Tag Archives: Writing fiction

What’s At Stake?

Yeah, not that kind.

Yeah, not this kind.

If a story needs tension on every page, it seems logical that authors writing fiction need to learn how to create tension. One technique is to increase stakes, that is, to make the action urgent.

Unfortunately, it seems this idea of upping stakes is too often equated with saving the world from aliens or stopping a terrorist attack. After all, what are higher stakes?

The problem, of course, is that not every story is about aliens or terrorists. And even in the stories that accommodate those elements, repetition has reduced these high stakes to a shrug unless there is more involved.

Not this kind either.

Not that kind either.

So how can a writer bring urgency to her story without threatening to blow up the White House or start a pandemic that could wipe out the human race? First, we need to look at what’s behind the stakes.

At the heart of a story is a character with a need or a goal–he wants to win the love of the princess or get a promotion at work or make his dad proud. To evaluate the stakes created by any actions these characters might take, the author must simply ask, so what?

What will the character lose if he doesn’t win the love of the princess? Well, the princess! some will answer. And that matters, why? Can’t he simply find another girl to love, one he can win?

Or what happens if he doesn’t get the promotion he wants? Won’t he simply continue working at the job he has? How about making his dad proud. If he doesn’t, what will he lose? A chance for better self-esteem? And that matters because . . .

The point is, stakes are built, in part, upon creating consequences for failure. Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, for example, equated their love with life. They chose dying rather than living without the person they loved.

However, in addition to creating consequences, these consequences must matter, and this is accomplished by creating a character the reader will care about.

As long as the reader merely has a nodding acquaintance with the protagonist, the stakes of a novel will remain low. Only when the reader cares deeply what happens to him will the stakes begin to soar.

Writing instructor Donald Maass states this principle clearly in Writing the Breakout Novel:

The wishes, needs and objectives of strangers are, to most of us, of little concern. The same is true in a reader’s relationship to a character in a story: That character’s stakes will seem strong only to the extent that the character is sympathetic. If the character feels cold, distant or veiled, it is impossible to care. The personal stakes in the story feel low. Reader interest is weak. On the other hand, when characters are strong and appealing, and better still are portrayed warmly and with intimate candor, the stakes feel high and reader interest runs high, as well. (p. 74)

In short, personal stakes for the protagonist hinge upon how well the reader gets to know this character. Maass again:

we cannot help but like people that we know very well, whatever their faults. Understanding leads to sympathy. Sympathy in turn gives power to stakes.

A corollary to this principle is that readers will care about circumstances that a sympathetic character cares about. To raise the stakes, however, the author must withhold what the character wants, must take him through a minidisaster that forces him to regroup. Each failure reminds the reader what’s at stake.

Besides personal stakes, a novelist should present public stakes–what will society lose if the heroine fails? Again, it’s easy to jump to the large failure–death and destruction. But there are different kinds of destruction. A writer should consider exploring moral choices, ethics, corruption, spiritual well-being and their affects on society.

One character, of course, is most likely not going to impact a government to wipe out all corruption or turn a society away from a questionable ethic, but this is where a novelist can allow the character to represent “everyman” and establish a universal principle by showing a particular life and situation.

James_Stewart_in_Mr._Smith_Goes_to_Washington_trailer_2The old movie “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” comes to mind as this type of story. When corrupt politicians tried to manipulate a Junior Senator, Mr. Smith, appointed to office to complete the term of the deceased incumbent, the young man ends up embroiled in false accusations and dishonest dealings. His efforts to do what is right eventually cause one old family friend to confess his wrong doings.

Is all of Washington cleaned of corruption? No, but Mr. Smith illustrates what an honest man willing to stand for right can accomplish. The stakes in this story involve the good of society, not just Mr. Smith’s reputation–though there is that, as well as his standing in the eyes of the woman he’s attracted to.

Perhaps this intertwining of personal and public stakes is the ultimate method of elevating both.

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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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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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Oil And Vinegar, Not Oil And Water

Oil and water don’t mix no matter how much a person might try. On the other hand, oil and vinegar have properties that allow them to blend temporarily. When shaken together, along with all the appropriate spices, they can create a delicious dressing, a delight for the palate.

Poetry and fiction work the same way. Yes, they are separate entities and mostly stay in their own literary niches, but there are times and ways that the two can come together to enhance a story. Since April is National Poetry Month, it seems appropriate to discuss ways in which poetry can make fiction better.

One obvious instance occurs when a novelist includes poems or songs in his work. J. R. R. Tolkien utilized numerous songs in Lord of the Rings — from those Tom Bombadil sang to the ones Bilbo wrote as part of his story and those the elves sang on most occasions.

Besides incorporating poems as a whole into fiction, an author can utilize poetry’s various parts to spice up his prose.

Poetry, as you may know, is constructed using a number of sound devices and/or a number of imagery devices. It is these that can give prose a boost, taking it beyond the mundane and making it fun, insightful, or even beautiful.

Sound Devices

Many people think of rhyme when they think of poetry. This is certainly one of the sound devices poets may use, but it is not the only one. Others include alliteration, rhythm, onomatopoeia, assonance, consonance, even repetition.

Rhythm is probably the most popular device used by novelists. When poets utilize rhythm they are trying to create a pattern using stressed and unstressed syllables, such as you hear in nursery rhymes or children’s songs:

Twinkle, twinkle, little star,
How I wonder what you are.
Up above the world so high,
Like a diamond in the sky.

Novelists who pay attention to rhythm, however, utilize variety and flow more than patterns. Not only should a line say what the novelists wants it to say, but it should sound the way she wants it to sound.

High energy action scenes use shorter sentences. Fragments even. Leisurely scenes may consist of longer sentences and paragraphs filled with description or reflection, utilizing parenthetical material, perhaps — whether created by using em dashes, parentheses or even a colon. The key is, the rhythm of the sentence fits the content and the context.

When appropriate, an author may incorporate alliteration — the repetition of the same sounds at the beginning of words:

They muscled the boat to another bend, but as they navigated the curve the vessel rammed to a stop with a heavy clunk.

Consonance is similar but limited to the repetition of consonant sounds and not limited to the beginning of a word.

You crash over the trees,
You crack the live branch:
the branch is white,
the green crushed,
each leaf is rent like split wood.

In the same way, assonance is the repetition of vowel sounds.

Onomatopoeia — the formation of a word from the sound associated with it — is another common device. In the earlier line above, the word clunk is an example of onomatopoeia.

None of these devices occurs with as much frequency in fiction as in poetry, and when an author does employ them it should be with purpose. The sounds should strengthen the picture that the meaning of the words has already created.

Imagery

Creating these word pictures can be more effective with the help of poetry’s devices: similes, metaphors, personification, symbols, hyperbole, and so on.

Similes and metaphors create comparisons between two usually unrelated objects for the sake of amplifying a particular trait of the item being described. Similes do so in a more obvious way by announcing the comparison with a preposition — like or as.

“His hair like moldy hay,” part of a line from the poem “The Highwayman,” makes an effective, and announced, comparison. On the other hand, “The serpentine road crawled to the top of the rise” doesn’t declare, the road was like a snake, but instead shows it. Both create vivid word pictures.

Personification gives human or organic properties to inanimate objects. Even phrases like “the heart of the tale” utilize personification.

Symbols stand for and represent something else. In A Christmas Carol the chains Marley’s ghost carried around represented his sins from his greedy life.

Hyperbole is purposeful exaggeration for effect. Example: The swarm of crows blackened the sky.

When using these imagery devices, a novelist should stretch to create ones that fit his characters and setting rather than relying on common ones already in existence. Many of these have become cliches.

In summary, good prose — lyrical prose — will utilize some of the same devices that poetry does. One way to become more familiar with these devices is to read poetry. Another is to write it.

What devices do you purposefully use in your prose? Have you done so because you write poetry or have you learned to do so because of what you read?

If you’d like to learn more about poetry, Owl Editing has an interesting page on understanding poetry — organized a little differently and in more depth than what I’ve presented in brief here.

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The Secret To Page-Turning Fiction

There is no actual secret to page-turning fiction — writing instructors, editors, top-selling authors all know precisely what makes readers devour a story, and many of them have shared what they know in books and blogs and writing conferences. So it’s no secret.

Still, I’m guessing the title of this post brought a few visitors who wanted to be let in on the secret. Or maybe they wanted to know if I know the same secret they know. 😉

The point is, the title created a level of curiosity — which is, in fact, the “secret” we’re talking about. Worded another way, suspense drives readers to turn the page.

All kinds of stories can have suspense, not just crime drama or action/adventure. As a device in fiction, suspense is simply that which teases readers into wanting to know more.

When the star player of the hometown baseball team comes up to bat in the ninth inning, behind by a run, one man on base, two outs, and the first pitch is a strike, fans — and readers — hold their breath. The next pitches are two balls, then another strike, evening the count at 2-2. The visiting team leaves their seats in the dugout to stand at the railing or on the steps, ready to spill out onto the field to celebrate. But the next pitch is a curve ball in the dirt, and the count is full. The pitcher has gone as far as he can. He starts his windup. The audience rises to their feet, their cheers reaching a crescendo . . . because they all want to know, will their star player come through and win the game, or will he strike out?

That little scenario above shows a couple things about suspense. First, there must be a real and believable expectation of success accompanied by an equal possibility of failure. If the home team had been behind by ten runs, fans wouldn’t really care if their star player came up to bat with one man on. No matter what he did, the team would still be behind. At the same time, having two strikes against him increases the plausibility of his failure.

Suspense also increases when the outcome matters. If the above was an inter-squad practice game during the preseason, the suspense would be much less than if it was game seven of the World Series.

Games, contests, arguments, elections, legal action, and so forth have a build in element of suspense — both (or all) parties can’t win. Somebody is going to walk away celebrating, and somebody is going to walk away sad.

But any unknown, not just a head-to-head battle, can create suspense. In the case of the losing team in our little example, did they walk away sad or suicidal or as sore losers, tearing up the locker room before they boarded the bus for the airport? Did the players blame the coach and look to get him fired? Did they turn on the pitcher who gave up the winning home run? Inquiring minds want to know, and will keep turning pages to find out.

The surefire way an author creates suspense, then, is to withhold information. It seems counter intuitive to writers who are starting out because our job is to tell the readers what’s happening, isn’t it? Yes, but not all at once. Some facts suggesting that there is more to come keep readers wondering, guessing, and most importantly, reading.

Suspense will not work, however, unless the important elements have been properly foreshadowed. Readers will not worry about the villain shooting the hero if he has no gun, so showing Mr. Bad Guy arming himself, introduces the possibility of a life-and-death struggle. Now readers want to know what’s going to happen with that gun.

Of course, it’s better to think outside the box and build suspense around something that readers haven’t encountered with great frequency. Predictability reduces suspense because readers, having recognized the situation, won’t have the same level of curiosity.

So, from page one of your manuscript, what questions are you creating in your readers’ minds?

Why is the protagonist despondent? Who is that woman he writes an email to every morning before going to work? Why does he delete it instead of sending it? Why did her boss fire her? Who can she trust? These are the kinds of questions writers should tease readers into asking as opposed to giving out the answers up front. When the answers do come — and they should — a new question should step into the gap. Then readers will keep turning those pages because they just have to know.

Oh, if you happen to be wondering about our star player and what he did with a 3-2 count in the bottom of the ninth, you can read a similar scenario in Ernest Lawrence Thayer’s poem “Casey at the Bat.” Enjoy. 😀

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Story Triage

In my experience readers, reviewers, and even critique partners might recognize that something in a story is amiss. It’s another thing to be able to identify accurately what that something is. Too often secondary issues get blamed: sentences need to be tightened, a better story hook inserted, most -ing words and all -ly adverbs need to be cut, passive verbs changed to active, and so on. While these Browne-and-King type writing guidelines (so named for the authors of a good beginning writing resource entitled Self-editing for Fiction Writers) have merit, they most likely are not the real problem. Too many stories are sitting on the best-seller lists with all these taboos glaring back at the unpublished writer who then asks, How can that bad writing get in print, and my perfect prose not find an agent?

The problem might actually be “the perfect prose.” No one is particularly interested in reading a story that sounds more like a text book. Stories need to have character and they need to be about character.

In a recent Writer’s Digest article, writing instructor Donald Maass gave his top two mistakes novelists make, and neither one of them dealt with point of view or passive voice, nor did he mention loose body parts or the presence of the nasty “be” verb forms. Instead he honed in on the things that are critical to the story itself if readers are to keep reading.

When doing story triage, then, it is important to look at the foundation first — what the story is, not how the author has told it. If the story itself is flawed, no amount of prose doctoring will fix the problem.

So what are the critical things Donald Maass pointed to?

1) Failing to create characters for whom we have an immediate reason to care, and 2) Not using enough micro-tension to make it necessary to read everything on every page.

Interestingly, I’ve seen the failing of those two elements just this week. In one book I am reading (it seems I am never reading just one book 😉 ), I noticed the problem of not having an immediate reason to care for the characters. As it turned out, the further into the book I read, the more I cared for the characters. But can we count on readers staying with a story for a hundred pages if they don’t love a character at once (or at least connect with him) or have a reason to cheer him on to victory? I don’t think so.

This means characters must be believably real, but even more importantly, they must have some desire, some goal that drives their actions. They can’t have a desire about which they do nothing and have readers care deeply. The characters can’t even be reactive to the things that happen around and to them, and have readers care deeply. It is in characters taking steps to obtain their significant desires that gives rise to readers joining in their quest emotionally.

Donald Maass’s second point, not using enough micro-tension to make it necessary to read every page, was something I saw in my own writing. As I reworked my opening scene for the umpteenth time, I created what I thought was an intriguing hook. My basketball-player main character, who was used to trash talk on the basketball court, was hearing it in his parents’ condo. I was happy with that first paragraph (still am) because it introduced possible conflict and created an unexpected — and therefore intriguing — encounter.

The problem came in the next line. I downplayed the emotional reaction my character had to this trash talk aimed at him. After all, he’d heard worse from guys more threatening than the man in front of him. With the portrayal of that cool, in control reaction — which was true to my character — away went the tension which the first paragraph had introduced. If the trash talk was no problem for my character, than it was no problem for my readers, so why should they care? I have to give them more tension, not less, if I want them to keep reading.

As I see it, Donald Maass put his finger on the twin beams upon which good stories are built — characters readers care about, acting in ways that generate tension. Writers who want to improve their novels would be wise to look at those two factors first before concerning themselves overly much with secondary elements.

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To Do NaNoWriMo Or Not To Do NaNoWriMo

November is just around the corner and writers everywhere are making plans to participate in the unique program NaNoWrMo — short for National Novel Writing Month. The question is, should you join all those others?

First, a few specifics about the official program. The goal is to write a 50,000 word novel between November 1 and November 30. The process is to register at the official NaNo site, then report back at the end of November and download your work to receive official recognition for “winning.” The stipulations include writing a brand new novel, not one you’ve already been working on.

What are the advantages of this program? Everyone I’ve asked who has participated says NaNo works as a form of motivation and accountability. There are forums where writers can ask questions or congregate with others writing in their genre. There are Pep Talk articles and word count badges or scoreboards. In other words, NaNo turns a solitary activity into a community event. Lots of people participate, I suspect, simply because they don’t want to be left out.

In addition, serious writers report they come away from NaNo with the skeleton of a story that they can flesh out in the days ahead. NaNo may not deliver a finished product (let’s face it, only middle grade novels clock in at 50,000 words), but it helps the writer push through until that difficult first draft is either finished or firmly in hand.

With those pluses, what then could be the disadvantage? I see several drawbacks. For seasoned writers, writing between a thousand and two thousand words a day ought not to be too demanding, but the pace doesn’t allow the new writer to collect himself when the story bogs down, to learn what might be the problem, and to discover how to get out of it.

In addition, new writers might be fooled into thinking that their “winning” manuscript is now ready for publication. Nothing could be further from the truth. Fellow editing pal Jamie Chavez wrote a helpful blog post about how good writing takes time to learn. She concludes with this:

A great manuscript is a good first step. But it’s going to take time, grasshopper.

Should someone who has done little to no study of how to write fiction set out to write a novel? Apart from the possible harm of discouragement, I can’t see that it would damage someone’s writing. I don’t know that it will help either unless the writer gets feedback from knowledgeable writers — not from loving family members.

My own writing journey started with an idea and a couple chapters that I took to a writers’ conference. I got enough encouragement that I finished the story and went back to that conference. Again I received positive feedback which led to consideration of publication by a particular publishing house. That might have been the worst thing that happened to me. Though I ultimately received a rejection notice, I assumed from that point on for a number of years that my story was ready for publication because one person showed interest.

As I queried editors and agents and the “not for us” notices mounted, I concluded the problem was my genre (Christian fantasy). It was too hard a sell, I reasoned, because editors and agents weren’t being open-minded enough. After all, there was that one industry professional who liked it.

During this time I was doing some study, but honestly I dismissed much of the writing advice I was receiving because I thought it was too demanding — no one in his right mind could do all the things these writing instructors were suggesting. On top of that, I didn’t understand everything I was reading. Some times I thought I understood, and other times the specialized termonology passed me by. (When exactly did a scene end and where did a sequence fit in? What was a sequence?)

Even though I did revisions based on the few things I learned and understood, nothing changed dramatically in my writing until I joined a critique group and began to get feedback from knowledgeable people who gave me honest criticism.

The relevance of my story is this: essentially I used the NaNo method of writing, though I took longer than the thirty days to produce an entire manuscript. But when I was finished, I didn’t know what to do with the thing I’d created until I got help.

Beginning writers who do NaNo will be at a crossroads when they finish — will they take their baby, which they undoubtedly love, and let the evil eyes of critique partners or some profession freelance editor such as myself tear into it so that they learn how to write by having written badly, or will they try to show it to the world as the next president or beauty queen or star athlete, fully formed, ready to go?

If the latter, NaNo will be a bad experience. If the former, then it has possibilities.

I’ve said often, if I could begin my writing career over, I’d write short stories while I studied the craft and had critique partners give me feedback. For one thing, short stories allow for experimentation. I can write in first person in one story, for example, then switch to a close third person limited in the next story. The two offer me a chance to see which I like better, which fits me, what the advantages and disadvantages of each are. But writing a novel, I’m locked into the point of view I’ve chosen and might not learn until twenty thousand words in that it’s really hard to sustain.

But that’s me. Others may find that hammering out a novel in thirty days is exactly what they want to do. It will give them something from which to work, and it will validate them as writers because they will have finished what they set out to do, and they’ll be NaNo winners.

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Promises

Whether he realizes it or not, a writer makes his readers a promise, or actually a string of promises. In the first line, the first paragraph, the first page, scene, and chapter, the author is promising, promising, promising. Will the story be funny? Is the character irascible? Will the setting determine the outcome? Is the mood gloomy? Does the point of view character tell the truth? And on and on go the questions to which the author answers with promises.

Interestingly, these answers are only important in so far as the author keeps his promises. If he lets readers know on page one that this story has a jaunty, humorous flavor, that decision is no better or worse than if he lets the readers know the story will have a dark, brooding flavor. What the author must not do is promise one thing and deliver something else. In other words, he must not promise a jaunty, humorous story and switch to a dark, brooding tale half way through.

At first glance this idea of promise may seem suspect. After all, things change during the course of a story. Why can’t a character suffer loss and become sullen instead of happy-go-lucky? Actually, he can. Change works as long as that change is motivated.

If a bird can’t fly on page one, then he shouldn’t be able to fly on page 151 … unless something has happened which makes it believable that yes, the bird can now fly.

This “believability” is actually “story believability.” If the author has created a world in which animals can receive transplants, then a wing transplant would be a believable cause for the bird’s change in flying ability. If, on the other hand, the author creates a world in which animals trust people, it would be believable if an avian aficionado finds an injured bird and nurses it to wholeness.

Put another way, whatever motivates change in the story must be true to the rules of that particular story world. Essentially the author lays down those rules in the early pages of his novel. In essence, he is promising that the rest of the story is going to continue within these parameters, according to these particulars.

Some weeks ago in the discussion about backstory, we looked at the opening of Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Emperor’s New Clothes.” Here’s the first paragraph again:

    Once, long ago, there lived an Emperor who loved new clothes. He loved clothes so much that he thought of nothing else all day and spent all his time and money in acquiring more and more, ever more beautiful clothes.

The promise here is that the central character has this particular obsession with clothes. If halfway through the story, with no believable change to the story rules, the king no longer cared about clothes, the author would have broken his promise to readers.

In The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, if Aslan the great lion who reigned in Narnia stopped being a talking lion, C. S. Lewis would have violated his own story rules. He would have broken faith with his readers who came to understand that in Narnia, Talking Animals were not only possible but the norm. In a later book, in fact, Lewis creates a reason why fewer and fewer animals are of the talking variety. The change, then, becomes believable and consistent because it adheres to the change that occurred within the story rules.

Is your character logical and even-tempered? Then he must remain so unless something consistent with the way the story works, brings a personality altering change.

Earlier this week over at A Christian Worldview of Fiction, I invited visitors to look at the openings of six different novels. Why not take a few moments to drop by and see what promises you think the authors of those excerpts are making to their readers in those first lines.

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The Ins And Outs Of Backstory, Part 1

A recent Writer’s Digest article, “Building Backstory” by Larry Brooks, stated that a novelist should show only ten percent of his character’s backstory — the “iceberg principle” he called it. Suspense author and writing instructor Brandilyn Collins holds herself to a firm rule about backstory — none in the opening chapters.

Why such categorical statements about backstory? But perhaps our first question should be, what is backstory?

Mr. Brooks succinctly identifies backstory as “what went before and behind the actual [storytime] event.” Brandilyn’s definition is a bit broader: “backstory is anything that isn’t current action,” possibly including description.

Quite frankly, all that before and behind and not action is boring. Until the reader has a reason to know the “what happened before” information, backstory comes across as superfluous. It isn’t moving the plot forward, but rather, holding it back. Some readers might even be tempted to skip backstory.

Old style fairy tales usually began with backstory, and novels of yesteryear often did as well. Today’s faster-paced fiction, however, requires a different approach.

Brandilyn gives a clear rule of thumb: use backstory “only when it is absolutely needed for the reader to understand the current action.”

Let me illustrate this with the opening of the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale “The Emperor’s New Clothes” retold by Rohini Chowdhury. As written, the story begins this way:

Once, long ago, there lived an Emperor who loved new clothes. He loved clothes so much that he thought of nothing else all day and spent all his time and money in acquiring more and more, ever more beautiful clothes.

The emperor’s love for clothes was well known. Traders, merchants and weavers from far and wide would bring fine silks, flowered brocades and softest satins to sell to the Emperor, knowing he would buy even the most expensive cloth if it caught his fancy. One day two men, claiming to be skilled weavers, arrived in the Emperor’s city and asked to meet him. The men were not real weavers at all, but crooks.

‘Sire,’ they cried, bowing low before the Emperor, ‘the cloths we weave are special – not only do they have the most beautiful colours and elaborate patterns, but the clothes made from them have the wonderful property of remaining invisible to everyone who is unfit for his office or unforgivably stupid.’

‘These are clothes worth having,’ thought the Emperor to himself. ‘If I had such a suit of clothes, I’d know at once the men unfit for their office, and be able to tell the wise from the foolish! This cloth must be woven for me immediately!’ The Emperor gave orders for the men to be provided with every facility, and commanded them to start their work at once.

The Emperor in his imaginary new clothes.

I marked the backstory in reddish brown. The actual inciting incident was the arrival of the two con men.

But, you may be thinking, the reader needs to know the facts in those opening paragraphs. Yes, and no. The reader doesn’t need to know all of it right away.

Nor does the backstory need to appear together in one lump sum. Instead, the facts detailing what came before (the emperor spending his days thinking about and buying new clothes) or what is behind the story (the two men are crooks) can be sprinkled throughout as they are needed. Hence, the opening of this fairy tale could go something like this:

One day two men, claiming to be skilled weavers, came to a city ruled by an Emperor famous for his love of beautiful clothes. At once they asked to meet him.

‘Sire,’ they cried, bowing low before the Emperor, ‘the cloths we weave are special – not only do they have the most beautiful colours and elaborate patterns, but the clothes made from them have the wonderful property of remaining invisible to everyone who is unfit for his office or unforgivably stupid.’

‘These are clothes worth having,’ thought the Emperor who spent all his time and money in acquiring more and more, ever more beautiful clothes. ‘If I had such a suit of clothes, I’d know at once the men unfit for their office, and be able to tell the wise from the foolish! This cloth must be woven for me immediately!’ The Emperor gave orders for the men to be provided with every facility, and commanded them to start their work at once.

Clearly there is more backstory that needs to be included. Based on this opening, the reader would not yet know that the two men are crooks, but that’s one of the advantages of weaving backstory in rather than delivering the goods ahead of time.

The reader is left to wonder if the two men claiming to be weavers have some magic ability or if they are duping the unsuspecting emperor.

The question makes the story more interesting and creates curiosity. The reader will want to continue reading if for no other reason than to find out the answer to the questions the missing backstory creates.

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Endings Matter Most

When I finished the last page, I wanted to toss the book as far as I could, as hard as I could. The protagonist who I had followed for the last four hundred pages died without accomplishing his goal. No momentous lesson learned along the way, no great change to complete his character arc. Why, I wondered, had I wasted my days and hours reading about this failed adventure that led nowhere?

Do you think I picked up the next book in that series? (Rhetorical question! 🙄 )

Endings are important, whether they are the ends of sentences, paragraphs, chapters, or books, as author and former Writer’s Digest columnist Nancy Kress reminded her blog readers earlier this year.

Endings are in the position to leave the greatest impression. Consequently they should be the strongest part of each story element. Today I want to concentrate on the ending of the novel.

Recently I read a book that ended with the completion of a character arc — just not the protagonist’s, but of one of the secondary characters. Though I had no murderous thoughts about that book when I finished, the ending certainly was not compelling and I had no intention of seeking out another title by that author.

Earlier this year I read a story that included a host of characters in the denouement — all except the antagonist. Another ending that fell flat.

Here are a few other elements I believe weaken endings:

* Repeated action. Something happened earlier in the story — a chase, romantic tension, confrontation with the antagonist — and the end is little more than a reprise of that earlier scene.

* Predictability. The protagonist has only one logical choice, there are no red herrings, the set-up points to only one outcome. These kinds of slips enable the reader to see the end coming long before the final chapter. Such predictability drains the power out of the end which does not create a thirst for more.

* Unearned endings. The character isn’t properly motivated, a necessary object to victory makes its first appearance right when the protagonist needs it, the cavalry charges in at the last minute to save the day. These endings might have worked if they’d been properly developed, but they’re rushed or incomplete.

So what makes an ending work?

First, a good ending is fully fleshed out. Often the action slows down, the necessary details are painted into the scene, every moment is made to count.

Then too the best story endings bring the protagonist’s internal and external conflicts to a climax at the same time. Perhaps the conditions of the external struggle lead to the key for dealing with the internal issues. Perhaps the reverse is true. In either case, when the two bleed into one another, the ending is more than satisfying. It is memorable.

Are good endings always tied up neatly, with all the bows facing the same way? I suppose the answer to this question depends on what the author wants to accomplish.

The book with the most memorable ending I’ve read is Gone With The Wind by Margaret Mitchell, for the very reason that I didn’t really know how the story ended. Yes, when the book ended, Rhett had left. But Scarlet, our protagonist, was a tenacious woman who found strength in the land and who went after what she wanted. Consequently, I wanted to believe her when she delivered her final hopeful line. In fact, for days I mentally added my own ending or rewrote Ms. Mitchell’s because the ending as it stood disturbed me so.

Why did such an ending work? It wasn’t happy-ever-after and it was maddeningly open-ended. Yet after 1100 pages, I didn’t feel cheated. I felt desperately sad for the protagonist I had cheered for so long. I wanted things to be different for her.

Clearly, the ending was earned. The relationship between Rhett and Scarlet had been deteriorating for pages. Hence, his leaving was not without ample warning. Neither of them had been willing to risk offering love to the other for fear of rejection. And Scarlet was so blinded by what she thought she wanted that she didn’t know what she actually needed … until it was too late. Or was it?

The ambiguous ending can be strong and satisfying in a thought-provoking way if it suggests more and leaves the reader wondering.

Whether tightly wrapped up or somewhat open-ended, stories need to bring their character arcs and plot events to powerful conclusions. Those are the books that stay on shelves and get re-read from time to time. Those are the books that make readers want to buy that author’s next novel.

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