Category Archives: Story

A Story’s Bare Bones

1187803_skeleton_1What IS a story? The dictionary isn’t particularly helpful. The Oxford English Dictionary says a story is “an account of imaginary or real people and events told for entertainment.”

Perhaps the key lies in the “for entertainment” part of the definition. Clearly anyone can give an account of a group of characters and what they do without actually telling a story.

For example, my neighbors across the street held a yard sale today, and the man down the block is mowing his lawn. Another set of neighbors is holding a party and playing loud music. Earlier today, my downstairs neighbor did her laundry in our new washer and drier.

Entertained yet?

I fulfilled the first two requirements–gave you characters and events. But entertain? Not unless you have some strange fascination with what happens in my neighborhood. 😉

The “for entertainment” part of the definition, then, is actually the place where story lives.

Perhaps the easiest way to examine a story is to take one apart. Here’s the shortest one I know:

Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall,
Humpty Dumpty had a great fall;
All the king’s horses and all the king’s men
Couldn’t put Humpty Dumpty together again. (by Mother Goose)

Humpty_Dumpty_In the first line we are introduced to the main character and we’re given an opening that shows us what “regular” life was like. This is critical to the success of any story.

Too many writers are in a hurry to write something blood-pumping, that will move readers to the edge of their chairs. But those scenes don’t happen unless the reader cares.

If I tell you Jeff drowned in the ocean, I doubt if anyone would think twice about the statement. We don’t know who Jeff is or why he was in the ocean. If, however, I say, A lifeguard named Jeff drowned in the ocean, now we might be a little intrigued. What if I changed it to say, A lifeguard named Jeff drowned in the ocean while trying to rescue a ten-year-old boy. Now there’s another level of intrigue, but not enough. We could think Jeff did something foolish or wasn’t skilled enough for the job. If we learned that a warning just went out about a riptide, that Jeff was putting up the red flag when the boy went into the water, the story begins to take shape.

The point is, first readers need to know who this person is so that they can care about him, all without boring them to death with a lot of backstory.

Line two of our example gives us the inciting incident–Humpty Dumpty had a great fall. Something happened that interrupted his regular routine, that set in motion a sequence of events.

In most stories, those events are put in motion by the protagonist as a way to solve the problem which the inciting incident created. In our example, however, Humpty Dumpty is in no shape to do anything about his predicament. Instead, enter the minor characters who work on his behalf. All the kings’ horses–not one or two, but all of them–and all the kings’ men worked to rescue Humpty Dumpty. Each action increases the tension, ups the conflict. At last there is only one more horse, one more man, and they fail.

This story resolves in a sad way. Nothing they did solved Humpty Dumpty’s problem. Most stories resolve in a more hopeful or positive way, but certainly not all. But “resolve” they must. At the end of the story, readers want to know “what happened.”

How detailed the resolution, of course, is up to the author. What did the kings’ men do with what was left of Humpty Dumpty? Some authors might write that as part of their resolution.

These then are the bare bones of a story. Yes, there are muscle and flesh and skin that need to be added, but without the bones, the story won’t hang together, so it’s a good place to start.

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Who Hooked You And How?

466523_jamaican_fisher_manLast week we looked at the opening paragraphs of ten novels to see which hooked readers most often. I find these exercise informative. What was it that grabbed readers’ attention and why?

The poll results are in. Only one vote separated our top two entries.

In the top slot was Choice B
I never believed in ghosts.

Until I saw one, face to face, when I was twelve.

It was the middle of the summer, one of those nights when the wind scratched tree branches against my window and the Pacific roared so loud I thought it was going to sweep my away. Something startled me awake, some shifting of our house, beam against beam, old wood crying out in the damp sea breeze.

In second place was Choice C:
Tarnished snow sifted through the air, clinging to Ela Roch’s skin the instant she stepped outside. Warm snow.

Impossible.

She rubbed at the flakes on her bare forearm and watched them smear across her brown flesh like menacing shadows. Ashes. What was burning?

Unnerved, Ela scanned the plain mud-plastered stone houses honeycombed around the wide public square. Houses built one atop another within a vast, irregular, protective curtain wall, sheltering the city of Parne.

And now the big reveal: who are these authors and from what books did these openings come?

Choice A Storm by Evan Angler
Choice B Fathom by Merrie Destefano
Choice C Prophet by R. J. Larson
Choice D Cracks in the Ice by Deanna Klingel
Choice E Crosswind by Steve Rzasa
Choice F Merlin’s Blade by Robert Treskillard
Choice G The Constant Tower by Carole McDonnell
Choice H Soul’s Gate by James Rubart
Choice I The New Recruit by Jill Williamson
Choice J Beckon by Tom Pawlik

Here are my general observations about openings that hook:

The ones that attracted the most readers contained surprise or the unexpected–warm snow, seeing a ghost.

They also created tension. The middle of a summer night, wind scratching tree branches against the window, and the protagonist starts awake. The tension is palatable. Perhaps less so, but still present is the tension created by the smeared ash “like menacing shadows.”

The openings that hook also created a question, whether spoken or unspoken. Why would a ghost visit a twelve-year-old? What was burning?

Another element that these openings share is evocative language. In Fathom: “… the Pacific roared so loud I thought it was going to sweep my away.” And “some shifting of our house, beam against beam, old wood crying out in the damp sea breeze.”

In Prophet: “Tarnished snow” and “mud-plastered stone houses honeycombed around the wide public square.”

The final element I notice in the top attention-getting entries is that they connect the reader with a character. Fathom does this in part because of the first person point of view. The reader is right with the character from the beginning, feeling what she feels, experiencing the same startling event she experienced.

Prophet creates a connection with the character through description and her actions. She’s observant, curious, unnerved, concerned. Her questioning draws the reader in to question with her.

I think it’s fair to say that the other openings shared some of these same elements–but perhaps not all. They may have included things these top two did not.

In truth, there is no sure-fire formula for an intriguing opening that will hook readers, but I don’t think you can go wrong if you surprise your audience, create tension and questions with evocative language while introducing them to an interesting character.

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Are You Hooked?

1085595_fish_bait_1Some years ago, I conducted a poll over at A Christian Worldview of Fiction to see what readers liked about the openings of several recently published books. It was a fun way of seeing what people are looking for in their openings.

Writers who have gone to conferences or read instruction books know the first few paragraphs create the all important “hook” to capture readers’ interest. Consequently, spending a little time reading and reacting to a variety of openings can be instructive. So I thought it was time to re-create that poll with a different set of books.

Without giving you book titles, genres, or authors, I’ll post the openings of a few books released either this year or last and let you vote on the ones that captured your interest. I’ll make it multiple choice so that you can choose more than one answer if several (or all) hook you. Then next week I’ll reveal the titles and authors.

The real help, however, will be from those who comment, telling why one and not another opening grabbed their attention.

So here we are, the first 50-75 words, in no special order:

Choice A – The door to the house was closed and locked and guarded by two men wearing uniforms unlike any Connor had ever seen. They were quiet. They held rifles and wore helmets that shadowed their faces. They stared out and didn’t move.

Connor watched from the yard next door, dark under the curtain of a hot September night. The town around him was still, suspended in the thick, stifling air, and he crept through it silently.

Choice B – I never believed in ghosts.

Until I saw one, face to face, when I was twelve.

It was the middle of the summer, one of those nights when the wind scratched tree branches against my window and the Pacific roared so loud I thought it was going to sweep my away. Something startled me awake, some shifting of our house, beam against beam, old wood crying out in the damp sea breeze.

Choice C – Tarnished snow sifted through the air, clinging to Ela Roch’s skin the instant she stepped outside. Warm snow.

Impossible.

She rubbed at the flakes on her bare forearm and watched them smear across her brown flesh like menacing shadows. Ashes. What was burning?

Unnerved, Ela scanned the plain mud-plastered stone houses honeycombed around the wide public square. Houses built one atop another within a vast, irregular, protective curtain wall, sheltering the city of Parne.

Choice D Dear Diary,

All I want is to be in charge of my own life and ice skate. Is that so much to ask? I mean I am fourteen. I think I can be in charge of something. It just isn’t fair. All I wan to do is ice skate. Sometimes things happen that have nothing to do with me, but they change things in my life. I don’t think that’s fair.

Choice E – Troy could finally relax.

His Maledore Vireo biplane dipped just under the clouds. It was still dark this early in the morning. The sky was a deep blue, and his only illumination was that given by the moon. It was plenty, though, to shed light on his gauges and instruments. The flash steam engine of his biplane was loud enough to reassure him it was properly working.

Choice F – The pine trees mocked his youth, their thin, green fingers fretting in the wind. If he didn’t move fast, they would betray him—he just knew it—and the deer would get away. . . again. Arvel wiped his brow, stole across an expanse of dead pine needles, and crouched behind a bush strangled by bindweek and its poisonous red berries.

Holding his breath, he nocked an arrow.

Three deer chewed and sniffed.

Choice G – Now my prince, in my former rendition, I spoke of Ephan’s deeds. Then you asked me to tell the tale again, and this time to tell you Psal’s story. I will play my part. But you must play your part as well. For you it is given the task of forgetting all you have heard of the previous tale and to keep your heart and mind on Psal. Can you do this?

Choice H – Reece Roth Spun at the sound–a dull scrape like log on log. But there was nothing behind him except a small pile of driftwood worn white by years of ocean rain and wind. A shadow flitted in the corner of his eye, but as he turned farther to his left, the darkness vanished.

His heart pumped faster as he took another quarter turn to complete the circle.

Choice I – What can I say? I’m a moron.

I knew better than to play ball in King Coat’s territory. Maybe I was looking for a fight, wanting to blow off steam after my “talk” with Principal McKaffey.

But there we were, me and three guys from the public school, playing two on two on the court in Alameda Park. It was around 2:20. The elementary schools hadn’t let out yet.

Choice J – The last time he saw his father alive, Jackson David Kendrick was only nine years old.

The gray light of dawn was seeping in between his bedroom curtains when Jack woke to find him standing in the doorway. Dr. David Kendrick was a willowy, spectacled anthropologist at the University of Chicago.

By the way, if you think you know who the author is, feel free to leave a comment and give us your guess. However, if you’ve read the book and actually KNOW who the author is, please limit your comment to a hint but don’t spoil the chance others have of guessing.

Remember, vote for all the beginnings that hooked you. The poll will remain open for a week.

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Pace Isn’t All It’s Cracked Up To Be

I like fast-paced, page-turner novels. They pique my curiosity and force me to keep reading so that I can learn the secret or the answer or the perpetrator or the outcome. Will he survive, do they fall in love, will she choose the best job, can they make the rent, will he catch the thief? Questions drive a story forward and keep a reader turning pages.

I’ve even written about creating a fast pace in fiction as an important technique to learn (see “Picking Up The Pace”), and I haven’t changed my mind. However I have been reminded that a fast pace should not be the goal of a story but rather a means.

Acclaimed agent and writing instructor Donald Maass, in his new book Writing 21st Century Fiction has this to say:

Clever twists and turns are only momentarily attention-grabbing. Relentless forward-driving action, high tension, and cliffhangers do serve to keep readers’ eyeballs on the page but don’t necessarily engage their hearts. . . How then can commercial novelists construct plots that have true power? (emphasis mine)

How indeed! First, I think it’s important to see pace for what it is–a means by which to keep readers engaged. Sadly, it seems as if a host of contemporary writers–novelists and script writers–are under the delusion that keeping readers (or viewers) glued to their seats for a prerequisite period of time qualifies a story as good.

Seat belts do that. So do roller coasters. But rides in cars and trips to amusement parks are generally forgettable.

Good stories definitely keep a reader’s interest, but there’s more. Good stories prompt the reader to think about the characters when away from the book. Good stories prompt the reader to mull over the outcome of the story once he finishes.

In other words, there has to be more than pages whipping by like telephone poles seen through the window of a speeding car. A good story is more than one long chase, more than a ticking time bomb.

Good stories are not easily mistaken for a different title. They have a uniqueness about them, though they may still include the tropes of their genre.

What is it, then, that makes the difference? Maass again:

The characters who resonate most widely today don’t merely reflect our times, they reflect ourselves. That’s true whether we’re talking about genre fare, historicals, satire, or serious literary stuff. Revealing human truths means transcending tropes, peering into the past with fresh eyes, unearthing all that is hidden, and moving beyond what is easy and comfortable to write what is hard and even painful to face.

In short, the writer being authentic and individual and fearless makes the difference. But we’ll need to explore what that means in greater depth another time. For today, the take-home would be this: pace is a tool to use. It should serve the story and not rule the story.

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Goals And Who Needs Them

illustration by Carl Offterdinger

The more novels I read, the more I realize those that engage me are ones with characters who have goals–both story and scene goals.

In every story, I suspect the author has goals. To entertain, perhaps, or to show a particular truth. On the scenic level, the writer may wish to convey backstory or to introduce a character or to describe the setting.

Those things do mot make for compelling writing. What matters isn’t the author’s goal but the character’s–both for the story and for each scene. If the character is likable or sympathetic or at least one with whom readers can connect, then they will be cheering for him to achieve what he sets out to do. If the character is despicable, a true villain, then readers will be hoping for his failure and an end to his carefully laid plans. Either way, the story will hold the reader’s interest because the goal turns into a question–will he succeed or fail?

The Shark Tank, one of the many “reality” TV game shows, serves to illustrate how compelling this “will he succeed or fail” set up can be. In the TV show, entrepreneurs with something to sell and in need of marketing or distribution stand before a panel of investors who make offers to fund the enterprise in exchange for a portion of the company. Each person has his or her own goal. Will they or won’t they succeed? The entire hour-long show depends on viewers wanting to know who will come away from the conflict with what they want.

A good many fairy tales also illustrate the importance of goals. Look, for example, at “Puss in Boots,” a tale by the French writer. The story begins with a little set up–common in writing up until the late twentieth century. But before long, the story goal surfaces.

Once upon a time there was a poor miller who had three sons. The years went by and the miller died, leaving nothing but his mill, his donkey, and a cat. The eldest son took the mill, the second-born son rode off on the donkey, and the youngest son inherited the cat .

“Oh, well”, said the youngest son, “I’ll eat this cat, and make some mittens out of his fur. Then I will have nothing left in the world and shall die of hunger.”

The Cat was listening to his master complain like this, but he pretended not to have heard anything. Instead, he put on a serious face and said:

“Do not look so sad, master. Just give me a bag and a pair of boots, and I will show you that you did not receive such a poor inheritance in me.” (emphasis mine)

The character in question is the cat, as the title of the story suggests. The overarching goal is for him to prove to his master that he was not a poor inheritance.

In scene after scene throughout the story, Puss formulates a goal, though the reader may not fully understand how his actions will achieve that for which he’s aiming. Take this scene with an ogre, for example.

The cat has convinced the king that his master is not a penniless fellow, but a generous, loyal, landed aristocrat. The king wishes to go to the man’s (non-existent) castle. The cat asks for an hour to make the place ready. Then this scene:

With that he jumped away and went to the castle of a great ogre and asked to see him saying he could not pass so near his home without having the honor of paying his respects to him.

The ogre received him as civilly as an ogre could do, and made him sit down.

“I have been assured,” said the Cat, “that you have the gift of being able to change yourself into all sorts of creatures as you wish; you can, for example, transform yourself into a lion, or elephant, and the like.”

“That is true,” answered the ogre very briskly; “and to convince you, you shall see me now become a lion.”

Puss was so terrified at the sight of a lion so near him that he immediately climbed up the curtains, not without difficulty, because his boots were no use to him for climbing. A little while after, when Puss saw that the ogre had resumed his natural form, he came down, and admitted he had been very much frightened.

“However,” said the cat, “I fear that you will not be able to save yourself even in the form of a lion, for the king is coming with his army and means to destroy you.”

The ogre looked out of the window and saw the king waiting outside with his soldiers, and said,

“What shall I do? How shall I save myself?”

Puss replied: “If you can also change yourself into something very small, then you can hide”.

And in an instant, the ogre himself into a mouse, and began to run about the floor. Puss no sooner saw this but he fell upon him and ate him up.

Puss, who heard the noise of his Majesty’s coach running over the draw-bridge, ran out, and said to the King:

“Your Majesty is welcome to this castle of my Lord Marquis of Carabas.”

In the end, the cat not only secures for his master a title, fine clothes, the esteem of the king, and a castle, but also the hand of the princess in marriage. Clearly, he succeeds in his story goal.

Stories that wander about, with things happening to the main character rather than the main character wanting something and going out to get it, scene after scene after scene, are the kind I can easily put down or which might even put me to sleep.

Stories with characters that want something–now that’s a different situation altogether.

So here’s the question: does your character have a goal in each scene? Does mine? I’m in the process of doing a revision, and one of my steps this time around is to identify my point of view character’s scene goal. If I can’t, then I need to do some serious re-writing.

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Story Structure – Writing In Scenes, Part 2

In Story Structure – Writing In Scenes, Part 1 we looked at the elements that a scene must have–goal, conflict, and a resulting intensified problem.

Not only do scenes have these specific components, they show the story, verbally unfolding it before readers so that they visualize what’s taking place, as if on the stage of their minds.

How does a writer achieve this level of showing?

As in plays, novels or short stories should paint the scene and highlight the characters, but if that’s all we see on stage, there is no story, only models and artistic backdrops. The key to a good scene, then, is the action of the characters governed by their attempts to achieve their scene goal.

Writers must not neglect the staging, however. Readers need to be able to imagine the scene, and this requires a certain amount of detail. The descriptive elements, when appropriate, should involve all five senses.

Writers should not force sounds or scents into a scene, however. I’ve seen this from time to time in contest entries I’ve judged. For no particular reason other than the writer knows someone is judging to see if description involves all five senses, the sound of someone’s shoes on the floor makes an appearance. Or the smell of the garbage in the bin outside or the taste of the salt on her lips. These details may contribute to the story, but if they don’t they need to be cut.

A scene should feel full and real, but it should not be stuffed with window dressing. The scenery specifics, and the character descriptions, must enhance the action, not overpower it.

Here’s a scene from one of my own contest entries several years ago. Tell me what you think. Is there a character goal? Conflict? Heightened problem? Is the scene painted using the five senses? What would make it better?

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.”

The gaunt matron scowled. “You’d bring death on me and my family, would you?”

“No one need know I’m working for you. I can come at night—sweep out the common room and the kitchen, wash up your crockery, whatever you have need of.”

Mistress Trent seized her broom and flicked the coarse bristles toward Abi. “I need you to leave my property.”

Abi stepped nearer the door. Cold air seeped from underneath and crawled up her bare legs. She reached for the latch but stopped. Was she really wrong about Mistress Trent? She’d sneaked to the back entrance of The Pilgrims’ Lodge with such high hopes. Something about this tough-acting matron belied her imposing demeanor, but right now she showed no sign of softening.

How could Abi leave empty handed? How could she listen to Bijamin’s whimpering one more night? Her young brother was brave and rarely complained—a credit to all the dissenters—which fueled her determination to complete her task, both parts of it.

“Mistress, I know stitching, of all kinds. I can make you a shawl … or a dress. Whatever you want. No one would even see me.”

The innkeeper shook her head, swatted the air with her broom, and yelled. “Git!”

“Please, Mistress. I can’t let my brother starve.”

The care-worn woman shifted her gaze to the sideboard. “You heard me. Get off my property!” She reached for a pinkish-yellow pomegranate in the fruit bowl and hurled it at Abi.

Abi caught the hard-shelled fruit in one hand. Was this an attack … or a gift? She cocked her head, questioning.

“I don’t want you comin’ back here, is that clear?” Mistress Trent flung another piece of fruit to her.

Abi caught that one as well and tucked both in the pouch at the front of her tunic. “Yes, Mistress.”

“If I so much as see your shadow on the threshold, I’ll send for the constable.”

Abi mouthed a thank you.

Mistress Trent stepped toward her and swung the broom. “Out, or I’ll put you out! Leave my kitchen now!”

With a grin, Abi held up a hand. “I’m going, I’m going.”

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Story Structure – Writing In Scenes, Part 1

Recently I started to re-read Scene & Structure by Jack M. Bickham, an old writing instruction book of mine. Mr. Bickham was clearly a believer in the three act structure of a novel–something I’ve become wary of because I tend to think it leads to formulaic stories. However, there’s much to be said about the “scene” part of the book.

What exactly is a scene in a novel? We have a pretty clear idea of what it is in a play. After all, when reading a script, the scenes and acts are marked. When viewing a play the lights on stage go down at the end of a scene, the characters head for the exits, and sometimes the curtain closes while the stage crew effects changes.

In novels, there isn’t any such clear delineation. Mr. Bickham defines a scene as

a segment of story action, written moment-by-moment, without summary, presented onstage in the story “now.” It is not something that goes on inside a character’s head; it is physical. It could be put on the theater stage and acted out.

Mr. Bickham went on to say that “the scene is the larger element of fiction with an internal structure . . . and rules . . .”

Structure? Rules? In art? Well, yes, in art–the same way music and painting and poetry have structure and rules. In other words, there are patterns that have brought favorable results in the past from which an author may depart if he has a good reason. However, the majority of successful stories today adhere to a set of basics.

Mr. Bickham taught that this structure was a mirror image of the larger, overarching story structure. In other words, it has the same components: goal, conflict, and intensified problem (which he termed disaster).

Stories start with a character formulating a goal to deal with a story problem. In the same way, scenes start with a scene goal to deal with a scene problem.

Using the recent events in the 2012 London Olympics as an example, we can see how this works. Michael Phelps entered the games needing a certain number of medals to be the most decorated athlete in Olympic history. The “character’s” problem was that he was in his last Olympics and was not the most decorated athlete. His goal, then, was to break the Olympic record and win at least three medals.

Such a goal suggests a story question to the reader, or in this case, the viewer: will Michale Phelps break the record?

Each race, and profiles of other athletes or interviews with them, became the scenes that made up this story. Michael swam the preliminaries of his first event and barely qualified. In the finals, he had an outside lane and failed to medal. One attempt down.

The scene goal of that first competition was to win the event or at least to receive a medal. This goal created a question for the viewer: will Michael win this race and draw closer to becoming the most decorated Olympic athlete of all time? Notice how the scene goal was tied to the story goal.

The scene conflict was the race against other athletes in the preliminaries which brought about a result–Michael was the last qualifier to make the event finals. This result caused a new conflict–he was in a bad lane where few swimmers win races. That positioning brought about another result–he finished out of the medals. The end of the “scene” was a disaster, a failed attempt to move closer to achieving the story goal.

In fictitious stories, the end of one scene should lead naturally to a new scene with its own scene goal. It’s important to keep the goals realistic and achievable, the conflict formidable but not impossible, and the failure not always crushing. In other words, some success can be mixed in with the failure. Often it is the hopeful results that suggest the next goal, although when an action fails utterly, a character must re-evaluate and make a dramatic change in strategy as well.

Story goals are not always centered on defeating an opponent. Sometimes they are about a character becoming, and the conflict is his own self doubt or character weakness.

The story of Samson, a figure in Biblical history, offers a good example. He was destined from birth to be a judge, or rescuer, of his people Israel who were under the rule of a foreign power. The story question readers ask is, will Samson free Israel from their oppressors?

When he grew up, he had incredible God-given strength connected to his maintaining a special vow to God which involved not cutting his hair. But he also had a weakness for the wrong kind of women.

Throughout his life story, he defeated bands of the foreign rulers time and again until they decided to come after him. In one such incident–a scene, if you will–they convinced his new love interest to betray him.

Samson’s goal in the scene was to maintain the secret of his great strength. The conflict he faced was from within because he had a second goal–to keep his latest love happy. Since her goal, now that she’d sold out to Samson’s enemies, was to make him reveal his secret, he could not achieve both his goals. He faced disaster of one kind or the other at the end of the scene.

Great scenes, like great stories, involve both an external and an internal goal. They also have conflicts that make goal achievement slow or non-existent, and they end in some way that necessitates a new plan or phase or effort because of the previous failure or minimal success. That is, until the final scene in which the story goal is accomplished or lost forever.

More on writing in scenes another day.

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After The First Five Pages

Noah Lukeman’s The First Five Pages alerted novelists to the need to create an intriguing opening. But the truth is, writers need to keep readers interested beyond that first scene. After the initial intrigue, what will keep them turning pages?

A number of pitfalls can work against this goal: glumps of backstory, over-the-top “gore, profanity or explicit sex,” and the “flash forward,” usually formatted in a prologue (quotes from Hallie Ephron, The Writer, October 2008).

“Gore, profanity or explicit sex” seem self-explanatory. These things pull readers out of the story.

“Glumps” or Long paragraphs of backstory or even of description work against the story because there is little tension, the element agent Donald Maass (Writing the Breakout Novel) says is necessary on every page.

Newer writers often believe it is vital for readers to understand what came before, what the character or story world is all about, or the story won’t make sense.

The problem is, if readers are bored with these “necessities,” they won’t stick around. Instead, writers need to trust their readers and unfold the backstory and descriptions as the story takes place.

Regarding the flash forward, Ephron says it is a device writers are tempted to use in order to begin with an exciting scene when the actual beginning seems to lack pizazz. An exciting flash forward, however, will simply serve as a sharp contrast to the lackluster events that put the story in motion–not a proven way of keeping readers turning pages.

Beyond avoiding these pitfalls, what should writers be sure to include after the first five pages if we are to keep readers engaged?

First we must create characters readers care about. Quirky characters may be interesting, but they may also be hard to connect with. On the other hand, bland characters that are floating through the life of their story aren’t interesting. The writer must find the balance.

In my reading, 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 has been missing, something so integral that I can easily close the book and not finish reading because I just don’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.

That being said, I believe there is still more. In order for a reader to truly care, there needs to be the legitimate possibility of failure. Frodo was such a hero, such a tragic hero, in part because his 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, Frodo’s spirit was willing, but his flesh was weak. Then 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 and fell gravely ill. 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.

In summary, readers need to know what the character is trying to achieve so they can cheer for him. And winning can’t come easily or quickly. There needs to be the credible possibility that winning won’t be the kind of winning the reader was hoping for. With an engaging character trying to achieve the near impossible in the face of the real potential for failure, readers are bound to be scrambling for the book during every free moment.

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Then What Is Head-Hopping?

In last week’s article, “Omniscient Point Of View,” I made the point that this seldom-used POV should not be confused with poor technique referred to as “head-hopping.” To solidify the point, I thought it might be worthwhile to look at the poor technique in contrast to proper omniscient point of view.

Head-hopping, unlike the omniscient point of view, has no unifying, overarching voice that tells the story. Hence, each character vies for center stage, and the result is often confusion. Here’s a sample.

The six men piled their gear onto the boat. Jeff was careful to put his backpack near the center. No sense in leaving it where everything could get wet.

Ted dropped to the deck and sprawled out, his head resting on the closest pack he could find — Frank’s probably, by the look of his scowl. The guy was insufferable.

“Do you mind?” Frank reached for his pack, not wanting his extra pair of glasses or his tablet to take an unnecessary beating. Ted was oblivious to the damage his three hundred pounds could do. In fact, he was oblivious to most things.

“Now, now, guys,” chimed in Javier. “Let’s not start our trip with sharp words.” Above all else, he wanted this trip to work. He’d told his father-in-law, Marcus, that this group of guys from his church were the best. Now he just needed to be sure they acted like it.

“Everyone set?” Tim pointed to a rope anchoring the boat to the dock. “Let’s go ahead and cast off.” Time to figure out which of these guys he could count on to get the work done. Ted had already made it clear he had no intention of moving from his spot. Frank was too worried about his bag. Jeff was guarding his, too, like it held gold, not supplies for a day trip to Catalina. “How about you, Marcus, you want to lend a hand?”

Marcus rolled his eyes. Did he look like somebody’s servant boy? If these guys were as great as Javier claimed, why didn’t they respect his age? Why weren’t they trying to make him feel like he belonged instead of pushing their unwanted jobs on him. This was going to be a long day.

In this scenario, who’s the main character? What’s the unifying perspective? What tone has been set? What voice does the reader hear? The truth is, there is no omniscient view, just six different individuals dumped onto the reader all in one scene. This qualifies as head-hopping.

The omniscient POV, in contrast, describes a story rather than simply relating events. The narrator, whether a storyteller or one of the characters or even an objective “camera-eye,” takes a certain perspective and sticks with it.

An omniscient narrator may love or hate his characters, but he is rarely neutral. The pathos or ridicule or humor in a story lies in the way the omniscient narrator chooses to describe events. The tone may be casual or formal, humorous or grave, admiring or condescending. These perspectives are revealed through such innocent devices as adjectives, verbs, adverbs, syntax, even punctuation. (Excerpt from Description by Monica Wood, p. 107)

Here’s that same scene, in part, written from an omniscient point of view.

Here they were, six guys who thought they could all get along, boarding a yacht to disaster. They went to church together, didn’t they — all except Marcus, but he was OK because he was family. Javier’s family to be exact, but that was good enough for the others. Little did they know that church affiliation wasn’t going to get them through this casual-day-trip-to-Catalina-turned-tragedy. They’d need more. Much more. Tim, the yacht owner, at least knew enough to bring up boating safety. He even handed out life jackets. Not that all the men put them on properly. Ted, lazing on the deck shortly after boarding, used his as a pillow after Frank yanked his pack out from under him. Jeff, the sharp dressing, uber-careful business type put his on at once, but Javier was most conscientious. Not with his own life preserver — with Marcus’s. And that probably saved his life.

Hopefully the contrast is evident. In this last sample there is a unifying voice, a clear perspective — that of an omniscient narrator who knows the end of these events and is painting the picture of a disaster even before the boat gets underway. There is also a protagonist emerging. The six men don’t all have equal footing, so the reader has more of a focus.

Yes, omniscient POV done properly gives the reader a focused view. It also gives a definite, consistent tone, and a clear perspective. The point of view might be called omniscient, but stories utilizing it have the feel of control and direction — a distinct difference from the regurgitation of all thoughts and feelings of all characters in the story. The latter is head-hopping and should definitely be avoided.

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Filed under Point of View, Story, Voice

Omniscient Point Of View

I’ve resisted writing about point of view because it’s been done so often. It seems like every writing book I own has a chapter on the subject. The problem is, few of these have much to say about the omniscient voice. Around the web, too often I’m finding misinformation on the subject. It seems some writers equate this legitimate point of view with poor technique often referred to as “head hopping.”

Please help me get the word out: the omniscient point of view is not the same as head hopping. It is true that the omniscient voice has been in disfavor with contemporary writers. Hence writing instructors more often than not warn new writers away from exploring what actually is a more complex option than the others.

First a quick — very quick — point of view (POV) summary.

    • First person POV – I tell the story.

    • Second person POV – you tell the story.

    • Third person POV – he or she (or it) tells the story.

Where is omniscient in that? It’s an option of the third person POV.

The he, she, or it telling the story can be one or more of the protagonists. The story, then, is told from the limited view of one character or several at a time. The latter is called multiple third person POV.

The omniscient storyteller, however, is not limited. This is not to suggest, however, that the omniscient POV must have a god-like narrator. That’s only one kind of omniscient POV story.

It’s a good one, too. Many of the stories I grew up with had that kind of narrator. It’s the type of story that starts with something like, “Come gather around, children, and let me tell you a story.”

There might even be narrator intrusions from time to time, such as, “Now those of you who are afraid of the dark should not read this next part late at night, or when you’re home alone.” In other words, at certain points in the story, the narrator talks directly to the reader.

Throughout the rest of the story, the narrator manages the information, internal and external, from his own perspective. When he says the obnoxious little boy, the reader understands this is how the narrator views the character, and the narrator is right.

The movie The Princess Bride employed the omniscient narrator in the fantasy part of the story — the grandfather who was reading the story taking that role.

C. S. Lewis used the omniscient narrator in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. Here’s one example:

“We met one another in there, in the wood. Go on, Edmund; tell them all about it.”

“What’s all this about, Ed?” said Peter.

And now we come to one of the nastiest things in this story. Up to that moment Edmund had been feeling sick, and sulky, and annoyed with Lucy for being right, but he hadn’t made up his mind what to do. When Peter suddenly asked him the question he decided all at once to do the meanest and most spiteful thing he could think of. He decided to let Lucy down. (Emphasis added)

Notice how the narrator includes himself by using the pronoun “we.” The entire third paragraph tells his impressions and opinions, but the reader is confident he is right about what he’s saying.

There are other kinds of omniscient POV stories however. One of the characters in the story may be telling it after the fact. He’s lived the events and is looking back. Because of hindsight, then, he knows what the other characters did even though he may not have been present during the action. He even can know their motives and can speculate on what might have changed if this or that had been different.

A third kind of omniscience is more distant. It’s a camera-eye view that gives a more objective report of the events without tapping into the characters’ thoughts.

A fourth type is focused omniscience. The omniscient voice describes things the character couldn’t see or know — what’s happening behind him, for instance — but does so only for the focus character and no one else.

No writer should decide on omniscient voice because it is easy. In reality, it’s quite demanding. It allows for description the narrator wishes to make and is not limited by the character’s voice or opinion. But it must be consistent throughout the story. Because it doesn’t allow the reader the intimacy with the characters that first or limited third allows, the narrator descriptions carry more weight. That can be a challenge — one some writers relish. Others — not so much.

See also “Then What Is Head-Hopping?”

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Filed under Point of View, Story, Voice