Character Driven Improv-Plot OR Pre-Plotted Thematic Story? Which to Use?

This morning as I have been reading The Death of the Necromancer by Martha Wells and drinking coffee, I have been thinking about plot. I think there are a few ways to approach plot and I think for each individual writer they have to find what works for them. This might be why writing advice books are not always the most useful of things.

Let me state up front that plotting stories is not always my strong suit. And because of this I have been putting a fair amount of mental effort into thinking on what creates really good stories and good plots. To my mind there are two basic approaches to creating a story arc or plot. One is to create a character or two and plunk them into a situation and see what happens. In this approach the characters take over and as long as the author can maintain a sense of emotional honesty and integrity about who the characters are and how they would respond, the story does not lose focus with divided points of view. The main character remains the main character because the whole story comes from this character’s reactions.

Another way to create plot would be to take a story idea, create a situation, think through what the author wants to say, and create a character to enact the story. This type of plotting and preplanning can create a story where the author knows ahead of time what the ending will be and where the story is headed and thus avoids the pitfall of not knowing how to end the story. This type of story can be tough though because the characters still need to be thought through and complete. Anything less will lack authenticity.


Sunday Writing Discussions: Mucking Around in the Grey Area

I am behind this weekend in my posting to this blog because I have been working on other writing. I am still working on a couple projects but I decided to take an hour or so and write more thoughts about writing and plot development. I am trying to construct a way of considering the structure and composition of fiction to make the piece more complete as an integrated whole. Some of this falls to how the plot is conceived.

Currently how I am considering a story has different layers.

The first layer has to do in part with what some people would call “world-building” but I think this actually needs to be conceived of more completely. I call this the culture of a story. This includes any description of the exotic setting of a story, but it goes farther. It needs to include the world view or cultural mindset of the milieu being created. For example to make the distinction, the mind set or cultural world view of an Inuit living on a reserve is going to be dramatically different from that of a New Yorker. I once saw an interview with a photographer from New York who discussed how he felt that the world view of people from the American Southwest was dramatically different from the people of New York because people in the Southwest could not avoid seeing the expanse of the sky. This enormity of the sky stretching from horizon to horizon made a difference and he felt people of the Southwest were more in touch with the vastness of the universe. Reality encompasses everything. There is no way to write all of reality. This framing by consciously choosing a “culture of a story” narrows and focuses the fiction at a first level.

The second layer to creating fiction as I am working conceptualizing further narrows things. It is the choice of what I would call a moral system. This moral system may or may not have anything to do with Western Judeo-Christian morality. It is simply the core statement that defines the story one step further. To give an example of what I mean, the moral system of a story might be “crime pays,” “family is important above all else,” or “hard work rewards.” A story about a group of criminals organizing a caper and getting away with it to live in luxury would have the moral system of “crime pays” at its heart. Mario Puzo’s series of books about the Mafia illustrates fiction with the theme of “family is important above all else.” There are many examples of stories and movies that have as their moral system the idea of “hard work rewards.”

The third layer to creating fiction is to create an appropriate main character with a conflict that is central to the story and fits with the culture and the moral system. This is a further focusing of the piece. I will make the distinction that the main character is not necessarily the point of view character, but the main character is the character for whom the conflict must be resolved, whose actions and decisions directly influence the plot sequence, who must be part of the climax through their actions, and whose decisions bring about the resolution.

In creating a plot sequence, opposition is what creates tension. Fiction should not be about standing on a soap box. Opposing elements around a central issue can create opposition for the main character and hence tension in the story. For instance in a simple caper, the master thief cases the museum and sees that the security includes a particular type of alarm. She knows the best person for the job. Ok, but this is too straight forward it needs more opposition. What if that person happens to be her ex-husband who caught her in bed with his best friend? This ups the tension in this simple adventure story. The obstacle to overcome is the sourness of her past relationship.

Another way to increase the tension and bring in opposing elements to give the main character obstacles to their ease of solving their dilemma and finding resolution is to play in the grey areas around an issue. For instance what if a woman suddenly finds herself accidentally pregnant. This is a catalyst for the story. What if the culture of this story is one where abortion is legal but it is frowned upon? What if the moral system of the story is “every individual is responsible for the decisions they make”? What if this main character is from a poor Catholic family? What if the pregnancy is a result of her being date raped and having the child will remind her constantly of the rape and inspire shame? Perhaps she has just been accepted as an intern doctor in a surgical program and this pregnancy will make it so that she cannot do the internship in the highly competitive program she has been admitted to. Maybe she goes to speak to the family priest who tells her that abortion is a sin. What if she finds out that she cannot defer her admittance to the program but can opt for a less high prestige area of specialty? Maybe she talks to her mother who tells her to have an abortion to stay in the program and achieve her dreams because the mother had children before she was able to live out her dreams. Each of these opposing elements that complicate the issue of this woman and her decision to continue the pregnancy or not has the potential to add opposition and tension to the story. The key as a writer is to consider the issue at hand and bring in opposing ideas that explore the grey area of the issue. Sometimes to present a balanced approach, the writer should approach whatever issue they are raising from the opposite of what they believe because this will help in not pulling out a soap box. Ultimately, the resolution will come from the writer’s vision of what they intend to say with the story and what they want to leave the reader thinking about. The resolution must come from the combination of a logical sequence of events that follow in alignment with the intentionally created character and the character’s motivations.

Next time… resolutions and endings.

Sunday Writing Discussion #14: Plotting Part Two

I am working on the chronology and the plot outline for a fantasy novel at the moment. For the last few weeks I have been thinking about issues about plot and what types of elements and structure need to be present to create a good plot.

I want to start this week’s discussion with making the distinction that the chronology of action in a piece of fiction is not necessarily the same as a plot outline. Sometimes the chronology of events that sparks the story starts long before the story itself starts. Sometimes the events of the story are not told chronologically. Often before writing a plot outline it is useful to write out the sequence of events in the chronological order that they happen because this can help with making sure everything fits logically.

As an example in the movie D.O.A. the point of view character comes into the police station and reports a murder. The police asks who has been murdered and the point of view character says that he has. The story then comes out that he has been poisoned, he didn’t know at first and went to the hospital. At the hospital he was diagnosed and told he had three days to live. This gave him three days to find who poisoned him and why. The story is not told chronologically. The riddle of the plot is filled with more tension because it starts with the surprise at the beginning of the protagonist reporting his own murder.

Sometimes in fiction there are actions that happen far prior to the immediate story that are part of the background to the story. As an example, Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet actually starts much sooner than Romeo out carousing with his clansmen, seeing Juliet, and falling in love. It starts with whichever of his and her ancestors originated the feud that is the backdrop to the story. This original fight doesn’t have to be included in the fictional work but knowledge of it informs the piece. It helps to set ecology and the “moral” system of the story. It gives the play an orienting starting point.

Every culture has its own moral system that often is very subtle and people who are living in the culture take it for granted. As writers we have to be very conscious not only of the cultural moral system that we live in, but also the one that we create in a work of fiction. Fiction is one of the ways that morality– what is seen as appropriate or inappropriate behavior– is conveyed. The Iliad is not just about the Trojan War. It is not a chronological presentation of the history of events of that time period. It is an exploration of what it means to be a hero. It explores this through the juxtaposition of Achilles and Hector. It uses the actions of Achilles to demonstrate his character and point up the fault of pride.

Creating a moral system in a piece of fiction does not mean standing on a soap box and getting preachy. If a writer wants to do that, I would say to them go write a persuasive essay. Fiction is meant to entertain. Encountering someone standing on a soap box and preaching for most folks is a real turn off.

Creating a moral system further does not mean that the writer has to reflect the main cultural point of view that they come from. The creation of a moral system is a way to frame what the author wants to talk about and explore. For example, a writer could create a story of success where the main character is a good Joe. The character works hard and illustrates through his actions that he is honest, hard-working, and perseveres. Maybe the tension in the story comes from another worker who is his competition/opposition who is also trying to get the promotion. The moral system of this story is that hard-work pays off and if a person perseveres and goes that extra mile, he will be rewarded.

Not all fiction has to come from this rather mainstream moral system. As an example look at The Godfather. The chronology of The Godfather goes farther back than the story. The moral system starts in Sicily with the strong sense of family. Family is all-important. Even if the family is involved in crime that doesn’t matter. What matters is the bonds between the family members.

The moral system of a piece of fiction could be anything the author wants to create. It could be the exact reverse of “if you work hard, you will be rewarded.” It could be “crime pays.” Perhaps it is about a group of criminals who shun regular society and are very successful at stealing and live well. The Italian Job and Ocean’s Eleven spring to mind.

So if the writer has a chronology and they have identified the moral system that will frame their story, the next part of plotting to figure out is how to highlight and play with that moral system. The movements of the story and the actions of the characters must illustrate this moral system. Again it cannot be a bit of grandstanding. No soap boxes. The ending will however be where the writer tips their hand and tells which side of the moral system they fall on and the moral system will ultimately be revealed.

But this has to come from the murky, grey area. Remember stories come from conflict and tension. So… next discussion: Stories From The Grey Area

Sunday Writing Discussion #13: Plotting Part One– Plot Development versus Incidental Action

The concept of plot is really a pretty simple one. It is the sequence of events in a story that starts at the beginning with the introduction of a conflict, revs up as the tension mounts, is addressed during the climax, and then resolves. For whatever reason, in my opinion, the element of fiction that is the source of many writers failing to achieve their intentions is plot. Plot can be made formulaic as in something like Lester Dent’s well known plot formula, but even with this plot formula as a guideline many writers still cannot write a piece of fiction that is a satisfying read.

Plot formulas aside, there are some basic aspects that need to be included in a plot to make a piece of fiction work. Some of these may be self-evident and some are not as simple as they sound. I think plots need the following:

1. tension/conflict that sparks plot
2. real opposition that cranks up tension– the difference between plot development and incidental action
3. change of some sort needs to be the point of any piece of fiction
4. include only material that is important and relevant to advancing the plot
5. make the “causal look casual”
6. leave out divine intervention or too easy resolutions that feel like a cheat to readers
7. make sure that the main character is actively at the center of the resolution of the conflict during the climax

I think what might happen quite often when novice writers sit down to write is that they haven’t really put enough thought into what they are going to write. The writer gets an idea for a story or character and sets off full tilt. It is fun to write some scenes! And then those scenes have to get wrangled into something resembling a whole. And then an ending needs to pop onto the page. Etc. The whole composition is not so much an intentional piece as a bunch of bits thrown together mish-mash and trying to take on the semblance of a story. Some folks can do this and make it all work by revising and revising and rewriting and rewriting. Others can’t. Further, beginning writers are notorious for not being able to view their work with a critical eye or to be able to take criticism.

Writing is fun! And it takes pushing oneself to further understand how good fiction comes together, requires thought to figure out how to use one’s understanding of how good fiction is assembled, and one must make make some very determined choices in order to write a piece that comes together as a whole and be able to do this consistently. A half way decent story should not be a happy accident.

Today I have spent all afternoon assembling a quilt (metaphor for pulling together a plot?) and thinking about the difference between plot development and incidental action. In a short story, only action that integrally moves a story forward towards its climax and resolution should be included. Incidental action needs to be left out. What’s the difference?

For example, if a story is about a boy whose village is raided by a violent warlord this might provide an initial spark of conflict, but it is only a conflict of the moment. There needs to be more. It isn’t enough to advance the story forward solely on this one plot point of action. However, if the boy’s village is destroyed, he is left behind because he is too scrawny to even be made a slave, this sparks him to take on the challenge of turning his scrawniness into some form of physical fighting ability, he finds a mentor and learns martial arts, discovers he has talent but cannot advance to the next level until he can become focused, overcomes his internal conflicts caused by the violent warlord so that he can be focused, and proves himself in some action against the warlord– well then the action of the warlord destroying the village moves from incidental action to action of the plot development sort. The character is challenged at every plot point by the sequential action. And there is character change! Woohoo!

For another example, a character just walking through a door with a gun because the story is flagging and needs to be livened up is incidental action. It sparks something in the moment, but unless it is integral to the plot no matter how sensational the action is it isn’t going to add to the tension in any real way or advance the plot. It actually detracts and erodes the tension by pulling attention in too many directions. The same goes for a seductive female character, well described and cool sounding alien, or that something that “suddenly” appears wandering through.

Conflict at the start of a story may be of the incidental type, but it needs to lead to a deeper conflict that is more integral to the main character of the story. To write a story that will hold together and be satisfying as a piece of dramatic fiction, the action and subsequent tension must not remain at surface level. The action needs to reflect a deeper conflict that the character needs to resolve and cause change or be changed by. The mounting tension needs to be as a result of investigating the character of the point of view character going through the plot crisis. Incidental action does not do this and if a story is a series of incidental bits of action, it will feel like it is lurching from scene to scene and any character change presented will feel contrived. It’s not enough to have action that sets a story in motion, the action must continually test the character and move towards the resolution.

This is just one part of thinking about plot. I have thoughts on some of the other aspects of plot, how plot, character, and theme have to work together, and how creating background information can possibly provide a map of the story terrain to develop plot. More next week!

Sunday Writing Discussion #12: Critiques and Beta Readers

It is important to get feedback on one’s art or writing. When I was an undergraduate I spent two years in art school. I studied all the basics and focused on textiles. I participated in many art critiques. One of my professors was very hard core. Her critiques included all her students ranging from first years through graduate students. She was notorious for sending students out of the room crying because her critiques were so brutal. I had a work study job as the lab assistant to this professor, I asked her why she was so blunt in her critiques. She told me that she did it intentionally. Her rationale included many points: 1. once an artist puts their work out to the public, anyone can say anything and the artist needs to be toughened to take it; 2. art is a craft and the artist needs to have distance from their art and not perceive criticism as a critique of themselves; and 3. an uncouched, direct, and honest critique of one’s work is not always available– it is a luxury and it needs to not be misinterpreted. She believed that artists need to know what was what in order to learn what they were doing wrong in order to improve.

A several years ago I returned to doing artwork and took classes in 2 dimensional and 3 dimensional design, drawing, color, and a survey course. One of my instructors I admired greatly. Her approach was very different and very gentle. She allowed work to be redone after a critique to improve one’s grade in order that the student could learn from the feedback that they had been given. She spoke about how artists needed to both develop their own intuition, their inner critic, that could guide them in the production of their work and to have trusted people that could give them honest feedback. She believed that people needed to hear what they were doing correct in their compositions initially so that they could build confidence and knowledge and as they advanced in their artistic studies they needed to refine their knowledge and learn more about what needed to improve. All of this was to gradually build one’s inner critic because being an artist is a solo endeavor. But she always maintained that having someone else who could give feedback was an essential.

Writing is also primarily a solo endeavor. The writer writes their manuscript on their own. It is quite easy to become taken with one’s words and not be able to evaluate easily if one has accomplished the writing goals that one set out to initially accomplish. I have been reading Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne and Dave King. It is a useful book. In the book the first thing that the authors mentioned is that time helps writers to gain some distant from their writing that will help them to edit their work. They say that this is one of the most helpful things a writer can do for themselves. The book goes on to talk about various aspects of fiction writing and gives checklists of things to consider and be aware of to improve one’s writing. The book is partially a manual to help writers to develop their inner critic that they can trust to guide their writing.

Two other things can help writers to develop their own inner critic and the trust to listen to its guidance. One is simply to practice, practice, practice. It is an old adage that the first million words a writer will write are garbage. This isn’t an adage that I entirely buy into because I think writing rules always have exceptions. Further, I am a teacher and people learn at different rates and in different ways. Some writers may need to write that million words. Others may not because they can read and analyze literature and think of how to apply writing techniques, they can learn faster from their own writing, they may have an innate genius like Harper Lee, etc. But the essence of the advice I think is sound. The more one writes, the better they typically get.

The other thing that can help writers to improve is receiving critiques from beta readers. I have received hundreds of critiques on my work at this point. Not all beta readers are equal. Sometimes it takes either getting many critiques from many beta readers and interpreting what themes come out of all the critiques OR having a few very trusted people who understand one’s writing and can provide useful critiques.

When one is interpreting critiques, it is important to look across the themes of what comes up in those critiques. Very often critiques are provided by other novice writers who do not entirely know what to say about a piece of writing but they are reacting to certain parts. Also, most people do not want to risk offending a person that they are critiquing for and they will often tone down what they are saying or phrase things euphemistically. This means that the writer needs to in some ways decipher what the critiquer has said. For instance, a critiquer might say that they loved a particular character and that the short story felt like part of something larger. On the surface this comes across as a compliment. It doesn’t help the writer who needs honest feedback to improve their writing. This kind of statement needs to be thought about because the critiquer was giving feedback on a short story and what they are expressing is that the story in its current form did not work for them. It might not be that expanding the short story into a novella or novel is appropriate or would be good storytelling. It might be that the character was compelling, but the pacing of the story was off and it did not hit the plot points strong enough to provide a satisfying ending to the story. It might be that the story had an interesting central character but there were too many other elements crammed into the story, it lurched from scene to scene, and then rushed to an ending. That comment that it felt like part of something larger could apply to many different scenarios.

If a critiquer comments that a scene or line really stood out and was well-written, this might not be a compliment to be taken at face value. The writing should not stand out above the fabric of the story as whole. One dynamic scene in a story that gets compliments from critiquers is just that. It does not make for a good overall short story. Same with that one beautifully turned phrase.

Even straight forward comments in a critique need to be thought through. For instance a beta reader might say that they didn’t believe a character would act in a certain way. The character might act in that way, but the writer might have failed to effectively tell the story and “sell” why the character would do that particular action. The character’s motivation may not be apparent. The problem might be with characterization, the described action from a previous scene, or a slight logic problem in the world building. It’s up to the writer to think through what went awry and rewrite the story to make it work.

Beta readers or critiquers that one knows and trusts to be honest and thorough take time to find. If an author is asking for their feedback, it is important to honor what they have to say by contemplating on it. It is still the writer’s decision and responsibility about where to take their writing or how to rewrite a particular piece. If the writer is getting defensive or making statements that the critiquers don’t understand their work or are just being mean, that writer should probably think about why they had people read their work in the first place. Was it to get compliments or to get feedback so that they could improve their writing?

Very few of us start doing art work and produce gilded masterpieces. Very few of us write prose that is magical straight off. Few of us are “special” in that we can skip developing whatever talent we have and go to instant success. Feedback is important. It helps not only with the piece that one is currently working on but also to help develop one’s sensibilities and ability to evaluate one’s own work.

Thursday Writing Prompts: A Few Questions to Consider in World Building

I was thinking about an exercise that I once had to do for a cultural anthropology class. Our assignment was to take an ordinary object (like a paperclip, hair tie, or empty thread spool) and pretend that it was 3000 years in the future and we had no idea what the object might be for. We were to create a scenario for the use of the objet and tell its cultural significance. So if a site had hundreds of paperclips, what might be made of this? Were the paperclips a type of currency? A symbol with some sort of religious significance?

I also recently read an article by Michael Moorcock where he described having a kind of pre-created bank of fantasy items that could populate his stories and give them everyday realism. Today’s writing prompt is an exercise to do just that. Here are some questions to consider to help build a realistic fantasy/science fiction world:

1. Look around your bedroom. What would have not been present in the room 200 years ago? What forms of technology are present in the room? What do they do? How might those pieces of technology move forward and become changed/advanced? Technology having to do with transportation, communications, and information storage have changed dramatically in the last two hundred years. How might these change over the next two hundred years? What about medical technology? Might it become more independent and less dependent on the oversight of doctors? More oriented towards people taking care of their own health? What might it look like?

2. What might ordinary things like pencils, clothing hangers, books, a printer, a bed, a table, a chair, or headphones look like in a future setting? How could they be transformed?

3. What materials might clothing be made of?

4. What might an ordinary citizen in your created world have in their pockets? What routine objects might they use through out the course of a day?

5. Mobile smart phones are almost indispensable at this point in history. Seven years ago almost no one had even heard of them. Think of some gadget/device that might be indispensable in the world and time period of the fictional setting you are creating. What does it do? Why is it indispensable?

6. What does the food look like? What kinds of things do your characters eat in a day?

In thinking about these questions, go beyond your first thoughts. First thoughts are usually obvious thoughts that have been seen/read/stated previously. Delve deeper and explore creating the rationale behind the setting and objects that you create. Make it seem as real as possible.

Writing is cool because we get to be wizards of words and make realities! Have fun creating!

Sunday Writing Discussion #10: Choosing the Right Point of View

Composing a work of fiction requires a dizzying number of choices. But it is also cool. The writer has total control and responsibility for the entire composition. A basic idea needs to be expanded into a plot sequence, characters must be created to tell the desired story in the best way possible, the setting needs to enhance the overall story, the conflict needs to make everything vibrate with tension, and the tone and theme must create subtle waves that move along the reader’s neural paths to stimulate further thought. So many things to consider. A basic aspect of writing a short story or novel is figuring out the right character to tell the story through and the right point of view to tell the story in.

We all derive our identity through the stories of ourselves. When we tell a personal anecdote to someone else we tell it in the first person point of view. For example:

“When we found our campsite, I pulled the car onto the paved pad. There was only a small clearing for me to set up the tent. The picnic table was near the fire ring. Everything was lush and green. I was so tired but I had to get the tent set up before I could make dinner and go to sleep.”

The first-person point of view expresses the personal point of view of the speaker or author. The pronouns used are I, me, mine, we, us, and our.

Often when people first undergo the metamorphosis into writers, they use the first person point of view. Their stories tend to be fantasies or “movies of the mind” that they transcribe. This is a great place to begin, but as a writer practices and advances their skills they begin to get a feel for all the artistic decisions that go into a composition. The more they write, the more aspects of writing they become aware of and how this influences who will be their point of view character and which point of view should be used.

Initially it is not unexpected that beginning writers create characters who are too powerful, too strong, and too much of a fantasy. These kinds of characters are called Mary Sues. A Mary Sue is a fictional character with overly idealized and hackneyed mannerisms, who lacking any real flaws, and primarily functions as a wish-fulfilment fantasy for the author or readers. Mary Sues are usually thought of as characters whose positive aspects overwhelm their other traits. They don’t come off as authentic because they feel so one-dimensional. Often these characters kind of overwhelm the stories that they are placed in and subjugate the story to the character. The story must always come first. It is important to think through during the development of a story which characters might be likely to be in that setting, which of those characters might be best positioned to see the action of the story, what the psychological makeup and history of the point of view character might be that could best see and interpret the action of the story in a meaningful way, and what kind of character would be the one that readers could relate to most strongly. Sometimes it is necessary to keep adjusting the characters until the composition feels right. This is one of the really cool parts about writing because as authors we can do this.

Once the writer has a feel for which characters to use, they have to decide what point of view to tell the story in.

First person point of view is the second most prevalent point of view used in fiction. It traditionally is thought of as being more intimate and personal. J.D. Salinger used the first person point of view in his novel The Catcher in the Rye in this very traditional sense and fearless portrayed Holden Caufield in such a way that the book is beloved by many. Holden Caulfield is so authentic within the pages of the book that his story is a example of a coming of age, identity finding story.

This very personal type of story is not the only type of story that can be told through a first person point of view. If a writer thinks about the intimacy that can be established via the first person point of view, consciously uses the strengths of this point of view, and is creative, they can reinforce their themes in unexpected ways. Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita is also written in the first person point of view. In this case the story is about Humbert Humbert who becomes obsessed with Dolores Haze. She is twelve years old and when she becomes his stepdaughter, they have a sexual relationship. The first person point of view is disturbing and distancing rather than producing intimacy. Further, the narrator is an unreliable narrator and this compels the reader to analyze his words and be drawn further into the book. The first person point of view is used to brilliant effect to create ambiguities that make the book compelling.

There are limitations to think about before using the first person point of view. If a writer uses the first person point of view the natural expectation that most readers bring to this point of view is that the story is being told by a knowledgeable narrator who is past the events and relaying them after the fact. After years of conversation in which anecdotes are told in this manner, readers will bring this expectation to the text and the author either has to remain within the parameters of this context or clearly and strongly with intent and rationale deviate from this. First person perspective is also difficult in that the story is told from the point of view of only one character who cannot see everything that might influence the story and the narration must stay “in character” to maintain the illusion of the fiction. First person point of view is not as easy to create well crafted fiction in as one might first think.

Third person point of view is the most commonly used point of view. In the third-person point of view material is expressed from the point of view of a detached writer or characters within the story. Third-person pronouns include he, she, him, her, his, hers, they, them, their, and theirs. The third person point of view can be either a limited or omniscient point of view. A limited third person point of view follows the point of view of one character much like a camera on that character’s shoulder. The narrator reports the facts and interprets events from the perspective of the chosen single character. An omniscient third person point of view uses an all-knowing narrator who not only reports the facts but may also interpret events and relate the thoughts and feelings of any character.

The third person point of view is the most flexible point of view to write a piece of fiction in. Limited third person can be quite intimate and personal and allow the reader glimpses into the personality of the narrating character. If the third person limited point of view is chosen, it is very important to chose the most advantageous character to tell the story. The story will not be as intimate as if the story were told from first person point of view and this often implies a slightly less emphasis of characterizations to drive the story. The story may still be character driven but there will be more external action driving the plot rather than internal dialogue. As stated previously, the author needs to pick the right character. The narration still needs to stay within the characterization of that character also. For instance, if the story is about medieval times the limited third person narrator would not compare the speed of an arrow to a airplane because they would not know about airplanes.

Second person point of view is rarely used in fiction. It is used in letters, speeches, and directions. Second-person pronouns include you, your, and yours, and material expressed in the second-person point of view directly addresses the listener or reader.

If for some reason a story feels stuck, sometimes it is a useful exercise to either switch the point of view being used or tell the story from the point of view of a different character within the story. This can jog things and give insights that might help to move the story forward. Also just because a particular character was initially chosen to tell the story or the story started in first person point of view, does not mean that it has to stay the way it was begun. It might be a daunting prospect to completely rewrite a story, but this might be the action that makes the story better.

So many choices to craft a story, so many things to consider, so many bits to the overall composition! It is exhilarating! Have fun writing!

Sunday Writing Discussion #7: Conflict– The Fuel of Fiction

Stories need certain elements in them to make them complete. A story must have characters, a setting, a plot, central ideas or a theme, and conflict. If there are characters, but nothing else, it isn’t really a story. It might be a character sketch. A plot without conflict is boring.

Conflicts can be of two main types– internal conflicts or external conflicts. Internal conflicts are conflicts that occur in the psyche of one of the characters. It could be something like wrestling with the guilt of murdering another person as in Dostoyevsky’s novel Crime and Punishment. External conflicts occur outside of the mind of a character. External conflicts can be a disagreement between two characters, a struggle against a situation, a fight against an organization, etc.

Often in stories there both of these two types of conflict and they are intertwined. There is a conflict that is internal to the main character and an external conflict that the main character is caught up in. To give you an example, in the Iliad Achilles’ internal conflict was whether or not to give his allegiance to Agamemnon and to fight in the Trojan War. If he fought in the war he would achieve glory, which was what he wanted, but he would die. If he avoided the war, he would never achieve fame but he would be happy and live a long life. The internal conflict erupted into external disagreements with Agamemnon that resulted in Patroclus donning Achilles’ armor and being killed. The conflict then evolved into an external conflict with Hector that was central to the war and Achilles’ fame was achieved as well as his eventual death as prophesied. His internal conflict was resolved with a meshing of interests with the external conflict of the story. This kind of intertwining of conflicts is desirable because it illustrates characters’ motivations and resulting actions that move the plot forward.

There are types of conflict problems that can arise in stories. A problem can be something like the characters involvement with the conflict doesn’t seem logical, but this is really more a problem with the characterization of the characters. Typically stories are lackluster if there is just not enough conflict. Sometimes when an author is creating a story they begin to like the characters that they have created. The author writes the quintessential sympathetic character and begins to have empathy for their creation. But this does not work! If the conflict is just plain old lame and has a really easy resolution that leaves readers wondering why the main character didn’t just figure this out right away and not put themselves through the drama, the fiction falls flat. Writing fiction means that you really have to put the screws to your character and when things get bad for your main character, you have to make them worse. A formula in regards to plot and conflict for a three act story is as follows:
1. the characters and conflict are introduced and the plot gets slightly worse (hopefully because of the actions of the main character);
2. the main character tries to problem solve and resolve their conflict and things get even worse;
3. the main character again works to problem solve the conflict, things get very dark and even more terrible, and the climax occurs;
4. the conflict is resolved.

There is no room for easing off the tension!

Another type of conflict problem has to do with the intensity of the central conflicts as well. The second type of intensity conflict problem is the insurmountable, overwhelming conflict. A challenging conflict is a good thing. It should be a challenge and worthy of writing a story about, but if it is too insurmountable it often leads to an ending that is flat because the writer has to resort to fiction magic, i.e. deus ex machina. This is infuriating for many readers.

Another type of conflict to be wary of while writing fiction is “Issues” with a capital “I.” Issues are big problems that the characters encounter such as drug addiction, domestic violence, rape, and incest. Yes, these are big conflicts and worthy of stories, but if an author is going to take one of these issues and make it part of their story, the issue should not be incidental. These issues are not good things to play with lightly in the hope of making a character’s motivations immediately understood or to make the character sympathetic. If you are going to write about one of these issues, know what you are talking about and give it the serious treatment that it deserves. Do not use these issues in an attempt to elevate your fiction, the only things that will improve your fiction is thought and good writing. Using these types of serious issues simply for dramatic effect and not giving them the respect they deserve actual cheapens your writing and makes the faults jump out.

How can you fuel the fire of your story and turn up the heat? Conflict! Use it well!

“Show, Don’t Tell”– Is this a rule to always follow? Part 2

There are as I explained in the previous post benefits to showing and not telling– primarily it makes the writing more vivid for readers and they can immerse themselves in your writing. There are reasons that this writing mantra is still alive and well.

Now I am going to go out on a limb.

Rules are made to be broken. Especially writing rules.

However, in my opinion if you are going to break a time honored rule such as “show, don’t tell,” it needs to be well-considered and serve to communicate better what you are trying to communicate in your piece of writing than if you were to follow the rule. I am not going to be able to give you a concrete set of laws for when it is good to break the “show, don’t tell” rule. Since we are going all piratey, I will give you a few guidelines for consideration.

1. As a general rule in your fictional work you want to write the most words for the aspects of your piece that relay your theme or are of greater importance. You will want to show key relationships, plot action, etc. Sometimes in the writing there are aspects such as really inconsequential background or setting elements that can be told or even left out entirely. Fiction that reads quickly without stumbles is easier for readers to get into. If you pull out every dollar adjective from your thesaurus and describe every tidbit of the setting, it gets tedious and you will lose readers. In this instance sometimes it is better to just summarize and move on.

2. If you have been doing a good job of writing descriptively and you have a bomb to drop in your fiction, just telling it can work to dramatic effect. For instance when the old lady detective finally announces who the killer is she says it in one succinct sentence that lands like a stone dropped in a pool.

3. Consider what point of view you are using and who the point of view character is. Sometimes it is better to fully illustrate a relationship with dialogue or capture the feelings and reactions of your point of view character. Sometimes it might work better and flesh out your point of view character if you are selective about what they notice (“show” those things) and what they don’t notice (tell those things). Ask yourself while you are writing if your character would just “tell” about various things.

4. When you want to be intentionally vague, tell. But use this with caution because overuse of being vague is frustrating to readers after awhile. I always think of the television show Lost. In my opinion the writers on that show would toss in various elements and leave things mysterious and vague. After awhile I grew frustrated with the show because it kind of felt like a constant tease and I began to wonder if they really knew where they were taking the series. Being too vague too much creates this kind of feeling.

These are just a few times when telling might be the better way to go. You should never, never, never, ever make excuses for why you are just “telling” a part of your story, but if you have considered what you are doing and think that it will make the composition better than by all means “tell.”

Keep in mind that too much telling will pull readers out of the story and break the context. For instance, information dumps are great big instances of tell. I have critiqued many stories and novels by novice writers and when I point out that their info dump actually pulls away from the plot of their story, they will argue to justify the inclusion of the information dump. Often their arguments and excuses are to the effect of “it’s important that readers know this so they’ll understand the character,” “it’s part of the world building,” “the readers have to this history,” etc. None of these arguments is a good reason to have a paragraph or more of straight out telling information. It may be good information that will help the writer to write the story if they have it clarified in their mind, but in should not be included in the story so blatantly. If you find yourself thinking along these lines an alarm should sound in your head and you should hear Robbie the Robot’s metalic drone repeating over and over again “Danger Will Robinson.”

So should the rule “show, don’t tell” always be followed? I will let you decide because this is one rule that requires thought and intention to follow or not follow.

Sunday Writing Discussion #6: “Show, Don’t Tell”– Is this a rule to always follow?

Anyone who has ever written a college composition or has submitted a piece of fiction for critique has been told that they must use specific details and “show, don’t tell” what they mean. In an argumentative or literary essay this means supporting one’s points with specific statistics, described examples, or direct quotes from the literary work being written about. This writing “rule” is important so that the intended audience understands specifically what the writer is trying to convey with their words. Unfortunately I think very often because the rule has become so cliche, it is not explained. New writers get left scratching their head in dismay and wondering what they are supposed to do to improve their writing because after all aren’t we storyTELLERS?

To start, for tonight, I am going to talk about what “show, don’t tell” means and how to do it. Tomorrow I will talk about further considerations because there are times when you need to simply “tell.” You cannot break a rule if you do not know the rationale behind the rule and have not thought out when might be a good time to break the rules. And you betcha rules are made to be broken. Even hard and fast, uttered-on-the-wind-like-sacred-mantras rules of writing.

Showing and not telling is a kind of short hand way of saying “don’t sum things up.” If you are writing a piece of fiction, you want whoever is reading your fiction to experience what your characters are feeling, seeing, hearing, etc. You want the readers to be able to immerse themselves in the experience of your story.

For example, one could write the following:
Andy was at the bookstore looking at books. A woman tapped his arm and asked for a book recommendation. He looked at her and told her a few titles.

That’s a pretty unexciting account of Andy at the bookstore. Now I am going to spice it up a bit with some “showing:”
The new Eric Flint novel had just come out, Andy held his copy close to his side. Looking for an Alistair Reynolds’ novel he hadn’t already read, he squatted and tilted his head to the side to read the titles on the spine of the books. He felt a gentle tap on his shoulder and heard a hesitant, “Excuse me. Do you work here?”

Turning his head, Andy admired the shapely legs that stood beside him. His eyes traveled upward to see a smiling face framed by wavy light brown hair. Her eyelashes were dark and long. Andy’s heart pattered as he thought that her rose colored lips were softly sensuous. He blushed noticing that he was wondering what it would be like to kiss those lips and he didn’t even know her name. He stammered, “Um, no, but there is never anyone around. Can I help you find a book?”

The woman’s smiled widened.

Andy realized he was still squatting and his feet were beginning to fall asleep. He stood up and wished that he had worn a shirt other than his Futurama shirt. He asked, “What are you looking for?”

She said, “Maybe I should find a clerk.”

“No, I am sure I can help you. I am in here almost every other day. What are you looking for?”

“I have this class in genre fiction and I have to read a science fiction novel. I never read this stuff. It all seems kind of weird. Do you have any recommendations?”

Weird! Andy’s mind raced. How could she say science fiction was weird? He responded, “There are many excellent novels.” Andy listed a dozen science fiction titles, what they were about, and each novel’s virtues. Then he said, ” By the way, my name is Andy. Would you like to get coffee? I can look at your syllabus and help you with your assignment.”

The woman blushed, offered her hand to shake, and said, “Hi, my name is Rachel. It sounds like you like science fiction. Sorry I said it was weird. I have never really read any. I am not into stuff with aliens. It might help if you looked at my assignment because you know quite a bit about this and I am not sure what I am supposed to read and write my essay about.”

The first version didn’t really get a feel for the exchange between the two characters. It didn’t give details. The second exchange was more descriptive and offered some insights into how Andy was feeling as he began talking to Rachel. The female character in the first version could have been an older woman looking for a book to buy for her grandson. Andy could have been a chef looking at cookbooks. The first version left out a great deal. It was incomplete. It was a summary. Showing and not simply telling means offering readers vivid descriptive prose. So how does one do that?

1. Be Specific About What You Are Writing About Instead of Vague
If you write something like “June thought it was the best day of her life,” that does not really say much to a reader. It is too vague. The reader does not know the whole of the character June’s life nor how to rank the days. If you take the time and sort out the best way to relay why the day was the best of June’s life, or whatever you are writing about, it will be more meaningful. Describing the specific feelings and sensations, giving a context for what you are trying to get across, and filling in the pertinent details will convey what your mean. For example:
June opened the door. The house was very quiet. She could hear the ticking of the clock on the mantel.

She sighed. No one had remembered her birthday all day. It was always like this. The last time anyone had remembered her birthday she had been eight years old and Grandma Mimi had brought her a Madame Alexander doll.

She set her purse on the stand by the door and kicked off her shoes. She would go and change her clothes and maybe microwave a frozen dinner. She turned down the hall and Leslie, Peter, Jonah, Margaret, Mark, and half a dozen other friends yelled, “Surprise!” June blushed and smiled. They began to sing “Happy Birthday!” Susan hugged June’s shoulders and lead her into the dining room. There was a cake with pink roses and curly writing that read “Happy Birthday June!”

June began to cry when she saw the stack of presents on the end of the table. Margaret hugged her and kissed her on the cheek. June stammered, “I thought no one knew it was my birthday.”

Margaret asked, “Oh honey, why are you crying?”

June sniffled and said, “I am crying because I am so overwhelmed and no one has ever done anything like this for me.”

Margaret gave her a squeeze and said, “June you do so much for all of us and we love you. We wanted to make sure that you knew how much we appreciate you.”

2. Use Dialogue
Dialogue is a way to allow your readers to be involved with the characters more directly. If you write “Tony’s mother was angry.” that does not say much. But you can use an exchange of dialogue between the two characters and it will offer more insight into their relationship. Here’s an example:

Tony gently opened the door and peered into the space of the kitchen by the sink. His mother didn’t seem to be in the kitchen waiting up for him. She must have gone to bed. Maybe if he was quiet he could sneak in and she would never know. The sky was just beginning to lighten with the dawn. Tony tip-toed into the room and shut the door. He turned and there sat his mother at the kitchen table. She wore her heavy terry cloth robe. A mug of coffee was gripped between her two hands. “Where have you been? she demanded.

“Well, me and the guys, we went out to the quarry. Joey was playing his stereo in his car and he ran the battery down.”

“That tells me about Joey and that he doesn’t know not to play the stereo in the car all night, but what about you?”

Tony looked at the black and white tiled floor. He shuffled his feet. “Ma, I couldn’t leave him out there.”

“And none of you have mobile phones? You couldn’t call? I have been worried sick. I thought I would get a call from the police telling me you had been drinking and had an accident or something! I don’t know whether to be relieved that you are alive or chew you out for being so inconsiderate to your old mother. Is it too much to ask that you come home at a decent time and let me know where you are?” she yelled.

“Mom, I am twenty-five years old. You gotta know that sometimes I am going to stay out.”

“Not if you are going to live under my roof,” she shouted. “You barely contribute anything to the rent or electricity or anything. You got it good. It’s not too much to ask that you don’t slink in like a stray cat at 5 in the morning.”

The dialogue in the second version illustrates that Tony’s mother was angry and it also gives a glimpse into the nature of the relationship between them.

3. Use Sensory Language
If you write “Aidan was attractive.” that does not convey much. Sensory language can be used to give the reader a more sensory response. For example:

Sally tilted her head up and looked at Aidan. He smiled at her and she felt the room spin. His dark wavy hair was full and sleek, she imagined that it felt soft as silk. They were close enough that the heat that radiated from him, warmed her. He smelled like the woods, earthy and clean. In his brown eyes, years were marked like the rings of a tree. His rich deep voice resonated with something deep inside of her and she barely understood that he had said, “I could take you home.”

4. Just Plain Old Write Descriptively

Sure you can write “Mai Lin held the violin.” It tells some basic information and could be part of a larger story. But you could say more by writing that sentence more descriptively. For example:

With furled brow, Mai Lin’s eyes were closed in relaxed concentration. Her fingers massaged the strings of the violin with rapid movement. Her lips were slightly parted, the violin kissed her beneath her chin, and her bow made the notes sing with a clear resonance. Mai Lin wanted to cry out in her ecstasy, but contained her delight in the music that they made together.

In the second version Mai Lin still held the violin but the statement was not so simple. A sense of the importance of her relationship to the instrument was revealed. Descriptive writing can accomplish this.

For practice, write a singular summative statement such as:
John disliked Charlene’s car.
Amanda felt sad.
Dolly moved the chair.
Or any that you can come up with.

Then take that simple statement and rather than summarizing, flesh it out. Show what you want to illustrate with your words.

Tomorrow evening I will write more about “show, don’t tell.” Specifically when it might not be the best technique to include in your writing.