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Showing posts from August, 2005

Writing Styles: Confessions of a Plotter Who Used to Be a Pantser

What in the world are "pantsers" and "plotters"?

There seems to be lots of discussion on the web about the two different writing styles, "pantsers" and "plotters."

There are "pantsers" who write off the seat of their pants--they have the important aspects of the plot in their minds, and they write to see how the story unfolds. They are also known as “fly into the mist” writers.

Then there are "plotters" (sometimes affectionately termed “plodders”) who outline everything beforehand so they know what they need to accomplish in their chapters as they write.

Some people are a little bit of both. Ultimately, whichever writing style you choose is based on your personality and preference.

When I first started writing, I was a "pantser". But as I wrote more, I experimented with "plotting" and discovered that style enabled me to write my personal best. Plotting became a painful but necessary process for me.

Having …

Writing Fight Scenes

I love martial arts movies and action flicks. So naturally I'd write action scenes.

I discovered that it takes a slightly different writing style. These are some of the things I learned, although this list isn't exhaustive by any means.

Action-Reaction

A fight scene is always Action-Reaction. He punches, she staggers back. She kicks, he blocks and swings a fist at her. Watch out for putting your reaction before your action:

She staggered back when he slammed his fist into her shoulder.

The rule of thumb is to have each action-reaction have its own paragraph, although that’s not always possible. Sometimes the sentences are too short for their own paragraphs and can be combined. It’s up to the writer how to format it:

He swung a roundhouse punch.

She bent backward and felt his knuckles swish past her nose.

versus:

He swung a roundhouse punch. She bent backward and felt his knuckles swish past her nose.

Short sentences = fast reading flow

Use short sentences and phrases to make reading flow…

The First Chapter: Hook, Description, and Backstory

This article came out of the contests I've judged. These are some of the common things I see in most entries when it comes to hooks, description and backstory.

Starting with description--pros and cons.

There are two camps about starting a scene with description:

1) Most historical writers and some sci-fi/fantasy writers like the whole idea of the novel like a movie camera, panning into the scene and describing the setting in detail to place the reader there before anything starts to happen.

2) Most suspense/mystery writers tend to start with action, and to give details of the surroundings and what's happening through subtle hints in the dialogue or narrative.

Each method can be done poorly. If you spend too much time setting the scene or if you don't do it well enough, an editor won't get past the first page because it's too boring--nothing going on.

On the other hand, if you land the reader in the middle of action but don't do a good enough job orienting the reader …

Motivation to write when you feel like a slug

As a writer, I admit I'm not raring to go at that keyboard 24/7. These are things I do when I don't have the motivation to write for whatever reason--laziness, stress, antsy-ness, boredom.

In no particular order:

Small chunks—Tell yourself, I’ll just write for fifteen minutes. It might be an excruciating fifteen minutes, but it’ll be fifteen minutes more than you had before. Then take a break, get distracted, go crazy.

Sit and Pray—Sit in front of that computer and quiet yourself. Remember your desire to serve God with your writing. Ask God for help to motivate yourself to start typing.

Snacks—Since we’re all careful about our health, go easy on this one, but sometimes your brain can speed up while you sit and munch on snacks, or sip your favorite tea or coffee.

Comfort—Take a moment to notice your comfort level at your writing station. Back or neck pains? Room temperature too hot or too cold? Too noisy or too quiet? Bad smells? Too dark or too bright? Adjust accordingly. It might …

Articles from Swain

Dwight Swain's classic book TECHNIQUES OF THE SELLING WRITER was one of the best writing craft books I read when I first started learning how to write. It was written in 1982, so the language is a bit dated, but the techniques he gives are still excellent and applicable today.

Several of my friends mentioned how hard it is to read his prose (which is rather rambling, I'll be the first to admit) so I wrote a series of articles based on his book. These articles were originally published in RubyZine, a Christian e-zine for teen girls.

I hope these techniques from Swain will help other beginning writers form a solid foundation for their skills to build on.

1-Emotions and the Writer

2-Choosing Understandable Words

3-Choose Vibrant Words

4-The Larger Picture: Character, Setting, Story

5-The Smallest Picture: MRUs

6-Scene and Sequel: Scene

7-Scene and Sequel: Sequel

8-General Story Structure and Strategy For Your Novel

9-Your 50-Word Elevator Pitch

10-Beginning Your Novel, part 1

11-Beginn…

Emotions and the Writer

Feeling and emotion is the basis for every good story.

Think about it. The stories you remember are not the intellectually-stimulating ones, but the ones that made your heart race or your eyes tear up.

Your job as a writer is to make your reader feel emotion. But it's very hard to make your readers care if you don't feel for you write about. You will write your best pieces when you care about the topic or the characters.

Now, don't go overboard and start preaching. Readers are turned off by writers on their soapboxes.

But do write about what interests you. Find a topic, theme, character or plot that makes you excited. Do certain song lyrics make you cry? Was there an intriguing event in yesterday's news? Do you have a character talking in your head?

Technical skills:

A good writer writes with emotion, but EDITS with solid technical skills.

You don't want to be misunderstood or to turn out a piece that doesn't accurately reflect what you're feeling. Writing with e…

Choosing Understandable Words

Once you find a topic to write about—something that inspires you, something that you feel strongly about—how do you convey it? Let's get down to the nuts and bolts: WORDS.

YOU NEED TO CHOOSE WORDS THAT ARE BOTH UNDERSTANDABLE AND VIBRANT.

Understanding:

You're a writer, the choice of words is yours. Start with the Who, What, Where, When, Why and How. Be specific. Not "a sad girl," but "a suicidal 14-year-old soccer player." Not "a sunny neighborhood," but "a tree-less suburb of monotonous cookie-cutter development homes."

Arrange your words with care. "Meet," "kiss," "argue," "make up" conveys a typical boy-meets-girl love story. But "kiss," "make up," "argue," "meet," conveys a couple who breaks up, and one of them meets someone new. Words and phrases should be ordered Action--Reaction, Action--Reaction.

Words have specific cultural connotations. A car's …

Choosing Vibrant Words

YOU NEED TO CHOOSE WORDS THAT ARE BOTH UNDERSTANDABLE AND VIBRANT.

Vibrant:

Your description should include all five senses--sight, smell, taste, touch, sound. This will bring your reader into the story, help them to experience what the character is experiencing. This will create the atmosphere, this will make the reader forget the real world for the fictional one.

Use specific nouns and adjectives. Not "a sad girl," but "a suicidal 14-year-old soccer player." Not "a sunny neighborhood," but "a tree-less suburb of monotonous cookie-cutter development homes."

Use active verbs. A few rules of thumb for verbs:

1) "To be" verbs are weak. "She was on the stage" versus "she quaked on the stage," or "she sparkled on the stage."

2) "Had" is jarring to the reader.

Joy remembered the time she had gone to the grocery store and had picked up a few sodas, but then Johnny had driven up in his motorcycle and had asked…

The Larger Picture: Character, Setting, Story

The Larger Picture and the Smallest Picture, part 1

The Larger Picture: an Overview of Character, Setting, Story

Let's look at the big picture. Each story has a few basic components.

Focal Character:

The focal character or Protagonist has something to lose or gain, something at stake. The reader cares about what happens to her, what choices she makes, what results from those decisions.

Setting:

The reader experiences each scene through a viewpoint person's senses: sight, sound, touch, taste, smell, AND emotion. This creates richness, color, realism and mood in your setting. Viewpoint character is not necessarily the focal character.

For example, the heroine (focal character) is Betty, with an abusive past. The viewpoint character is her friend Lisa, visiting Betty's parents' home for the first time:

Lisa gaped at the tall columns flanking the double front doors, as white as sand on a tropical beach, reflecting the bright sunlight. Color burst from the flowers lining the marble…

The Smallest Picture: Motivation Reaction Units

The Larger Picture and the Smaller Picture, part 2

The Smallest Picture: Motivation Reaction Units

Now let's look at the smallest picture in your story: the Motivation Reaction unit.

Events in your story can be broken down into a cause, followed by an effect. A "motivating stimulus" followed by a "character reaction."

Motivation:

1) Pick your motivating stimulus carefully. It should be significant to the character--her personality and/or goal will influence what she notices around her. It should also be pertinent for the plotline--your reader will assume every stimulus is important for the story.

2) The stimulus should require your character's immediate action.

Reaction:

1) It should be a reactive feeling, a chosen action, and/or specific words spoken. Not all reactions need to include all three (feeling, action, speech), but at the very least, your character's actions and/or speech should indicate her reactive feeling. Emotion is key.

2) The reaction should be …

Scene and Sequel: Scene

The basic structure of a story consists of a Scene, followed by a Sequel. A Scene is a real-time unit of conflict. A Sequel is the transition period that links two Scenes.

A Scene moves your story forward by changing your character’s situation.

A Scene has three parts:

1) Goal

Your character should enter the Scene wanting something specific and concrete. The character’s goal should be short-range and urgent for that moment in time.

It could be a material object--Man enters shop to buy a watch. It could be something immaterial but still specific--Man enters shop to ask shopgirl on a date, or Man enters shop to kill the man who stole his car.

It could also be a goal to resist some force--Man enters shop to prevent rival from dating his girl.

No meandering motivations. Your character should want the goal badly enough that he’ll fight for it. If your character doesn’t care about his goal, your reader won’t.

Keep the point of view consistent. Also, the point of view character should have the most …

Scene and Sequel: Sequel

The basic structure of a story consists of a Scene, followed by a Sequel. A Scene is a real-time unit of conflict. A Sequel is the transition period that links two Scenes.

A Sequel controls the story’s tempo by slowing things down after the conflict in the previous Scene. It’s a primarily emotional segment. You can skip or compress time rather than laying out action blow-by-blow.

A Sequel has three parts:

1) Reaction

Show the character’s state of affairs and state of mind after the Disaster of the previous Scene.

Disaster: John is thrown out of the shop by his rival, in front of Mary.
Reaction: John cycles from embarrassment to insecurity to despair to anger.

Also show other characters’ responses to the Disaster.

Reaction: John’s buddy Mike says he’s a big fat loser.

Flashback should never go in a Scene because it will slow the pace and drop tension, but a Sequel is the perfect place to show your character’s background, what has molded him into the person he is.

Reaction: John remembers when hi…

General Structure and Strategy For a Novel

As writers, we all want to write a story that hooks a reader and drives them to keep turning the pages. There's no magic formula, but there are some aspects of story structure that can help a writer craft a compelling story rhythm and pace.

In a story, Change creates danger, which creates fear, which creates tension. And that hooks your reader.

Readers are satisfied in a story where a protagonist's behavior causes the outcome. He is thrust into danger. He strives to overcome and proves to the reader whether he deserves to win or lose. The end is the result of his own choices, his own actions. He takes the consequences or reaps the victory of his decisions.

Character strategy:

A story is change, both internal and external. Events change (external). The character changes (internal).

Your character has to do something. A character who just reacts to external events is boring. Your character should desire to get from point A to point B, and makes certain decisions to get to her goal. T…

The 50-word elevator pitch

The 50-word elevator pitch: Basic story elements and a two-sentence novel summary

Writing a 50-word summary is good to help you condense your thoughts and themes for your novel. This summary can be used when you pitch to editors or agents, and it can also be used in a query letter to an editor or agent.

Swain gives this excellent method to come up with a 2-sentence (or 50-word) summary of your novel. This can be done before you write it or afterward, whichever works best for your writing style.

This is similar to steps 1 and 2 of Randy Ingermanson's Snowflake method:
https://www.advancedfictionwriting.com/articles/snowflake-method/

Each novel typically has five basic story elements:

Character--Your protagonist or focal character. You can sometimes have two protagonists, but even then, often the story of one character is slightly more dominant than the other.

Situation--The troubling situation your character is stuck in that forces him to act.

Objective--What your character desires and…

Beginning your novel, part 1

Beginning is three things: Desire, Danger, Decision.

a. Where to start

Start the story with Danger--trouble, change, a day that's different.

You want to briefly show the character's existing situation--his normal life, what constitutes happiness to the character. This is his Desire.

Then show a change in that situation, a new element, relationship, event--Danger. It should set off a chain reaction of events that influences or affects someone--and not necessarily the protagonist.

Faced with the change and himself (or someone close to him) who is affected by the change, the character makes a decision to do something about it. It should be something the character can't just walk away from, something that spurs him to dedicated, focused action. This is his Decision.

b. How to open

There are many ways to open, and each has problems. You have to choose which one you prefer to tackle:

If you open too far ahead of the initial change, or Danger, and you might bore the reader. Open in the m…

Beginning Your Novel, Part 2

Continued from Beginning Your Novel, Part 1

d. What's going on?

Show things as they happen. There should be that sense of immediacy in your writing that draws the reader into the scene.

Face someone with opposition, conflict. This is a surefire way to capture attention. You don't need to explain why or what happened before the action--that can come later. But start with two opponents--one with a goal, one opposing him.

For an opening scene, find something a little more self-explanatory, something that doesn't need a great deal of backstory, so you don't confuse the reader about who and what's going on. The important thing is to bring the character in with action, movement, opposition.

e. Who--Which character's point of view?

Usually this is the first person's name that appears, although not always. Establish point of view character as early as possible.

The first time point of view character is mentioned, first and last name is acceptable:

Angelina Jolie slung a wa…

How To Write Backstory Without Putting Your Reader To Sleep

Backstory, or a character's past, is often necessary to explain a character's motivations. It can add insight on personality or create reader sympathy.

However, you should try not to present it in the first chapter. When opening a novel, your reader cares more about what's going on right now than what happened in the past. At the start of a book, the reader isn't invested enough in the character to care about what happened to them previously, but later in the story, the reader will be intrigued enough by the character to want to know. As a writer, you need to be careful when and how you bring backstory into the story.

When you do need to present backstory, there are several ways:

1--Flashback. This is a scene remembered by a character and written out as if it were happening again.

She closed her eyes. Suddenly she was twelve years old again. The Hardy Boys ran away, dangling her Raggedy Ann doll in their grubby hands.

"Stop!"

They only laughed at her and ran fast…

The Sagging Middle

The middle of the book is a series of "scenes" and "sequels" as discussed earlier in Scenes and Sequels. It's action-reaction. The important thing to remember is that those action-reaction scenes-sequels should be carrying the protagonist forward toward the climax.

The middle can be broken down into:

--Protagonist breaks down his over-arcing external story goal into a plan of action. For example, Joe needs to solve the murder case, so his plan of action is to first question the prime suspect, the victim's wife.

--The protagonist's plan-of-action goal is thwarted somehow. The Mrs. is missing.

--The protagonist changes his plan of action and continues forward.

--Rinse and repeat.

Here are a few guidelines for the middle section:

1) Every scene should be important.

Everything that happens--every piece of information the characters learn, every obstacle, every conversation--should have the primary purpose of propelling the story toward the conclusion. The story sho…

The Sagging Middle 2: How to Make Things Worse

In my previous article "The Sagging Middle," point 3 is to make things worse. There are lots of things you can do to make things worse, so I separated them into a separate article.

a) Complicate, don't just delay things.

Make sure that each obstacle is really an obstacle, not just a delay of the forward action. Each obstacle should somehow change something for the character.

For example, say the heroine needs to drive to the next town for an interview. Her car dies. She phones the hiring manager and explains, and he reschedules her interview. In this instance, the obstacle doesn't change anything for the heroine. It's only a delay of the action.

However, say the hero shows up in his tow truck and the heroine recognizes him as the guy she stole her car from. Suddenly the scene has turned into a complication.

b) Create a powerful crucible.

A crucible is the term used to describe the physical event or emotional relationship that keeps the character moving forward inst…

Bring It To an End

Swain gives five steps for a dramatic conclusion to your story. Obviously, not all stories adhere to this rather simplistic and slightly rigid structure. However, many of the great stories of all time do follow these steps, which is why Swain recommends them.

1) Set up a situation where your character is boxed in and forced to choose between two very specific, alternate courses of action.

The previous articles on The Sagging Middle discussed ways to Make Things Worse for your character and box him in until he’s forced to these two choices.

Principle: Why two choices? It tests the character’s principle. Does he adhere to principle and forsake the other choice left to him, or does he abandon principle and pursue the other choice available? Either way, the character sacrifices something important and precious. That’s the definition of a climax.

Swain teaches this way to set up a climactic scene. The two choices are either:

(a) An easy way for the hero to attain his external goal, but in doin…