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The Character Arc part 1 #amwriting

We who write fiction spend a lot of time plotting the events a character will go through. We may write to an outline, or we might keep it in our head, but most of the action is usually known before we write it.

Even if you don’t plot in the traditional sense of the word, you should give some advance consideration to character development.

The term character arc is used to describe the personal growth and transformation of a character throughout a story. In narratives with a strong character arc, the protagonist begins as one sort of person. Through the events they experience, they are transformed. Often the change is for the better, but sometimes they change for the worse.

Great writing contrasts the relative security of the characters’ lives as they were in the opening paragraphs against the hazards of their life when they are in the midst of change.

Give me the book that immerses me in the uncertainty, fear, and anger—let me experience the emotional journey as well as the events of the narrative.

The novels that have the most influence on me as a writer are those that allow the reader to experience the characters’ journey.

These authors introduced me to characters who were multi-dimensional. They were people with a past and a present, and who hoped to survive long enough to enjoy a future.

In the opening act, the characters are introduced, and the scene is set. A great story evolves when the antagonist and protagonist are strong but not omnipotent. Both must have character arcs that show either

  1. Personal growth over the length of the story
  2. Stagnation or the inability to grow

Stagnation is a kind of death. This is a creative ploy to use for an antagonist who is unable to see their fatal flaw.

Each scene is an opportunity to advance the events of the story. But every small arc of action is also an opportunity to illuminate the motives of the characters.

The characters begin to be changed by the events they experience. How you show their emotional state is critical at this point because emotions engage readers. If you want a reader to experience the sense of crisis that you believe your story deserves, you must

  1. Foreshadow or hint at knowledge the characters don’t have, information that affects the outcome of the plot.

Very few people are evil for no reason at all. Sometimes they are likable, people who appear innocuous, even loving. If this is the case in your story, you need to insert small clues for the reader early on about the negative aspect of their personality. This is so that their despicable behavior isn’t seen as unexpected and contrived.

Fleshing out the antagonist and making their motives realistic is essential. They are as central to the story as the protagonist because their actions force change.

It’s important to remember that at no point in the narrative can people be sitting around idly chit-chatting about the changes they have been through in their life unless it affects the action at that moment.

Instead, they should be dealing with the consequences of the decisions they have just made and trying to make better plans.

Consequences are central to the forward momentum of the plot.

If consequences are to have meaning, motivations are crucial. What drives the characters to endure the results of their poor planning? What keeps them focused on achieving their goal?

Just as importantly, what will they NOT do? What is out of character for them? If you know that, you won’t muddy the narrative with look-alike and sound-alike characters.

The obstacles your characters face and the choices they make in those situations are the story.

Sometimes, in the first draft of my manuscripts, the motives of my protagonist haven’t quite come into focus for me. I tend to allow a character’s choices to push their personal growth, and then in a later draft, I have to sort out why they have made that decision.

Agency is the power of an individual to act independently. When we give the characters agency, we allow them to make their own free choices.

Giving your characters an active role and allowing them agency can make writing their story a joy. Remember, we write as much for ourselves as we do for a potential reader.

At times, I have a character I just can’t figure out. I make a character study, a personal history. Once I know their past, I understand what drives them and what triggers their emotions.

I then decide what personal revelations must come out about them in foreshadowing and figure out how to make it emerge organically.

In the character study, I ask the most important question of all: what does the character discover about herself?

When I have the answers about why, I look at the final event, the situation that ends the story to see if it passes the logic test. These people’s personal quirks and characteristics, their moral compass influenced the decisions that led them to that place.

Did I keep those clues distinct to each character, or was there a blurring of personalities within the group?

Most importantly, do my characters have recognizable motivations? Sure, we want to be subtle and not drop a ton of backstory on the reader. However, we can’t be too obscure in trying to keep the air of mystery.

If a beta reader can’t follow our protagonist’s reasoning, we haven’t done our job.

Creating intrigue yet making it believable is a balancing act.

Reading is the key. Every novel that leaves a mark on my heart has unique, individual characters that I can relate to.

When I stumble upon a book that engrosses me, I study that author’s work even if I don’t like one of their characters. I want to see how they fit the backstory into the narrative, ensuring their characters’ motivations made sense.

Their good writing habits help me improve in my own work. In my next post, I’m going to discuss the influence of novels that I once loved, and how they shaped my writing for good and for ill.

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Need and Technology #worldbuilding #amwriting  

Need is an aspect of the world our characters inhabit.

The props we place in the setting our characters inhabit, the tools they use, the objects they must acquire – these things form a layer that grows out of need.

First, no matter what genre you are writing in, you must establish the level of technology. Whatever you do, don’t stray from it

The Romans had running water, central heating, and toilets in their homes. So did the Minoans. However modern-seeming their architectural creations were, they were low-tech.

In the environment of any genre, cups will be cups, bowls will be bowls. The materials they are made of might be different, but those items will always be needed. If you took a Minoan and transplanted them into modern-day Seattle, a bowl or cup would be instantly recognizable for what it is.

Furnishings will be similar from society to society—people need somewhere to sit or sleep, whether it is a pile of straw, cushions, or a bunk. They need a place to cook and somewhere to store preserved food:

  • A fire pit and baskets in a hut
  • A fireplace and shelves with baskets and clay jars in a cabin
  • A modern kitchen and pantry in a ranch house
  • A starship’s galley or food replicator

Settings are like Barbie clothes. The clothes of Soldier Barbie fit Corporate Barbie… and Malibu Barbie… and Star Wars Barbie. The outer garments might be changed for each genre but Barbie is still the protagonist.

We change settings to fit the genre, to create a setting with all the right tropes. Genre defines the visuals, but the characters are paper dolls we dress to fit the society we have placed them in.

You can take your protagonist and place them in one of three kinds of settings: fantasy, sci-fi, or contemporary, and they would still be who they are. In any setting, there are certain commonalities with only minor literary differences.

Take a soldier as an example. They need garments, weapons, armor, and sustenance. Those are tailored to fit your genre—sci-fi, fantasy, or contemporary military thriller. But you can also use those things to offer visual clues about your protagonist’s personality.

Whether the weapon is a rifle, a sword, or a phaser is dependent on the level of technology you have established.

Logic and the established level of technology determines how each need is met. In the case of weapons, you’ll find many varieties of each within each category.

Which kind of hand-held weapon your protagonist will use is dependent on their skill level and physical strength as well as what is stocked in the armory.

When it comes to weaponry, if you are writing about them, you need to research them to know what is logically possible. Within each genre, one thread remains the same: strength and skill are determining factors when it comes to weapons.

A cutlass is an efficient blade, but is shorter than a claymore. Also, a one-handed blade allows the wielder to carry a shield. In terms of firearms, a pistol weighs less than a machine-gun but isn’t as effective.

As many of you know, I’m an avid gamer. One of my all-time favorite games is Square-Enix’s 1999 Final Fantasy VIII, made for the PlayStation. It was challenging and fun to play, with entertaining side quests. I loved the music and the deep storyline. The characters were compelling and believable.

The one element that seemed illogical was Squall’s weapon, the Gunblade. Nevertheless, other fans loved it. However, while logic isn’t a thing when it comes to anime RPG weapons (witness Cloud’s Buster Sword in Final Fantasy VII), it must be considered if we want believability in our written work.

When it comes to weapons, it’s important that you research what might be most useful to your characters. Consider their strength and skills. Don’t introduce an illogical element, no matter how much you like it.

Writers of fantasy and historical fiction should do some fact checking:

Nerds on Earth’s Clave Jones says: So what would have kept a woman from wielding a longsword throughout history? Honestly, the only thing that kept more women from using swords is that they rarely got the training. It wasn’t the weight, certainly. And it wasn’t the awkwardness of the swing as swords were designed to be well-balanced and agile. [1]

Sci-fi writers, I suggest that for advanced weaponry, you should do the research into proposed future applications of lasers, sonic, and other theoretically possible weapons. Sci-fi readers know their science, so if you don’t consider the realities of physics, your work won’t appeal to the people who read in that genre.

For soldiers of any technology level, from Roman to medieval, to contemporary, to futuristic—armor will always consist of the same components: breast and backplate, shin guards, vambraces, a helmet of some sort, and maybe a shield.

These elements won’t differ much in their use. However, the materials they’re made of will vary widely from technology to technology.

For the sake of expediency and logic, garments that go under the armor must be close-fitting.

Expediency affects logic, which affects need.

The same is true for any occupation your protagonist might have–bookkeeper, lawyer, home-maker–the visual surroundings changes from genre to genre, but the fundamental requirements for each occupation remain the same.

In every aspect of a world, expediency decides what must be mentioned and how important it is.

Beneath the obvious tropes of a particular literary genre is a human being. No matter what genre you are writing or the level of technology, their actions and reactions will be recognizable and relatable to the reader.

We’ve mentioned the soldier, so let’s look more closely at their requirements.

For instance, in a battle situation, food must be extremely compact, lightweight, and must provide nutrients the soldier needs.

Nutrition bars, jerky, whatever you choose, soldiers must eat, and battles don’t pause for dinner. Think about the battle rations, how much the soldier carries, and how she carries them. Weight and the amount of space rations take up are what limits the soldier’s supply on hand.

How do you fit a soldier’s battle rations into world-building? Casually, with one sentence, a few words. She unwrapped a ration bar and ate, ignoring the sawdust-like texture.

What basic things do you need in the real-world? You need food, water, clothing, and shelter, and a means of providing those things.

Concept art, Cloud Strife with Buster Sword

Characters need these things too, but they only come into existence at the time they are in use. Place the character in a room and call it a kitchen, and the reader will immediately imagine a kitchen. Mention the coffeemaker, and the reader’s mind will furnish the cups.

Need manifests in other, more subtle ways.

Do you require a way to communicate with others quickly? Messengers, letters, telephones, social media, or telepathy? Choose a method for long-distance communication that fits your technology and stick to it.

In world-building, how you fulfill the character’s needs shows the level of technology, the society they inhabit, and their standing within that culture.

This layer is easy to construct in many ways, but if you aren’t careful, it can be a stumbling block to the logic of your plot.


Credits and Attributions:

[1] The History Of Medieval Swords (And The Women Who Wielded Them) by Clave Jones, © 2016 Clave Jones for  Nerds on Earth (https://nerdsonearth.com/2016/02/women-and-swords/ accessed 08 July 2020).

Excalibur, Eduardo Otubo / CC BY (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0), Wikimedia Commons contributors, “File:London Film Museum (5094934492).jpg,” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:London_Film_Museum_(5094934492).jpg&oldid=273444520 (accessed July 7, 2020).

Squall Leonhart, Final Fantasy VIII, Square Enix ©1999 Fair Use

Cloud Strife, Final Fantasy VII, Square Enix  © 1997 Fair Use

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Plot, Politics, Religion, and the Science of Magic #worldbuilding #amwriting

It takes me about four years to take a novel from concept to completion, which is why I always have several works in progress at varying stages of development.

Much of that time is devoted to world-building, although for the first few drafts of writing, I don’t realize that is what I am doing.

The layers of plot, politics, religion, and magic/science must be interwoven with bits of history, and the images and odors of the physical environment. Together, these layers help create the setting of any world.

I began one of my current projects with an idea for a character. I knew what the ultimate end of this story is because it is a prequel and is already canon in the Tower of Bones series.

This is the plot, the core conflict: Politics and religion shape three cultures. Two of the societies are strong enough to absorb the third, and one of them will do just that.

In that regard, neither the protagonist nor the antagonist is on the high ground morally—both consider it their right to impose their rule on the weaker society.

The first hurdle arose in the area of world-building. Because it is the origin story, I had to devise a post-apocalyptic culture. Religion was the first layer I worked on.

In the time of the Tower of Bones series, the Temple of Aeos is a finely-tuned machine that serves to distribute food and medical care to the poor, provides education to everyone, provides military protection when needed, and maintains the roads that connect the communities.

The Temple’s primary function is to find mage-gifted children before their untrained gift wreaks havoc in their communities. Untrained mages have a high chance of becoming the tool of the Bull God, Tauron.

This is bad because Tauron is the Mad God, the one who demands excessive sacrifices, often human. The word sacrifice means to surrender something of value, and the Mad God’s reign over his people is twisted. His religion is a reflection of his madness.

Thus, the Goddess Aeos’s mages are sworn to serve and protect the people of Neveyah from the depredations of Tauron, no matter the personal cost.

In the current work-in-progress, the Temple, as an institution, doesn’t exist. It is born out of the struggle between the two larger-than-life characters and the events of this book.

Both characters believe their deity has the right to rule Neveyah, and both know the Barbarian Tribes are the key to winning. At times, the line between what is moral and immoral is blurred.

Just as in real life, both men and the societies they lead are fundamentally flawed.

Both the antagonist and protagonist in this novel will do whatever it takes to achieve their goals. However, of the two, only my protagonist is burdened with regrets for the choices he makes.

Every society, fantasy, sci-fi, or real-world, must have an overarching political structure—a government of some sort. Humans are tribal. We are comfortable when we have a hierarchy of decision-makers to guide the tribe.

The politics of any society are an invisible aspect of world-building that affects the story, even when not directly addressed. This is because our characters have a place within that structure.

When you know what that place is, you write their story accordingly. In writing fiction, if you know your characters’ social caste, you know if they are rich or poor, hungry or well-fed. This will shape them throughout the story.

We know that hunger drives conflict in our modern world, so a segment of society that lives on the edge of starvation will be swayed to the side of whoever offers food first. This is a key part of the plot for my work-in-progress.

Another aspect of world-building that was crucial at the start of this series was the choice to use magic rather than science as the primary technology.

First of all, let me get this out there: Science is not magic. It is logical, rooted in the realm of real theoretical physics. The writers of true science fiction know the difference between reality and fantasy.

However, magic should be believable. The science of magic is an underlying, invisible layer that is part of my world-building process. In my stories, magic is only possible if certain conditions have been met:

  • if the number of people who can use it is limited.
  • if the ways it can be used are limited.
  • if the majority of mages are limited to one or two kinds of magic and only certain mages can use every type of magic.
  • if there are strict, inviolable rules regarding what each kind of magic can do and the conditions under which it will work.
  • if there are some conditions under which the magic will not work.
  • if the damage it can do as a weapon or the healing it can perform is limited.
  • if the mage or healer pays a physical/emotional price for the use.
  • if the mage or healer pays a hefty price for abusing it.
  • if the learning curve is steep and sometimes lethal.

This layer of world-building is where writers of science and writers of magic come together.

  • Magic and the ability to wield it confers power.
  • Superior technology does the same.

This means the enemy must have access to equal or better Science/Magic. So, if the protagonist and their enemy are not from the same “school,” you now have two systems to design for that story.

Authors must create the rules of magic or the limits of science for both the protagonist and antagonist.

Take the time to write it out and be sure the logic has no hidden flaws.

In creating science technologies and magic systems, you are creating a hidden framework that will support and advance your plot. Within either science or magic, there can be an occasional exception to a rule, but there must be a good reason for it. It must be clear to the reader why that exception is acceptable.

Having said all that, the only time the reader needs to know these systems exist is at the moment it affects the characters and their actions.

The best background information comes out naturally in conversations or in other subtle ways. By not baldly dropping it on the reader in paragraph form, the knowledge becomes a normal part of the environment rather than an info dump.

Limitations are the key to a good character arc. Roadblocks to success force ordinary people to become more than they believe they are.

That is when an ordinary person becomes a hero.

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Plot and Theme #amwriting

The basic premise of any story I want to write can be explained by answering eight questions. Each answer is simply one or two lines, guideposts for when I draft the outline.

A plot idea I’ve used before as an example is an idea I’ve had rolling around for a while. I hope to write it as a novella (about 12,000 words) in November. This little tale features a pair of thieves-for-hire, set in an alternate renaissance reality.

  1. Who are the players? Pip and Scuttle. Two orphaned brothers who grew up on the streets of Venetta, a medieval city, but who have a strong moral code. When the story opens, they are adults. The pair has become what is known as “Discreet Thieves,” professional retrievers-for-hire who reunite their clients with their lost or stolen valuables.
  2. Who is the POV character? Scuttle, the older brother.
  3. Where does the story open? In a pawn shop.
  4. What does the protagonist have to say about their story? Scuttle swears they aren’t thieves. They are believers in God and the laws of the Church. They only retrieve items belonging to noble clients with impeccable reputations and do it with no fuss or drama.
  5. What is the inciting incident? A highly placed Cardinal has hired them to retrieve an item, neglecting to tell them:
  • It is equipped with a curse that affects all who would steal it from the rightful owner. (Haven’t figured out what the curse is yet.)
  • It didn’t belong to the Cardinal in the first place.
  • He intends to use it to depose the true Pope and become the ruler of both the Church and Venetta.
  1. At the midpoint, what do the protagonists want and what are they willing to do to get it? They will do anything to get the curse removed from themselves and prevent the evil Cardinal from using the object against the Good Pope.
  2. What hinders them? The Cardinal has kidnapped Mari, Scuttle’s wife, and holds her in his dungeon, forcing Scuttle to do his bidding.
  3. How does the story end? Not sure. Is there more than one way this could go? Yes. I list each possible ending as they occur to me.

At the beginning of the story, what does our protagonist want that causes them to risk everything to acquire it? How badly do they want it, and why? The answer to that question must be that they want whatever it is desperately.

Question number six is an important question to consider. What ethical dilemma will the protagonist be faced with in their attempt to overcome the odds and achieve their objective?

In this story, one hard moral choice I could write would be to have Scuttle pressured to become a spy for the Cardinal.

Or, he could be pressured to sell out Pip.

How would he respond to either of these situations? I could write both and choose the one that works best. If I do that, I’ll make a note of the divergent path on my outline.

The answer to question number seven is vitally important because the story hinges on how the protagonist overcomes adversity. What hinders them? Is there an antagonist? If so, who are they, and why are they the villain of the piece?

“There has to be evil so that good can prove its purity above it.” The Buddha said it, but it’s a fundamental truth we writers of genre fantasy must consider when devising plots. J.R.R. Tolkien understood this need for a hero quite clearly.

Answering question eight is crucial if I want to have a complete novel with a beginning, middle, and end.

Endings are hard and complicated to write because I can see so many different outcomes. I write as many endings as I need to and save them in separate files.

Sometimes, even if we have plotted in advance, we can’t identify the central theme of the story. Theme is what the story is about on a deeper level than what is seen on the surface. It’s the big meaning, a thread that is woven through the entire story, and sometimes it is an unstated moral for the reader to infer.

Many final objectives don’t concern issues of morality. However, if you are writing genre fiction, achieving all final objectives should have consequences and should involve a struggle.

Regardless of the theme, the struggle must be personal. Why would Frodo and Sam go to the depths of Mordor and suffer the hardships they endured in their effort to destroy the One Ring and negate the power of Sauron?

Frodo and Sam saved the world because it was the only way to save The Shire and the people they loved from Sauron, who was the embodiment of evil.

No matter how careful I am when building my outline, there is always a point where I am writing by the seat of my pants. I am usually a linear plotter, but things come along that change the direction a tale goes in.

This is where making use of scene breaks can be your friend. In the NaNoWriMo manuscript, I simply head that section (in bolded font) with the words Possible Ending 1 or 2, or however many endings I have come up with.

No matter if you are writing a NaNoWriMo novel or not, your finished novel will look vastly different from the block of stone you carved it from. Yet, it will be the core of the stone, the hidden story that was waiting for you to bring it to light.

Many times, I find myself re-evaluating a nearly complete manuscript because the story isn’t working. I go back and ask myself the same eight questions. If the story has gone in a new direction by midpoint, a different roadmap to the final scene can help you keep things logical.

However, a plot is just the frame upon which the themes of a story are supported. Knowing the main theme at the outset makes writing the first draft much easier.

When your writing mind has temporarily lost its momentum, and you are stretching the boundaries of common sense, it’s time to stop and consider the central themes. It helps to remind myself of the elements that really drive a plot.

Subthemes help keep the story interesting. The image at the bottom of this post is a visual tool, a circular list of themes and subthemes that I made a few years ago.

It’s a picture that you can save (right click>save as>png or jpeg) print out and tape to your desk. Whenever you have lost your way, rather than resort to a sudden influx of something far-fetched, feel free to refer back to this picture and see if a better idea presents itself.

Hopefully, you won’t have to resort to killing anyone you might need later.

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Emotion: it’s complicated, part 2 #amwriting

 

Authors are regularly admonished to “show-don’t-tell.” Let’s ignore the know-it-all bludgeoning you with that rule for the moment, because nothing is worse than an unbalanced narrative.

If you have no idea how to begin showing the underlying emotions of your characters, a useful handbook that offers a jumping-off point is The Emotion Thesaurus by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi.

This book is quite affordable and is full of hints that you can use to give depth to your characters. They will offer nine or ten suggestions that are physical indications for each of a wide range of surface emotions.

Do your readers a favor. Choose only one physical indicator per emotion per scene.

Showing must be balanced with some telling, or it becomes all about eye-rolling and forehead creasing. Showing mixed with telling makes for a smoother narrative.

Some telling can be done in conversations, through internal thoughts, and the observations of others in a scene.

Writing emotions is a balancing act. Most times, you can get away without dragging the reader through five or six small facial changes in a scene, simply by giving their internal reactions a little thought.

If you only show the outward physical indicators of a particular emotion, you only wrote half the story.

When something “strikes home” with us, it happens on a visceral (physical) level. In other words, emotions that hit us hard evoke sudden feelings deep within our guts as well as in our hearts and minds.

Yes, these feelings can be reflected in our expressions. However, facial contortions alone don’t show what is going on inside the character.

Visceral reactions are involuntary.

We can’t stop our face from flushing or our heart from pounding.

We might be able to hide our reactions from others, but we can’t stop how these emotions feel.

This internal physical gut reaction is difficult to convey without offering the reader some information, a framework to hang the image on. You must tell the reader the character’s face went hot, or their stomach knotted up.

One way to create a sympathetic response in the reader is to use a simple 1 – 2 – 3  trick of word order when describing the character’s experience.

  1. Start with the visceral response. How does a “gut reaction” feel? Nausea, gut punch, butterflies—what?
  2. Follow up with a ‘thought’ response. “Oh my god!” That is how it hits us, right? Gut punch then mental reaction as we process the event.
  3. Third, finish up with body language.

Severe emotional shock strikes us physically with a three-way punch:

  • disbelief—the OMG moment
  • knocking knees, shaking hands, or a shout of “No!”
  • disassociation—a coping or defense mechanism meant to minimize or help a person tolerate stress.

When we write mild reactions, it’s not necessary to offer a lot of emotional description because ‘mild’ is boring. A raised eyebrow, a sideways glance—small gestures show the attitude and normal condition of the character.

However, strong emotions are compelling. Highly charged situations are strengthened by the way we write the emotional experience.

If you want to emphasize a particular chemistry between two characters, good or bad, employing their visceral reactions is the way to do so.

Most authors who have been in writing groups for any length of time become adept at writing emotions on a surface level.

They don’t merely write, “He smiled.” Their characters’ facial expressions are an ever-moving display of lips curving up or pulling down beneath twinkling, hard-eyed glares. Eyebrows raise or draw together, foreheads crease, shoulders slump and hands tremble, dimples pop, eyes spark—and so on and so on.

Taken individually and combined with other clues, some description is necessary.

However, nothing is more aggravating than trying to enjoy a narrative where facial expressions and body slumping take center stage.

This is why I feel as concerned with what is happening to my characters internally as I do about describing the outward display.

Combining the surface of the emotion (physical) with the deeper aspect of the emotion (internal) requires thought. We struggle to balance showing the external with telling the internal so that the reader isn’t baldly told what to experience.

We write it, and sweat over it, searching for the right words to show what we intend. Many times, we come back later and rewrite it.

By using this twofold approach of mixing showing with telling, we hope the reader will become immersed in the lives of our characters.

Some emotions are complicated and deeply personal, difficult to show, and even more challenging to express internally. These are the gut-wrenching moments that make our work speak to the reader.

Each of us experiences emotional highs and lows in our daily lives. We have deep-rooted, personal reasons for our emotions, and so must our protagonist.

Writing genuine emotions requires practice and thought. Motivation is critical.

WHY does the character react in that way? Emotions without cause have no basis for existence, no foundation. They lack credibility and leave us, the reader, feeling as if the story is shallow, a lot of noise about nothing.

Timing and pacing are essential.

The emotion hits and the character is processing it.

That is the moment to slip in a brief mention of the backstory. That way, you avoid an info dump, but the reader can extrapolate the information needed to make the emotion real.

Simplicity has impact. When looking for words with visceral and emotional power, consonants are your friend. Verbs that begin with consonants are powerful.

Use forceful words, and you won’t have to resort to a great deal of description. Weak word choices separate the reader from the experience, dulling the emotional impact of what could be an intense scene.

A good exercise for writing deep emotions is to create character sketches for people you currently have no story for. Just as in all the many other skills necessary to the craft of writing a balanced narrative, practice is required.

The key is to practice writing emotions, and you may find a later use for these practice characters. The more we practice this aspect of the craft, the better we get at it.

And the more we write, the more individual and recognizable our writing-voice becomes.


Credits and Attributions:

Sir Galahad, by Herbert Gustave Schmalz, 1881 via Wikimedia Commons contributors, “File:Schmalz galahad.jpg,” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:Schmalz_galahad.jpg&oldid=363278568 (accessed June 23, 2020).

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Emotion: it’s complicated #amwriting

When we discuss our work with other writers, the word mood is sometimes used interchangeably with atmosphere. I see those two aspects of story as conjoined twins, marching along together. They are separate but intertwined so closely that they seem as one.

Mood happens in the background over the length of the story. Mood allows the emotions the writer instills into the story to be more specific, more intensely colored.

Atmosphere is also long-term but is part of worldbuilding. Atmosphere is conveyed by setting, which affects the overall mood of a piece.

Together, atmosphere and mood have the power to intensify the reader’s impression of the emotions experienced by the characters.

Emotion is immediate, short term. It exists in the foreground but works best when in conjunction with the overall atmosphere/mood.

Robert McKee, one of my favorite teachers on craft, tells us that “emotion is the experience of transition, of the characters moving between a positive and negative.”

As we read, we become invested in the characters and experience their emotional highs and lows. These transitions range in intensity from subtle to forceful.  I like books where emotions are dynamic, but where the character’s internal struggle becomes personal to me.

Despite being comprised of only four letters, mood is a vast word serving several purposes. It is created by the setting (atmosphere), by the exchanges of dialogue (conversation), and the tone of the narrative (word choices, descriptions). It is also affected by (and refers to) the emotional state of the characters—their personal mood.

Emotions that are undermotivated lack credibility and leave us, the reader, feeling as if the story is flat. We have deep, personal reasons for our passions and hates, and so must our characters.

Thus, emotions drive the characters’ actions and create a sense of urgency. If we don’t feel some emotional intensity connected to the deeds and actions taken by our protagonists, we don’t care about them.

In Martha Grimes’ book, The Knowledge, a man, wearing a bright red scarf, steps out of a taxi in front of a nightclub. He has barely left the vehicle when he shoots and kills a couple who are waiting to get in. This is an apparently random act. Why?

Martha Grimes shows us this scene through the taxi driver’s eyes. We experience it in his shocked disbelief and horror.

Then, making no effort to disguise himself, the shooter gets back in the cab and forces the driver (at gunpoint) to take him to Waterloo Station.

All during the ride, we feel the driver’s terror, applaud his resourcefulness, and hope like hell he won’t be murdered.

In a stunning, baffling end to that scene, the man pays the driver, gives him a large tip, and disappears into the crowd at Waterloo and walks straight to the parking lot.

The assassin then gets into a Porsche and drives to Heathrow, where he casually boards a plane to Dubai. Before takeoff, he unwittingly helps an underage detective who is following him become a stowaway on the flight.

What? Why?

I need to know why, and I need to know right now! This story is compelling because it is about emotions as much as it is about the action.

Which is more important, mood or emotion?

Both and neither.

The emotions our characters experience have an effect on the overall mood and atmosphere of a story.

In turn, as I showed in my post, Mood and Atmosphere: Where Inference meets Interpretation, the atmosphere of a particular environment has a significant effect on the characters’ personal mood.

Just as in real life, the individual moods of our characters collectively affect the emotional state of the group.

We know that emotion is the experience of transition from the negative to the positive and back again. Experiencing intense emotion should change a character’s values. Characters should have an arc to their lives, over which they either grow or regress.

This is part of the inferential layer as the audience must infer (or deduce) the experience. Our task is to make the emotions real, but not maudlin.

You can’t tell a reader how to feel. Readers must experience what the character feels and understand their reasons and motives on a human level.

What is mood? Wikipedia says:

In literature, mood is the atmosphere of the narrative. Mood is created through the setting (locale and surroundings in which the narrative takes place), the attitude (of the narrator and of the characters in the narrative), and the descriptions.

Although atmosphere and setting are connected, they may be considered separately to a degree. Atmosphere is the aura of mood that surrounds the story. It is to fiction what the sensory level is to poetry. Mood is established to affect the reader emotionally and psychologically and to provide a feeling for the narrative.

In other words, the setting can contribute to the atmosphere. However, setting is only a place. Setting is context, not atmosphere.

How is atmosphere separate from setting? It’s part of the world, the environment, right? It’s just worldbuilding.

Yes and no. Atmosphere is associated with the environment but is a created ambiance, written to evoke a specific frame of mind or emotion in the reader.

Atmosphere is created of layers and applied to the setting. It is comprised of the odors, ambient sounds, and visuals you write into the environment. It is influenced by how you write the characters’ moods and emotions as they move through the setting.

Atmosphere is environmental, separate but connected to the general emotional mood of a piece.

From the first line of the first paragraph of a story, we want to establish the feeling of atmosphere, the general mood that will hint at what is to come.

Robert McKee tells us that the mood/dynamic of any story is there to make the emotional experience of our characters specific. Happy, sad, neutral—the overall environmental mood is no substitute for the characters’ emotions. However, the two, overall mood and emotion, must work together to draw the reader in.

This inferential layer of any story is the place where we have connected the dots and drawn an outline that shows what our story is.

Filling the outline of the story with color requires thought on our part. Emotions are the colors we use to show a picture.

In my next post we’ll discuss the tricky dance of show and tell—the art of conveying specific emotions without bludgeoning the reader with them.


Credits and Attributions:

Much of my information comes from watching seminar-videos on the craft of writing found on YouTube and posted by Robert McKee. He is an excellent teacher, and YouTube University is a free resource for the struggling author. His book,  “Story” by Robert McKee, is a core textbook of my personal library. Robert McKee on YouTube

Wikipedia contributors, “Mood (literature),” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Mood_(literature)&oldid=895686542 (accessed July 7, 2019).

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Choosing Words to add Depth #amwriting

Words with few alternatives become problems for me, as in certain circumstances, they can become repetitive. Sometimes, the thesaurus that comes with my word-processing program doesn’t offer me enough substitutes to make a good choice.

For that reason, I have both the Oxford Dictionary of Synonyms and Antonyms and Oxford American Writers’ Thesaurus near to hand. When I find myself searching for an alternative word, I refer to these books.

I find it saves time to refer to the hard copy book rather than the internet. However, that is a perfectly reasonable cost-free alternative. Having good reference books at hand keeps my attention on my work, rather than surfing the net.

We all use the same words to tell the same stories.

Why do I say such a terrible thing? It’s true—there only a few basic plots from which all stories are derived, and we have only so many words in the English language with which to tell them.

Ian Chadwick offers us this observation in his article, Three, six, seven, nine… how many basic plots?

 Last summer, a story in The Atlantic told of university researchers who used software to parse through 2,000 works of literature to determine there are six basic plots:

  1. Rags to Riches (rise)
  2. Riches to Rags (fall)
  3. Man in a Hole (fall then rise)
  4. Icarus (rise then fall)
  5. Cinderella (rise then fall then rise)
  6. Oedipus (fall then rise then fall)

Which is one less than Christopher Booker lists in his lengthy 2004 book, The Seven Basic Plots:

  1. Overcoming the Monster
  2. Rags to Riches
  3. The Quest
  4. Voyage and Return
  5. Comedy
  6. Tragedy
  7. Rebirth

Around the end of his book, Booker actually lists two more plots which are, historically speaking, not as common (by his assessment, they are late additions to our literary canon, although I think that could be argued against), so he discounts them as less important:

Rebellion Against ‘The One’

Mystery

So, yes, we are all telling the same stories, and we all must use words with the same meanings, but we sound different on the page.

Why is this?

The way we habitually write prose is our unique voice. The words I use might mean the same as those you use, but I might choose a different form of it.

Take the word loud:

  • Noisy
  • Boisterous
  • Deafening
  • Raucous
  • Lurid
  • Flamboyant
  • Ostentatious
  • Thunderous
  • Strident
  • Vulgar
  • Loudmouthed

These are only a few of the many options we have – www.PowerThesaurus.com  lists 1,992 alternatives for the word loud.

When we write, we are building a specific image for our readers. We select words intentionally for their nuances. We want to convey our idea of the mood and atmosphere as well as the information. What ambiance does the setting convey, and how can our word choices add depth to that feeling?

Thunderous conveys more power than loud, even though they mean the same thing in the context of sound.

Lurid conveys more power than loud, and in the context of color, they mean the same thing.

Don’t get too creative, though. Do your readers a favor and use words that are common enough that most people won’t need a dictionary to understand the narrative.

Would you choose the word obstreperous or the more common form, argumentative? They mean the same thing, but both begin with a vowel and feel passive. Hostile, confrontational, surly—many common words convey different shades of the meaning in a more straightforward, more powerful way.

This is not to say that less commonly used words should be ignored. Your prose should never be “dumbed-down.”

The point is, don’t use words that my Texan editor refers to as “ten-dollar words.” A ten-dollar word is a long obscure word used in place of one that is smaller and more well-known.

The origin of ten-dollar words dates back to the early 19th century when writers and speakers would use pretentious words to seem smarter than the average person. This obnoxious habit turns potential readers away, as no one likes to be talked down to.

When it comes to word selection, consider the image you want to convey as if you were an artist. Make an effort to find the right words to show the story.

Words are the paint you will use to draw the picture for the reader. Plot, no matter how well constructed, is only a framework for the story.

As a reader progresses through a narrative, their imaginations supply images about the people and the events. The real story happens inside the reader’s head.

The reader’s experience is made richer or poorer by the words you choose.

If you build your story out of words that evoke powerful images, they will get to know the characters, feel as if they live in that world, and absorb the events more quickly.

They will be compelled to keep turning the page.

As a reader, I live for those books written by authors who aren’t afraid to choose their words.


Credits and Attributions:

Three, six, seven, nine… how many basic plots? by Ian Chadwick © 2017 Scripturient. http://ianchadwick.com/blog/three-six-seven-nine-how-many-basic-plots/ (accessed 16 June 2020).

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Mood and Atmosphere: Where Inference meets Interpretation #amwriting

Mood and atmosphere exist in the inferential layer of the story. They are two separate but entwined forces that form subliminal impressions in the awareness of the reader. Where you find atmosphere in the setting, you also find mood in the characters.

What is the interpretive aspect of this layer? The author’s job is to deploy inference in such a way that the reader can interpret their intention. That is, they can effortlessly understand where the author was going with that thought.

The aspects we call mood and atmosphere are created by inference, a word-picture that is shown rather than bluntly stated. Writers infer, readers interpret.

Books have two authors. The first author is obviously the writer.

The second author is intangible, a ghost, and doesn’t influence the story until after it is published. It is the intended reader whose imagination will recreate the story as they read the words on the page.

How a reader feels the emotion and absorbs the atmosphere is the interpretive layer.

Emotion is a constant force in our lives. On the page, it must be truthful, or it becomes maudlin. A character’s mood is an emotional backdrop that begins with their experiences. It encompasses the reader as they immerse themselves in a story.

The way emotional inference is conveyed on the page determines the success or failure of the author’s intention.

Let’s explore one of the all-time masterpieces of atmosphere and mood: Wuthering Heights, the 1847 gothic novel by Emily Brontë.

The word Gothic in a novel’s description immediately tells us we are looking at a dark, moody piece set in a stark, desolate environment, and it will include some supernatural elements. In classic Gothic novels, these elements are circumstantial and often later proven to be figments of the protagonist’s mind.

Also, the word Gothic in a novel description means a story will be fraught with emotion and intensity, and take place in a dark, forbidding setting.

The general mood is heavily influenced by other aspects of the narrative: setting, theme, ambiance, and phrasing. These form the inferential layer.

A reader’s perception of a setting’s atmosphere is affected by a character’s emotions. Emotion, as written on the page, is the character’s experience of transitioning from the negative to the positive and back again.  As the characters’ emotions change from high to low throughout the story, the overall mood is influenced.

This is because the reader has suffered through emotions in real life and can easily recognize and relate to a character’s experience.

Consequently, for the atmosphere and mood of a setting to affect the reader’s interpretation of a story, the author must convey a sense of familiarity to a place the reader has never been.

“Familiar” does not mean safe or comforting. It means the elements of the environment are recognizable on a subliminal level, something the reader can understand without having experienced it, or being bluntly told.

In this layer, visual objects in a room or an outdoor space color the atmosphere and affect the characters’ moods. Gothic atmosphere has a winter feel to it even in summer.

Barren landscapes and low windswept hills feel gothic to me.

The atmosphere/mood dynamic of any narrative is there to make the emotional experience of the story specific. The atmosphere of a setting is not a substitute for emotions that an author can’t figure out how to write.

However, creating the right atmosphere leads to shaping the characters’ overall mood, and the right mood can help you articulate the specific emotions.

In Wuthering Heights, the atmosphere contributes to and magnifies certain characters’ obsessions. It lays bare hate, selfishness, and revenge. These elements are demonstrated in the course of exploring the destructive power of obsession and fixated, unchanging love.

The Gothic aspects of Wuthering Heights expose how upper-class Victorians benefitted from and perpetuated gender inequality within their society.

Environmental symbols are subliminal landmarks for the reader. In Wuthering Heights, the landscape is comprised primarily of moors. These desolate places are wild and starkly beautiful. They are vast expanses, which although high in elevation, are dangerously boggy. These moorlands are often made of peat, a high-carbon-content muck composed of decomposing vegetation.

About Dartmoor, via Wikipedia:

Much more rain falls on Dartmoor than in the surrounding lowlands. As much of the national park is covered in thick layers of peat (decaying vegetation), the rain is usually absorbed quickly and distributed slowly, so the moor is rarely dry. In areas where water accumulates, dangerous bogs or mires can result. Some of these, topped with bright green moss, are known to locals as “feather beds” or “quakers” because they can shift (or ‘quake’) beneath a person’s feet. Quakers result from sphagnum moss growing over the water that accumulates in the hollows in the granite. [1]

Historically, we find many accounts of people drowning in bogs. Moorlands, as a setting for a novel, present a recognizable danger. People and animals are known to stumble into waterlogged places and drown. Becoming lost and drowning is a possibility that is raised several times throughout the novel.

Thus, the environment of the moors sets the mood by raising the specter of murderous, untamed nature. Setting the story in that environment immediately implies infertility and death.

Another aspect of this setting that contributes to the atmosphere is graphic: Moorland is visually the same wherever you look, so the lack of visible landmarks makes it easy to lose your way. In this novel, the setting conveys a powerful emotion: the fear of being both lost and trapped.

Most of the action occurs at Wuthering Heights, which is the manor from which the novel takes its name. The neighboring house, where other scenes are set, is Thrushcross Grange. They are neighbors, but a vast stretch of moorland lies between the two houses. These houses are far from neighboring towns, in their words, “far from the stir of society.” Distance emphasizes the loneliness of the setting.

Thinking about and planning symbolism in an environment is key to developing the general atmosphere and affecting the mood. Brontë made each house symbolic of its inhabitants.

Those who reside at Wuthering Heights tend to be intense, wild, and passionate—untamed like the moorlands.

Conversely, the characters living at Thrushcross Grange are closer to town, and are passive, civilized, and calm.

That underlying threat of danger in the environment affects the mood and emotions of the characters. It affects the overall atmosphere of the novel.

Thus, before we are even introduced to the characters’ motives or the plot, we find that the mood/atmosphere of Wuthering Heights is dark and gothic.

And so, to wind this up, atmosphere and mood are intertwined. They are fundamental aspects of the inferential and interpretive layers of the story and getting them right takes a bit of work.

But making the effort can result in a novel that is deep and well worth reading.


Credits and Attributions:

[1] Wikipedia contributors, “Dartmoor,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Dartmoor&oldid=959755158 (accessed June 14, 2020).

Moorland Landscape with Rainstorm by George Lambert. Wikimedia Commons contributors, “File:George Lambert – Moorland Landscape with Rainstorm (1751).jpg,” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository,https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:George_Lambert_-_Moorland_Landscape_with_Rainstorm_(1751).jpg&oldid=234912081 (accessed July 16, 2019).

Wikimedia Commons contributors, “File:An architectural capriccio with figures amongst ruins under a stormy night sky, oil on canvas painting by Leonardo Coccorante.jpg,” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:An_architectural_capriccio_with_figures_amongst_ruins_under_a_stormy_night_sky,_oil_on_canvas_painting_by_Leonardo_Coccorante.jpg&oldid=291488853 (accessed May 19, 2019).

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The literal layer #amwriting

McLane Pond, taken in July 2018

Stories are created from countless layers. Today we are looking at the many outwardly visible aspects of a story. These are the surface features that define not only genre but which either attract or repel a reader at first glance.

If you’ve ever seen a pond on a calm day, you may have noticed the sky and any overhanging trees reflected on the still surface. The picture I’ve included at the top here is one my husband and I took while walking the McLane Nature Trail, not far from our home. We took it in July of 2018.

If you were there on a stormy day, things were different. The waters were gray, reflecting the color of the clouds. Ripples and waves stirred the waters.

The surface of a story is the Literal Layer, the what-you-see-is-what-you-get layer.

In a story, events and the way our characters move through them stir the surface, creating the image our reader sees.

This surface is comprised of

  • Setting
  • Action and Interaction
  • All visual/physical experiences of the characters as they go about their lives.

When we look at the surface, we immediately see something recognizable.

Setting and props – things such as:

  1. Objects the characters see in their immediate situation
  2. Ambient sounds that form the background
  3. Odors/scents of the immediate environment
  4. Objects the characters interact with
  5. Weapons (swords, guns, phasers)

The mechanical order of events forms the structure of the literal layer because they appear to be the story. This framework is the easel on which the setting and props are displayed:

  1. The opening.
  2. The inciting incident.
  3. Rising action and events that evolve from the inciting incident.
  4. The introduction of new characters.
  5. The action that occurs between the protagonist and antagonist as they jockey for position.
  6. The final showdown

How do we shape this literal layer to entice the casual reader? We can add tropes common to a particular genre. Sci-fi or fantasy elements offer an immediate clue to a prospective buyer.

Many sci-fi and some fantasy novels are set in close-to-real-world environments. The settings are familiar, akin to what we know. As readers, we could be in that world.

Good world-building creates a literal layer that is immediately accepted by the reader.

Sentinel, 05 August 2019

An obvious point I still want to make, is that the literal layer is also comprised of word combinations and word choices. This aspect distinguishes the level at which the intended reader will be able to comprehend and enjoy.

I prefer the prose in my casual reading material to be suitable for the average adult, not too pretentious, and not dumbed down. I seek that happy medium when I peruse the paperbacks or use the “Look Inside” option for eBooks at the big store in the sky.

What we put into the surface layer of our story draws the reader to look more closely at the depths. Setting, action, interaction—these most obvious components should give the reader a hint that there are profound aspects of the story, more than what-you-see-is-what-you-get.

While the surface elements of the story ruffle the surface and stir things up on the literal layer, they are only a glimpse of the deeper waters.

A memorable story has soul and hidden depths. It makes you think about larger issues you might not have considered before.

Plot charts the twists and turns of events, but depth opens our eyes, enabling us to see how other people think, feel, and experience life.

Depth changes observers into participants.

Prose and how we choose words to express emotion and ideas most powerfully is the medium by which we convey depth.

Writing to formal constraints, as I’ve discussed in several previous posts, forces us to find words that drill down and say what we really mean. By using the dictionary of synonyms and antonyms, we can find ways to write concise prose that isn’t repetitive, isn’t longwinded, but still has a cadence to it that is our voice, our style.

Have you read the opening page of The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss yet? That is your homework.

Go to the eBook section of the library or go to the online store of your choice and use the “look inside” option or the “download sample” option. You don’t have to do more than read the first paragraphs to complete this task.

Use one of the above cost-free methods to see how a master wordsmith uses prose to stir the surface in the opening pages of a fantasy novel.

With that ruffling of the waters in the first paragraphs, you are given a glimpse into the depths that lurk below.


Credits and Attributions:

Photograph, McLain Pond in July, © 2018 by Connie J. Jasperson, from the author’s private photos.

Sentinel, 05 August 2019 (One of the Needles, Cannon Beach) © 2019 by Connie J. Jasperson, All Rights Reserved (author’s own work).

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The Drabble #amwriting

Right now, we have a lot of opportunities to sell our extremely short stories. Many online publications are looking for drabbles (100-word stories) and flash fictions under 750 words.

These editors are looking for new, unpublished work, so get out your pens and start writing.

You might ask why you would want to write something that short, and I do see your point. But if not having the time to sit down and write a novel is holding you back from writing, you have another option: extremely short fiction.

When you force yourself to create within strict wordcount limits, you increase your ability to tell a story with minimal exposition. We grow in the craft and gain different perspectives when we write short stories and essays.

This is especially true if you practice writing drabbles. Trying to tell a story in 100 words or less teaches you several skills.

  • You are forced to develop economy of words.
  • You begin to see what the core plot elements of a story might be.

When you have a backlog of short stories, you also have a vault full of ready-made characters and premade settings to draw on.

I hear you saying that any investment of time is difficult if it takes you away from your longer works. It’s hard to not feel jealous of the scant time we have for that.

Look at this as a muscle-building routine. Writing a 100-word story takes far less time than writing a 2,000 word short fiction, or a 70,000-word novel.

Something you should consider: you are more likely to sell a drabble than a short story, and more likely to sell a short story than a novel.

Just saying.

Writing a drabble is like any other form of writing. You should expect to spend an hour or so writing and then editing it to fit within the 100-word constraint.

A 100-word story has the same basic components as a longer story:

  1. A setting.
  2. 1 or 2 characters.
  3. A conflict.
  4. A resolution.
  5. No subplots are introduced.
  6. Minimal background is introduced.
  7. Every sentence propels the story to the conclusion.

First, we need a prompt, a jumping-off point. Some contests give whole sentences for prompts, others offer one word, and still others no prompt at all.

A prompt is a word or visual image that kickstarts the story in your head. The prompt for the following drabble was sunset.

I break short stories into acts by taking the number of words I plan to fit the story into and dividing it into 3 sections.

A drabble works the same way. We break it down to make the story arc work for us.

For a drabble, we have about 25 words to open the story and set the scene, about 50 – 60 for the heart of the story, and 10 – 25 words to conclude it.

For this drabble, I used:

24 Words (opening): We sat on the beach near the fire, two old people bundled against the cold Oregon sunset. Friends we’d never met fished the surf.

51 words (middle and crisis): Wind whipped my hair, gray and uncut, tore it from its inept braid. The August wind was chill inside my hood, but I remained, pleased to be with you, and pleased to be on that beach.

Mist rose with the tide, closed in and enfolded us, blotting out the falling stars.

25 Words (conclusion): Laughing at our folly, we dragged our weary selves back to our digs, rented, but with everything this old girl needed—love, laughter, and you.

The above drabble is a 100-word romance, one I have used here before. It has a beginning, a middle, and an end. The opening shows our protagonist on the beach with someone for whom she cares deeply.

The conflict in this tale is the weather. Wind and blowing mist make it too cold for our protagonist to stay on the beach and forces her indoors.

The resolution is a romantic evening spent in front of the fireplace.

Drabbles contain the ideas and thoughts that can easily become longer works, such as this drabble did in my poem, Oregon Sunset.

I think of drabbles as the distilled essences of novels. In 100 words, they offer everything the reader needs to know. A good drabble makes the reader ponder what might have happened next.

In this way, writing drabbles teaches us how to write a good hook. Knowing how to write a great hook is critical. The first paragraphs of our longer works must intrigue the reader or they will set it aside.

Write your story ideas in the form of drabbles and flash fictions. Save them for later use as they could hold the seeds of a longer work.

Save the drabble/flash fiction for submission to a publication or contest, as it won’t spoil whatever novel you think it might grow into.

When you can’t write on the project you’ve given your soul to, it’s time to take a break. The act of writing random ideas and emotions down is a kind of vacation from your other work. It rests your mind and clears things so you can return to your main project with all your attention.

Whether you choose to submit a drabble or hang on to it doesn’t matter. The idea is written down and accessible for when you need a new project.

In that regard, drabbles are the literary equivalent of dried beans and rice. They are resources we can set aside for a rainy day.

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