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Tuesday, August 23, 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 experience in both styles, I can identify with the pros and cons of each.

"Pantsers":

Most fiction writers are "pantsers". For many people, this allows them to achieve maximum creative expression. If the writer doesn't know where the plot is going, then the reader won't know either--resulting in a surprising, exciting work of fiction. This style can also be much more interesting for the writer as he/she writes, enabling an easier trudge through the dreaded "middle" of the book.

The downside of "pantsing" is the revisions. Sometimes, logic flaws and inconsistencies are noticed after the writer has already written a majority of the novel. Going back to correct can sometimes be a complex, tedious, problematic process, because one change often snowballs into numerous other details that must be revised. "Pantsing" also sometimes results in uneven, jerky pacing and rising action. These can be difficult to correct if the slower scenes that hamper the pace are integral to the plot, or if action scenes placed too close together can't be interjected with slower scenes to build suspense.

Many “pantsers” are wizards at revisions. They keep plotlines in order with ease inside their heads, and switches or rewrites are done effortlessly.

"Plotters":

Because "plotters" write outlines before fleshing out their scenes, they often can catch and correct inconsistencies and logic flaws before they start writing. It is less labor-intensive to make changes to an outline rather than an entire manuscript. Some "plotters" also use the outline to plan and control pacing, rising action, and suspense--scenes can be switched or added to mold the intensity of the action and the suspense of the sequel. Also, an early outlining step is writing the story synopsis, which is one less headache when submitting for publication.

However, for many people plotting the outline before writing the scenes can drastically hamper creative expression and enjoyment in writing. The dreaded "middle" of the novel becomes a nightmare of dwindling motivation and a shortened attention span. Also, some people's personalities and organizational styles find it difficult to plan so many words in advance. It can be daunting on a psychological level, or confining to be chained to a set sequence of planned events.

What's best for you?

Ultimately, writers should experiment with both styles before deciding if the pros outweigh the cons for each method. One exercise to try would be to take two short story ideas, then "plot" one story and "pants" the other. You'll be able to determine fairly quickly which suits you, but the key is to try each style at least once.

I did not think I would be a very good "plotter". But I discovered that for me personally, outlining did not cramp my creativity. Although I have a skeleton outline of the chapters, the actual writing always brought out new nuances and fresh ideas, requiring lots of creative juice. I also spent less time revising, which I dislike. Some authors are extremely gifted in revising, so "pantsing" enables their talent to shine.

How do I find out more about "pantsing" and "plotting"?

The best "plotting" advice I know came from Randy Ingermanson and his "Snowflake" method:
http://www.advancedfictionwriting.com/articles/snowflake-method/

For "pantsing", I have some advice from a "pantser-turned-plotter". You should have a few foundational elements done before you begin:

1) Characters--Hero, heroine, villain, minor characters. However, "pantsers" don't need to know everything about them before they start writing.

Related to Characters is Motivation--why they do what they do, the force that drives them against each other or against the villain. It should be real, believable, absolute, and seemingly unconquerable.

Related to Motivation is Goal: some concrete thing the characters want because of their underlying motivation.

2) Theme--Come up with a general theme of your book that will enable you to keep on track with your story. I've heard some romance writers talk about who they will often connect the theme of their book with a character's greatest fear or inner struggle. It's the central point around which your story will revolve.

3) Situation--a general idea of setting, and the situation the characters are in.

4) Conflict--what problems will your characters face, to prevent them from reaching their goals?

For more basic information on writing technique, characterization and plot, I would suggest:
Plot and Structure by James Scott Bell
Getting Into Character by Brandilyn Collins
Techniques of the Selling Writer by Dwight V. Swain
Goal, Motivation, and Conflict by Debra Dixon

What next?

Determining your writing style can help you to write more efficiently and effectively. New writers want to write well but are unsure what to follow--some articles stress the pre-novel legwork like outlining and character charts, while others urge the writer to simply write and see where they end up. Once you know what suits your personality, you won't waste time in a style that doesn't allow you to write your best.

Then just START. Non-activity is the writer's worst enemy. Jot down outline notes, or start writing Chapter One.

Because no matter what style you prefer, ultimately you are a writer. Get your words out there for someone else to read.

Monday, August 22, 2005

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 run faster. Long, descriptive sentences slow the reading pace. In a fight scene, you want your reader to be skimming the page, rolling with the punches, swinging with the kicks. Fast reading pace is essential. Use only a phrase or a sentence for each move, at most two short sentences. You can also combine short phrases together, since each phrase will still let the action gallop along:

He paused, listening for movement. The whisper of a footstep to his left. He turned, lashed out blindly, felt his fist connect with muscled flesh, heard a soft “Oomph.”

Vary sentence length

Conversely, reading flow can also become bogged down if there are too many sentences of the same length one after the other:

He punched. She ducked. He kicked. She twisted.

Or

He turned at the sound of running feet. A body ran into him as he stood there. He hit the table with a thundering crash. Splinters stabbed into his bare arms.

Continue to avoid long, rambling description, but vary your sentence and phrase length:

Running feet. He turned. A body ran into him, throwing him into the table with a thundering crash. Splinters stabbed into his bare arms.

Be creative, be efficient

Be creative with your sparse prose. Since you only have a sentence or so for each move, you need to be innovative with how you describe it. Use imaginative verbs to convey more than just the action. “He crunched his fist into her face” paints a vivid picture of both the blow and the pain it causes.

Most readers can extrapolate from what you’ve written so that you don’t have to describe every nuance of motion. Even a simple phrase like “a flying roundhouse kick” will convey powerful images of a graceful martial arts student in mid-flight. You don’t have to describe the arc of motion, the angle of the foot, the twisting of the torso. Give your readers credit and let their imaginations fill in for you.

Momentum and moves

Martial arts fighting is usually about momentum. The next move flows from where the last one ended. If your heroine swings a roundhouse kick, where is her weight when she lands, on which foot? Is she straight up or bent at the waist? In what direction is her body leaning? The next blow she delivers should follow the same line of momentum. If she kicked in a clockwise motion, her next kick will also probably be clockwise.

I am not ashamed to admit I’ll often try to act out fight sequences (not very well) in order to figure out momentum and balance (just make sure no one can see you :-). I will mimic a kick and observe how my weight shifts, or what area of my body is exposed.

Use variation. Lots of punches will look the same after a while. Vary hand blows with kicks. However, make sure each movement will naturally follow the previous one in terms of momentum and body balance. If she steps into a right handed punch, it will be difficult for her to follow with a right front kick because her weight will be on that foot, but a left front kick would follow easily.

Watch lots of fight scenes on TV and in movies. Granted, they are all choreographed, but it allows you to observe the flow of momentum and get ideas for moves. Be wary of the more unusual moves--they’re sometimes a bit too unrealistic or too difficult to describe. Remember, each move should only take up a sentence, and phrases need to be short. If a really cool move is so complex that you can’t describe it in a sentence, maybe it needs to be simplified or cut out of the scene.

There’s also several reality fighting shows on TV these days that give you a better idea of the rhythm and flow of a true spar. It’s definitely not as pretty as a choreographed fight scene. The writer can choose to mimic the nature of a real fight or to suspend reality and describe a smoother flowing fight. Most readers will follow either method.

If you have any other tips and tricks, please e-mail me! I can always use more ideas and I'd love to add to this list.

Sunday, August 21, 2005

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 in space and time, they can feel disjointed and out of touch with the character and what's going on.

My stance is #2, for several reasons. One, if I "under describe," that's a lot easier for me to fix than over describing--it depends on the writer.

Two, starting in the action is more of a hook to the reader to get them reading past the first paragraph, past the first page, and that is key. I've read wonderful poetic description in a book, but if the description isn't about something interesting to pique my interest, the skill of the writer doesn't keep me reading past the first page.

I write suspense and Chick-Lit, so I land the reader in the middle of action. You don't have to be as extreme as I am.

Hook 'em with the first line.

Start the novel with a catchy first line. Cute, clever, mysterious, dangerous, puzzling, ominous...you get the picture. Basically, something unusual is happening or going to happen.

As she jogged off the path, Nora saw a pair of glowing eyes from the trees.
or
It was a lazy Sunday afternoon until Grandma drove the car into the side of the house.

You can also start a novel with dialogue, because that's inherently in the middle of some action. Here's the opening line of my current wip (I'm too lazy to look up another example and type it in. :)

"If you can snag a date for the Christmas Eve Candlelight Service, I'll go with the family to church." Her brother Satoro folded his arms and gave Risa a superior smile.

See? Something out of the ordinary is happening to Risa, and I started the story in dialogue. You don't have to do both necessarily. Just make sure something interesting is happening:

Do a generic description.

It's hard for a reader to jump into a story without at least a rudimentary understanding of where they are. In Louisiana? On the moon? In a bar called Louisiana on a moon base?

Description doesn't need to be pages or even a paragraph. A good trick to give the reader a general feel for the setting is to mention a cliché, with a twist:
"The party had the attitude of a drunk, ditzy blonde."

Another trick is to mention something significant, detailed, which embodies the setting:
"He stared at the scarred, sagging wooden doors before swinging them open and stalking into the bar."
The mention of the swinging wooden doors conjures up images of a spaghetti western.

After that sentence to "sum up" your setting, you can pepper details in throughout the scene in your characters' action beats (see Sneak and pepper).

Sneak and pepper:

Here's my next move: I sneak in hints throughout the dialogue and narrative to describe the setting and give backstory. I pepper snippets of information here and there rather than all at once.

Again, I'm going to use my wip.

In this passage, I want to introduce Risa's sister Emi, and show that Emi is fashionable and much skinnier than Risa, who is self-conscious about her weight. I also want to show it's set in the living room of their parents' house. I want to show some of the interaction between Emi and Risa as sisters, and Emi and Satoro as brother/sister. I also want to deliberately create a MYSTERY with Emi's reaction to a question Risa asks (this will pique reader interest and keep them reading). Lastly, I want to hint that they're gathered for a weekly family dinner (which I explain in more detail later).

"I should have figured you two would argue before dinner's even on the table." Their sister Emi slammed the front door and sauntered into the living room, running a manicured hand through freshly-highlighted hair.

Risa wasn't sure it looked good with Emi's manufactured tan. "When did you get that done?"

"Today at Janet's salon." Emi set her Fendi baguette handbag on their parents' hardwood end table.

"Mom's going to have a fit."

A flash of something passed over Emi's eyes, but then she shot Risa an unconcerned glance. Risa didn't turn away immediately—it had almost looked like guilt.

Emi draped her size-two figure over Papa's ratty recliner and took in Risa's brown corduroy pants. "You look like you lost weight."

Satoro loosed a braying guffaw. "Yeah, maybe from her mouth."

Emi's pointed-toe shoe, idly swinging over the arm of the recliner, suddenly connected with her brother's skinny behind. "Satz, you're such a jerk." Her gaze paused over Risa's fitted white shirt. "New?"

"Not since last week's family dinner." Risa tugged the cotton lower over her barrel-shaped midsection.

I dole out information on the setting and backstory in snippets. That's deliberate for two reasons:
1) It keeps an air of mystery if the reader has to figure out what's going on, and it keeps them reading.
2) It doesn't slow down the reader's reading pace with a long descriptive paragraph, I can keep the action moving and paint the surroundings at the same time.

Describe by response.

Rather than describing the setting around the two characters, I try to show how the characters RESPOND to the setting. Any description is paired with some emotional reaction. That way you're not spending precious page time describing flowery wallpaper—instead, you're both describing the wallpaper AND showing something about the character at the same time:

He eyed the overblown roses on the peeling wallpaper, resentful that he and not his uncle would be the one tearing it down and replacing it eventually.

See what I mean? Describe setting by REACTION. In my passage, I show both the room and Emi's comfort with the house by her walking into the living room and sitting sideways on Papa's chair. Setting is a great way to give insight into your characters--and backstory, too!--without a descriptive paragraph.

Less is more.

Readers can infer a great deal if you just mention a few vivid, specific key words.

Like Risa's brown corduroy pants--I don't have to describe the fit, the cut, the brand, but you as the reader have an idea of a pair of brown corduroy pants you've seen or worn. I don't need to describe it more because I leave the rest up to the reader's imagination.

The same with Emi's description--I just mention the highlighted hair, manicured nails, Fendi baguette, and fake tan. The reader has a picture in their mind of Emi without a single word about her facial structure or her eyes. You're probably assuming she's got makeup on and a slim, trendy outfit.

Just think of a few specially-chosen words and you can describe anything in very little page space.

Dealing with backstory.

Don’t open with it. Period. Save it for later in the scene or chapter, preferably in chapter two.

Any knowledge you give to the reader has to cause the reader to ask more questions.

What that means for you as the writer is that any narrative or backstory has to be very carefully chosen and given. Any narrative or backstory has to have a very specific purpose for the story, and that narrative or backstory should work to make the reader ask more questions about the character or storyline.

You want to foster that sense of “What’s going on?” for the reader that will make the reader keep reading in order to find out.

Don't use a convenient fiction device to tell the reader. For example:
"Father, is your sister Agatha, who divorced your best friend Harry and moved to Oklahoma, coming into town soon?"

Create an aura of mystery to make your reader want to know the past. Give as little information as possible in small snippets. Here's an example from another WIP of mine:

A stabbing bolt shot through her pelvis. Erika couldn’t breathe for a second, then it faded away. Her skin felt clammy. She scrubbed at her cheeks with the rough towel. She blew air in and out, but there wasn’t a reoccurrence, only dull pulsing.

Erika met Larry’s eyes, deep-set and shadowed, piercing her with concern. He’d been the one to run her to the ER that night, to call her OB/GYN, to hold her hand when the general anesthesia wore off.

“I’m fine now.” She elbowed him aside a bit rougher than he deserved, but she wanted to get away from that look on his face.

The next mention of her pain is the next chapter, but this small mention makes the reader wonder what's going on.

You can also motivate another character to need the information. Make sure it's not just another fiction device, like the maid asking the master what happened to the missus. The character who wants the information has to have a good reason to need it, and has to fight to learn what he needs to know. Tie the information to action.

Study more craft.

There's always newer, more creative ways to write hooks, setting and backstory. Innovative articles pop up online all the time. A few books I've found useful are:

TECHNIQUES OF THE SELLING WRITER by Dwight V. Swain
THE FIRST FIVE PAGES by Noah Lukeman
PLOT AND STRUCTURE by James Scott Bell (excellent discussion of how to start your novel strong)
WRITE GREAT FICTION: DESCRIPTION AND SETTING by Ron Rozelle

Saturday, August 20, 2005

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 be something unconsciously making your writing station unpleasant.

Time yourself—Write down your start time and display it near your workstation and your clock. Sometimes a small bit of self-accountability will increase productivity. After a while, you may find you’ve written for longer than you thought you could.

Read about writing—Dust off a writing book, magazine, or online article you’ve been meaning to read and dig in. It might provide inspiration, an answer to a tough question, or a renewed urge to get back into your wip.

Listen to conference workshop tapes—Informative and inspirational.

Put in some mood music—Pick out CDs that relax you or stimulate you, whatever you need to get back into that creative groove.

Let aromatherapy take you away—Aromatherapy scents like citrus can stimulate the mind, or lavender can melt the stress away. Some exotic scents or combinations can create a certain “atmosphere” that might play on your creative senses, or perhaps trigger a mood or a feeling that thrusts your imagination into the world of your characters.

Critique someone else’s work—Since you can’t feel motivation to work on your own stuff, utilize the time to help someone else, either a critique buddy or one of the online writing communities like Writing.com. Sometimes working on someone else’s work can motivate you to work on your own.

Change the scenery—Go someplace else, even if it’s a different chair in the same room. Go to another room in the house, or leave the house. Even the backyard is better than your usual writing spot. Go to a park, or a coffeehouse, or the library. If you don’t have a laptop computer, take an Alphasmart or a pad and pen.

Change format—Switch to pen and paper rather than your computer, or switch to an Alphasmart. Use post-it notes or pin notepaper on the wall. Tape up a huge piece of butcher paper or several sheets of paper on the wall and use a marker or a crayon. Write plot or character points on index cards and line them up on the floor, or toss them in the air and see how they fall.

Stretch and exercise—Much as I hate it, sometimes all I need is about 15-20 minutes of stretching or cycling on the exercise bike to get my creative juices flowing. I think it must be due to increased circulation through my muscles and into my brain. If you don’t have home exercise equipment, go for a short bike ride or a walk. Toss a ball with someone or play a little one-on-one. Even shooting hoops solo will get your energy level up and might help you think clearer, be inspired to write.

Hit the tub—If I’m aware I’m stressed, sometimes I’ll indulge in a bath or hot shower. The relaxation and soothing temperature of the water often inspires creativity as it leeches the stress out of my body.

Read a really good book or a really bad book—One will inspire you to write words like that, the other will motivate you to write better words than that.

Clean your house/work area—Sometimes I discover that the reason I can’t write is because I’m distracted by the mess either around my writing area, or the rest of the house. Twenty minutes spent cleaning will not only clear my workspace, it’ll clear my mind, too.

Read the newspaper or blogs for story ideas—But be careful not to use it as a procrastination technique.

If you have any other ideas, please e-mail me. I'll add them to the list. I can always use new ideas to motivate myself.

Friday, August 19, 2005

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-Beginning Your Novel, part 2


12-How to Write Backstory Without Putting Your Reader To Sleep

13-The Sagging Middle


14-The Sagging Middle, part 2: How To Make Things Worse


15-Bring It To an End

16-A Brief Overview of Characterization

17-The Nuts and Bolts of Actually Writing


18-Get Into the Mindset of Writing

Tuesday, August 16, 2005

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 emotions surging through you will get the words on paper, but it's not guaranteed to be communicated clearly to someone reading it.

Knowledge of writing technique will point out flaws or errors. Then, your writing will be both emotional and clear in communicating that emotion.

Future articles will focus on writing technique. Remember that the "rules" are guidelines, not the Ten Commandments. But most of the time, the guidelines make your piece stronger, so that it packs more whallop to your reader.

Each writer writes in a different way--slow, fast, organized, organic. Adapt the techniques to your own way of writing.

Practice makes perfect.

The ONLY way to learn and master these techniques is by writing. Be willing to make mistakes on your first try. Be willing to learn and improve, and you will.

Learning writing techniques is like learning to drive a car. There are lots of different steps: turn on the ignition, step on the brake, shift into gear, etc. But after you drive a lot, the steps become second nature and you don't have to think about them.

When you first start writing, you might try to remember all the different techniques and rules. But as you write more, the rules will become second nature. After a while, you'll write without consciously thinking about action verbs, passive voice, point of view, etc. (more on those in future articles).

Exercise:

Find something you're emotional about. Write an article, poem, short story, or devotional. Don’t worry about technique--just get the words on paper. Practice writing emotionally.

Next: Choosing Understandable Words

NOTE: Information in this article is taken from the classic "Techniques of the Selling Writer" by Dwight V. Swain.

Back to Articles from Swain

Monday, August 15, 2005

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 "boot" in Great Britain is a car "trunk" in the US. Also, be careful about the *feelings* certain words convey, not just their literal meanings.

Good grammar skills are a must. No exception. You can't write clear text if your grammar is so atrocious, inconsistent, or sloppy that the reader isn't sure what you're saying. One great resource is Daily Grammar. Each lesson is extremely easy to understand and very short, made for grade-school or junior high school level. Even if your grammar is good, it's always wise to brush up on terms and nuances you might have forgotten. Another option is to dig out your old junior high school grammar text and skim through.

Don't repeat yourself unless you have a good reason. The human brain is very quick to note repetition, and your readers will assume that anything repeated must be important to the plot. Mystery author Agatha Christie never repeated key phrases or observations, because she knew that the reader will pick up on anything mentioned twice, and if it's the key to the murder, then where's the surprise?

Isn't it annoying to read a scene where the author uses a certain word or phrase constantly? "She was a spectacular actress...His spectacular fried shrimp...The girl's spectacular dress...The butler's spectacular staff..." You get the picture. Microsoft Word has a Find feature so you can see how often you use certain words, and change them.

I'll discuss VIBRANT writing in the next article.

Exercise:

Edit something you've written. Use the following checklist:

1) Did you include the Who, What, Where, When, Why and How?
2) Does the sequence of words and phrases convey what you want it to? Action--Reaction?
3) Check that your words convey the right feeling and meaning.
4) Check your grammar.
5) Go through every single word and see how often it's repeated. Some words (like pronouns) you don't have a choice, but how about certain nouns, verbs, adverbs, adjectives?

Next: Choosing Vibrant Words

NOTE: Information in this article is taken from the classic "Techniques of the Selling Writer" by Dwight V. Swain.

Back to Articles from Swain

Sunday, August 14, 2005

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 her if she wanted a lift. She had coyly refused with her mouth but her heart had screamed yes. Oh, if only she hadn't been so stupid.

If you're describing a past event being recalled, use one "had" in the beginning, and then maybe one "had" at the end, and then continue with the present narrative:

Joy remembered the time she had gone to the grocery store and picked up a few sodas, but then Johnny drove up in his motorcycle and asked her if she wanted a lift. She coyly refused with her mouth but her heart screamed yes. Oh, if only she hadn't been so stupid.

3) Adverbs should be minimized. The current writing trend is to eliminate them as ruthlessly (haha) as possible, but in general, they're just tedious after a while. Replace adverbs with more specific verbs. "She angrily walked to the front door and quickly opened it," versus "She flounced to the front door and yanked it open."

If you do need to use an adverb, put it at the beginning or the end of the sentence for the most vivid effect: "Efficiently, she cleared the desk." "He whined monotonously."

Exercise:

Edit something you've written. Use the following checklist:

1) Did you use all five senses?
2) Did you use specific nouns? Active verbs?
3) Do a Find for "to be" verbs (was, is, etc.) and "had.".
4) Do a Find for "ly." You may be surprised how many you find.

Next: The Larger Picture of Character, Setting, and Story

NOTE: Information in this article is taken from the classic "Techniques of the Selling Writer" by Dwight V. Swain.

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Saturday, August 13, 2005

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 walkway, a white carpet lined with crimson as they approached the house. The air had a faint tang from the stiff winds blowing from the nearby bay, which shoved at her back as they climbed the steps to the portico. Two huge windows on either side of the front doors glinted like gaudy diamond earrings. When Betty turned and glared at her, Lisa snapped her mouth shut and followed in the wake of her friend's stomping footsteps.

If the scene were from Betty's viewpoint, it would be different:

The front windows followed her with a malevolent gaze as she approached the front doors, as if to mock her for being forced to return after all these years. The sunlight stung her skin. She forced her feet onward, step by step, keeping her eyes lowered to the blood-red flowers dripping down either side of the concrete walkway. The stiff wind from the bay slapped her cheeks and jerked her hair around her face. Why did she come back here? Why had she let Lisa come with her?

Story:

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. There are consequences she reacts to or obstacles she avoids.

For most stories, your character has to BECOME DIFFERENT. In general, a character who doesn't change is boring. At some point, your character has some realization or "Ah-ha!" moment that changes her and (sometimes) the outcome of the story.

There is an exception to this—some characters don’t change, which also impacts the outcome of the story. The endpoint is the same—the story is influenced by the character’s change or non-change.

Exercise:

All this leads to the smaller picture, Motivation-Reaction Units, the building blocks of your scenes. For now, think up a single scene. Choose a focal character, a viewpoint character (it can be the same person), and a setting. We'll expand it in the next article on Motivation-Reaction Units.

NOTE: Information in this article is taken from the classic "Techniques of the Selling Writer" by Dwight V. Swain.

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Friday, August 12, 2005

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 in character (or reveal the character's personality) and a reasonable response. Nothing will put a reader off more than a stupid reaction to a stimulus--the infamous "Too Stupid to Live" heroines from horror flicks.

3) The reaction should serve to forward the story.

The M-R Unit:

The simplest MR Unit is two sentences:

a. Write a sentence without your character (motivation, or cause)
b. Follow it with a sentence about your character (reaction, or effect)

The man in the corner turned and took off his hat, revealing his features. (motivation)
Sara's hand tightened around her water glass. (reaction)
It slipped through her fingers and crashed on the floor. (motivation)
She ducked her flaming face and crouched down to pick up the pieces. (reaction)
The thump of a pair of cowboy boots grew closer, then stopped behind her. (motivation)
Her heart stopped beating as she waited for him to speak. (reaction)

Your scene is built on M-R Units. Once you get used to writing them, they'll become automatic. Like learning to drive: at first you have to remember each action--like pressing the brake, turning the key, putting the car in gear--but eventually it all becomes second nature.

Exercise:

Remember the scene you thought up in the last article (The Larger Picture: Character, Setting, Story)? Now write it using M-R Units.

Next: Scene and Sequel--Scene

NOTE: Information in this article is taken from the classic "Techniques of the Selling Writer" by Dwight V. Swain.

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Thursday, August 11, 2005

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 to lose in the Scene.

2) Conflict

Make it harder for your character to achieve his goal. Remember, Conflict is not just general unpleasantness, but some action or new information that is directly against what your character wants.

For example:

Man enters shop to buy a watch, but shopkeeper comes up with lame excuses not to sell it.

Man enters shop to ask shopgirl on a date, but customers keep interrupting him.

Man enters shop to kill the man who stole his car, but thief is already dead.

Man enters shop to prevent rival from dating his girl, but rival entices her with gifts, then starts throwing punches.

Make sure there is formidable opposition. If your villain is weak, there’s no conflict.

Beware repetition. Throw in twists and turns. Don’t just argue over the same issues ad nauseum.

3) Disaster

A Disaster is a totally unexpected action or new information that leaves the character at a loss. It serves as an ending hook to keep the reader reading. It should be completely believable but Truly Horrible.

For example:

Man enters shop to buy a watch, but shopkeeper comes up with lame excuses not to sell it. Then man discovers shopkeeper had promised it to a Mafia leader.

Man enters shop to ask shopgirl on a date, but customers keep interrupting him. Then shopgirl’s boyfriend walks in.

Man enters shop to kill the man who stole his car, but thief is already dead. Then man finds papers proving the thief is his brother.

Man enters shop to prevent rival from dating his girl, but rival entices her with gifts, then starts throwing punches. Then rival throws man out of the shop.

Exercise:

Write a Scene with Goal, Conflict and Disaster.

Next: Sequel

NOTE: Information in this article is taken from the classic "Techniques of the Selling Writer" by Dwight V. Swain.

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Wednesday, August 10, 2005

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 his father threw him out of the house in front of his weeping mother. He recalls his feelings of inadequacy and hopelessness.

2) Dilemma

So what does the character do now? Lay out his choices. You can also include non-conflict incidents--new information, new action--to influence his options.

Dilemma: John could give up and go back home to Indiana, he could covertly try to see Mary, or he could seek out his rival and beat him up.
Incidents: John discovers his rival has a bad left knee.

3) Decision

The character comes up with a course of action, and a new Goal for the coming Scene.

Decision: John overcomes his old feelings of inadequacy and determines to show Mary he’s worthy of her love by beating up his rival.
Goal for next Scene: Find his rival at the coffeeshop and issue a challenge.

Sequel length will determine the overall mood of your story. Short Sequels make the story fast-paced, longer Sequels make it introspective.

Use your Sequels to set up your character’s personality, chain of logic, and background. Then segue way into the next action-packed Scene.

While this isn’t a hard-and-fast rule, most well-paced stories will follow this structure of Goal-Conflict-Disaster-Reaction-Dilemma-Decision. It provides a method to move the plot and character development forward.

Exercise:

Write a Sequel to the Scene you wrote earlier.

Next: General Story Structure and Strategy For a Novel

NOTE: Information in this article is taken from the classic "Techniques of the Selling Writer" by Dwight V. Swain.

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Tuesday, August 09, 2005

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. There are consequences she reacts to or obstacles she avoids.

Your character has to become different. A character who doesn't change is boring. At some point, your character has some realization or "Ah-ha!" moment that changes her and (sometimes) the outcome of the story.

There are exceptions to this second point. Stephanie Plum and Hercule Poirot didn't change very much at the end of each book. However, sometimes events outside the characters change subtly--their relationships with other minor characters, or maybe deeper information about them is revealed to the reader.

Story strategy:

The beginning creates the tension.

The beginning is two things--Setup and Catalyst or Inciting Incident

Setup is briefly establishing the character(s) in their original world. The brooding rancher, or the spoiled heiress. Show what the protagonist wants--what symbolizes happiness to her. It can be her present life, or something she desires.

Catalyst/Inciting Incident is the event that changes the protagonist’s world. It can be an external source rather than something the protagonist effects. It is danger to the protagonist, which threatens her desire or happiness.

The middle builds up the tension and intensifies it.

There are often three “disasters,” or “turning points.” Three is a common number for most screenplays, but it can be two or four.

Each disaster/turning point works directly against the protagonist’s goal, but he keeps moving forward. His choices are taken away, the stakes are raised, he’s boxed in. Whatever you do as the writer, grow the tension.

In the climax, the tension comes to a point.

Here is usually the crux of any internal conflict your character is struggling with, or the Epiphany. The character learns something, or comes to some self-realization.

Then the protagonist is given a choice between right and wrong, unselfishness and selfishness, sacrifice and safety. This is a form of testing of the self-realization in the Epiphany, and your reader shares the protagonist’s testing.

When the hero makes the right decision, the reader feels empowered to act on principle, also. A satisfying ending will happen because the protagonist has proven to the reader that he/she deserves to win.

It's not a moral lesson in the story. It's a psychological tactic to make the reader satisfied with the ending. It's simplistic, but in general, for popular fiction, it works. You can also turn this principle on its head if you're aiming for more esoteric literary fiction or a different emotional reaction from a reader.

Once the protagonist has made the right choice, everything goes wrong, All Is Lost, there is no hope for success. This is the Climax or Black Moment.

In the resolution, the tension is released in a satisfying ending.

Basically, you reward the protagonist for doing the right thing. The tide suddenly turns. Rescue can come from external sources or the protagonist’s efforts.

And they all lived Happily Ever After. Although not always. You can have the protagonist not achieve her desire, but find satisfaction and fulfillment in some other way. Loose threads should wrap up. The reader should be satisfied with the outcome of events, whether the protagonist “wins” or “loses.”

Exercise:

Here are a few questions to help structure your novel. Some of these will be explained more in the following lessons, but this might help in planning your story and character.

1) What does your protagonist desire? What symbolizes happiness to him/her?
2) What incident endangers that happiness and starts the protagonist on her journey?
3) What are three major disasters that prevent your protagonist from his goal?
4) What is a choice (related to the protagonist's goal) between right and wrong that you can use for the climax?
5) How will you reward your protagonist for doing the right thing?

Next: Your 50-Word Elevator Pitch

NOTE: Information in this article is taken from the classic "Techniques of the Selling Writer" by Dwight V. Swain.

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Monday, August 08, 2005

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 strives for. It could be something he wants to retain/protect or attain, which is endangered.

Opponent--Your antagonist who works directly against your protagonist's objective. An antagonist who simply makes general "trouble" is not as vibrant a character as one who deliberately works against what your hero/heroine is working toward, someone who resists and fights back.

Disaster--The climax of your story, the Black Moment, the point at which everything is Hopelessly Lost.

You take these five elements and craft them into two simple sentences, and voila! You have a 10-second blurb to tell an agent or editor at a writer's conference that completely sums up your novel's plot.

Sentence one states character, situation, and objective. Sentence two is a yes/no question that asks if character can overcome opponent and disaster.

Example:

Character--Sydney Bristow, secret agent

Situation--Discovers she's been tricked into thinking she's working for the CIA when in truth it's a terrorist agency

Objective-- To topple the powerful organization called the Alliance by working as a double agent

Opponent--her boss Arvin Sloan, who has been a family friend for years, who lied to her about her job

Disaster--Sloane suspects her because she told her fiancé, and he had him killed.

Summary:
After discovering she was tricked into thinking she's working for the CIA, agent Sydney Bristow becomes a double agent, determined to take down the terrorist group called the Alliance. But can she fool her boss Arvin Sloane when he kills her fiancé and suspects her enough to kill her?

There is also the “What If?” method:

One or two sentences asking “What if...?” to pique listener interest in the outcome of the storyline.

What if agent Sydney Bristow discovers her boss Arvin Sloane had tricked her into thinking she worked for the CIA and ordered her fiancé killed? And what if she now has to return to work for her lover’s murderer as a double-agent in order to take down the terrorist group called the Alliance?

Please note: These are just a devices for writing a novel or summarizing it's main parts. They’re not the only way to go about doing things, but either method can help a writer break down a story into basic elements.

Exercise:
Your turn! Write a two-sentence summary for your work in progress or a manuscript you've completed.

Next: Beginning Your Novel part one

NOTE: Information in this article is taken from the classic "Techniques of the Selling Writer" by Dwight V. Swain.

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Sunday, August 07, 2005

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 middle change itself, and the reader might feel disoriented to be thrust in the middle of something he doesn't understand. Open after the change, and you're forced to explain what happened in a lot of backstory.

Hook them with a first sentence, a first paragraph, a first page. Realistically, a reader in a bookstore takes 20 seconds to decide to buy a book. You need to make that first page so compelling they have to read on.

Work on your opening line. It should show something unexpected, mysterious, curious, devious, dangerous, surprising, or intriguing.

c. Where is it?

Are you in Louisiana? The moon? In a bar called Louisiana on a moon base?

Description doesn't need to be pages or even a paragraph. A good trick to give the reader a general feel for the setting is to mention a cliché, with a twist:

The party had the attitude of a drunk, ditzy blonde.

Another trick is to mention something significant, detailed, which embodies the setting:

He stared at the scarred, sagging wooden doors before swinging them open and stalking into the bar.

The mention of the swinging wooden doors immediately conjures up images of a spaghetti western.

After that sentence to "sum up" your setting, you can pepper details in throughout the scene in your characters' action beats:

He slammed a silver dollar onto the wooden bar, but it dinged off a deep rut cut into the wood and skittered across the peanuts toward the burly man next to him. In the dim light, he couldn't make out more than a jagged scar on the pock-marked cheek and a gold-glinting sneer.

Next: Beginning your novel, part 2

Excercises:

1. From your manuscript, list: a) the main character's existing situation, b) the change to that situation, c) the affected character, and d) the consequences that spur the main character to action. What is your character's Desire, Danger, and Decision?

2. Look at your opening line. Is it something unexpected, mysterious, curious, devious, dangerous, surprising, or intriguing?

3. Where is the story set? Do you have a long paragraph of description or do you ease your reader into your story world?

NOTE: Information in this article is taken from the classic "Techniques of the Selling Writer" by Dwight V. Swain.

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Saturday, August 06, 2005

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 wad of cow dung at the thief racing off with her Ferrari.

You expect the rest of the scene in Angelina's point of view.

The first time the character appears, make sure he/she acts characteristically. His personality will be demonstrated by his action. Devise incidents that will force your character to reveal early on his true nature in action.

Often, a character has a dominant trait or aspect--this is what will open the story for your reader and reveal the character. While we're all complex personalities, in fiction it's good to have one dominant trait for each character to help discriminate between them: Cora is a timid schoolteacher, Jesse is a rebel gunslinger, Bob is a nervous banker, Angel is a sloe-eyed prostitute, Jeremiah is the slimy preacher, Mary is his starchy wife.

Give a general impression first, so the reader has a hazy description, and build on it as the scene or novel progresses. Just like for setting, you can use a cliché with a twist, and/or a significant detail that embodies the character:

She was like a dry English professor who'd gotten a ditzy blonde's brain transplant.

Everything she wore--color, cut, fabric--was designed to flatter that antique ruby and emerald ring.

Don't bring onstage too many characters at once. If you have problems remember names at parties, your reader will too.

f. What to leave out

Backstory, history, flashback, even discussion of past action. Hold these for later. When opening a book, your reader wants to know, "What's happening now?" not "What happened earlier?"

Remember, start with something self-explanatory so you can thrust the reader into the story world without needing a lot of explanation for them to be interested in what's happening. You can explain things after the action, after that first chapter, when the reader is firmly hooked in the story and more likely to sit still for an explanation.

g. Decision--The doorway of no return

As soon as you can in the story, commit the character to their goal for the book. There shouldn't be any easy way out or turning back. Once the character decides on a course of action, he can't stall, run, or quit--there should be something logical, believable and powerful preventing him. The character should irrevocably decide to fight whatever danger threatens him.

This creates reader curiosity and suspense. Will the character make his goal or won't he? The doubt or uncertainty of the character reaching his goal is often what propels a reader forward.

If the character cares about the outcome, the reader will care, also. If the character is apathetic, what's to keep the reader interested?

Exercises:

1. What's going on? Do you have enough conflict and obstacles to the focal character? Does the focal character have a particular goal for the scene that's being attacked or resisted?

2. Who's your focal character? Are they introduced first and described in a unique way?

3. Is there backstory you need to cut out?

4. Is the focal character's decision made early? Is it a doorway of no return so that the character can't go back?

Next: How to write backstory without putting your reader to sleep.

NOTE: Information in this article is taken from the classic "Techniques of the Selling Writer" by Dwight V. Swain.

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Friday, August 05, 2005

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 faster, tripping over the woodpile but righting themselves before they hit the wooden fence. Up and over, and they were gone.

She opened her eyes. She wasn't twelve anymore, and John Hardy was going to give her doll back to her.

2--A discussion about the past action. This is basically a flashback in dialogue form, but don't make it too obvious. It should be absolutely fascinating to the reader for some reason apart from the information being conveyed. One of the characters should need to know the information in a bad way, for a dire reason.

This should be kept short. Shorter than short. Not just the amount of page dedicated to the conversation, but also keep the dialogue lines short. No long speeches from any characters.

The psychiatrist scribbled in his notebook. "So the Hardy Boys took your doll?"

"They ran away across the yard and hopped over the west side fence. I never saw Raggedy Ann again."

"How did you feel about that?"

"I dreamed of her at night, calling to me. I need to get her back."

"Now? How do you intend to do that?"

"I'll kill them in their sleep, and say the incantation over their dead bodies to force them to tell me what they did with her."

The psychiatrist leaned back. Yup, she was a French fry short of a Happy Meal. No way could she testify.

3--Summary of past action. This is narrative explaining what happened so the reader can get caught up.

Her entire body went still as she watched John Hardy walk down the hallway. When she was twelve, he and his brother had stolen her Raggedy Ann doll from her arms, hopped over the west side fence, and escaped into the wood. The loss had traumatized her.

Keep it short, or try to incorporate the information in dialogue if you can. Also ask yourself if your reader really needs this information in order to enjoy the story. Be ruthless about what to cut--your reader isn't stupid.

Some rules for backstory:

You want to make the reader WANT to know the past.

a--Keep it short. Cut ruthlessly. Include it only if you're absolutely certain the reader would be completely lost without the information.

b--Dole out the information in bits and pieces, not all at once in one scene. Create mystery that motivates your reader to keep reading to find out what happened.

For example, mention a clue in chapter one, then another piece of the past in chapter five, another in chapter seven and finally write a sentence in chapter twelve that helps all the clues make sense and complete the picture.

c--Make a character absolutely need the information for some reason. Their desperate goal will keep the reader interested.

d--Make that person have to fight to get the information. Create conflict that tries to prevent the character from finding out what they need to know. Let the witness be slippery or reluctant. Make obstacles for the character, and the reader will be drawn into his fight to find out the information.

e--Tie the information to some type of action going on. For example, if I see a young girl killing two boys, speaking a haunting incantation, and demanding they tell her where her doll is, then I'm more likely to want to know why she's doing this.

f--Create situations where another character needs to know the information. If the girl saying the incantation accidentally summons a genie, the genie is naturally going to want to understand what's going on.

g--Give the backstory from the deep point of view of the character affected by it the most. For example, an omniscient narrator explaining the girl's lost doll isn't going to have as much impact as the psycho-chick reminiscing about how she stayed awake nights, longing for her Raggedy Ann.

h--Make sure it's realistic. Don't let someone talk about something they wouldn't normally talk about. For example, most normal people don't spill the town's darkest secrets to strangers at the diner. Even a crazy girl isn't going to confess to the police officer that she's going to kill the Hardy Boys that night.

Exercises:

1. Is your backstory absolutely relevant?

2. Is your backstory short?

3. Is your backstory broken up or inserted all at once?

4. Is there a dire reason for a character to need the information?

5. Is there conflict preventing the information from coming to light?

6. Is the information tied to some type of action?

7. Can you create a situation where someone needs to know the information?

8. Is the backstory given from the point of view of the character with the most to lose?

9. Is the backstory realistically and believably conveyed by the character?

Next: The Sagging Middle

NOTE: Information in this article is taken from the classic "Techniques of the Selling Writer" by Dwight V. Swain.

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Thursday, August 04, 2005

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 should be constantly CHANGING.

If the scene doesn't directly impact the conclusion, ask yourself if you really need it, or how you could change it to make it important. Can you change characters? Setting? Does the scene have a goal or a point? How will each character react to what happens in the scene?

2) Keep your character's story goal in mind.

Everything should impact the main character somehow. If it doesn't, rethink the purpose of the scene.

3) Make things worse.

Make sure that all the changes that happen complicate things for the protagonist. Box your character in. Pull him further away from his story goal.

For a deeper discussion, see the sequel, "The Sagging Middle 2: How to Make Things Worse."

4) Balance action/peaks with reaction/valleys.

Hook the reader with action but allow them to breathe. Then drag them back into the thick of things.

You want this type of rollercoaster movement to your story that will keep your reader from becoming too tired by extended periods of heightened tension. At the same time, keep a low level of tension flowing through your valleys so that the reader isn't tempted to put the book down.

Peaks:

Make each scene powerful and packed with stuff. Don't be tempted to use trivial scenes to get the information across. Put everything into a scene filled with conflict and ending with a huge disaster.

Make the situation demand action. Put the characters in danger--physical or emotional--that demands they do something equally drastic.

Use the clock and increase time pressure. It could be three minutes or three years, but give the character a time frame to accomplish their goal. Just the existence of the ticking clock will increase story tension.

Foreshadow your story's climax. Remind the reader of the impending showdown between the hero's desire and the danger.

Valleys:

Slow the pace with longer sentences, gentler story rhythm. Choose your words carefully, and contrast them with the tension of the peak that happened just before.

Keep a thin thread of tension through this valley "sequel." There shouldn't be too much action, but there should be something to keep the reader invested in the character. You don't want to give the reader a "big sigh" section that lets them put down the book and go to bed.

Give the character something to decide. After the action of the previous scene, make the character figure out what to do next. This will not only propel the story forward, but the decision and the process of making it will reveal the character's personality. You can use this down-time to ground the reader back into reality, to make the characters more three-dimensional.

The character should have a little more time here. There might still be an over-arcing story time frame, but there shouldn't be an immediate "gotta get something done before such-n-such happens" kind of feel.

You can also change point of view in this scene. Change of viewpoint usually dissipates tension, so you can use it to drop the reader into a valley and develop the other character at the same time.

5) Bind up any subplot threads.

Near the end of the middle, tie up or taper any loose subplots. The ending should be just the hero and his goal, so if the subplot affects that goal somehow, this should be revealed BEFORE the ending happens. This will clear the stage for the big climax, and focus the reader's attention on that climax alone.

Say you have a romantic subplot, and it's related to the hero's goal in that the girl has been helping the villain all along. Reveal this information at the end of the middle section, before the dramatic climax between the hero and the villain.

6) DON'T REPEAT YOURSELF.

If you've already given a piece of information once on page 109, don't rehash it again on page 209. Readers remember more than you give them credit for. There's a whole psychological explanation for how the human brain is automatically wired to pick up on redundancies.

The cure for repetition is CHANGE. Keep the story changing.

Exercise:

Okay, checklist: Go through your own manuscript's "dreaded middle" and check for the six things listed above.

Next: How to Make Things Worse

NOTE: Information in this article is taken from the classic "Techniques of the Selling Writer" by Dwight V. Swain.

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Wednesday, August 03, 2005

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 instead of quitting. Some call it the Doorway of No Return at the beginning of the story that forces the protagonist to enter the conflict.

At each disaster, you should ask yourself, "Why doesn't the character quit?" and you should have a powerful reason why. Otherwise, your reader will lose interest in a character who's fighting without good cause.

Why does Joe need to save the lighthouse? He needs the money from the tenants (financial), or he needs the building to hide his gold (geographical), or he needs to save it to restore a relationship with his daughter (emotional).

c) Make the protagonist and antagonist equal.

If your bad guy is obviously at a disadvantage to your hero, then what's the point of them struggling? If the hero is puny compared to the villain, how could he possibly win?

The two should be evenly matched. If one is at a disadvantage, make sure he has something that equalizes things--a weapon that puts them on even ground.

Superman could squish Lex Luthor with his strength, but Lex has kryptonite.

d) Make the stakes high enough to fight for.

Each person in the story should have something at stake that makes them willing to fight desperately for it. A rancher isn't going to fight the big oil company for his useless land, but he will fight them for his badly-needed grazing areas.

e) Keep things moving.

If the villain does something, the hero reacts and it should impact the villain profoundly. Nothing and no one stays the same at any point.

f) Up the intensity.

Make each scene worse and bigger. Drag your hero further and further from his goal. Make each scene more powerful than the last one.

At this point, it might be good to have an idea of which are going to be your biggest, most devastating scenes or obstacles. Plan to have them near the ending of the middle section, then spend the previous scenes or obstacles building up towards the Big One(s).

Make sure those Big One(s) actually do mean a lot to your hero and villain. If the hero cares more about his father's gold watch than the diamonds, then don't have the villain demand the diamonds for the heroine's life.

g) Box the character in.

In my opinion, this is the most important aspect of the middle section. Each scene should box the characters in, take away their choices.

Take away the heroine's options, run down the clock, increase the degree of the threat, make each action result in a dead end.

This forces her into a bottleneck, into two specific choices of action.

h) Keep the reader guessing.

Turn an assumption on its head. Slam the hero with a disastrous surprise. Kill off someone. Crush a dream. Anything to keep the reader turning pages and wondering what will happen next.

Next: Bring It To An End

NOTE: Information in this article is taken from the classic "Techniques of the Selling Writer" by Dwight V. Swain.

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Tuesday, August 02, 2005

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 doing so he sacrifices his principles
or
(b) Sacrificing his external goal—what he’s been striving for the entire story—in order to do what’s right and act on principle

Disastrous: Make sure that each choice is sufficiently disastrous. If the character has the morals of a snake, then him choosing to sacrifice his principles isn’t climactic. If the hero’s external goal wasn’t that important, then him choosing to sacrifice it isn’t climactic. You want the consequences of either choice to be horrendous, especially for choice (b). A moral decision should sacrifice everything and gain absolutely nothing for the hero—in fact, it should put him in dramatic, hopeless danger.

In general, people react favorably to unselfishness. You as the writer can manipulate the reader’s emotions or make a powerful statement by what choice the hero makes at the climax.

2) Force your character to choose, resulting in some irrevocable climactic action.

True character: Who is the hero, deep down, when forced into a tense choice between two things? The protagonist will choose what is most important, revealing his true character. This is truly who he is, in this moment of crisis.

The hero will then act on his choice, because talk without action is nothing. A climax is always an action by the focal character.

Will Indiana Jones continue to try to get the Grail (and money and power and fame) or sacrifice it because it’s not his to take, and he respects the power of the Grail?

Action without principle: If the character acts without some sort of choice or principle involved, the action lacks punch. The combination of internal conflict (choice) and external conflict (action) in this moment of climax makes for more dramatic storytelling—manipulating your reader’s emotions.

Urgency: The aspect of forcing the choice creates the story tension. Make the situation at the climax absolutely urgent so that the protagonist has to choose right at that moment.

Believable: Make it believable to your reader that the hero would make the choice he does.

If your hero is going to sacrifice or adhere to his principles in the climax, then make sure you set it up beforehand. For example, throughout the story, Joe’s bombarded more and more by the hopelessness of his life, so he decides to abandon his family and run off to Jamaica to be a cabana-boy.

To set up the character for their choice, Swain suggests a gimmick that triggers a character’s emotional response. For example, a song that reminds Joe of his mother’s sacrifice in his early years, which comes back to him at the climax and prompts him to make the more self-sacrificial choice.

3) Reward or punish the character for the action, in accordance with poetic justice.

This will answer the question of what your character deserves from the choices he made at the climax.

If your hero chooses to sacrifice his external goal in order to do what’s right:

(a) Let the character suffer through a black moment of anguish after the climax. All Hope Is Lost. The reader worries about the character.

(b) Suddenly reverse the situation with an unanticipated development. The tide turns, or things the hero didn’t know come to light. Make it unanticipated and logical or believable. This reversal could also be an act of nature or God—since the character has already made his choice, any divine intervention would be acceptable and believable to the reader.

(c) Reward the character. Give the reader a satisfying ending—the character’s true emotional need being fulfilled. Sometimes that results in success for their external goal, even if they had originally sacrificed it in the climax. Sometimes that results in failure of the external goal, but fulfillment in some other area that ends up being more important. This can be a good time to show the hero what he really wanted all along, or what he needs.

If your hero chooses to sacrifice principle instead:

(a) Still allow your character to suffer a black moment—maybe realize the enormity of his decision, or see a vision of what could have been.

(b) The character shakes off the emotional moment, succeeds in his task.

(c) The character receives the consequences of his actions. He loses something vital and important in choosing to abandon his principles.

4) Tie any loose ends.

Check your plot development. Often it’s better to have subplot story threads tie up before the main climax, in order to make the climax more dramatic and unencumbered.

5) Focus the finish on a fulfilling punch line.

End with a bang. With that last paragraph, last sentence, leave the reader with a strong emotion. Hope or hopelessness. A hint of the character’s future.

Tie it in to an earlier event or significant detail. Or finish with a comedic line.

Next: A Brief Overview of Characterization

NOTE: Information in this article is taken from the classic "Techniques of the Selling Writer" by Dwight V. Swain.

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