Category Archives: Action

Realistic Characters

As Charlotte Brontë famously remarked, reality should “suggest” rather than “dictate” characters. (Nancy Kress, Characters, Emotion & Viewpoint, p. 9)

urban-traffic-768180-mReal people tend to be boring most of the time. They sit in traffic to and from work; they hunker behind desks day after day or drive the same delivery route yet again; they eat dinner with their family and spend the holidays with their relatives. The big excitement comes on the weekend when they go out to a movie or to a concert or party.

Most real people wouldn’t make good characters in books. Rather than attempting to make characters real, authors would be wise to listen to Ms. Brontë and make them realistic instead.

One thing that helps make a character realistic is a complex personality. This imagined person should have rough edges to go along with his heroic qualities. He should get on some people’s nerves some of the time. He should get cranky when he is tired.

But he should also be generous to a fault or so courageous he’s willing to risk his life without a second thought. And he should be selfless. In other words, when a character is a mixed bag of good traits and bad, he seems like a real person.

A second thing that gives a character the allusion of reality is when she has a good reason for doing what she does. In short, her motives make her actions seem logical and therefore believable.

Cop shows on TV often deal with unmotivated action, but they use it as a way to solve a crime. The murder victim does something that appears random, but that inconsistency triggers a hunt. Why was she in that parking lot at that time of night? There needs to be something that motivated her, and that something will give a clue to the identity of the murderer.

Mexicano_marioneta_louAll characters, not just crime victims, need motivation. Why did the gardener lie to his boss about the maid? If his motive isn’t clear, he will come across as the author’s puppet, not as a real person.

The third way an author can make her characters seem real is by giving them emotional reactions to the things that happen. Characters should feel guilty as well as scared, irritated as well as thrilled. They should worry about the test results from the doctor or get nervous before the job interview. And they shouldn’t get over the cause of their emotions too easily.

Characters, whether based on real people or created from scratch in the imagination of the author, are not precisely the same as living, breathing individuals. They are actually more. They face greater challenges, have higher goals, dare nobler deeds. And yet, they must be believable or readers will treat them like cartoons.

Hence, writers must give their characters checkered personalities, motivations for every action, and resulting logical emotional reactions. In this way, larger than life characters can still seem as real as the next door neighbor. Perhaps more so.

Hope you all have a very Merry Christmas!

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Filed under Action, Characters, Motive, Reactions

Characters And Emotion

angry manCharacters in fiction feel, and one goal we writers have is to evoke readers to feel along with them. However, in my reading I’ve noticed some problems connected with character emotions.

One difficulty comes when an author tells what the character is feeling instead of showing it. For example, she might say,

    Fred excitedly picked up the package.

The adverb in this case tells what Fred was feeling rather than showing it. Showing the emotion might read something like this:

    A grin lit up Fred’s face. He picked up the package and ripped off the wrapping.

Rather than naming the emotion, the second example shows what the point of view character sees. Of course, dialogue can amplify emotion. If the character picks up the package and says, “I’m so excited,” then there’s verbal testimony to back up the actions.

Interestingly, dialogue can also be used to undermine actions, or actions, to expose a line of dialogue as untruthful. If a character says one thing, then does another, the reader is left to decipher which actually reveals the character’s emotion.

A second problem, similar to the first, occurs when an author tells what a character is feeling, instead of showing the emotion through internal monologue.

Our friend Fred in the example above might be the point of view character. Instead of telling his emotions, however, or even showing them through action or dialogue, the author can show them through Fred’s thoughts.

    Fred picked up the package. He’d had his eye on it all week, even risked peeking at the card to be sure it had his name on it. It did, but he couldn’t imagine who would give him such an elaborately wrapped gift. Santa must be real after all.

A third problem I’ve noticed concerning character emotion is its total absence. Sometimes writers don’t tell or show what a character feels about something that has just happened. Has the protagonist just been fired? Has she had an argument with her best friend? Did he witness a bar fight? Was she forced to take a class she didn’t want?

Scenes need to show the appropriate action to communicate what’s happened, but they also should show how the character feels about those things. And often those emotions linger and, rightfully, affect what a character does next.

cemetery-roses-1102775-mConsequently, a fourth problem I’ve detected is a character who recovers emotionally much faster than is reasonable. One day he buries his dad who was his best friend, and the next day he is off to see the world. Or she has been left at the altar by her childhood sweetheart, and the next day she opens up an antique shop.

In other words, an event that has, or ought to have, caused great emotion, seemingly has no effect on the character’s next decision or action. Instead, what happens to a character should matter.

A character who has been mugged, for example, should have some emotional baggage that influences who he trusts or what precautions he takes for his future safety. The events of the story should not continue on as if he has not experienced this trauma.

In short, stories are built on causation. When one thing happens, it should induce a reaction, including an emotional reaction from the character. The author should show this reaction, either through action, dialogue, or internal monologue.

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Characters And Their Struggles

Cinderella-Offterdinger_Aschenbrodel_(1)A story needs characters, and generally one stands out as the central figure, the person about whom the events will revolve.

I suggest the above description of a main character is a recipe for an unpublished novel. While it may be true, it misses key points regarding characters who appear in well-read fiction.

First, the definition implies a disconnect between the events and the character. In page-turning stories, things ought not happen to a character. Rather, the character ought to go out and make things happen. The events aren’t centered on the character as much as the character is causing the events.

Secondly, the character as agent develops because of his wants and needs. These twin motivating passions have to do with both external and internal desires.

The external refers to something a character perceives will solve a problem, fulfill a longing, advance a goal. Harry Potter needs to attend Hogwarts, Cinderella longs to go to the ball, Dorothy must return home.

The internal has to do with an inner desires fueling a character and may be things she doesn’t realize at first. In fact these passions may be so ingrained in a character, she doesn’t understand these are motivating her. Harry Potter wants revenge, Cinderella longs to be loved, Dorothy wants to be loving.

Often a character reaches a point of revelation and comes to a place of clarity. She might then embrace what she finds or she may determine to change. Scarlet O’Hara determines she will never go hungry again, Bilbo Baggins embraces his role as “burglar,” Lucy Pevensie realizes she should do what Aslan tells her even if no one else believes her.

Internal and external wants and needs motivate the main character to action. He makes a plan and determines how he should go about acquiring what he perceives to be his greatest need. His plan may be involved, it may lead to a second plan or a revised plan, it may unfold in stages. The point is, the character is not passively waiting for things to happen to him. He is an instigator.

He is not the only instigator, however. The story also has antagonists who act. They are bent on foiling the main character’s plan or changing his intentions. They create obstacles that delay or derail his plans, causing him to revisit his goals and readjust what he’d hoped to accomplish.

Dorothy wants to go home but learns only the Wizard of Oz can help her. Her plan, then, is to go to Oz and put her petition before the Wizard. When she at last gains an audience with him, he promises to help her only if she kills the Wicked Witch of the West, giving her a new goal. Throughout the story Dorothy alters her plan and aims for something different as a stepping stone to her ultimate goal–returning home.

In essence, that desire drives the story, and the events that make up the story stem from Dorothy’s efforts to accomplish her goal. Put another way, Dorothy’s efforts are the story. The key is, whether succeeding or failing, Dorothy is striving to achieve what she wants.

She may succeed or fail in her efforts, but readers are firmly behind her, hoping the best for her because she’s active. She struggles to accomplish what she believes the circumstances require.

Dorothy doesn’t act alone. None of the characters do. Cinderella attended the ball only because of her fairy godmother’s gifts, Gandalf provided Bilbo with the help he needed to unite the Five Armies, and the Weasleys showed Harry Potter how to reach Platform 9 3/4 where he would catch the train to Hogwarts.

But the help these characters received in no way canceled out their need to struggle against the obstacles and work toward their goal. After all, that’s what a story is about.

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Filed under Action, Antagonists, Characters, Inner Conflict, Motive

The Effect Of Setting On Characters

ambulanceMany writers may think the effect of a story setting upon characters is obvious. If the events unfold in a city, a character will likely act in completely different ways than if they unfold in a rural setting.

For example, a woman in her mid-sixties falls and fractures her wrist. What does her husband do? In the city, he most likely calls 9-1-1 if she’s in a great deal of pain, or drives her to a hospital emergency room. But if this happens miles and miles from any medical facility? The husband would likely have to splint the arm himself or try to make contact with the nearest medical person, who might be a midwife, not a doctor.

So yes, we understand that setting affects characters. They act differently in different settings. However, there’s more to setting than the obvious overall affect on a character’s actions. Place and time have particular nuances that can and should influence characters.

For example, the character in a novel, a young man just out of university, is planning to immigrate from France to New York. If this story is contemporary, he may happily take his leave of his family, promising to visit the following year. He may phone them from the airport upon his arrival. He may set up a regular time each week to Skype them. Although he lives in a different country across the Atlantic, he can still maintain close ties with his family.

However, if this same young man is in a story unfolding two hundred years earlier, his decision to leave his home may have a feeling of permanence. He might never see his family again. When he reaches his destination, he may post a letter back home, but it will be weeks before it arrives and weeks more before he can expect an answer. Whatever ties he had with his family will be seriously weaker now.

But there’s more. Writers need to think about what kind of person would leave home knowing he may never return, knowing he is weakening and perhaps breaking ties with his family. The setting dictates a character’s personality and development. A cautious individual or someone particularly satisfied with his situation wouldn’t think of heading off into the unknown.

Even characters with more adventurous spirits or with dissatisfaction in their present circumstances would need a reason to travel so far. What would drive a young Frenchman to take such a bold, dangerous step? Has his father disowned him? Is he escaping a failed love affair? Is he distancing himself from scandal? For example, is our hero driven from his home by a jealous husband for being too forward toward his wife?

Of course, scandal is different today than it would have been two hundred years ago, too. Our contemporary hero would certainly need a different motive for immigrating because it’s hard to imagine that a little flirting, even with a married woman, would reach the level of scandal. Clearly, setting affects a character’s motives.

The contrast between our contemporary and our nineteenth century heroes points to one more effect of setting–a character’s worldview.

PortraitdelouisfrançoisbaronlejeuneWhat would cause a Frenchman in 1813 to leave his homeland rather than fight in the Napoleonic Wars, to come to America which was embroiled in its own war with England? Does he believe in democracy and oppose the tyranny of an emperor who he thinks betrayed his own country’s fight for equality? Or is he fleeing conscription into Napoleon’s army? Undoubtedly attitudes concerning nationalism and toward war and democracy would color a character’s way of looking at the world.

The contemporary character might be more concerned with economic issues created by the recent global recession or with personal opportunities for success. He might be influenced by a fear of terrorism or by attitudes of, or toward, tolerance.

Clearly, settings play an important role in a story, particularly as they affect the characters. Yes, they dictate action, but they also influence character personality and development, motivations, and worldview.

By the way, authors of speculative fiction are not off the hook. True, they create the world in which their characters live, but those worlds must have consistent rules that govern them. Those rules, in turn, whether they involve space travel or magic, act in the same way that the real world time and place rules do.

About world building in speculative fiction, author Orson Scott Card says

The stories you tell, the world you create, will in many ways be dependent on the decisions you make about the rules of magic [or science fiction]. (Excerpt from Writing Fantasy & Science Fiction, p.50)

Whether in contemporary fiction, historical, or speculative, the setting of a story has an effect on characters that goes beyond what they do and reaches why they do it, how they are changed, and how they view where they are.

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Beyond Internal And External Goals

outdoor-eatingWriters must know their characters, but to accomplish this we must plunge beneath the skin. In “Know Your Characters” we established the fact that an author must know his characters’ internal and external goals. Surprise, surprise, we can still do better.

To paint a character who is three dimensional and with whom readers connect, a writer needs to tap into the character’s convictions. According to philosopher and theologian Michael Novak (as reported by Yancey C. Arrington), people have three levels of conviction.

First is the level of public conviction. This is what a person, or for the writer’s purposes, a character, publicly says he believes. Second is the level of private convictions–things which a person thinks he believes. Finally, each person has core convictions–things that govern his actions.

For example, a person might say publicly that he believes in democracy. He might think he believes in democracy, but the level of conviction he has to democracy comes out in whether or not he votes or gets involved in the democratic process in other ways.

On a more personal scale, a person may say she will meet her friend for lunch (public conviction). She may think, however, that she doesn’t want to spend the time with her and would like to find an excuse to break the appointment (private conviction). What she actually ends up doing (going to lunch but inviting two other women along) will reveal her core convictions.

Another illustration, possibly true, possibly apocryphal, is the story of tightrope walker Charles Blondin who was known for his stunts as he crossed dangerous terrain like Niagara Falls on a high wire. One of those feats was to push a wheelbarrow across.

After successfully completing the trek, to thunderous applause from the hundreds of onlookers, so the story goes, he turned to the crowd and said, Do you think I can do it again?

Yes, absolutely, of course you can, they shouted, clapping and urging him to push the wheelbarrow across again. He waited for them to quiet.

I’m touched by your faith in me, he said, so I’ll make the return trip. I just need a volunteer, someone who will get into the wheelbarrow.

No one stepped forward.

The public convictions of the people in the crowd showed when they said he could push the wheelbarrow back to the other side.

Some in the audience may have thought that in fact he could. Others may have thought he might be able to, and some might have thought, given the fatigue factor, or an increased wind, or a growing wetness on the wire, that he might not make it. Those thoughts are private and no one will ever know who thought what.

However, we do in fact know those people’s core convictions. Their belief did not turn into action. They may have said they believed he could make it, they may have thought he could make it, but until they did something about their conviction, it was not something that reached their core.

The interesting thing for the writer to note is that all three of these convictions–public, private, and core–do not necessarily align. So one question an author can ask in order to get to know his characters better is, does what my characters say and think align with what they do?

Little_Red_Riding_HoodFairy tales are often good examples of story telling principles, and this particular idea regarding convictions is no exception. For instance, in “Little Red Riding Hood,” the story hinges on the fact that the title character held a different core belief from her public or private convictions.

As the story goes, her mother called her and gave her the task of taking some food and drink to her ill grandmother. Among other things, she gave Little Red Riding Hood these instructions:

Set out before it gets hot, and when you are going, walk nicely and quietly and do not run off the path.

Little Red Riding Hood disclosed her public conviction that she would do as she was told:

‘I will take great care,’ said Little Red Riding Hood to her mother, and gave her hand on it.

For a time, it would seem, the young girl held the private conviction that she would obey her mother’s directions:

So [the wolf–who had joined her on the way] walked for a short time by the side of Little Red Riding Hood, and then he said: ‘See, Little Red Riding Hood, how pretty the flowers are about here – why do you not look round? I believe, too, that you do not hear how sweetly the little birds are singing; you walk gravely along as if you were going to school, while everything else out here in the wood is merry.’ (emphasis mine)

She walked gravely along in obedience to her mother.

What comes next is a short struggle between Red Riding Hood’s private conviction and her core conviction. She finds reasons to change the former to conform to the latter.

Little Red Riding Hood raised her eyes, and when she saw the sunbeams dancing here and there through the trees, and pretty flowers growing everywhere, she thought: ‘Suppose I take grandmother a fresh nosegay; that would please her too. It is so early in the day that I shall still get there in good time.’

So she ran from the path into the wood to look for flowers.

Her core convictions manifest by what she does, not by what she says or what she thinks.

How well do you know your characters? What areas do their public, private, and core convictions align? In what areas do they diverge? Is your character surprised that she doesn’t do what she says she believes? Does she try to change?

Get beyond your character’s internal and external goals by taking a close look at her three types of convictions.

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Heart Surgery

Pig_heart_bypassWhat mother wants to cut out the heart of her child? Even an arm or leg would be unthinkable, and a hand or foot, cruel. But what if surgery were the only way to save the child or to insure quality of life? In those circumstances, a mother might allow a qualified surgeon to operate. But would she be willing to dive in and do the deed herself?

Of course not, we think. She’s not trained.

How many of us writers, who surreptitiously consider our stories our babies, fail to apply the same reasoning to our manuscripts? We may allow cosmetic surgery, but serious amputation or transplantation? Not for MY baby! And not if it means learning how to cut deeply or (worse, in some people’s minds) turning it over to a professional who will do so.

Perhaps I’m the only writer who has had such thoughts, but I’m guessing I’m not.

Here’s the thing we need to consider: if we continue to receive rejection notices from agents, if we are selling only a modicum of books, if our editor has passed on our next novel, or we’re not winning awards for our fiction, perhaps we need to intervene on behalf of our darlings with some manuscript-saving methods, also known as revisions—ones we make or ones we hire an editor to make.

The following bit of advice is for those interested in diving in to learn how to make revisions themselves. As a reminder, I’m not talking about cosmetic changes—fewer speaker tags or eliminating as many adverbs as possible. I’m not even talking about a sentence construction make-over or fixing our comma errors. What we writers need to be willing to do is heart surgery.

The heart of any story, in my view, is the character. Consequently, when we sit down to do serious story revisions, the first thing we should look at is our characters–all of them, but especially our protagonist.

What specifically do we need to be willing to change when it comes to our characters? I believe there are three vital areas upon which the health of a story depends: the character’s (1) desires and goals, (2) motivation, and (3) uniquenesses.

  • Characters need to have desires and goals which fuel their actions.

Too many stories have characters that simply react to the events taking place. At best readers are left hoping the protagonist survives.

Stronger stories that involve readers emotionally, allow them to cheer the protagonist on to victory or worry over them as they careen toward defeat. In other words, the protagonist has a desire and sets out to bring it to fruition; he has a goal that he believes will satisfy his need and sets out to accomplish it. Readers can hope he succeeds or agonize that he has taken a wrong path; they can be shocked by a betrayal that thwarts his plan, or dismayed at a new obstacle that makes it outmoded.

In short, the question writers need to ask first when they are ready to revise their story is this: do my characters want something? Do they have desires and goals?

  • Characters also need to be properly motivated.

Aspirations and needs—what the character consciously or unconsciously wants—serve as the backbone for motivation. But each action he takes must have a reason. In real life we may act on the spur of the moment, without any apparent logical connection to what went before, but in fiction such actions come across as author manipulation. Rather, characters need to act because of. They need to act because of their goals, because of the obstacle, because of what they heard, because of their past.

The question writers ready to tackle revision need to ask, then, is why is my character doing what she is doing?

  • Finally, characters need to be unique.

Editors are looking for the fresh and original, but that does not have to mean the strange or bizarre. Rather, freshness entails three things—a unique voice, a distinct outlook, behavior that is beyond generic.

A character’s voice is composed of her vocabulary, sentence structure, topics of conversation, and tone. Is she sarcastic, humorous, serious, matter of fact, down to earth, or pretentious? In addition, her voice should be different from her friend, her sister, her love interest, and from her boss. She also should rise above stereotypes. She can’t sound like all the other Southerners in the 1950s or like the typical school teacher. She can’t be just another female cop. Something needs to set her apart.

In the same way, a character’s outlook on life, or worldview, needs to be distinct. Certainly people share commonalities, but a character that is “run of the mill” doesn’t give a reader reason to care about this particular story. What about the character’s way of looking at life makes her special or out of the ordinary?

Perhaps she is a romantic—not something that sets her apart. What might distinguish her from other romantics? Has she decided not to marry? Why? Perhaps she must care for an aging parent or she is the sole support of her little sister. Perhaps she has a child from an illicit relationship. None of these circumstances sets the character apart in a unique way from stories that have gone on before. What if, instead, she thinks that no man can live up to her ideals and decides to remain single rather than become disillusioned. Now she is a romantic who takes on a different shape from the average romantic.

sunglasses by-the-poolThirdly, if a character is to be thoroughly unique, he needs to have behavior that is particular to him. Everyone’s heart races at times, and everyone walks or turns or looks. What action can a character take that is out of the norm, that other people are less inclined to do? These are the actions that make a character seem like one of a kind, a real person, a distinct individual. Perhaps she constantly forgets to take off her sunglasses until she’s in the pool. Maybe he turns off the car radio and asks people not to talk when he’s driving.

The final question, then, which writers need to ask as they are about to revise their finished rough draft is have I made my characters unique?

By asking these three key questions, a writer can diagnose the problem areas in her manuscript that may need surgery. No number of story make-overs will cure a character who is terminally lacking a desire or goal, who isn’t properly motivated, or who isn’t unique. Only the hard work of revision can do that, and doing surgery on her characters should be an author’s first revision concern.

This article is a re-post of the  original which published as a guest spot at author Marian Merritt’s site.

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Filed under Action, Character Developmet, Motive, Revision, Voice, Worldview

Keep ‘Em On The Line

Fishermans_with_fish_silver_salmonSo readers are hooked with a great beginning. How does the novelist keep them engaged from that point on? Perhaps the best way to look at this subject is to start with what does not keep readers turning pages.

One way is to employ “FALSE STARTS.” If the opening scene does it’s job and intrigues, readers should be asking, what happens next?

If, instead, the writer delivers glumps of backstory, excessive description, or the “flash forward,” readers may be tempted to put the book down.

Backstory tells readers about things in which they aren’t yet interested. Excessive description requires a story to grind to a halt as the writer paints a picture (always a fun thing to watch 😉 ).

It’s so easy for a writer to think the reader will “get” that the backstory and the character or setting descriptions are vital for their understanding of what’s about to take place, and that they will surely stick around to see just how great the story really is. Sadly, I’ve learned the hard way, this just isn’t so.

What about the flash forward?

In a writing instruction article in The Writer, Hallie Ephron says the flash forward is a device writers are tempted to use in order to begin with an exciting scene when the actual beginning seems to lack pizazz.

Prologues sometimes (often?) employ this device. The technique is designed to show a tense and intriguing scene, then stop at a cliff hanger, and go back to the beginning to show readers “how we got here.”

The story question, then, is something like, what brought this smart, capable woman to the point where her boss was so mad he fired her, forcing her to sell her home and move in with her crotchety maiden aunt? Unfortunately, the “how we got here,” which makes up the bulk of the story, by definition lacks the tension of the beginning forward action. There is no rising action because the novel started with the greatest point of tension.

If writers should avoid backstory, excessive description, and flash forwards, then what should come next? What ought to follow an opening so that it won’t come off like a false start? Is there a trick writers can use to pull this off?

Yes. First we must create characters readers care about. They must be interesting and believable, but they must also be people with whom readers can empathize.

One of the best writers I know creates quirky characters that are hard to connect with. Few people know such people in real life and fewer understand what makes them tick. Characters that are don’t connect with readers create an automatic strike against the story.

But there’s more. Other books I’ve read have bland characters that are floating through their story with no intention. These have a strike against them too.

Well-drawn characters must not only be interesting and believable, people with whom readers can empathize, they must do something interesting and believable.

In my adventures through fiction, I’ve found stories with truly wonderful characters. They are fun—even funny—and realistic, with age spots and crows feet as well as knight-in-shining-armor charisma and undeniable moral fiber.

And yet, at times, something so integral has been missing that I could easily close the book and not finish reading. I just didn’t care.

Yikes! 😮 What would cause such a thing?

In a nutshell, objectives. Actually, the lack thereof. In order for me to cheer for a character, which means I’ve arrived at the caring level, I have to see the character striving to accomplish something. The story can’t stall on bad things happening to a good character, over and over again. Instead, the character must take on a central problem and work to win out.

Somehow, a character striving, especially against great odds, resonates. It is in the effort to overcome that a character’s mettle shines.

An engaging character is only one element. Another is to put tension on every page, as Donald Maass, author of Writing the Breakout Novel, says.

One way to create tension is to create the legitimate possibility of failure. J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings was a story that kept readers wondering if the protagonists would succeed or fail. Frodo’s ability to pull off a victory was in doubt until the last sentence of the climax. For much of the last book of The Lord of the Rings, his spirit was willing, but his flesh was weak. In the end, even his spirit gave out.

Along the way, he’d experienced a good number of successes, so how did Tolkien make readers feel as if Frodo might not make it in the end?

I think the main way was by not protecting his characters from hurt. The four hobbits were captured, Frodo was wounded, Gandolf was killed, Peregrin looked into the crystal where Sauron could see him, the fellowship broke apart, King Theoden came under Worm Tongue’s spell, Boromir succumbed to his desire for the ring and died. At every turn, the end seemed in doubt and victories weren’t had without paying a price.

Finally, there needs to be the credible possibility that winning won’t look like the kind of winning the reader was hoping for.

In summary, if writers are to keep readers turning pages after they’ve hooked them with a great opening, they need to avoid false starts. Openings should not fall victim to chunks of backstory, excessive description, or fast forward gimmicks.

Writers also need to create characters with whom readers can relate and for whom they can cheer.

Finally, writers must put tension on every page. Winning can’t come easily or quickly, and not necessarily in the expected manner.

With these elements in place, readers are bound to be scrambling for more time with the book so they can keep the pages turning.

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Show, Don’t Tell: Beyond The Cliché

pulls_weedsMost writers have heard the adage to show rather than tell when writing fiction. When I taught English to seventh and eighth graders, I even taught the principle. And yet, one of the first things a writing professional who critiqued my work uncovered, was problems with showing.

There are actually several ways that “show, don’t tell” can go wrong. First, not everything a character does can or should be shown. Should readers be subject to long scenes of a character brushing his teeth? toweling off after a shower? weeding the garden? It’s possible in some story that these activities do carry some significance and should be fleshed out in a scene, but the chances are, for most novels these are incidentals that ought not receive equal weight with such things as a character leaving her husband or being fired from his job or meeting her birth mother for the first time. So the first rule of thumb should be, show what’s important.

_CrutchesEven showing the important is a bit of a balancing act. Some writers take the idea of showing too far and create what I refer to as “stage direction.”

    Joe sat up, rubbed his eyes, then stood, his left hand resting on the back of the chair. He reached his right hand toward the crutch propped against the wall. Snugging it under his right arm, he inched his left leg forward, then transferred weight to the crutch and swung his injured right leg ahead.

Again, there may be some story that needs these details, but most don’t. Writers should trust their readers to fill in the specifics when they aren’t essential to the story. The above can be improved by eliminating the stage directions:

    Joe grabbed his crutch and limped toward the door.

Besides knowing what not to show, a writer also needs to know what she ought to show. There are four areas which may appear in a scene that require showing: action, description, dialogue, and internal monologue.

First and foremost a writer needs to show the important action, not after the fact as if it happened off stage and someone is recounting the events. Rather, it should take place in front of the reader, either in story time or as a scene in a flash back.

cigarette_smokeIn conjunction with the action, a writer can show the scene. In so doing, he does not stop the story to set the stage, but rather inserts descriptive detail into the story, along with the action. Notice how Mark Bertrand did this in his novel Nothing To Hide, Book 3 in the Roland March Mystery series.

    He stares at me through a cloud of smoke, pleased with this pronouncement.

    We stand around for a bit, soaking up the UV rays and the secondhand carcinogens; then I thank Bridger for the help and get going.

Bertrand could just as easily have stopped the action and inserted a line of description.

    The air is thick with smoke, so thick the sun’s rays could hardly penetrate it.

If he had wanted to call particular attention to the smoke and the sun, that would have been the way to go. But if they are incidental, they can be included along with the action and they add richness to the setting without slowing the story needlessly.

Third, dialogue shows. Rather than summarizing an interchange between two or more people, the writer gives the exact words. However, in the same way that showing can devolve into stage direction, dialogue that’s trying too hard to be realistic, can devolve into the trivial. In the exchange below, I’ve omitted tags and action to show how the words themselves need to go somewhere rather than simply filling space.

“Hi.”

“Hi back. What’s up?”

“Not much. Just hanging out.”

“I see that.”

“So have a seat.”

“Thanks.”

“You want something to drink?”

“No, I’m good.”

“Want to watch a movie or something?”

“What’s the or something?”

This exchange may be realistic, but in most instances there’s not enough relevance to the story for this entire dialogue to be included. The writer would be well served to move past the non-essentials to show the parts of the conversation that move the story forward.

The final area is internal monologue–what a character is thinking. Too many of us writers, when we’re starting out, tell the character’s emotion rather than showing it.

Here’s an example from an early draft of Hunted, Book 1 in The Lore of Efrathah, with the “telling” lines in boldface type:

    Jim glanced to his left and saw, to his surprise, that the shelf upon which he sat extended on in that direction. He hadn’t been aware before that it was more than a slight accidental overhang. He couldn’t see what became of “his ledge,” as he began to think of it, because it disappeared around an outcrop of rock that jutted from the cliff. But his decision was made.

Compare that to this segment from a later draft (and different scene) which doesn’t tell he’s exasperated or uncertain about what to do, but shows it with action and thought:

    Ignoring the stinging from his scraped and bleeding hands, he reached for his cell phone. Except it wasn’t in his pocket. Of course! He’d lent it to Karen. He thumped his head against the cliff, once, twice, a third time. Now what? With no way of telling anyone where he was, he might be stuck on this ledge for an unhealthy long time, considering all his cuts and bruises and whatever he’d done to his ankle.

One caution about showing internal monologue. It’s tempting to front load backstory by having a character remember past events. By using such a device, the writer might feel as if he is showing the character’s thoughts. In fact, he’s giving a clump of backstory. To be effective, internal monologue needs to be delivered in the character’s voice as a natural part of whatever is happening to him. It should never be included because the author wants to tell the reader something so decides to put it into the character’s thoughts.

I hope that difference is clear because it’s pivotal. In one instance the writer is showing the character’s thoughts and in the other he’s dictating to the reader what he wants her to know. Of course, the thoughts that the writer shows the reader should be the important ones which move the story forward. Not every trivial thought a character has is worth showing.

The key to the “show, don’t tell” guideline, then, is balance. A writer needs to show action, description, dialogue, and internal monologue–but not all of any of those.

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Filed under Action, Description, Dialogue, Internal Monologue, Writing Rules

Stretch Your Body Language

Just like real life people, fictional characters have body language, or they should. Better writers work to incorporate a wide variety. However, according to Elizabeth Sims in her excellent Writer’s Digest article “7 Simple Ways to Make a Good Story Great,” great writers do more with body language. They use it to deepen characterization.

Let’s look at this in a bit more detail.

I’ve read novels in the past that incorporate body language. Most stories do. These books I’m referring to had characters that turned or frowned or stared at the ground or raised their eyebrow. Nothing wrong with those emotional cues. Except that every character did every one of them at some point in the story, while doing few others.

Obviously there are some generic actions that we humans do–we nod, shake our head, cross our legs. It’s not wrong to include those in a novel when appropriate, but characters, if they are to seem real, need to have their own special mix of activities.

Giving each person something unique to do or some unique blend of body movements moves a story out of the so-so pile. It makes each character seem like a living, breathing soul instead of a cardboard cut-out of a person.

From “7 Simple Ways to Make a Good Story Great”:

The best authors use body language in their narratives. Odd thing is, I have never once heard an agent or editor comment on my (or any author’s) use of body language, and I think that’s because it goes by so smoothly it’s almost unnoticed. Yet it absolutely gives texture and depth to your work. When it’s missing, fiction feels flat. (emphasis mine)

But according to Ms. Sims, there is something in the use of body language that will move a story up a notch: actions that deepen characterization.

Anyone can walk to the podium, but only certain people strut or parade. Completely different people shuffle, and still others prance.

The first step in creating body language that characterizes, then, is to select appropriate verbs, especially when the action is something shared by others. How a character does what everyone else does can set him apart.

A second way of stretching body language so that it adds to characterization is to find a telling detail that reveals the character’s emotional state.

Some athletes, after a good play, pound their chest. Others cross their arms and smirk or jog back to their position while staring at the opponent. Still others clap or point or slap the side of their head. The key is to find the specific detail that sets your character apart, given the personality you’ve provided him with and the situation you’ve put him in.

Which brings up the third point. Give your character some gesture that is unique to him. What can he possibly do that no one else in your story will do?

To help a novelist create meaningful character body language, Ms. Sims suggests the following:

Begin by reading up on body language. You’ll find that two things are at the root of all of it: anxiety (or lack thereof) and hidden desires. Dwell inside your characters and sense how they feel in any given situation.

One source to use if you’re interested in doing some research is the article on body language posted at businessballs.com.

Of course another great way to research is to plant yourself at the airport or library or Starbuck’s and people watch, with notebook in hand.

Here’s a short exercise to illustrate the use of body language in fiction.

    Ms. Author scuttled into the coffee shop and found a corner seat. She placed her bag in her lap and hugged it to her a moment as she watched the spindly, gray-haired gentlemen at the counter order his drink. When he moved off, she relaxed back into her seat and opened her bag wide enough to slip out her iPad. Scooting her chair closer to the table, she placed the tablet in front of her, then withdrew a soft cloth from her pocket. She removed the electronic device from its case. Gently at first she wiped the screen as if dusting priceless china.

Question: what can a reader learn about Ms. Author from her body language? Is she confident, bold, self-assured, timid, uncertain, hesitant? How would you characterize her based on her body language? Can you think of other actions that might reinforce her character?

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Tears And Smiles

When I was a sophomore in high school, I had a history teacher who had a verbal tick — that is, he repeated a pet phrase over and over and over. Honestly, I don’t remember what it was he said (something like “on a daily basis” or “so to speak”), but I do remember that on some days, a group of us would keep a running tally to see how many times he resorted to his standby. The very repetition of his words distracted us from his intent.

Novelists can distract readers in the same way by giving their characters stock or repeated responses to their circumstances. Two overused emotional reactions are crying and smiling.

Earlier this year, in a blog post about what fiction editors look for, agent Rachelle Gardner took a look at characters. Among the list of excellent points, she included this:

Avoid overstated emotion. For example, a single tear can be more effective than a dramatic breakdown. (Rachelle’s rule: a protagonist should never cry more than once in a book!) [font color change added for emphasis]

That resonated with me. I’d read a novel not so long ago that drove me nuts because every character, men as well as women, cried over everything. I mean, everything! They cried if they were worried, fearful, excited, grieving, in love, in hate, when they were tempted, when they were worshiping.

The fact is, people do cry in all those circumstances and more. But in the same way that characters have individual physical features and particular voices, they have unique mannerisms and expressions of emotion. Not everyone will “choke back a tear.” Not everyone will have “a tear squeeze from her eye” or “slide down her cheek.” Some people go stoic rather than cry in public. Some people use tricks to stop themselves from crying, like biting the inside of their cheek or taking a drink or making a joke. Some people try to hide the fact that they’re crying and others call attention to it: “Oh, look at me acting like such a big baby.”

The point is, expressions of emotion need to be as varied as the author’s cast of characters. No two people feel exactly the same about the unique circumstances they go through, and their unique personalities mean they will respond differently even if the circumstances are similar.

Smiling is the same as crying. Some characters smile when they meet someone new, when they get a raise, when their boyfriend brings them flowers, when dinner is ready, when they wake in the morning, when they turn down the bed at night, when the police arrest the villain, when the mom lets the son drive the car home, and on and on.

The sad thing about so much smiling is that it weakens the expression of emotion. Some things deserve a smile. Some things don’t.

Further, smile has a number of good synonyms, each with a nuance, that can add meaning to the emotional expression in the scene. Consider these alternatives, for example: beam, grin, dimple, twinkle; smirk, simper; leer.

The key when depicting a character expressing emotion is to know what that particular individual will do in that particular circumstance.

An outgoing, expressive character, for instance, may still behave in a reserved way at a funeral for someone he doesn’t know well. Or a shy person may act rather effusive if someone she knows and loves is getting married to the man of her dreams.

But if she is effusive at the bridal shower, at the rehearsal dinner, at the wedding, at the reception, when the couple returns from their honeymoon … quite frankly, most readers aren’t going to believe this character is shy. In addition, if her expression of joy is the same in each of those settings, readers may dread seeing her name in the opening sentence of a paragraph, because quite frankly, even effusive expression becomes boring when it is overused.

In summary, keep these in mind:

    * Emote with care. 😉
    * Avoid overusing emotional responses such as crying or smiling.
    * Particularize your character’s emotional response based on their personality and the circumstances into which you’ve put them.
    *Finally, stretch your vocabulary so that your prose has variety.

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Filed under Action, Characters, Word Use