“Everybody loves a flawed character.” That’s a truism we hear often. A character with a flaw is, of course, channelling human qualities. After all, even the people we love the most in our lives carry “the stuff” that makes them imperfect.
My beloved aunt, who reads all kinds of books, loves Alice Munro, P.D. James and Margaret Atwood, and is in her happy place with a challenging crossword puzzle yet lacks the confidence to attempt to understand poetry. “I’m not clever enough,” she says.
The woman who loves language and words can’t understand poetry? But I cut her some slack because I love her.
So, too, will your readers cut you some slack when your characters reveal their flaws. But you want more than a reader’s understanding. You want those idiosyncrasies, characteristics and flaws to benefit your story. And they will when you use them deliberately to affect aspects of your story.
The following is by no means a full list of flaws. It’s a sampling just to give you something to think about as you work with your characters. Flaws affect actions, reactions and interactions:
Genetic or resulting from an injury, a physical weakness creates opportunities in your story
contrast (self against a perceived perfection in other characters)
sympathy (plays on your readers’ emotions — especially useful for villains)
motivation (especially strong when the flaw relates to character goals)
Consider Shakespeare’s Richard III; a villainous King of England but his motivation for power has a natural home in his deformity and how others treated him. Superman is invincible…except around Kryptonite.
So much of what we do is driven by our emotions. Your characters are no different.
baggage (Mother always liked you best — affects every action/reaction)
weakness (from dieting failures to adultery — endless plot possibilities)
neediness (operating through others’ approval fuels relationships)
The strongest characters in fiction are most successful when they have an emotional weakness of some type. In Game of Thrones, Ser Jaime Lannister is motivated by his forbidden love of his sister, Cersei. Despite his strengths, this one passion affects all of his decisions.
From obsessive compulsive to egomaniacs, personality flaws drive characters to extremes. And those extremes can form some of the most intriguing characters.
focus (sees the trees, sees the forest, sees how it’s all connected)
restrictive (painting self into that corner and struggling to escape)
creative (artist, scientist, surgeon, magician…endless character options)
social (friendly, adulterer, won’t keep their subdivision garden neat)
Sherlock Holmes, anyone? Dozens and dozens of books, movies, television series…all from just one fascinatingly flawed character.
Applying the Flaws
Consider a character that you’ve already started to work with. Add a flaw — physical, emotional, or behavioural. What changes? Can it affect your plot? Does it enhance your themes? Has the tension gone up a notch? What about relationships — any shifts in how characters interact with each other?
And what if you change up the flaw? A whole new ballgame? Oh, the possibilities are as limited as your ability to experiment.
It’s Writescape’s 10th anniversary and we have lots of excitement planned for writers in 2018. This installment of 10 on the 10th is the latest in the series of monthly writing tips, advice and inspiration. Think of it as Gwynn and Ruth sitting on your shoulder and nudging you along. Share with your writing colleagues and encourage them to sign up for more.
Tension is a huge part of engaging your reader with the story. And it helps to engage you, the writer. No one wants to read a book where the Big Problem is solved in chapter one, or where a character has nothing to overcome, no challenges to face. The cat sat on the mat vs the cat sat on the dog’s mat. Challenges drive a story.
Your job is to create the right amount of tension at the right time to keep readers wanting more. Here’s ten ideas on ways you can inject needed energy whenever your story begins to slow down or fall flat.
1. Raise the stakes
The greater the risk of loss or danger, the higher the tension. If at the start he stands to lose his job, but then his life is threatened, we have rising tension. If his life was in danger at the beginning, but that dissolves and all he stands to lose is his job—rising tension? Not so much.
2. Let your character fail
Each time a character attempts and succeeds at solving parts of the “big problem,” he moves closer to a successful resolution. But if he fails at some of the attempts, he has fewer options to succeed, and often less time in which to accomplish his goal.
3. Escalate threats and obstacles
If the character has just succeeded in winning a major sword fight, having her beat a sparring partner at practice will have no tension. Presented in reverse, both happenings carry tension.
4. Let readers know something the character doesn’t
If we know that a character is being stalked, but she is unaware, we have tension. If we see him get closer or cock a gun and she still is unaware, tension rises.
5. Play up emotional strain
It’s easy to add physical danger, but psychological strain is just as important. A decision to make; guilt over an action, fear of discovery, a secret suppressed.
6. Balance high dramatic tension with calmer scenes
High tension scenes all the time is exhausting for a reader. Let them breathe with quieter paced scenes so that when the next high-tension scene arrives they get the thrill of rising adrenalin again.
7. Change up the source of tension
If suspenseful scenes only happen when the antagonist is on stage, predictability sets in and tension is lost. If the reader never knows who will instigate the next conflict, threat, misunderstanding, mistrust, dislike or complication, tension is always tantalizing, just on the cusp.
8. Keep characters active
Passive characters who wait for things to happen to them rarely create tension. Characters who act, react and are proactive keep things fresh and moving when they become the source of tension.
9. Limit backstory
While backstory is essential to understanding why a character does what he does, it’s all past action and stops the active story from moving forward. Keep backstory short and meaningful to the active story event. Or save it for areas where you want a break from high tension.
10. Make writing craft work for you
In addition to “just telling the story”, consider the power of setting to create a suspenseful mood. Use loaded symbolism and word choice to heighten what is happening.
Like what you’ve read? You can have 10 on the 10th delivered to you each month by sending us your email in the comment section. You can unsubscribe anytime. You’ll also receive The Top Drawer our Wednesday blog with tips, resources and inspiration for writers. To see past posts, visit: writescape.ca
I’m often asked what the difference is between theme and premise. Here’s my take—with a comment or two from others:
What is theme?
A story needs to be unified around something, and that something is theme, a recurrent idea or motif. You can begin to identify your theme by coming up with ONE word to sum it up. That one word is usually a human quality: Friendship. Love. Trust. Fear. Redemption. Abandonment. Freedom. Motherhood. Truth. Ambition. Justice. Revenge. Confidence.Or a universal quality: Duality. War. Confinement.
But the theme of a novel goes deeper. Theme in a novel is not just that one word, say LOVE, but the statement the author makes about the motif with the story.
FROZEN: sisterly love is greater than power.
Generally, theme is linked to the emotional growth of the protagonist, or the personal vendetta of the antagonist.
Sometimes you don’t know what your theme is up front. You might change it, or discover it in the course of storytelling. It evolves. And that doesn’t matter because it isn’t stated anywhere in the narrative. It’s a sense we come away with, a flavour, a key.
Theme can also be several statements/explorations around a human quality. For example, an author could explore different kinds of LOVE through different characters: brotherly love, love of self, absence of love, parental love, love of money over people, love of country etc.
What is Premise
Premise, on the other hand, is the idea behind the story, what the author is writing about, the basic idea and foundation for the plot.
John Truby suggests premise is the simplest combination of character and plot: Some event that starts the action, some sense of the main character and some sense of the outcome.
Author and screenwriter Alexandra Sokoloff talks about the premise being “the pitch” for the story. That works too. After all, a pitch is the one-liner distilled version of your book and introduces us to the main character, what obstacles he must overcome, and why.
HARRY POTTER: When boy wizard Harry Potter and his friends at Hogwarts wizard school are threatened by the Dark Lord, Harry must find his magical power to overcome him and become a man and a great wizard.
Premise out of theme
Chris Vogler agrees that premise is the basic idea and foundation for the plot but also that it is “a more developed expression of the “theme” idea, beyond just one word. It’s a sentence that you pull out of that one word.”
First be specific. “LOVE” isn’t specific enough. What kind of love? Brotherly love? Blind love? Love of country? Loving yourself? What kind of trust? What kind of faith?
And then restate it as a kind of formula:
X behaviour leads to Y consequences
MACBETH: ruthless ambition leads inevitably to destruction
Why does it matter?
Premise is useful as you write because it holds the ultimate character transformation in the front of your mind, so you are conscious of your character’s actions and reactions being in step with where he is along the character arc. For instance Harry Potter could never have faced the dementors at the beginning of the series, not only because he didn’t have the wizardly skills, but because he had not yet found his confidence or his loyalty.
As you write, theme doesn’t matter, but when it comes to editing, it provides an umbrella measure to decide which scenes and characters can get cut. Does this scene support the theme better than this one?
One last word
Screenwriter Andrew Oye sums the whole thing up very nicely. He says premise and theme are cousins not twins. That the premise is the subject of the story and the theme is the meaning from the story.
Over the past few years, it’s been my pleasure to take three workshops with best-selling author Andrew Pyper. And I can tell you that those workshops were incredibly helpful to me in terms of craft and technique.
I first met Andrew in 2000. It was shortly after his first novel, Lost Girls, came out. He was a guest at Words in Whitby, a magical reading series that sadly no longer exists. Fortunately, Andrew’s books last—both on the bookshelves and in the memory. On the bookshelves because they continue to sell. In the memory because they haunt you.
The same can be said about his workshops. But that haunting is a good thing because he offers writers the opportunity to understand elements of the craft in approachable and human terms.
An “Artiste” at work
I’m a pantser. Meaning, I write by the seat of my pants. I follow my characters around like a love-struck puppy. I’m content to let them tell me their stories. I write scene by scene and the hell with what kind of book I’m writing—it’s MY book so leave me alone World. Of course, all that is in the first flush of creativity—that beautiful first draft that glows in the dark and suggests how perfect it is.
Then I have to turn it into a real book with plot and character arcs, engaging themes and all those scenes in the best possible order. I figured I wrote it scene by scene so why wouldn’t it all be in a good order?
My critique group, on the other hand, often points out things like: Why is there so much backstory in the beginning? And This is not the best place to slow down the pacing. And Are you certain you want this climax so early in the book?
Pshaw. What do they know?
They know a lot. Which is why I value them so much. But still, I fought against the tyranny of plot and the three-act structure. Enter Andrew Pyper and his plot workshops.
What Andrew taught me
Plot is not a four-letter word (even though it technically is.) And any pantser who avoids thinking in terms of plot (like I used to) is not doing themselves any favours.
From Andrew, I learned that analysis of structure is an excellent way to understand plot. Whether you use the standard 3-act structure triangle image of rising action, or a straight line divided into three separate acts, or Post-it Notes on the wall…
…you will come away with a visual picture of the frame on which your gorgeous prose hangs. It took me two different workshops with Andrew before I allowed my tentative plotter into the room.
But once I did, it opened up a whole new vista on actually seeing and, more importantly, understanding the frame that plot offers. Once there, I was ready to tackle the next bit of knowledge Andrew shared: the three-act structure is not just three acts.
Act Two = Two Acts
Imagine all three acts; now, divide Act Two in two. Why? Because the middle is the majority of your book. Consider the novels you love, the ones you cannot put down. Are they all relentless, never-ending races through the middle to get to the climax—the big scene, the moment you were dying to reach, the discovery of who the murderer is, of the at-last togetherness of the gal and the guy, that final battle with the monster…?
No they aren’t. In fact, the great books open up even more questions and several smaller crises in Act II, the middle section. They often let you THINK the monster had met its end only to discover the sacred ring was no longer in the protagonist’s pocket and, oh my god, the monster is still alive and the protagonist is trapped in a place she’ll never escape from.
She’s doomed. They’re all doomed.
That is the middle of Act II. Dividing it into two “mini-acts” makes perfect sense. As Andrew pointed out more than once (I was sometimes slow to catch on to this) Act II is always much longer than Act I (the set up/moment of change) or Act III (what Mark Twain called The burying as in let’s get it done quick.)
If you’re going to keep the reader engaged for that big chunk of your book’s middle, pull out some big guns of crisis. Not the BIG crisis; you still have to save the “ultimate battle” scene for the end.
No point in having Inigo skewer Count Rugen or Westley save Princess Buttercup in the middle of the book. But why not kill Westley in the middle of the book and keep Inigo and Fezzik busy trying to bring him back to life in time to save Princess Buttercup? (Yes. I just finished The Princess Bride and recommend it as a great novel for plot analysis.)
So pull out your current work in progress. Can you apply a three-act structure? Is your middle Act II nothing but the road to one big crisis, with no rest stops along the way and subsequent crisis to threaten everything?
If so, take the time to look closely at the story and see what you need to add to the middle. Maybe move some of the action in Act III and see if it really belongs in Act II.
If you still resist the call of your inner plotter, pull out some of your favourite books and analyze their plot’s structure. Then think a bit about why you loved reading them. More than just great characters and fantastic scenes; it’s how and when and where those scenes appear and those characters behave. In other words: plot.
DID YOU KNOW?
Registration is now open for Turning Leaves, our annual fall retreat. We’re celebrating our 10th anniversary in 2018 and we are tickled to confirm that Andrew Pyper (yes, that Andrew Pyper) will be joining us for three days of focus on the craft and practicalities of writing fiction.
On November 2 to 4 at Fern Resort near Orillia, Ontario, this all-inclusive retreat includes Friday night fireside chat with Andrew about the writing life and an intense morning workshop. He’s an award-winning writer, a master of dark and disturbing mysteries and fantasy, and excellent workshop facilitator.
Our limit is 20 participants. A $250 non-refundable deposit will guarantee your spot. We expect there will be a waiting list.
As a writing coach and editor, I often remind writers to trust your reader. This is not reserved for those new to the craft. Even writers with published work under their belt will slip into the world of telling when they should be nudging.
Show vs nudge
We writers hear it all the time: show don’t tell. It’s great advice and it means to write so that you keep readers engaged. Show is all part of a writer’s essential toolkit of Active instead of (ho-hum) passive writing:
use active verbs instead of adverbs
watch for info-packed sentences and unnecessary description
keep characters reacting physically
remove repetition (words, phrases, actions) unless it is important to the story/character
avoid clichés and stereotypes—surprise your reader (and yourself)
But it’s not exactly what I mean with “nudge.” I mean something even more subtle, more layered. Something that moves your writing up the ladder. Something that echoes subconsciously for readers.
Imagine you are writing a book about a teenager who is a soccer star. Alexia has all the usual teen angst of being confident and insecure. Everyone tells her she defends the net like a world cup pro, that The Beautiful Game will be her ticket to success. But Alexia fears that she’s only a soccer star on her high school team and will be revealed as ordinary when she joins the provincial all-stars.
But what is your story really about? The desire to be a soccer star is just what Alexia thinks she wants. What she really wants is for her mother coaching soccer in Europe to come back home and show that her own daughter is more important than her mother’s career.
That deep longing that Alexia won’t even admit to herself is your ticket to “nudge.”
Avoid the Hammer
My Writescape colleague Gwynn often refers to tell as a Hammer (as in, hitting your reader over the head and saying, “Hey reader, are you getting this?”) Like me, she sees missed opportunities for subtle hints or when the supposed hint is as obvious as…well—a hammer to the forehead.
Back to Alexia’s longing. We could have her write in her diary: I miss my mother. I wish she’d come home. Nope. Hammer.
We could have her watch the other mothers cheer for her teammates and wipe wistful tears from her eyes. Nope. Hammer with a Sentimental Whack.
We could have sit with her best friend and talk about it:
“Why are you so upset Alexia?”
“Well Pat, I really miss my mother. With her over in Europe coaching that semi-pro team I just feel so alone here. I don’t have any grandparents or other family except Dad. And he’s busy all the time and really, I think they’re separated and just not telling me. The seasons over there are longer than ours here and I want her to come back before my season ends, to see me play just once.”
Nope. More than a Hammer, this exchange also qualifies as an As You Know Bob moment, where a writer has their character say things the person listening would already know but wants to make sure the reader has all the important information. All. Of. It.
This is a prime example of not trusting the reader to either have already figured it out OR (and this is just as important) have the patience to piece it together as the story moves forward.
Don’t poke your reader in the eye
Let’s go back to Alexia’s longing. Would you give her a mother figure in the new coach of the provincial team? That would be kind of obvious. Besides, Alexia needs to learn about the complications of mothering and find a way to connect with her absent mother.
One way to do this is to make Alexia be a mother-figure. A pet perhaps? Too unlikely. Maybe a new teammate who is even more insecure than Alexia and she nurtures her along? Too obvious and lacking in energy.
What if the provincial team requirement is a certain amount of volunteer work? What if the winter before she leaves for training camp she gets stuck with 6 weeks coaching at an inner city community centre. Despite her initial frustrations and lack of empathy, she forms attachments. And then finally, she has to leave for training camp before “the big game/event” of the community centre. She has to choose between her soccer career and the “support your team” mantra she kept telling her young charges.
Maybe all this helps Alexia see her mother in a different light—the pull between family and career that many women struggle with. Maybe this isn’t the most subtle nudge to keep Alexia’s longing a constant theme. But the point here is that I was nudging you to consider ways in which you can adjust a story—pare it, shape it—and eventually move it into thoughtful territory that nudges readers into deeper engagement with your writing.
It’s actually one of the highest compliments you can give a reader: I trust you to understand what my story is about. And frankly, it’s a lot more interesting to write without a hammer in your back pocket. And, as you know Bob, it’s something I encourage writers to remember.
DID YOU KNOW
Gwynn and Ruth are great writing coaches. It’s been their pleasure to work with writers of all kinds and at all levels. At the next Writescape retreat, Spring Thaw, they get to kick off the retreat with some one-on-one consultation with the writers there. Plus they both provide written feedback for work submitted in advance.
Support. Clear and constructive feedback. And the care and feeding of the writer’s soul that comes at all Writescape retreats. April 20 for 3 days or extend your pen for 5 days.
It’s Writescape’s 10th anniversary and we have lots of excitement planned for writers in 2018. To kick off the celebration, we’ve launched 10 on the 10th. This series of monthly resources will bring tips, advice and inspiration directly to your inbox. Think of it as Gwynn and Ruth sitting on your shoulder and nudging you along. Share with your writing colleagues and encourage them to sign up for more.
Here are your first 10 tips:
1. Get the action going
Replace passive, weak verbs, especially forms of the verb “to be”
Before: It was a dark and stormy night.
After: The storm raged through the blackness.
2. Keep things moving forward by reducing the use of “had”
“Had” refers to “completed’ action. It has no forward movement. Use “had” once or twice at the start of a section/paragraph to establish the time period, then revert to simple past tense.
Before: She had been the only one in the house, and had paid the rent faithfully each month. She had taken care of the place and had put up drapes and painted.
After: She had been the only one in the house, and paid the rent faithfully each month. She took care of the place and put up drapes and painted.
3. Keep the action going
Delete empty words like very/somewhat/really. Energize the word being modified instead.
Before: Despite the very hot afternoon….
After: Despite the afternoon’s sweltering heat…
4. Keep your actions strong; beware the “-ly” adverb
Can you replace it with a stronger active verb?
Before: He went quickly
After: He ran – or dashed, charged, bolted…
5. Change up the senses you use in description.
We default to the sense of sight. Try replacing visual details with ones of another sense.
Before: Anita set the gold-rimmed tea cup on the lace cloth…
After: The tea cup rattled in the saucer as Anita placed it on the lace cloth…
6. Take your reader deeper into the world of the story
Look for named emotions (happy, sad) or physical states (fearful, tired) and replace with concrete and sensory detail.
Before: She felt disappointed
After: She sank onto the bench and hugged her knees
7. Keep your writing fresh
Look for tired and overused clichés. (Microsoft Word’s grammar checker notes clichés with green squiggly lines.) Create visuals that add to the story or your character.
Before: His beard was as white as snow
After: His beard was as white as his lab coat
8. Eliminate repetition. Eliminate repetition.
Identify any “writer’s tic” that you know you have. Phrases, descriptions, gestures and so on, rapidly lose their energy when they are overused or placed too closely together.
How many times do your characters “roll their eyes” or “take a deep breath?”
How many times have your told readers it’s “a red car?”
9. Keep your tricky words tamed
Are there words you constantly mispell…um…misspell? Are you working with strange names or technical terms? Keep them correct and consistent by adding them to your software’s dictionary or AutoCorrect function.
How to: Right click on the word. Choose either Add to dictionary or AutoCorrect
10. Know your country
Is it color or colour? Are they good neighbours or good neighbors? Writing for American readers, Australian readers or British readers? Incorrect spelling won’t please your publisher. Make sure your software is defaulted to the “right” English.
How to: Most MSWord programs have the language default on the bottom info bar. Left click to select your language.
If you found this helpful, let your writing friends know. Share it!
Guest blogger Stephanie Gibeault is a freelance writer with a passion for fiction for young readers. She recently wrote a post for Writescape about the benefits of writing away at the Highlights Foundation’s Pennsylvania retreat. As she promised in that December post, she’s here to share what she learned about getting a novel unstuck:
Whether you call it writer’s block, an empty tank or say your creative well has run dry, every writer has days or weeks when putting words on the page is a challenge. This past summer, I found myself stuck on my middle grade manuscript.
I created a storyboard (on my closet doors) to help me see the flow of the plot, only to discover there were structural issues I hadn’t noticed before. I could see what the problems were, but had no idea how to fix them. Thankfully, I had already signed up for a workshop dedicated to getting unstuck.
Stop spinning your wheels
In my recent guest post, I wrote about my experience at the Highlights Foundation workshop Getting Your Middle Grade Novel Unstuck. I learned many things at the workshop, but the main focus was how to deal with being stuck.
Beginning, middle or end of your story—there are great techniques that can help move you forward. Instructors Chris Tebbetts and Elise Broach armed me with loads of options. And many of them don’t even involve working directly on your manuscript.
The most valuable piece of advice I took away from the workshop: there’s always something you can be doing even if it’s not writing.
Experiment with play
Sometimes, it feels like anything other than writing a new scene is procrastination. That’s simply not the case.
Anything that moves you forward with your writing, builds your skills, increases your familiarity with your characters or fleshes out your plot is a productive and effective use of your time. That’s incredibly liberating.
Discovering your characters
Successful middle grade writers create characters their readers connect with—and characters the writers know inside and out. Chris and Elise offered lots of suggestions to get to know our characters better. Here’s a really effective one for me:
Create a chart with a column for a character’s self-perception and a column for how they are seen by others.
The two columns are those perceptions that are true or accurate and those that are false. This provides insight into your character’s psyche – what they hide from others and what they hide from themselves.
HOW BOB SEES SELF
HOW OTHERS SEE BOB
Cute but annoying
Makes light of tough situations
Journal as your character. Get at their innermost thoughts, motivations and goals.Other ways of getting in touch with your characters include:
Fill out a questionnaire or survey as one of your characters. How do they answer differently than you or another character would?
Write about a character’s perfect day. What makes him or her happy?
Create a character profile with details like hair colour, favourite movie and best friend. The more details the better.
Write a letter to yourself from a character about what you are getting right and wrong about him or her in your manuscript.
Stretch some more!
I learned how writing prompts helped uncover details about our characters and plots. I thought it would be limiting because I’d have to go in a particular direction rather than letting my creativity flow.
I was amazed. Forced to explore areas I might otherwise have ignored, I answered questions not directly related to my story but essential to understanding it. Simple questions like, “What does this character want?” or “Why do I love this story?” gave me a great start.
ReVision to move forward
Editing can be as radical as starting from scratch and rewriting a scene entirely from memory. You’ll likely retain your favourite parts while stumbling onto some new descriptions, dialogue and directions at the same time. With track changes in your word processor, it’s easy to compare the two versions, choosing the best sections to keep.
Or be more conservative and only delete what isn’t completely necessary. Decide what, if any, details need to go back in and what the reader never needed in the first place.
One of my favourite suggestions was when Chris told me to rewrite a section of my manuscript in first person point of view. The purpose was not to rewrite my entire manuscript, (although that is exactly what I will do), but to get me deeper into my main character’s head.
I couldn’t believe the difference it made. No longer hovering over my story, now saw it through my protagonist’s eyes. Changing point of view, or even tense (from past to present, for example), allows you to approach your narrative from a different angle and that can be all you need.
No more excuses
With so many available options, I no longer have any reason to be stuck. Or to use the phrase “writer’s block”. If you’re feeling stuck with a writing project, consider trying some of these suggestions.
Remember to take advantage of workshops and retreats to help propel you forward. My experience at Highlights sure made a difference for me.
Did You Know
Are you stuck? Writescape retreats offer the perfect space to stretch your writing skills, re-imagine your work in new and exciting ways and the safety you need for full-throated expression. Spring Thaw is already half full of eager and focused writers like you, ready to give focus to their work.
Join us for an all-inclusive escape on the shores of Rice Lake. Elmhirst’s Resort boasts cozy fully equipped cottages with fireplaces, private bedrooms and gorgeous sunrise lake views. All you need is your jammies, toothbrush and writing materials; writers at all levels are welcome. Choose either a 3-day or 5-day retreat.April 20-24.
Excerpt from “Shooter”, award-winning Young Adult novel by Caroline Pignat:
I meet his eyes. Hold them for a moment. “Thanks…Hogan.” He shrugs it off like it’s no big deal. But it is, for me, it’s huge.
“Okay–but your brother is definitely dead,” Xander blurts at Hogan. “That I know because–.”
“Xander!” Isabelle cuts him off. “Geeze, don’t you have a filter?”
“No.” Confused, he looks down at his camera. “I never use one. I’d rather see things as they really are.”
We sit in awkward silence, looking everywhere but at each other.
“He’s right. It’s true.” Hogan lets out a deep breath. “It’s been two years. I should be able to at least say it.”
But he doesn’t.
Xander tilts his head and stares at Hogan. “But it’s true that you killed him?”
In fiction, well-crafted dialogue like Pignat‘s can take my breath away. But what if your dialogue is so over-written, unrealistic or dull that your reader wants your characters to stop breathing? Or at least, stop talking.
I get to read a lot of dialogue from writers at all stages of their writing career. For example, I read and assess self-published works from potential members of a national writers’ organization. I’m also a coach and editor working closely with writers seeking to polish their manuscripts. And I teach workshops that focus on crafting excellent dialogue in fiction.
I’ve read some fantastic and engaging dialogue. And I’ve read dialogue that felt like listening to someone recite the nutritional contents of a milk carton. Believe me, you want the words your characters speak to be fantastic and engaging. No 19% of vitamin D for you.
Dialogue has work to do
I’m always surprised when writers miss opportunities to make dialogue work for them. Dialogue is not filler, nor is it secondary. It’s a multi-tasking powerhouse and writers would be wise to remember that.
But even more important, there are technical effects that support and enhance your story. The following are just a few examples of the potential for spoken words:
propel your narrative forward with action: “Get up! They’re swarming the gates.”
foreshadow, suggest, nudge: “Are you sure the doors are all locked?”
establish setting, time, era: “Mistress, your limbs are showing ‘neath your petticoat!”
convey emotional state: “Every time I look at you, I see her, alive again.”
highlight personality/idiosyncrasies: “Beans can’t never touch meat on my plate. I won’t eat it!”
establish culture/social background: “Ach lass, will you no’ be getting down from there?”
The art of character-speak
If we wrote dialogue like true, normal conversations, we wouldn’t have readers. Most real life conversations are a jumbled mess, peppered with ums, ers and ahs, interruptions, half-finished sentences and the shorthand of shared experiences.
For readers, dialogue is the illusion of active listening, of looking from person to person as a conversation unfolds. Readers also enjoy an increase in white space to ‘rest’ their eyes. Conversations create the dynamic that excites readers and keeps the story moving forward.
The job of the writer is to put words in the mouths of our characters and make it all sound natural while making sure it does some of that multi-tasking work we want it to produce.
Here are two approaches to consider.
1. Take out words to give a more natural flow. Start with a basic conversation.
“Did you see that cat get run over by the bus?”
“What cat are you talking about?”
“Frank’s old tabby cat, Tibby.”
“I didn’t see a thing. I guess Frank will be a mess.”
By taking out a word here and there, and giving a bit of a tic to one of the speakers, we also get a bit more flesh on the character.
“You see that cat get runned over by the bus?”
“Frank’s ol’ cat, Tibby.”
“Didn’t see a thing. Guess Frank’ll be a mess.”
2. Use surprise or the unexpected to up the tension. Real life is often surprising when our conversations with a neighbour or colleagues go off to places we didn’t expect. Do the same thing in your dialogue because there is nothing like potential conflict to tempt your reader.
“Janice? It is you.”
“It’s so good to run into you, Andrea. You look amazing.”
“Why did you hide him from me?”
Knowing when to bring in dialogue
If there is a formula for when and where to use dialogue, I’d love to know what it is. I can say this much: When I look over my fiction, I see that I use dialogue most often when I need to raise the stakes or create conflict or tension in the story.
I don’t mean that the “conflict” or “tension” needs to be dramatic verbal combat. There are gradations and shades to tension and conflict, so sometimes that means being subtle in how I construct those conversations between characters.
Brushstrokes can be more effective than a gallon of paint. With those big scenes of a major reveal or emotion, I will often default to dialogue. But I also use dialogue for subtext and quiet discoveries.
Choosing to write scenes primarily through dialogue, action or narrative, is intuitive for most writers. But when looking at your second or third drafts, pay attention to where you’ve made those choices.
It could be that what you’ve shared in a long, explanatory passage of mostly narrative just might be better delivered through conversations between your characters.
Did You Know?
We were recently asked what a writing coach does. A writing coach supports writers at different stages of the creative process. At Writescape, we often work with writers who just want to know if they are on the right track.
Sometimes a writer needs help with specific techniques like Point of View, dialogue or story structure. And sometimes, a discouraged writer just needs someone to prompt or encourage them.
Coaching services should be tailored to your unique needs and timetable. Writescape’s coaching services combine online, mail and telephone or in-person communications — depending on geographic, time and similar circumstances.
I’m here to pay a bit of tribute to Ruth Walker. No. Not me. The other one. One of two reasons for the E. in my writing name. The international influence that put the “tentative” in my early writing career. My secret nemisis.
Because every time I hit up Google for Ruth Walker (go on…admit it…most of us did it when we started out) there she would be: Ruth Walker. Seasoned journalist and editor. Decades of reporting in the U.S. and abroad (including a stint in Canada), and editing for The Christian Science Monitor.
Sadly, Ruth passed away this past September. The Society of Professional Consultants, of which she was the 2017 President, offers up this as part of her obituary:
[Ruth] served as the Monitor’s deputy editor, editorial-page editor, and online news editor before leaving to pursue a freelance career as a writer, editor, and consultant in 2006. Ruth was currently the author of Verbal Energy, a popular weekly column on language and etymology in the Monitor.
Had they asked Ruth, I suspect she might have suggested that “was currently” could be replaced with “was most recently” but that just proves she and I shared some interests.
Adding ink to your porridge
Here’s another reason to like Ruth. From a January 2010 Verbal Energy column, she takes on the misuse of the apostrophe, referencing The Oatmeal and the delightful spelling and grammar posters you’ll find there. There was no link to the Oatmeal from Ruth Walker’s article in the Monitor, likely due to the decidedly non-PG13 state of some of the work there, but I have no such qualms. Nonetheless, she offers:
Ah, thou apostrophe! Thou useful but so oft misused mark! (The foregoing is an example of apostrophe in another sense: “address to an absent person or personified thing.”)
The Oatmeal opus, in the form of a flow chart, walks the would-be punctuator through some basic if/then steps. “Is it plural? DON’T use an apostrophe.”
The misuse of apostophe also makes me crazy. But I know it’s one of many common errors that editors stumble across. So I really liked the quickie grammar references at the end of her column, “How to be possessive about apostrophes:”
In the Oatmeal spirit of “just enough” grammar, here are some hints to use as editorial first aid until a professional can make it to the scene:
1. If you aren’t absolutely sure about who and whom, go with who. Use of whom in the wrong place looks much worse than failure to use whom in the right place.
2. Forgo and forego are both real words; they mean “give up” and “precede,” respectively. But “forego” (as distinct from foregoing) is almost always wrong. “I will forego you out of the room”? Yeah. Right.
3. Both affect and effect can be either a noun or a verb. But you could probably live your whole life without using effect as a verb or affect as a noun. Many people do – and quite happily, too.
I am only sorry that I didn’t actually read her work until now. I rather like her wit and direct style.
Power in a name
At the beginning of this post, I said that Ruth Walker was one of two reasons for the E. in my professional writer’s name. (possessive, not plural.)
Before I discovered my life as a writer in 1996, I spent a couple of decades in Human Resources. Yes. That department. I had a lot of bosses over the years. Many of them women. Some of them so insecure or poorly trained/supported that they made my working life challenging at best, hellish at worst.
But then In the late-80s (plural, not possessive) the hospital hired a new HR manager. A woman genuinely interested in work-life balance long before it was an HR buzzword. A revelation, in fact.
My boss demonstrated the best kind of management qualities for the women and men in her various departments: mentoring and modelling in a positive and instructive manner. I learned how to ask with confidence. She nudged me forward, until I discovered I could actually talk in front of groups without fainting. And I learned that kindness and empathy could open doors in even the most difficult situations.
She was the most self-assured manager I’d ever worked for, so I looked for all the ways she pulled it off. I believed (and still do) that one of her secrets was to use her middle initial in her professional capacity. It was, to me, something of a statement, a Here I am world, more than Mary Smith. I’m Mary D. Smith. How many times in my clerical years had I seen men use their middle initials on the letters I’d typed for them? Lots. And the women? Never. Not until this boss.
Taking on the power
As soon as I had the opportunity to establish myself professionally, I considered the E. I, too, would make that statement. Finding another well-known and respected Ruth Walker in the world of writing sealed the deal.
So there you have it. The desire to be someone different from a noted writer and editor, coupled with my nervousness when I first started writing, drove me to my middle initial. Do I regret it? Not one bit. On the one hand, I feel like I’m honouring a woman who stood out as a wonderful model to the other women in her orbit. And on the other hand, I wanted to stand out in the art of words among other Ruth Walkers as me, the one with the E.
Did You Know?
Many writers choose not to publish under their own names, using pseudonyms instead. Their reasons for writing with a pen name are as diverse as their narrative voices. Some, like 19th century French novelist and memoirist Amantine Lucile Aurore Dupin wrote under the name George Sand. Canadian author and filmmaker Leslie McFarlane wrote 20 of the Hardy Boys adventure series as Franklin W. Dixon. When he moved on, the Dixon name continued under a series of other Hardy Boys writers.
At our most recent retreat, participants were given a series of clues at every meal, all leading to the final clue and answer. It seemed fitting as our Turning Leaves guest author, Vicki Delany, writes mysteries and thrillers. The answer to each clue was a pen name for a famous author. From Mark Twain (Samuel Clemens) to Robert Galbraith (J.K. Rowling), participants were challenged to use their sleuthing skills to discover the answers.
At each retreat, we find ways to stretch your thinking and take you outside of the box. Next retreat: Spring Thaw, April 20 – 22/25, 2018.
Seems like a simple question, but increasingly these days it can be confusing. Genres not only have subgenres, but subgenres have sub-subgenres: Steampunk is a sub genre of science fiction (or science fantasy) but steampunk itself has sub genres like steamgoth, gaslight romance, clockpunk and dieselpunk.
Then of course, you have the age cross-overs and cross-genres like paranormal romance, crime fantasy, or action comedy.
The mind boggles.
Why does knowing your genre matter?
Initially, it doesn’t matter. When you begin your first draft, story is key and the story will land in the genre it fits best. But once that draft is done, knowing your genre is important. You’ll need to know so you can fine tune your manuscript and pitch it to the right agent or publisher.
It’s a marketing issue. How many places will your book fit? Knowing your genre shows a better understanding of the market, which can only help your submission. If you don’t know where your book fits, you’re saying you don’t know your target audience.
We all like to think that our book is unique, but the reality is, if we can correctly categorize it, readers can access it and agents and publishers will know immediately whether it potentially fits their market.
Genre and editing
And because knowing genre is a marketing issue, it becomes an editing issue, so you can mould your submission to fit publishing needs and reader expectations.
Let’s take the crime/mystery genre as an example and the typical “dead body”. In a cosy mystery, your readers will expect to spend a few chapters meeting the inhabitants of a cosy community and getting to know the protagonist and her friends before the “dead body” is discovered. The actual killing will be off stage. In a police procedural mystery, the “dead body” is there by the end of chapter one. Readers may even witness the murder. It will be important to follow real police investigative and forensic procedures.
Some publishers have well-defined expectations that can help tremendously at this editing stage. Harlequin, the world’s largest publisher of romance, provides clear, detailed guidelines on their website for each of their genre imprints, from the word count to the level of sexual content.
So what is my genre?
Genre definitions are constantly changing and evolving, but you have to start somewhere.
1. Prepare a book jacket blurb
Once the first draft is done, prepare a book jacket blurb (the paragraphs on the back cover that entice readers to buy because they answer the question “What is this book about?”.) Writing the jacket blurb helps to distill the thrust of the story: the conflict, the stakes and the character arc.
It also helps define what genre it is, because it focuses on the main thread of the story.
2. Define the main genre
With your book jacket blurb in hand, you have your main dominant story thread. Use that main thread to define the main genre. For instance, if your book involves a mystery and a romance, is the dominant story thread a classic “who done it” with a bit of romance thrown in for character growth? (mystery) Or is it really about a relationship blossoming between two people who happen to be solving a mystery together? (romance)
Here’s a list of some of the main genres to get you started:
Action/Adventure — epic journeys, lots of conflict/pursuit, high stakes, some violence.
Crime/Mystery — stories that involve solving a crime, usually a murder.
Fantasy —magic, other worlds, myths and mythological/mystical figures.
Historical — fictional characters and events in an historical setting
Horror— stories that invoke dread or fear.
Thriller/Suspense — harm/danger about to befall a person or group and the attempts to evade the harm/danger, high tension.
Sci-fi —impact of technology, aliens, science-related alternative worlds, often futuristic
Women’s fiction — stories about women experiencing emotional growth
Nail down the age group your book is aimed at: children, young adult, new adult or adult. If your manuscript appeals to more than one group, you have an age cross-over. (Think Harry Potter (children/adult) or Hunger Games (YA/adult).)
Imagine your ideal reader. If you were that reader looking for your book, where would you look? Again, focus on the main narrative thread. Is your ideal reader looking for a romance with a bit of mystery thrown in, or are they problem solvers who like mysteries and might like some relationship stuff thrown in?
Ask your beta readers where they would expect to find your book. Ask your critique group. Tell other writers your blurb and then ask them, “What section of a bookstore would you look in to find my book?”
4. Visit a book store
Go to a bricks & mortar bookstore or hop on the Net. Identify half a dozen books similar to yours and find where they are shelved. Go to Goodreads and check the Listopia recommendations for your main genre, like “Best Science Fiction.” That will lead you to the sub-genres like “Best Steampunk Books.” Read the blurbs on the back covers. Does your book jacket blurb follow a similar pitch?
One way to do this is to have two windows open, one on Amazon and the other on Goodreads. Read the blurb on Goodreads and then search the book on Amazon to see its classification.
I always like the section below the “purchase” button with the phrase “People who bought this also bought….” It’s a great way to find other novels that are categorized the same way. Could your book fit here?
Still not sure?
You’re fine as long as you know your main genre and reader age. Agents will be able to spot a crossover even if you haven’t mentioned it. If your query letter has a good hook and good comparables, the sub-genre will be apparent to them.
However, the time you spend on defining your genre will help you make a better connection between your story and your reader. And your well-crafted blurb will be ready for those moments when someone (maybe an agent or publisher) asks “So what are you writing?”
DID YOU KNOW?
Vicki Delany, our guest at this year’s fall retreat, Turning Leaves 2017, writes in several subgenres of the crime/mystery genre. As Eva Gates she writes the cosy Lighthouse series, and as Vicki Delany she writes a Police Procedural series featuring Constable Molly Smith.