Category Archives: Writing Tips

Novels In Three Acts . . . More Or Less

Some writing instructors insist on a particular story structure: there must be three acts and between each, a door of no return.

Screenwriters use this formulaic structure, and many novelists have adapted it. But is this “beginning, middle, and end” framework a must?

To be honest, when I started writing novels, I’d never heard of the three-act structure. Later, when I read about the concept, “beginning, middle, end” seemed like a horrific oversimplification of the story form. More than that, I bristled at the idea that I was to write according to a set formula.

Soon, however, I began to see the structure in movies, and honestly, some of the joy of stories blinked out. Now I could predict, when things were bad, they’d only get worse. I could anticipate the beaten bad guy pulling out a gun, or the frightened girl running into the arms of the killer. The more I saw the girders of the story structure, the less I liked it.

Did all stories really have three acts?

Anyone familiar with drama knows they do not. There are one-act plays, two-act plays, even four- or five-act plays. Yet there are writers, and writing instructors, who hold religiously to the three-act structure.

Act One introduces the hero and gives a call to adventure which he may resist, but eventually he passes through the first door of no return and accepts, ushering him into Act Two. Here a mentor appears who teaches the hero, and he has any number of encounters with the dark forces. At some point he faces a dark moment within himself, then discovers a talisman that helps him in the battle. Again he passes through a doorway of no return which thrusts him into Act Three and the final battle, after which he returns to normal, though he himself is changed, for good or ill.

Of course there are adaptations of this framework for the various genres, but a good many writers believe this is the only way a story can be structured. Thankfully, not every writing instructor sees it this way. Some time ago Stephen James said the following in a Writer’s Digest article entitled “The 5 Essential Story Ingredients”:

While it’s true that structuring techniques can be helpful tools, unfortunately, formulaic approaches frequently send stories spiraling off in the wrong direction or, just as bad, handcuff the narrative flow. Often the people who advocate funneling your story into a predetermined three-act structure will note that stories have the potential to sag or stall out during the long second act. And whenever I hear that, I think, Then why not shorten it? Or chop it up and include more acts? Why let the story suffer just so you can follow a formula?

Screenwriter John Truby also brings into question following a formula. In his book The Anatomy of Story, he says, “A great story is organic — not a machine but a living body that develops” (p. 5). He further explains, “The story must feel organic to the audience; it must seem like a single thing that grows and builds to a climax. If you want to become a great storyteller, you have to master this technique to such a high degree that your characters seem to be acting on their own, as they must, even though you are the one making them act that way.”

Some writers talk about their characters insisting on going here or doing that. The characters, of course, aren’t real and can only do what the author imagines them to do. But if the character comes to life for the author, then there is a “right” way she must act that is consistent with her traits. The story, then, organically grows out of the characters rather than the author imposing a set of actions on the character.

And how many acts can that take? As many as need be. Stephen James again:

Stop thinking of a story as something that happens in three acts, or two acts, or four or seven, or as something that is driven by predetermined elements of plot. Rather, think of your story as an organic whole that reveals a transformation in the life of your character. The number of acts or events should be determined by the movement of the story, not the other way around.

Because story trumps structure.

Now that’s the kind of story structure I like.

This post is an edited version of one that first appeared here in December 2011.

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Characters Need To Act–Even In Pitches

“Conference season” is approaching. Well, perhaps it’s in full bloom. At any rate, chances are, serious writers are considering a conference or two they’d like to attend this year because they will have the opportunity to meet agents and editors and perhaps pitch their story.

So what is a pitch? I thought this might be the time to reprise the article about crafting the pitch for a story. Here’s the revised version of the one that appeared here in November 2012.

– – – – –

I’ve read too many novels in which the main character has no plan of action. Things happen, and he responds when necessary. In other words, he is reactive, which means outside forces are largely responsible for any character development that might occur.

Some time ago agent Rachelle Gardner allowed writers to post in the comments section of her blog one-sentence story pitches which whittle a novel to its bare bones—the premise.

According to former agent Nathan Bransford, there are three necessary elements in a twenty-five word pitch:

– The opening conflict (called the Inciting Incident by Robert McKee)
– The obstacle
– The quest

Gardner expands on this to include the following:

→ A character or two
→ Their choice, conflict, or goal
→ What’s at stake (may be implied)
→ Action that will get them to the goal
→ Setting (if important) [emphasis mine]

In the template she borrowed from Mr. Bransford, the character is to “overcome the conflict.” She then gives an example pitch she borrowed from Randy Ingermanson of a well-known story in which the character “battles for his life.” (Examples are always helpful!)

In response to Gardner’s invitation, many writers bravely put their pitches out for critique. However, I noticed one commonality—not universal, but frequent: the recurring actions in which the characters engaged in these pitches were things like “revealing” or “discovering” or “finding.”

Yes, those are verbs and therefore actions, but they are not graphic or explicit. They aren’t necessarily reactive, but they don’t show what the character is actively pursuing.

I’ll be the first to admit—writing an active pitch is not easy.

For one thing, not every story has a character hunt down the killer or free the princess. Some stories key in on the protagonist’s inner struggle, but the key word there is “struggle.” The hard work of facing life as a victim of rape or of recovering from a divorce or fighting out of addiction or any of the other cataclysmic events that can change a person, must still come through as active in a pitch.

A character can defeat her doubts or conquer her fears, but she can also do something more particular in your novel. The more unique or original, and active, the verb in your pitch, the more likely it will catch an agent’s or editor’s attention.

Here’s the pitch I wrote of a few familiar stories (fictitious or true). Do they sound intriguing? Do you recognize them or are they too general?

  • When a trusting king expects instant riches from the miller’s daughter, she must outsmart a magical imp to save her life and that of her firstborn son.
  • When a rebellious prophet sails away from God, he must survive the stormy consequences of his rebellion and repent in order to escape a watery grave.
  • When a family leaves their secluded home for a day, they must solve the mystery of the disturbing break-in that decimated their daughter’s belongings.
  • A loyal lieutenant must escape through a window and live like a fugitive in order to avoid the undeserved murderous rage of his father-in-law, the king.

No doubt you can improve on these, but each contains action. And action is what you want to show those reading your pitch.

Now it’s your turn.

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The Uniqueness Of Fiction

brethren-1988-1989Most of my life, including the years I worked as a secondary school teacher, I have written. However, until I decided to write a novel, I didn’t think about the fact that the majority of my writing experience involved nonfiction. I wrote letters, book reports, essays, term papers, and notes to the parents of my students. But fiction? Not so much.

Still, I was confident I could write a novel. Why? Primarily because I knew how to write, but also because I was a reader. I knew stories. In fact, I’d even taught short story units to my classes.

Imagine my surprise, then, when I discovered all the things I did not know about writing fiction. Mind you, as a lit major in college and an English teacher for years and years, I was actually ahead of the game. But when I started in on the story I’d imagined, I had no idea fiction was its own unique animal. In many respects, when considering all types of writing, fiction is like a zebra among horses. Or a unicorn, if the fiction is speculative.

power-elements-of-fiction-seriesSo, what sets fiction apart? The simplest answer is that stories—fiction—must have four elements: a setting, characters, a plot, a theme. These certainly are the basics and each needs amplification—so much so that the first book in The Power Elements Of Fiction series deals with plot structure and the second deals with character development. Setting and theme do feature prominently in the upcoming third book in the series, but not exclusively.

Why? Because fiction techniques are as important as the required fiction elements. Those techniques include such things as point of view, foreshadowing, plot layering, cadence, tone, description, mood, and more.

Early in my writing journey, I read an article in Writer’s Digest magazine that talked about word choices and the importance of selecting the right one to fit the mood, the meaning, the character, and more. I thought, “Pffft, nobody does that! Way too much work.” Well, here I am more than ten years later, advocating for the same thing. In fact, I’ve learned that writing good fiction requires hard work.

Sometimes the writing might seem painstakingly slow. And it’s easy to think, No one will notice if I labor over a better word for this scene than the one that originally popped into my head. While it’s true that readers won’t notice what I did, the converse is true also—they will notice what I did not do. If I’m lazy about my word choices or sloppy with my point of view, readers may be pulled from the “fictive dream” I created and which enveloped them.

That’s the one of the death knells for a novel. Every time a reader realizes the story isn’t real, they’re less engaged, less compelled to keep reading.

A second death knell is to put a reader to sleep. So fiction techniques that help a writer create an appropriate pace and scenes filled with action and vibrant description and interesting characters, are vital to a story’s success.

A third toll of the bell ringing over a failed story is predictability. If the story is clichéd, unimaginative, stale, readers are apt to put the book down and never pick it up. Consequently writers need to begin with a fresh concept and create stories that feel both familiar and new at the same time.

Then, too, the better books stay with readers long after they finish the last page. They may even re-read those books. Why? Because the voice is enchanting or the ideas memorable or important or because the characters deal with timeless questions. Readers think about those books and about the ideas they generated. While the idea of thinking about a subject seems more fitted to nonfiction, certain fiction mechanisms exist that allow the writer to spark deeper thought. However, without the proper fiction techniques, a writer may inadvertently create a story with an essay attached—not something that readers generally gravitate toward.

Finally, fiction can generate emotion in readers. A writer using the right fiction techniques can bring readers to tears. Or to laughter. Writing in such a way that readers feel with and for the characters they’re reading about, requires great skill. Unique skill. Most nonfiction appeals to a reader’s mind. Fiction appeals to their heart.

In the end, I’m glad I took the long road to learn fiction techniques. You see, I wrote a novel and a half before I started seriously studying fiction. I would never recommend that route to anyone else, but as I learned and revised and rewrote, I saw how the story developed into something better and better. I also realized that rewriting, which I’d thought at one point was unnecessary and a waste of time, actually was a vital part of the storytelling process.

I learned that fiction has unique strengths which require unique techniques—ones that a little study and practice can develop. Writers may write, but fiction writers tell stories, and in so doing, we use a different skill set from nonfiction.

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Writers’ Conferences

2015 OCW keynote speaker Jane Kirkpatrick

2015 OCW keynote speaker Jane Kirkpatrick

I had the privilege of teaching a workshop last week in the Oregon Christian Writers’ Conference held at the Red Lion Inn in Portland. I hadn’t attended a writers’ conference in a number of years, so it was a delight to be back with familiar faces and people of like interests.

Mostly, though, I was reminded of how valuable writers’ conferences are.

First, I was inspired—to write well and to write for a greater purpose. OCW had two keynote speakers—one a pastor known for his nonfiction and the other a sought-after speaker and fiction writer (pictured here).

In the extended learning classes held each morning, I also received excellent instruction. Some classes dealt with marketing and promotion, others about writing certain kinds of nonfiction, and others about the craft of fiction writing, from novels to screenplays. I chose a class about novel writing, taught by agent Sally Apokedak. Though directed at children’s book writers, the information was relevant to all levels of fiction.

The afternoons offered a variety of one-hour workshops (such as “Blogging And Blog Tours—The Whys and Wherefores,” which is the class I taught). Again, there was something for everyone during these afternoon sessions which included such topics as self-editing, essentials for a nonfiction book, voice, marketing, story beginnings and endings, synopsis writing, and more.

Third, I had a chance to attend both an editors’ and an agents’ panel during which these professionals answered questions from the audience. These panels offer a window into the business side of the publishing industry, and I never tire of hearing from those on the other side of writing talk about their work, their expectations, their advice for those of us who have not broken into publishing.

Another important part of writing conferences is practical, hands-on learning. OCW offered a pitch session, in which writers could learn how to write a brief pitch they might wish to use when they met with agents and editors, or to hone the one they already had.

The second night I led a critique clinic which allowed writers to break into small groups, and with the guidance of a more experienced writer, offer each other critiques of the first three pages of their work in progress. At the same time there was a poetry class and one on web design.

All this learning and inspiration is important, but another vital aspect of writers’ conferences is the opportunity to schedule an appointment with editors or agents. In some cases a writer can also request a pre-conference critique from the professional of their choice (some conferences offer this service as part of the conference package and others make paid critiques available), meaning that the professional with whom the conferee meets may have already read a sample of his writing before their meeting.

In other words, the agents or editors likely have an idea about how the conferee writes, if they’re interested in seeing more, and what she might need to do next.

OCW provides something I hadn’t encountered before—mentoring sessions. These are thirty-minute meetings with available staff—usually more experienced writers who can field questions, give encouragement, and offer advice to those who aren’t sure what direction they should take next. With so many changes in the publishing industry in the last five to ten years, this kind of help is so valuable.

Writers’ conferences offer one additional help—time to meet, talk, and connect informally with other writers. There’s something encouraging and challenging in getting together—beginners with multi-published authors and mid-list or self-published writers. Conferences seem to point to our commonalities, but beginners can be spurred on to greater heights by seeing successful writers who were once like they.

And published authors can remember how they started, the work it took, and the drive, determination, and enthusiasm they had to keep going. They can give of their time to help others as a way of paying back those who helped them.

Certainly writers’ conferences aren’t essential. As technology improves, and instructional sites such as Udemy and WOW (Women On Writing) proliferate, writers can receive instruction in the comfort of home, saving travel and lodging expenses. These classes can even bring writers into contact with an agent or an experienced writer or a freelance editor. In addition there are Facebook groups and Goodreads groups where writers can congregate online with other writers.

And yet . . . Writing conferences offer the intangibles of face-to-face contact. In a post back in 2013, I included the following information (with some minor editing) about writing conferences:

There are hundreds of writing conferences. Wikipedia has compiled a partial list, but a Google search will uncover many more. The key is to refine the search based on genre and location. Some of the more well known conferences include Writer’s Digest (East and West), SCBWI (LA and New York, as well as smaller local gatherings), and RWA. Christian writers’ conferences include Mount Hermon, Colorado Christian Writers, Oregon Christian Writers, American Christian Fiction Writers (ACFW), and Blue Ridge.

Conferences may not be essential, but they are valuable. My recommendation is to plan ahead—pick a conference that seems to be a good fit and start now saving for 2016.

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Repetition Has Many Faces

statue-many-facesGenerally repetition in writing refers to the author’s use of a word or phrase more than once within a passage such as a sentence or perhaps a paragraph or scene. Unless used intentionally, such repetition can be distracting (See “Repetition And Redundancy” for a closer look at this type of repetition) .

However, repetition has more than one face.

For instance, an author may unintentionally give several characters the same quirk. The main character may “worry her bottom lip” in the first chapter, third chapter, and fourth. That’s her tic. But then in chapter five in waltzes a minor character who begins to “worry her bottom lip.” If the mother-in-law and then the pastor’s wife and the sheriff’s deputy all start “worrying their bottom lip,” we have a serious problem.

But even if the repetition doesn’t spread that far, it’s still problematic. Certainly people share nervous habits and even quirks, but the author has used the same wording, which prevents the readers from seeing the peculiarity of the way these two characters, who share the habit, carry it out.

This same principle applies to dialogue as well. If one character has a pet word or ends sentences with something out of the ordinary such as, “so how about that?” no other character should share that tell.

Sometimes the dialogue repetitions are more subtle—the cadence of a sentence, a questioning inflection, specific vocabulary. Each character should have his or her own voice, but when the unusual pops up in Dorothy’s speech and Jasmine’s speech and Miguel’s speech, there’s a problem. Unless the author intentionally shows the characters mimicking each other or coming from an environment that would reasonably influence them to talk in similar ways.

A third face of repetition is that of scenes. Especially in romance and action adventure, love scenes and fight scenes should have a uniqueness so that readers don’t think they lost their place and are re-reading an earlier scene. There should be something different about each battle, about each romantic encounter. Otherwise, that which should engender emotion becomes a source of boredom.

I hate to admit it, but I’ve experienced this kind of ho-hum attitude in some superhero movies. Another monster tipping over cars and kidnapping the hero’s love interest and smashing buildings. Wake me when it’s over. I suppose for those who love the special effects or who haven’t watched a superhero movie before, all the explosions and near misses can be exciting. But the repetition of them reduces tension since we’ve seen that scene before. And reduced tension kills fiction.

Finally, characters can be repeats. No, not precisely so, not in every facet. But authors would be wise to vary some basic character components, starting with physical features. I’ve read manuscripts, for example, with an inordinate number of blue-eyed characters. Or green-eyed. Or both.

In one of my early drafts, I realized I had created all my characters tall. In the same way, be sure that all your characters aren’t beautiful or muscular.

Character social status should also be varied. Besides making my characters tall, I created all of them single. Not particularly realistic. Of course, not every character should be married, either. In fact, not every character should be rich or middle class. Not every character should come from a sordid past. Not every character should live in the suburbs. Not every character should be brilliant or talented or college-educated. Not every character should attend the same church, nor should they all reject religion. Unless, of course, the storyworld you’ve created requires this kind of uniformity.

Aphid_on_dandelionOne more thing writers should avoid when creating characters—making them all the same age. People your story with old as well as young, those facing death and those about to be born, the newly married and the fifty-something’s celebrating their silver anniversary.

A story with variety is much more interesting than one seeded with repetition. Be aware of repetition’s many faces so you can squeeze the life out of the ones you don’t intentionally plant in your story.

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Hiding Information From Readers

writing in diary August_Müller_TagebucheintragFrom time to time I read advice that says novelists should create characters who have secrets. One such article, “5 Secrets about your Characters’ Secrets,” lists out ways that a writer can use characters’ secrets: to develop a plot twist, create conflict, for descriptive texture and intrigue, to use as part of the character reveal, and I’d add, as a source of on-going tension.

In fact, novelist L. D. Alford includes secrets on his list of tools to create tension. He explains the process:

The protagonist’s secrets are wonderful secrets—the trick is that the author can’t reveal them too early. This is an example of not showing (or telling) everything. I don’t like my readers to know anything that is not revealed through showing. To effectively use protagonist’s secrets, the author must only use showing to reveal and must not show everything.

There is incredible power in keeping protagonist’s secrets. Just like in real life, you never know everything about someone else, and you never want to let someone know everything about you. This is the point of secrets—not everyone knows them. The power of secrets is your readers realize they don’t know everything about the protagonist, and they await with excitement further revelations.

Secrets create questions, both for the other characters and for the reader. As other characters react to the existence of a secret or to its revelation, as the main character struggles to keep the secret, tension abounds. But the natural reaction to not knowing is wanting to know, so secrets generate curiosity. What are those marks on her arm which she keeps hidden? Why hasn’t she told her boyfriend that her parents died?

Mr. Alford also says in one post, “The most powerful use of secrets are those that are kept by the protagonist . . . and not shared immediately with the reader.”

Of course, the protagonist isn’t the only character who can have a secret.

Dobby2I think, for example, of Harry Potter And The Chamber Of Secrets in which a character named Dobby goes to Harry’s home in order to dissuade him from returning to Hogwarts, the school for witches and wizards. Harry can’t imagine why Dobby wants to keep him from going back, and the reader is just as much in the dark.

Later Harry learns that Dobby, a house elf, is trying to protect him from another wizard, one to whom Dobby is bound and who he cannot betray. Dobby’s secret turns into a full-blown “who wants to harm Harry” question which in turn creates tension throughout the book as one person after another falls under suspicion.

There is a limit, however, to the use of secrets. The author should not withhold the information from the reader that reveals the protagonist’s goal or plan. What the central character wants, drives the plot. If that desire is a secret, readers will be left out of the true quest.

Likewise, if the protagonist makes a plan to achieve his goal, a secret plan which the readers don’t know, they have no way of cheering for his success or fearing when obstacles crop up or enemies plot countermeasures.

In other words, if readers aren’t in the loop when it comes to the goals and plans the main character makes, the tension, which is the point and purpose of keeping secrets, will be lost.

Keeping secrets can powerfully aid a novelist when it comes to creating tension, but a line should be drawn when it comes to the goal of the protagonist and the plans he makes to reach his goals. These are essentials that readers must be aware of if they are to care for the character and hope for him or fear for him. They should not be withheld in the effort to give the protagonist an intriguing secret. Rather than creating tension, withholding the key to character motivation creates indifference.

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Finally! Power Elements Of Character Development Released

PowerElementsCharacterDevelopment[1000][1]Back in March, I posted a preview of the Kindle ebook Power Elements Of Character Development, Book 2 in my Power Elements Of Fiction Series. Before I could put the book up on Amazon, I needed to work out some technology issues which took far longer than I expected, but at long last, it’s complete.

So I’m happy (and relieved) to announce the release of this new book, with the actual cover, not the pre-release cover I posted before.

As part of the promotion for the book, I’ve made Book 1, Power Elements Of Story Structure free for a limited time—until midnight Tuesday, May 19.

By the way, here’s your chance to critique an editor, something most writers would LOVE to do! 😉 If you download and read either Story Structure (the free one) or Character Development (the new one), you’d help me out a great deal by writing a review—whether you like the book or hate it.

With all that preliminary out of the way, here’s the description of the book and another sample chapter. (Blog readers always get the inside scoop and the special deals! 🙂 )

Description

Power Elements Of Character Development, second in the series Power Elements Of Fiction, offers practical instruction for fiction writers about how to create engaging characters. This manual covers such topics as the character arc, a character’s inner as well as outer goals, qualities that make a character compelling, how character development fits with plot, how setting affects character development, character flaws, character voice, well-developed minor characters, realistic antagonists, and more.

This guide provides helpful reminders to the seasoned author, tips to help the intermediate writer raise the level of his storytelling, and instruction for the beginner. The occasional writing exercises offer writers an opportunity to apply what they are learning to their own works in progress.

Finally, Power Elements Of Character Development includes a list of resources for authors who wish to dig deeper in any given topic.

In total, this manual is a succinct blueprint for fiction writers to create characters that intrigue, entice, and compel readers to follow their story.

Excerpt

Chapter 9: Qualities Of Good Characters, Part 1

Critical to the process of creating a story that matters is creating characters who matter. Readers must care about the people in a story in order to care about the story itself. However, readers will put down books that are nothing more than long-winded character sketches. Something has to happen, but it has to happen to characters who matter.

What precisely makes a character matter to a reader? From my study, I’ve identified a few qualities that seem to draw readers. Here, in no special order, are three:

* Strong, yet vulnerable. The character is capable, admirable, winsome, but has a touch of weakness that makes him realistic as well as endearing. It’s a bit like Superman disguised as Clark Kent.

Bilbo is another good example of this type of character. He was small and not so very adventurous. He didn’t have any experience away from the Shire, but as Gandalf pointed out from time to time, there was more to him than met the eye. He was smart and intuitive and persistent and loyal. He was not invincible, but when he became invisible, it nearly seemed so. Yet Gollum could hear him and Smaug could smell him and the elves of Murkwood knew someone—a great warrior, they thought—lurked in their halls.

But if Bilbo were a man or a dwarf or an elf instead of a hobbit, he would not have been as endearing. His fuzzy feet and love of second breakfasts made him seem less than ferocious. His vulnerability was the perfect counterbalance to his strength of character.

* Influential. The protagonist isn’t a follower. She is generally the trendsetter, the leader, the catalyst. She sees the solution when no one else can, takes the path least trodden, faces the insurmountable odds when everyone else runs. She is the one who sets herself apart with her choice for a career or her choice to renounce her career. She’s willing to go it alone or sacrifice for others or try the impossible. Readers admire her confident leadership.

The protagonist in L. M. Montgomery’s Anne Of Green Gables is such a character. Though Anne tries to conform to the expectations of her adoptive parents, tries to fit in with her classmates, tries to stay out of trouble in their small community, she simply has too much imagination, too much ingenuity, too much power of persuasion. She draws people to her like a magnet draws iron, and she woos and wins the hardest heart, the strictest disciplinarian, the greatest tease. She turns enemies into friends and friends into bosom buddies or kindred spirits.

* Active. The main character must not exist to experience whatever befalls him. He must take the initiative, decide to engage his world, and, for right or wrong, make things happen. Along this line, he is self-aware. He knows he has weaknesses and wants to overcome them. In fact, much of what moves him to act is his desire to be better than he knows himself to be.

Lady Marguerite St. Just Blakeney, the heroine in The Scarlet Pimpernel, Baroness Emmuska Orczy’s historical novel set during the French Revolution, as well as her husband Sir Percy Blakeney, is an active character who does not merely react to events threatening her, but takes steps to forestall evils.

Percy is crafty, daring, beguiling, a protector, a rescuer, a leader. He sees people dying in France for no reason other than their parentage or perhaps because of those with whom they had some past association, and he determines to help them escape. Marguerite does what she does for love—first for the sake of her brother and later for the sake of her husband. She is no less courageous and daring than Percy, though perhaps not as duplicitous. But both of them are active. They take the fight to the villains and because of their willingness to act, readers readily cheer them on.

Strong, yet vulnerable; influential; active: these three traits are at the top of the list of qualities that make a character matter to readers.

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The Em Dash, Not To Be Confused With The En Dash

The Em Dash 2Because self-publishing has grown in ease and popularity, more and more writers are producing their own work for public consumption. Hence, I see the need for more instruction in the use of grammar and capitalization and punctuation, particularly marks like the em dash that may not be well known.

This post, with some minor editorial changes, first appeared here in April 2010. It’s about time I dusted it off, so we can take another look at em dashes. But be prepared: it comes with a writing exercise at the end, for those who wish to undertake the practice.

And now, The Em Dash:

I’ve been accused (gently) of overusing em dashes, commonly referred to without the qualifying “em.” These punctuation marks [] differ in length and use from their lesser known, and shorter, cousins, the en dashes [–].

The thing about em dashes—they are incredibly versatile. They can do some of the jobs that commas do or ones parentheses do or even those that colons do. Maybe em dashes are the lazy writer’s answer to punctuation dilemmas: when in doubt, use em dashes. 😉 Well, it works for me!

Like anything else in writing (and in much of life), however, too much of a good thing becomes not such a good thing. In other words, em dashes in every other sentence may become distracting.

With that caution in mind, let’s look at specific uses of em dashes. First, they separate information that amplifies or explains from the rest of the sentence. Commas, parentheses, or a colon can do this too. Here are a few examples.

Example 1:

    The kingunable to sleepcalled for the steward to read the scrolls detailing the affairs of state.

Or

    The king (unable to sleep) called for the steward to read the scrolls detailing the affairs of state.

Or

    The king, unable to sleep, called for the steward to read the scrolls detailing the affairs of state.

Example 2:

    The basketball coach mapped out his plan of attacka plan he hoped would surprise the opponent.

Or

    The basketball coach mapped out his plan of attack: a plan he hoped would surprise the opponent.

A second use of the em dash is to separate a subject (or a series of subjects) from a pronoun that introduces the main clause.

    Lewis and Tolkienthey are the founding fathers of Christian fantasy.

As noted in an earlier post, “The Ellipsis or the Em Dash,” there’s a third common use—to indicate a sudden break in thought or speech.

    Clenching her fist, Barbara stomped after him. “No matter what you

    Before she could finish her threat, Jeff slammed the door.

One more important point: no sentence should contain more than two em dashes. If further amplification is required, then commas or parentheses should be used.

But what about the en dash, that shorter little mark so similar to a hyphen? The Chicago Manual of Style says its principle use is to connect numbers (and occasionally words). For example, if you give a span of time, say, between 19992004, the proper mark between the numbers is the en dash.

So here’s an exercise if you choose to do it: First, look back at this post and see how many em dashes I used, apart from the examples, then rewrite those sentences using either commas, parentheses, or a colon. Second, identify at least one sentence each in which I used parentheses or a colon and rewrite those using em dashes.

How do you think the change in punctuation affects the sentence?

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Dialogue: Putting Action Beats To Work

coupleoncoachStories are about people doing things. Along the way, they say things. To one another. As a conversation progresses, it’s necessary to remind readers which character is talking. Thankfully grammar rules help out—requiring a new paragraph for each change of speaker. But if the conversation is lengthy or if it involves more than two people, attributing lines of dialogue by tagging them with said Jane (or Josephine or Jeremy or Giraldo or Jorge) may become necessary.

I say, “May become necessary” because there is another option—inserting an action beat instead. Action beats are nothing more than bits of action.

The best kind of action to use during a conversation is that which shows something about the character, the setting, or the forward movement of the story. In other words, action beats should not be extraneous fillers that add nothing else to the story other than an indication of who is talking. Those types of unnecessary actions detract from the flow of dialogue and may paint an odd picture of characters flailing about while they’re talking. I know, because I’ve written scenes like that. Here’s one in an old version of JOURNEY TO MITHLIMAR, Book 2 of The Lore Of Efrathah:

“Where is Paloh?” Remalín propped himself on his elbow and stared around the campsite.

Bilg swung about. “Paloh!”

Mikkán slumped to his bedroll. “I knew it.”

Medát rushed up behind Jim, booming Paloh’s name in his deep voice.

Not a single said in the exchange, but all that action by four different characters doesn’t accomplish much more than indicating who is talking. In fact, the beats are far more distracting than said would be.

Action beats used in dialogue should accomplish more. First, they give readers action to imagine so that the scene doesn’t devolve into talking heads.

Second, they show character emotion. The best of the action beats in the above example is line three: Mikkán slumped to his bedroll. This line gives a hint at the character’s emotional response to the missing individual. It’s important to use action beats for this purpose because the alternative is to tell the readers what the character is feeling.

Action beats can also serve to provide information about the setting without stopping the conversation to deliver description. In the following snippet of conversation from LIARS AND THIEVES, Josiah is talking to Geret:

[Josiah said,] “I can assign Lieutenant Nidan to devise a slate of games—”

“Fine, fine.”

“And housing. How many are we expecting?”

“See for yourself.” Geret waved in the direction of the advancing force—two columns of soldiers flanking a large conveyance carried on the shoulders of a handful of servants.

“Less than forty it looks like, counting the servants. We can billet them in one of the barracks.”

Without stopping the conversation, the reader “sees” what the characters see.

Action beats can also effectively work with internal monologue to flesh out the setting.

The innkeeper shook her crooked finger in Abihail’s face. “The whole town suffers because of the likes of you.”

Abi squared her shoulders, ignoring the accusation, as well as the hunger pangs prodded to life by the yeasty aroma from the oven. The town suffered all right, as did all the towns bordering the valley, but certainly not because of the dissenters. “I only want a bit of bread, Mistress Trent, and I’ll happily work for it.”

Third, action beats can move the events of the story forward. They can set up or contribute to the conflict. Here’s an exchange between a stranger and the leader of a group of would-be robbers:

“I want no trouble.” From the opposite side of the portico, a stranger gripping the leather strap of a bag slung over his shoulder eased into the open. Sunlight and shadow danced across his face.

Two men, wearing the smocks of fishmongers, mirrored him, one on either side, each with a stiletto in hand.

“If you’re lost, we’re obliged to help you find yer way.” The sturdiest of the two curved his mouth into a tortured grin.

His wiry companion closed to within arm’s distance. “But we can’t let yer lordship visit the undertaker looking like this. Why, you’d be an offense to the dearly departed.” With a flick, his blade sliced apart the ruffled tie around the stranger’s throat, exposing a gold necklace. “See there? Too gaudy fer a funeral. We’ll just help you out by relieving you of such a disrespectful article.”

The others laughed.

The stranger backed up a step, but his voice remained steady. “You’re making a mistake, friend, to your own detriment. I apologize for my foolishness in wandering into your camp.”

Each of the action beats above intend to advance the developing conflict.

There are several important things to keep in mind when choosing to use action beats:

men in conversation21. The action should be natural to the character. For example, a stoic character is unlikely to gasp in response to something another person says. Make his action fit his personality.

2. The action should not read like information inserted by the author for the sake of the reader. Rather, the action should seem natural to the situation. For instance, the character shouldn’t take out the medallion his grandmother gave to him just because the author wants readers to know he has the medallion. He should only take it out if he does so as a nervous habit or purposefully to make sure he doesn’t lose it or to secure it in a safer place. In other words, there needs to be a story reason for the action.

3. Action beats should be sprinkled throughout the conversation rather than delivered with every line of dialogue.

4. Finally, in a tense scene that requires a faster pace, omit both action beats and speaker attributions. Let the lines of dialogue speak for themselves. Of course, that means those lines should be full of emotion or whatever meaning you wish them to convey—they should be poignant, powerful, or purposeful. But that description should characterize all lines of dialogue, shouldn’t it. 😉

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Cut Deadwood: Eliminating The Innocuous “It Was”

ideadwood-685380-mBack in elementary school, I had various teachers who assigned “essays” by giving a required topic and length. Later in college, I had professors who made similar assignments. Not surprisingly, a number of students in both instances looked for ways to pad their work in order to meet the length requirement.

Their goal, of course, was not to entertain the teacher or professor. They simply wanted to complete the assignment.

Most writers who aspire to sell their work aren’t length conscious, but I suspect few of us learned ways to keep our writing lean and focused.

Eliminating the innocuous “it was” falls under the category of tightening prose and is particularly important in controlling the pace of a piece of writing.

“It was” is not grammatically incorrect (and thus the “innocuous” label)—it’s just not needed in most instances. In all fairness, neither is he was, she was, or they were. These subject/verb combinations almost always follow a sentence that introduces the it or the he, the she, or the they. In essence, then, the pronoun/be verb combinations are redundant.

Examples may clarify the point:

    * He pulled out a knife. It was an old World War II relic he’d inherited from his grandfather.
    * Jill passed a distinguished gentlemen heading for the front desk. He was taller than her father and as broad-shouldered as Uncle Jack.
    * As their mother looked on, the Dorsey twins walked up to the front door and knocked. They were each carrying a birthday present for their classmate.
    * Kelvin introduced himself to Mrs. Watson, his son’s third grade teacher. She was busy sorting papers at her desk and continued to work as they talked.

In most instances, a sentence beginning with a pronoun and a verb of being is describing or renaming the noun introduced in the previous sentence. So in the examples above, it renames knife, he renames gentleman, they renames twins, and she renames Mrs. Watson. Because of this close connection, however, the extra wordage is not needed.

In many cases, the sentence introduced by the pronoun/verb of being can be incorporated with the previous sentence. The simplest method is to replace the subject/verb with a comma:

    * He pulled out a knife, an old World War II relic he’d inherited from his grandfather.

Sometimes the descriptive material can be incorporated in the previous sentence as parenthetical material:

    * Jill passed a distinguished gentlemen—taller than her father and as broad-shouldered as Uncle Jack—heading for the front desk.
    * As their mother looked on, the Dorsey twins, each carrying a birthday present for their classmate, walked up to the front door and knocked.

Sometimes the material can be restructured in a more succinct way in an independent clause.

    * Kelvin introduced himself to Mrs. Watson, his son’s third grade teacher, who busily sorted papers at her desk while they talked.

Whichever method an author chooses or the context demands, eliminating the innocuous pronoun/verb of being combination trims deadwood from prose and contributes to a more lively pace.

One caution. The goal of good writing is not to create the fastest pace possible. At the same time, unnecessary words should not pad our prose.

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Filed under Prose, Sentence structure