Archive for June, 2013

I’ve heard beginning writers say, “You keep telling me to show how the character feels, rather than tell about it. So, how am I supposed to do that?” And, if I’m being honest, that was me just a few years ago.

The best writers make it easy for us to see what’s happening on the page. Unfortunately, it’s not easy to do. There are two different methods that work well.

The first is to let your reader get inside the character. When this is done well, the reader feels like they are inside the character’s head, watching what is happening through the character’s eyes, feeling the character’s emotions, experiencing the character’s thoughts.

The other method allows the reader to feel like they are standing right next to the character, watching what is happening to the character, seeing how the character reacts to what is going on around them. This type of writing can allow the reader to watch the story unfold like a movie inside their head.

Clear as mud, right? Still doesn’t tell you HOW to do it. It’s actually far easier to see how to do it than it is to have it explained to you.

First, let’s talk being inside the character. This can be done in first or third person.   Here’s a third person example: Brady was upset by what he’d just seen.

This gives you two important pieces of information: 1) Brady just saw something; and 2) What he saw upset him. This is exactly how many beginning writers ‘tell’ the reader about what the character is experiencing.

There are two problems with this, (well there’s probably more than two, but I’m going to concentrate on two for now). Problem one – We have no idea just how upset Brady really is. And to compensate for this, beginning writers will frequently tell the reader how upset the character is. For example: Brady was furious at (shocked by, disgusted with) what he’d just seen.

And there’s the second problem. Writing like that does get the point across. But it’s just not that interesting.

It’s much more effective for the writer to allow the reader to experience the character’s mental and, as my friend Ruth likes to say, visceral reactions. This allows the writer to ‘show’ the character. This also gives the reader a better understanding of the intensity of the character’s reaction (e.g. on a scale from slightly miffed to violently angry). I have a few quick examples below. (I would normally spend more time polishing them up during the editing process, but they’ll work for now.)

Remember, the following statements replace: Brady was upset by what he’d just seen.

Brady closed his eyes to block the sight while his stomach twisted and rolled, and his palms began to sweat. (There’s no need to write: Brady felt sick by what he’d just seen.)

Note – The reactions above are visceral reactions. They include any type of internal reaction that is beyond the character’s control – pounding heart, nausea, sweating, dizziness, etc.

Or

Brady scowled and shook his head at the sight before him. Then he turned and began the long walk back to the car.  Alone.

Or

Brady cursed as he raced forward, ignoring the shooting pain in his calves and the stitch in his side. He couldn’t take his eyes off the sight in front of him, nor could he bring himself to stop. Even though he would be far too late.

Including internal mental and visceral reactions also works well in first person. For example:

I wanted to shout at them to be quiet, though I could barely hear the rumble of their words over the buzzing in my ears. What I’d just seen wouldn’t settle into place. The images kept twisting and writhing in my head.

Those are all ways to let the reader inside your character. The other method a writer can use is to let the reader watch how the character feels through their physical reactions – basically, watching the action from outside of the character. For the purpose of this exercise, assume Jenny asked Brady a question and Brady responded with excitement.

Have you ever read something like: “Yes,” Brady answered Jenny, excitedly.

I’ve again told you two important things. 1) Brady has answered a question from Jenny; and 2) Brady’s excited about it. But this doesn’t let us know how excited Brady feels. And I’ll be the first to admit, Brady seems pretty boring here. So how can I show the reader how Brady feels with physical reactions? Here’s a few examples:

Bouncing from one foot to the other, Brady answered Jenny before she even had a chance to finish the question. “Yes. The answer is definitely yes.”

Or

“Yes!” Brady’s shout had everyone’s head turning, so they all had a clear view when he grabbed Jenny and swung her around in a dizzying circle.

Or

Brady gave each of us a high five before turning to Jenny. “Absolutely!”

What about in first person? Yes, you are inside the character’s head, but you can still show physical reactions.

I did a quick happy dance. That was probably answer enough for Jenny. But just in case…”Yes!”

Hopefully, this makes the difference between showing and telling a little clearer than mud. It takes a lot more effort to provide descriptions, and it’s often tempting to just stick an adjective on the end of a dialog tag (e.g. …Brady said, excited).

I used to struggle with this. What are the authentic physical and visceral reactions to the numerous situations we put our characters into? Unless this comes naturally to you, it’s not realistic to plan to stop writing in order to scare yourself, or to remember something painful, to experience genuine reactions that you can describe for your character. However, I’ve found something very helpful, and I recommend it for anyone who has trouble ‘showing’ how their characters feel. While there are a number of good reference books, I have one that I always keep on the table when I write at home. I also have an electronic copy on my phone that I can use if I’m writing somewhere else. It’s called The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide To Character Expression, by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi. It provides physical, mental, and visceral descriptions for a wide variety of emotions.

It should be noted that the descriptions I used in this post all came out of my head, and The Emotion Thesaurus is in no way to blame!

HappySadTheatreMaskOur characters are people – real in our mind, real on the page, and real in our hearts. Make them as real to your readers as they are to you.

This is the most important part of a novel. We might have excellent plots that twist and turn with fresh surprises at every angle, or a beautiful, imaginative world that inspires us with awe. Maybe a fresh, fascinating story rarely told, or even masterful prose with transcendent knowledge and application of language. But take any book you love, replace the characters with flat shadows of people, and you are left only with empty, black ink.

From the first line of our story, invest the reader in the characters we create. Show us what they care about. It could be as important as saving the universe, or as small as caring for a single daisy. But if our characters care, our readers will care. So, how do we do this?

Real people have passions. If our character loves gardening, don’t tell us that she gardens everyday. Show us how warm she feels as the sun beats on her back, as her hands ache with the pressure of churning soil, how much she sweats as she labors away for hours, but show us her satisfaction of witnessing seeds of nothingness grow with time into delicious tomatoes, or red roses, or juicy watermelons. And she doesn’t have to be good at it. She just needs to be passionate about it.

Emotion is universal. Everybody can identify with it, so the stronger the emotion (well…this can be overdone), the stronger the connection. I recommend overstating emotion. In theatre, emotion is overstated, as it is in cinema and books. But the reader won’t be able to tell if you do it right. Exaggerated emotion is one of the keys to storytelling. This doesn’t mean our character runs around on a rampage shooting or slicing everyone up, neither does it mean our character should drive around crying everywhere after her boyfriend dumps her. Here’s what it can mean: Our character reacts internally after witnessing a herd of buffalo stampede over her freshly budded grove of plant life. Depending on what kind of person she is, she could scream, “NOOOOOOOO!!!!!!” (not recommended), or we can show her feeling the strong loss of creating something from nothing, then shoving down the exaggerated emotion, only to unleash it at a later time – directed at someone undeserving. Which is the more interesting story? Who do you identify with more? If your answer is the screaming psychopath, perhaps you should join Darth Vader and the Dark Side.

Point is, when readers identify with the characters, and when they have a stake in the story, we become invested. And when we become invested, we now have a stake in the story. We’ll flip the pages from cover to cover to see what happens next, unable to set the book down. We’ll feel both satisfied at the end, and disappointed there is nothing of the story left to read.

In the title, I also mentioned growth. In a great story, not only does our protagonist change, but our antagonist also changes. Many writers miss the latter point. This doesn’t necessarily mean our antagonist transforms into a saint, but it can mean they learn an important life lesson, or devolve into something even worse.

So, growth of our protagonists. (We can also show protagonists devolving.) What better way to show growth at the end, than flaws at the beginning. Real people have flaws, right? You have flaws, don’t you? I certainly have no flaws, but we all know you do, right? Right, where were we? Flaws, yeah. It’s okay for our characters to have flaws, especially if they’re universally identifiable. What makes a story interesting is how our characters deal with those flaws. Do they learn from their mistakes and get over hard-learned obstacles? Or do they fall to the Dark Side like our forever-friend Darth Vader? Show the story, don’t tell it. Make the reader a friend by showing our characters’ experiences as they endure them. Then leave that lasting impression by showing how far they’ve come. Key is to show our protagonists’ progression little at a time, then compound the growth with extreme experiences. But never leave them stagnant. On the opposite end of the spectrum, if our characters grow too much too quickly, they might lose that ever-so-important quality – reader identification.

Transformation also ties integrally with growth, the difference being, they are rarely recognizably the same person when comparing them at the beginning of the book to the final page. We need to be careful here. As advised above, if our characters grow too quickly, we will lose our audience. Want your characters to transform? Throw unique, interesting, and hard – very, very hard – decisions and obstacles in their paths. They need to make the emotional or logical choice for who they are at that time – which changes them forever. Then keep doing it again. But beware, always change the pace. If we have a non-stop, hard-hitting pace from start to finish, our readers will never be able to come up for air. And breathing is important for most of us.

In Elements of Advanced Storytelling, I promised to dig into the differences between active, reactive, and proactive characters, and which are the most interesting in stories. Okay everyone, raise your hands. Active? Eh, might get a few hands in the air. Reactive? Hmm, probably only one or two. Okay, what about proactive? AHA! There they are! Raise them nice and high! Yep, you are right. Proactive characters are by far the most interesting, and here’s why.

Reactive characters only do what? That’s right – react! Our antagonists will likely be the most interesting characters in this type of character story because they are making everything happen. They are making the decisions for our protagonists – shaping them, forcing them to enact whatever evil plans our antagonists are concocting. Just about the only interesting thing our protagonist can do in this situation is react unexpectedly. But that’s a far cry from our other two types. Active characters are good. They will react, but will also push back. They will create tension, and exert a moving role to drive the story forward. Now, proactive characters take charge. Proactive characters don’t necessarily always know what they want, but they always make decisions (good or bad). This makes for a much more interesting story. It is highly common for the inciting incident in our novel to cause a reaction in our character that impels the story forward all the way to the last page. But if our protagonists are actively doing something in the beginning, and drive the story forward all on their own, that’s when we get caught staying up into the wee hours of the night reading that novel we just can’t put down. This is real tension – driven purely by our proactive characters.

Outlines. Some of us use them, some of us don’t. But I recommend everyone sketch out at least enough about our main characters to understand who they are. The worst thing we can do is think we know our characters, then make them do something they normally wouldn’t for the sake of the plot. If you want a good reference for an outline, here’s my advice. Make your own. There are numerous character outlines you can download off the net. Some are very detailed, some are vague. But, we all need to find that character outline that fits our story, then make it. It could be as little as describing their personalities, their likes/dislikes, tastes, experiences, and what they would do if held at gunpoint. Yes, many characters will never face that latter problem, but you need to know your characters. What better way than to consider what they would do in a life or death situation?

Want more outlining? Okay, write down how you want them to change throughout your novel. Who do they meet? How do they interact? Write down a few jokes they would tell, or physical tics or eccentricities. Show us their turning points and future moments of clarity. The list goes on and on. We should never put it all in our novel, but as writers, we need to know. Key is, stay organized, stay on track. And remember, sometimes when we write that novel, the outline flies out the window. Allow our characters to change, to experience life beyond the bounds we’ve set forth in an outline.

Any questions or comments? Feel free to express yourself. I want to hear your thoughts. I’ve found the above to be some of the best methods (that by the way work universally), but I always keep an open mind, and I’m always striving to learn and grow – to be better than I was yesterday. Thanks for reading, and I look forward to your comments. Thanks!

ReflectionsMost writers I know are very interested in books and resources about writing.  I thought today I’d share a review of a book that touches on some helpful writing ideas, from one of my favorite authors.  Reflections on the Magic of Writing by Diana Wynne Jones is not quite a book about writing…and not quite an autobiography…but a good bit of both.

It’s a collection of essays that are less about writing than they are about storytelling, which is not quite the same thing.  It’s not much about the craft of writing, and definitely not about publishing.  It’s about something more integral, about the art of crafting a story rather than how that story becomes a novel.

So don’t come here looking for one essay about how to create a character, another about plot arcs, or a third about the advantages of outlining.  Some of those elements may come in, but you’ll only find them as one possible aspect of an essay about, for example, the influence of Anglo-Saxen myths on modern fantasy, or the ultimate responsibility of writing for children.

That second topic may be one of my favorites addressed here, in the essay “Writing for Children: A Matter of Responsibility.”  That sounds rather weighty and apt to be moralizing, but it isn’t at all.  Without being overwhelming about it and certainly without advocating for Victorian stories where bad little children swiftly meet bad ends, Diana Wynne Jones gets at the influence books have on children.

I’ve certainly “met” books later in life that have influenced me, but I think stories touch us and shape us in childhood in a way that later books don’t.  Diana Wynne Jones obviously understood that, and obviously believed in the power of books to be a positive influence.  I don’t mean that her books are moralizing, but I think they do build strength and courage and belief in oneself and one’s own imagination.  Good lessons for anyone, at any age.

I also particularly enjoyed “A Talk About Rules,” which discusses how seemingly-ironclad rules change.  I think this essay may be the key to why the book isn’t more about rules of writing–because it’s evident she doesn’t much believe in them.  To quote: “What you see should be a magnificent, whirling, imaginative mess of notions, ideas, wild hypotheses, new insights, strange action and bizarre adventures.  And the frame that holds this mess is the story.”

I mentioned autobiography at the beginning, and the book frequently tells stories about Diana Wynne Jones’ own life.  She tells wonderful, improbable stories about growing up in a town where everyone was insane, during World War II when the whole world had run mad.  She talks about her own writing process (something that always fascinates me about authors I love), about the influences on some of her novels, and about her experiences being an author.

If there’s a flaw in the book, it’s that some of the stories become repetitive.  This is a compilation of essays and talks that were originally spread across years, and when they’re all put together, you find that she describes the same details of her childhood three or four times.  Perhaps slightly heavier editing would have resolved some of this.  As it stands, it’s not too big an annoyance, although it may be an argument for reading this a few essays at a time, rather than straight-through.

If you really want a book about writing, I recommend Writing Magic by Gail Carson Levine.  But if you want a book about stories (and about Diana Wynne Jones) this collection is delightful.  And perhaps by focusing more on that deeper core, she’s created a book that would be as interesting to readers as it is to writers.  Really, to anyone who enjoys stories–particularly if you enjoy Diana Wynne Jones’ stories!