Understanding Underwriting II

Understanding Underwriting II

Ruth E. Walker

Last week, we looked at underwriting in fiction and focused on underwritten scenes. Scenes are the building blocks of any story and essential for developing forward progression.

As a refresher, if a scene is underwritten, it lacks at least one of three important qualities: a reader’s connection to emotions, sensations and, ultimately, the story.

Most scenes involve the actions and reactions of a story’s characters. And it is here–in how a writer treats character development–that the beating heart of a story is found. Story is what we long for but it is character that embodies that story and leads us through to the end.

More than once, I’ve worked on novels that have underwritten important elements of character development:

  • physical presence (external = movement & abilities)
  • moral centre (internal = reactions & decisions)
  • wants and needs (external vs internal = motivations & goals)

When any one of these is underwritten, writers risk losing vital connections to readers.

The body is alive

The physical presence of your character is much more than describing how they look. How they move is based on their physical capabilities: strengths and weaknesses. And those strengths and weaknesses will change depending on their circumstances.

Big, tall Deshawn has to rescue a buddy trapped in a haunted house. We know he’s afraid of the dark.

Below are three different ways of sharing physical information about Deshawn, from a passive “tell” narrative, to a more active and physically connected narrative, and then finally a physically and emotionally active approach. Consider all three and decide which one is easiest to visualize and believe in the action.

  • Deshawn is a tall man. The room beyond the doorway he passes through is dark and frightening.
  • Deshawn stoops to pass through the doorway and looks around the frightening dark room beyond.
  • Deshawn tucks in his shoulders and lowers his head to pass into the room, his eyes wide and searching for any flicker of movement in the dark.

Unless they’re in a coma, your characters will always have to move their bodies. Those bodies need to act and react as any other body would. They feel the cold. Muscles get tired. Armpits sweat. Stomachs rumble. Eyes strain. Goose bumps appear.

Overwriting would be to have all those physical actions happening at the same time. But underwriting is to not have any of them ever happen to your characters. Using the senses — taste, touch, sound, smell and sight — will help keep readers physically connected to the people in your stories.

Good vs evil vs a little of both

Morality (beliefs, values, principles) is part of what drives your character’s actions and reactions. Characters make choices and firm decisions based on their moral centre. Underwriting happens when writers either don’t know what their character believes in or doesn’t give characters an opportunity to act on or challenge that belief system.

In Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments, sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale, we gain insight into the moral centre of Aunt Lydia. A disturbing and evil antagonist in the first book, we discover that she is far more complex. We learn about her life before the extreme right-wing, Christian theocracy takes over part of the United States. If she opted to cling to her values and principles, she would be executed. She chooses life and must suppress her moral centre until she finds her way back to embrace it once more.

While I’m not suggesting that all your characters must have deep-seated values and principles, you will create well-rounded, logical and engaging characters if they act within some kind of moral centre. They won’t be underwritten because their actions and reactions will be logical, consistent and recognizable. And just like Atwood’s Aunt Lydia, there is plenty of room to play with the range of morality from which they operate.

Motivation and goals

Just as characters act from a moral centre, what they want and why they want it forms another part of what drives them and the narrative forward. You risk underwriting your character when goals don’t appear until halfway through the novel. Worse yet, if a character has no goal, they have no reason for motivation. And why will a reader worry about their failures and cheer their successes?

A character’s motivation can change, as can goals. What a character wants at the beginning of any story is rarely what a character needs. In terms of plot, readers want to follow an interesting or intriguing story. They don’t want an aimless meandering stroll through narrative that eventually gives them the ah-ha moment. “Oh, her mother’s disappearance is why she won’t commit to any relationship. Would have been good to get a hint of that long before page 107.”

There are plenty of ways to add a brushstroke or two before page 107. Figurative language is one method: metaphor and symbolism, for example.

  • a character’s attachment to a mother figure — a Madonna icon, an activist role for “Mother Earth” OR the reverse — disgust of sacred “mother” icons, a pro-development role that dismisses “tree huggers,” etc.
  • what your character refuses to see — photo album with mom’s pictures removed, flipped over or folded to hide her image. (There’s no need to explain the reason at this point — on page 107, it will support the ah-ha moment that makes the reveal be logical)
  • a character serving in caregiver (mother) role — a house plant, a pet, a neighbour’s child — and not doing it well at all, gives you lots of room to play: a missing neighbour’s pet — that you lost — is not the same as a missing neighbour’s child — who you were babysitting

In the process of editing, revising, rewriting and second-guessing ourselves, it’s easy enough to pare out elements of character development. A simple method to uncover underwriting for characters is to ask yourself the following:

  • Is this character physically present, using their senses, filling their space, moving appropriately?
  • Is this character acting in concert with their beliefs and principles? And if not, is there a reason?
  • Does this character know what they want? Are they working towards it and, if not, why not?
  • And, as the author, do I know what they need? And am I moving them (or the plot) towards that?

Tip of the character iceberg

And this is just the start. Characters, like real human beings, are amazingly complex and this blog is really just touching the surface. There are many good books that explore character and how to enrich yours. The more you know your character and how they should be acting and reacting, the less underwritten your characters will be.

Understanding Underwriting

Understanding Underwriting

Ruth E. Walker

We recently featured a series of posts about overwriting. It got me thinking about the opposite issue: underwriting. Writers often don’t notice underwritten scenes and characters but we editors sure do.

Underwriting can be as specific as a scene or part of a scene doesn’t have the impact you hoped for. Or it can be as broad as missing key plot elements that set up events later in the book.

Underwriting is missed opportunities to connect emotionally with your reader by letting them “witness” the story. Would you rather read a single sentence: Dustin yelled at her in his usual hurtful way to get his way“? Or read the scene of actual dialogue and action that took place, so you can “see” and “hear” the nasty words he used, and her cowering, him looming over her …?

Underwriting has several consequences but the most important one is that it doesn’t engage your readers. Underwriting creates:

  • Emotional disconnect
  • Sensory disconnect
  • Story disconnect

Today, we’ll focus on underwritten scenes and then follow up with a focus on underwritten characters.

Your novel is full of scenes. Some scenes take up a whole chapter and some chapters carry several scenes. But long or short, all scenes have a purpose: keep the reader engaged and push the story forward.

A scene needs geography

We need to be grounded in place — not nailed in place with every detail revealed but enough setting features that readers can visualize what’s happening. Choose elements that matter to the scene and its purpose. Is it important to the plot to know it’s sunset? Let that blazing orb drop behind something that develops the story — a castle in the distance, a massive range of mountains, a line of camels crossing a dune.

Spotlight: Let the reader’s eye take in the quality of the light and how it plays on an object that has significance. Or use the senses to bring something important into focus: colour, shape, and textures — odours faint or strong — distant noises or booming sounds — flavours and temperatures on the tongue — textures and touches. Put that dried fig in someone’s mouth. Run fingertips along the gladiator’s shield. Create a sensory connection for readers.

A scene needs action

Action comes in many forms: movement (large and small) and dialogue (lengthy or brief). But don’t forget the action found in internal thought (a moment of angst, reaction, an internal struggle or making a decision.) The process of coming to a decision, especially in a key area of the plot/character development, is sometimes given little or no air. And that’s a missed opportunity to bring your reader into a character’s emotional life.

Maybe you think internal thought is “tell” instead of “show.” And sometimes, it may very well be “tell” but, in fact, necessary tell that feels just like show. Not everything needs to framed through movement or dialogue in order to feel active and move the plot forward.

For example:

He held the urn in both hands. If he threw it now, all the pain and frustration would be over. So easy. Just drop the thing over the cliff. Watch it smash on the rocks below and then turn and walk away. Let his father’s ashes go and never have to face his mother and sister, or tell them what he’d done, how Dad’s ashes were all that was left. But easy had never been his way. Not then. And not now. He slipped the urn back into the cardboard box and returned to the car. Time to face the family.

A scene needs meaning

If every scene has a job to do, then your role is to make sure it gets that job done. Too often, we see manuscripts where important plot points arrive without any set up. For example, the main character wants forgiveness from her ex-husband but we only discover that halfway through the book. Readers will wonder where that’s coming from. But if you make forgiveness a theme, you can bring in metaphors, images and hints of that want so, for example, the ex-husband element makes sense.

Perhaps early in the story a small transgression is forgiven. Is she a character who often says “sorry” over little things then waits to hear “that’s okay”? Maybe something gets broken and she’s more upset than the owner of the broken item. Maybe a favourite film is “Unforgiven” or a favourite Mark Twain quote is Forgiveness is the fragrance that the violet sheds on the heel that has crushed it.

A useful approach to make sure your scenes are doing their job is to ask yourself: What is the point of this scene? It’s a simple question but an important one. Are you developing character motivation, introducing a new character, raising the stakes, revealing a new plot element, establishing time and place, showing conflict, etc.? When you know the purpose of each scene you can make vital editing decisions:

  • Eliminate or combine/conflate scenes that do the same work
  • Energize flat scenes with action
  • Slow down a scene for emotional impact
  • Reorder scenes for more logical progression

When you analyze the purpose of each scene, you gain a better understanding of your novel. And that makes for a confident writer.

Find the balance

  • Avoid a laundry list of setting description but ground readers in the scene with just the right brushstrokes of important details about place.
  • Avoid too much chatter and physical action but feed the emotional connection with characters by letting readers hear their thoughts at important moments.
  • Avoid packing in too much figurative language but enrich the story with metaphor and subtle hints, especially where it’s missing in a key scene.

A writer is like a movie director, deciding who and what to include in the scene, where to aim the camera, how to light the scene, etc. Fortunately, you don’t have to call in the crew and actors to re-shoot your scene. Instead, you choose whether to trim or embellish on the page. And that’s the beauty of our craft: until it goes into the hands of the publisher, it’s all up to us to make those choices.

Snippets of Intrigue at Mudtown Station

Snippets of Intrigue at Mudtown Station

These days more than ever, we need our “writing tribe”. This week Writescape welcomes guest blogger Lori Twining. She blogs with other writing friends at AscribeWriters.com and adds laughter and inspiration whenever she joins us on Writescape retreats. As we wait patiently for the days when we can once again get together with writing friends, we listen in on a gathering of Lori’s writing tribe when they met at Mudtown Station last summer.

Guest Blog – Lori Twining

I’m out tonight with my writing friends. You know them. People who hardly ever escape from their houses. Mostly introverts. But get my Ascribe Writers group to Mudtown Station in Owen Sound on the back patio (reserved for the noisy folks), drinking special beer, eating amazing cauliflower steak covered in almonds and raisins and special sauce, and these people want to tell stories. Their stories.

Storytellers know all the best stories are built around conflict and questions to be answered. Right from the start.

So we play a game:

Assume you only have two minutes to tell your story. Two minutes is generous, because everyone at the table has a story they are dying to tell too, and they want to cut in and interrupt your exciting tale. It’s a competitive world out there, so how do you compete?

You start out with a killer line full of intrigue or conflict. A line that grabs their attention so they want to hear more. They become quiet. They listen.

If you are eavesdropping on these loud and happy writers this Thursday night, you hear first lines of stories that are intriguing. They make you want to pull up a chair and join them:

“Well, the first time I tried Cocaine, it wasn’t good, I mean it was goooood, but…”

“We put in-floor heating in our butcher room.”

“It’s not easy for a woman to ride a crotch rocket at the age of 52.”

 “I made this new friend in Colombia, and I didn’t know he was a drug lord at the time, but he invited us in…”

“An active night of passionate sex is great for sleeping like the dead.”

 “My wife has a conversation with a guy named Rocky every single morning.”

 “My wife removed my island without asking me first!”

 “I might commit murder before I retire.”

“I hate wearing pants.”

 We writers feed off of each other. Our first lines with snippets of intrigue become stories full of conflict—suspenseful or creepy or funny enough to have us laughing until we cry. And keeping to the two minutes forces us to get to heart of the story right away and stay there.

Gather post-COVID

They say introverts are not that fun at parties. We say it’s all in the company you keep. For me, it’s these weird and wonderful people who write and create art in some way gathered here on Thursday night at Mudtown Station. Writing buddies getting together to share our knowledge, experiences and stories with each other.

Writing groups are great, if you keep in mind why you are hanging out with them. If they help you stay positive during your bouts of doubts, if they support you and don’t throw negative toxic comments out about you or your writing, then they are keepers.

These people I hang out with have crazy obsessions, strange thoughts and fantastic storytelling abilities, but they match my own and that makes me smile. Laughter is contagious and sooooo comforting. I think I’m where I want to be… surrounded by conflict and intrigue—and amazing writer friends.

Lori Twining writes both fiction and nonfiction, with her stories winning awards in literary competition and appearing in several anthologies. She’s an active member of many writing groups: International Thriller Writers, Crime Writers of Canada, Sisters In Crime International, Toronto Sisters In Crime, Romance Writers of America, Toronto Romance Writers and Ascribe Writers. She’s a lover of books, sports and bird watching, and a hater of slithering reptiles and beady-eyed rodents.

Find more info at www.lvtwriter.com; Twitter: @Lori_Twining

10 ways to doom your novel

10 ways to doom your novel

For the month of May 2020, we imagine many of you are thinking about your manuscripts. Isn’t it time to give yourself time away from focusing on hand washing and sterilizing the grocery bags? We think so. This month’s 10 on the 10th blog post is designed to help you spot story pot holes and set about fixing them. Happy writing!

1. Refuse to Revise: Perhaps someone, somewhere, sat down and wrote the perfect 87,000-word novel without making a single change, each word falling onto the page like an elegant dance of perfection. Um. No.

Truth is, for most of us, the successful novel or story is the result of repeated revisions. Not just proofreading and editing for spelling and grammar. We’re talking revisions. Dropping the first three chapters of backstory and starting just before the inciting incident. Rewriting the ending completely with a different purpose in mind than the original ending. Revision is not for the faint of heart, but getting your hands deep and dirty into your manuscript is part of shaping it into publisher-ready material.

2.  Start in a perfect world: A perfect world without any hint of discord or danger is a fantasyland. From kids who leave dirty dishes in the basement to the pestering pets demanding attention, our ordinary lives are full of irritations and disappointments. But remember to save the big issues for the inciting incident. That big crack in your main character’s world is what drives the narrative into the meat of the story.

3. Only develop your protagonist: You know everything about your main character from favourite pets to emotional wounds, from the layout of a childhood bedroom to motivations for every action taken.

But the other characters in the novel circle like stage actors waiting to appear and act for the sole convenience of the protagonist. Life and stories don’t work that way. All characters should act from their own motivations and experiences. Ditch the cardboard, and put flesh on everyone’s bones.

4. Avoid Danger or Fear:  For effective fiction, tension is necessary. There are degrees of tension used by writers. Some books (especially thrillers) can start with a bang but others gradually develop tension in a variety of ways. From a foreshadow (“Careful Maeve, that horse is skittish”) or bit of figurative language (looming dark skies, thunder in the distance, etc.), skillful writers learn to raise the stakes with tension as the story goes forward.

5. Rely on Expounding Exposition: Scenes with action, dialogue and tension propel your story forward. Lengthy passages of and then this happened and then this happened and then this happened will put your reader to sleep. Seek out places where you give information that could be better delivered in a scene between characters.

Ginny was worried that Dewa’an was afraid. It was his first sleepover at her house. She comforted him by reading a story and leaving the light on. 

OR

“Dewa’an, would you like me to stay and read you a story?”

He barely nodded, his eyes still wide and searching.

Ginny held up Stuart Little. “My kids loved this one. Maybe you will too.”

She’d barely read ten pages when he fell asleep. Ginny kept reading for two more pages just to be safe. Before she left the bedroom, she switched off the big light and turned on the wee nightlight on the dresser.

6.  Clog with Filler Scenes:  Sometimes we don’t realize we’re writing a filler scene. It’s a great scene with strong dialogue and character bits and foreshadowing and lots of great stuff. But if you look closer, it’s covering most — or even the same territory as a scene you wrote earlier. It’s advancing the same elements that the earlier scene advanced. 

Time to murder this darling. Or revise it so it’s doing new work to move your story forward. All scenes need to add forward progression with at least some of the following: answer some questions and raise more, enhance character qualities or introduce new ones, add or enhance setting details, and so on.  The scenes you write are meant to pull the reader’s engagement along to the next scene and all the way to The End.

7.  Use Droning Dialogue:  Dialogue in fiction is the illusion of conversation.  And it has specific jobs to do when you use it: convey information that relates to the plot, to the characters, the setting and so on. So like Filler Scenes, mindless chit chat does nothing to add to the reading experience. What does your current dialogue do to advance your story?  Learn to spot the fat and then pare it. And pare it again.

8.  Pack in Know-It-All stuff:  You’ve done your research. You know exactly how many steps it takes to get from the front door to the attic. The map of all the islands, ports, harbours and rocky shoals is ingrained in your mind and you want your readers to know you know. Don’t. Just don’t. There is a huge difference between a strategically placed reference or two to help ground your reader and a litany of details that soon become a list readers must wade through before getting back to the story.

9.  Display your vocabulary: Yes, it’s important for writers to be widely read and in the process, you’ve developed quite a vocabulary.  Whoopee for you, but like the know-it-all research, don’t try to impress your readers with a display and get in the way of the story. Use words suitable for the genre and audience and stand back and let them do their job.  Don’t excavate a cavity, just dig a hole.

10.  Be Predictable: It’s important that your characters react and that the story follows a logical path. But beware the characters that never veer from what we’ve come to expect or storylines that offer no surprises. Take this approach with your dialogue and try for exchanges that show two very different agendas. Many of our conversations don’t quite go as expected, like for this retail store customer:

“Good morning, I was wondering if you had any—”

“Did you close the door?”

“Ah. Yes. Now I was wondering—”

“They get in when you don’t close it tight.”

“I closed it. Now, listen, I’m looking for—”

“There’s one now. At your feet.”

“What— What is that?”

“A displaced soul.”

There you have it. Ten ideas to consider and help you take your manuscript forward. Happy writing.

Nobody’s Fool

Nobody’s Fool

Ruth E. Walker

On the first day of April, it feels right to consider all the times I’ve been fooled in the past. Despite the pandemic upending our world right now, it is probable that plenty of people had something pulled on them this morning.

Of course, some of the April Fools’ Day jokes I’ve endured have been the usual silliness, like the kids hiding under the bed so I’d think they disappeared. Or a decidedly less-than-brilliant piece of mischief like putting plastic wrap between the bowl and the toilet seat (saw the plastic before I sat down…phew!)

Corporate chuckles…

April Fools jokes even find traction in news media. I recall a front page story in London, Ontario, that confirmed a massive dome would be built to cover the city (just think — no more shovelling snow and one bad-ass form of isolation).

The corporate world has had its fair share of April Fools’ foolery. Ikea once had a recall on its “left-handed Allen key.” Can you imagine all the toolboxes upended to find the faulty item?

But for readers of thrilling fiction, Amazon launched a Twitter ad on April 1, 2018 that goes one step further in terms of “delivering” books. Author Patricia Cornwall jumps off her yatch and scuba dives to California to get her book to an avid fan.

How about that for delivering the goods? It’s a joke, of course. But fun to imagine. I’ve always said I’d do anything for my book, but I guess scuba diving is not on that list after all.

Put funny in your fiction?

I suppose we could all benefit from things to laugh about — especially these days. But also consider the power of humour to capture our imaginations and remind us of our gullible, fallible selves. It’s a useful writers’ tool to keep in your writing workshop: the human condition, warts and all.

We Canadians have a long line of writers whose sense of the absurd finds its understated way into stories and novels, chief among them Margaret Atwood. I once told her that her novel Life Before Man was the first novel that made me laugh out loud. In retrospect, I hope she took that as a compliment.

The great American storyteller, Mark Twain, opined that “there are several kinds of stories, but only one difficult kind — the humorous.”

Indeed. But it’s not often recognized as such. In a May 1, 1916 Maclean’s magazine article, beloved Canadian humourist Stephen Leacock wrote:

“…ordinary people, quite unconsciously, rate humor very low: I mean, they underestimate the difficulty of “making humor.” It would never occur to them that the thing is hard, meritorious, and dignified. Because the result is gay and light, they think the process must be.”  

While writing humour well is difficult, readers do value the end result. Especially from brilliant writers like Margaret Atwood, as well as in the works of Twain and Leacock. Great storytellers have always understood that to hold difficult truths up to the light, humour in its many forms can keep us reading. And more importantly, it can plant the seeds of changed perspectives.

And that is one powerful tool for any writer.

What funny novels or stories have tickled your funnybone just when you needed it most? What writers made you laugh first and then stop and think? On this April Fool’s Day, share with us in the comments.

It was a dark and stormy night

It was a dark and stormy night

Gwynn Scheltema

Famously, “It was a dark and stormy night” is one of the worst ways to start a scene. Many writers take that to mean that you should never start with the weather, or indeed setting or description in any form. I disagree. I write from setting all the time.

A powerful workhorse

Setting can:

  • anchor the story in time, both historical time and time of day
  • define geographic place – in general (urban/rural) or specific (a particular building or room) 
  • set mood or atmosphere
  • employ seasonal symbolism (spring = rebirth, new things; winter = aging, death, etc.)
  • give a clue to character by what the character notices and reacts to in the surroundings.
  • use all five senses and more (colour, quality of light; temperature; texture) to create verisimilitude and increase reader engagement.
  • affect pacing: visceral senses of smell and touch increase tension; word choice for a description guides emotion (pierces vs chirps)

Walk with me

Come on. Bring along a notebook. We are going to allow setting to guide the start of a scene.

  • First anchor the main characters in place and time with an image. Present at least one reader question.

I turn back down the dirt track once the school bus has passed, jiggling its crumpled group of toque-topped children. It’s a long ride for young Jimmy—more than an hour before the bus spills him into the school yard at Campbellford Elementary. But he’s a country kid. Used to rising before dawn.

  • Now a wide angle visual shot that also sets the mood of the narrator. Use sentence structure that supports that mood.

The eastern sky struggles to draw back the fog blanket that hovers above the tree line, as reluctant as I am to face the day.  

  • A shot of colour without mentioning the colour. Something that re-enforces the mood.

The last of the autumn leaves nip at my ankles. 

  • Introduce a different sense (sound) that develops character or moves the plot.

My cell pierces the quiet morning. It’s Conrad. Shit. I let it ring. Fourteen rings. He doesn’t give up easy.

  • Now a wide angle again, include another sense (touch/ texture) and continue to develop character or advance plot. Consider pacing here. Speed up or slow down with sentence structure and word choice.

The clapboard farmhouse crouches on the hill, as if ready to pounce. “Been in my family for six generations,” Tom always boasts. Like that scraggly-beard had any part in it. Bastard!

  • Step into a direct action that launches the story. Stay away from the sense of sight. Use a more visceral sense to lend weight to this moment (touch).

When I reach the porch, my lungs burn from running, my mouth so dry I can hardly form the words I croak into my phone, “Chrissy? It’s Annie. Please, I need you to pick Jimmy up from school today and keep him overnight. Something’s come up. I’ll call tomorrow to explain.”

Not a formula

That scene is not a formula, just a sample. It’s sinister, moody and hints at danger. But it could have just as easily been more upbeat:

  • First anchor the main characters in place and time with an image. Present at least one reader question.

I watch the school bus lumber down the dirt road, jiggling its crumpled group of kids and backpacks and baseball bats and water bottles. It’s a long ride for young Jimmy—more than an hour before the bus spills him into the school yard at Campbellford Elementary. But he’s cool. A country kid. Used to rising early.

  • Now a wide angle visual shot that also sets the mood of the narrator. Use sentence structure that supports that mood.

The sun is already high in the eastern sky, warm on my shoulders. Today will be a good day. I know it.

  • A shot of colour without mentioning the colour. Something that re-enforces the mood.

I scoop up a posy of feathery Queen Anne’s lace and field poppies from the roadside bank.

  • Introduce a different sense (sound) that develops character or moves the plot.

My cell chirps like a pocketed bird. It’s Conrad. He remembered. I take a deep breath and fumble to answer before he rings off.

Your turn

Go on. Your turn. Take setting on your writing journey today.

10 Important Tasks for Dialogue

10 Important Tasks for Dialogue

Dialogue is not filler, nor is it secondary. For readers, dialogue is the illusion of active listening, of ‘looking’ from person to person as the conversation unfolds. There are technical effects from dialogue that support and enhance your story. The following 10 on the 10th blog shares some examples of the important work of dialogue:

1. Develop Plot: To ensure you’re not writing “filler”, give your characters dialogue that moves the plot forward, develop scenes.

"Pete, meet me at Crawley's barn at sunset. I'll bring Billy." 
"Want me to bring a gun?"
"Nah. If I find Billy before sunset, we won't need one."

2.  Move in Time:  When the story needs to shift into a new scene, or you want to cover a period of time without going into detail about that period of time, offer a line that sets up the new scene:

“Good then. I’ll see you next week." 
 or “So it's settled, we leave at dawn.”
or "Give me an hour or two and I'll call you back."

3.  Reveal underlying tensions:  Characters, like real people, have emotional baggage and secrets. Dialogue can give a clue that a character has something they’re hiding.

“Just what did you mean by that?” she asked. 
He shrugged. “Nothing. Now let’s just move on, okay?”

4.  Enrich themes/mood:    Characters can help readers pick up on the mood of a piece by what they say.      

“I hate this damp and cold. And those dark clouds can only mean
we're in for more rainfall.”
or "Come on, Charlie. Let's jump in every puddle we see."

5.  Echo time/era/culture: Dialogue can add authentic details to bring out the story’s genre, culture or time period.  

“Ach, lass. Will you no be gettin’ down from there?”
or “My lady, 'tis unseemly to be about at this late hour.”
or "Golly. Is that one of them new tellyvisions?"

6.  Establish setting:  Setting a scene through description alone can turn into a laundry list of what can be seen. Let dialogue do some of that work so that readers get enough detail to fill in the rest. More importantly, let dialogue help readers to stay connected to characters by “seeing” what they see and with the emotion they see it.

"Zargon! Power up the hyperchute—enter that wormhole!”
or "Bring me that beautiful leather bound volume from the top shelf."
or "Careful now! Mind you don't step in that stinking muck." 

7.  Imagine geography: Not all stories need large scale world-building but many fantasy, science fiction or quest stories will involve creating a world that readers can believe in. Dialogue helps to make it real because it’s real to the characters.

“Wait. I think I see a body of water through the trees.” 
or "This map doesn't show......."
or "That desert's got to be five day's walking or more. And not even
 stones or scrub for cover."

8.  Reveal facets of character: Dialogue is an active way to reveal character emotions, backstory and motivations.

"Please don't leave me alone with him; I can't go through that again.” 
or “How amusing. You dare to speak. Guard—kill him.”
or "I'm going to tell you a secret...."

9.  Focus on dynamics: How chracters talk to each other reveals not only clues about each character but also about their relationship with one another.

“You just can’t leave me alone, can you?"
“Ah, but if I did, you’d start to hate me all the more.”

10.  Show don’t tell: Dialogue is one of the easiest ways to give tired prose an energy lift, and turn “Tell” into “Show”. And that includes the body language and action beats in between the words. It’s dramatization that the reader can be immersed in, can “hear”, “see” and therefore feel.

Tell: Her father was abusive, but she had long since stopped caring.
Show:"Jesus girl. What's this slop ya call dinner?" Pa swiped the dish from
the table. Ma's best china plate shattered against the door. "And look
what ya made me done now, ya good-for-nothing..."
Mary scooped up a shard and turned to face him, looked  Pa square in the
eyes. "You can break me all ya want, Old Man, but ya'll never touch another
thing what belonged to Ma."

                

Why Workshop?

Why Workshop?

Gwynn Scheltema & Ruth E. Walker

This past weekend, Gwynn and Ruth spent some time at the Spirit of the Hills Festival of the Arts. We’ll have more to say about this great festival next week but wanted to share some insights we gained from each taking a writing workshop.

K.D. Miller

Ruth attended The Captive Moment with author K.D.Miller where she spent time with the haunting paintings of Alex Colville. K.D.’s Governor General’s Literary Award-nominated collection of short stories were inspired by 12 of Colville’s paintings.

Cynthia Reyes and Ronald MacKay

Gwynn attended Your Journey, Your Story with Cynthia Reyes and Ronald Mackay. Both published memoirists, their workshop covered the structure and purpose of writing a memoir.

Both Gwynn and Ruth are seasoned workshop facilitators. They both spend a great deal of time researching the topics they teach and discover new ways to inspire writers to keep their pens moving and their imaginations engaged.

So why would either of them want to take workshops?

To be better writers

More than just wanting to learn new things to bring into their workshops, they are both, at their core, writers. As such, they need their pens to keep moving and for their imaginations to be engaged.

Ruth left The Captive Moment with two new poems and one story idea. Gwynn left Your Journey, Your Story with a workable plan for focussing the story aspect of a memoir.

Of course, they both left with new ideas to bring into their own workshops. But that was simply a bonus. For Gwynn and Ruth, carving out time to devote solely to their craft, to stretch, experiment and explore always fills their own creative wells.

That makes them better workshop facilitators AND better writers.

Workshop with Gwynn and Ruth

On Saturday, November 2, join Ruth at Blue Heron Books in Uxbridge for a creative writing workshop, A Recipe for Great Characters. This hands-on morning session is part of Blue Heron’s inspired Book Drunkard Literary Festival. Cook up a new character or add spice to an established character in a fun and creative way.

On Sunday, November 10, Gwynn is at the Writers’ Community of York Region’s monthly meeting. Drawing on her expertise as a professional accountant, Gwynn is sharing Touching on Taxes, helping writers identify the different kinds of revenue associated with writing and how to report it.

Seasonal Symbolism

Seasonal Symbolism

Gwynn Scheltema

While our first response to fall might be thoughts of harvests, colourful leaves, Thanksgiving and delicious pies, for a writer, the symbolic meanings of fall are more profound—and useful—than you might think. In our writing, a reference to a cold winter day or a ray of sunshine can allude to more than its literal meaning.

Throughout history, cultures, science, and astrology have linked the seasons to the human life cycle and to nature’s influence on our lives. This connection is in our bones and it is universal. So writers can use seasonal symbols to express, heighten, or even play against feelings and the passing of time and age. And readers will pick up on those symbols and their meaning.

Think of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. At the beginning of the novel, it is spring. Nick Caraway is at ease with the wealthy people he meets. As summer progresses, the heat intensifies and tensions start to rise. As autumn arrives, Gatsby dies and Nick’s warmth of feeling and his dreams wither.

What are the traditional symbolic meanings of autumn?

Maturity

In fall, the growing cycle gives us ripeness and maturity. The harvest is associated with abundance, prosperity and wealth. Humans too experience an “autumn”. If spring represents new birth and childhood, and summer symbolizes youth, autumn represents adulthood and maturity.

Girls on Fire by Robin Wasserman is set in  damp, shadowy, late-autumn woods haunted by literal death that symbolizes the end of girlhood.

Change

Falling leaves symbolize change and even though they are brilliant in colour, we know what is soon to follow—winter. Fall brings a certain melancholy. We must prepare for an end. Our symbolic human autumn of maturity must prepare for the winter of old age and death.

In Washington Irving’s The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. This story takes place during fall with the town experiencing grief over the death of Ichabod Crane and as chilly autumn progresses, so do their fears of death and the Headless Horseman.

Preservation and reconnection

With the approach of winter, animals store food and create cozy hibernation spaces. We preserve the harvest and retreat indoors. We stop wandering and stay home. We tend to look emotionally inwards too, reconnecting with ourselves and those important to us. We consider the choices we have made, and the options still open to us.

Jacques Poulin’s book , Autumn Rounds, is a tale of love that arrives in the autumn of life. A man sees a marching band from his Quebec City apartment window, and motivated by his realization that life is slipping away makes a choice to join them.

Balance

Because day and night are the same length on the autumnal equinox, ancient cultures associated this day with the concept of balance. Astrologically, the sun enters Libra, symbolized by a pair of balanced scales. As we slow down after the business of summer, and with the harvest in, we take time to tap into the balance within us.

In October by Richard B. Wright, a man accompanies an old acquaintance on a final, improbable journey searching for answers in the autumn of his life.

But it doesn’t have to be all about sadness. Instead, we can think of death (and ultimate renewal) as a kind of letting go. We can look to our inner egos and patterns of behavior and let go of destructive attitudes. The idea of letting go also stresses the temporary nature of everything around us.

9 ways to use seasons as a writing device

Passage of time: Passing seasonal setting details running in the background of your story will help the reader know how slowly or quickly we are moving through time.

Mood: Although all emotions occur in all seasons, we tend to connect spring with hope/renewal; summer with joy/exuberance; autumn with melancholy/acceptance, and winter with sadness/loneliness. Using images, metaphor or setting details that evoke the appropriate season for the emotion, will heighten the mood.

As the horse crossed the line, Jim’s hopes fell like an entire tree of autumn leaves.

An hour passed and Mary did not show. Adam shifted on the cold bench, wished he’d brought a warmer sweater.


Image by beate bachmann from Pixabay 

Subversion: Playing against the four seasons we know by having five seasons or only two will help readers accept that your story is set in another world.

Plot device:  a body drowned in fall can only be discovered when winter ice melts. It gives the murderer time, but sets up a deadline for tension.

Irony: a couple fall in love in the dead of winter and break up in the summer.

Upset expectation: a character declines in spring and comes into their own in winter. This affirms that although humans are part of nature, they are not necessarily enslaved by its patterns.

Motifs/themes for a character. Amy is a “spring” character: optimistic, always learning something new; growing constantly; dresses in bright colours. Astrid is an “autumn” character: melancholy, always anticipating that something dark lies ahead; has red hair and wears a lot of brown.

Reveal emotions. In Beverly Cleary’s Emily’s Runaway Imagination, the story begins with spring and a feeling of welcome change. Almost exhilaration:

It seemed to Emily that it all began one bright spring day, a day meant for adventure. The weather was so warm Mama had let her take off her long stockings and put on her half socks for the first time since last fall. Breezes on her knees after a winter of stockings always made Emily feel as frisky as a spring lamb. The field that Emily could see from the kitchen window had turned blue with wild forget-me-nots and down in the pasture the trees, black silhouettes trimmed with abandoned bird nests throughout the soggy winter, were suddenly turning green.

Everywhere sap was rising, and Emily felt as if it was rising in her, too.

  • Structure

Steven King’s Different Seasons is a book made up of four novellas. The stories themselves are not connected, but they each follow the symbolic meanings of the seasons to form a cohesive whole:

  • Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption (Hope Springs Eternal) 
  • Apt Pupil (Summer of Corruption) 
  • The Body (Fall from Innocence) 
  • The Breathing Method (A Winter’s Tale) 

The Dragonlance Chronicles trilogy by Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman also follow the natural cycle of nature:

  • Book 1. Dragons of Autumn Twilight. The protagonists unite and become aware of the growing evil in the land
  • Book 2. Dragons of Winter Night the heroes are separated, and not all escape unscathed.
  • Book 3. Dragons of Spring Dawning, the heroes reunite and restore the Balance between Good and Evil

How do you put the seasons to work in your writing? Let us know in the comments below.

Second Book Syndrome

Second Book Syndrome

This week we welcome Seana Moorhead’s thoughts on writing the second book in a series. Seana is a Writescape retreat alumus, a lawyer and a fine writer and blogger at Ascribe Writers. She’s also a fun person to be around.

Guest Post from Seana Moorhead

I’ve been struggling with the second novel of my planned trilogy. I have all the words but it doesn’t feel like it holds together and I have no idea when or how to end it. My two main characters split up and I don’t know how to structurally deal with that. I try to console myself that the middle book of a trilogy is supposed to be the hardest to write.

Here’s my theory on why that is: a common problem with any novel is that the middle can sag. We spend so much time developing a great beginning and the perfect ending that the middle often drags. Magnified into a trilogy, the middle book struggles to compete with the fantastic first book and the final resolution of the third.  Like a “middle” child, it can feel neglected, having neither the attention of the first child nor spoiled like the youngest.

This distresses me, since I am a middle child. I am personally invested in having my middle book soar. But here’s the hard truth: I feel like I am failing it. I have read many trilogies where the second book is weak; even with trilogies that I love, I often suffer through the middle book. Their flaws can be many:

(a) often second books read like they have been rushed (which is most likely true in today’s market where a sequel must come out as soon as possible; thus my anguish now before I have even managed to publish the first)

(b) second books read like a rehashing of the first book (in my opinion, book two of the Hunger Games is guilty of this)

Image by TréVoy Kelly

(c) they wander, lack structure, have no focus because the middle is treated like a bridge between one and three with no real purpose of its own

(d) In an attempt, to “dark” or “deepen” the conflict of the characters, there tends to be a lot of whining by characters or characters acting poorly towards each other, gratuitous violence, often with torture as a way to “ramp” up the stakes but without any other clear purpose.

I like a well structured book.  My first novel is like a well-stitched dress, with its darts and pleats in all the right places, everything hanging properly. Currently my second is like a Raggedy-Ann affair made from patchwork pieces. Typical of a second child, only getting hand-me-downs.  Poor thing!

When in doubt, I research. 

First, I tried to research how to write a good trilogy. I will summarize the common general advice as follows: an overarching three act structure in the trilogy with each book containing its own three act structure. It helps to add new characters in book two.

Image by Erik Stein

Although all very good, but I need more. Why do second books so often fail?  Or maybe I should turn this question around: Are there any middle books that outshine their siblings? If yes, what creates this magic?

Since I am writing a fantasy trilogy, I focused my research in this genre. There are likely different answers if you are writing in other genres or a series (instead of a trilogy with an overarching storyline). Two examples came through in my research, one from film: The Empire Strikes Back; and one from the classic book, Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers.

Note: spoiler alert ahead in case of the rare possibly that you haven’t actually read or seen the movie versions.

A side note: often Book 4 of the Harry Potter fame, also came out as an example of a middle book that works (although being in a seven part series). However, I wasn’t as fond of book four myself (my fav is still book 3 but that might be because I fantasize about having the cool hour glass time piece featured in book 3).

What is interesting about both Empire Strikes Back (ESB) and The Two Towers (2T), is that neither fit well into the classic three act structure (although you can impose this structure on them). The Empire Strikes Back is often cited as being one of the better films in the Star Wars trilogy.  Unlike the first film (the original Star Wars), which followed a classic three act structure complete with a clearly defined inciting incident and climax, ESB, doesn’t fall as easily into that structure. One commenter even suggested that ESB does have a 3 act structure but in reverse order (with the big battle scene at the beginning). I have read analysis that show it has a 6 act structure maybe because one difficulty with ESB is that it quickly divides into 2 subplots – one following Luke as he goes to find Yoda and learn the ways of the Jedi and the other, following the Han Solo’s and Leia’s storyline.  It doesn’t have a definite end as Han is left frozen in carbonite and things looks very bleak when the movie ends. I also read a very interesting analysis that shows how the ESB does have a perfect symmetrical structure with mirror scenes between beginning and the end (look this up if you’re curious).

The Two Towers, the middle book of the Lord of the Rings, is divided into two books (“Book III and IV”) and also involved multiple subplots – one of Frodo and Sam as they travel to Mordor; one of Aragorn, Gimli, and Legolas and their travels in the Rohan and the battle of Helm’s Deep; and a third subplot with the other two hobbits. Instead of going back and forth between the story lines, Tolkien spends most of book III with the latter two plot lines and then in Book IV, shifting back to the Frodo and Sam plot line. Arguably, each sub-book separately has a 3-act structure within it, but when you examine The Two Towers, as whole, it is hard to impose the classic structure on it. I did notice how spending time with each subplots (instead of the more modern trend of leaping back and forth between chapters in subplots), allows the reader to appreciate the rise and fall of each subplots instead of being yanked back and forth.

Image by Gerhard Janson

Another thing I noticed immediately about ESB is that it does have a clear midpoint / mirror moment. It is the scene when Luke is in a cave and has a battle with a vision of Darth Vader. Luke severs the head of the specter but when Luke pulls off Vader’s helmet, he sees his own face. It’s an omen that Luke could be lured to the dark side. It symbolizes the theme of the story; the struggle between the light and the dark. Also it hints at the big reveal at the end that Vader is his father.  In the 2T, I would argue that the midpoint is when Gollum decides to let his evil side take control and betray Frodo (note, this comes a different point in the movie but in the books, this is the midpoint of book IV). This is an important plot point in the books since it is this decision that sets up the plot sequence for the rest of 2T and through to the third book.

The other thing I take from these examples, is that both focus on developing the characters, deepening the readers compassion and connection.  Although both also have more dark moments, they are done purposeful.  There are also good moments; in 2T, Gandolf returns; there is a celebration of the victory of Helm’s Deep.  In the ESB, there is lots of moments of humour; the romance between Han and Leia blooms. All is not doom and gloom. Although there is a tendency for a writer to want to “deepen” the conflict and make the second book all gloomy and black like a rebellious Goth teenager, there must be balance against this darkness.

Finally, both stories lack a solid ending but it’s okay. It’s a middle book and if your readers have stuck with you through another 100,000 words, take them with you to the third book. I am not a big fan of a cliffhanger ending (such as leaving Han in cardonite) but I also don’t have to try to tie up loose strings at the end of book 2. That’s book 3’s job. At the end of Two Towers, things do not look good: although there is victory at the battle of Helm’s Deep, the characters know there is a bigger war to come; Frodo and Sam’s fate appeared completely doomed. For Harry Potter, at the end of book 4, things look very dreary; Cedric is dead, Voldemort is back and powerful.  There may not be a cliffhanger but there are many unknowns and we clearly need to pick up the next book and find out what happens.

What does this mean for my problematic second book and me? 

Maybe I need to stop trying to find the three act structure (Oh, rebellious second child!). I have two subplots and I should embrace them, allow each their own breathing space.

I need to find the crucial midpoint, the centre tie that will allow it to hang properly without sagging in the centre.

Add humour and celebration as well as creating greater odds.

I can let the ending hang loose, like a thread to be pulled later by book three.

Off to write!

Seana Moorhead

Seana Moorhead is an aspiring writer and is working on completing her first fantasy novel. She moved to Grey County in 2002, having a passion for outdoor adventures, including kayaking and wilderness camping. Suffering from a book addiction, she will read almost anything that will grab her attention, lead her into another world or teach her something new. Seana lives in a bush lot near Owen Sound, Ontario with her partner and three dogs.