Tag Archives: fiction

The Uniqueness Of Fiction

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Filed under Miscellaneous, Writing Tips

Repetition Has Many Faces

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

However, repetition has more than one face.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Dialogue: Putting Action Beats To Work

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

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

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

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

Bilg swung about. “Paloh!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Fine, fine.”

“And housing. How many are we expecting?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The others laughed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Preview: How To Develop A Character

Power Elements of Character Development sample cover2I will soon be releasing the second volume of the series Power Elements Of Fiction, this one all about characters. This book, like the first on story structure reworks and organizes things I’ve written over the years both here and on my personal blog.

The thing is, true to the nature of writing, the reworking of a post often means it has new examples or better cohesion. Plus, the juxtaposition of one topic to another can reinforce important things about developing characters.

All that to say, this post is a shameless advertisement for the coming book Power Elements Of Character Development. Watch this space for details.

And now, without further kerfuffle, Chapter Two, How To Develop A Character:

Fundamental to any good novel is a good character, but what makes a character “good”?

When I first started writing, I had a story in mind, and my characters were almost incidentals. Since then, I’ve learned how flat such a story is. Characters make readers care about the events that happen, but in turn, the events are the testing grounds which allow characters to grow.

So which comes first? I believe that’s an immaterial question. A good story must have both a good plot and good characters—the non-flat kind.

In developing main characters, a writer needs to give each something he wants and something he needs. The “want” is generally outside him (to destroy the One Ring, to marry Ashley Wilkes, to escape the Safe Lands), and the need is that internal thing that drives him (to find purpose, to do the right thing, to be loved). The internal may not be something the character is aware of consciously. For example, in Jonathan Rogers’s excellent middle grade novel The Charlatan’s Boy, young orphaned Grady doesn’t go around saying, I need to be loved and accepted, but the reader fairly quickly understands this about him.

Secondly, having given the protagonist a want and need, the author must also put him on a path to gain what he wants. However, as the story moves forward, this initial want may change. If the character wants to reach point A, he may discover upon arrival that his need is not met, so he now sets out to reach point B. Or, along the way he may realize that he only thought he wanted A, but in actuality wants B; consequently, he abandons the quest for A and aims for B.

Another important aspect of character development is the increase of a character’s self-awareness. The protagonist should have strengths and weaknesses, and as the story progresses, his understanding of how to use his strengths and/or change his weaknesses should expand.

Fourth, the character should make progress, both in achieving what he wants and acquiring what he needs. Yet success can’t come too easily or there really is no story. But to make no progress defeats the character and the reader, dyeing the story in hopelessness.

Notice that all these first character development points have little to do with hair style or eye color. Often those are the things writers settle on as the most important when they start putting a character together. Is he tall? Does he like football? Is she a shopper?

Those things are secondary to the wants/needs understanding. If a character like Grady wants to be loved, then how does that affect his choices—his aspirations, the way he dresses, what he does with the hours in his day, the type of job he seeks, and so on.

Part of understanding these aspects of the character depends on the personality of this individual. Is he a “can do” sort, so he looks at obstacles as challenges, or is he burdened by his wants and needs, fighting to keep from despair?

Notice that in either instance, the character is fighting. In contrast, a character who takes a passive approach to life as opposed to taking action, is not someone readers will connect with easily.

One more important element—a writer needs to think of his character as an individual. What are the quirks that he has that no one else has? Or the gestures, the speech patterns, the thinking style?

Know your character, inside and out. Then put him in any circumstance you wish, and you will know what he will do. Someone as spacey as your character would do something silly when the pressure’s on. Someone shy and retiring would never make herself a spectacle but would probably have a favorite get-away spot where she hides from the world.

Throughout the story, authors test their characters and grow them and change them so that in the end they do more than even they thought possible.

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How Important Are Details?

Are details important?

In more than one article critiquing the 2013 Mark Burnett/Roma Downey TV mini-series The Bible, reviewers pointed out “picky” details—Adam portrayed as a European-ish white guy, not an African or a Middle Easterner. And beardless. More than once I read remarks about the angels outfitted much like Ninja warriors.

My first thought was, Come on, people, quit being so picky.

But hold on.

Aren’t the picky things noticeable when they pull readers (or viewers) out of the story? Some time ago I read a post by agent Steve Laube about inconsistencies in novels that editors don’t catch but readers do. It reminded me of a book I read in which basketball details were wrong.

For example, Team A faced off against Team B in the NBA finals, with Team B hosting game 1. Some pages later the series is 3-2 and game 6 is being played at Team A’s home court.

But hold on. Fans of pro basketball would know that at that time the NBA finals were a 2-3-2 format—games 1,2,6 (if necessary), and 7 (if necessary) were to be played at the home of the team with the best over all regular season record. Games 3, 4, and 5 (if necessary) were played at the home of the two-seed. So no way could game 6 be played on Team B’s home court if game 1 was at Team A’s.

There was a similar stumble earlier connected with basketball (in the NBA, only one free throw when a technical foul is called) and another one with the weather in Southern California (a week of rain in May? Right! Doesn’t happen!) And another one on a cross-country drive. Three days, the character determines. It will take three days to reach her destination. She starts out on a Sunday and arrives … on a Sunday. O-o-kay.

But here’s the thing. If I were writing a review of this book, I would feel like I was being overly critical to point out these slips. I mean, did any of those matter in the long run? No. Will people who are not basketball fans, or residents of SoCal, even notice? Probably not. Does the day of the week really matter? Not really. Then what’s the big deal?

Do the details in fiction matter?

Actually, yes, they do. The details give the story a sense of credibility. I’ve said before, one of the things I think J. K. Rowling did so well was construct an incredible fantasy world. Others say she merely played off British boarding schools and that may be true. But through the details Ms. Rowling included, the world of magic came alive.

Horseless carriages that convey themselves, a sorting hat, a whomping tree, portkeys, food that appears in dishes on the dining tables, a ceiling that reflects the weather outside, broken wands mis-repaired that send spells incorrectly—on and on, each detail woven into the story with a high degree of consistency. There weren’t three school houses in one book and four in another. The new students weren’t placed in houses by the Sorting Hat in one book and by the Sword of Gryffindor in another.

Of course, the longer the book, the greater number of details there are to keep straight. An epic story like the seven Harry Potter books requires a great deal of work to keep all the details straight.

But I’ll come back to the point—why does it matter? I said credibility or realism, if you will, and that’s perhaps the greatest point, but in tangent is the fact that inconsistencies may pull readers out of the “fictive dream.” Rather than living side by side with the characters, the reader stops: Wait a minute, didn’t she say the trip took three days, and didn’t she leave on a Sunday? Then how can they be arriving on a Sunday? Did I miss something?

Lack of clarity can do essentially the same thing. The details might be right, but if they aren’t expressed clearly, the reader is still stopping, still looking back and checking to see why what she thought had been conveyed actually was something different.

So yes, details matter. At least they should.

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Filed under Description, Research, Revision

The Place Of Adjectives In Prose

Adjectives receive a fair amount of discrimination from writing instructors. Sol Stein, author of Stein On Writing, has a great deal to say on the subject. In fact, he created a little writing math formula for adjectives: one plus one equals a half. Here’s his explanation:

Experience proves that when two adjectives are used, eliminating either strengthens the text. The more concrete adjective is the one to keep. Or the one that makes the image more visual (p. 200).

I’ll admit, when I first read Mr. Stein’s one-plus-one principle, I wasn’t sold, but the more experience I gained through critiquing manuscripts and then through editing, the more I understood the point. In writing, an author is creating an image for a reader to focus on. When introducing a character or place, he might think more is better, but in fact, the more describers, the less the reader focuses.

The best approach is to identify the “telling detail” and focus on that aspect. Again from Mr. Stein:

In addition to eliminating unnecessary words, I am focusing on using words for their precise meaning, which is the mark of a good writer (p. 199).

As he explains, beginning writers often suffer from a tendency to write using generalities.

Example: A man walked into the room and sat next to a woman.

Everything in that sentence is bland. Nothing stirs the reader to envision the scene. To counter this generic writing, instructors prod beginners to be specific, but the inexperienced are apt to respond with too much detail “robbing the reader of one of the great pleasures of reading, exercising the imagination” (p. 186).

The answer is to find the detail that evokes the most emotion or imagination in the reader. Here’s an example Mr. Stein gives:

“The spoon left a line of froth on his sad mustache.” Without “sad,” the line is merely descriptive. With “sad” it characterizes both the person described and, by inference, the speaker (p.200).

Mr. Stein ends his section on adjectives by giving his “rules,” which he prefaced by saying, “Like any good rule, using one adjective in place of two has exceptions.” He then proceeds to give three guidelines for determining which adjectives to use and which to throw away.

1. Adjectives must be necessary. Without such an adjective, the sentence would be confusing or unclear. The salesman in the brown jacket is my uncle. Without the adjective “brown,” the sentence implies that none of the other characters is wearing a jacket. If that’s not the case, the adjective is needed.

2. Adjectives should be included if they incite curiosity. Jeffrey Overstreet’s novel, The Ale Boy’s Feast, utilized effective prose, including this line: “Any light, even the sickly glow of the sun’s cold coin over a world drained of colors, was better than the subterranean dark.” I think the adjectives in that line stir curiosity. What kind of a place is this when the sun is called a cold coin? Wow! Vivid and evocative!

3. Vivid is the third guideline for adjectives. The ones novelists use should be precise. They should call up an image that the reader can then expand upon in his imagination.

Mark Twain is reported to have said, “If you catch an adjective, kill it.” He was wrong. Adjectives in toto aren’t the problem. It’s only the ones hanging with the herd or the bland ones that clutter the page without adding a splat of paint to the picture that need to be ruthlessly cut from our manuscripts. The particular ones — those are keepers.

– – – – –

This article is a reprint, with some minor editorial changes, of “Word Discrimination, Part 2” which first appeared here at Rewrite, Reword, Rework in May 2011.

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Settings And Contemporary Fiction

'Dick_Sand,_A_Captain_at_Fifteen'_by_Henri_Meyer_022The classics—novels that have stood the test of time such as Pride And Prejudice, Little Women, The Scarlet Letter, The Red Badge Of Courage, and more—are filled with long passages of description. From Herman Melville and his detailed explanations about whaling to Emily Bronte’s report about angst-filled Heathcliff and the gloomy Wuthering Heights, readers wade throug are immersed in the time and culture of those stories.

Such long passages setting the stage for the story that is about to take place, are missing in most contemporary fiction. Can we conclude, then, that setting no longer matters in the books we write? Hardly.

Writing instructors caution against the “info dump,” long sections of description that deliver too much information for a reader to realistically absorb and retain. But if a writer withholds paragraphs of description of the setting, he must still create a picture of the world in which the story takes place.

One of the things that made the Harry Potter series so popular was the rich, imaginative setting, especially in Hogwarts, the magical school for witches and wizards. From the imaginary train platform 9 3/4 to the moving pictures in newspapers, the horseless carriages, staircases that shifted from place to place, portraits that served as guards to the different house quarters, and classes such as Potions or Defense Against The Dark Arts, the books were rich with elements unique to the world J. K. Rowling envisioned.

The Harry Potter books serve as an example that contemporary novels, not just the classics, need vivid settings. Today’s writer should conceive of worlds that are complete and detailed. But our task may be a tad harder. Rather than delivering the setting up front in long introductory chapters, or as a “time out” in the action, we must give the goods on the run. Action must go forward even while we deliver the necessary tidbits to paint the scene.

Take a look at the opening of By Darkness Hid, the Christy award winning novel by Jill Williamson:

Achan stumbled through the darkness toward the barn. The morning cold sent shivers through his threadbare orange tunic. He clutched a wooden milking pail at his side and held a flickering torch in front to light his way.

He wove between dark cottages in the outer bailey of the castle, mindful to keep his torch clear of the thatched roofs. Most of the residents of Sitna Manor still slept. Only a few of the twenty-some peasants, slaves, and strays serving Lord Nathak and Prince Gidon stirred at this hour.

In these two short paragraphs we have simple action that also delivers important description. The story is just getting started, but we already know quite a bit—basic information about one of the characters, the time of day, and something about the place. As the story unfolds, we learn there’s even more tucked into these few sentences—foreshadowing.

The key to good description today is to dribble bits of information into the action rather than coming to a full stop to deliver a laundry list of facts.

– – – – –
Adapted from an article published here January 2011.

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A Novel Peek-Preview: Foreshadowing

Long ago movie makers learned that previews increase viewers’ anticipation of an upcoming film. Before long they began offering sneak-peeks which allowed some favored viewers to see the movie ahead of time. Again the goal was to heighten audience expectation.

A novelist uses foreshadowing in the same way—either to alert readers to what is coming or to increase tension by revealing the potential for disaster. Furthermore, foreshadowing can strengthen a story’s theme.

Foreshadowing can be subtle or overt, depending on what the author wants to accomplish.

Readers need to know what is coming to a certain extent. Some foreshadowing prepares them for what’s up ahead.

I’ll never forget this one novel–the characters were in a flight-or-die struggle. As they ran across the field, with the villains moments behind, they dove into the barn to hide. Uh, what barn? We were crossing a field, no mention of any structures.

The scene could easily have been set earlier with the mention of rickety outbuildings silhouetted by the setting sun. Readers would then not have been surprised when one of these rickety buildings cropped up at an appropriate time.

Foreshadowing can also create tension.

As the couple set of across the Atlantic, their sail snapped in a surprisingly brisk gale. No weather reports indicated trouble, and this was the most favorable time of the year for an ocean crossing, but there had been numerous reports of out-of season storms. In fact the store clerk who sold them their life vests mentioned a ship that was lost just last year about this time.

And the scene is set. Readers are now expecting something big blowing on that wind.

A third purpose for foreshadowing is to suggest the theme of the book. One of my favorite illustration of this is in Kathryn Fitzmaurice’s middle grade novel The Year The Swallows Came Early. In the story, Ms. Fitzmaurice used candy to symbolize the main character’s life. From the beginning, then, little Groovy makes the comparison that proves to be of utmost significance:

I told my best friend, Frankie, that it was hard to tell what something was like on the inside just by looking at the outside. And that our house was like one of those See’s candies with beautiful swirled chocolate on the outside, but sometimes hiding coconut flakes on the inside, all gritty and hard like undercooked white rice.

An author can create foreshadowing in a variety of ways.

The most obvious method of foreshadowing is by stating, through narrative or dialogue, what is about to happen. Gone with the Wind begins with Scarlet O’Hara preparing to attend an engagement party where she plans to profess her love to Ashley Wilkes, the man about to be engaged. No surprise, then, when this scene takes place.

No surprise, but plenty of suspense has now built up. Will he respond to Scarlet and dump the plain Melanie to be with this startling beauty that all the other men in the county would die for?

A second way to foreshadow is to create in miniature what will soon happen to a larger extent. The men entered the cave to look for treasure. A rock tumbles from the ceiling. Dust flies. “Don’t worry,” the main character says, “we don’t have much farther.” Ah, the reader says, you may not be worrying, but I am! And sure enough, within pages, the cave-in seals the entrance.

Another foreshadowing device is a character’s unreasoned emotion. If someone is obsessing about germs, chances are, there is a deadly disease that may well come into play. If a parent stresses over a teen driver fastening his seat belt, chances are an accident is brewing.

A fourth way to foreshadow is to show the reader an object, as if by happenstance. The main character steps into the garage for a moment and sees the tire iron that should be in the trunk. Or perhaps it’s the spare tire, but oh well, she’s in a hurry, and what are the chances of getting a flat tire?

The object could be anything that will later have significance–a shopping bag, the garage opener, a fishing pole. The object might even be one that’s supposed to be there but is missing. The car seat or a credit card or cell phone.

Lastly, foreshadowing can be created with symbols, as the illustration from The Year The Swallows Came Early showed. The symbol may be common and easily recognized–a bank of clouds, an albatross, a rose bud. Or it can be something the author infuses with meaning as Ms. Fitzmaurice did with the See’s candy.

Foreshadowing is a powerful tool. It prepares the way for events to take place, it creates suspense, and it may help reinforce a story’s theme.

What are your thoughts? Is foreshadowing mostly invisible to you? Do you realize after the fact what the author has done? Do you have any examples of great foreshadowing or stories that needed a good dose of foreshadowing to make a plot point work?

See Harvey Chapman‘s “Five Examples of Foreshadowing in Fiction” for further illustrations.

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This article first appeared here in July 2012.

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Tighten Your Writing

wrench-899403-mI love contests. Besides reading and feedback from critique partners, contests may be the best means by which my writing has improve.

For one thing, most contests give feedback, either through judges’ scoring sheets or through comments from other participants. Then too, contests provide opportunities to experiment—to try out a new premise or dance a little with a new point of view.

However, the most important thing contests have taught me is how to write tight. You see, most contests have some kind of word or page limit. In other words, you have to tell your story in 5000 words, or 1500, or 100.

One contest I entered, held by agent Janet Reid, was to write a 100-word story which included five words she specified. It’s quite the challenge, I can tell you.

My first version was nearly twice as long as the limit. Next came the editing process. What words were unnecessary? What phrase could I replace with a single word? What parts of the story were needed? All this to meet a stringent word count.

It dawned on me, however, that those questions are ones I should ask about my writing whether or not I’m constrained by contest rules.

Eliminating unnecessary words keeps a story or an article moving. Some unnecessaries are fillers that an author falls back on, often without realizing it—words such as just or even. I even told my writing partners contests were helpful, so I just decided I should enter, too.

Other unnecessaries are built-in redundancies. He stretched, raising up both arms. (Is it possible to raise arms down?) The unopened can slipped from her fingers and fell down on her foot. (Could the can fall up on her foot?)

The next phase of tightening writing is somewhat harder. What phrases can be replaced by single words? Prepositional phrases are good suspects. He touched the screen of his iPad can become He touched his iPad screen.

Hardest of all might be determining what parts of a story or article are or are not necessary. Everything needs to be fair game. Is a particular character adding anything new or is he merely taking up space? Is a particular plot point moving the story forward or is it veering away from the desired end? Is an article example shedding further light on the subject or is it duplicating the point of a previous illustration?

Writing tight takes work, and clearly readers won’t know how hard an author struggled to hone a story or article. What they will know, however, is that they remained interested from start to finish and their minds never wandered—something fiction and nonfiction writers alike should strive for.

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This article, with some editorial changes, is a reprint of one that appeared here in October 2010.

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Bad Guys Need To Be Bad

Darth VaderThe conventional wisdom today is that antagonists in fiction, in order to be believable, must have a “pet the dog” moment to show that they have a human side, that they are realistic, since real-life people are a mixed bag of good deeds and evil desires.

In an earlier blog post, “Antagonists Are Real People Too,” I made a case for a different way of creating realistic antagonists: give them appropriate motivation.

Then too, an antagonist may not actually be evil. They might simply be in conflict with the hero, the way the San Francisco Giants pitcher Ryan Vogelsong is in conflict with the Los Angeles Dodgers ace, Clayton Kershaw.

But sometimes the antagonist is evil.

I think, however, writers tend to overlook the fact that there are different types of evil. The general picture of an antagonist is a character who wants total control no matter who he hurts to get it. Certainly that antagonist works, whether he wants total control of a family, a church, a business, a country, or the world.

His number one tactic is force. He aims to break knee caps or kidnap children or murder cousins just to force people to do his bidding. He is made in the image of the Godfather. Or Hitler.

But violent, power-hungry megalomaniacs are not the only people who are evil. What about the charmer who talks people out of their life savings? He’s evil on a different level. He can cheat people but also undermine their trust in others—perhaps a worse result of this evil person’s actions than the loss of money.

Or how about frauds? Or liars in general. These are people who don’t need to cheat—they are healthy, able-bodied, smart and capable, but they’d rather figure out a way to cheat the government or lie to their boss or to their business partner or their clients. They are constantly looking for an edge so their “half” is a little bigger than your “half.” These are the people who steal identities so they can benefit from someone else’s hard work.

Another type of evil is the computer hacker or spammer. This person wants to create havoc because he likes to see other people scramble around and try to undo what he’s done. He might do something malicious like put people’s lives in danger because of his tampering with other computers. Or he might operate like the arsonist—start a virus and see where it goes and what all people have to do to get it under control. He might like seeing his work talked about in the media. He might get a sense of accomplishment by bringing entities more powerful than he, to their knees.

Another type of evil is the sexual predator. Many suspense stories feature this type of antagonist, so I don’t have to elaborate. There are varieties of sexual predators, however. Black widow movies, for example, came into their own when writers realized that women could also be sexual predators.

Other familiar bad guys, but perhaps not utilized as antagonist very often, are people who are prejudice. I’m not referring to the obvious white supremacist or Ku Klux Klan member. I’m talking about the people today who might whisper to their neighbor about “those people,” or start a petition against a certain religion or ethnicity. Or, for a real twist, favor a certain gender over and above the other (and clearly, women can be favored over an above men just as easily as the reverse).

Another effective bad guy is the one who is out to get the story hero and no one else. He may be motivated by revenge, so his aim is to destroy the hero, one way or the other. His hate is focused and white hot so he won’t consider the illegality of his own actions or the danger to others in his way.

Showing antagonists with a bent toward a specific evil is the writer’s first step toward making them realistic. And no dog needs to be petted in the process.

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