Does Size Matter

Does Size Matter

Gwynn Scheltema

A couple of weeks ago, I shared my thoughts on writing short fiction and in the comments, someone asked, “How short is short fiction?”

That’s a loaded question because, like poetic forms, short fiction comes in a host of forms and lengths and changes with the times.

This sample list of interesting short fiction forms and their word counts comes from a seminar I gave a few years ago at the Ontario Writers’ Conference:

Six word stories

Should provide a moment of conflict, action, and resolution that gives the sense of a complete story transpiring in a moment’s reading.

@twitterfiction

Fiction in 140 characters or less.

Expresso Stories – 25 words or less

A literary form for today’s frothed-up, on-the-hoof, want-it-all-now consumer lifestyle: complete stories that take no longer to read than an espresso takes to slurp.

Hint Fiction – 25 words or less

A hinting story, should do in twenty-five words what it could do in twenty-five hundred, that is, it “should be complete by standing by itself as its own little world.”

Trifextra – exactly 33 words

Stories written from prompts, and having something to with the number three.

Trifecta – no fewer than 33 and no more than 333 words.

A competition in which writers are given a one-word prompt, use the third given definition in the Merriam-Webster dictionary to write a story between 33 and 333 words.

Minisaga, mini saga or mini-saga – exactly 50 words [AKA ultra-shorts or microstory.]

Started by The Daily Telegraph and used in business as an educational tool to stimulate creativity. They are often funny or surprising and are described as “bite-sized lessons for life and business.”

Dribble Fiction – exactly 50 words

An offshoot of Drabble with the word count reduced to 50 words.

55 Fiction – 55 words

From the New Times short story contest. 55 Fiction has: a setting; one or more characters; conflict and resolution.

Postcard Fiction – usually 50 words or less but up to 250

Literary exploration, usually inspired by photographs and able to fit on a standard size postcard.

Micro fiction – under 100 words

A complete fictional story in a limited number of words in any genre.

Drabble Fiction – exactly 100 words

Originated in UK science fiction fandom in the 1980s. Drabble calls for brevity, testing the author’s ability to express interesting and meaningful ideas in a confined space.

Feghoot or Shaggy dog story – usually 100 to 250 words

Usually sci-fi, centers around or concludes with a pun, has a title character in a dangerous situation, any place in the galaxy, any past or future time. Can involve the travelling device with no name, represented as the “)(“.

Haibun – usually 100 to 1000 words.

English haibun is of one or more paragraphs of prose coupled with one or more haiku. It may record a scene, or a special moment, in a highly descriptive and objective manner or may occupy a wholly fictional or dream-like space. Accompanying haiku has a direct or subtle relationship with the prose.

Short Story 1000 to 15000 words.

Word count varies with publication form: collections, anthologies, magazines, or journals; print or on-line; genre or not. Print costs for journals, magazines and anthologies usually keep the count between 2000 – 4000.Genre stories for anthology collections can go to 7500 words. Single author collections often have one longer story up to 15000 words coupled with shorter stories.

Novellette – 7500 to 17500

Novella – 17500 to 40,000, sometimes 50000

Bottom Line:

  • Write your story the length it needs to be without thinking about word limits. Decide afterwards if you want to edit it to fit a certain count.
  • If you hope to sell your story, figure out what magazines or anthologies would be the best fit for the content/genre/style of your story, then look up their submission guidelines.
  • For contests, don’t ever exceed the stated limit.
Writing The End

Writing The End

Ruth E. Walker

These days, we’re seeing a lot of endings. Some endings are permanent as favourite retailers and restaurants close and jobs disappear. Some endings are temporary; personally, I can hardly wait for hugs and kisses with my family to come back. And many of us have experienced terrible endings in our lives: separations, divorces or heartbreaking deaths.

With such massive change in the world and so much coming to a close, how is a writer to stay focused on getting words onto the page? Is the opening scene of a story sitting untouched in your laptop? Have you got three great chapters finished but is your mind a complete blank about the rest of the story? Are you in a state of despair?

Here’s something to try:

Create Your Story’s End

Wait a minute, you might say. How can I write the end of the story if I don’t know what happens in the middle? In fact, I don’t think I even care what happens in the middle. I can’t wrap my brain around all that second act stuff, the character arc, the rising tension and bigger and bigger challenges. It’s too much.

Right. That’s the point. Give yourself a Writing the Middle Break, send your imagination off on a kind of vacation or, better yet, a writing retreat with just one goal in mind: The End.

When you write the end of your story, you have a signpost just waiting for you and your pen. Crafting an ending will give you a place to aim the middle of your story toward.

And yes, I hear you: What if I choose the wrong ending? How can I know how it ends if I don’t know all the middle stuff?

Please, just listen to yourself. The ending is always found in the beginning. You’ve already written the beginning and if the sacred heart of your story is missing then your problem is not the middle, it’s the start. Your main character needs something – not wants but needs something that is part of their growth.

Essential End Ingredients

Main Character: a solid ending features your MC as a changed person. Maybe they accomplish something they didn’t believe/know they could. Or they learn something startling or perceive something they didn’t see before. It’s a revelation or a gentle coming-to-terms moment. No matter what you write, it has to be about, and directly involve, your MC.

Time: This is not a rushed project with a deadline so take it slow as you sketch it out. Allow the pieces to come to you bit by bit. And for heaven’s sake, use the senses.

Think for a moment about the lighting in this scene. As you imagine it, what shadows are cast? Does anything catch and reflect the light? What’s the temperature and how does your MC’s body react to it? Is there a scent and is it pleasant or stinging? What sounds are present – thundering cacophony or whispering winds? What is now silent? Is your MC’s mouth dry or do tears run down their cheeks?

Are they alone? Is your MC touching something or someone? Who, or what, is absent?

Using the senses will immerse the reader in the scene. Bonus for you, writer: engaging the senses will draw you into the scene like nothing else. And double bonus: when you get back to writing the middle, keep using the senses and your story will sing.

Back to Main Character: Consider the MC’s wants and needs that you, of course, have laid out in the opening scenes (if you’re uncertain, stop right here and go back to the beginning to make sure you have.) Bring closure to those wants and needs. Maybe the MC figured out long ago (in that middle you haven’t written yet) that their want was wrong all along. Give your MC a moment to acknowledge that one last time. And then wrap your arms around that essential need your MC didn’t even know they had and give us one last reflection.

Be Open to Change: Remember this is just your first draft and by the time you finish the whole story, you may know that the ending you wrote isn’t quite right. Maybe you’ll need an entirely different ending. But this is not a wasted exercise. Far from it.

I warrant writing the imagined ending scene will, at the very least, give you a greater connection with your MC and inspire a return to writing the rest. Or maybe it will help you realize your beginning isn’t working and you’ll need some serious editing to craft the right opening.

But what if writing this exercise IS the ending of your story? Our subconscious is constantly steering us. If you allow it to work its magic, it just might move you from Why the heck did I even start this book? to Why the heck did it take me so long to get back to this book?

And with that, I can only offer you this: The End.

Thoughts on short fiction

Thoughts on short fiction

Gwynn Scheltema

With the shortest day of the year around the corner, I thought I would write today about short fiction. I began my writing journey writing short stories and poetry and in many ways , I think the two are alike.

Here are some of my random thoughts on writing short fiction. Interestingly, the same perspectives can be applied to writing poetry.

  • Short stories are like poems in that they steer the reader into reading the piece more than once, and the reader finds something new on each reading.
  • A “mainstream” short story can be about anything: a mood, a character, a setting, even a flashy writing style. A genre short story is about an idea. The fictional elements—character, plot, setting, etc.—are only there to dramatize the idea.
  • One idea is enough for a story. Two is more than enough. Three is too many.
  • The more extraordinary the idea, the more ordinary the language. For experimental writing choose everyday events. The stranger the idea, the more real the world must seem to be.
  • Know whose story it is, who is telling the story, and why.
  • The short story is a controlled release of information. Never rush or compact it. The fewer the words, the more air it needs to breathe.
  • Symmetry is more important than plot. A short story must make a pleasing shape, and close with a click. Repetition is good for symmetry but must be used sparingly, like salt.
  • One world only. Dreams are out of place in a short story.
  • One POV is enough. Two is more than enough. Three is too many.
  • Go easy on character descriptions. Nobody cares what your characters look like. They only need to be able to tell them apart.
  • Leave stuff out. It’s what’s left out that makes what’s left in do its work more effectively.
  • Withhold as much information as possible for as long as possible. When the reader knows everything, the story is over.
10 Ways to Write about War

10 Ways to Write about War

On the eve of Remembrance Day, veterans of war and those who fought and died are on our minds. November 11 is just one day but the solemnity and memories of the day carries an emotional intensity that many of us bring into our stories.

Writers have been chronicling battle stories since ancient times. Virgil’s epic poem, The Aeneid, offers us a searing immersion: so all had one longing, to let the sword decide.

We’ve been letting the sword (or gun or cannon or bomb or laser beams or…) decide ever since. Naturally enough, we writers have mined (pun intended) humanity’s predilection to fight and there’s no end to the kinds of books – biographies, histories, poetry, stories, novels – that explore that motherlode of emotion and power. Here are ten possible approaches:

1.  Heroic battles – Here the writer has a vast landscape and nobody does it better than the ancient storytellers, such as Virgil, Homer and Sophocles. Their legacy can be found in all the epic scenes of warrior hordes (Lord of the Rings, Game of Thrones) with clanging, clashing, slashing swords and axes hacking their way to the castle gates. Those scenes echo into modern history where swords are replaced with bayonets and rifles. Futurists imagine the same scenes but played out with visionary weaponry.

2. One-on-one Combat – Move beyond the broad landscape and get up close and personal with the dance between two enemies. It is a tension-filled moment that deserves a slow burn to reach a full roiling boil. Two characters, circling one another, gauging each other’s weaknesses, holding back until the moment to engage is clear. Now think beyond the battlefield and examine other kinds of fights between two characters: for example, a marriage falling apart. Warren Adler’s The War of the Roses chronicles the emotional costs of the legal battle and the soul-sucking aftermath.

3. The Homefront – Who’s left behind? How are they surviving? Pacifists, injured, too young, too old, too frightened – stories that focus on everyday people who can never forget what is happening in the wider world. Keeping the war in the background has been excellent inspiration for kidlit authors such as beloved writer Bernice Thurman Hunter and her novel The Girls They Left Behind. In adult fiction, the WWI Homefront is explored beautifully in Frances Itani’s Deafening. If you plan to write a novel set during our current and relentless pandemic, reading books about the Homefront might give you some needed distance.

4. From the Enemy’s POV – Writing through the enemy’s perspective is an exercise that can offer writers entry into their antagonist’s motivations. This is an excellent tool to breathe more life into that character. And sometimes, it might be more interesting to write the whole book with the villain as your Main Character. Oscar Wilde did it with the classic novel The Picture of Dorian Gray and more recently Gillian Flynn’s delightful Gone Girl.

5. Turf War – From schoolyards to neighbourhoods, boundaries real or imagined are instant tension points. Opposing gangs have a long history in literature: Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet is a classic example. In Richard Scrimger’s Ink Me, Bunny, a mentally challenged 15-year-old, gets the wrong tattoo and that gives him entry into a gang about to do a high-stakes deal. Often funny but never patronizing, readers get a glimpse into the world of gangs and that of young adults who are differently abled. In Angie Thomas’ debut novel, The Hate U Give, readers get a deep dive into complex issues of racism, police brutality, activism and social justice – all of it framed within the context of boundaries held by gangs, organizations, institutions and families.

6. Civil War – A nation divided, rebellion, cults, rumours and secrets. Any social unrest is pure gold for tension and a fascinating cast of characters. Suzanne Collins dove into that world when she created The Hunger Games and you know how that turned out for her. But if you want a lived-experience to flavour the writing, Civil War Stories by Ambrose Bierce, a veteran of the American Civil War, is great writing. Ahead of his time, Bierce has a speculative fiction touch that offers us more than battle stories.

7.  The Aftermath – From Ancient Greek playwrights (Euripides’ Trojan Women) to cold war novelists (Nevil Shute’s On the Beach) to post-apocalyptic authors (Cormac McCarthy’s The Road) much of post-war life, real or imagined, is never easy. Trauma, starvation and uncertainty can be counterbalanced with resilience, foraging and rebuilding both physically and socially. It’s up to the writer where to place the greatest weight.

8.  The Peacemaker  Diplomats, politicians and kings. Historical fiction is rich with books about peacemaking in world history. Tolstoy’s War and Peace gives us a sweeping saga plucked from history. But writers have a way of taking the known and applying it to the unknown. Erin Bow’s masterful YA novel, The Scorpion Rules, takes diplomacy onto an intergalactic scale that holds hostage the lives of world leaders’ children. No war between worlds and no kids get euthanized. Simple genius.

9. Undeclared War – Nothing underpins a story’s tension meter with more energy than a seething simmering dance between two enemies. As up close as a divorce in the making (The War of the Roses) or as broad as worlds balancing on the verge (Peter George’s Red Alert, inspiration for the classic film Dr. Strangelove: Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb). When the threat of war is constant, readers keep turning the page.

10. Tools of War – Speaking of loving the bomb, a war without weapons is a schoolyard turf war. Come to think of it, even that situation has its own weapons: taunts and gestures can ignite a war of words; fists, knees and teeth can up the scale. So, as much as big shiny boom machines can have an impact on a battle, remember that your reader’s emotional journey will accelerate with the smell of sweat, taste of blood, squeeze of skin and screams of battle, not to mention the look on combatants’ faces: jubilant in celebration or horrified in defeat.

No matter how large or how small the scale, a story of war offers writers so many possibilities and these ten musings are merely a long view with a pair of binoculars. It’s up to you to find the emotional heart in your story’s battle and bring it beating and alive for your readers.

On November 11, you will be asked to offer “a moment of silence” at 11 a.m., the date and time the Great War officially ceased in 1918. Writescape suggests that “a moment” as you well know, it merely a breath, a blink of the eye or a swallow. Those who have given their lives for their country need more than a moment to be remembered. War, no matter the cause, is hardly a reason to celebrate because the human cost is far too great and death is forever. Keep that in mind with all your war stories.

Quirky websites for historical fiction writers

Quirky websites for historical fiction writers

Gwynn Scheltema

I’m a genealogy junkie. I admit it. Digging into my past is my favourite procrastination tactic. But in the process, I’ve come across a few quirky sources of historical information, that are useful not only to geni’s but to writers of historical fiction too.  We all know about Google and Worldcat and History.com, but have you ever explored these sites?

David Rumsey Map Collection

This site has over 64,000 maps and cartographic images. His focus is on rare 18th and 19th century North American and South American maps, but you’ll also find materials from Africa, Europe and Asia. Not only can you view maps side by side, but you can also overlay historical maps over modern ones to see how an area has changed over time.

Facebook

Did you know that there is a Genealogy on Facebook list, a 173-page PDF file containing 5,700-plus links, published by Katherine R. Willson. A Canadian version by Gail Dever includes French-speaking groups and pages.

These genealogy groups are great for requesting help with foreign record translations or asking about specific eras and ancestral villages like Ballymena, County Antrim in Northern Ireland during the Irish famine of the 1840s.

HistoryPin  &  WhatWasThere

If you’re looking to compare a modern UK street view with an old one or see if an historical site survives today, try Historypin. This is a free collaborative site with over 400,000 old photo and story submissions plotted on Google Maps.

For North America, try What­WasThere. It works the same way. For instance, a search for Pueblo, Colorado gives images of the late 1800s and early 1900s and then the aftermath of a 1921 flood.

WolframAlpha

Need to know the weather for a specific date? What about calculating a birth date based on a death date from a gravestone? WolframAlpha is a computational knowledge base that accesses more than 10,000 databases to return information based on your calculation requests.

IrelandXO

Ireland Reaching Out website is a treasure trove of all things Irish, from westward Trans- Atlantic crossings records during the great famine to why the names Flan, Florry, Finn and Fitheal are actually all the same name. Similar websites exist for many countries. I have South African ties, so I use the South African sites eGGSA.org and Stamouers .

Cyndi’s List

Cyndi’s List is a cornucopia of useful information arranged by topic on EVERYTHING, not just historical information. In the genealogy category alone, you can find everything from records of Canadian Military casualties to South African gravestones search sites, from information on workhouses in the UK to transcribed diaries.

So there you have it. Hours and hours of procrastination facination. This list is of course, by no means exhaustive, just some of my favourites. Share quirky historical sites that you use in the comments below.

10 ways to Nano-prep for writing your novel

10 ways to Nano-prep for writing your novel

In a few weeks, writers around the globe will commit to writing 50,000 words of the first draft of a novel in 30 days. Will you be one of them? National Novel Writing Month or NaNoWriMo begins on November 1, and if you don’t know much about NaNoWriMo, check out our previous blog post NaNoWriMo 101.

That means that October, affectionately known as “Preptober” is a month for getting all your ducks in a row, so you’re ready to actually write on November 1. Below are 10 ways to get ready to write, for NaNoWriMo or indeed for any new novel project.

  1. Create a project hold-all to keep all research, writing, notes and ideas for your new novel. This could be a new folder in your computer, or a “new project” in Scrivener. Try a three-ring binder scrapbook, with sections for research notes, character sketches, random ideas, checklists lists etc. Handy for quick reference, for validating research used, for trying out rough writing, for reference as you write. More than that, though, it is a tangible way to make the project real and a good way to stay focused and organized.
  1. Decide what you are going to write. Easier said than done. We all have stacks of ideas of what we could write about, but choose something that interests you. If you’re not passionate about your project you will find it hard to live with it daily and write productively. Choose a story you are spilling over to get out, or write a story that involves something you really want to spend time with. If you love Russian history, set a story in Russia during the revolution. If you’ve always wanted to know about perfume making, write a story where the protagonist is a perfumer. To help make it more real, choose a working title.
  1. Start with sketching interesting characters. If you’re a character-driven writer, begin with writing profiles of your protagonist and antagonist. Then as you work through your plot ideas (step 5) and new characters emerge, do character sketches of them too. If you’re a plot-driven writer, you may want to do step 5 first and return to this step afterwards. Remember these profiles are not just physical, but include your character’s history, flaws, emotional baggage, hopes, dreams, fears and relationships. You might find yourself returning repeatedly to these sketches to add details as you get to know them better.
  1. Ask yourself whose story you are telling and how it would best be told. Whose POV will best tell that story? One POV or multiple? What tense and person? Who is the reader you are aiming at? What genre? As you start to write, you may change these decisions, but start with a plan.
  1. Write your book jacket blurb. This may seem like it’s putting the cart before the horse, but it’s not. The book jacket blurb answers the all-important question “What is this book about?” The answer to that question helps to distill the thrust of the story: the conflict, the stakes and the character arc. It also helps define what age group and genre it is, because it focuses on the main thread of the story.
  1. Brainstorm story ideas. Outline potential plots. Ask yourself the simple but effective “What if?”, or use the base of all ancient myths and tales: the three act structure. If you know how you want your story to end, consider working backwards too. You might want to check out these tried and true variants of the three act structure too.
  1. Define your story world: place and time. This could be as simple as “Russia pre 1917 revolution” or “Haliburton 1956”, or as complex as a new fantasy world or imagined planet. Or it might be a mix, say a fictitious town called Halbury based on Haliburton. Setting is important to ground your story and your readers. The more complex your setting, the more up-front “world-building” you need to do: Government? Religion? Rules of magic? Climate? Etc. Prep work can include maps and floorplans.
  1. Outline potential subplots. Make sure they serve the thrust of the main story, that they have their own story arc and that there are no dropped threads.
  1. Sketch important secondary characters. Make sure they exist as a counterpoint or foil or supporter of your main characters. Like main characters, they too should have their own wants and needs and motivations. Ask yourself if one secondary character can do the work of two to keep the number of characters to a minimum, and to make each one stronger.
  1. Work on character arcs for all characters, primary and secondary. Each character must have their own motivations for doing what they do.

And one thing more

Get support. We all have lives to live and people in those lives. Talk to them about what you want to do and get them to realize you are serious. Enlist their help, whether it is to honour the time you set aside as uninterrupted writing time, or whether it is practical help like supervising a session of the kids’ online learning, cooking dinner or creating a separate writing space for you during November. Prepare them for your plan and then……START WRITING!

Foreshadow the Future

Foreshadow the Future

Ruth E. Walker

I enjoy the outdoors. I get pleasure in working in the garden, especially at my cottage. I’m not afraid to get my hands dirty or derive pleasure when my plants flower or produce fruit. Nighttime calls of spring peepers in the far-off swamp or critters hopping under the shade of the hosta remind me of renewal. Even the cold hand of winter offers pleasures, albeit frigid and at times, deadly.

I tell you this – my affection for the natural world and my respect for it — to set the stage for what is to follow. In fiction, this is referred to as foreshadowing.

Humane Humans

Nature has a way of reminding cottagers that flora and fauna were here first. Anyone who has struggled with fallen trees, poison ivy infestations or rodent incursions can confirm that. As much as is possible, we avoid herbicides for irritant flora. We use live traps for the rodents, my kind husband trekking over to the swamp to release the pesky mice.

It’s not to say we don’t target poison ivy with Round Up when the hillside is awash in the stuff and there’s been no deer around to help control it. And yes, snapping traps and even Warfarin has been pulled out when humane methods can’t keep up. But it’s never the first choice. And we hate the result.

A Murder Most Foul

Despite knowing that death is part of nature, I get upset when I find a dragonfly crushed on the sidewalk or drive past roadkill on the highways. Poor things, I think.

Nonetheless, I became the dealer of death at the cottage. Those gardens I like to tend? They’re all edged with a variety of rocks. Attractive to look at until the grass grows up around them. The lawnmower can’t trim that. So I get up close and personal with my garden shears.

Last month, I crouched down by the rocks, snipping away at the green growth. Until my shears cut through something else. Something that felt like bunched fabric. Or worse. And it was. I decapitated an adult frog. A split second before, it was crouched in the shadow of a rock overhang, unseen. Then it sprang out at the precise moment the two sharp edges of my shears met and severed its head and life in an instant.

Man, I was sick at heart. Still am, in fact.

I’ve spent weeks trying to blot that image out of my head. Today, while once more trimming the rocks, I was so careful. I made a lot of noise, knocking my shears against the rocks. I called out: “Foreshadowing. Here I am. Pay attention, critters.” And weirdly, that got me thinking about how important foreshadowing can be in writing.

Why Foreshadow

Dropping clues into fiction arouses the interest of readers and that’s a primary benefit for any writer. Laying a foundation of foreshadowing creates anticipation that pulls readers through the story. Writers have a full set of tools to inject foreshadowing: images, character action/reaction, dialogue and setting elements, for example. From concrete objects to shadows and colours, the important part is choosing the right tool in the right place.

When you foreshadow, you tickle readers’ curiosity. When you deliver the on that foreshadow, you evoke emotions in readers. You can build internal tension by doling out that delivery bit by bit.

  • Opening scene: Shadowy figure in distance at funeral of POV character’s mother
  • Mid-point: Shadowy figure shows up trying to attack the POV character but evades capture
  • Final scene: Shadowy figure reveals she is POV character’s birth mother & wasn’t trying to attack but longed just to hold him again

That’s a powerful writing tool. But there are a few DOs and DON’Ts of foreshadowing all writers should keep in mind. Here’s three to get you started.

Don’t use a hammer when a feather is enough. An obvious foreshadow is a hammer: As she watched the overloaded pleasure boat pull away from the dock with her husband and children waving jauntily to her, she thought that she should have insisted they all wear lifejackets. Be subtle instead.

Do try to be strategic. Not all foreshadowing leads the reader to the conclusion they expected. Sometimes it is useful to have readers think they know what will happen but then you surprise them. But be careful: the foreshadow still needs to lead to the unexpected result. Be logical.

Don’t worry about foreshadow in the first draft. A bit like reverse engineering, subtle hints and deliberately placed objects or elements are part of editing that first draft. That’s not to say that you didn’t already have foreshadowing in the early writing, but often it is of the hammer variety. Your job is to refine that into the subtle variety. Edit with purpose.

Back to the Beginning

Part of working in foreshadow is returning to the beginning to find places where it can be added. But foreshadow is not restricted to the beginning of a story or novel. It can be an effective tool at the start of a new scene or to create suspense at the end of a scene or chapter.

It is, however, most effective at the start. It sets up expectations. So, what about going back to the beginning of this piece and checking it for elements of foreshadowing? In the comments, share anything you noticed.

Dialogue helpers

Dialogue helpers

Gwynn Scheltema

One of my grandchildren texted me: “School starts in 2 days” followed by no less than 6 emojis, all different. Smiley, sad, angry, astonished, upside down and shrugging.

By themselves, her text words could have been interpreted several ways: Yikes! I can’t believe school starts in 2 days after so long. Or I’m so excited that school is starting in 2 days. Or OMG I’m dreading the fact that school starts in 2 days.

What was this child trying to tell me? Or was she just trigger happy on the emoji screen? What was she expecting from me? A thumbs up, or something more? I opted for the “something more”, and we ended up having a lengthier discussion about what was bothering her. All good.

But the incident reminded me that in the absence of sound volume and intonation, words in messages have to be specific enough to convey the right message.

Fiction dialogue

The same applies to fiction dialogue.  And if the words can’t do it, the author needs to use one of several “dialogue helpers” to clarify.

I remember in a critique group years ago, a writer read aloud a small excerpt from his chapter where we follow the protagonist (a male teacher at a private boarding school) up to the principal’s office. Then a line of dialogue: “Sit down,” said the principal. “We must talk about young Jonas.”

Had I been reading the words myself from the page, I would have assumed that this was to be a cordial conversation between teacher colleagues, but unexpectedly, the author delivered the dialogue in a loud angry voice. Where was that emotion in the text? The dialogue needed help so readers could imagine the tone.

Dialogue helpers

  • Using someone’s full name, title or nickname

Did your mother ever add your middle name when she was angry: “Alison Elizabeth Martin! Get in here this minute.” Or a pet name when she was trying to console? “Oh Snooks, tell me all about it.”

If this principal usually calls the protagonist Bill, then using his full name William will signal that something is wrong. He might go further by removing any personal connection and using his title, or calling him Mr.

“Coach Simons, sit down…..”

  • Sentence construction

Match the length and type of sentence to the emotion being expressed. In an angry situation, short commands are more likely. “Get in here.” Friendly conversations will begin with greetings and perhaps questions about the other’s situation or feelings. “What have you been doing lately?” “How’s your Mum?” “What’s the matter?”

“Coach Simons. Close the door.”

The command to close the door signals that what is to follow is private. Issued as a command suggests that the person entering is in trouble. Short clipped sentences support tension.

  • Word choice

Think about how many words people use in different emotional states and what kind of words. The angry mother commands in simple words what she wants done. “Get in here this minute.” She doesn’t acknowledge what the recipient wants or feels, nor is she concerned with politeness. She is not likely to say, “When you’ve finished playing with Julie, please come inside.”

The principal would need to be professional but show his anger in some way.

“Coach Simons. Close the door. Sit there… please.”

Allotting a specific chair signals control in the hands of the principal. Adding a hesitant “please” at the end preserves civility but diminishes cordiality.

  • Voice description

A word of caution here. Describing the actual sounds in the scene is different from “labelling” them using attributives like “he said angrily”.

NOT: “Coach Simons. Close the door,” the principal said angrily.

BUT: “Coach Simons. Close the door,” the principal hissed between clenched teeth

  • Body language

The unspoken vocabulary of body language is a gold mine for conveying emotions. Use it.

“Coach Simons. Close the door,” the principal hissed between clenched teeth. He indicated a chair to his right, stabbed at the air with a pointed finger. “Sit there… please.”

  • Beats

Beats are physical actions a character makes while speaking. The pointed finger in the last example is both a gesture and a beat. But beats are not just gestures. They are all actions your character might make that help to animate your dialogue scene. Think of it as the difference between listening to a stage play where everyone stands in a line and recites their words versus the acting that happens on stage as characters speak.

“Coach Simons. Close the door,” the principal hissed between clenched teeth. He indicated a chair to his right, stabbed at the air with a pointed finger. “Sit there… please.” The principal walked to the window, and stared out to the courtyard below for a full minute before he turned to face Simons.

Obviously, you don’t need every helper in every dialogue situation, but add these to your writers toolkit to use whenever you need them.

10 things poets can teach us

10 things poets can teach us

Brevity — economy of words — to say so much with so few words is far more powerful than filling a scene with tonnes of description. It works the same way that bulleted, step-by-step directions work better than long paragraphs of first set out all your tools and triple check that you have everything you need and then open the box and take out the hoozits and then you put the hoozits into the whatzits, turning all the way and making sure you haven’t…etc., etc

Sound – rhyme, near-rhyme, alliteration – our ears are engaged with words that share similar sounds when placed close together or in patterns. Amidst…pussy-willow pads of labs, a sudden set of deer tracks – Barry Dempster 

Repetition — always with a specific purpose to underscore a meaning or idea — your slightest look easily will unclose me / though i have closed myself as fingers,  e.e.cummings

Ideas have power — taking us to places in unexpected ways excites our imaginations — To see a world in a grain of sand and heaven in a wild flower… Wm Blake

Imagery — picture words are effective to convey far more Who made the grasshopper…who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down… Mary Oliver

Structure — the scaffolding on which a poet hangs their words — just as any genre of prose has expectations and writers work with and, often, challenge those expectations, poets take familiar forms and upend them. 

Risk — poets, like all artists, take risks with more than just structure. Cowboy Poetry is a venerable form, evoking images of the Old West, cattle drives and breaking wild horses.  But modern Cowboy Poetry can be a different story: …the bridge abutment already signed
with 4 white crosses for those who did not
quite
       make
             this
                curve
because of booze, because of snooze…Paul Zarzyski

Symbolism — it’s like holding a flash card designed to evoke meaning, a symbol instantly takes us places. Consider a flag — now make it a white flag — now a Confederate flag — now a nation’s flag upside down — it is still a flag but each time, symbolizes something different. Where the flag is placed can change the symbol it represents. Is it tattered and falling from dying hands? Is it held high during an attack? Is it being consumed by flames on a roadway?

Pacing  – Use long languid lugubrious multisyllables with loads of vowels to slow the reader or short sharp words with hard consonants to pick up the pace. Somnolent through landscapes and by trees / nondescript, almost anonymous, …P. K. Page

Breaks – line breaks, stanzas, dashes all signal to the reader to notice, to pause and let what has just been said sink in and prepare for a new thought. Writers have similar signals at their disposal: white space when changing POV, time or location; paragraphs, chapters or a statement all on its own line.

Thread Backstory into Your Narrative So the Stitches Don’t Show

Thread Backstory into Your Narrative So the Stitches Don’t Show

Guest blogger Heidi Croot

Backstory threatens to crowd out my closet. This dark cloak? That frilly dress? Those dusty trousers? I write memoir and every garment has been on my body. It all happened. It’s all true. I want each outfit to have its turn on the page.

Fiction writers and I share the same dilemma. What if we dare to toss a backstory that turns out to be the very one we should have kept?

Desperation made me dare. My manuscript was too long, and backstory was to blame. Several writing-craft books and webinars later, I’ve learned a few things about decluttering, fit, timing and how to dress the main story with backstory in a way that appeals to readers.

Decide What to Throw Out

Image by Elena Sannikova from Pixabay

Before I could declutter, I needed to understand that backstory explains things readers need to know. Sometimes it’s a mini-story: how the character’s ordinary world ticked along before trouble arrived or a bygone trauma shapeshifted a character’s personality.

Other times backstory is information, such as how the invented world works in fantasy or science fiction.

Either way, “less is more.” According to Toni Morrison, “…it is what you don’t write that frequently gives what you do write its power.”

1. Toss Appeals for Sympathy

Some writers, says author Roz Morris in Past Mastery, a Jane Friedman-sponsored webinar I attended in July, drop in a calamity from the past out of a desire to generate a dose of sympathy for a character. The annoyed reader waits in vain for the calamity to mean something.

I did this when I dropped a reference to my great-grandmother dying by suicide, a tragedy that slays me but had no bearing on the narrative. Out it came.

My mother’s tragedy was contracting polio when she was eight. Thankfully, I realized the story wasn’t about her polio. It was about how this early trauma warped her worldview and injured every relationship that should have been important to her.

2. Save Your Cast-offs
Image by Sophie Janotta from Pixabay

Marie Kondo-ize your closet by examining every backstory garment. For each, ask:

  • Does the reader need to know this?
  • How does this episode propel the main story forward?
  • Will cutting this set the reader adrift?
  • Is the relating of this backstory triggered by a main story event?
  • Is this scene or slug of information a call for sympathy that goes nowhere?
  • Does the incident help to tell the protagonist’s story or another character’s story?

Culling can be brutal. I comforted myself by building a special closet at the bottom of my manuscript, out of Kondo’s clutches. Sign on the door: Private. I move beloved old outfits here when they don’t fit the main story. Someday, these backstories may inspire their own narratives.

Threading So the Stitches Don’t Show

Having decluttered, the next step is to dress the manuscript in essential outfits in a way that lets it carry off backstory with natural grace.

1. Wait for Thirst

Readers want backstory, but have limited patience for it, especially in the early pages. The writer’s job is to make readers thirst for it, and then deliver one glass of backstory at a time, at just the right moment.

Image by Gary G from Pixabay

What creates thirst in a reader? Curiosity.

What creates curiosity? Emotion—a steady drip of emotional intrigue and engagement. Who, on a first date, wants to hear the other person’s biographical details in the first 15 minutes? We long for those later, when romance makes us eager to sit across the picnic table until dawn.

Readers, says Morris, don’t want facts. They want feels.

2. Show Readers the Gap

But there’s an exception, one that writers sometimes overlook. A critical plug of backstory that readers need early is what the character’s life was like before trouble arrives. Without that, they can’t gauge the impact or feel the related emotion.

Show the “before” early. Make it brief, vivid, perhaps your opening scene. “Follow the character’s expectations,” Morris says. What had the protagonist intended to do that day, before Pandora’s Box flew open?

My narrator expected another day of tranquil living with her husband in their country home. She comes downstairs for lunch. He’s heating soup. She reaches for the mail on the counter. Dread rises in her throat when she sees the envelope with the familiar handwriting.

Readers feel the anxiety because, having had some early backstory, they understand what she risks by opening that letter.

3. Animate Backstory with Scene

Writers can “tell” backstory or “show” it.

Showing is better.

Flashback eases the reader into a dramatic scene from the past, complete with character, setting, plot, conflict and resolution. If the scene satisfies curiosity ignited by the main story, it can be whatever length it needs to be—including its own chapter.

Another way to animate backstory is by having one character share an anecdote or instructions with another who needs to hear it. Michael Crummey does this splendidly in Sweetland when the main character spars with a visiting government official, giving us a glimpse of “ordinary life” and how the growing conflict threatens it.

Sometimes a “tell” cannot be avoided: a biographical detail, an historical event, how something works. In these cases, deliver the information in short, engaging bursts at the moment of keenest thirst.

4. Use Logic to Shift into Backstory

Readers want a reason to be interrupted out of main story. Moments of reflection, discovery or epiphany serve as a water slide into backstory.

Image by ArtTower from Pixabay

Perhaps your character ruminates while driving to meet an old friend at the winery where the murder took place. Stumbles on a locked tin of old letters in the potting shed. Finds himself repeatedly sketching a mysterious face and wakes one morning knowing whose it is.

I bustled a fair amount of backstory into a pensive hour sitting at the foot of my father’s bed as he lay dying, giving my narrator a logical opportunity to muse on who was this man.

5. Signal Your Entrance and Exit

Readers like to know where they are in narrative time.

One way to signal a transition into backstory is through a change in tense. Start with a single use of past perfect: “She had estranged herself from her family.” Continue in simple past tense (less clunky): “She had written wrote threatening letters.” Signal your transition out with another single use of past perfect—“What she hadn’t foreseen was how she might need these people”—before returning to main story.

In Three Day Road, Joseph Boyden’s transitions are like lubricant. “I have paddled by myself…to get here,” Niska says. “My one living relation died in a faraway place”—and with that, Boyden rocks us into a story from the past.

Backstory can be necessary outfits and supportive undergarments for your main narrative, or mismatched, distracting accessories. Taking time to examine your wardrobe for fit will help make your manuscript the best dressed in town.

What are your backstory secrets and techniques? How do you make backstory as compelling as main story for your reader? We’d love to hear your discoveries.

Meet Heidi Croot

Heidi Croot lives in Northumberland County and is currently working on a memoir. She has been a finalist with The Writers’ Union of Canada, The Malahat Review, WOW! Women on Writing, Tulip Tree Publishing, and her work has been published in the inaugural edition of Linea magazine, the WCDR anthology, Renaissance, in Long Term Care magazine, and others.