you nothing about Dan in setting the scene for that brief exchange. Dan gets exactly one short line of dialogue. What does it tell us about him? Quite a lot.

Casual swearing suggests that Dan is not a particularly formal guy. He chooses not to stoke Steve’s ego, but rather, to tell Steve the truth, suggesting that Dan is his own man with his own opinions, and isn’t afraid to share them.

I have not indicated how Dan delivers his line: you could read it as a humorous jibe, or as a frank and serious assessment. Both options imply something about Dan’s personality. Is he glibly laughing off the situation, or is he trying to help Steve see the seriousness of it? Either way, Dan is conveying a subtext of “Dude, don’t be an idiot. This is not a realistic career path for you.” It’s a short line, but it sure gives us an insight into Dan.

Let’s take a different example. Ellen and Julia have become fast friends after Ellen joined the coffee shop Julia works at. They are both in their mid-20s, post-college, figuring out how to deal with careers and boyfriends, how to make lives for themselves. One evening, Ellen calls Julia. After some opening chit-chat, Julia gets the feeling all is not well:

The line was quiet for a while. Julia asked “Hey, are you ok? You sound upset.”

Ellen sighed. “Rick stormed out. Hours ago. He’s not usually gone so long.”

“You guys fight too much. What happened this time?”

“I don’t know. I was cooking. I don’t even know what we were arguing about. I got really upset, and I threw a knife at him.”

“Ellen!”

“Relax, he ducked. I didn’t hit him. Anyway, he took off.”

“Well, I expect he’ll be back soon enough. Don’t sweat it.”

Let us further imagine that Julia is the protagonist of this novel. The author presumably intends for Julia to be a strong, sympathetic character—someone with a good head on her shoulders. That may be the image the author has worked to craft for Julia, but what does this exchange show about her?

Let’s actually start with what it shows about Ellen. It shows that Ellen probably doesn’t know when to get out of a bad relationship. It shows that she isn’t very good at controlling her reactions, and that she is prone to violent outbursts.

I don’t know about you, but Ellen is not the sort of person I would particularly want to have as a friend. Yet, supposedly she and Julia are good friends. Why? Why does Julia choose to be friends with a scary and dangerous person? It’s not like they have history. Ellen hasn’t given Julia a kidney. They haven’t known each other since kindergarten. There’s nothing like that, so Julia’s casual dismissal of Ellen’s actions at the end of the dialogue does enormous damage the reader’s view of her as a sensible person.

I’m not saying your characters should never say anything stupid. Sometimes they should, because they’re only human and people make mistakes. Sometimes that’s an important part of the story.

But I am saying that writers need to be very sensitive to the implications of the words they put into their characters mouths. If you make your characters say something dumb, it had better be on purpose because what they say says a lot about them.

The good news is that you are entirely well equipped to handle these nuances of dialogue. Remember, you’ve put in your tens of thousands of hours of practice at both speaking and listening, just like every one of your readers. You’re an expert, just like they are. Be confident in your expertise, and apply it to ensure that what your characters say conveys what you want it to.

Tomorrow: How to create distinctive dialogue for your characters.

July 14, 2009 18:37 UTC

Tags: character, dialogue, bad relationship

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Carpe Diem!

Although the classic Latin phrase Carpe Diem has spawned many derivative jokes, the core meaning of this cliche—seize the day—is not only good advice for success in life, it’s also good advice for novelists who want to develop strong characters.

Case in point: I recently worked on a book where the MacGuffin had gone missing, through assumedly nefarious doings by unknown antagonists. That’s a fine setup; the MacGuffin was something the main character cared deeply about, and it served as credible stakes for inciting the main character to action.

The author, rightly, aimed to create a situation where this main character (let’s call her Meredith for clarity’s sake), would go to great lengths to recover the MacGuffin and win the day. However, the author wanted (also rightly) to make Meredith an interesting, multi-dimensional character.

This is where things went wrong.

You see, the author saddled Meredith with a bad relationship, a marriage to an unfeeling, unsympathetic, and controlling husband. Roger, we’ll call him, didn’t give one thin damn about the MacGuffin, didn’t care at all for the anxiety that Meredith was suffering because her precious MacGuffin was lost, and constantly belittled Meredith’s ideas and strategies for how she might get the MacGuffin back.

This is not in itself a bad character development strategy. It offers the potential for character growth, for showing Meredith coming into her own as she chases down that MacGuffin no matter what. It allows an opportunity for readers to root for her, as we watch her growing awareness of her own power and self-determination as a human being.

But the author attempted to create a situation where Meredith had no one to help her but herself, by constantly leaving avenues of investigation un-pursued, possible actions un-taken. He didn’t want to take the time to write the scenes showing her doing those things and having them fail, so he simply left them un-pursued.

The reason for this passivity was always that Meredith was afraid of what Roger (or frankly, anyone else in the novel) might think of her. Was she being silly, for wanting this MacGuffin back so much? Would the cops laugh at her if she called them for help? Did she dare bother the neighbors to ask if they had seen anyone strange at her house?

In every case, the author made poor Meredith opt for preserving other people’s opinions of her (which couldn’t have been that great to begin with) rather than pursuing the goal she really wanted. The author, in attempting to force Meredith into a situation where she had to take control, instead showed that Meredith was passive and weak beyond all possible expectation, blowing with the changing winds of other people’s attitudes.

I’m sure he didn’t mean to, but that’s what he showed.

It would be one thing if she was like that in the first few chapters, but then got over it and started doing something. I kept waiting for Meredith to tell someone—anyone!—to stuff it and get out of her way. But she never did.

Poor, poor Meredith, she never did a darned thing to recover her MacGuffin. So when the MacGuffin more or less fell back into her lap at the end of the book (gotta have that happy ending, you know!), I wasn’t emotionally moved at all. After all, Meredith hadn’t done anything to deserve getting it back. She was just as sad and pathetic as she had been on page one.

It didn’t make for good characterization, nor did it make for a satisfying story.

July 10, 2009 17:07 UTC

Tags: character, carpe diem, seize the day, bad relationship, passivity, MacGuffin, stakes, multi-dimensional

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Making good choices for your characters

This past Saturday I spent some time reflecting on how the choices we make tell others about our own character. In that post, I promised an article on how that applies to fiction. That promise has been on my mind ever since, and I may only banish it by writing about it.

First, a quick poll. Raise your hand if you’ve ever seen the following in a TV show: The hero manages to get the drop on the antagonist. The hero’s gun is drawn. The antagonist is backed into a corner. The drama is high. It feels like the climax of the show, except there’s one problem—the hero doesn’t just shoot the damn villain and be done with it.

Is your hand up? Yup, mine is, too.

Now, you know, and I know, and the show’s writers know that when the show does finish the villain is going to be dead. One way or another, we all know that’s going to happen. So why doesn’t the hero shoot? Well, there’s one little problem. There’s still 20 minutes left in the show and you can’t very well dispose of the bad guy now! What would you do for the next 20 minutes? All the drama would be gone!

So, the good guy doesn’t shoot. The bad guy somehow escapes, and the story continues. Problem solved, right? Not so fast.

The story problem (or to put it more bluntly, the writer’s problem of figuring out how to drag a thin story out for another 20 minutes), has only been traded for something worse: a characterization problem. It’s a solution that leaves the viewer wondering why the hero is such a friggin’ idiot: He’s got the bad guy literally in his sights. Whatever nefarious doings the villain has been up to, the hero can put a stop to it right then and there. So why doesn’t he? Within the world of the story, within the events leading up to that moment, there’s no good reason at all not to. Yet, the obvious thing fails to happen and the viewer is left with no choice but to conclude that the hero is a moron.

I hate when that happens in TV shows and cinema. But sadly, it happens all too often in books, too.

When this happens, a good writer will go back and enhance the events that have led up to that pivotal moment so they take 20 more minutes—or a hundred more pages—so the climax naturally happens at the end, where it’s supposed to, at a moment when the hero really can go ahead and pull the trigger.

A mediocre writer will turn their character into an idiot, because they’re excited to move on to the next scene and the ultimate really really big finish they’ve had in mind since they started the book.

Don’t do that to your characters. Please. You’re a writer, right? Writers are supposed to love their characters. Why would you do that to someone you love?

What I’ve described is the (sadly, all too common) extreme case of bad characterization through poor decision making. Don’t just worry about the big situations in your novels. Choices happen at all levels, throughout a book.

Good novels continually present their main characters with crises: problems, challenges and obstacles to overcome. Some will be small, some will be grand. A mediocre writer will let their characters do the first thing that comes to mind that solves the writer’s problem. A good writer will let their character do the smart thing in that situation, even if doing so creates other challenges for the writer. A great writer will construct the situation such that there is only one thing the character can do, and it’s simultaneously the smart thing but also unpleasant or difficult.

At every moment where your characters are faced with a non-trivial choice (I’m not talking about “hmm, mocha, or espresso?” situations), you must ask yourself some questions:

What do I want the character to do for reasons of advancing the plot in the direction I want it to go?

What is the smart thing to do, that a real, intelligent person would do in this situation?

If the answer to those questions are the same, you’re in good shape. If not, you know what to do: fix the setup so they are the same. You’re not done yet, though. Having decided what the character should do, ask yourself a third, pivotal question:

What does that choice reveal about the character?

This goes beyond “does it make your character look like an idiot?” Was it a difficult choice for the character to make? Does the character have to sacrifice anything by making that choice? If not, you risk making your character seem risk-averse, someone who takes the easy way out.

Did the character come to that choice immediately, or did he/she have to wrestle with other courses of action before deciding what to do? Even if there really is only one viable choice, if the character immediately jumps to that decision you run the risk of making your character seem rash or reckless. (Worse, if the choice isn’t necessarily obvious, you show your hand by making the plot seem foreordained. But that’s a subject for another article.)

If you don’t like what the choice says about the character, go back to the first two questions and start over.

Like I said in my earlier post, choices are perhaps the strongest indicators of character at your disposal as a writer. So have a care. What your characters choose, how they choose it, how they arrive at their choices, and even how they feel about those choices: all of it contributes enormously to how readers perceive your characters.

Yes, it’s work. Yes, you may have to think hard to find the right choice for the character. Nobody said this was easy, but don’t turn your beloved characters into idiots (or worse) by worrying about solving your writing problem more than you worry about how best to portray your characters.

July 07, 2009 21:54 UTC

Tags: choice, character, hero, villain, smart, idiot

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The freedom to make choices

Writing is nothing if not a series of choices a writer makes on behalf of his or her characters. Every sentence, paragraph, and chapter offers opportunities for choice: How will your characters react? What will they say? What will they do next?

Those choices reveal a lot about your characters. Choices are perhaps the strongest indicators of character at your disposal as a writer. Stronger than dialogue or dialect, stronger than mannerisms or mode of dress, choices give a glimpse into the deepest level of character: how someone thinks.

Someday I will write a lengthy article on the power and pitfalls of the choices your characters make. But today is Independence Day in the United States, so I want to talk about something a bit different.

Independence. Freedom. Liberty. Whatever you call it, it amounts to the same thing: the ability to make unfettered choices. Life, after all, is nothing if not a series of choices for you to make on your own behalf. How will you react to your circumstances? What will you say? What will you do next?

In life as in fiction, the choices we make every day reveal a lot about our own character. Do you choose to sit on the couch and watch other people’s lives go by on the T.V., or do you go out to do some living of your own? Do you spend your time looking out for number one, or do you work to improve the lives of others?

Today we celebrate a historic declaration that the people of the American Continent are—whether King George III liked it or not—a free people. That we would have our unfettered right to choose our own destinies, absent the dictates of a distant and unsympathetic ruler.

Thus, I think the choices we each make about how we spend this day, among all others of the year, perhaps says something more about us than usual.

A lot of us are bringing out our flags for the day, firing up the barbeque, and figuring out the logistics of how to make it to the nearest fireworks show.

But some Americans are spending the day standing on hot street corners, baking in the sun, holding up signs demanding an end to the war. Some are calling the offices of senators and congressmen, demanding a “public option” in health care reform. Some are working to end mountaintop removal strip mining in Appalachia.

It’s not hard to see what those choices reveal about their character. My hat is off to them, and I thank them for their service to their country.

July 04, 2009 21:20 UTC

Tags: Independence Day, choice, character, King George III, peace, health care

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Event: KCLS New Teen and Children's Author Showcase

Woo Hoo! I got into this year’s King County Library System New Teen and Children’s Author Showcase!

The event is being held Saturday, July 25th, at the main Bellevue library, from 2 to 4 PM. Come by and meet me and the authors!

The authors will no doubt be there signing and selling books, but I’ll be the only one there offering to help aspiring authors whip their books into shape. I’m excited!

If nothing else, it’s really cool to be on the same list with writers like Royce Buckingham, Dona Sarkar-Mishra, and other leading lights of Northwest Children’s and Young Adult fiction!

Wish me luck. (And clients!)

July 04, 2009 03:13 UTC

Tags: events, KCLS, showcase, Royce Buckingham, Dona Sarkar-Mishra

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