Posts Tagged fiction
So last time we talked about the basics in regards to dialogue and once we grasp the fundamentals—like proper punctuation—we then can focus more on elements of style. How we deliver the dialogue.
We can tell a lot about people by the way they speak. What people say or don’t say speaks volumes. As the writer, it is our job to understand our characters and to know who they are and how they think. We have to master the art of empathy. If we don’t, our dialogue will all sound like US talking. Writing, in many ways is a lot like method acting. We have to crawl inside the head and the psyche of our cast.
Not as easy as it might seem.
Dialogue done well is the stuff of legends though. Think of favorite movies. Why do we love them SO much? Very often…dialogue.
My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.
Social Roles—The Broad Strokes
Whether we like it or not, most of us will fall into some kind of social category with the way we speak. The way we speak will tell others a lot about who we are, our job, our background, level of education and even where we exist socially.
Don’t believe me?
How many of you were once young and wild and free and swore you would never be like your parents? Then one day you heard, “Because I said so, that’s why” fly out of your mouth?
“Why can’t you just do it the first time?”
“I didn’t ask you if you wanted to do it.”
I am bee-bopping along and suddenly hear my mother….
“Well, Spawn, when the mind is stupid, the body suffers.”
Shoot. Me. Now.
No matter how much we try, we are helpless in the face of mimesis. But, that isn’t such a bad thing. This actually makes it easier to do what we do. Since we’ve been around moms, we know how they talk. We can emulate the lingo. We know how teenagers, grandparents, grouchy neighbors, picky librarians, and con-artist family members all talk.
Through these “roles” we gain the broad strokes of what a character should “sound” like. This will help our characters ring true in the mental ear of the reader. There is nothing wrong with having characters who fit into a tidy box. They can still be interesting and unique even in that role.
Yes, I am a mother and I say all the stuff I swore I would never say.
No is just a part of life.
I also play XBox with Spawn and say things like, “Burst-fire! Conserve your ammo!” “You can’t kill a zombie like that!”
Thus, even though a lot of what I say would be very prototypical “Mom Talk” there are elements of how I speak that make me unique within that subset. Not all moms shoot for sport, practice Jiu Jistu and randomly quote Monty Python. Spawn’s mom, however, DOES.
But this is is when we get into the…
Character—The Fine Strokes
Moms say things many other moms say, but each mom is unique. That is the case with most characters. If we don’t take time to really think about who each character IS, we can run the risk of a character sounding like a stock character.
Recently I read a YA and only finished it because I paid full-price. But the biggest reason I had a tough time getting into the story was that all the characters were blasé.
Each character talked like a stereotype. The broad strokes were there, but there was no nuance. Thus, I was left with a cast of characters who were utterly forgettable.
How do we get fine strokes?
Can we buy some on eBay?
This is a tough one to answer. The fine strokes can take years to master. We have to learn to be excellent listeners. We have to learn how to look beyond what people are saying. We have to become masters of empathy and we must study people. Beyond this, though, what is it that transforms a plot-puppet into a 3-D person?
I believe it is in our idiosyncrasies and our contradictions.
An Idiosyncrasy is a peculiarity that is specific to one person. For instance, last time I mentioned the no-no about having every character speak in full sentences. Most of us don’t speak in full sentences so it rings untrue when everyone is using full sentences. BUT, some people DO speak in full sentences. That would be an idiosyncrasy and it’s one that is used regularly to convey highly intellectual characters—Ie. Dr. Sheldon Cooper.
A character who is foreign might not use contractions. A character who has OCD might always repeat verbs. A character who is advanced in years might never answer directly, but always answer in colorful parables.
I wrote a really funny character who constantly used malapropisms.
You just don’t cheat on your wife. When you get hitched, you promise to be faithful. You know. Monotonous.
We all have sayings and filler words that are unique to each of us. But adding these subtle details, now we have characters who are far more dimensional.
So we might have a mother who is saying all kinds of mom-like things…only she is unique because she is bad about smashing words together and speaks in hyperbole.
Eat your vegetables and don’t correct me. It’s very condensending.
I know what I said, Mr. Smarty Pants. Hurry up before I trade you to the Jones family for a puppy. At least the puppy would have some respect.
Add Some Layers
Remember that most humans are actually a unique blending of experience and roles. Yes, we might have a mom who is talking like a mom, but what else is she? A mom who is a Japanese violinist would probably talk differently than a mom who is a cop and grew up in Brooklyn.
Culture impacts a lot more than we might realize. I was born in Texas, but reared by a Yankee mom who is very direct and no-nonsense. I have run into all kinds of trouble with Southern women who feel I am rude. Conversely, I get short with Southern women because I am aging and don’t have time for all the niceties.
My roommate in college was from Georgia and we went round and round and round. She’d say:
Roommate: Kristen, do you think the trash needs to go out?
Me: Nah, looks good to me *keeps going*
Because her culture dictated it was more polite to hint and suggest? I missed most of what she wanted because I was always direct. If I wanted someone to take out the trash, I simply asked.
But here is an extra lesson in dialogue. Just from this example, can you see how conflict can arise simply from expectations? She believed she was asking me to take out the trash and believed that I was ignoring her. Conversely, I couldn’t figure out why she wanted an opinion on the state of our garbage so often. Why didn’t she just ask me to take it out? I would have happily obliged.
How does your character feel about him/herself? A low self-image might make a person a people pleaser. Maybe she is always agreeing with everyone and terrified to have her own opinion. Maybe the character talks too much, tries too hard, never asks about others.
If a character is selfish, he might brag all the time, or have to outdo everyone else in the conversation.
That’s great you caught a fish, but you were on a lake. Now go deep sea fishing. That’s real fishing. I once struggled with a fifteen foot shark for three hours….
Maybe the character is always interrupting others. Maybe the character uses profanity or quotes bible verses all the time. Or both.
Sometimes we can use dialogue to make contrasts. Contrasts are very interesting and say a lot about our character. A great example would be Elmore Leonard’s character Boyd Crowder (refer to television series Justified). Now, Boyd fits into a broad-stroke category of a hillbilly. He has a deep southern accent, works with his hands, drives a ratty truck, wears boots, and drinks like a fish.
But what makes Boyd a fascinating character study, especially for dialogue, is he is unexpected. He is a fascinating contrast. Though he is a redneck (and plays this up for his own ends) he uses a twenty-dollar word when a ten cent one would do. He speaks very colorfully. If you ask him the time, he will tell you how to build a watch.
Not only is his speech idiosyncratic, but it is a very unique contrast. One usually doesn’t expect a hillbilly to use words most of us would have to look up in a thesaurus.
Show Don’t Tell
Dialogue is HUGE, HUGE, HUGE for Show Don’t Tell.
Instead of telling us a character is a certain way, SHOW us by how she talks and what she says.
“Now, for the record, I’ve never seen her drink, but she always looks so tired. My brother-in-law always looked that way because he was throwing them back in secret.”
A self-involved jerk.
“Sure, Babe. After I meet with my client, how about I meet you for that cute little college thing you’re doing. What was it again? Art history?”
Y’all get the gist. Now go have fun with it!
All of this is to say that dialogue is one of the most powerful tools for showing who a character is, who they are hiding and maybe even who they could be with a little help from us (Writer-God). Next time, we will dig a bit deeper into dialogue. Who knew there was so much to this? What are your thoughts? What other suggestions do you have for authentic-sounding dialogue?
I LOVE hearing from you!
To prove it and show my love, for the month of SEPTEMBER, everyone who leaves a comment I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly. I will pick a winner once a month and it will be a critique of the first 20 pages of your novel.
August’s WINNER is lonestarjake88. Please send your 20 pages (2500 words) to kristen at wana intl dot com in a WORD document. Double-spaced and one-inch margins and CONGRATULATIONS!
For those who need help building a platform and keeping it SIMPLE, pick up a copy of my latest social media/branding book Rise of the Machines—Human Authors in a Digital World on AMAZON, iBooks, or Nook.
I love to garden, but I am terrible at reading instructions, which means I am not going to read a How To book or gardening blogs, because I already have enough to read and this would steal time from my great joy…digging in the dirt. This means that, over the years, I’ve learned a lot through trial and error.
Code for : Killing Stuff
Three years ago, we bought our first home. We got a sweet deal on it, but it needed work. The yard was little more than mowed field. I couldn’t wait to get in and pretty it up. I slaved for hours in triple-digit Texas heat digging holes and clearing land for gardens. I’d always loved oleander and when I found them on sale at the local nursery, I was ecstatic. Normally, oleander this size were $50 and $60 but I got each for less than $20. I planted one on each corner of the house and dreamed of how beautiful they’d be when they matured.
Then we had the most freakish, freezing winter in Texas history. I’d never even seen snow before and suddenly we were buried in eight inches of it.
The Canadians can all stop laughing now. You guys have things like PLOWS, SNOW SHOVELS, SNOW TIRES…and COATS.
Anyway, the oleanders that seemed to be doing okay during the mild fall were obliterated. When early spring came, I cleaned up all the dead stuff and dug out all the oleanders and threw them away. All except one because I ran out of energy.
Much to my horror, guess what sprouted once it got warmer?
My last remaining oleander.
To this day, I can’t look at that oleander without grieving the other four. I feel so foolish. What if I’d just been patient? What if I hadn’t been so quick to judge what was “dead”?
This is what premature editing can do to our story. When we start hacking away and digging stuff out too soon, we have no idea what treasures we might be tossing in the garbage. Never underestimate what your subconscious is capable of doing. Our subconscious mind is planting seeds along the way that can eventually sprout into ideas better than we imagined. Editing too soon can ruin that magic and toss it in a Hefty bag, just like my poor oleanders.
Tips to Avoid Premature Editing
Candace Havens teaches a method called Fast Draft. You write the entire novel in a matter of two weeks. No stopping, no looking back. No editing. This is my preferred method, because I am notorious for editing stuff to death.
Allow yourself to correct typos, punctuation and grammar ONLY. Anything else that you believe needs to be changed, make a note of it in a different color. Then keep moving forward.
I know this isn’t for everyone. Every time I talk about this topic, I get a half a dozen comments from people who just can’t bear to not edit. Of course, they generally don’t have finished books, either.
In the end, these are tips. You have to find what works for you. But I would at least give these methods a try. You can always slay the adverbs later ;).
What are your thoughts? Have you ever gotten overzealous and edited the heart out of a story and later regretted it? What tactics do you use to keep from editing too soon? Does editing early not bother you?
I love hearing from you!
To prove it and show my love, for the month of January, everyone who leaves a comment I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. If you leave a comment, and link back to my blog, and mention my book We Are Not Alone in your blog…you get your name in the hat THREE times. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly.
I will pick a winner once a month and it will be a critique of the first 20 pages of your novel, or your query letter, or your synopsis (5 pages or less).
And also, winners have a limited time to claim the prize, because what’s happening is there are actually quite a few people who never claim the critique, so I never know if the spam folder ate it or to look for it and then people miss out. I will also give my corporate e-mail to insure we connect and I will only have a week to return the 20 page edit.
At the end of January I will pick a winner for the monthly prize. Good luck!
I also hope you pick up copies of my best-selling books We Are Not Alone–The Writer’s Guide to Social Media and Are You There, Blog? It’s Me, Writer . And both are recommended by the hottest agents and biggest authors in the biz. My methods teach you how to make building your author platform FUN. Build a platform and still have time left to write great books.
Earlier this month we talked about “writing voice.” All agents want to find it and all new writers want to know what the heck it is. I did my best to educate you guys on voice, but frankly, compared to my writer heroes, I am a mere neophyte. I was at least smart enough to know what I didn’t know and to look to those who could lead the way. Les Edgerton has been one of my writing heroes for a LONG time and, frankly, having him here is making me a wee dizzy. I haven’t been this fan girl since I kidnapped James Rollins in my creepy interview van.
Unfortunately for me, did you see Les’s picture? Does this look like a dude who would fall for the FREE CANDY schtick? Yeah, I didn’t think so either. So, rather than smearing a $50 Barnes and Noble Gift Card with honey and sprinkles and hoping to catch the correct writer, I just went ahead and asked.
Boring, but effective. And come on! Les needed to be here, because, how can we talk about writing voice without a visit from the master?
Take it away Les!
Hello fellow WANAs!
Thank you so much for allowing me to appear on your blog, Kristen. I follow it religiously and am amazed at both the wonderful info you impart and the collegiality of the people who gather here. This is a signal honor and I’m stoked to be here!
You asked me to talk about my book on the writer’s voice, FINDING YOUR VOICE: How to Put Personality in Your Writing, and I thought what might be valuable would be to include a chapter from that book. Hope your readers agree. We just made it available as an ebook and you can check it out on Amazon.
I’m very proud of this book, Kristen. It was the first of my writer’s craft books and over the years I’ve received lots of emails and letters from writers who tell me it’s helped inform their own writing and that’s just plain gratifying. It’s why we all write, right? To make a difference in others’ lives.
BTW, if you folks enjoy the selection I’m providing, please consider helping me out with my own writing. My latest novel, a psychological thriller titled THE BITCH is one of six nominees for the Spinetingler Magazine Best Novel award in the Legends category. This is a huge honor just to be nominated and if somehow I’d win, well, I’d be speechless… (For those who know me, you know that’s almost impossible to comprehend…)
I need to explain that the title isn’t a pejorative title towards women, nor is it a term for a female dog, but is what outlaws and criminals call the “three-strikes-and-you’re-out” ha-bitch-ual criminal statute. To vote for it, just go to the link, scroll down to the “Best Novel” in the Legends category and click on my book. Then, just scroll to the end and enter it. And… thank you!
I hope the stuff on voice below proves helpful in your own writing!
CHAPTER SELECTION ON VOICE
Talent alone cannot make a writer. There must be a man behind the book.—RALPH WALDO EMERSON
This, then, is what it’s all about, finally.
Putting your personality into your prose. Truly, the “secret” to getting published.
William Zinsser stresses this in his best-selling writer’s craft book, On Writing Well, when he writes: ”I wrote one book about baseball and one about jazz. But it never occurred to me to write one of them in sports English and the other in jazz English. I tried to write them both in the best English I could, in my usual style.
Though the books were widely different in subject, I wanted readers to know that they were hearing from the same person. It was my book about baseball and my book about jazz. Other writers would write their book. My commodity as a writer, whatever I’m writing about, is me. And your commodity is you.”
If your finished novel, short story, article, poem, personal memoir, bio of the latest corrupt politician or outstanding statesperson—whatever—reads as if written by another person . . . then it was.
You need to seize it and make it the work only you could possibly have written.
First off, however, you need to determine if your voice has, indeed, been camouflaged.
There are at least three ways to tell if this is so.
Are the Word Choices, Sentence Usages, and Phrases Employed Yours?
The first “litmus test” is to check the language in the piece itself.
Author Jules Renard said, “If the word arse is read in a sentence, no matter how beautiful the sentence, the reader will react only to that word.” He’s not singling out the “olde English” noun except as an example of the sort of word a writer shouldn’t use unless it’s organic to him and is natural to the context in which it’s used. The kind of word that draws attention to itself, at the expense of the fìctive dream we struggle so mightily to create for the reader.
Look for those kinds of examples in your copy, and instead of reaching automatically for your thesaurus, try a different approach to coming up with a better word.
One way to do this is by clustering. Write the word that needs replaced in the center of a blank sheet of paper. Draw a short, straight line out from the word, and quickly jot down the next word that pops into your mind. Do the same with that word.
Do this for at least seven to eight words, then sit back and look at what you have. Oftentimes, the word you need emerges. If that doesn’t work, at least change any such word that drastically calls attention to itself to something less intruding and attention-gathering.
As Anthony Burgess says, “People don’t like using dictionaries when they’re reading mere novels.”
Jane Burroway, in her seminal writing text, Writing Fiction:A Guide to Narrative Craft, says much the same thing, but expands the advice even more: “When you are carried away with the purple of your prose,the music of your alliteration, the hilarity of your wit, the profundity of your insights, then the chances are that you are having a better time writing than the reader will have reading. No reader will forgive you, and no reader should. Just tell the story. The style will follow of itself if you just tell the story.”
Check your text for overt evidence of a writer at work. Whenever the reader becomes aware someone is writing the piece—whether it be fiction or nonfìction—then the “fictive dream” (which applies to nonfìction as well) is interrupted and you’ve lost your reader at least briefly, if not permanently.
You’ve created a speed bump, at the minimum.
If you can identify more than 5 percent of the language you used as being essentially foreign to your normal usage, then you’re not employing your own personality on the page. That’s just too many words alien to your vocabulary and it will show up as forced and unnatural. In fact, 5 percent is just about the upper limit. Go back and substitute more of your own language.
The structure you give your sentences can show you whether or not you’re solidly within your voice.
If you’re using complete sentences, you’re probably not writing in your natural voice.
In a recent Neighborhood Connections class (local, adult-ed class) I taught, a woman who wrote otherwise wonderful prose had a sticking point with sentence fragments. She simply could not bring herself to write anything less than a complete sentence. She confessed that every time she did, the image of her seventh-grade English teacher loomed large on the screen of her mental Sony.
The result was prose, that, while writ with grace, beauty and interest, nevertheless, was being strangled with formality. She was such a good writer that she was able to imbue her “Tom Wolfeian beige voice” with energy, but it wasn’t until she was able to force herself to write sentence fragments within the text that her stories really began to sparkle.
She “thought” in sentence fragments at the appropriate places in her writing, but she had developed the habit of editing them as she wrote to render them complete units, with subject, predicate, and all that stuff. It took almost the entire six weeks of the class for her to work through her problem, but once she overcame that inhibition, the traces were thrown off, and she confessed, after her last class, that she felt “wildly free” for the first time in her writing life. She’d been so “conditioned” that at first she couldn’t even bring herself to use contractions in her character’s dialogue!
The trick to writing well? Write simply; write clearly. Eschew flowery language.
Aim for the same kind of clarity-bullseye in your own writing, whether it be a lean or lush style. The kind of writing that when the nonwriter or casual reader reads it, thinks, “Man! This writing stuff looks easy; I could do this¦”
Look at other writers you admire and see if the simpleness of their language—whether lush or spare or somewhere in-between—isn’t one of their strengths, too.
When rereading your work and you come to a part that has been gussied up by the over-baroqueness of your language, try rewriting it with only one thing in mind—to make it as clear to the reader as a day in Santa Monica after a Santa Ana wind has blown through.
If your style requires ten words to do that and another’s style uses four, that’s all right. Just don’t use twenty words if ten do the job, or eight, if your own style is comfortable with six. Compare the initial version and the rewritten one, and see which one you like the best. Better, have someone else read them and tell you which one they prefer.
Don’t stick a Rolls-Royce hood ornament on your Chevy Lumina and try to fool people!
Second Litmus Test—Get Feedback From Others
Perhaps one of the best ways to cull out those parts of your writing where you’ve strayed from your own trés-cool voice is to solicit the opinions of others. If you belong to a writing group, ask your fellow writers if you can read your material to them, requesting they inform you which, if any, parts “don’t sound like you.” Mark through those sentences and sections with a marker (I’d suggest yellow instead of black), and then later, go through them to see if you agree. If the language has departed from the rest of the piece, you know it needs to be rewritten until it blends with the rest.
Read your material aloud, and ask yourself if you’d like to be locked up in a room with the person who wrote this and listen to the sound of that voice for several hours at a time. If not, then you’re probably not putting your own personality into your prose as much as you should be. After all, we like our voices when we’re ourselves, don’t we? We hardly ever tell ourselves to “shut up!” when we’re being natural.
Tweety in the Coal Mine
Way back when, coal miners would carry a canary in a cage down into the bowels of the mine with them. The purpose of the canary was to let the miners know if deadly gasses were present so they could get the hell out before they keeled over. They kept a close watch on Tweety, and if he fell over dead (with those little Xs for eyes), they hiked as fast as they could to the surface.
That’s what you need. A canary to let you know if the ”gas” of your prose has become deadly. Hopefully, your friend or writing group won’t fall over onto the floor with those little Xs where their orbs used to be, but they should be able to sniff where your writing has become stifling and beige.
Beige has an odor somewhat like skunk cabbage does when you step into a patch of it. Deodorize your prose until it smells sweet—like you!
Be Alert to Critic Nag in the Room . . .
The third part of the litmus test to see if you’re camouflaging your natural voice is to check the room periodically to see if Critic Nag has crept in under the doorsill or through an open window. He’s usually invisible, so the only way to spot them is to read what you’ve written to see if he was typing while your mind spaced, as it does from time to time with us writer-types.
A good place to look for evidence that he’s lurking somewhere in the room is in your character’s dialogue. If you find your characters never use contractions in their speech, for instance, that’s a solid clue that Critic Nag is sitting over in the corner, smirking evilly at you.
If your characters always use complete sentences, wouldn’t dream of using a contraction, without fail use the correct words or word combinations like “give me” instead of “gimme,” then Critic Nag has probably snuck into the room with you.
Look for Critic Nag’s whisper in your ear when you’re writing emotional scenes. He’ll try to encourage you to use lurid language and not trust your own writing ability to convey the emotion. He’s a crafty little imp!
When you’re writing those scenes, keep in mind the advice of Philip Gerard in his excellent book Writing a Book That Makes a Difference, where he says: “Flatten the language. The hotter the action, the cooler you want the language, to a point.”
You need to choose the word that fits the situation on the page you’re trying to create—whether that be description or the business or action of a scene, but you also need to choose the word that fits you comfortably. It has to carry the intent, but it also has to reflect you and your emotions. That’s the only way it will ring true and be unmistakably yours.
Another clue that will tell you ol’ Critic Nag has been around is if your passages of description have been overwritten and in a too-flowery style. If you read passages full of window-pane, static description, instead of active, page-turning description. This is what one of those many fiends who compose Critic Nag urged you to do way back when. He’s in the room!
He’s also been around if you begin to reread your stuff and unfamiliar words jump out at you. You know, those words you’ve never once used in conversation and look newly-purchased from that sale you visited on Dictionary/Thesaurus.com. (Or, found on eBay, most likely.)
To Reiterate . . .
In summary, there are three basic ways to seize control of your material and make it your own:
1. Check the language you’ve used in the piece.
Mark the words that leap up at you from the page that clearly aren’t yours and come up with choices from your vocabulary.
2. Have others read your material and tell you which parts aren’t “you.”
Pick folks who know you well. Don’t use them to tell you if the writing is “good” or make that kind of quality judgment; instead, simply ask them to let you know which passages “don’t sound like you.” That’s all you need—someone to point out where you departed from yourself.
3. Seek out and banish Critic Nag from the room.
Just always remember: Don’t let others rent space in your head! Especially Critic Nag . . .
THANK YOU LES!!!!! Many of you who follow this blog already know and LOVE Les because I talk about him all the time and make you buy his books :D. So please, for those of you who have loved Les’s work, please go vote for him in the Spinetingler Award. I know you guys have a ton of books, but you have until the end of April to read and vote for The Bitch… *giggle*.Just go to the link. I hope you guys can show some WANA support for a writer who has done so much to help use newbies grow into trained professionals.
I LOVE hearing from you!
And to prove it and show my love, for the month of April, everyone who leaves a comment I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. If you leave a comment, and link back to my blog, and mention my book We Are Not Alone in your blog…you get your name in the hat THREE times. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly.
I will pick a winner every week for a critique of your first five pages. At the end of April I will pick a winner for the grand prize. A free critique from me on the first 15 pages of your novel. Good luck!
Note–I’ve been having technical problems lately and am in the middle of rebuilding my web site. Also, my toddler has had an allergic reaction to something and he has been home sick, which is slowing me down.
I will just have to announce last week’s winner on Monday. Sorry, icky sick baby has made it impossible to tally all the comment entries from last week (especially since I had the rare privilege of being Freshly Pressed, which means the comments EXPLODED).
I also hope you pick up copies of my best-selling books We Are Not Alone–The Writer’s Guide to Social Media and Are You There, Blog? It’s Me, Writer . And both are recommended by the hottest agents and biggest authors in the biz. My methods teach you how to make building your author platform FUN. Build a platform and still have time left to write great books.
Storytelling is in our blood, it binds us together as humans. On some intuitive level, everyone understands narrative structure, even little kids. All good stories have a clear beginning, middle and end. Ever try to skip parts of a story with a toddler? Even they can sense on a gut level that something is wrong if we miss a fundamental part of the story. Thus, often when I am teaching new writers how to understand narrative structure, I use children’s movies. Frequently the narrative structure is far clearer, as well as the Jungian archetypes that are present in all great fiction. Additionally, all fiction can be boiled down to cause, effect, cause, effect, cause, effect. But, beyond that, novels are broken into scenes and sequels. For those who missed this post a few months ago, I highly recommend you go here.
So how do we know when to cut a scene? How do we knew when to begin and end chapters? How do we know what to trash and what to keep? Structure and conflict are like two gears.
Gears cannot turn unless there is another key wheel turning the opposite direction. No opposition, no power, no momentum. Same with a story.
All scenes have action. Action is more than a car chase or a bomb being diffused. Action does not mean a “bad situation.” All stories must have one main story goal, a core problem that must be resolved for the story to end.
I love studying children’s movies because they make it very easy to see and understand fundamental story structure.
In the Pixar film, Finding Nemo, what is the story goal for Marlin (the Clown fish father and protagonist)? Find his only son. How do we know when the movie is over? When Marlin and Nemo are reunited and safe at home, right?
Who is the Big Boss Troublemaker in Finding Nemo? The BBT is the character responsible for the story problem. The BBT is Darla the Fish-Killer, who we, the viewer, don’t even see until Act II. Darla is the horrid little niece of a dentist who likes to go diving. The dentist (Minion) collects little Nemo from the ocean as a birthday gift, beginning the adventure of a lifetime for Marlin and Nemo.
In Normal World, Nemo and Marlin live in a sea anemone. Overprotective father Marlin finally allows little Nemo to go off school (pun intended), even though everything in his life revolves around keeping his son safe. This decision to let Nemo go to school is the inciting incident. If Nemo never went to school then he would never have been taken by the diver dentist.
The turning point into Act One is when Nemo is taken. That gives the clear story goal and the journey of the story is clear—Finding Nemo.
Today we are only going to look at scene antagonists who drive the action.
Obviously Marlin will not find Nemo right away. That would make for very boring fiction. No, there are a series of sub-goals that must be met to find his son.
Marlin takes off after the boat, but then fails to catch up.
He loses the boat and all seems lost, when he runs into another fish, Dori, who says she knows which way the boat went. Marlin follows, renewed in the chase and hopeful he will find Nemo, but then his new ally turns on him wanting to fight. She is unaware why Marlin is following her. Marlin soon realizes the only link to finding his son is a fish ally who suffers short-term memory loss.
We, the audience, think the journey is over, but then she tells him she does remember where the boat went. Marlin wants to go after his son, but then Bruce the Great White interrupts.
At first Marlin and Dori look doomed, but then Bruce collects them to join him in the Fish are Friends Not Food meeting (think shark AA—Fish Anonymous). So instead of Marlin being able to continue on his journey, he must stop to attend this Shark FA meeting. He has to play along lest he get eaten and not be able to continue his journey. To make matters worse, the FA meetings are held in a sunken sub that is surrounded by mines. So we have outside obstacles—mines—and character obstacles—the Great White addict needing a Fish Friend for his meeting.
Marlin wants to look for his son. Bruce wants a fish friend to attend his FA meeting. This is what Bob Mayer teaches as a conflict lock. Please check out Bob’s books if you want to learn more.
At this point, Bruce is not Marlin’s enemy, but see how he is the antagonist? Bruce’s wants are in direct conflict with Marlin’s. Only one party can get his way. Marlin is held back from achieving his goal.
Through a fun series of events, Bruce ends up losing it and going after Marlin and Dori with the fervor of any addict as his shark buddies try to keep him from totally “falling off the wagon.” Marlin and Dori swim for their lives and while running, Marlin spots the diver’s mask (The diver dentist who took Nemo dropped his mask). The journey, otherwise, would have ended, but a wild twist of fate has renewed the search.
They have a clue and apparently Dori, the Forgetful Fish Ally that Marlin was going to dump at the first opportunity, can READ. He needs her. But they must escape Bruce and get the mask.
They escape Bruce by detonating all the underwater mines, but then both Marlin and Dori are knocked unconscious. They awaken and realize that they are pinned under the sub, which is now sitting precariously off an undersea trench. The mask and only clue to finding Nemo is wrapped around Dori. As they try to look at the mask, the sub starts to slide and they lose the mask.
Scene goal. Marlin wants to get the clue, but then the submarine sends them fleeing for their lives. Just as they grasp for the mask, it drops down into the deep.
See how Marlin is progressively worse off as the story progresses? He seems farther away from finding his son, when in reality these are the necessary steps to FIND Nemo.
All looks as if it is lost. Marlin goes to give up, but his unlikely ally encourages him to go on and swim down in the deep to find the mask. Marlin has a chance to give up. He could at this point go home and give his son up for lost, but that would make a seriously sucky story. Marlin is a control freak who is ruled by his fears. He has to learn to be the master of his fears in order to rescue his son. Hemust press on in order to find Nemo. He swims down into the abyss as all good heroes should.
Marlin WANTS to find the mask, but then he and Dori soon realize it is nothing but blackness and they cannot see to find the mask. All seems lost. Ah, but then they spot a pretty light in the darkness…which turns out to be an angler fish that wants to eat them both.
Marlin wants to find the clue (mask).
Angler fish wants dinner.
Do you see how every break the protagonist gets comes with a new test? This is why it is so critical for us to at least start out with our story’s log-line. What is our story about? Learn more about log-lines (BIG story goal), here.
If the screenwriters didn’t know that the overall goal was for a neurotic fish father to swim to Sydney, Australia to rescue his son from a dentist’s fish tank before Darla the Fish-Killer’s birthday…this would have been a booger to plot. In ways it still is. How do we get Marlin from the Great Barrier Reef to a dentist’s office in Sydney? This is where setting sub-goals (scenes) makes life easier. When we know the ending, the main goal then it is far easier to plot the course.
Each scene needs a key wheel—an antagonist—to provide the opposition that will drive forward momentum.
Bruce the Great White and fish-addict in recovery is not Darla the Fish-Killer (the BBT), but he does keep Marlin from his journey…finding Nemo, so he IS an antagonist. In retrospect, Bruce’s intervention was fortuitous in that they never would have been in the area of the ocean where the one clue—the mask—was dropped.
Every scene needs an antagonist. Scenes MUST have conflict. No conflict? Not story. No forward momentum. We must always take a good hard look at our scenes and ask the tough questions. Ask, “What is it my protagonist wants? Who is in the way?” If no one is in the way, then who can we put in the way? Conflict can even be as simple as allies disagreeing about a course of action—chase after bad guys or call the police and play it safe? Will the Elves take the Ring of Power to Mount Doom or will the Dwarves?
If everything is happening easily and all our characters are getting along? That’s a formula to bore a reader. Scenes where we have our protag thinking? That isn’t a scene, that’s a sequel. If a character is thinking, it better relate to something that just happened (a scene) and what to do next (next scene).
A “scene” that has characters talking about other characters is contrived information dump, not a scene. We can offload information in dialogue, but that cannot be the only purpose. Scenes are sub-goals—action blocks—that lead to solving the final problem.
I highly recommend reading Bob’s books for more about understanding antagonists and conflict. Then, watch movies and practice. Break apart movies. Who is the BBT? Who are the antagonists for each scene? What purpose does the antagonist serve other than standing in the way of the goal? We will talk more about this next week. I know these are lessons we’ve had before, but a good refresher never hurt anyone.
I LOVE hearing from you!
And to prove it and show my love, for the month of February, everyone who leaves a comment I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. If you leave a comment, and link back to my blog, and mention my book We Are Not Alone in your blog…you get your name in the hat THREE times. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly.
I will pick a winner every week for a critique of your first five pages. At the end of February I will pick a winner for the grand prize. A free critique from me on the first 15 pages of your novel. Good luck!
Note: I had a rough weekend. My son had an accident and was injured pretty badly. Will announce winner later this week. Sorry for the delay.
I also hope you pick up copies of my best-selling books We Are Not Alone–The Writer’s Guide to Social Media and Are You There, Blog? It’s Me, Writer . Both books are ON SALE for $4.99!!!! And both are recommended by the hottest agents and biggest authors in the biz. My methods teach you how to make building your author platform FUN. Build a platform and still have time left to write great books.
After six years in critique, her novel was “perfect.”
Critique groups can be wonderful. They can offer accountability, professionalism, and take our writing to an entirely new level. But, like most, things, critique groups have a dark side. They can become a crutch that prevents genuine growth. Depending on the problems, critique groups can create bad writing habits and even deform a WIP so badly it will lose any chance at being traditionally published.
The key to avoiding problems is to be educated. Not all critique groups are worth our time. Some critique groups might have limitations that can be mitigated with a simple adjustment in our approach.
Traditional Critique Groups
Many of you have attended a traditional critique group. This is the “read a handful of printed pages or read so many pages aloud” groups. Traditional critique groups have some strengths. First and foremost, they can clean up a new writer’s prose.
When we turned in that high school paper with 60 glorious metaphors on page one, we got an A. Why? Because our teacher’s goal was to teach us how to use a metaphor properly. Her job was not to train us for publication in New York.
In a good traditional critique group you will learn that POV does not mean “Prisoners of Vietnam.” You will learn to spot passive voice and “was clusters” and will even learn why adverbs aren’t always extra-nifty. You will hopefully learn self-discipline in that you need to attend regularly and contribute. You will forge friendships and a support network.
So where’s the problem?
Traditional critique groups lack perspective.
Once a week reading fifteen pages only cleans up shoddy prose. Traditional critique groups are looking at a work the size of a skyscraper with a magnifying glass. They lack the perceptual distance to see flaws. A novel can have perfect prose page to page and yet have catastrophic faults. In fact, I would venture to say that most writers are not rejected due to prose, but rather, they meet the slush pile because of tragic errors in structure.
Traditional critique groups can tell you nothing about turning points or whether a scene fits properly. They lack the context to be able to discern if our hero has progressed sufficiently along his character arc by the mid-point of Act 2. They have zero ability to properly critique pacing, since pacing can only be judged in larger context. So, my advice is to get a beta reader that you trust. Critique groups cannot do what only beta readers can.
Traditional critique groups can also hurt us in the following ways.
Traditional groups can get us in a habit of over-explaining.
As we just mentioned, those in a traditional critique group sitting around the table can’t see the big picture. It is hard to pick up a story on page 86 and understand what is going on. Our fellow writers care about us and believe if they don’t say something that they aren’t helping. Thus, they will say things akin to, “But how did Cassandra end up in a meat locker wearing Under-Roos and wielding a chainsaw? I’m lost.”
Well, duh, of course they are lost.
They have missed the last three weeks and haven’t been keeping up with the story. So learn to resist the urge to over-explain in your prose. Your job is to write a great novel…not 600 individual sections your critique group can follow.
Traditional critique groups are notorious for the Book-by-Committee.
Not everyone’s opinion is equally valid. If you are like me and lean to the people-pleasing side, you can get in a nasty habit of trying to please your critique group at the expense of the big picture. Learn discernment and how to stick to your guns, or you will end up with a Book-by-Committee, also known as Franken-novel.
One great way to know good advice is to READ craft books. Read every craft book you can find. In fact, here is a list of my favorites. That way, when someone offers suggestions, you will know whether or not that advice is supported by leading teachers in the industry.
They can get us in a habit of perfectionism.
The world does not reward perfect novels, it rewards finished novels. I still run into writers that have been working on “perfecting” the same novel for the past ten years. As professionals, we need to learn to LET GO. Either the project was a learning curve and it needs to be scrapped and parted out, or it needs to be handed a lunch box and sent off to play with the big novels via query. Scrap it, part it, or shop it but MOVE ON.
Yes, I know NY publishes novels that have typos and grammar errors. But when writers are under contract, they don’t have 6-10 years to ensure that their manuscript doesn’t have a single misplaced comma. In fact, I would be so bold as to posit that readers don’t generally get to the end of a novel and declare, “Wow! That was riveting. Not one single dangling participle in the entire book!”
There are writers I know who have been working on the same book for 4,5 even SIX years. I see them at conferences dying to land an agent and get that three-book deal. WHY? New York isn’t going to give them another 12-18 YEARS to turn in manuscripts. The hard reality is that, if we hope to make a living at this writing thing, we need to learn to write solid and we need to learn to finish…quickly.
Traditional critique groups can offer a false sense of security.
We must always be looking for ways to have our work critiqued by professionals who are willing to be blunt and who possess the skill set to see our errors. Don’t join a writing critique group simply because they say they are a writing critique group. Look at their credentials. How many traditionally published authors has the group produced? I’m not picking on self-publishing, but self-publishing doesn’t have the same rigorous peer review.
How many people in the group are career writers, authors, or editors? Gathering together because we love writing is always a great idea, but if the group is solely comprised of hopeful unpubbed writers, the critique will be limited. Limited is fine, so long as we make sure to reach beyond our group for additional critique.
Make sure your work is being reviewed by people who will be honest about any problems. Meeting once a week to sing kumbayah is not the best preparation for being published. Once our book is for sale, we are open to the big bad real world of people with nothing better to do than skewer a writer publicly on-line in a blistering review.
You will know them by their fruits…
Make sure any group you join is producing successful novelists. I began Warrior Writer Boot Camp because my old group of six years produced many successful articles, short stories and NF, but they had never produced a successfully published novel. I knew I had to create a different critique format capable of critiquing a leviathan work of 100,000 words or likely that trend would continue.
Some writers naturally understand structure, and so they do fine in the traditional setting. I didn’t naturally understand structure, and my novel ended up on so many bunny trails I needed a pack of plot-sniffing dogs and a GPS to find my original idea. If you are the same, then make sure you take traditional critique for what it is…critique of prose. You might need to find or start another group on your own dedicated to looking at the big picture.
Or…be creative. If you can’t go to the mountain, make the mountain come to you. Next week I am going to give you guys a new approach to a traditional group. Skilled beta readers are hard to find and skilled editors can be expensive. But, apply the technique I will teach you and you will know for sure if your novel has the right stuff.
Critique groups are WONDERFUL. I don’t know what I’d do without mine. But, we are wise to be aware of the trouble spots so that we can get the most out of this fantastic resource.
So what do you guys think? Have you had problems? Or am I off-base? What are your solutions? Ideas? I LOVE hearing from you!
And to prove it and show my love, for the month of January, everyone who leaves a comment I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. If you leave a comment, and link back to my blog, and mention my book We Are Not Alone in your blog…you get your name in the hat THREE times. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly.
I will pick a winner every week for a critique of your first five pages. At the end of January I will pick a winner for the grand prize. A free critique from me on the first 15 pages of your novel. Good luck!
IMPORTANT–I will announce last week’s winner on Wednesday. Need to catch up on a few things since I no longer have an assistant :C. So stay tuned!
I also hope you pick up copies of my best-selling books We Are Not Alone–The Writer’s Guide to Social Media and Are You There, Blog? It’s Me, Writer . Both books are ON SALE for $4.99!!!! And both are recommended by the hottest agents and biggest authors in the biz. My methods teach you how to make building your author platform FUN. Build a platform and still have time left to write great books!
I’ve run critique groups for almost eight years. I also have edited literally hundreds of manuscripts, and one thing that most new writers do not accurately understand is the antagonist.
I have to admit that I didn’t understand the antag the way I needed to until a few years ago, and this pivot-point in my education would not have happened without the fabulous Bob Mayer. Not only is he a NY Times and USA Today Best-Selling mega-author, but he is a great writing teacher as well. A couple years ago, Bob actually taught me a technique that changed everything about the way I wrote. Bob advised that I start thinking of the antagonist FIRST. Initially, I was resistant. I mean, I wanted to construct my heroine. She was far more fun. But, as I would soon learn…that was backwards thinking.
Construct your antagonist first. Trust me. You will thank me (and Bob ) later.
As I have said in previous posts, there is no story without the antagonist. Period. The story IS the antagonist’s agenda. No Buffalo Bill, no Silence of the Lambs. No Darth Vader, and Skywalker doesn’t have a Death Star to destroy. If Joker was a choir boy, Batman’s life would have no meaning.
Antagonists are the Alpha AND the Omega—the beginning AND the end.
Once we understand the antagonist, narrative structure falls into place with far less effort. The antagonist is responsible for the inciting incident (beginning) and the Big Boss Battle (the end).
When we know our antagonist, it is easier to find a beginning point.
Too many authors have awkward prologues that serve no real purpose. They are just stuck on the front because the new writer wants to “hook” the reader because she intends on spending 50 pages to get going (normally with a lot of back story about the protag’s childhood). Hey, I made the same mistakes when I was new, too. We are here to learn ;).
So there is this awkward prologue slapped on the front to hook the reader. Yeah, um no. Prologues are bad juju. Read why here.
Back to antagonists and structure…
When we understand what the antagonist WANTS, then it is easier to pinpoint where and how his life intersects with our protagonist—also known as the inciting incident.
Normal World—Shows us the protag’s life as it would have remained had the antag never come along to disrupt the protagonist’s life. Normal World grounds us and gives us a chance to become vested in the protag. We need to connect if we are going to spend the next 80-100,000 words caring for this character. Normal World hints that all is not well. It doesn’t hang us over a cliff or a tank of sharks or have us in a hospital weeping over a lost loved one. That is melodrama.
Inciting Incident—Is that event that offers the possibility of change. The protagonist still has to MAKE a choice before we make it to the first major plot point. The inciting incident is that point where the agenda of the antagonist intersects the life of the protagonist.
Normal World–>Inciting Incident–> (Choice) Turning Point into Act One
In screenplays there are three acts, always. In novels, there are four acts. Normal World, Act 1, Act 2, and Act 3.Screenplays generally condense that Normal World so much that it is just part of Act One. In novels, we need time to be vested in the character. Hooking the reader is less about fast action or heart wrenching melodrama and more about presenting a character we like, and who we care about. We connect and we sense trouble, so we worry, and that’s why we stick around.
When we understand the antagonist and his agenda, it is far easier to write great endings.
In Star Wars, we knew Darth’s plan involved the Death Star. Thus, the ending logically would involve the Death Star getting all blowed up, right? In Romancing the Stone, the bad guys kidnapped Joan Wilder’s sister in order to get the jewel. Thus, even if we had never seen the movie, it would be easy to extrapolate that the ending likely involves rescuing a sister and making sure bad guys go to jail and don’t end up with the jewel.
Our beginnings will change a dozen times or more before we make it to the final draft. If you are beginning a book, my advice is that you write out your antagonist’s history. What does he want? Why does he want it? How does he plan on getting what he wants?
Also, remember that the antagonist, in his mind, is not the bad guy. This will help give your antagonist dimension. Antagonists are not always villains. Villains are merely ONE FLAVOR of antagonist.
Remember that the antagonist is the hero in his own story.
Great villains do not believe they are the bad guy. Hannibal Lecter felt he was doing society a service by eating the less desirable members of the species. It is his warped justification for his actions that makes him even more fascinating.
Antagonists are not always wrong; their goals just conflict with the protagonist and disrupt her life and force change.
For instance, the antagonist in Steele Magnolias is the daughter, Shelby. What is her agenda? Have a baby despite having severe, life-threatening diabetes. That is a noble goal that isn’t necessarily wrong. Why does this make Shelby the antagonist? Because, if Shelby had been happy to adopt, then M’Lynn’s (mom-protagonist) life would have remained the same. When we understand Shelby’s plan—have a baby despite life-threatening diabetes—then plotting becomes far easier. At the end, there must be a baby. Whether that baby lives or dies is up to the creator.
Your protagonist will be reacting to the antagonist’s agenda for roughly 75% of your story. It is only in the final act that your protagonist will transition into a hero and will start gaining ground.This is why, when we begin a novel, it makes sense to figure out out ending first. Then, plotting becomes MUCH easier in that we know how and where the story ends. Then plotting is just a matter of getting the protag from point A to point Z.
Some outstanding references to help you guys:
Larry Brooks’ Story Engineering.
James Scott Bell’s Plot and Structure.
Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat.
Bob Mayer’s Novel Writer’s Toolkit
What are some of your favorite movie endings? Some really well-layered antagonists that had you on the edge of your seat? I vote for Law Abiding Citizen. I had a hard time rooting for the protag, and found myself hoping the “bad guy” would win. It was very surreal, but proof-positive that this was a BRILLIANT antagonist that made for a spectacular ending…because his PLAN was just that darn great.
What about you guys? I love hearing your opinions and thoughts.
And to prove it and show my love, for the month of December, everyone who leaves a comment I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. If you leave a comment, and link back to my blog, and mention my book We Are Not Alone in your blog…you get your name in the hat THREE times. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly.
I will pick a winner every week for a critique of your first five pages. At the end of December I will pick a winner for the grand prize. A free critique from me on the first 15 pages of your novel. Good luck!
Winner of 5 Page Critique is Joseph Kurtenbach. Please send your 1250 word Word document to my assistant Gigi. gigi dot salem dot ea at g mail dot com.
Winner of 15 Page Critique is Jennifer Jensen. Please send your 3750 word Word document to my assistant as well.
I also hope you pick up copies of my best-selling books We Are Not Alone–The Writer’s Guide to Social Media and Are You There, Blog? It’s Me, Writer . Both books are ON SALE for $4.99!!!! And both are recommended by the hottest agents and biggest authors in th biz. My methods teach you how to make building your author platform FUN. Build a platform and still have time left to write great books!