Tag Archives: writing craft

Characterization #amwriting

The stories that interest me most have a strong character arc.  The protagonist begins as one sort of person, and through the events they experience, they are transformed. Often they change for the better, but sometimes the change is for the worse.

Each time I open a new book, I want to meet a circle new of friends, each of whom is distinguishable from the other characters. Every one of them must be a unique person with a distinctive thought process. What choices will they make, and how will those decisions affect their life?

Consequences are key to the forward momentum of the plot.

I have used the word consequences before when talking about the choices our protagonist must make. I use that word intentionally. If there are no consequences for bad decisions, what is the story about?

Equally, I want the side-characters and antagonist to be just as singular with their reactions and choices as the protagonist is.

A bit of unpredictability to a character’s nature keeps them interesting. They have an air of mystery—how will they react in a given situation? It must be slightly random, but please, keep it real and in character.

In other peoples’ work, I particularly notice when a protagonist or side-kick’s gut reaction causes them to act out-of-character for the person they have been portrayed as, up to that point. Am I able to see it in my own? I hope so.

Even in a fantasy setting, all the characters must be believable. If the author introduces an elf to me, I want to believe in that elf. I want to see him/her as if they are real throughout the entire story. I want to be invested in them for their entire arc, and I want to care what happens to them.

The motivations are crucial. What drives them and what will they do to achieve their goal. Just as importantly, what will they NOT do? What is out of character for them?

The obstacles your characters face and the choices they make in those situations are the story. Giving your characters an active role and allowing them agency is what drives a great, absorbing story. Agency is the power of an individual to act independently. When we give the protagonist/antagonist agency, we allow them to make their own free choices.

When I am first writing any story, giving my characters agency is difficult to do. This is because, 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.

At some point in every great novel, the protagonists may lose their faith or have a crisis of conscience. In the second draft, I see this moment as an opportunity to learn who they really are as individuals. The events leading to that point break the character, knocking them down to their lowest emotional state. How do they react? What keeps them pushing on in the face of such despair?

At times, I have a character I simply can’t figure out. I do a character study, and in that short document, one of the questions I ask myself is “What personal revelations come out about them?” Also, I ask, “What does he discover about himself?”

When those questions are answered, I look at the final event, the situation that ends the story. 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 that character, or was there a blurring of personalities, making the group all sound and look alike?

Most importantly, those people must have understandable motivations. We can’t be too obscure in trying to keep the air of mystery because if a reader can’t follow our protagonist’s reasoning, we haven’t done our job.

It’s part of the balancing act—creating intrigue yet making it believable. As I have said many times, this is a gig where I never stop learning and trying to grow in the craft. Reading is the key. Every story that leaves a mark on my heart has unique, individual characters that I can relate to. Even if I don’t like them, their motivations make sense because they are in line with how that character would think.

If I can visualize my characters as real people that I know and believe in, hopefully my readers will believe in them too.

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The Apostrophe #amwriting

Today we’re looking at the sometimes confusing apostrophe. It has many uses, but I will only delve into the most common ways we use it in creative writing today.

In creative writing, the apostrophe is a small morsel of punctuation that, on the surface, seems simple. However, certain common applications can be confusing, so as we get to those I will try to be as concise and clear as possible.

First up, we all know that we use the apostrophe to denote possession:

  • This is George’s cat. (George owns this cat.)
  • This is Jorgensen’s cat. (A person who is going by the surname of Jorgensen owns the cat.)

Where this gets a little tricky is in the possessive form of a surname when it refers to the whole family. In this case, you insert a grammatical article (the) and make the name plural, and then add the apostrophe:

  • This is the Jorgensens’ cat. (The Jorgensen family owns the cat.)

If the Jorgensen family have a sign made for their front porch, they would have it made to read “The Jorgensens’ Home” (not “The Jorgensen’s Home,” as that would imply that only one Jorgensen lives there, and his legal name is “The Jorgensen.”)

When two or more people (or other entities such as businesses) are described as separately owning something, each name should be in the possessive form:

  • “Ralph’s and Janet’s cars are the same model.”

However, if Ralph and Janet share possession, include an apostrophe and an s after the last name only:

  • “Ralph and Janet’s car is a Prius.”

In some cases, we need to use plurals of abbreviations. In a military thriller, you might need to say, “They disarmed several IEDs.” (We would not use an apostrophe: IED’s.)

Writing a year numerically has been an area of confusion for me. This is because I rarely have had to write years in this way until recently and the use of an apostrophe for this is now considered outdated. However, this is how they should be written:

  • The tavern culture of the 1600s was flourishing. (1600’s would not be considered incorrect, just old fashioned.)
  • Dresses in the 1960s were shorter than in previous years.

An apostrophe should follow a number only if it is possessive.

  • It was 1985’s worst storm. (Some editors feel this is awkward, but I let it stand when I see it in a manuscript.)

Numbers are frequently written numerically when writing books for middle grade and YA readers, as these stories often center around schools and sports.

A single digit, such as 7, is made plural with the addition of an s: 7s

Insert an apostrophe to denote possession when you must use a number to stand in for a person in an article, such as when an athlete is identified by a uniform number:

  • Number 8’s tackle won the day.

Contractions can be confusing. Two words made into one word are joined by an apostrophe:

  • Do not = don’t
  • We are = we’re
  • You are = you’re
  • They are = they’re

And so on. A list of contractions to watch for can be found at the fount of all knowledge, Wikipedia: Wikipedia: List of English contractions

Conjunctions also can be tricky.  Simply add an s, such as in the phrase “There are no ifs, ands, or buts about it” or “A list of dos and don’ts follows.” We do keep the contractive apostrophe in don’t and simply add an s to make it plural.

Sometimes a single letter looks awkward when we just use an s to indicate plurality.

“How many h’s do you spell shh with?” (hs would look very odd.)

When pluralizing capital letters, we don’t use an apostrophe: Mike earned three Ds in English this year but still passed the class.

In a narrative, the two most common missions apostrophes have are to denote possession or indicate a contraction.

  • Who’s is the contraction of “who is” or, less commonly, “who has.”
  • Whose is the possessive of “who” or, somewhat controversially, “which.”
  • Their(s) is the possessive of “they.” (They’re proud to own it, it’s theirs, and it’s not there.)
  • Its is the possessive of “it,” and “it’s” is a contraction of it is.

Note that for both they and it, there is no apostrophe in the possessive form.

  • The texture of the wall —it’s rough. ( contraction: it is rough.)
  • I scratched myself on its surface. (possession: the wall’s surface.)

In most English words an apostrophe indicates possession but can also indicate a contraction. The difficulty arises in the fact that both it and they are frequently part of contracted words.

In the effort to standardize English usage, early linguists made a choice to eliminate the apostrophe in the possessive form. They did this in the (futile) hope of ending confusion.

  • It’s is the contraction of “it is” and sometimes “it has.”
  • Its denotes possession: It owns it.
  • Their: they own it
  • They’re: they are

As with so many things that “seemed like a good idea at the time,” its and it’s will always cause problems for new and beginning writers. Inadvertent misuse happens even for old hands like me when I’m zipping along laying down the first draft of a manuscript, especially during NaNoWriMo.

We have to be vigilant and ensure we have looked for proper usage of its and it’s during revisions. Even the big traditional publishing houses admit sneaky errors like those like to go unnoticed until after publication.

In closing, the most common uses of the apostrophe aren’t too difficult once we learn the rules. Remember, apostrophes are integral parts of the traffic control system, signals that keep your words moving along at the right rate. Using them the way they are intended (and which readers expect) keeps the reader from throwing your book away.

I always suggest you set some time aside for writing new words every day, even if only for fifteen minutes. When we force ourselves to think about and use the basic rules of grammar regularly, we retain what we have learned.

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Honesty in Writing #amwriting

As writers, we are entertainers. We write books for people who want a diversion from the daily grind. No matter what the subject or genre is, we write escapes, windows into other lives, other places, other realities. When we offer the book to the public, we hope the reader will stay with us to the end, hope they find the same life in the narrative that we thought we were imparting when we wrote it.

This can only happen if we are honest. When I first started out, I wrote poetry, lyrics for a heavy metal band. I was young, sincere, and convinced I had to impart a message with every word. I didn’t know until twenty years later when I came across my old notebook—my poems weren’t honest. I wasn’t honest with myself, and when I looked back at my work, I could see the falseness clearly. My words were contrived, formed too artfully. They shouted, “Look at me! I’m young and full of angst, but I’m talented and artsy!”

When I began writing stories for my children, I still wrote crap, but it was honest crap. I no longer had anyone to impress—children are never impressed by parents who write. They are also quite honest about where a story fails to impress them, and why. I began to write fairy tales that were honest, but not written by an educated author.

With that as my training ground, learning how to make my writing enjoyable became a goal. It was there that I discovered that, besides writing honestly, an author needs to be consistent with punctuation. I had no idea I was uneducated—after all, I had done well in school.  Even so, I had to re-learn the fundamentals of American English grammar because my first real editor pointed out that I hadn’t retained much of what I was taught in elementary school.

As Ursula K. LeGuin said in her wonderful book, Steering the Craft, A 21st Century Guide to Sailing the Sea of Story, “If you aren’t interested in punctuation, or are afraid of it, you’re missing out on some of the most beautiful, elegant tools a writer has to work with.”

My rule is to embrace what I fear, so I embraced grammar. I’m not perfect, but I make an effort.

I have always been a reader, enjoying books in every genre and style.  While the books I love are scattered all across the spectrum, they have one thing in common—they are all written by authors with an understanding of the basic rules of punctuation. Sure, they break other rules of grammar with style and abandon, but they do pay attention to punctuation.

This is because punctuation is the traffic signal telling the reader to go, slow, pause, yield, go again, or stop. Punctuation at most of the right places allows the reader to forget they are reading and encourages them to suspend their disbelief.

Writers begin as readers. In his book, On Writing, Stephen King gives us permission to read for six hours a day, should we so desire. Reading is how we come to understand writing and the art of story. (He also admonishes us to learn the fundamentals of punctuation and grammar.)

In my quest to understand the art of story I have come across some pretty awful books. I don’t consider “hard to read because it is written in an old-fashioned style” awful. However, I do consider “hard to read because the author wasted my time” awful.

Contrived prose is not poetic. Hokey and forced situations are not exciting. Perfectly beautiful people bore me. Long passages about clothing and furnishings bore me.

Write me an honest story about “real” people with real problems, one that comes from your deepest soul. Set it in outer space, or the Amazon Jungle—I don’t care. I read all genres and all settings. I will forgive imperfect grammar and punctuation for a great story that rings of truth and touches my heart.

Let me sink into your story. Let me forget the world—let me become so into the book I forget to cook dinner.


Credits and Attributions:

Quote: Ursula K. LeGuin, Steering the Craft, A 21st Century Guide to Sailing the Sea of Story, ©1999 Ursula K. LeGuin, First Mariner Books Edition 2015, page 11.

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The sound of the narrative #amwriting

Reading aloud is a great way to quickly discover the places I want to revise. I have always read portions of my work aloud, a page or two at a time. The places where I stumble are usually always the places that need ironing, so to speak.

In the past, I have only gone to this trouble with sections that I felt had some indefinable thing wrong with them. But lately, I’ve been printing out each chapter in its entirety a day or two after I finish writing it, trying to hear where the prose doesn’t work. I use a yellow highlighter on the places that feel rough.

I’m a slow writer, but I have several looming deadlines for contests and anthologies. This seemed like a good way to speed up development, getting short stories from rough draft to finished in a timely fashion.

As anyone who regularly reads this blog knows, I rarely have a piece that is perfectly clean. I am the only eye that sees it before posting. Despite my best efforts, I catch many things the day after something was posted. I always check through my work on the computer screen, and I catch a lot there, but the eye sees what I intended to write.

This bleeds over into my other work. But if I wait a day or two and then read the paper printout with fresher eyes, I find repeated words, dropped words, and all sorts of typos. Even better, reading the printout aloud exposes the rough areas, the places where the words “fight with each other.”

When you are trying to pronounce the words, run-on sentences really stand out, and clunky prose won’t flow well. The narrative reads well for a long stretch, and then it hits a stumbling point.

That yellow highlighter of mine really gets a work out—maybe I’ll have to buy a case of them.

Another thing I have discovered by reading the entire chapter rather than just a page here and there—I can see where I am repeating entire ideas. This is a common problem for me in the first draft.

Having Natural Reader or another reading program do the reading for you helps, and I have made use of that many times. But this experience has shown me that while these wonderful programs are incredibly useful, they don’t do the job quite as well as a human voice does. They often mispronounce words that are heteronyms—words that are spelled the same as another word, but which are pronounced differently and have different meanings.

  • Read (pronounced reed) as in the act of reading
  • Read (pronounced red) as in having already finished reading the book.

Natural Reader rarely guesses those sorts of words correctly. The cadence and rhythm of the narrative is not as clearly heard when the mechanical voice does the reading, even if you are reading along silently. It tends to be rather flat, a monotone.

I’m not talking poetry here, but good prose has movement when it is read out loud. Sometimes it’s fast, sometimes slow, but it should have no rough spots for the reader to stumble over.

What I love about listening to audio books is the way prose sounds when it’s read aloud by an experienced narrator. Some narratives are beautiful when read aloud, and some are not.

If you intend to have your work made into an audio book, you want to make your work easy for the narrator to read without faltering.

So, now I will add ‘printing out and reading entire chapters aloud and marking places that need correction with a yellow highlighter’ as a regular tool in my writer’s toolbox. As long as the old printer keeps limping along, doing its job, this should speed things up.

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Conflict #amwriting

Winter has embraced my Northern home. For the last two weeks, cold and clear days have been followed by freezing, foggy nights. Each morning the roads have been covered with black ice, making the morning commute an adventure. We expect black ice here, but we don’t enjoy it.

The sun was so brilliant I had to locate my sunglasses when I went to my writing group last week. Driving east as the sun rose was like driving into a solar flare.

Alas, this week the rains have returned. But I am warm and dry here in the Room of Shame. I am now rewriting what was spewed forth during NaNoWriMo, turning garbage into something marketable, I hope.

I am taking a piece set in Neveyah, my Tower of Bones world, and rewriting it, so it is a story. This is something that happens to me all the time—4,000 words of a character talking, with no reason for them to be there. I loved the character that emerged, and I wrote what I thought was a story, but something was lacking.

Situations like this are why it is good to have a group of fellow writers whose opinions you value, and who can be trusted to see your work with unbiased eyes. I sensed something was wrong with it but didn’t know what, so I showed it to two of my writing friends, and they both gave me good insights.

What I had written was a character study. My characters are engaging, but there is no obvious obstacle for them to overcome, other than a minor quest for self-knowledge. So, now I am taking these people and that quest and turning it into a larger quest, making it a real story.

The story is for an anthology and can be only 5,000 words long so only one quest will be explored. That quest will not be the obvious quest, in which the hero believes he must free a kidnapped girl. The real quest will be for self-knowledge, and for his superiors, who see promise in him, to help him develop humility.

If I do this one right, there should be ample opportunity for hilarity.

So how do we create conflict in an established story?

We must ask our characters three things:

  1. What is the core of the problem? In the case of my story, the core of the problem is my Main Character is a cocky, arrogant sort, a young man who is good at everything and is quite “honest” about it. His Mentors fear his boasting will hold him back, as no one wants to work with him.
  2. What do the characters want most? The Main Character wants to be just like his childhood hero, or better. He desires approval and admiration. Everything he does is calculated to make him look like a hero. His Mentors have plenty of heroes on hand and just want a mage that can be relied upon to get a job done well and with no fanfare.
  3. What are they willing to do to get it? The Main Character has boasted many times that he will overcome any obstacle no matter how difficult the path to success is. His Mentors devise a simple quest with dirty and disgusting obstacles that he hasn’t planned for, and they ensure that when he does “rescue the hostage,” he gets their message quite clearly.
  4. How will it end? Quite messily, and with all the acclaim the young hero could ask for. But somehow, he won’t feel quite as proud as he thought he would. (Cue the evil laughter.)

I started with the core conflict: his arrogance. I didn’t see the way to take that arrogance and make it a story until my writing friends showed me what it was lacking. They didn’t tell me what to write, but their input gave me that “Ah hah!” moment where I knew just what had to be done. I think this will be one of my favorite Neveyah stories, as it is not dark—it’s full of gallows humor, detailing the deeds of a hero who becomes a man.


Credits and Attributions:

The Green Knight, by N.C,Wyeth [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons. Wikimedia Commons contributors, “File:Boys King Arthur – N. C. Wyeth – p82.jpg,” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:Boys_King_Arthur_-_N._C._Wyeth_-_p82.jpg&oldid=304597062  (accessed December 9, 2018).

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Slang, Colloquialisms, and Clichés #amwriting

Words are awesome. I love obscure, weird words. J.K. Rowling used the word ‘snogging’ in her Harry Potter series, to describe couples who were engaged in prolonged kissing, or as we sometimes say where I come from,  ‘canoodling.’

Another good word is ‘kerfuffle,’  a Briticism for a  noisy disturbance or commotion. That word has become more common in American conversation over the last few years.

Words are how authors convey the imaginary world to the reader. Artistry comes into play in the way the author assembles their chosen words into sentences and paragraphs. In reading those words, the reader finds themselves in a new reality, a mental picture painted by the author.

English is a mash-up language. It is old Latin glued to an evolving language with completely different roots, Frisian, with a bunch of words and usages invented by William Shakespeare added in.

Thanks to the human drive to explore new worlds, English, the mish-mash language, went to America where it absorbed many words from the various languages it encountered among the people already living there.

English also went to Australia where the same thing happened. Each of the many dialects of English contains wonderful, wild words that are unique to their local population.

Colloquialisms are fun, informal things, but truthfully, they are much like clichés. Unless we are writing a contemporary piece where words unique to a particular culture are part of the world building, we shouldn’t rely on them to tell the story.

Sometimes, we find ourselves using words that are what I think of as subtle clichés. They are subtle because they feel so natural sitting in that sentence. Consider “damn fool.”

It was a common thing adults would say about a particularly reckless or impulsive neighbor when I was growing up. But would I write it into a narrative? Maybe, if using that cliché showed the personality of a minor character whose only onscreen time was shown in that brief conversation.

The problem comes with word evolution, and how common phrases evolve differently from place to place, and sometimes even in the same town.

That was a damn fool thing. This was how I would hear that phrase as a child.

So, if that is a concept that we are trying to convey, how do we say it? If you listen carefully, people say it just a bit differently depending on where they are from. Some say it with two words, some make it one, and others give damn an “ed” ending as if the suffix adds a sense of finality.

Do we spell it damn fool, damnfool, or damned fool?

According to the Urban Dictionary

damned fool

  • A person who is extremely foolish. Their actions are not only irresponsible to themselves but can possibly be harmful towards others.
  • If a guy tries to talk you out of using a condom, he is a damn fool. (You can’t make this stuff up–you have to go to the internet for it.)
  • Did you see that damned fool? He was swerving all over the road.(end quoted text)

And just for fun, let’s see what Wiktionary has to say:

  • damn fool (adjective)
  • damnfool 
  1. (informal) Contemptibly (end quoted text)

He was a damned fool.

How I see it:

  1. He was a damned fool. (I just cursed him to hell.)
  2. He was a damn fool. (He was contemptibly foolish)
  3. He did a damnfool thing. (He was contemptibly foolish, and I will curse him to hell.)

If you absolutely must use that colloquialism, write it the way that seems right to you, and it will be fine.

But when you look at the meanings of the various clichés we use in our daily speech, you can see there are better ways to say what you mean without making your work feel dated.

He was contemptibly foolish would be a good choice, as it isn’t a cliché and it says what you mean.

If we want our work to be meaningful to more than just the reader of today, we must use words that won’t lose their relevance, or fall out of fashion as within a decade. Did I hear you say, “Groovy?” Far out.

We want to write well, and we don’t want our prose to be stale or boring, but we also don’t want it to be annoyingly full of jargon.

Consider The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald. The slang his characters use in their casual conversation is specific to the nineteen twenties of America, and while it was well understood in that time, using those words in that context has fallen out of favor. This makes understanding that novel difficult for the modern reader, yet the prose of the narrative outside the conversations is truly beautiful.  Some words used in conversation that have lost their relevance today:

  • Mop (indicates a handkerchief)
  • Niffy (great, wonderful)
  • Noodle Juice (tea – a weak drink for weak people)
  • Quilt (indicated a drink meant to warm someone up)

Having the characters use slang stamps a novel with a date, setting it squarely in a known period.

For that reason, I feel it’s best to avoid slang and clichés even though finding the right words to convey those thoughts can be a struggle. When I am reading a new book, originality wins over hackneyed prose any day.

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The Functions of the Scene revisited #amwriting

We are at mid-month for NaNoWriMo, and I am not writing my novel. Instead, I am trying to write short stories, but my mind won’t cooperate. I keep waking up with new scenes filling my head, scenes that demand to be written for all my works in progress.

Scenes are what I want to talk about today, but I just discovered that I wrote a perfectly good post on them last year and can’t think of anything to add to it. So, we may as well revisit last year’s post on The Functions of the Scene. I hope you find it useful as your writing journey continues.

Keep writing, update your word count every day if you are participating in NaNoWriMo, and happy writing to you, whether you participate in that merry month of madness or not!


A great story consists of a beginning, a middle and an end, and is made of scenes. We have action, emotion, ups and downs, a plot all sewn together by the thread that is the theme. But the entire structure of the novel is built scene-by-scene, connected by transitions.

Scenes may consist of conversations, or they may be action sequences, but put them together in the right order, link them with a plot featuring a good protagonist and a worthy antagonist, they combine to form a story.

I perceive the scene as a small area of focus within a larger story with an arc of its own, small arcs holding up a larger arc: the chapter. So, scenes are the building blocks of the story. Strong scenes make for a memorable novel, and we all strive to make each scene as important as we can. Therefore, no scene can be wasted. Each scene must have a function, or the story fails to hold the reader’s interest.

Some things a scene can show:

  • Information
  • Confrontation
  • Revelation
  • Negotiation
  • Decision
  • Capitulation
  • Catalyst
  • Contemplation/Reflection
  • Turning Point
  • Resolution
  • Myriad deep emotions

Make one or more of these functions the core of the scene, and you will have a compelling story.

Let’s examine a watershed scene that occurs in the Fellowship of the Ring, book one of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Ring series: The Council of Elrond. The scene is set in Rivendell, Elrond’s remote mountain citadel.

Each of those characters attending the Council has arrived there on separate errands, and each has different hopes for what will ultimately come from the meeting. Despite their different agendas, each is ultimately concerned with the Ring and protecting the people of Middle-earth from the depredations of Sauron, if he were to regain possession of it. This scene serves several functions:

Information/Revelation: The Council of Elrond serves the purpose of conveying information to both the protagonists and the reader. It is a conversation scene, driven by the fact that each person in the meeting has knowledge the others need. Conversations are an excellent way to deploy needed information. Remember, plot points are driven by the characters who have the critical knowledge.

The fact that some characters are working with limited information is what creates the tension. At the Council of Elrond, many things are discussed, and the full story of the One Ring is explained, with each character offering a new piece of the puzzle. The reader and the characters receive the information at the same time at this point in the novel.

Confrontation: Action/confrontation, conversation, reaction. A scene that is all action can be confusing if it has no context. A properly placed confrontational conversation (an argument/dispute) gives the reader the context needed to understand the reason for the action.

At the Council of Elrond, long simmering racial tensions between Gimli the Dwarf and Legolas the Elf surface. Each is possessed of a confrontational nature, and it isn’t clear whether they will be able to work together or not.

Other conflicts are explored, and heated exchanges occur between Aragorn and Boromir.

Negotiation: What concessions will have to be made to achieve the final goal? These concessions must be negotiated. Tom Bombadil is at first mentioned as one who could safely take the ring to Mordor as it has no power over him. Gandalf feels he would simply lose the ring, or give it away because Tom lives in a reality of his own and doesn’t see the conflict with Sauron as a problem. Bilbo volunteers, but he is too old and frail. Others offer, but none are accepted as good candidates for the job of ring-bearer for one reason or another. Each reason offered for why these characters are found to be less than satisfactory by Gandalf and Elrond deploys a small bit of information the reader needs.

Turning Point: After much discussion, many revelations, and bitter arguments, Frodo declares that he will go to Mordor and dispose of the ring, giving up his chance to live his remaining life in the comfort and safety of Rivendell. Sam emerges from his hiding place and demands to be allowed to accompany Frodo. This is the turning point of the story.

(The movie portrays this scene differently, with Pip and Merry hiding in the shadows. Also, in the book, the decision as to who will accompany Frodo, other than Sam, is not made for several days, while the movie shortens it to the one day.)

So, within the arc of the story are smaller arcs, arcs of conflict and reflection, each created by scenes. The arc of the scene is like any other: it begins, rises to a peak, and ebbs, ending on a slightly higher point of the overall story arc than when it began, leading to the brief transition scene.

Transitions can be as simple as a change of setting, one character leaving the room for a breath of air. They can be hard transitions, the scene ends and with it, so does that chapter. Within a chapter, conversations can serve as good transitions that propel the story forward to the next scene, offering a chance to absorb what just happened. If using a conversation as a transition, it’s important you don’t have your characters engage in idle chit-chat. In literary terms, a good conversation is about something we didn’t know and builds toward something we are only beginning to understand.

That is true of every aspect of a scene—it must reveal something and push the story forward toward something.

With each scene we are also pushing the character arc, raising the stakes a little. Our protagonist grows and is shaped by receiving needed information through action and conversation, followed by reaction and regrouping. This allows the reader to experience the story as the protagonist does, and then to reflect and absorb the information gained before moving on to the next scene.

All the arcs together form a cathedral-like structure: the novel. By creating small arcs in the form of scenes, we offer the reader the chance to experience the rise and fall of tension, the life-breath of the novel.


Credits and Attributions:

The Functions of the Scene, ©2017 by Connie J. Jasperson, first appeared here on Life in the Realm of Fantasy on November 22, 2017.

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R. Tolkien, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; Reissue edition (February 15, 2012) Fair Use.

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#NaNoWriMo2018 pre-planning

When I begin penning a story, the working title is usually just a handle, something to carry it by for the time being, and which will be changed when I rewrite it anyway. While the title might not actually exist, the story does, in the form of an idea, a prompt.

So, before I sit down to write anything, I answer a short list of questions about the overall story arc of my intended tale.

I mentioned a few post’s back that I keep a document pinned to my desktop, one that I write down topics and ideas for stories on. This list is crucial, and now, as part of my preparations for next month’s madness, I am taking each idea, and answering eight questions, and making a separate file folder for each story.

I have a master folder in my writing folder that is titled: NaNoWriMo2018. Within that folder are my small files, one for each story I plan to write.

For a novel, you only need two files: your work-in-progress document, and a document to keep all the back story in.

But I am a NaNo Rebel and so for me, at this point, there are fifteen file folders in that file. I will probably only get ten of them written at 4,000 to 10,000 words per story.

I title each story folder with a working-title, such as Mitzi.

The file contains two documents. The first one is blank except for one line, which is the prompt, the  premise of the story. It is labeled MITZIdraft1. That stands for Mitzi first draft. This document will be the manuscript for that story. Any subsequent revisions will be labeled title_draft2, etc.

At 12:01 a.m. in November 1st, I will open this document and begin writing Mitzi’s story. I think her tale will top out at about 4,000 words. Then I will open the next file: Doors. I’ll begin working on that short story, which I expect will top out at 5,000 words.

I doubt I’ll keep the title of Mitzi, but it’s about a dog who “lives” at about six different homes, who answers to six different names, and the people who think they own her.

I got the idea for that story from “Rufus,” the name I gave the cat who sleeps on my back porch all day, but who actually belongs to one of our neighbors. We don’t know his real name, or which neighbor owns him. We never have to feed him, and his vet bills are not an issue for us. We just get to enjoy his orange and white fur, all over our outdoor furniture.

I mentioned there were two documents in each file. The other document is the basic premise of the story, answered in eight questions. Each answer is simply one or two lines telling me what to write.

  1. Who are the players?
  2. Who is the POV character?
  3. Where does the story open?
  4. What does the protagonist have to say about their story?
  5. How did they arrive at the point of no return?
  6. What do they want and what are they willing to do to get it?
  7. What hinders them?
  8. How does the story end? Is there more than one way this could go?

The answers to these questions make writing the actual story go faster because I know what happened, what the goal is, why the goal is difficult to achieve, and how the story ends.

Once you have answered questions one and two, you know who you are writing about and which character has the most compelling story.

At that point, you must decide what will be your inciting incident. An event happens that throws them into the action. Now, what is their goal/objective?

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 thought to consider. What moral (or immoral) choice is the protagonist going to have to make in their attempt to overcome the odds and achieve their objective?

Many final objectives are not issues of morality, but all final objectives should have consequences and should involve a struggle.

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?

Answering question eight is crucial if I want to complete my short story during November. Endings are frequently difficult to write because I can see so many different outcomes. Because it is NaNoWriMo, and every new word I write counts toward my goal, I write as many endings as I need to.

This is where making use of scene breaks can be your friend. For a short story, an ending is usually only 500 words or so. I simply head that section (in bolded front) with the words Possible Ending 1 or 2, or however many endings I have come up with.

Once I have finished my short story, I save that file, close it, and move on to the next. I have to keep that story factory working, because during the rest of the year, whatever novel I am writing takes priority in the writing queue.

But I always have time to revise something that is already written, especially if I have come to a stopping place in my novel.

Every evening, I copy and paste each day’s work into my NaNo Master Manuscript, which is also in my NaNoWriMo2018 file. This gives me the satisfaction of seeing my total word count growing day by day.  I upload that manuscript every night to the www.nanowrimo.org website so that my work is validated and my writing buddies can see I am meeting my daily word count goals.

November is the only time I can dedicate to exploring the many topics and wild ideas that come to me over the course of a year. On December 1st, I will go back to my usual routine, editing for clients in the morning and working on my novel after editing is done.

When I need a break and something new to work on, I will pull out my short story file, and begin revisions. The work I have planned for selected anthologies will be revised first, as they will have deadlines early in 2019.

This keeps me working and ensures I am being productive even when my novel is stranded in the desert of “Now What?”.

Pre-planning means I have a good system established for version control for my revisions, as each story has its own file and I don’t have to waste time dealing with that on the front end. As I say, this is my system, and it works for me. I use this system for all my work.

Develop your system, lay the groundwork for your novel. Create the master file, and in that file, include any sub-files that pertain to your novel. Do it now, well in advance of November 1st, so that all you have to do is write and save your work.

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October 22, 2018 · 6:00 am

Layers of a scene: Action #amwriting

Scenes are often comprised of people talking, a little action, and then more talking. Sometimes the action is minor, taking the characters from one place to another. Two characters talking in a coffee shop would have minimal action, but a lot of dialogue.

Other times the dialogue is minimal, and the action is violence. It can be sudden, as in a car wreck, or planned as in a battle.

At the outset of any story, our characters are in a comfortable place. An incident/event occurs, throwing them out of what they know and into disarray, beginning the real story.

Once they recover from the first obstacle, they realize they must do or find something important. Only a certain object or person will resolve the situation. To acquire what they need, the protagonist and their companions must enter unfamiliar circumstances.

They must struggle and make mistakes until they become accustomed to their new situation. This is where the action comes into the story.

I have read books were the author was so involved in setting traps and roadblocks for the protagonist and their nemesis that the story line wandered off and got lost. The author failed to entertain me.

Action scenes must fulfil several requirements:

  • They must entertain the reader.
  • They must create new circumstances.
  • They must force the character to grow and change.

The events the protagonist experiences must push the plot forward. In the process, the action should force the characters involved in it to become greater than they were, to find something within themselves they didn’t know existed.

I’m just going to get this out into the open: long, drawn-out fight scenes bore me to tears.

So many authors get hung up on the technical side of the fight—how the combatants were dressed, who hacked, who slashed, and so on. Scenes involving fighting should be written as controlled chaos. They must be logical and real and must give the impression of a chaotic event. Just as if the physical dispute were a dance, we choreograph it.

We all know the common fundamentals of the fight scene:

  1. Physical violence/weapons
  2. Shouting/screaming/other loud noises
  3. Damage to the immediate environment
  4. Injuries/death

Those are part of the elements that comprise the “push” of the action—the chaos. It takes time, but over the course of several hours, you can put the skeleton of your fight scene on paper. What is physically possible and what is not?

But what of a non-violent action scene? Perhaps the characters are sneaking into a room or attempting to board a crowded train. What furnishings does the immediate environment contain, and how does that affect their movements? What hinders the characters moving within their space? What aids them?

For much of the morning they rode in silence. The path climbed more steeply than Alf had imagined a fully laden cart or wagon could manage. The vertical wall of the Escarpment on the left side of the trail and a waist-high stone barrier with a terrible drop on the right made him jittery. It occurred to him that the low wall was little more than a robust fence, knee high to his horse.

The next step, after the action is laid down, is fine tuning it, so the reactions and responses of your characters are natural and real. If the scene is about dialogue, insert the action so it is minimal. It can be a slight buzz in the background that serves as a speech tag:

He forced himself to loosen his grip on the reins. “I suspect the little barrier is there mainly to keep the wagons from sliding over the edge in the winter. It does provide some comfort to know that, while I would be launched amazingly far, my horse would likely be saved.”

Dex looked at him sharply. “Don’t tell me you’re afraid of heights. This is nothing compared to what we’ll deal with when we leave Hemsteck.”

After the push, comes the “glide” where the characters assess what just happened, tend to their injuries, and decide what to do next. They must catch their breath and figure out where they went wrong.

Every now and then a manuscript comes to me that is impossible to navigate because the author is afraid to let their characters rest and regroup, and it basically becomes a nonstop beating for the protagonist. The author may fear that the reader will find it boring if he pauses the action for any reason. That continual pressure on the protagonist is exhausting to me as a reader.

If you don’t allow your characters to process the violence they just experienced, the story gets lost in the chaos. Once the reader can no longer suspend their disbelief, you have lost them.

Most of us understand verbal disputes and how they are constructed. But if physical violence is involved and you are not a martial arts aficionado or a weapons specialist, you may wish to consult someone who is and have them look at your scene. They will tell you what is physically possible and what is not.

Once I have a fight scene choreographed, I run it past my writing friends, Dave and Lee, both of whom will point out the areas where it is no longer believable.

To wind this post up, a constant assault of random action, scene after scene, makes no sense unless you allow the reader to put the events into perspective. Scenes inserted for shock value and with no pause for rest and reflection don’t allow the protagonist to demonstrate personal growth.

As a reader, I will put that book down, unfinished.


Credits and Attributions:

Death is Violent and Fast: Quarrel in a Pub, painting by Joos van Craesbeeck, ca. 1630 – 1635 PD|100 via Wikimedia Commons.

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Filed under writing

Layers of a Scene #amwriting

I try to approach writing each dialogue scene as it would be portrayed in a movie. I think of each conversation as an event that must advance the story, so dialogue must do at least one (if not all) of these things:

  1. Offer information the characters are only now learning.
  2. Show the state of mind the characters are experiencing.
  3. Show the relationship of the characters to each other.
  4. Show the relationship of the characters to their world.

In the first stage of the rough draft, with those goals in mind, I sit down and picture the characters and their relationship. Then, I write just the dialogue for several back-and-forth exchanges. No speech tags, just the exchange. I do this in short bursts, to get the basic words down. It’s a two stage process—the scenery and background get filled in after the dialogue has been written.

“What are you doing?”

“Oh, just drawing.”

“Drawing what?”

“You’ll laugh or find a reason to mock me for it.”

Once I know what they are talking about and have the rudimentary dialogue straight, I add in the scenery and attributions, and the dialogue grows with each layer. This is because the scene has become sharper in my mind and I know more of the mental state my characters are in.

The next morning, when his stepmother came down for coffee, John was once again working on something in his notebook. He stood, gathering his pens.

“What are you doing?” Ann’s clipped tones cut the silence.

“Oh, just drawing.” The peace he’d sought had gone, earlier than he hoped.

“Drawing what?”

John’s normally open features were closed, inscrutable. “You’ll laugh or find a reason to mock me for it.” Closing his sketchbook, he attempted to leave but stopped when she put her hand on his shoulder.

“Show me. Now.” When Ann repeated her demand, he reluctantly opened the book. Page after page was covered in stylized dragons, leafy vines, and runes. “Why do you waste your time with this crap? You could be brilliant, but no! People want real art, not this drivel.”

“This is how I earn my living.”

Ann poured herself a cup of coffee, pausing only to sneer. “You don’t have a pot to—”

“Stop.” John reclaimed the sketchbook. “Coming back here was a mistake. I did it because Dad asked me to, and because it’s Christmas.” He crossed toward the dining room. “Enjoy your breakfast.” The kitchen door closed behind him, cutting off his stepmother’s rant.

We know the characters’ relationship to each other, and what their place in this environment is. The layers that form this scene are:

  1. Action: She comes down for coffee. He holds a notebook, gathers pens, and stands.
  2. Dialogue: shows long-simmering resentment between the two players and gives us a time reference—it’s Christmas.
  3. Environment: a kitchen, closed off from the rest of the house. In this story, the woman’s closed off kitchen is symbolic of her closed off personality. The place that is the heart of a home is closed off. She is at odds with her own son, as well as her stepchildren.

We work with layers to create each scene. With these layers, we show the reader everything they need to know about that moment in time.

In many ways, each scene is a story-within-a-story, with a beginning, middle, and end. Every scene should have an arc, leading us to the next scene. We link the mini-stories together to form the larger story, pushing the characters to the final confrontation that ends the novel.

By beginning with the dialogue in each scene, I can get the words down and then concentrate on visualizing the setting where the conversation takes place. Over the course of a book, conversations take place in different settings, so readers are eventually shown the entire world these characters live in. They will see that world without our having to dump a floor-plan or itinerary on the reader. Remember our basic conversation?

“What are you doing?”

“Oh, just drawing.”

“Drawing what?”

“You’ll laugh or find a reason to mock me for it.”

Let’s put that dialogue and the notebook into a fantasy setting and change how the characters are related to each other:

At the end of her watch the next morning, Ann warmed the flatbread from the day before and filled it with goat cheese for breakfast. Traveling alone with John was different without the others, more difficult in ways she didn’t want to acknowledge. 

Clearly surprised at waking to a hot meal, John thanked her but remained on his side of the fire. He opened his journal and made an entry, then with his breakfast eaten, he began drawing something in his sketch book.

This time she decided to see what was so absorbing. “What are you doing?”

“Oh, just drawing.”

“Drawing what?” Ann couldn’t read his expression, and normally she could.

“You’ll laugh or find a reason to mock me for it.” Closing his sketchbook, John attempted to rise but stopped when she put her hand on his shoulder.

“Show me,” she commanded. “I promise I won’t mock you. I’m just curious.”

Now the look in his eyes confused her. It was guarded yet had the same quality he did after praying. Clearly against his better judgement, he opened his notebook.

Page after page was covered with portraits of all the members of their tribe, including her, all looking as full of life as if they could step off the page. Every messenger they had ever been sent was there, and people she didn’t know whom he must have met on his travels. She nearly wept on seeing the many portraits of her brother, handsome and laughing.

“These… they’re amazing. You’ve detailed our life for the last three years. And David… it’s the way I want to remember him. Thank you.”

John seemed confused by her approval. His gaze was far away when he answered. “I dream all night long, and then I have to draw. I don’t know why.”

We began with the same words and a notebook, and used the same names. But with different relationships, we ended up with different characters. They have a different quest, and their story is written for a different genre. However, the layers in this fantasy do the same work as in the contemporary piece. The layers that form this scene are:

Action: Ann prepares breakfast, something John is surprised to find her doing. He opens a notebook.

Dialogue: shows a wary interaction between two people who know each other well, and who may be entering a different stage in their relationship.

Environment: a campsite, an open fire. It is set in the wide outdoors, yet it is intimate.

The words are the same, the notebook is there, but the direction the conversation takes is different because the story is different.

By beginning with the conversation and envisioning it as if it were a scene in a movie, I can flesh it out and show everything the reader needs to hang their imagination on. Readers are smart and don’t want to be told what to think. The reader’s mind will supply the details of a kitchen or a campsite, depending on the clues I give.

How will you add the layers to your conversations? The possibilities are endless.

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