Tag Archives: Writer’s Digest

Novels In Three Acts . . . More Or Less

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

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

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

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

Did all stories really have three acts?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Because story trumps structure.

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

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

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Filed under Plot, Story, Structure

Evaluating Criticism

writing groupEvery writer can benefit from feedback, but not every bit of criticism is equal. Some may come from readers who can tell writers little about how to improve a story. Primarily they can point to what they liked or where they lost interest or what rubbed them the wrong way.

Those bits of feedback are still helpful, but a writing group is the best way to get useful information about how to make a story better. However, a writer needs to evaluate the feedback coming from their group because all criticism is still not equal.

When I first joined an online critique group, I discovered this problem. Some critiquers would write how much they loved a piece I submitted, and others would tell me how bad it was. In fact, both might point to the same line, even the same word. How can a writer know which voice to listen to?

Author and writing instructor Nancy Kress pointed out some years ago in her Writer’s Digest article “Critiquing the Critics” that there are basically four types of criticism: line editing, story structure, character development, and prose. The feedback a group gives in each of these areas needs to be evaluated differently.

Line editing, which many writers key on, is the easiest to validate or disprove. The kinds of problems uncovered in a line critique include factual errors, repetitious words, inconsistencies, and proper word choice.

If, for example, a quote is attributed to Shakespeare but it was actually from the Bible, a line critique will make that correction. Or if the protagonist is six feet five in the first chapter and six feet four in chapter ten, a line critique will point out the discrepancy. If the word turn shows up four times in two sentences, that’s a line critique issue. As is using words properly, according to any nuanced meaning rather than a strict dictionary definition.

Because these line issues deal with factual information, a writer should accept most suggestions. If there’s a disagreement, a good style book or dictionary can verify or refute a critiquer’s suggestion.

Story structure criticisms involve things like the direction of a scene, its pace, its necessity, whether or not it accomplished what the writer intends, whether it’s properly set up, if it’s confusing.

These criticisms are easy to evaluate when more than one person mentions the same issue. Even then, the members of the group may not suggest the best possible way to fix the problem. They may think the scene is redundant, for example, but you, the writer, know there’s some necessary information embedded in it. Consequently, you may wish to change key components to eliminate the similar elements rather than cut the scene altogether.

If only one member of the group identifies a problem area, then it’s important to weigh the source. Is this bit of criticism coming from an experienced writer who has studied the writing craft and completed several novels, or is this the idea of a beginner?

Of course, beginners can spot problems, too. It’s important to give the criticism consideration, but to be validated, it should not hinge solely on preference. Beginning writers and beginning critiquers sometimes critique based on how they would write if this were their work. In other words, the scene is not actually confusing—it’s just different from the way the critiquer would have structured it.

The third area of evaluation has to do with character development. Unfortunately not every person in your group may like your main character. In that case, it’s important to know if the problem is in your portrayal of the character or in the character himself.

In other words, did you mean to draw the character as clever and innovative but your critique partner perceives him as sneaky and untrustworthy? In that case, you haven’t portrayed him as you intended and you need to revise accordingly.

If, on the other hand, you meant to create a sneaky, untrustworthy character, and your critique group sees that, understands that, and doesn’t like him, should you make changes? Your decision here is tricky.

One point to consider is whether or not your target readers are similar to the people in your critique group. For instance, members of your group may say they don’t care for your protagonist because he’s a mind reader and they only like characters that seem realistic. Criticism like that misses the mark.

On the other hand, if your group reflects your likely readers, their reaction to your character gives valuable feedback. Do they not like the character but feel invested in his journey and want to see what will become of him or do they not like the character and want to stop reading? In many types of stories, the character needs to be plausible, interesting, well-motivated and not necessarily likable.

The fourth area of evaluation is prose, or style. Because style is a personal signature of an author, it’s not easy to critique and just as hard for the writer to judge the feedback. Ms. Kress explains:

Perhaps the most difficult criticism to evaluate—and to sit through without anger or despair—is stylistic criticism. You can rewrite scenes in your story, strengthen characters, fix line gaffs. But what do you do when you’re told that your style has problems—that same style in which you wrote not only this story, but all your others? (“Critiquing The Critic,” italics in the original).

When confronted with stylistic criticism, start by determining if there’s a group consensus. Next read the work with the suggested stylistic changes (fewer adjectives, for example, or more concise dialogue) and see if you think the piece is stronger. Third, ask you critiquer to explain why he is making a suggestion. Have you fallen into a common stylistic error—“head hopping,” using cliches, passive voice, incorrect use of participial phrases, overly descriptive to the point of interrupting the story, too much telling, and so on. A good critiquer should be able to give you a reason for any stylistic changes they suggest.

In the end, the story is yours. You need to decide what changes to make. Critiquers are there to reflect to you what they see. As the author, you must then evaluate what they’ve suggested. Keep things that make your writing and your story stronger; ignore whatever doesn’t accomplish that goal.

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Flawed Characters Can Be Too Flawed

Frankenstein_monsterI wanted to chuck the book, but it belonged to my friend. I wanted to quit reading, at least, but he promised me the story would get better. And he was right. Had he not convinced me, I would have missed out on one of my favorite series, Stephen Donaldson’s The Chronicles Of Thomas Covenant The Unbeliever, because the main character acted heinously.

First, the protagonist, Thomas Covenant, was a sick, sad man. He had leprosy, a disease that few understood and fewer tolerated. He was isolated from society, and to a degree, isolated from himself because his illness destroyed his nerve endings, robbing him of the ability to feel. But one day, he fell into a parallel world where he was no longer sick. Believing that what he was experiencing was not real, he did a horrible thing. He raped a girl who had befriended him.

See why I wanted to chuck the book? Thomas Covenant was not someone I liked, and I really didn’t want to keep reading about him. I know of people who, in fact, did stop reading and never picked the book up again.

The point is simple. To be believable, characters need flaws, but if their flaws overshadow their higher nature, readers may not care enough to continue on the reading journey with them.

As Angela Ackerman put it in her February 2014 Writer’s Digest guest article, “When Flaws Go Too Far: Avoiding Unlikeable Characters”

There is a tipping point for flaws, however. A bit too much snark or insensitive internal narrative and the character slips into unlikeable territory. Too much surliness, negativity, secretiveness or an overblown reaction and the reader will disconnect, frustrated by character’s narrow range.

I’ve had occasion more than once to read a novel written in first person–which is fine, except I didn’t care for the protagonist. The character was either too whiny or too morose or complained too much or thought ill of his colleagues all the time or was focused on her own cares to a point of distraction. Especially in a novel in which the reader must live in the character’s head for upwards of three hundred pages, an unlikeable protagonist is a problem.

But a story is about character development–how a person changes. Does the young boy learn responsibility, does the woman allow herself to love again, will the hero find the strength within to over come? These are storylines which demand a character grows or admits failure.

The point is, the story begins with a young boy who is irresponsible, a woman who is cold and stand-offish, a weak person thrust into a situation requiring strength. In short, the story starts with a character in need because of his flaw.

How, then, is a writer to portray this flaw without making it fatal for the book? How can a broken, warped, imperfect character still be someone who engages readers?

First, the character’s flaw must have an understandable reason for existence. Who hurt the character or failed him or bullied him? Who used her or betrayed her or demanded more than she could handle? If readers understand why a character acts badly, often they will be inclined to tolerate more.

Furthermore, if the character’s flaw is a result of his own suffering, readers may be willing to forgive him and hope for change.

Showing the character’s backstory provides his motive, including for his flawed actions or angsty attitudes. The key to using what happened in the past in this way is to treat it like any other bit of backstory. It must not be delivered up front or in lengthy paragraphs or presented in a speech. It must serve the plot. It must only be delivered when readers are ready and want to know what happened before. (See previous posts on Backstory).

Besides giving reasons for a character’s flaws, another way an author can keep those from overshadowing a character is by counterbalancing them with winsome traits.

Ackerman explains:

no matter how impatient, uptight, angsty or spoiled your character is, hint to the reader that there’s more beneath the surface. A small action or internal observation can show the character in a positive light and should happen in the first scene (frequently referred to as a Save The Cat moment.) It can be a positive quality, like a great sense of humor, or a simple act that shows something redeeming about the character.

A-Cast-of-StonesRecently I read The Staff & The Sword fantasy trilogy by Patrick Carr. The story opens in book one, A Cast of Stones, with a character, Errol Stone, who is drunk. He, in fact, is the main character, and he isn’t just drunk on that one day. He happens to be the town drunk. How is a character with such an obvious and dominating flaw to be someone readers care about?

First Carr showed other characters–ones who were in respected positions in the story–who sympathized with Errol Stone. They even did all they could to help him. Some provided him with work, some allowed him a place to sleep off his drunk.

They also acknowledged his value and identified an area in which he excelled beyond anyone else in the village. In other words, readers see through their eyes that Errol has value.

Further, Errol Stone suffers beatings at the hand of the local pater, ostensibly to cure him of his public drunkenness. Very soon it’s clear that Errol is suffering unfair ill treatment.

Fourth, Errol faces a life-and-death surprise attack and shows by his wit and agility that he has skills a reader can admire. The reader learns there’s more to him than his addiction.

This latter hints at one of the points Ackerman mentions: if a character faces hardship, readers are more willing to be patient with his bad behavior. However, his reaction to hardship must give some reason to believe he can conquer what he’s up against.

If the hero has a rough road ahead, the reader makes allowances for his behavior, as long as he doesn’t wallow in gloom and doom. It isn’t hardship that creates empathy, it’s how a character behaves despite that hardship, giving us a window into who he really is.

Errol Stone not only survived an attack, but the next day his quick thinking and decisive action saved the lives of two other men. Clearly he was more than the town drunk, and I for one was cheering for him to overcome on many levels. Patrick Carr had made sure that his flawed protagonist didn’t fail by being too flawed.

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Filed under Character Developmet, Characters, Motive

The Engine That Drives Your Plot

engine and trainCharacters drive the plot of a novel, don’t they? Certainly it’s not the theme, unless you’re writing didactic fiction. Nor does the setting drive the plot, though we might say it serves the plot. So characters it is. But what drives characters?

From a Writer’s Digest article written by Steve Almond several years ago:

Once you’ve found a strong central desire within your hero, your plot decisions boil down to forcing him into the danger of his own feelings. All else becomes secondary.

Two key words: desire and feelings.

Characters fuel the plot, but what the character wants–his desire–fuels him.

Too often writers fail to identify a character’s central desire. Rather, he floats passively through a story, letting things happen to him, only reacting when pushed into a corner.

Here’s a sample of what I’m talking about.

At the beginning of the story, our hero goes to work, but because of the bad economy, he gets laid off. He decides to go to the unemployment office. On the way, he gets into a fender bender. The other driver doesn’t have insurance, and his own coverage isn’t sufficient, so his car is totaled.

Now he’s without a job and without a car, so he sits down at a bus stop. Across the street in the window of a cafe is a “Help Wanted” sign. He decides to check it out. The owner is desperate for help and hires him on the spot, but at the end of the month, doesn’t have the money to pay him.

He tells his landlady that he can’t make the rent, so she starts eviction proceedings. Now he’s without a job, without a car, and without a place to live.

This “story”–which is actually a collection of episodic events happening one after the other to the same character–could go on indefinitely. There is no overarching goal the character is trying to reach. If there were, the reader would follow him through until he either successfully achieves what he set out to accomplish, or utterly fails. As it is, the story can stop at any point, with a further deterioration of events or a reversal. But the character isn’t driving this plot. The author is manipulating events to create the effect he wishes.

Equally problematic is a character who has a central desire and then faces one external problem after another while never once dealing with internal issues.

Plots, in reality, are nothing more than events that take a character from point A in his life to point B–not physically, but emotionally or psychologically or spiritually. In other words, the character experiences some sort of internal change which we term character development.

However, only so much character development can occur by his overcoming one physical obstacle after another. At some point, he must face and deal with his fears, hopes, disappointments, conflicting beliefs, insecurities, guilt, dread, conflicting loves, and so on.

These internal matters are, in fact, the engine that drives a character that drives the plot.

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Going For the Participant’s Certificate

London_2012_Olympic_Games_MedalsSome while back, educators got the idea that all students needed to be recognized, not just the exceptional ones. Youth sports especially seemed enamored with this idea, so race entrants and members of Little League teams all received participant certificates, no matter how they performed.

Undoubtedly there is validity in recognizing the fact that someone stuck with whatever they set out to do and finished. But few contestants actually aim to win a participant’s certificate. Most have some other goal in mind. Perhaps they play because they’re having fun. Or maybe they want to improve so they can succeed at the next level. Maybe they’re doing it for the exercise.

In contrast, in the writing community I think too many people are working for their participant’s certificate–a published book. I suggest there should be a greater reason for writing a book than simply holding a paperback with your name as the author or seeing it on the cover of an ebook. As thrilling as that may be, in this day and age with self-publishing being easy and inexpensive, the finished product is little more than a participant’s certificate. Writers can do better.

First, determine why you want to write and publish a book. If the answer is, “To cross it off my bucket list,” then you’re going for the participant’s certificate. If, however, you want to build self-discipline, improve your writing skills, develop perseverance, these are noble and good goals–they will be their own reward.

If, on the other hand, you want to write because you have something you want to say, then your audience is your reward. This audience doesn’t have to be big, in the same way that not every race is part of the Olympics. But the point is, you’ve determined you want to speak into the lives of other people–to tell them something you believe, either through story or fact-based prose.

If this is you, then you are separating yourself from the pack, but how do you actually get the job done? I mean there are lots of people wanting to win an Olympic gold medal who end up getting participant certificates in lesser races than the Olympic trials. There are even people who would like to play high school ball but who don’t make the final cut.

So you who are setting your sights higher than a participant’s certificate, here’s the game plan.

First, study.

There are great resources available to those who want to learn how to write well. For example, Writer’s Digest magazine continues to provide invaluable information–from tips about how to start a novel to mastering pace and avoiding story mistakes. There are also numerous writing instruction books (see a list of those I recommend on the Resources page here at Rewrite, Reword, Rework) and any number of writing-tip blogs such as this one.

Another avenue a writer can take is to attend conferences where you can learn from professionals teaching workshops on various craft issues.

Of course there is also the more formal route–many community colleges offer creative writing classes and there are schools that have programs in which a student may earn an advanced degree in writing.

The key in this first step is for the writer going for more than a participant’s certificate to accept that you do in fact need to learn and then find the way to do so that works best for you.

Second, write.

Many instructors would put “read” in first or second place on a list such as this. I am not discounting the value of reading. However, a writer writes. At some point, a person with the aspiration to write so that others will read what you have to say, must write.

I suggest starting with projects that will give you a sense of accomplishment and some objective feedback. Writing exercises (a number of writing instruction books include these) give the practice and may provide the sense of accomplishment. Take advantage of writer prompts such as Writer’s Digest makes available. Watch for writing challenges like the one Speculative Faith recently held. Enter short story contests or beginning-of-your-novel contests. Joining a critique group is another way to keep you writing as well as to give you objective feedback

Third, revise.

No matter how much a writer learns or how much feedback you receive, none of it will make a difference unless, you take all the input and apply it. This means revise what you’ve written. Please note, this is far different from checking your spelling or making sure your commas are in the right place.

In his excellent article on rewriting, agent Steve Laube quoted from an interview with Earnest Hemingway in which he said, “I rewrote the ending to Farewell to Arms, the last page of it, thirty-nine times before I was satisfied.”

I don’t doubt that there are some brilliant writers who can get it right the first time they put their thoughts into words and type them onto the screen of their computer, but I tend to think they are the exception to the rule. In fact E. B. White has been quoted as saying, “It is no sign of weakness or defeat that your manuscript ends up in need of major surgery. This is common in all writing and among the best of writers” (from “Rewriting/Quotes by other writers”–emphasis mine).

Too many writers starting out do not want to accept this step. The idea that they have spent weeks, even months, getting a story down, and then must turn around and tear it all apart and do it over, seems ridiculous and definitely too hard. I used to hold this view myself. Wouldn’t it be better just to write it right the first time?

The problem is, it’s really hard to tell if it’s right until the whole thing is down. Only then can you see if your characters are properly motivated in every scene, if their voices are unique, if you have the tension you need on every page.

The fact is, stories are complex and nonfiction requires order and transition and logic. These are things that are hard to keep track of in the midst of getting the content down. And of course we haven’t begun to talk about syntax or word choice.

Last step, read.

Yes, do read, particularly in your genre. Read the best writers and the most popular ones (not always the same) so that you can get a glimpse where you fit, so you can learn how those writers handled the things with which you’re grappling.

2012_Olympics_Gold_MedalWhy be content with going for a participant’s ribbon when you can reach for the writer’s greatest prize–readers who will read what you’ve written. Study, write, revise, and read, putting yourself on a path to win an audience, your own particular gold medal.

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Dialogue Tags Versus Action Beats

Dialogue tags–or speaker attributions–tell the reader who is talking in a written conversation. The common wisdom these days is to limit the verb in attributions, with some occasional exceptions, to “said.”

In other eras, strong verbs were in fashion, so characters were often found to mutter, shout, cry, mumble, whisper, and the like. In addition, adverbs often added insight as to how a character delivered lines of dialogue. Consequently a tag might be she said coyly or he said warily.

Many writing instructors today frown on using adverbs in that way, though authors such as J. K. Rowling and Stephen Lawhead use them successfully. The favored approach instead is to replace the dialogue tag with an action beat–a simple action the character does while talking.

Action beats, then, serve to let the reader know who is talking but also show the character in motion.

Some writers might favor one method over the other, but in reality, there is no conflict. Both should be tools in the writers kit.

Below is an example of a conversation taken from the Grimms fairytale “The Dragon And His Grandmother” which favors dialogue tags (attributions marked in bold type).

“I haven’t had much luck to-day,” he said, “but I have a tight hold on three soldiers.”

“Indeed! three soldiers!” said she. “Who cannot escape you?”

“They are mine,” answered the Dragon scornfully, “for I shall only give them three riddles which they will never be able to guess.”

“What sort of a riddles are it?” she asked.

Contrast that to this dialogue which uses action to paint the scene as well as to help the reader keep track of who is talking (subject and verb in boldface font).

When he reached his brother, Jim bent toward him to keep from raising his voice. “Hey, Eddie, you have a minute?”

“It’s your reception, bro. Here, have some food.” Eddie pushed his plate into Jim’s hand and gave him a paper cup. “There’s punch with a little kick, ice tea, or coffee. Take your pick.”

“I just wanted to talk to you for a sec.”

“Talk away.” His brother picked up another plate, piled it with a variety of stuffed pastries, a handful of baby carrots, and a couple cauliflower clumps, then spooned dip into the center.

“Maybe someplace a little more private.” Jim edged toward the patio.

“If this is about the golf tournament, my hands are tied.”

Notice that not every line contains an action beat. Too many actions can distract from the conversation. Nor is there a speaker attribution with every line of dialogue.

James Scott Bell summarizes the principle in “Creating Active Dialogue” (Writer’s Digest, June 2003):

The action tag is often the better choice, because it offers a character’s physical movements … This is not to be done every time, of course. Variety is called for, and often the best choice is no tag at all. If the reader knows who is speaking–because of alternating lines or a distinct manner of speech–that’s often enough.

A word of caution. Be sure the action beat belongs to the person who spoke the line of dialogue. I just completed an Advance Reader Copy of a novel that did not follow this guideline, and more than once I had to go back to check who was actually talking. (I can only hope that the final edition corrected this problem). Here’s a sample:

“Immensely.” Celaena patted Chaol’s arm as she took it in her own. “Now you must pretend that you like me, or else everything will be ruined.”

“You and the Crown Prince share the same sense of humor, it seems.”

“Perhaps he and I will become dear friends, and you will be left to rot.”

“Dorian is more inclined to associate with ladies of better breeding and beauty.” She whipped her head to look at him. He smiled. “How vain you are.”

The offending paragraph is the last one. The back and forth is clear up to a point, but her action following his line of dialogue in the same paragraph is the confusing element. An adjustment in paragraphing would make it clear:

“Dorian is more inclined to associate with ladies of better breeding and beauty.”

She whipped her head to look at him.

He smiled. “How vain you are.”

What are your thoughts concerning speaker attributions and action beats? Do you favor one or the other?

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Could Readers Convict Your Characters?

We’ve all watched the detective and lawyer shows. The good guys need proof that they’re after the real perp. They want means, opportunity, and the headliner–motive–before they can put him behind bars.

So if your readers were on a jury, would they find enough motive behind your character’s actions to put him away?

I’m only being halfway facetious with that question. The thing above all others that makes a character believable is that he acts in a way that is consistent with how the author has created him. A thoughtful planner, then, should not make the crucial move in the story based on a whim. It just isn’t him.

Unless the author has provided a motive for the character to act against his usual self. In other words, something greater or more powerful is working against what he would normally do.

The truth is, humans are mixed bags of confusing fears and desires. Which one will win out in which situation? It’s the writer’s job first to be sure the character is not a one-way street. Then it is her job to put pressure on the character so that he isn’t in his normal comfort zone. Now the circumstances are in place that would make the “out of character” actions believable.

Let’s say, for example, that your character is calm and confident, and in full control of his world. He’s that planner we mentioned earlier, and he likes order. But one day, he meets a woman who becomes the love of his life. Suddenly his world feels a little chaotic and unpredictable. He’s not above doing the spontaneous now because he has a reason to do the spontaneous.

From the Writer’s Digest article “7 Simple Ways to Make a Good Story Great” by Elizabeth Sims which we looked at last week in connection to body language:

Human weirdness follows patterns we can all relate to (or at least understand).

One of the biggest is that love—or sex, at least—makes people irrational. We throw over the picture-perfect millionaire for the rough-around-the-edges dirt biker with debt; we lie to our faithful wife on the phone while bonking the secretary in a motel. Which goes to show that if you incorporate a strong enough motivating factor—even an irrational one—you can easily establish a plausible reason for erratic actions on the part of your characters. And those characters are far more interesting to read about than those who always behave rationally.

Properly motivated characters, then, are not properly behaving ones. They can, and should, do surprising things, just as long as they have their reasons and those reasons seem plausible to the reader.

The character of Adrian Monk in the TV show Monk serves as a good example. This brilliant detective suffers from obsessive-compulsive disorder, to the extent that he rarely shakes hands and when he does, must immediately have a sanitizer wipe to clean away the germs. But being a detective, he has a way of getting into situations that put his desire to catch the criminal or to save a colleague in direct conflict with his OCD behavior.

His fears prove to be the perfect counterbalance to his astute observational powers, and he’s a much more interesting character as a result. His hesitations or reticence is believable because the writers have properly set up his obsessions as motivating factors. But his sense of right, his desire to return to the police force, his care and concern for those he works with are also clearly drawn.

Here is a “mixed bag” character. His decisions, then, can be driven by either his fears or his desires, and viewers believe them.

How about your characters? Are they mixed bags (much like the mixed metaphors in this post 😉 ) or are they one way streets?

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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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Hooks Versus Openings

Recently the Writer’s Digest published an article that compiled the views of writing professionals on opposing sides of certain writing “rules” issues. One of the topics dealt with the novel opening, or hook.

How exactly should a novel begin? Should the author rope you in with intrigue and suspense, then never let you go? (The hook).

This is the view author and writing instructor Jerry B. Jenkins took:

I recently critiqued a beginner’s manuscript that began, “I’m sure we’ve all heard the old adage …” Well, if it’s an adage, it’s old, and if it’s an old adage, yes, we’ve all heard it. So why in the world would you want to start your novel with that?

Most experts advise starting with or quickly getting to an “inciting incident,” or at least something that implies that a main character’s status quo has been interrupted.

You tell me. Would you be more gripped by an old adage, or by something like, “When he kissed her goodbye and said he’d see her at dinner, Elizabeth believed only Ben’s goodbye”?

It’s not gunfire, not murder, not mayhem. But I’m betting you want to know what’s going on and will stick with me until you find out.

The opposing view (the opening) was given by writing professional Steve Almond:

The single most common problem I see in student manuscripts is that they are incredibly confusing. They are incredibly confusing because student authors often refuse to orient the reader by providing basic dramatic circumstances, such as where we are, and what’s happening, and to whom. Instead, we’re plunged into a kind of ectoplasm of vivid descriptions and incisive observations. I refer to this style of writing as hysterical lyricism.

The central reason student writers succumb to this is because they’ve been told over and over that they have to “hook readers on Page 1.” They assume that the best way to do this is to dispense with all the “boring background” and get us right to the fancy prose.

Well, what’s an unpublished writer to do (or even a published one seeking to improve)? These two experienced, qualified, successful published writers, who teach the craft, do not agree.

Or … is it that they are emphasizing different things about how a novel should begin? I doubt very much if Mr. Jenkins is advocating confusion:

    Never mind if readers understand what’s happening, just get your character in danger; create suspense and readers will be with you.

No, I don’t think so.

At the same time, I don’t think Mr. Almond is advocating an opening that is void of tension:

    The facts, that’s what readers need. Tell them who is in the scene, where this takes place, how they’re all dressed, and everyone’s hair and eye color.

Uh, that’s unlikely, too.

In actuality, though they seem to be saying contradictory things, they are both right. In the list I posted last week of the things readers at Spec Faith did not like in the brief novel openings they examined, you’ll find “confusing” and “no action”; “disjointed” and “no urgency (importance).”

On the flip side, in stating what they did like in an opening, these readers mentioned “clear” (more than once) but also “created curiosity,” “tension,” and “intrigue.”

Quite obviously, the novel openings that work the best do both — they orient readers and they engage them from the start. How is this possible?

I’ll admit, I’m still learning this skill. I know it when I see it, but it’s hard to spell out. I will say this. One element should not be sacrificed for the other. In other words, a writer shouldn’t seek clarity to the point of omitting intrigue. Neither should a writer swing for the opening-hook fences by trying to be so clever that readers can’t figure out what in the world (or out of it) is happening.

I’ll add this. A few novels end up with the kinds of opening lines that are truly memorable, but a lot of great ones that are on many people’s favorite lists have much quieter beginnings. Not boring, though. Just not of the quotable variety.

Perhaps too many writers, in an effort to find the quotable, are forgetting to create a memorable character and scene. After all, readers also remarked that they liked an opening that suggested a larger world or created an interesting voice.

In short, hooks work only if they open a story readers care about, and openings work only if they hook the reader into the story.

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Novels In Three Acts . . . More Or Less

Some writing instructors insist on a particular story structure: there must be three acts and between each, a door of no return. Screenwriters use this formulaic structure, and many novelists have adapted it. But is this “beginning, middle, and end” framework a must?

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

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

Did all stories really have three acts?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Because story trumps structure.

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

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