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What I would have said, part 2

Note: this is part 2 of answers to a set of interview questions from an interview I didn’t end up doing. Read part 1 here.

What does it really mean to ‘show don’t tell’ and how does a writer DO this?

That’s actually a very deep and involved subject. I could begin to do justice to it were I to dedicate an entire blog post to it. Which, come to think of, I kind of did when I guest-blogged for Seekerville last year. So you can read that.

In a really tiny nutshell, though, it is this: you remember back in grade school and high school how English teachers were always admonishing you to “read between the lines”? Personally, I always hated that because I had no idea what they meant when they said that. Now I understand that my teachers just didn’t know how to explain the difference between showing and telling.

When they said “read between the lines,” what they were really saying was “this writer did a really good job of showing, and because of that, there’s a lot we can tell about the people and the story even though it’s not stated directly.” Here’s an example. Imagine you knew everything you currently know about life, literature, and popular culture except that you had somehow remained 100% oblivious to the very existence of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. Now someone hands you the book, tells you nothing, and says “read.” What does Jane Austen give you? This:

> It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.

That’s showing. How do we know? Because without telling us what it is, we already know what the major theme of the book is. Had Jane Austen been given to telling instead of showing, she might have penned this instead:

> This, dear reader, is a romance novel.

One is showing: Jane Austin gives us the evidence we need, straight away, to deduce a’la Sherlock Holmes, that this book is a romance. But never does she tell us that fact flat-out.

Telling is when you directly state the deep truths you want readers to know. Showing is when you don’t, when you never do, but instead only give the evidence readers need to figure out those deep truths for themselves. That’s what “Show, don’t tell” means. It’s the flip-side of “read between the lines,” because showing is how you put anything between the lines in the first place.

Why should a writer hire a book doctor rather than asking friends, family, teachers, and critique partners to edit their book?

Well, why do you go to a medical doctor instead of asking friends, family, teachers, and critique partners tell you what to do about that persistent rash? Because there’s a difference between saying “Yup, looks like a rash,” and saying “That rash is a symptom of anemia caused by underlying kidney disease. We’d better get you on a low protein diet and talk about lifestyle changes.”

You hire a book doctor because, while readers are common, trained analytical readers are not. Friends, family, teachers, mothers, et cetera—even if they’re avid readers—usually don’t have the analytical skills to actually diagnose your writing. Untrained readers, those who simply love to read, are great at telling you what they don’t like. They’re great at telling you when something isn’t working for them.

But they’re usually lousy at telling you exactly why that something isn’t working for them, in such a way that you can see what to do about it. It’s feedback, but it’s not helpful feedback. Telling you “I didn’t like that part where the car breaks down on the bridge” isn’t so-called actionable feedback. It doesn’t tell you what to do about it. It’s “Yup, looks like a rash,” all over again, leaving you no wiser as to whether you should put lotion on it or change your diet.

Sadly (though not for me, because otherwise I couldn’t make a living doing what I do), even most writers are lousy at this. Even most writers, as I discovered when I started seeking out constructive feedback for my own novels, are no better at critiquing than non-writers.

You don’t go to a book doctor for an “I liked it” or “I hated it” verdict. You go to a book doctor for a diagnosis and prescription. You go to a book doctor because you want your novel’s rash to actually get better.

What advice would you offer to new authors?

There are hundreds of fiddly little bits of advice I could give to new readers, none more worthy than the others. And you already asked about “Show, don’t tell,” so I can’t use that (though I would). I guess what I would say is this:

Recognize that this is a hard thing you’re doing, and check your ego at the door.

The thing is, a well written novel is a deceptive thing. When done right, a novel flows past the reader so smoothly, so effortlessly, readers don’t really even feel like they’re reading. They’re just enjoying a great story. A great novel is such a transparent, transcendent reading experience, that readers don’t feel like they’re doing any work at all. Though in fact their brains are working quite hard, every second, it feels so easy that we’re left thinking that it must also be easy to write one.

Nothing could be further from the truth. It’s easy, relatively speaking, to nail some old roller-skate wheels onto a couple of boards and call it a go-kart. And it’ll go, but you’re in for a pretty rough ride. Just getting around the block is going to leave you winded. It is worlds more difficult to build a 450 horsepower V8 high performance luxury sedan that rides like a dream and will take you from Boston to Chicago with less effort than that once around the block on the go-kart.

I doubt I need to unpack this metaphor for you. Suffice it to say writing novels is hard. You will need to learn a lot of new skills, both in writing craft and story craft. You will need to discover that story craft is, in fact, a wholly different skill set than writing craft. You will make a lot of mistakes along the way. This is inevitable.

But if you go into it thinking you’re God’s own gift to literature, and nobody can tell you anything about your story, and how dare they try to influence your artistic genius with their cookie cutter notions about conflict and character arcs and raising the stakes and showing versus telling—

Well, let’s just say if you go into it with that attitude I can promise you something else that will happen: not only will your writing suck—that hardly makes you special—but you will also never improve.

It’s just plain hard to write a novel. You need criticism. You need feedback. But all the helpful feedback in the world won’t do you a lick of good if your ego is blocking you from hearing it.

August 15, 2013 04:08 UTC

Tags: interview, book doctor, show don't tell, evidence, critique, analysis, diagnosis, feedback, advice, ego, writing, writing craft, story, story craft

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The three worst words in fiction

This morning I asked Twitter what the three worst words in fiction are. I got answers like suddenly, something happened, tall, dark, and handsome, purple, throbbing, and manhood, and my favorite of those submitted, only a dream.

Those are good answers. I mean really, I would hope an author can be more specific about what happened than “something,” and when it does happen, I certainly hope it doesn’t turn out to be a dream. But for my money, the three worst words in fiction are:

The chosen one.

That’s it. I can’t stand it when a character is the chosen one to complete some quest, go on some journey, win an epic sandwich-making contest, or whatever it might be. I hate that. This has long been a pet peeve of mine, but it was only this morning while I was making the kids’ breakfast that it finally clicked for me why this drives me so bonkers. So now I’ve got to blog it, because if you’ve read this blog for any length of time, you’ll know I’m big on understanding the why of writing.

It’s plot motivation.

Plot motivation, if you’re not familiar with the term, is when characters do things purely to satisfy the particular plot direction the author wants to go in. Plot motivation contrasts with character motivation, which is when characters do things because it makes sense for them to do it, given who they are, what they can do, their state of mind at the time, and the particulars of the situation. Plot motivation is extrinsic; character motivation in intrinsic.

Being the chosen one is inherently plot motivation. It has to be. For a character to be the chosen one means they’re making sandwiches because, well, they’re chosen for it. Not because they necessarily want to or feel driven to. Not because they’re good at it. Not because making sandwiches fulfills some deep-seated psychological need the character has. Not because a lack of sandwiches might spell the unraveling of the universe (though that might also be true, depending on the plot, but that’s just stakes).

No. None of those character motivations applies to the chosen one. The chosen one slathers metaphorical mayo on metaphorical bread because of some arbitrary choice imposed on them from the outside. Or in other words, because the author is making them do it. Sure, the author always applies some thin veneer of legend or mystic second-sight or special bloodlines or whatever other fairy-mustard they like as a justification for the choice. No offense, but that’s little more than a shallow, hand-waving attempt to distract the reader from the author’s failure to come up with a real reason why this character has to make sandwiches. A reason based on genuine needs or desires. A reason based on intrinsic motivation rather than extrinsic compulsion.

It hoses the drama.

If you need a secondary line of argument, in my view being the chosen one also kills much of a story’s drama. Basically, the instant you tag a character as chosen for bologna-on-Wonder-Bread greatness, readers know how the story’s going to turn out. I mean, come on. It’s not like you’re going to let the bloody chosen one fail, are you? Of course not.

The thing about drama is that it relies on the reader’s perception of uncertainty about the outcome of situations in your plot. So as soon as you make so-and-so the chosen sandwich-maker, you drastically reduce the uncertainty about the outcome, and with it, you kill the drama dead.

Think about good old Frodo Baggins, ringbearing his way into Mordor. How dramatic would it have been if Gandalf had said, there in the bucolic Shire, “Frodo, my boy, you are the chosen one, foretold in the legends of the Maiar to bring about salvation to Middle Earth. Now take this ring of power and go forth into Mordor!” Backed by such a prophesy, would we ever have been worried for Frodo’s safety along the way? Of course not. We’d know the Balrog wasn’t going to get him. That he’d escape from Shelob somehow. That Gollum wouldn’t ever actually kill him for the ring. Don’t worry, such a prophesy tells us, it’ll all work out fine in the end!

Thankfully, that’s not what Tolkien did. Frodo wasn’t chosen by anybody but himself. His motivations were always intrinsic. He took the ring to the council at Rivendell not because he was chosen but because somebody had to, and it might as well be him because the Nazgûl were going to kill him for it anyway. Then when the council couldn’t make up their damn minds what to do, Frodo volunteered for the quest because he knew what was at stake, with no guarantees or prophetic reassurances that he would survive. It was an act of noble self-sacrifice, not the churlish whim of fate, destiny, or arbitrary external choice. Which one sounds more dramatic to you?

Faux success

In the end, the problem is this. I need a protagonist I can root for. But I find that I have a lot of trouble rooting for the chosen one, because on some level to be “chosen for greatness” is a cop-out. The greatness is fake.

Fiction has a completely legitimate role in escapism. It’s fun to read about characters with radically different lives, and imagine ourselves doing things that would be radically impossible or foolhardy in the real world. And certainly it’s fun to imagine the wild success of winning through an epic quest, of bringing home the biggest damn blue ribbon for sandwich making the world has ever seen.

We all want to be successful, right? And fiction has a role in letting us vicariously experience that through the characters in books. The thing is, real success is hard. It’s supposed to be. Great achievement is necessarily difficult. One must face challenges. Overcome personal and external limitations. Discover new things. Make mistakes and fix them. All of that. That’s what true achievement looks like.

My problem with chosen ones is that their route to success doesn’t require them to actually be great. They simply have to march along the path the writer has cleared for them, their foreordained successes ringing hollow with every step. As with everything in writing, this is yet another application of show, don’t tell. When a writer makes a character be the chosen one, that writer is trying to tell me that the character is great. They’re begging me to believe in the character’s greatness simply because they say so. Sorry. It doesn’t work that way.

But when a writer shows me a character’s greatness through choices and actions—when the writer gives me a Frodo Baggins who risks his whole existence, with no expectation of reward, simply because he can’t stand to see a very bad thing happen—I get to watch the character become great by what he accomplishes in spite of every obstacle and limitation. The writer doesn’t have to tell me the character is great; I can conclude that for myself.

May 15, 2012 19:47 UTC

Tags: chosen one, plot motivation, character motivation, hero, hero's journey, drama, show don't tell, J.R.R. Tolkien, character

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Forty-five more flaws that expose your lack of storytelling experience, part 5


Rookie truck driver mistake

This is it. The final installment in this series. If you’re just joining us, you can find part 1 here. I hope you’ve all found the series helpful so far. It has been fun writing it. At last, here is the final batch of 9 rookie mistakes to watch out for in your own writing.

37. Repetitive sentence structure. If you dust the cobwebs off that part of your brain that holds middle school memories, you might find something in there about different types of sentences: simple, compound, complex, and compound-complex. Yeah, that module bored me too. But now that you’re a writer, you need to know that stuff. It’s actually important for establishing a rhythm and flow to your writing that won’t bore your readers like those middle school English lessons did.

I’m not going to re-cap what all those sentence types are (plus, of course, questions, exclamations, interjections, et cetera). Hit your favorite search engine for “types of sentences” and you’ll find plenty. I’d rather let an example do the work. Which would you rather read, this one:

Mad Jack drew the Colt out of its holster. He flicked open the cylinder. Two bullets remained. He checked his pockets. There were none. He drained the last of his bottle of rye. He thought, I better aim careful.

Or this one:

Mad Jack drew the Colt out of its holster, flicking open the cylinder. Two bullets remained. He checked his pockets, but came up empty. He drained the last of his bottle of rye and thought, I better aim careful.

The first one is nothing but simple declarative sentences. And can’t you just feel the monotony of it? The second one has all the same facts, in exactly the same order, but mixes it up with different sentence structures. Feel the difference?

38. “And” abuse. Close on the heels of repetitive sentence structure is abuse of that stalwart conjunction “and.” Here’s the thing about English: there are probably dozens of ways to join two clauses together into a compound or complex sentence. Yet, rookie writers reach for “and” more often than not. It gets dull. Worse than that, it’s a missed opportunity to inject additional meaning into your prose. To make the text richer with information for the reader to ferret out.

All that “and” tells us is “here are two things I’ve put into the same sentence.” By itself, “and” doesn’t add much in the way of color or nuance. Look for different ways to connect things that you want connected. If nothing else, reach for a different conjunction. Something that does hint at the relationship between the two things being connected. If you connect them with “but,” you establish a contrast. “Sam didn’t care for strawberries, but Doris lived for them.” Using “yet” establishes a different kind of contrast, between what is and what might have been expected. The list goes on and on and on. This web page has 44 different conjunctions and conjoining phrases listed. Why use “and” all the time when you’ve got that palette to paint with?

You don’t have to use conjunctions all the time, either. If the subject of two otherwise independent clauses is the same, you can often omit the conjunction by converting the verb in the second one to a gerund. There’s an example of this above, with “Mad Jack drew the Colt out of its holster, flicking open the cylinder.” That could have been done with “and flicked” instead, but to me, the gerund form adds a nice feeling of immediacy to the sentence.

You want a great writing exercise? Use your word processor’s search function to look at all the times you use “and.” When you find “and” being used as a coordinating conjunction (versus just to separate items in a list), re-work the sentence to use a different conjunction or grammatical form. You’ll be amazed at how much brighter and more lively your prose becomes.

39. Mis-capitalizing surrogate proper nouns. Besides the first letter of sentences, what do we capitalize in English? Proper nouns, right? The names of specific people, places, and things. Easy enough. But we also capitalize anything that functions as a proper noun. Where I see the most confusion in client manuscripts about this is with nicknames, titles, and words that refer to people by relationship.

The general rule: if something is being used in place of a person’s given name, treat it as a name and capitalize it. Not sure? Try substituting the person’s actual name in that same spot to see if the sentence still works. If it does, then capitalize. Here are some specifics that trip people up:

  • If you have a character who’s a little crazy with the risk taking and has the nickname “Gonzo,” and that’s what everybody in the book calls him, most writers know to capitalize that. But in spontaneous circumstances such as a father calling his daughter “Pumpkin,” somehow that tends to trip people up. I see those types of personal, cutesy nicknames lowercased quite often when they ought to be capitalized. Again, it’s that general rule: the girl’s actual name would fit just fine in that same context within the sentence, which is your tip-off that the nickname is functioning as a surrogate proper noun.

  • Immediate family relationships. I see “Mom” and “Dad” mis-capitalized all the time. Weirdly often. This same rule applies for any kind of relationship within the family, it just shows up for mothers and fathers more often. This mistake is perhaps more understandable, since these kinds of relationship words are legitimately either capitalized or lowercased depending on context. When used as a form of direct address (again, in place of the person’s name), capitalize: “Hi Mom, what’s for dinner?” When used as a reference to a person holding a particular relationship to the speaker or narrator (and usually prefixed with a possessive pronoun such as my/his/her/etc.) then lowercase it: “You won’t believe what my mom made for dinner last night.”

  • Non-family relationships. These are typically references to people who hold some kind of business or service relationship to the speaker or narrator, and are referred to by their profession. A doctor, lawyer, seamstress, et cetera. I see fewer mistakes with these, but it’s the same rule as for immediate family relationships. Don’t capitalize unless the profession is being used as a form of direct address. You’d write:

Jack went to the doctor (lowercased) to get his head examined. “What do you think, Doctor?” (capitalized) he asked. “Am I crazy?”

  • Titles. “Sir,” “Ma’am,” “General,” “Lord,” “Sire,” et cetera: capitalize. While these aren’t a part of a person’s given name, they are used as if they were. They’re just like “Mr.,” “Ms.,” and so forth. It is as if the person’s name includes the title, and when the title is used by itself, it’s like using a shortened form of the person’s name. So “Thank you, General Harrington,” becomes “Thank you, General.” But not “Thank you, general.”

40. Unclear scene openings. The original post from storyfix.com, the one that prompted me to write this series, talked about turning invisible scene transitions into visible ones by means of whitespace. A simple and effective technique. But that leaves aside the elephant-in-the-room question of how you open the scene after the transition.

An unclear scene opening really hoses up the flow of your story. I’m just going to say that. It does. Because rather than being able to smoothly segue into the next meaningful set of events, readers are instead forced to wrestle with simply understanding what the scene is. There are a few really core things that a scene opening needs to establish to give the reader a smooth transition from one scene to the next, and to introduce those, let’s briefly talk about what a scene break is. Intuitively, we know, but let’s make it explicit. A scene transition is a jump in time, place, viewpoint character, and/or supporting characters. I make that explicit because those are pretty much the things readers need to know in order to get their heads into the new scene.

If time has shifted, we need to know by how much and in which direction: forward (the most common; we’ve skipped some boring time in order to get to the next period when something interesting happens), backwards (the new scene is a flashback, or the story is being intentionally told in non-chronological order), or laterally (we’re jumping to a different character so we can catch up on what she was doing at the same time as someone else).

If the new scene takes place somewhere different than the prior scene left off, then we need to know where we are. Or at the very least, we at least need to know enough about the location that we can visualize it, because sometimes you legitimately don’t want to tell the reader exactly where the place is. But we still need to be able to visualize it in order to understand what we’re about to see the characters do.

If the set of people in the scene is different from the prior scene, and those people are in obvious evidence to the POV characters, it’s only fair to let the reader know right away who’s present. It’s confusing to read a page and a half of scene, believing that only Pete and Lisa are in the room, only to be find that Janet has actually been there all along but she just hasn’t said anything up to now. That’s irritating to readers, because now we need to adjust our understanding of what Janet knows to include anything Pete and Lisa said and did in the meantime. You force us to stop to make that adjustment, whereas if we had simply known Janet was there from the beginning, we’d have been able to do that automatically.

And finally, where is everyone in the space? For our ability to visualize and track what’s happening, it isn’t enough to know who’s there. We need to know where they are, too. And when they move around, we need to know about it. Let’s say you have three people sitting out on the porch, talking and sipping iced tea. If they all stay put, it’s easy to track who knows what based on what might be revealed during their conversation. But if one of them steps inside for a minute to refill their tea and you don’t tell us, then again, our mental model starts to diverge from what you have in mind. If we suddenly see that person come back out to the porch, we’ll be confused. “Wait a minute. Grandma went back inside? When did that happen?” We don’t know how much of the conversation she missed. We feel cheated, and justifiably so, because we weren’t allowed to track the movements of the characters, even though those movements should have been perfectly obvious to anybody witnessing the scene.

41. Overly complex verb forms. Pop quiz. What’s wrong with this?

Beth started to cross the yard towards the oak tree. She stretched one hand up to a gnarled branch and began to climb. It was hard work but she finally reached the top, where the branches grew thin and she could feel herself swaying in the breeze.

What’s wrong are the verb forms: “Started to cross.” “Began to climb.” “Finally reached.” Once in a while, I get a client who just can’t help but do this. They turn every straightforward action into some complex verb construction, generally by prefixing the core verb with some form of begin, start, continue, finish, finally, or similar.

After a while it starts to drive the reader crazy. It’s like nobody’s ever actually doing anything. They’re always just beginning to do something, or finally getting around to something, but never just plain doing.

Remember waaaaay back in part 1 of this series? Item number 3 was “weak verbs.” Well, this is another way writers weaken otherwise strong verbs. They clutter them up with these overly complex lead-ins, these hair-splitting gradations of tense. I promise you this: whatever verb comes after the lead-in is pretty much guaranteed to be stronger than “begin,” “start,” “continue,” and the rest. Cut those lead-ins to let the character—and the reader—jump straight to the action.

42. Naked dialogue. It’s fine to have characters talk when they’re naked. That’s not what I mean. Naked dialogue (or sometimes “on the nose” dialogue) is when a character’s dialogue reveals exactly and specifically what they’re thinking or feeling. The dialogue bares all, as it were.

Let’s say you have a couple in a rocky relationship. One of the things he’s unhappy about is that he feels that the relationship isn’t equitable. That she doesn’t really respect his time, his space, his opinions, et cetera. If they’re arguing and she asks, “Why are you so grouchy all the time?” he’s not going to say this:

“Because I don’t get my due in this relationship. I don’t feel like you take my feelings or opinions into account. I feel disrespected, and if you don’t respect me, it makes me wonder if you really love me. Then I worry that you’re going to break up with me, even though I love you and I don’t want to break up.”

It’s just not believable. Regular people don’t say things like that. I mean, if this guy is so well adjusted and self-actualized that he can articulate his feelings so clearly, chances are he would have said something to her long ago at the first signs of the problems. No. A regular, believable person would say something like:

“Because we always see what movies you want to see, and eat where you want to eat, and even though I paid for our damn queen-sized bed, somehow you get as much space as you want while I sleep on a twelve-inch strip right on the edge, and if I god forbid ever ask you to maybe give me just a little bit—on anything—you look at me like I’m asking you sell a kidney so we can buy beer, that’s why.”

Real people rarely say exactly what’s going on. Little kids don’t, as we explored in the last installment, because they don’t have the capacity for self-analysis which would let them. Grownups don’t, because somehow in our culture we’re just not that blunt about it. We talk around the real issues, hoping people will figure out what we really mean. As a writer, your job is to write dialogue that does exactly that: hints at the real issue so readers can figure out what’s going on (whether other characters do as well depends, of course, on what you’ve got going on in the story), without hitting the nail exactly on the head.

43. Passive voice. Good grief. I just realized I haven’t mentioned passive voice writing yet. Passive voice is a grammatical construction which switches the subject and direct object of a sentence. And then for good measure, often drops the subject entirely. For example, a nice active-voice sentence like this:

Jane threw the package to the ground in a blinding rage.

Suddenly turns into this:

The package was thrown by Jane to the ground in a blinding rage.

“Jane” and “the package” have switched grammatical positions in the sentence, and “threw” converts to “was thrown.” But then, because “by Jane” sounds so horribly awkward in there, we dispense with Jane:

The package was thrown to the ground in a blinding rage.

The problem, as I blogged in some detail a long, long time ago, is exactly with this last step. The subject of the original sentence, the actor, the character who your story is about, gets cut out of the text.

44. Passive characters. Your grammar isn’t the only thing that can be active or passive. Characters can too, and it’s just as bad. If you write a passive protagonist, even in active voice, we’re going to be bored. A passive protagonist is one who is not interacting strongly with the plot. What that means is that the character is floating through the story without any driving goal or motivation to achieve anything. The feeling this creates is that the protagonist doesn’t much care what happens. And it’s pretty hard to get the reader to care what happens if the main character doesn’t.

I don’t mean that you can’t have a passive narrator. You can. Many stories use a viewpoint character who is there to witness the exploits of the true protagonist, so as to narrate them to the reader. Look no further than The Great Gatsby or Moby Dick.

What I mean is that whatever character you set up as the main person in the story, the one who the story is fundamentally about, that character had better have some strong goals and motivations. We need to see that the main character cares about something. We need to see care so strong that we’ll believe, want to follow, and root for that person as he or she does whatever the plot requires.

45. Telling instead of showing. I had to save something substantial for last, and this is it. Even if you’ve heard the “Show, don’t tell” rule before, don’t stop reading now, because chances are you’re still not following it as much as you should. Violating this rule—that is, telling instead of showing—is easily the most frequent mistake I see from writers of all stripes. Rookies and seasoned folks alike.

It’s also the worst mistake you can make, because “Show, don’t tell” is the most fundamental, bedrock skill of narrative fiction. Skillful use of showing and telling is what makes narrative fiction work.

It’s not hard to understand why people tell instead of show, though. Telling is just so damn easy. You can convey so much information, so fast, using telling. With telling, you can lay out a character’s whole backstory so we know exactly who they are, where they came from, and what all their foibles are, in a half a page. With telling, you can trivially let us know exactly how everybody feels, and why, all the time.

Telling is so easy it’s downright seductive, but it’s still a mistake because the things rookie writers want to tell are usually the most important things in the story. Which, ironically enough, means that they are the exact same things that you need to let readers infer, deduce, and conclude for themselves. When the reader concludes something, the information becomes theirs, and they’ll believe it to the end of time. When you just tell them outright, the information remains yours, and is therefore much more suspect. After all, you’re a novelist, a title which is probably the greatest euphemism for “liar” ever invented. By definition, you make stuff up! You’re not to be trusted!

You need to show, rather than tell, because that’s how you lead readers to make the critical inferences and conclusions you need them to make. That’s how you earn the reader’s belief in your characters and your story.

How do you do it? I have a whole 90 minute lecture on this subject that I can’t cram into this blog post, but in brief: what you’re allowed to tell is anything that would be visible (audible, smellible, et cetera) to the reader if the reader were a fly on the wall in your scene, plus the viewpoint character’s inner monologue if you’re using that. That’s what you’re allowed to tell. All the stuff that’s directly manifest in the world of the story. Everything else, all the invisible stuff you want the reader to know, everything those flies on the wall would have to infer on the basis of what they observe, is what you need to show. Here’s the cool part: you show the invisible stuff by telling the visible stuff.

Every invisible fact will manifest in some observable way. To show us the invisible fact, you tell us about its visible manifestation, and let us connect the dots. That’s how you do “Show, don’t tell.” So I leave you with this:

The difference between telling and showing is the difference between the visible and the invisible.

And we’re done

So that’s it. Forty-five rookie writing mistakes, and how to avoid them. Thanks to anybody who read this far, and happy writing!

< Back to part 4 | << Way back to part 1

August 24, 2011 16:12 UTC

Tags: writing, writing mistakes, rookie, show don't tell, passive voice, active voice, conjunctions, passivity

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How to establish your characters: middles

Last time I wrote about how to establish your characters during your book’s opening. Having done so, readers are poised to watch those characters evolve as the book progresses. How do you deliver on that in the 80% or so of your book that takes place between the opening and the climax?

Last time we worked with some example characters: a lost job applicant in Chicago who smooth-talks a local into escorting him to his interview, a frontier wife whose unexpected rope skills save her husband from drowning in a difficult river crossing, and a shrinking-violet character who holds back, never giving his all. We’ll extend those examples in this article.

Give the character an epiphany moment

You establish that a character needs to have an arc by showing us some flaws in them. The beginning, when you were illustrating key personality traits or creating mysteries about the character, was when you were showing us that this character has some room to grow. To change. That’s necessary for a character arc, but it isn’t sufficient.

That is, it’s not enough for readers to see this. The character needs to have an epiphany moment in which he or she realizes it too. Something has to happen which lets the character see the deficiency within themselves. The establishing stuff in your book’s beginning just sets the stage. You need the epiphany moment to kick off the character arc, to put it in motion.

For example, perhaps after our shrinking-violet character blows the game for his team by not giving 100%, he gets chewed out by his teammates and the girl on the team he was interested in—who had maybe just agreed to go out to dinner with him—decides she doesn’t want to see him socially after all. “Look, Charlie. You’re a nice guy, but you don’t come through. If the team can’t count on you to dive for a catch, how can I count on you if things get serious?” That could serve as a wake-up call to Charlie that, indeed, he could try harder.

Bear in mind, that’s not the beginning-and-end of his character arc; a character arc can’t flit by in a single moment. The epiphany moment is just the start, and in the beginning Charlie will likely rankle against this new-found and unwelcome insight into himself, rationalizing and retrenching his behavior before he actually begins to change.

Show signs of altered behavior

Still, the middle of your book is a pretty long stretch, and you’ve got plenty of space in there to move the character past that initial epiphany. To do it, you have seven ways to show character growth at your disposal. Since there’s already a whole article about that (c’mon, click the link; you know you wanna) I won’t rehash it all here except to say that here in the middle of your book is not the place for the character arc to come to its conclusion. Save something for the end, you know?

Reveal some backstory

Back in the beginning, when you were creating mysteries about your characters by showing surprising skills and abilities they have, what you were really doing was hooking the reader by eliciting the reader’s curiosity as to how the character came to have those skills and/or abilities. The middle of your book is a great place to give drips and dribbles of backstory which reward readers for their curiosity. Give us some payoff.

But, don’t simply answer the question. Give us part of the answer, in a way which is satisfying to some portion of your readers’ curiosity, but which also heightens their curiosity. In other words, let the answer raise its own, more significant questions.

Remember the smooth-talking job candidate? In the middle of the book you might reveal that he used to work for the FBI, studying con-men in order to help the bureau catch them, until he was kicked out for ... well, you hold that part back. Now the reader wonders why he was kicked out. Is our guy really a smooth-talker by nature, or is he just employing techniques he studied from real con-men?

Or take the frontier wife with the husband-saving rope skills. As the book’s middle progresses, you might slowly reveal that in her youth, she escaped her domineering, controlling parents by stealing a pair of her brother’s clothes, dressing like a man, and joining up with a Texas cattle outfit. But something happened, and while she is now living as a woman again, she’s also secretly on the run from the Texas Rangers. Why? What happened? Do her husband and children know about her past? Don’t tell us. Yet.

Give us a meaningful payoff for our initial curiosity for our characters, but do it in a way which makes us even more curious for later.

Struggle with the book’s underlying conflict

But perhaps more important than any of that, you establish your characters in the middle of the book by showing them struggling with the book’s underlying conflict. Whatever it is, it ought to represent a significant challenge or obstacle for your characters in pursuit of their goals. Maybe the smooth-talking ex-FBI man is actually a good person whose major problem is staying true to himself. Suppose the reason why he got kicked out of the FBI—not time to reveal that yet!—is making it such that he can’t pass a background check, and as thus can’t get a decent job. This threatens him at the bottom levels of Maslow’s hierarchy, which puts him in a bind: does he continue to struggle, to rebuild his life while being true to the kind of person he wants to be, even though he knows it would be a lot easier just be a con-man? He spent years at the FBI studying those very skills!

Think hard about what your character’s most deeply rooted conflict is within the story, and let the surface level conflicts bear on that deeper struggle. Think deeper than your mere plot. This example character’s surface level conflict is about getting a job, but the challenges he faces in doing that bear on the deeper, personal struggle he is going through.

Middle Goals

To sum up, your book’s middle section needs to do these things:

  • Get your character arcs moving with appropriate epiphany moments.

  • Follow through on that by using the seven ways to show character growth as the bulk of the plot progresses.

  • Reveal enough backstory to satisfy part of your readers’ curiosity, while using what you’ve revealed to raise bigger questions.

  • Show your characters wrestling with—sometimes even being beaten by—the deep, personal conflict simmering underneath your plot.

The middle of a novel is a big, tricky balancing act for the novelist. You must balance the revelations and discoveries you present to readers with new mysteries, conflicts, and stakes. You must do both, because with no revelations at all, the book becomes difficult for readers to sustain. But if you don’t sustain any mysteries, readers will be left with little motivation to continue reading. The techniques in this article help you with this balancing act. Epiphany moments give the reader satisfying moments of drama (because they usually come out of some kind of confrontation), yet they presage the whole chain of the character’s arc. Answers to surface-level backstory can lead to questions that dig below the surface.

< Back to part 1, openings | Next time: part 3, what to do at the end of your book. >

January 25, 2011 22:23 UTC

Tags: character, character arc, action, conflict, show don't tell, mystery, curiosity, backstory, personality

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How to establish your characters: openings

Among the many jobs a book’s opening needs to accomplish, one of the more important is to establish your book’s characters. You need to let your readers know who the players are, what their relationships are (at least initially), and enough about what kind of people they are that readers can develop a sensibility about how these people are likely to act.

It’s a tall order, but there are some core strategies you can use to help achieve these goals, while at the same time moving your story forward.

Show your characters in action

First, please, show your characters in action. Show them doing something. And I don’t mean walking down the street. Show them in the act of attempting to achieve a goal, prevent something bad from happening, et cetera. I don’t really care what it is, just show them trying. It doesn’t matter what the outcome is, but readers need to see the effort and the reason for it is pretty simple. Seeing the effort reassures us that this is a character who will be worth watching for 300 pages.

When your book’s opening shows us a guy walking down the street, or a lady sitting at her kitchen table having tea as her day begins, that’s not very interesting. It doesn’t give us a lot of confidence in that character as being someone who can bear the heavy load of being a protagonist. Nobody wants to spend 300 pages with a character who doesn’t do anything.

This is not to say that you can’t put a guy walking down the street on page one. You can. But you need to show us why that’s interesting. You need to do something with that scene that allows the character to make a meaningful choice or take a meaningful action. Maybe the guy is in Chicago for a job interview, trying to make his way on foot from his hotel, only he isn’t quite sure which way to go. He’s going to have to choose whether to go left, right, or straight, and his choice is critical to arriving at the interview on time.

Show your characters in conflict

Within the action, look for ways to put your characters in conflict. Conflict, in novel-writing terms, is any situation in which a character’s goals are impeded by something. Could be an explicit antagonist trying to mess up the protagonist’s plans. Could be a physical obstacle, a raging river that was only marked as a stream on the map. It could be a situation, not enough dinner to feed the family and the surprise guest/business associate the thoughtless husband brought home. The obstacle could be internal, as in the interviewee’s lack of knowledge of how to get around the streets of Chicago.

Again, the reason why conflict is an effective characterization tool is simple: the conflict itself forces characters to respond. In watching their responses, we learn about them. Does the interview guy stop to ask directions, or does he wander around hoping for the best? Does he call to warn the prospective employer he might be late, or does he arrive tardy with some half-baked excuse about the hotel’s wake-up call being late? A character’s response to any conflict tells us a great deal about who that person is.

Conflict is also dramatic. Conflict carries with it the implicit threat of failure. The guy might actually be late for the interview, heightening the stress of an already stressful situation. The raging river might sweep away the frontier family’s horse and wagon, greatly increasing the danger that they won’t make it to California. Opening your book with a strong conflict for your character to face is a wonderful way to kick things off with a bang.

And speaking of the threat of failure, I would argue that in your book’s opening, the stronger choice is usually to let the character fail. Let him be late and lose the job. Don’t just give the family a moment of panic when the horse stumbles halfway across the river, but let the river win. The reason for this, too, is simple: failure throws the characters’ plans into disarray, and forces them to react. Just as with watching them respond, their reaction to failure teaches us a great deal about them.

Open your book by putting your characters in conflict situations, so we can watch their response, the outcome, and their subsequent reaction.

Create mysteries about your characters

So you’ve created a conflict situation, put your characters into a stance of action, the question then becomes how can you work the character’s choices and actions in order to deeply hook the reader? You can create mysteries.

The idea here is to show something unexpected about your character, something that is naturally applicable to the scene, without explaining it. Show us a skill, a talent, an attitude we’re not expecting. Maybe the interviewee stops a random person on the street, and smooth-talks that person not into giving him directions but in fact escorting him by cab to his destination and paying the cab fare for him. We’re likely to be surprised and intrigued to see such a display of charisma and persuasion. After the horse goes under, maybe the father also falls into the river and is only saved by his wife’s quick-thinking and dead-eye aim with a lasso. We’re likely to wonder how she came to have such impressive rope skills.

But don’t explain. Let us wonder. The reader’s curiosity is your most powerful asset, and if you can show us something we don’t quite understand, we become wildly curious to learn the backstory behind it. Don’t give it to us. This is the wrong time for a backstory infodump. Make us read onward into the story in order to learn why the character can do those things.

For instance, maybe the interviewee used to be a ... no. I’m not going to tell you now, here in the opening of this three-blog-post series. I’ll tell you in the next installment about what to do in the middle of the book, and ditto for frontier-woman and her rope-work. See? Now aren’t you at least a little bit curious how they came by those abilities?

I should warn, though, there is a danger to be aware of: if what you show the reader is so surprising and unusual that we can’t even imagine how it’s possible for the character to do that, then what you’ve created isn’t mystery but incongruity. Maybe it really does make sense in light of backstory you don’t want to give us yet, but you can’t let the reader think it’s just some weird, crazy thing you pulled out of your butt in order to concoct an exciting opening. That’s a sure way to lose the reader. So, if the thing you reveal is that surprising, what you can do is let other people in the scene wonder, too. That reassures readers that you know what you’re doing. That you understand how hard it is to believe what they just read, but that you have a plan and all will be revealed in good time.

Illustrate key personality traits

Again, readers want to know what kind of people they’re dealing with. Particularly helpful is when you can illustrate a personality trait that is at the heart of the arc you’ll be putting that character through. Perhaps your protagonist is a bit of a shrinking violet in the beginning, afraid to take risks and make sacrifices. Imagine you have in mind that by the end of the book he will be called upon to take a significant risk, and that his ability to do it stems from the personal growth he experiences during the story. While you could open your book with something like this:

Charlie was the kind of guy who held back, never giving his all.

you’ll do much better to illustrate that trait in the course of an early scene. Readers will believe it a lot more strongly if you make them understand that for themselves, rather than spoon-feeding it to them. So you’ll put Charlie in a position where he could take a risk, but doesn’t.

Maybe he has joined an Ultimate Frisbee team because the woman he’s interested in plays on it. Other players routinely make leaps and diving catches, but not Charlie. At a critical moment during a big game, Charlie doesn’t dive for a pass he could have caught, resulting in the other team taking possession, and Charlie’s team losing the game.

His teammates chew him out for it. “What’s the matter with you? You totally could have caught that if you’d tried!” Charlie, of course, will have a perfectly good rationalization for his behavior. “Why should I risk injuring myself diving to catch a frisbee? It’s just a game.”

Seeing those events transpire will be a hundred times more convincing than simply telling us that Charlie’s a milquetoast fellow. It does so through action and conflict, thus keeping our interest high. And it sets up his overall character arc, so that by the end of the story when he finally learns that sometimes risks and sacrifices are necessary, his eventual act of bravery will hit home much stronger.

Opening Goals

To sum up, your book’s opening needs to do these things:

  • Show us who the character is.

  • Make us curious about that person.

  • Give us a reason to care about the person.

You do this because your opening scenes and chapters need to hook the reader. Part of your hook comes through the (hopefully) intriguing nature of the situation you show. But the other part, and I would argue the larger part, comes through your characters. Novels are ultimately about characters doing things. Trying to affect the course of events. Your opening needs a hook, but your characters are the bait.

Next: part 2, How to establish your characters: middles >.

December 17, 2010 19:02 UTC

Tags: character, action, conflict, show don't tell, mystery, curiosity, personality, character arc

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Five more ways to create sympathetic characters

Some while back, I wrote a couple of articles on creating sympathetic characters; one about emotion and another one about stakes. Ever since then, I’ve been meaning to do a third article with some more specific, hands-on strategies for creating sympathetic characters. Today is that day.

But first a bit of context, because like everything in narrative writing, it’s all about “show, don’t tell.” Sympathy arises from the conclusions readers draw about your characters’ personalities based on what you show the characters doing. This includes everything that is observable to the reader: characters’ actions, their dialogue, their inner monologue if you’re into that kind of thing, the way they treat other characters, the choices they make.

All the stuff you show in the narrative does the work of telling the reader what kind of people your characters are, so you don’t have to. That is, you shouldn’t ever have to write “Stanley was a prince among men,” or words to that effect, because Stanley’s observable actions and so forth should make that clear. So keep that in mind: everything else in this article relates to stuff you can show for the specific purpose of helping readers sympathize with your characters.

Use humor

People like funny people, and readers like funny characters. Few things make people more readily comfortable with one another than as good natured humor. To this end, you can show your character being funny, cracking jokes or making witty comments. You can show your character having a humorous outlook on life, finding humor in unusual places, or even resorting to humor as a coping mechanism when situations get particularly grim—sometimes you have to laugh to keep from falling into a complete panic. You can also show your character readily laughing at themselves, rather than taking themselves too seriously.

These are all reactions that, in real people, tend to put us at ease with one another. Jokes, witticisms, and wry commentary give us mirth. Humor in the face of danger is certainly easier to get along with than panic. (Would you want to be stuck in a foxhole with a soldier who was laughing in the face of death, or one who was having a total freak-out meltdown?) A person who easily laughs at himself is someone we aren’t likely to offend easily, which allows us to be more relaxed around him as well. If it works in life, it works in fiction.

Use Admiration

Humor works great for creating sympathy among social peers, but when you need to create sympathy for a character who is inherently more aloof or is intentionally not humorous, admiration may be the ticket. The strategy here is to show that character being masterful at some non-trivial skill. We all tend to admire people who are very, very good at what they do. They may suck at everything else (witness sympathetic jerks like Dr. House), but we can still admire their hard-won skills and root for them on that basis.

This can work in almost any book, because chances are there is some reason relating to skills why that character is your protagonist. You gave the character special skills for some specific purpose relating to the plot. Build on those to create sympathy by showing those skills in action. Even better is when you can show those skills used in unexpected ways but to great effect. MacGyver is probably the most obvious example there.

The Golden Rule

This one is kind of obvious: if you want people to like your character, show the character being a kind to others. I suspect that’s rather self-explanatory, so I won’t belabor it. Rather, I’ll talk about the danger of misusing the Golden Rule.

Human beings (which, never forget, includes your readers) are keenly sensitive in terms of reading the motivations behind people’s actions. If we see a person doing something nice for someone else, we don’t usually have trouble determining whether the action is sincere or disingenuous. Whether the action comes from the heart, or comes via some ulterior motive. For example, when we see politicians kissing babies in a crowd or filling sandbags at the site of a flooding river, we can be pretty sure they are motivated at least in part by the presence of TV cameras in the vicinity. We all know politicians are drawn to photo-ops like bees to honey.

In novels, the Golden Rule fails when you toss in scenes of overt kindness that seem to have nothing to do with the rest of the plot. Readers spot the photo-op scene immediately. I found a scene in a client’s novel once where, for no particular reason I could determine, the protagonist suddenly went to the children’s ward at the hospital to bring balloons and ice cream to the sick kiddies. So by all means use the Golden Rule (I wish more people did so in real life!), but for it to be convincing, acts of kindness need to have some plausible connection to the greater context of the scene they’re in or the plot at large, they have to be in proportion to the situation, and there shouldn’t seem to be anything in it for the character other than perhaps someone else’s thanks and appreciation.

Oh, and you have to do it consistently. The ice cream scene in that book was basically the only selfless, nice thing that character did for anybody else in the whole book. A one-time act of kindness does not earn your character a free pass on sympathy for the rest of the book.

"Glad it’s not me!"

You can also trigger readers’ sympathy by being cruel to your characters. Visit upon them misfortunes they don’t deserve. Show bad things happening to your characters, not only so we can see how they rise to the occasion, but also for sympathy. Think about every time you’ve ever driven past another motorist who has been stopped by the police, especially when you notice you’re a few miles-per-hour over the speed limit yourself: some part of you is feeling bad for the other driver’s misfortune while feeling lucky that it wasn’t you.

Make their job harder

Whatever the major story goal is that a character wants to achieve, you can add more sympathy by doing something to the character that makes their job harder. Give them some kind of handicap in that pursuit. It could be a literal, physical handicap: a marathon racer who tears a ligament. It could be an emotional handicap, like fear of needles for someone who has to get some immunizations before traveling overseas on a business trip. It could be a resource handicap, such as trying to get through college while being dirt poor. It could be a skill handicap, like being stranded after having all their stuff stolen in a foreign country where they don’t speak the language.

Whatever situation your character is in, whatever goal they have in a specific scene or for the whole book, see if there’s something you can change about the character (either inwardly or outwardly) that would make the goal harder to achieve. There usually is, and it’s always a great way to add believable sympathy.

Conclusion

The reader’s sympathy doesn’t come for free. You do have to work for it. Fortunately, creating sympathetic characters isn’t as hard as a lot of things in novel-craft. There are lots of ways to create it, and for the most part, readers want to sympathize with your characters anyway. They’re predisposed to do so, and probably will if you give any kind of decent effort at portraying your characters sympathetically.

And one more tip: these tips work for your book’s villains, too...

June 22, 2010 20:21 UTC

Tags: character, sympathy, show don't tell

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How to portray an inspiring leader

Joan of Arc. Napoleon. Susan B. Anthony. Gandhi. Hitler. Winston Churchill. Martin Luther King. Jim Jones. Whatever you may think of these men and women personally or the causes they championed, there is little argument that they all have something in common. All of them were highly effective leaders of their respective causes. That is, people followed them. They all exuded inspirational leadership.

Some novels call out for an inspirational leader, either as a main character or someone the story’s main characters can themselves admire or vilify. If that fits your current work-in-progress—or one you may be thinking about for the future—read on, for there are a couple of key techniques we can learn from history’s successful leaders. Now fasten your seat belts; this article is a long one.

Leaders share their vision.

All effective leaders, whether their aims be good or ill, have a vision for the future. And they share it with their followers. Whatever they’re after, whatever kind of change they want to create in the world, these leaders have a clear vision for it. And their vision is regularly manifested in their speech. They are not shy about sharing that vision with anyone and everyone.

The speech of effective leaders is peppered with leading phrases and future looking language: “I can see a day when …” Or “I imagine …” Or “I believe that in the future, …” And yes, “I have a dream.” These aspirational and inspirational phrases are how effective leaders open people’s minds and imaginations to their visions.

So if you’ve got a character who needs to inspire others to action—who needs to create a following—make liberal use of future-looking language. And try to make it distinctive. “I have a dream” will forever be associated with Martin Luther King. Your novel’s leader character needs his or her own unique phrasing, something that can become as much a part of the character’s identity and description as height or hair color.

Simple, vivid, and emotional

Great leaders also articulate their vision in vivid, colorful terms. They do it through imagery and metaphor, through evocative similes. They don’t do it through statistics and bulleted lists. Gandhi did not go around talking about how India’s Gross Domestic Product would go up if India achieved self-rule and equality for all. No. He talked about fairness, love, equality. He talked about simple, basic concepts that anyone could understand and that resonated with the emotions of his followers. And when he did have to use a statistic, he kept it lively:

When I despair, I remember that all through history the ways of truth and love have always won. There have been tyrants, and murderers, and for a time they can seem invincible, but in the end they always fall. Think of it—always.

That’s a statistic—"tyranny ultimately fails 100% of the time"—but look at the wonderful language Gandhi used to express that statistic and how he built a small emotional story around it, and one that serves also to reassure his followers: “this movement is hard and sometimes I fear we will never succeed, but this undeniable fact of history always picks me right back up.” He admits to the same doubts that his followers must surely have had, then offers them a compelling reason to have hope. He explicitly commands listeners (note the imperative voice in “Think about it") to ponder what he has said, and to let this undeniable fact of history do the same for them.

So let your leaders talk about fundamentals. Let them talk about their vision in terms of lofty, philosophical, and emotional words like “love,” “truth,” “equality,” “freedom,” “success,” and so forth. Let them convey their visions in terms that are at once simple but vivid, and that connect with their followers’ hearts.

The what/how/why trap

Still, a great vision and vivid emotional language is not enough. Leaders with vision and vivid language may yet fail by falling into the “what/how/why” trap. And my thanks go to Simon Sinek for bringing this to my attention, because it’s brilliant.

Leader falls into the trap by explaining their vision for the future in terms of what they want to do. If pressed, they will give some details of a plan for how to do it. Chances are, no one will think to ask them why they’re doing it in the first place, which is good for them, because they probably haven’t spent much time thinking about it.

Great leaders explain their visions in exactly the opposite way. Great leaders talk almost exclusively about why they do what they do. They talk about their purpose. Their cause. What they believe deep down to their toes. Sinek explains this in marketing terms: “People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it.”

Great leaders speak to that. Gandhi spoke to validate the basic belief that politically repressed Indians were worthy of every bit as much respect, dignity, opportunity, and freedom as any Englishman—even though they weren’t getting it under British rule.

Yet, most people instinctively talk about what, because what is concrete. It’s tangible. It’s obvious. The problem is, talking about what doesn’t motivate people to action. Talking about why does. If your novel’s leader wants any followers, talking about why had better be the first thing out of his or her lips.

It works because people know immediately whether they agree or disagree with a philosophical principle, which is what so many whys boil down to. When Martin Luther King talked about equality among the races, people knew right away whether they agreed with that basic belief, or whether it scared them. Had he jumped right to a concrete change—say, passing Affirmative Action legislation—he’d have met with much more resistance because even among people who agree with the core belief about equality, they might well differ over whether Affirmative Action was a good way to promote it. Let your leader characters stick with the philosophical principles, and leave the pesky concrete details to others.

Let actions demonstrate the why.

In 1930, Mahatma Gandhi walked almost 400 kilometers to the coast so he could make salt from seawater. Under British Rule at the time, you couldn’t just make salt. You had to pay a special tax. Gandhi’s why had to do with freedom and opportunity. Thus, he did not make speeches about how the Indian people desperately needed access to cheaper salt. That wouldn’t have demonstrated freedom and opportunity in vivid terms.

Instead, he simply made salt. He showed that he had the freedom and ability to do so, and thus, that the tax was both unjust and unenforceable. He did not make an appeal to what he felt needed to change ("we must force the British to repeal the salt tax!"). He talked about why, about the fundamental injustice of the tax, something the Indian people readily understood and agreed with. And the people responded. By the time he reached Dundi, on the seashore, some 50,000 people were there to join him in his protest.

Actions speak louder than words. And in “show, don’t tell” parlance, your leader characters will be much more believable if you can find actions for them to take that demonstrate the why behind their visions. What can your leader characters do to demonstrate their vision and exemplify their why?

Followers follow for themselves

Nobody followed Gandhi to the sea, trekking those hundreds of kilometers—on foot, mind you—because their salt shakers were empty. They weren’t hoping Gandhi was going to go into the salt business, selling lower-cost, tax-free salt. No. They did it for themselves. They followed Gandhi all the way to the sea because his words and his actions validated their own beliefs about themselves. They followed because Gandhi shared their personal vision for opportunity in a free India.

The same thing happened in America’s Civil Rights movement. When Martin Luther King went to Washington, D.C. to deliver his famous “I have a dream speech,” a quarter of a million people showed up to listen under the hot summer sun. They didn’t do it for him. They didn’t do it because they thought he’d feel bad if there was only a small crowd. They did it for themselves, because they wanted to be involved in remaking America according to the vision they shared with King for a more equitable society. And I can’t resist borrowing a line from Sinek here:

Notice, Martin Luther King gave the “I have a dream” speech, not the “I have a plan” speech.

He didn’t say what needed to change, but rather, what he believed. And people who shared those beliefs took his cause for their own, and volunteered. So let your leader characters speak to the secret, unvoiced dreams and visions of the people around them. Let your leader characters give their followers an outlet for pursuing their own dreams. Because the truth about leadership is that it’s not about the leader. It’s about the followers, and validating their reasons for following.

Heroes vs. villains.

Of course, the basic visionary and communication skills of effective leaders can be used for good or for evil. There’s a reason Hitler and Jim Jones were in the list at the top of this article. In truth, there’s not much separating the heroes from the villains. In hindsight, we can tell the difference through our judgments about the rightness or wrongness of their visions. But in the moment, at the time the characters in your book are deciding how to lead or whether to follow, hindsight is unavailable, and it can be damned hard to tell a hero from a villain.

This is because on an emotional level, there is no difference to the followers between a heroic and a villainous leader. Both heroic and villainous leaders alike call out to their followers by appealing to the best in them. They invoke the highest levels of Maslow’s hierarchy to inspire their followers towards greatness or towards what they argue is a better and brighter future.

For the heroic leaders, this appeal is genuine and heartfelt. Such leaders themselves believe what they are saying. Villainous leaders, by contrast, appeal to their followers better natures while at the same time arranging for themselves to be the beneficiaries of their followers’ efforts. Cult leaders, politicians, and corporate PR campaigns often do this (make of that what you will).

A picture of leadership

Through all of this, I hope a picture of what effective leaders actually do becomes clear. Great leaders have a vision. They share their vision in vivid, emotional terms. They speak in terms of broad, philosophical fundamentals, not concrete minutia. They focus on why they are passionate for their vision, not on what they think needs to change. And they let their actions demonstrate the truth of their beliefs.

By doing so, they call out to the shared beliefs held by people who ought to be their followers and motivate those people to take up the cause as well. That is how leaders inspire movements, and if you show your leader characters doing those things, readers will have no trouble believing you when an army of followers materializes around that person.

June 15, 2010 00:05 UTC

Tags: character, leadership, vision, actions, show don't tell, believability

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Seven ways to show character growth

The best novels offer a strong storyline coupled with a strong character arc. A character arc is nothing more than the inner process by which a character becomes a better person. When the events in a storyline, coupled with how a character reacts to them, cause the character to become in some way a more mature person, that’s a character arc.

Readers love character arcs because when the storyline is over, the character’s final moments of personal growth leave the reader with the feeling that the story had a higher purpose to it. That it wasn’t just a fun adventure romp, spy thriller, or whatever. You leave the reader with the feeling that the book meant something.

Writers love them, too, because threading a strong character arc into your storyline is a wonderful way to add a layer of complexity and interest to a story. A strong character arc can be the difference between rejections that say “good, but not right for me” and “I would like to represent this book.”

Seven strategies to create a strong character arc

  1. Gain direction, motivation, drive, or ambition. Take a character from being a boring lump with an unfocused, undirected life, and fix that. Give the character a goal, a raison d’etre, something to get him out of bed in the morning.

  2. Get active. Take a character who from being a passive pushover, and let her start taking charge of her own life. Show her making decisions, making plans, and by all means, taking actions.

  3. Shake up the old, boring routine. Show the character working free of a familiar and confining—if comfortable—routine life. Show him trying new things and embracing the world. Let him travel, see the world, and make new friends. Hint: if your storyline already involves travel, build the arc the other way around by saddling the character with a hum-drum routine of a life at the beginning of the book.

  4. Expand your mind. Let the character learn something. Show her finding a new interest, pursuing it with joyful zeal. Should she self-study or go back to school? Stay in her garage and experiment, inventing something? Who knows, but if you can tie her chosen interest to the rest of your storyline, you’re golden.

  5. Lose the ego. Start with a very me-focused character, and let him start to think about other people. Make him shut up about himself for a change. This can be a very effective arc strategy for stories that involve the “haves” getting involved in the lives of the “have-nots.”

  6. Limber up. Mentally speaking, that is. Take a character who is rigid in her viewpoints and force her to loosen up. Let her begin to consider new evidence, to challenge her own assumptions. Let her fail a few times early on because she assumed she was right when she wasn’t, and from that, learn a lesson in humility: after all, you’re not always as right as you think you are. Don’t forget to let this new-found self-skepticism save her from a critical mistake or lead her towards a critical victory later, when the stakes are highest.

  7. Refocus on the basics. A well-worn technique (well-worn because it’s effective) is to show a character’s disorganized, chaotic inner life by means of a slovenly, unkempt, unhealthy outer life. These are characters who are overweight, who drink and smoke, whose apartments haven’t been vacuumed since the Reagan administration, and who are failing to take decent care of themselves. They’re ignoring their responsibilities at the lower levels of Maslow’s hierarchy. For them, you can reflect inner growth by showing them taking a new-found interest in their physical needs. Let them start to eat right, exercise, and occasionally even iron their laundry.

Every one of these strategies involves meaningful change somewhere in the character’s life. Some are changes in attitude, some in behavior, some in outlook or priorities. These are all inner changes, substantive ones that affect a character’s personality. It’s more than just changing your wardrobe. Character arcs are always deep changes that must be reflected in the surface levels of a character’s actions.

Note, this is another application of the famous Show, don’t Tell rule: The surface actions you tell the reader about are what show the character’s underlying growth.

Oh, and one final note. Are you planning a series and wondering how to manage a multi-book character arc? Why not start with a deeply flawed but loveable character, and in each volume let the storyline lead the character to growth in one of the above areas. There’s your seven-book saga, right there.

May 14, 2010 21:31 UTC

Tags: character, character arc, taking action, passivity, goals, sidekicks, hierarchy of needs, Maslow, show don't tell

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How to revise your character arcs

This is the final installment, part 6, in my post-NaNoWriMo series on strengthening your characters while revising your novel. This is the big one. Today, we talk about character arcs.

The goal of a character arc is to present believable personal growth for your main characters, and to provide a feeling of emotional closure. Yes, successful books can and have been written without any meaningful growth in the character, or with no emotional closure at the end. Thrillers are the typical example of this type of book.

But to omit the character arc, even in a gripping, page-turning thriller, is a lost opportunity. As I’ve said before, a character arc is a way to elevate your novel to another level above and beyond run-of-the-mill books in your genre. The emotional closure provided by leaving your characters wiser at the end of the book than the beginning also leaves the reader wiser. It leaves the reader with the feeling that reading the book was a valuable use of their time, above and beyond the simple enjoyment they were expecting when they bought it.

Have you got any character arc already?

If you do, great. If the arc was intentional, even better. Skip ahead to the next section.

But what if you don’t? If you haven’t considered your protagonist’s personal growth before, where do you look for inspiration? You look to the plot, and look to yourself.

In the plot, look for obstacles of a similar nature that the protagonist faces at various points. For example, let’s say the protagonist gets in a lot of arguments in the course of the book, which is a problem because she’s constantly turning people into minor enemies who no longer want to be helpful to her. Possibilities for character arc include learning some better negotiation and conflict resolution skills, or some introspection. Maybe she could ponder, since arguments always seem to be happening to her, whether she’s the problem. Maybe she can figure out what she’s saying or thinking that tends to trigger these arguments. Revise the early dialogue scenes to more clearly portray her problematic interaction style. Likewise, revise dialogue scenes that take place later in the book to show her practicing not getting in arguments and having better outcomes with people. If she can learn that she was her own worst enemy, even in that one small aspect of her whole life, then you can leave her a better person at the end of the book.

If your plot doesn’t offer any obvious character arc material, then look to yourself. Ask yourself what you know now that you didn’t know when you were younger. What would you tell yourself if you could go back in time to give your younger-self one piece of advice? Or, as literary agent Donald Maass put it in his book Writing the Breakout Novel:

I do not believe you have no opinions. It is simply not possible that you have never observed a fact of human nature or uncovered a social irony. You are an aware, observant and discerning person. You are a novelist.

So take your observations of human nature, and find a way to show them through your protagonist’s experiences. Take care, though. It’s easy to be very clumsy in adding a message of this type to a book, which only leaves the reader feeling like you’ve hit them over the head with it. You don’t want to do that. To be subtle about it, you never want to tell the message. You want to show it so the reader sees it for themselves. Show it so the reader leaves the book feeling like the message is their own observation about life, not yours. Consider what your message is, then find a series of events that create a character arc which conveys that message without you ever having to spell it out explicitly.

Is your character arc well portrayed?

Remember, being believable is an important part of a character arc. You can’t just toss one into the mix and expect it to magically integrate with everything else in the novel. You want to look at a couple of things with respect to believability.

One is whether the character’s other attributes, the ones the rest of this revision series has talked about, track the character arc. Use the character’s visible attributes, everything the rest of this revision series has talked about, to show the otherwise invisible process of personal growth.

So ask yourself, is the arc reflected appropriately in the character’s dialogue? In their mannerisms? In their attitudes? Depending on the arc, it may even be reflected in the character’s body. For example, if your book starts out with an out-of-shape protagonist having a heart attack, then you can use physical health, strength, and stamina as external reflections of the character’s inner growth.

The other is whether the arc is too clean, too neat-and-tidy, to be believable. Real people, much as they strive to better themselves in earnest, have setbacks. People who are trying to quit smoking sometimes sneak a cigarette in a moment of stress, knowing they really shouldn’t. Recovering alcoholics sometimes fall off the wagon. Parents who are doing their best to raise their kids with love and compassion sometimes get pushed too far and yell anyway.

To be believable, a character arc needs to show believable progress, which usually means including the occasional setback. Certainly it includes initial stages where the character is trying to change but still isn’t doing very well with it. There’s nothing worse than a character arc that is really more of a stair-step: when the character goes from realizing they have a problem to immediately being cured of it. People are creatures of habit , and habits are hard to change. Don’t forget to show the struggle to change along with the change itself.

Conclusion

Although writers can spend a lifetime refining the techniques of portraying believable characters, in everything from dialogue to character arcs, that’s going to do it for this character revision series. If you’ve read the whole thing, thank you! I hope it has helped trigger some new ideas, give you some new tools to work with, and expose you to some strategies for thinking about character portrayal that will help elevate your novels above the run-of-the-mill.

After all, the only way out of the slushpile is up.

< Back to part 5, attitudes

December 09, 2009 19:26 UTC

Tags: character, revision, character arc, personal growth, emotional closure, obstacles, observation, show don't tell, setbacks

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How to revise your characters' mannerisms

This is part 3 in my post-NaNoWriMo series on strengthening your characters while revising your novel. Today, we’re talking about techniques for revising mannerisms. As with dialogue, the goal with these is to present characters whose mannerisms are distinctive and consistent. But beyond that, you want to look for opportunities to use mannerisms to show characterization.

Great characters have mannerisms that make them distinct from other characters. Unless, I suppose, you’re writing about an army of clones. Real people hold their heads just-so, or gesture when they speak in specific ways that are distinctive to them. The whole package of mannerisms creates what you might call a “fingerprint of motion” for the character. That person moves like no other. That person uses his or her body differently than everyone else. Not in a strange or bizarre way, necessarily, but just unique to them. Have you ever seen someone from behind, at a bit of a distance, but you knew immediately it was them just by the way they were carrying themselves? As you revise, that’s what you’ll be striving for.

Physical mannerisms, being largely unconscious or else the product of physical factors the character can’t control, should also be consistent. If your character has a limp at the beginning of the book because of an old knee injury, he’ll still have it at the end. The caveat, as always, is that you may have a plot point, such as knee surgery or moving to a part of the world with different customs, that forces a character to change mannerisms.

So how do you do it?

Make lists, flag the manuscript, revise

The mechanical process for revising mannerisms and attributes is pretty similar to what you do for dialogue. I covered that yesterday so I won’t re-hash all that here. In short, you make lists for each character of how they move and how they think. Compare the lists and tweak them until you’re satisfied that everybody is distinctive. Then flag the manuscript using your favorite method so you can easily locate each character’s scenes, and then revise the characters one by one. That part is pretty straightforward.

What I want to talk about instead are strategies for editing those lists to create individual fingerprints of motion for each character, and to make sure those fingerprints work for you on multiple levels.

Reduce over-used mannerisms

If you look at your mannerism lists and find that they’re already distinctive, great. Pat yourself on the back and move on. But more likely you’ll notice that you have lots of characters who sigh to themselves when they’re disappointed, or who roll their eyes to show disdain, or who gesture wildly when they talk or whatever it may happen to be. What then?

If that’s the case, odds are also good that this particular mannerism comes from you. You may well do this yourself. Think about what that mannerism means to you. Do you sigh to yourself because you need to express your disappointment but want to keep it hidden from others? Do you gesture wildly because you get excited about whatever you’re talking about? Ponder the deeper meaning behind those largely unconscious gestures.

Don’t worry too much about whether you’re right or wrong, just think about it until you have a plausible-sounding idea for why you do that thing. If it’s not something you yourself do, don’t worry about that either, but still spend some time thinking about what the mannerism means. Once you know, ask yourself which character in your story is the best fit for that meaning.

For example, if upon reflection you decide that you roll your eyes a lot because you’re smarter than everyone else in the world and so to you everyone else seems like an idiot, then find the most egotistic character in the book and let him or her have that mannerism. Not that this applies to you, of course. Oh no. It’s just an example. Still, when you take the eye-rolling away from everyone else, the gesture becomes a way to show the self-centered arrogance of the one person who does it without you ever having to use the words “self-centered” or “arrogant” anywhere in your manuscript.

This is how you make mannerisms work for you on multiple levels. Used carefully, not only does a mannerism create distinction, it also shows, rather than tells, characterization. Used carelessly, it doesn’t show anything.

Add distinctive mannerisms

When you’re done reducing your over-used mannerisms, odds are your characters’ lists will all be a lot shorter. Which in turn means that the characters are less fully developed; the character’s fingerprint of motion has been wiped away. So, time to add some good stuff back in. My two favorite ways to do this are backstory-based brainstorming, and emulation.

Consider the character’s backstory, the sum-total of that person’s history and personality, and brainstorm ways it may have shaped the character’s mannerisms. You may have a character who is naturally shy, and in groups has trouble getting her turn in the conversation to add her own thoughts and perspectives. What can she do about that? Well, “don’t be shy” isn’t exactly plausible advice, so maybe instead she co-opts a social convention from childhood: raising your hand. Back in gradeschool, we all had to raise our hands before we could speak. So maybe she does that. Not a huge, arm straight up to the sky pose like we did in school, but just a subtle hand raised up maybe to shoulder level. The other people around the table will see this, and on some level they’ll recognize that gesture as a social convention for indicating that you want to speak. They’ll see her hand and quiet down for a moment so she can talk.

Emulation is just another facet of that old adage “great writers steal.” In this case, you’re not stealing other people’s words, but rather, borrowing bits of other people’s fingerprints of motion. I like to pick famous people for this, because it’s really easy to find visual references for them on YouTube or elsewhere. Take three politicians: George Bush had that signature way he would grip the sides of the podium with both hands when he spoke, with his shoulders hunched up just a little bit. John McCain has that stiffness to his body from the indignities he suffered when he was a prisoner of war in Viet Nam. Barack Obama tends to gesture with a flat hand, an open palm, when he talks. And when he speaks from a podium, his head turns right-to-left-to-right with almost clockwork regularity about every two seconds.

So think about famous people, or just people you know well, and find little pieces of motion you can borrow for the betterment of your characters. Again, think about what those pieces of motion might mean, and make sure to hand them out in ways that best allow you to show each character.

Conclusion

Use these strategies to make sure every character has a fingerprint of motion that is unique to them, that is believable given their history, and that is also useful for showing that character’s personality. Once you have a solid list for each character, use the revision processes I discussed in yesterday’s article to apply them across your manuscript. It is, as someone on yesterday’s article commented, a lot of work. There’s no getting around that. If it helps:

“Don’t get discouraged because there’s a lot of mechanical work to writing. I rewrote the first part of Farewell to Arms at least fifty times.” —Ernest Hemingway

“I’m not a great writer, I’m a great rewriter.” —Paddy Chayefsky

< Back to part 2: revising dialogue | Next: part 4, revising physical attributes >

December 04, 2009 19:38 UTC

Tags: character, revision, mannerisms, distinctive, consistent, show don't tell

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Who moved my cheese?

I don’t know what it is with me and cheese, but since I seem to think in dairy-related terms, I’m going to go with it. I’m going to embrace my inner cow, and talk about showing a character’s personality through the props that are central to their lives. Moo.

The book Who Moved my Cheese? is all about dealing with change in one’s life, which is akin to what this metaphor is about for authors, too.

What’s your character’s cheese?

That is, what object in your character’s life is so important to them that if it gets lost, stolen, broken, or abducted by aliens, the character will be pushed out of equilibrium.

We’ve all heard about baseball players who go into a slump when their lucky bat breaks, or some ill-mannered fan steals their lucky glove. What that shows about them is that they have externalized their success on the playing field into an object. Rather than taking credit for their skills themselves (and ownership for their failures), they credit or blame the bat, the glove, the set of cleats they’ve had since high school. Losing the bat or the glove is a clear opportunity for them to internalize their success and reclaim it, or not to and wash out of the Majors.

What works in real life works in novels. If you’re struggling for a way to smoothly and believably show something about your character—their insecurity, their faith in God, their love for their family—consider building a relationship between that trait and a physical object.

You can relate insecurity to a comfort object, like a worry stone, a ratty old baby blanket, or 12 year old scotch. Whatever they use to comfort themselves. You can relate faith in God to a set of rosary beads, a crucifix, a Saint’s Medallion, or really anything at all if it’s something that the character’s backstory connects to an intensely spiritual moment in the character’s life. Love for family can be connected to the trappings of life that we use in taking care of our families. Like a mother who expresses love through food, but who believes that the secret to her cooking lies with the old fashioned cast iron skillet that belonged to her mother and her grandmother before her.

In my earlier articles on backstory and relating character arcs to story arcs, I described a character, Dr. Lisle, who had externalized her love for her mother through the making of cheese. I showed how that could be entwined with Dr. Lisle’s outer story arc, so that her cheese becomes central to the plot resolution. But what else can we do with it?

Move their cheese

Well, we could move her cheese. This is why I suggest that you relate the character trait you want to show to a physical object, specifically because it’s something you can take away. Make it a real prop. Ok, so cheese isn’t the most traditional prop, but it can still be taken away. I could have poor Dr. Lisle develop a dairy allergy so she can neither make nor eat cheese anymore.

Now how is she going to feel? Given the degree to which she has come to rely on cheese as an integral part of the emotional sense of order in her life, she’s not likely to take it well. She may not understand exactly why, in the beginning, but she’s probably going to find herself missing her mother more. Feeling somehow adrift in the world, less connected to other people than she wants to be. All because I moved her cheese.

Aren’t I mean? Yeah, but that’s an author’s job.

It’s ok, though. She’ll get over it. Eventually, she’ll figure out that making cheese was filling an emotional role in her life formerly played by her mother, and that nothing about how she feels about her deceased mother has actually changed. She can internalize those feelings, let go of the need for the cheese, and move on.

Making it work

Ok, so you’ve decided that this strategy can fit with your current Work In Progress. To make it work, you’re going to set it up. The character’s reaction to having their cheese moved won’t be credible to the reader if you don’t first establish a couple of things. First, and most obviously, what is your character’s particular cheese? Is it a love letter from a high school sweetheart? A beat up old penny? A deck of well-worn playing cards? Whatever it is, the reader had better know that it’s important to the character.

Second, why is it important? And here, I remind each and every one, it is critical to SHOW, not to tell. You could try tossing this somewhere in chapter one:

Joe’s father taught him to play solitaire at the tender age of nine with this very deck of cards, so after his father died Joe played it all the time and even now he still plays solitaire when he’s feeling stressed.

But it won’t carry any emotional weight in chapter seven 7 when the deck cards slips out of Joe’s hand and drops down a storm drain. No. You have to show it, which means letting us know how Joe came to have the deck of cards, but also showing him actually playing cards in stressful situations several times leading up to the point where you make him lose them.

Variations

Once you’ve set up the importance of the cheese, you can go lots of different ways with it. Is the prop something your character would go to great lengths to keep? How about getting it back if it were lost or stolen? What would they do? How far would they go for it? If they’d go to extreme lengths—say, sifting an entire beach’s worth of sand to find that old beat-up penny—your setup had better support that.

Another variation isn’t to move their cheese, but merely to threaten their cheese. Ask yourself if you can create tension and drama by putting the cheese in danger. If a swarm of rats represents a significant threat to a warehouse full of cheese, ask yourself what’s the equivalent threat for the prop you’ve chosen.

But remember, whatever flavor cheese you pick, it’s there to be an outward vehicle for showing some inner character trait. So long as anything you do with the cheese results in a response from the character that involves the related personality trait, your story will be the better for it.

October 30, 2009 22:47 UTC

Tags: character, props, traits, show don't tell, cheese

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How to amp-up your scenes with body language

I wrote an article a couple of weeks ago called Why Jane Smokes that showed some techniques for linking characters’ external actions to their internal growth across a whole story arc. Today’s article is a double-win technique for using body language to amp-up the characterization on a smaller scale, within individual scenes.

Whether they know it or not, everyone exhibits body language. And, much as with dialogue, you and everyone who will ever read your book is an expert in the art of interpreting body language. We all know what it means when someone shrugs, pumps a fist in the air, crosses their arms over their chest, or shifts uncomfortably from foot to foot.

This is just part of being human. We’re all students of each other, because we have to be. Body language gives us essential information about other people’s attitudes, states of mind, and even how they are reacting to us in any given moment.

Tap into your readers’ expertise. Use body language both to advance your scenes and to portray your characters as believable, multi-dimensional people. There are two main ways adding body language helps a scene.

Moods First and foremost, body language is a wonderful tool showing characters’ moods. It is, frankly, an enormously useful writing tool for those situations where you have a vivid internal sense for a character’s particular, subtly nuanced feeling, but are having trouble giving a name to it. Stop looking for a name to give to it. Instead, convey the feeling through body language. Not only does that save you from the trouble of finding the perfect phrase, but it allows you to show instead of tell. Don’t give us this:

From down the hall, Jane could still hear the baby crying. She sat at the dining room table, weary, worn out in body and spirit.

Give us this, instead:

From down the hall, Jane could still hear the baby crying. She slumped over the table, cradling her head against the heels of her hands.

Setting The second useful aspect of body language is that it turns your characters physical bodies into an extension of the setting. Your scene takes place somewhere—be it a clandestine warehouse, a windy beach, a bedroom—but wherever it is, your characters bodies are there, too. They are an element of the setting. Just as you should look for key details of place—a greasy concrete floor in the warehouse, the salt-air tang of the wind blowing off the water, the 400 thread-count linen sheets on the king-sized bed—you should also look for details of body language to layer onto your characters.

In setting scenes, writers are encouraged to incorporate all five senses in order to make the place itself feel real. It’s good advice, but why stick with just five senses? Why not add the whole other realm of sensations—emotional ones—that body language conveys so effectively? Try it, and see how much more vivid your settings become.

September 14, 2009 23:51 UTC

Tags: character, body language, emotions, settings, dialogue, details, show don't tell, senses

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Do you know the real reason not to use passive voice?

Ask anybody in this business whether you should use a lot of passive voice sentences in your writing, and they’ll say “No, of course not.” Ask them why, though, and you’re likely to hear only vague and useless answers:

“It’s awkward.” “It’s boring.” “It’s emotionally cold.” “It’s dry and academic.”

That’s all true, but none of it helps you understand the real problem. Here’s the real answer:

Passive voice hides your characters from view.

It’s really that simple. Novels are about characters doing things. Passive voice shifts the focus of the writing away from the characters and onto the things they’re doing, or the things they’re using to do whatever it is they’re doing. Check this out:

Bread was placed on the counter. Two slices, whole wheat. Peanut butter was spread on the left, jelly on the right. The halves were joined, and inserted together into a baggie. The sandwich, along with a shiny red apple and thermos of milk, was packed into the shiny, new Lightning McQueen lunchbox, with a folded paper towel for a napkin.

The lunchbox was handed to its intended recipient. A rosy smooth cheek was presented for an obligatory, if not entirely welcomed, kiss. The door was opened, and the new school year was begun.

That’s an extreme example, but I’ve seen people write like this. I’ve seen whole novels written almost entirely in this style. The problem with passive voice is that it’s great for saying what happened, but absolutely lousy at saying who did it or how they did it. It hides the characters. And in doing so, it hides all the warmth. All the emotion. It undermines any sense of the relationships between people.

I made those paragraphs the best I could—adding colorful details here and there—but they’re still awful. In those two paragraphs, where’s the mother’s love? Where’s the child’s mixture of anticipation and trepidation? Where are anyone’s feelings about anything? Oh, here they are:

Sam watched as his mother made a PB&J sandwich. Use the grape, Sam thought. He smiled as she took the purple jar out of the fridge. She packed the sandwich into his new Lightning McQueen lunchbox, taking care that it wouldn’t get squished by the apple or the thermos of milk. She closed it with a tinny, metallic snap.

“Here you go, Sam,” she said, handing him his lunch. She bent down to kiss his cheek. Sam squirmed a little but smiled anyway, secretly glad he wasn’t too old for it. “Run and catch the bus now!” Sam held her eyes for a moment, then ran out the door to begin the new school year.

The active voice version is very clear about who is doing what, and how they’re doing it. That much is obvious. But what is most interesting to me is the source of that improvement. The very process of writing in the active voice focuses my attention as a writer in a different and altogether better place: On the characters.

I had intended to write a straight, sentence-for-sentence version changing nothing but the grammatical voice. But I couldn’t. As soon as I typed “Sam watched,” I was forced to wonder not about the minutia of sandwich making (which happens all too easily when writing in passive voice), but instead about what Sam was thinking, feeling, and hoping: Duh, he’s hoping his mom will choose his favorite kind of jelly.

Having raised the question of which jelly she’ll use, I have to answer it, which forces me to wonder about the mom’s state of mind. Because she’s his mom and knows him and loves him and wants his first day to be a good one, it was obvious to me that she’d pick the grape. Her love and concern shows in her choice, in her ability to read her son’s mind. We see Sam feel that love when he smiles about it.

Similarly, I was forced to consider how she packs the lunch. Again, love and concern makes her do it in a specific and intentional manner. She doesn’t just cram it all in and slam the lid. Writing in active voice forces me to consider how—not just what—someone is doing, which in turn gives me an opportunity to show, rather than merely tell.

The simple decision to write in active voice forced me to focus on my characters. It forced me to focus on the people, rather than the objects.

It’s the characters who are interesting. A peanut butter and jelly sandwich isn’t interesting except to the extent that it has anything to do with the characters. In passive voice, the sandwich is just a sandwich. Boring. In active voice, the sandwich conveys the relationship between the characters. That’s interesting.

Relationships between characters are what we love to read and see. Passive voice writing withers on the vine precisely because it hides that from view. In so doing, passive voice encourages authors to be lazy and to focus on the entirely dull objects and events of the story.

It takes work to figure out how characters feel about everything, and how those feelings shape people’s actions. Active voice forces writers to do that work. It forces us to focus on the interesting characters of our stories and the fascinating relationships driving them.

September 03, 2009 23:49 UTC

Tags: passive voice, active voice, character, show, tell, show don't tell, Lightning McQueen, lunchbox, apple, sandwich, peanut butter, jelly, school, relationships, writing

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Why Jane Smokes: What every writer ought to know about habits

We are, all of us, creatures of habit. Our characters should be too. In this article I’m going to expose a technique used by successful writers to create distinctive, lively characters readers can really believe in.

Take a couple of minutes and make a list of your own habits. No need to write it down or anything, just contemplate your habits, both good and bad. Consider personal habits like biting your nails, smoking, or jogging two miles a day; speech patterns like saying “you know” three times in every sentence or beginning all your sentences with “well,” or “so"; habits of dress and grooming like never leaving the house without a tie or without first washing your face; driving habits like speeding, tailgating, or relentlessly coming to a full and complete stop at every stop sign.

I’ve got at least 10 habits that pop readily to mind. And no, I’m not going to tell you what they all are (although starting sentences with “and,” “but,” and “so” is one).

Now do the same for people you know. Your husband or wife, a friend, a co-worker. Do those people have habits that are quintessentially theirs? Ones that define them almost to the point of caricature? I find it hard to imagine the people I know without their habits. My perception of them is strongly colored by their habits, and surely their perceptions of me are similarly colored by mine.

Although we may not think of them in this way, habits are a great tool for showing character in real life. So why not use them in your fiction as well? There are three reasons why you should.

First, habits create believability. You’ve probably heard the general advice to add evocative details to your writing: Weird, idiosyncratic tidbits that seem to come out of nowhere. Habits do the same for our characters, but they do it across the whole span of the book, not just in a given scene. That is, you can’t just show a character nervously biting his nails once and have it be effective. You must show it often enough to cement that in the reader’s image of the character.

A word of caution: take care in choosing what habits to give your characters. Some habits are so strongly associated with underlying psychologies that they have become tired cliches. Try to find habits that are a little more distinctive, yet don’t destroy the underlying motive of believability. You want to find a comfortable space between what is banal and what is downright strange.

Second, habits "show, don’t tell". On the surface, habits can create colorful, believable characters. But you should strive to go deeper by using the habit as a representation of something meaningful about a character. For example, you could have a character who smokes. She’s not a chain smoker, not a true addict, but rather someone who has come to use cigarettes as a form of avoidance. When forced to confront a difficult or uncomfortable situation, she lights up. On the surface, she’s telling herself “I just need to steady my nerves,” but really it’s just a way to avoid dealing with something difficult, if only for a few minutes. If this is how you portray the habit, then it gives you a convenient shorthand for referring to that entire aspect of the character’s psychology through showing, rather than telling. Telling would be this:

Jane paused before knocking on Sean’s door. She knew she had to break up with him, but dreaded the inevitable scene. She decided to put it off for a few minutes by lighting up a cigarette.

Yeah, that makes me yawn too. Showing would be this:

Jane stood before the door to Sean’s apartment. She raised her hand to knock, but then reached into her purse for a Virginia Slim. She took a long drag, and blew the smoke out into the night air. God damn, she thought, why are men so difficult?

With a little effort most underlying psychological motivations can be connected with an appropriate habit, and usually to great effect.

Third, habits set up dramatic reversals. When a habit is a core part of how we perceive a character, we are strongly affected to see the character violate the habit. Violating the habit is powerful because it is a reversal: you’ve led the reader to expect one thing, but have then given them something different. That is, when we’ve seen Jane light up when under stress seven times before, you can really grab our attention in an eighth scene by showing Jane not lighting up.

But you can’t just do it as a meaningless surprise. After all, if she violates the habit, we’re going to wonder why. If you have properly used the habit as shorthand for Jane’s deeper avoidance issues, then the answer is obvious: When we see her not light up we immediately know that she has grown as a character. She has reached a point where, at least in one instance, she doesn’t want to avoid a difficult situation. She’s ready to face it head-on. The reversal is itself powerful, but it is also dramatic because it clearly shows Jane’s grit and determination. And all you have to do is make her put the cigarette down, unlit.

Exploiting habits is a powerful technique for confronting the challenge of creating distinctive, believable characters. But don’t feel like you have to plan these things out ahead of time. Often it is easiest simply to write until you find yourself stuck, asking “how can I show Jane’s determination and growth?” At that point, you can invent a habit for her to break. You must, of course, go back to earlier scenes and add the habit back in, but that’s ok. The power of a well-chosen habit to show character is entirely worth the effort.

August 24, 2009 23:11 UTC

Tags: character, habits, smokes, believability, drama, reversals, distinctive, shorthand, show don't tell

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Novelists' black holes

This month, an enormous amount of my work time has been sucked up in preparing to do book doctor consultations with aspiring novelists at the annual PNWA 54th Annual Summer Writers Conference. They signed me up for 24 of these one-on-one consultations, each one accompanied by a 25-page excerpt from the aspirant’s novel for me to read and critique.

Anybody who has made a serious attempt to write a good novel knows that there are endless pitfalls one can blunder into on the trail from blank page to finished first-draft. I’m getting down to the last few excerpts in the pile, and I have to say I’m surprised some of these pitfalls haven’t been eliminated simply because they’re full to the brim with the bodies of those who have fallen into them before. I’m thinking you ought to be able to cross right over them on a crusty bridge of bones.

But, alas, some of these pitfalls seem more like black holes than holes in the ground.

Since they never fill up, I’m going to take a little diversion from my usual character-development fare to point out some of the more obvious ones, so future aspiring novelists can at least try to step around them. I’m not going to talk about little stuff: how to avoid run-on sentences, or even how to “show, don’t tell” or what have you. There are hundreds of credible books on creative writing that can help you with the basics.

I’m not so interested in the basics because those issues are comparatively easy to fix in an edit pass. What isn’t easy to fix in an edit pass are the big blunders. The ones that affect the bones of your story (if I may mix metaphors for a moment). If you all tell me in the comments that you want me to write about the basics and the intermediate stuff too, I’ll be happy to do so, but for today I want to talk about the big blunders that you ought to think about before you start writing chapter one.

Your line has no hook, or your hook has no bait.

I have yet to come across one of these excerpts that opens with a sufficiently well-constructed hook. I talked about how to do this the other day, in Hook ‘em with Character, but it’s important enough to be worth talking about briefly again. As I said in that earlier post, a great hook shows character through conflict. That is, it opens with a situation of meaningful conflict, one in which the POV character is forced to speak, act, and react in ways that show what that character is made of. You’d think that at least 5% of unpublished manuscripts would manage to do this, wouldn’t you? Yet, I haven’t found a single one that has put a sharp hook on page one, and baited it with a compellingly interesting character.

It’s not difficult to add a mere hook scene to the beginning of a novel that lacks one, but if the rest of the novel doesn’t contain interesting characters to work with, then there’s nothing to bait the hook with. That’s why I include this issue in the hard-stuff-to-fix category, because your opening hook isn’t going to catch many publishers if you can’t bait it with compelling characters.

Before you start writing chapter one, make sure your characters are worth writing a whole book about. I’m continually surprised at how rarely this happens.

"Country two-step” Pacing

These are books where the plot takes a step forward, then two steps back, then a step, step forward and a Do-Si-Do. If I had a dollar for every one of the excerpts in this set of 24 that opened with some plot, then took an immediate, pace-killing detour into flashbacks and backstory, well, I wouldn’t be rich but I could certainly buy myself a pizza.

It’s hard enough to craft a well-paced opening to a novel even if you only do the essentials: establish the premise, setting, and characters. The burden of starting the story inevitably makes the pace in the beginning slower than in the body of the novel. But, throw a bunch of infodumpy flashbacks, character background, or premise exposition into the mix, and the novel’s pace stops dead. Readers yawn—or at least, they would if they got to see it. They won’t, because agents and publishers will throw it in the trash and send you a “not right for our needs at this time” letter.

What kills me is that the material that’s in these pace-killing bits of backstory is almost never actually necessary. Usually, it’s material that is just plain irrelevant. The reader doesn’t need it. In the maybe 10% of cases where the material is relevant, nearly all of these do nothing but answer questions the reader hasn’t thought to ask yet, and as such, rob the story of a lot of mystery, drama, and suspense. These aspiring writers haven’t learned that leaving the reader with some questions and puzzles is a good thing. If the questions are compelling, if the puzzles are enigmatic without being trite, then the reader will read on and on to find the answers.

But when you kill your novel’s pace with an infodump flashback that reveals all of your character’s tragic secrets, you also spoil the mystery. Cut out all those pace-killers, throw away the truly irrelevant material, and sprinkle the other 10% here and there throughout the body of your story. Reveal it by degrees, to create a deliciously evolving portrait of your characters.

"Waiter, I wasn’t done with that!” Plots

These are books that open like one kind of novel, but then—surprise!—turn into something entirely different mid-way through. If it’s going to happen, this will usually happen right around the end of act one. If the best possible thing has happened, that is, the reader has actually enjoyed act one of your novel, switching it on them is an extremely risky move. It’s like your reader going to a restaurant only to have the waiter (you) take their plate away mid-way through the meal and replace it with something entirely different from what they ordered. Oh, and then also for the waiter to be surprised that the reader gives them a lousy tip.

If a reader actually gets as far as the end of act one, they have invested a lot of time and energy into your story, with an expectation of some sort of payoff: that the story will finish well. If, instead, it finishes by turning into an entirely different story, you’ve violated the implicit contract between author and reader. You’re saying to the reader “I know you were enjoying my hard-boiled detective story, but come on, don’t you really want a rollicking historical romance farce with aliens?”

I’m not saying you should never surprise the reader. Obviously, you should. The right kinds of surprises are good. I’m just saying that the middle and end of your plot should live up to the promises made by the beginning.

Film Negative Plots

Every novel has to find its own balance between showing, creating fully life-like scenes of important events, and telling, summarizing events that don’t need to be shown. A film negative plot is when the author confuses the black with the white, and shows us the boring parts while telling us the exciting parts.

You would think it would be utterly obvious not to do this, but again, this black hole knows no bottom. This is in the hard-to-fix category because it means re-writing everything, turning shows into tells and vice-versa.

I had one of these 24 excerpts start out with so much that was right: it had an interesting premise, and a main character who was doomed to struggle through events his background didn’t prepare him for. But, in the book’s opening, the author chose to show us a dialogue scene between the main character and his amicably-divorced ex-wife. In this scene, the main character recounts for her the most dramatic event in the whole first act: a dying man using his last breaths to give our hero a cryptic set of instructions. He literally tells it. The dialogue scene itself was well crafted, but for crying out loud, open with the dying guy! If you’ve got that in your back pocket, why on earth would you ever open with a congenial chat with the ex-wife?

So there you go. Four killer black holes in the universe of novel-writing. Now you know where they are, so please, try to avoid them. And if you’ve got any favorite pet-peeve ones of your own, please add a comment and share!

July 23, 2009 20:15 UTC

Tags: plot, hook, character, pacing, infodumps, backstory, flashbacks, bait-and-switch, PNWA, conference, show don't tell

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Hook 'em with character

“You’ve got to open with a strong hook.”

Ask anyone in the publishing industry—agents, publishing house editors, sales reps—and they’ll all tell you that opening a story with a strong hook is a great way to make your manuscript stand out from the rest.

But what does that actually mean? It’s pretty vague advice. If you press them on it, they’ll give you something like “Well, the story has to open strong. It has to pull the reader right in, grab them by the shirt collar, and make them want to read the next page.”

That doesn’t help much, does it?

Then there’s the other school of thought, summarized very well by Elizabeth Lyon in her book Manuscript Makeover:

I know a few people, very few, who can spout plot summaries of novels on request. What most people remember, I contend, are their favorite characters.

She’s right. The thing is, these philosophies mesh very well together, because a strong hook also shows your characters.

Today I’m going to tell you exactly what a strong hook is, and give you practical, hands-on tips for how to open with one, and how to how to make your hook show your characters.

A strong hook is nothing more than something that grabs the reader’s attention. That usually means crafting a surprising situation that is thick with conflict. Why? Because conflict drives the reader’s curiosity: what’s the conflict about? What’s at stake? Who’s going to prevail?

Raising questions in the reader’s mind compels them to keep reading. And in your opening scene, more than anywhere else in the book, you want the reader to keep reading.

Yet, all too often I see manuscripts that open with some of the most boring situations imaginable. People waking up in the morning, walking down the street, going about ordinary, day-to-day activities. Don’t do that. Somewhere in your plot, is some interesting, pivotal event that gets the main storyline going. Right? Say yes. There had better be, and it had better come soon.

Find a way to put this event front-and-center on page one. In paragraph one. Ideally, put it in the very first sentence. Open with a scene of conflict. Work to immediately raise those questions in the reader’s mind. Don’t think it’s better if the conflict sneaks up on the reader. It isn’t. Jump right in.

That’s one component of a great hook: opening big, picking the right scene from your overall story to open with. Do that and you’ll raise the right questions in the reader’s mind. But the hook won’t have any bait if you fail to make the reader care about the answers.

In my experience, this happens when the big opening scene fails to establish the main character’s personality. You can’t fix this by throwing in a sentence or two of description. You can’t fix it by telling the reader that your character is a smart-ass, or is utterly fearless, or is a rotten drunk.

To establish your main character’s personality well, you have to show it, not tell it. And that, in turn, means creating opportunities for your character to display his or her attributes in action.

There’s lots of ways of working a character’s attributes into a scene, but in an opening scene one of the best ways is to make sure that your main character drives the scene, rather than letting the scene drive your character.

I can’t tell you how many opening scenes of manuscripts I’ve read that have a lot of conflict in them, but in which the main character doesn’t actually do anything, doesn’t affect the outcome of the scene. Openings where the main character is buffeted about by events, making no effort to participate in them, letting the chips fall where they may.

That is not a recipe for making readers care about your main character. Who wants to root for a character that doesn’t do anything? One way or another, you have to make your main character drive that scene.

This doesn’t mean that your main character can’t be in a world of trouble. It’s probably better if he or she is. This doesn’t mean he or she has to prevail in the scene’s conflict. In fact, he or she should probably not prevail.

What it does mean is that you need to show the character trying to affect the outcome of the scene. You need to show them making decisions, taking actions, reacting to events, engaging in dialogue.

Every one of those elements is an opportunity to show character.

Actions speak louder than words, right? There’s no better way to learn what someone’s really made of than to watch how they act in an atypical situation. You won’t learn anything about someone from watching them walk down the street, get up in the morning, or any of those other un-conflicted, daily life situations.

But watch them act in the middle of a crisis, and you’ll come to know what kind of person they are really fast. Authors have the extra luxury of not only showing how a character acts, but also of showing how they think. Use it. Give the reader that extra insight into your character’s mind.

Here it is, boiled down: A great hook shows character through conflict.

Tattoo that on your forehead if you need to, but learn it. Take a look at the opening scene of whatever book you’re working on right now, and ask yourself, is this a great hook? Is there enough conflict here, and have I used it to show my main character’s personality? Is my main character driving the scene?

This is how you not only pull the reader into the story by raising questions, but also make them care about the answers.

July 20, 2009 18:04 UTC

Tags: hook, conflict, questions, answers, character, choice, action, reaction, show don't tell

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