Posts Tagged ‘writing’

Happy New Year!

Posted: January 1, 2017 by R. A. Gates in Ruth's Words, Uncategorized
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Karen recently wrote a great post on the perennial rule of writing, “Show don’t tell.”  Check it out for excellent examples on what that even means, and how to incorporate it in your writing.  I thought I’d take the opposite tack though…and talk about when you really ought to tell.

“Show don’t tell” is a good rule most of the time–but not always.  One of the tricks of storytelling is to know when to judiciously use telling instead.  It’s a mistake to assume that the rule means we should always include lush detail and description for everything our characters do.  That can easily land you in “walking the dog” territory, a phrase used to describe writing that gives minute detail on actions that aren’t important.

The classic example is trying to show a character’s morning routine.  “The alarm clock went off at precisely six am.  John immediately stretched and got out of bed.  He put his feet into the slippers lined up by the bedside table and walked into the bathroom.  His razor was already sitting by the sink, in precise parallel to his toothbrush and tube of toothpaste.”

At this point, readers may want to sleep themselves!  Often, this kind of writing can be cut entirely–if the action is at John’s office, just begin there.  But maybe that overly detailed morning routine is trying to do something–to show that John is very precise and organized.  This could probably be shown somewhere else–or you could do it in a small piece of telling: “After waking up at six and following the same routine as he had for the last five years, John arrived at the office promptly at 7:30.”  Maybe as the story goes on, John’s morning routine will start changing in an important way.  Establishing it in one quick piece of telling sets the stage for what comes later, without needing to invest long lengths of time in showing it.

Telling is also effective for jumping between two points in the story, usually across a time lapse, when nothing very important happened in between.  You may need the reader to know something about what happened in that time, but it’s not vital enough to devote great detail to it.  To borrow an example from The Princess Bride, in the “unabridged version,” there’s a long, long stretch between Buttercup’s engagement to Prince Humperdink and her kidnapping.  In the abridged version, this is shortened to something like, “With one thing and another, three years passed.”  There’s the time jump.  If desired, much more could have been conveyed with just a few more phrases.  For example, “With political negotiations for Prince Humperdink and princess lessons for Buttercup, three years passed.”  Now we know all we need to about the intervening time, without wading through scenes of Humperdink negotiating or Buttercup learning etiquette.

Telling is also helpful at times when you deliberately want to withhold detail, not because it’s unimportant but because it is.  In the case of a mystery, telling can help to keep the reader guessing.  “Jane picked up a package on the way to work, and only noticed when she arrived that she had the wrong one.”  Perhaps Jane accidentally intercepted a package between spies, and the next three chapters will involve trying to trace the package’s intended recipient.  If we saw Jane at the post office, with precise detail on other customers and everyone she interacts with, it could give too much away too quickly.

I also rather like using telling for understatement and comedic effect.  “After the thunderstorm, the two flat tires, the absurdly long detour and especially the flock of unfriendly sheep, Jack became convinced the road trip was cursed.”  I admit I might be tempted to show some of those mishaps, but if the story is really about what happens once Jack winds up stranded in a small town, quickly dispensing with how he got there could be the best way to go.  And I’m not sure I can make unfriendly sheep any funnier than what readers would imagine on their own…

Like just about every rule of writing, “Show don’t tell” is true but not absolute.  There’s just one rule that seems to apply every single time, and that’s from George Orwell: “Break every rule rather than write something barbarous.”

Show–but if doing so will mean something unnecessary, long-winded or barbarous–then tell.

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!

ChapterOneFrom the first line in a story, it is important to suck the reader in by showing immediate tension with the protagonist. So what makes an exciting first line? And at what point in our novel or short story do we “re-hook” the reader?

Make interesting things happen – preferably bad things. That’s the base of basics of hooking. But please, PLEASE, don’t start your piece with one of the following first lines. They are overused and generic, and unless done in some awesomely unique-never-before-seen-blow-your-socks-off way, agents and editors will cringe, and will not read on. Remember, agents look for an excuse not to read further. And don’t you want to make your piece as interesting and unique as possible? Anyway, here are my top 5 “cringers”:

  • Waking up – especially from an alarm clock: This is one of the most common first lines agents and editors read. And complain about. Whether it is or isn’t, most believe it to be lazy writing. So come on! You’re a writer! You can do better than that!
  • “It was a dark, and stormy night…”: Weather in general – whether the weather is dark and stormy, or bright and sunshiny, this is one of the most overused, so try to avoid it.
  • The bad day at school: This is more common with YA. This has both been done very well and muy terrible! But it’s still the bad day at school. As unique as your character’s bad day at school is, it is, still, indeed, the bad day at school. Most agents and editors will stop reading.
  • It was all just a dream: Starting your story with a bang is great, but if the opening turns out to be just a dream, many readers will be disappointed, and agents will in all likelihood stop reading…
  • Running through a forest (especially if it’s a nightmare): This at first glance might seem like a great idea, but many, many, many others have also come up with this idea. As many twists and turns, near-death experiences, or lost loves they have while running through this forest, agents and editors will smack their foreheads, shake their heads, and punch “delete” on their keyboards – (that is if the “delete” key has survived the abundant daily abuse).

Still reading? Okay good. You might have thrown a few expletives my way, chucked your keyboard at me, or revisited your novel a moment to check how you started your story… But there’s good news! There are PLENTY of great first lines! Here’s what makes a great hook:

  • Begin with the character. Not description. Not the weather. Not the building. Not the world. Not a prologue. The character.
  • Give the reader an immediate stake by putting the character or something the character loves in imminent danger, or start with a special flavor of comedy. Could be physical, could be emotional or psychological.
  • Start with an interesting action or thought. Make it fresh. Make it immediate and impactful.
  • Show the reader who the character is in that first line. No back story. Who are they NOW? Show what they are doing right now that will impel your story forward all the way to the last line.

Want some good examples? Here we go:

  • “Our story opens where countless stories have ended in the last twenty-six years: with an idiot – in this case, my brother Shaun – deciding it would be a good idea to go out and poke a zombie with a stick to see what happens.” ~ Mira Grant, Feed
  • “Prince Raoden of Arelon awoke early that morning, completely unaware that he had been damned for all eternity.” ~ Brandon Sanderson, Elantris
  • “It was a pleasure to burn.” ~ Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451
  • “We go about our daily lives understanding almost nothing about the world.” ~ Stephen Hawking, A Brief History of Time
  • “There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it.” ~ C.S. Lewis, Voyage of the Dawn Treader

Nuff said? Who would stop reading any of these novels after those phenomenal first lines? Albeit, Brandon Sanderson woke up his character in the first line, but being “damned for all eternity” kind of overpowers the former. Point is – there are exceptions to everything. We can argue about genre, preference, and style, but a great first line is a great first line.

In Elements of Advanced Storytelling, I promised to dig into not only the first line, but also show how to hook a reader throughout a piece, keep them intrigued. This goes along with a later post I’ll write, “Tension, Conflict, and the Driving Force,” with a couple big differences. We establish tension by hooking a reader. The catalyst is the hook. The reaction is the tension and conflict. And oftentimes, the hook is a one-liner, or small paragraph that escalates emotion or impels action.

Introduce something new when it makes sense, but surprise the reader. Keep them on their toes. At the end of chapters, throw in a one-liner to re-hook the reader – to keep them turning the pages. In the new chapter, throw in another hook. These first and last chapter one-liners aren’t nearly as important as the first line in a novel, but most great writers understand how to cause us poor readers those many sleepless nights. This isn’t the end-all be-all of writing, but you must know where your story is heading. Keep it moving forward by keeping the reader hooked.

Re-hooking can come in many forms – dialogue, emotion, action, comedy, even literary prose. But it must make sense to your novel. I wouldn’t tell a joke at the end of a chapter if the next one begins with a torture scene. Well…unless you want to shock the reader. But that’s a different subject. Anyway, the mood of characters, the voice of your story, and the pace of your prose dictates where those strategic hooks can be placed. Sometimes, it won’t make sense to begin or end a chapter with a hook, but the key is to watch for it. Write. And read. Look for those turning points or moments in your book where one line could make a big difference. Use this in conjunction with tension and character, and you are well on your way to a best-seller.

Dreams. When you google “dreams,” you get the definition of sleep—namely how to interpret the images you see while you’re sleeping.

Just goes to show you that even searching for a dream doesn’t mean that you’ll find what you’re really looking for. And, honestly, my sleep dreams are mostly stress induced. My best dreams tend to be the ones I fantasize about while I’m awake and functional.

My dreams vary from day to day and shift from subject to subject, but I blame that on wanting a lot out of the time I have to explore those dreams. I want so much out of my life and I have allotted time to achieve those moments…but I can want as much as I’d like. The problem I run into is the capability factor. You know, the “hey I’m actually capable and I should put some effort into this dream” thing. Ultimately, if I’m going to actually feel the dream leave my fantasy and enter the reality that I have made with my life, then I need to make the actual steps towards it.

No one else can do that for me. No one else can encourage me to do it if I won’t move. No one else can flatter me enough to try harder. It’s all on me.

Now, the problem that I constantly run into is the commitment to myself. I constantly tell myself that it’s a silly notion to think that I could actually achieve what I crave because, come on now, who would really want to read what I have to say? Who would actually care? Why do I care if people actually care?

Because, if people don’t care, then my dream is just a figment. Just a fragment. Just a moment lost in my mind. Because, if I care that I become successful with my dream, then I might be disappointed to hear that I’m not the reflection of a diamond’s potential, but the darkness of the rough surrounding the gleam.

In all honesty, I do hear the ridiculous doubt in myself, in my ability to try, and the eyes immediately start rolling around.  I know I need to stop questioning my ability to achieve what I think I might really want. I know that I need to let myself praise my work, so that maybe I can see the goodness in it. So that maybe I can become the light that I so wish to be. After all, the only thing holding me back from that sparkle is me.

I’m sure every dreamer feels this way. So, how do we jump start the confidence and leave behind all the “poor me for not being good enough because I’m too afraid that I’ll fail horribly” attitude?

Maybe the start is to simply stop fearing the end, and enjoy the hope from the beginning. Or, maybe it’s as simple as letting myself believe in the dream as fully as I do while I’m sleeping—by letting the dream be real enough to feel like I can hold onto it.

Then again, I’d like to start being the person I’m meant to be. No more maybe this, maybe that. It’s simply time. It’s now time to stop liking the idea and actually step toward it.

It’s time to stop questioning myself.

Have you ever immersed yourself in a story, you like a character, and then you toss the book across the room with an exasperated sigh? Simply because a character did something they would never do. And I ask you this: is it against the character’s grain given the events of their fictional creation, or is it from you imprinting your own expectations, your own personality, and your own wants upon the character?

In our society, people often confuse strength with power. Strength comes from right action, doing what is right given what you think and say. Power comes from doing whatever you dare regardless of your beliefs. These are the people who’s actions are always questioned, usually frowned upon, and easily turn villain. I think of Socrates in example. He was given the chance to leave. No one wanted his death, they just wanted him to get out of town and stop teaching. Power, for him, would have been leaving and continuing to spread his knowledge. Yet, he understood, if he left, it would betray every word he had ever spoken. So, he drank Hemlock. That is strength.

Now, this dialogue I share with you stemmed from a discussion I held with a colleague. While reading a scene from the novel I’m still rewriting (will it ever see light?) she didn’t agree with the reaction of a character.

Background–the protagonist is a boy who was raised solely by his mother, and within my world, they share a deep bond. For the first time in their lives, they are separated when the boy starts training as a knight. The mother fears what his life will become, and a few years later, she receives the news her son is on the verge of death. Upon hearing these words, the mother has a strong visceral reaction. Her skin pales and she nearly faints. This is the fear she’s held in her heart all her life.

My colleague felt this wan’t a proper reaction since a strong, female character wouldn’t display weakness. And I had to think upon this for some time.

When I write a character, I construct them from within. Meaning, I think of their life. How they grew up, what they believe, how they act, etc. And wether they are male or female, their actions will always be based on the culmination of their life events.

For some reason, I’ve been speaking about expectations a lot this week, but if you have not gathered it, I don’t have them. Life cannot be viewed for what it is with them, and will only be seen for what you desire it to be. It is the same with people. Humans are capable of strength, weakeness, vulnerability, tears, hate, or any other trait you can ponder. These are not attributes limited to either sex, despite what our society would have you believe.

Now, coming back to my colleague’s comment, I decided the mother’s reaction was proper given her life. I will not betray her charcter to present the antithesis of perceived notions of society. I will not hand her power. She instead has strength, for two reasons: it is a proper action given what she thinks and says, and more important, I believe there is no shame in expressing emotion.

Emotion is what makes us human. It is what makes life worth living, and why should we limit our emotions because someone in power says we shouldn’t feel something? In the short of it, the reason for this post, don’t allow others to shape your ideas of how people should act. Anyone is capable of anything regardless of what is between their legs.

Let’s talk about goals today.  I wrote about writing resolutions for New Year’s back in January, but maybe it’s a good time to revisit the topic–because after almost five months, it’s probably a good time to revisit goals too.

I’m in the middle of making some revisions to my writing goals–mostly because I’m not in the middle of revising my writing, and I should be.  I think one of the hazards of writing is that it’s easy to get caught up in the new shiny project, and never finish that one that’s already had so much work put into it.  Usually I have pretty good focus, but lately I must confess I’ve been flailing a bit.

I have two novel drafts that just need some revision.  One only needs one last final round, the other a few more passes.  But I’ve also started thinking about my next project, the historical fiction novel I want to do for NaNoWriMo 2013.  I figured between now and then is a good time for some research–which is good.  Except that lately, I’ve been shunting aside the other drafts in favor of research, which is bad!

My original writing goal for the year was to write every day.  I’ve done pretty well on that and I still am…only I don’t feel like I’m actually moving forward, because I’m not working on what I really should.  To avoid an endless string of half-finished projects and to move forward on larger things like, say, publishing, I really need to finish at least one novel draft before concentrating on the new one.  So I’ve been coming up with revised goals.

I’m a big fan of small-picture goals, like writing every day.  It’s immediately attainable, it’s measurable, it’s something you have to do now rather than putting off (as you could something that has a longer timeline).  However, I find I need to pair my small-picture goal with some bigger-picture ones, and set some deadlines.

Right now I’m giving myself a week for no-pressure, no-guilt fiddling about with the historical fiction novel.  But I set a date to begin revising my nearly-finished draft, and another date for finishing it!  After that, I’ll set new goal dates for things like querying agents and revising that second in-progress draft.

So that’s where I find myself on writing goals, not quite halfway into the year.  Did you set any goals at the beginning of the year (or some other time)?  How has it been working out for you?

CherryBlossomIn the following weeks, I’ll delve into how to take our writing to the next level. In the past months, I’ve written a lot about basic storytelling, shared best practices, shown how to hone our skills, and revealed a little about characters and world building. Here, I’ve broken out Advanced Storytelling into a number of important elements, and will detail each of these into individual posts in the weeks that follow. Hope you enjoy!

  • HOOK YOUR READER: From the first line in your story, it is important to suck the reader in by showing immediate tension with your protagonist. Next week, I’ll discuss what first lines we should avoid, which are overused, and what ingredients grill up an exciting hook. However, this goes far beyond that introductory sentence. When is it appropriate to relax the tension? When should we begin to delve into back-story? At what points in our story should we re-hook the reader with another twist? How do we end it in a way that is both satisfactory to the reader, and leaves them craving for more? Stay tuned, and we’ll delve into the details.
  • AUTHENTIC CHARACTER EMOTION – FLAWS, GROWTH, ARCS, AND TRANSFORMATION OF PROTAGONISTS AND ANTAGONISTS: I’ve shown in previous posts how important character emotion is. Emotion links us to our characters, gives us a stake in the story, and makes us truly care about what happens – connects us to fresh and new experiences. Might even have an impact on our world outside of reading. In this topic, I’ll discuss at what points in our story we should show character growth, (or the lack of), and dig into how to make this experience truly impactful to the reader. We’ll review best practices and the art of taking our characters’ arcs to the next level – both protagonists’ and antagonists’. I’ll explain the differences between proactive, active, and reactive characters. We’ll also dig into this scientifically – showing outlines and how this relates to our plot elements and increases tension.
  • TENSION, CONFLICT, AND THE DRIVING FORCE: To keep the story moving and our readers impulsively flipping the pages into the wee hours of morning, it is imperative to show the steady progression of plot and characters, the enticing details of hazards and wrenches, and the difficulties and growth that ensues. Some good advice: the more we torment our characters, the more interesting the story. When should we ramp up the tension and conflict? When should we relax? Sub-plots are at times necessary, but many times they are not. It is important to consistently progress the storyline, and at the same time, show the little steps and interesting details that keep the readers holding their breath.
  • YOUR WORLD – DETAILS, CULTURE, AND SENSES: It is easy to bog the reader down with unnecessary details, or do the opposite and not show enough. Where is the balance? This depends a lot on the story, style, genre, characters, length, and voice. But it is always important to make the world we portray real to our audience. Here, we’ll delve into the finer details and examples of great stories with interaction – and the differences of styles and how they relate to the overall theme and story structure.
  • THE THREE ACTIONS – ACTION, REACTION, INTERACTION: Characters and the world, the reader and writer, the plot and details. In this topic, I will discuss how we put it all together with the “Three Actions.” I’ll show how they interrelate and the parallels between them. I’ll reveal why these elements are so important and how they impact the storytelling experience.
  • STORY STRUCTURE AND THEMES – OUTLINING VS “PANTSING”: Hundreds if not thousands of books crowd the market, all showing the best ways to structure a story. Here, we will dig into why there are so many different methods, which to use, which to avoid, and why. Is there a “best” way, or does it depend on the style of the author? Should we conform to what the world is telling us, or enhance our natural strengths? There is much controversy here, and I will take a neutral stance in order to show the broadest picture, explain why so many authors are adamant that their own opposing and conflicting views are correct, and give my advice on how to proceed in this vast sea of style.
  • PROSE WITH STYLE AND VOICE – CLARITY, BREVITY, AND WORD CHOICE: Writing is an art, but with any art, the more knowledge and experience one has, the more likely one will succeed. The broader our experiences and perspectives, and the more we open ourselves to possibilities and ideas, the more likely we will achieve our goals. Our work ethic matters. Our passions matter. We must know ourselves, stay in tune to our strengths and weaknesses, then actively make ourselves improve and grow. Grammar might seem basic, but the more knowledgeable one is, the more command one has of language – not to mention an understanding of which rules are breakable and when. In this topic, I will discuss the differences between character and author voice, and expand on the importance of the words we use, and how we use them. There are many styles of storytelling, and I will show examples of some of the most common, and analyze their differences.

Like many, I have a passion for storytelling, but I’m also acutely aware of my strengths and weaknesses. The elements of self-awareness, knowledge, patience, understanding, wisdom, and work ethic are all fruits that set me on my path to success. To grow as a writer is to grow as a person. I look forward to your future comments and interactions.

Hands1I like action movies, spicy food, and long walks on the beach. Sounds like a dating site mantra, right? Well, there might be something more to this.

Real people have tastes, real people have likes, dislikes, and preferences. Real people discriminate both positively and negatively. Real people are unique. Shouldn’t our characters share similar attributes?

It’s easy to get lost in our plots, interactions, world building, story structure, prose, and a million other important building blocks of storytelling. But in any great book I’ve read, characters are at the center of it all. Characters who seem like real people.

My advice, learn about your characters. In an outlined, plot-driven story, it’s easy to forget about their decisions. It’s easy to make them do something because the plot requires it. But is that decision something our characters would make if truly given the option? Do we even know?

Spend some time building your characters. Get to know their families and friends. Discover what sorts of people they hang out with, and what they like to do in their free time. What decisions have they made in their past to get them to where they are today? What are their hobbies?

In addition, I recommend truly looking at whether they play inactive or active roles in your story. In other words, are your protagonists responding only to how your antagonist set them up, or are they actively progressing and growing based on their own motivations? Commonly, protagonists play inactive roles in the beginning of stories due to the antagonist’s inciting incident, then grow based on their experiences and interactions. However, most great stories I’ve read show the characters actively making hard decisions and progressing the story themselves – and from the very beginning – instead of being pulled along by the plot.

Now, should all the characters likes, dislikes, and preferences be included in the story? I say no. But as the writer, it is important you know them. Give hints to some, and reveal others. This will make a character jump out of the page and come to life.

In short, characters are people too! Know them better than your best friend, even better than yourself. You alone know their pasts, their present, and their futures. Show us who they are, connect us to them, and we won’t be able to put that story down.