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Story Telling — or Just Telling

What do all these opening lines have in common?

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife. —Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice (1813)

Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. —Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina (1877)

It was a wrong number that started it, the telephone ringing three times in the dead of night, and the voice on the other end asking for someone he was not. —Paul Auster, City of Glass (1985)

The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel. —William Gibson, Neuromancer (1984)

They’re all telling more than showing the reader anything. They also happen to intrigue the reader, show off the author’s voice, and be really compelling openings to strong books. So why does telling–the narrative voice–have such a bad rap?

Show and TellI think because it’s usually badly done.

These telling lines I’ve listed are all strong writing. The prose is clean. The authors clearly have something to say. I think a big reason why more writers are not told to “tell, don’t show” is because this would be viewed by many as an excuse for bad writing.

Strong narrative takes a lot of work. It takes revisions and edits and also it takes a strong voice–if you don’t have anything to say then telling can quickly become the written blah, blah, blah.

The second reason why I think the advice is usually “show, don’t tell” is that a lot of writers apply too much telling to emotional scenes. This is where the reader generally wants the writer to get out of the way–the reader wants to be with the characters. So in strong scenes, too much telling is like standing in front of the TV screen when the big love scene or action scene is taking place–you’re getting in the way.

I keep telling folks the advice should be “show more in your scenes and tell better in set ups and transitions” but that’s pretty wordy. But the world would have a lot more good books if folks listened to that advice.

NOTE: Show and Tell my book on stronger showing and better telling is available on Amazon.com.

 

Character Motivations

writingblindOne of the biggest thing that readers need is to related to and understand your characters. If a character does something–particularly something out of character–the reader needs to understand why the character takes this action.

Why does the reader need to understand your characters?

1-Understaning means a stronger ability to relate to that character. Think about a character such as Dexter who is a serial killer. He is also the hero of his own TV series. How can he be a hero? He can be because a) the viewer understands him by getting insights to him (that’s why he narrates the episodes) and b) he kill only people worse than him. The understanding of WHY he does what he does is vital to making that character work because the viewer can relate to this killer. He’d be a harder sell to anyone if he acted without clear motivations.

2-Understand means a stronger ability to find the actions plausible. Yes, smart people do dumb things. But when smart fictional character do dumb things a reader tends to think that character is dumb. Fictional characters have to be more consistent that real people. This means if a smart character does something dumb the reasons for that dumb action have to be understood by the reader so the action seems plausible. At the very least think about making your characters self-aware enough that they know they’re doing something stupid–but they’re going to do it anyway because they’re desperate or angry or frustrated.

3-Understanding means a stronger chance of making that character likeable. We tend to cut our close friends and close family members more slack. If a reader doesn’t understand a character, the reader is distanced from that character. This means the reader has a harder time liking that character. Understanding is not all it takes to like a character–going back to Dexter as an example, if he killed just anyone you might still understand him but you’d have a harder time liking him. But understanding is a good start.

How do you provide the reader with an understanding of a character’s actions?

Some motivations are obvious to most people. The woman who will take on a tiger to save her baby. The firefighter whose job it is and who is trained to go into a burning building. Or the gentleman who opens the door for a pretty lady. Cultural norms, training for specific jobs, and core human nature behavior are things most readers get without needing the motivations really detailed. But when you get out of these you need more.

If it’s not obvious, make it obvious.

With first person, it’s pretty easy to fit in the character’s thoughts. You can also fit in character thoughts in third person with internal dialogue.

You don’t have to make this too obvious–in other words, you don’t really hit the reader over the head with, “I decided to let the air out of my ex-boyfriend’s tires to let him know I hated him.” That may be a little too direct. Or it may be that you really do need this because it’s the opening of the book and the reader doesn’t know anything about this character. You have to look at where is the scene in the book and do you need to weave in thoughts to let a reader know HOW a character gets to a decision. This is really important if you have something such as a housewife who suddenly picks up a gun and shoots someone–maybe she has a good reason for this, maybe not. If you want the reader to sympathize with the character you need to make sure the reader understands why she picks up a gun and why she’s suddenly able to use it on a person.

Another useful tool is dialogue. You don’t want the dialogue to be too “on the nose” — in other words, dialogue that is only about the plot tends to be stiff and awkward. It won’t sound like the illusion of real people talking. So you want to make sure you have interruption, and emotion, and layers to your dialogue.

With dialogue, you need someone who can talk to your main character. This is often why you include best friends in any story–they’re a great sounding board for your protagonist. Dialogue helps get motivation and understanding on the page. A friend can question the hero or heroine. “A gun? Why did you buy a gun?” the best friend says. And now the heroine can explain–or duck the question, or partially explain how she learned to use a gun from her ex who is an Army Ranger. So best friends can be very useful. They’re great to give the reader insight and an understanding of your main characters.

What about the character who has to act out of character? The person afraid of heights who suddenly climbs up the side of a building? Or the person who is non-violent who hits another person? Or the person who hates water who now dives into  a swimming pool?

A great guideline is that the more extreme the action is in terms of taking that character away from their core set of actions, the more you have to motivate that action.

So a woman who has to shoot a man who is threatening her baby, that motivation is clear and strong. Protection of a child is something every reader will understand. A reader may have a harder time believing a woman who shoots a man because  he touched her front door. The reader is going to wonder if she’s crazy. Or does she know something the reader doesn’t? As in she recognizes him as the man who killed her sister. This is where the reader NEEDS that critical information in order to understand the character.

It’s fine to have a little bit of mystery with characters–maybe you reveal after the action that this woman did know this man killed her sister. However, if you do too much of this remember you may not have a chance to let the reader know this fact. Hide or withhold too much and the reader may just abandon the story before the reader gets to that fact.

One of the eight rules of creating writing from Kurt Vonnegut is:

Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To heck with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.

I’ve read more manuscripts by writers who haven’t mastered their craft where you can tell the writers is holding back on information about the character and either hinting at it or just not saying anything. The usual result is I stop reading. As a reader I lose interest and find the characters unlikeable and I don’t understand them. Why would I want to waste my time with such people?

Lack of understanding–not enough information–is a way to lose readers out of your story. Yes, you can also overdo the information. You’re have to be the middle bear and have not too much and not too little and just the right amount of information. This may means another draft, another set of edits, a read through from another writer or a reader, and some more edits.

But do listen to Kurt. Get your characters onto the page, doing things and going them for reasons that the reader understands. And this brings us to the last point.

Remember there is the story in your head, there is the story on the page, and there is the story in the reader’s head. Those three stories don’t always match.

You may understand your characters’ motivations, but did they get onto the page? Did they make it onto the page in a way the reader understands? Or have tangled sentences warped the meaning? Is the writing getting in the way of clarity?This can be a problem for a lot of writers who love words–you opt for those fancy pretty words. Go for clarity instead.

Think about aligning the story in your head, the story on the page, and the story in the reader’s head. Go for clear motivations in clear sentences that help your reader understand your characters.

Understanding of your protagonist is important–but apply this reasoning to all your characters. And even to your settings.

 

 

 

 

Picking a Point of View

pietown1940When I first began writing fiction my viewpoint wandered all over the place. I was fine in first person, but the rest of it…omniscient on steroids. I’d throw in the viewpoint of the dog on just a whim. Thankfully, I had some other writers who would read my work and who pointed out a better path. I’m teaching an online workshop on Point of View starting this week. Getting control of viewpoint in a story gave my writing a huge jump in quality. But what is it about viewpoint control that really helps a story?

1-A connection to one character helps the reader into the story. When I learned how to write deep third person POV, and how to stick to a viewpoint and smooth any transitions, I discovered I could better hook readers into the story by connecting the reader to one character. Let’s face it, walking into a room of strangers is tough. If you connect with one person, now you have a reason to stay at the party. That’s the same with any book. A wandering viewpoint or a distant viewpoint can keep the reader from getting past the first couple of pages in your story.

2-Viewpoint control improves the emotion in a scene. I sort of knew this from writing first person, but it didn’t really sink in until I realized that picking the character with the most emotionally at stake in any scene gave me a stronger scene with more emotion. Changes in viewpoint changed the tension and the emotion in a scene–so a change at the wrong time drained my scenes of their impact. A lot of writers know instinctively to stay with the emotion. But I’ve also seen writers change viewpoint right when things are really cooking in a scene–the writer backs off from the best emotion and the reader is cheated. This is where viewpoint control can really improve your writing a lot (with very little effort).

3-Viewpoint control keeps the reader focused. This may sound obvious–too many jumps in viewpoint and the reader gets confused. A confused reader puts the book away and may never return. I’ve seen this in movies, too. I had to stop watching the Transformer movies–too many jump cuts and changes and viewpoints and I not only stopped following the action, I stopped caring. It just became noise. You want to learn how to handle any shift in viewpoint so the reader isn’t thrown out of your story.

4-Points of view tells the reader what’s important. I’ve seen–and I used to do this–stories where EVERYONE’S viewpoint gets shuffled into the story. The guy holding the door open in chapter ten, the second cousin of the heroine who appears only for a page in chapter twenty…on and on. A lot of this and the reader starts wondering who are the main characters and starts wanting a scorecard to keep track. I’ve only seen this handled really well once–in Hitchiker’s Guide to the Galaxy where the point of view shifts are to anything that’s funny (which is the point of the book, really). Can a lot of viewpoints be brilliantly handled? Sure–if you’ve got the talent to pull it off. But why stress yourself and the reader–stick with the viewpoints of the people who matter. One big lesson I learned–when in doubt keep it simple. Stick to one or two viewpoints.

5-Strong viewpoint control lets you increase the tension in your scenes and your stories. When I was jumping around with everyone’s viewpoint my story lost focus. The pacing suffered because I was sending the reader off on tangents. It’s a lot like that party I mentioned earlier–if you’re wandering around a party hearing snippets of conversations, you’re not really involved or caring about any of them. But if you stop and focus on one conversation or get involved in one argument, that pulls in your focus. Now you have something you care about, meaning things matter. That is key to having tension in a story. If the reader doesn’t care that the heroine may not ever really love the hero, or that the hero may not save the world, you can have all sorts of great action but the book is going to be a yawn. You want your viewpoint control focused and tight so the reader is also focused–and caring about what happens next.

6-Viewpoint control helps you write. I used to get stuck in stories. Somewhere between page fifty and one hundred the story would wander off a cliff. When I went back to look at these failures I saw I was not really attached to any one character–I hadn’t figured out whose viewpoint mattered, and so I didn’t really know whose story this was. It’s important to figure out the viewpoints you want to use because you want to tell those character’s stories–and you want to know who is at the center of any story. These days if I get stuck in a scene I always try two things: I change the viewpoint, or I go back to see if I have the conflict identified. That fixes just about every roadblock in my writing.

7-Smooth viewpoint shifts keep the reader in the story. Any transition–between viewpoints or in time or between scenes–is a place where the writer can lose the reader’s attention. It just seems a natural stopping point. Elizabeth Daly who wrote lovely mysteries in the late Forties and in the Fifties taught me a lot about how to smooth and handle transitions point. The key is to hint or introduce the start of the next scene before the last one ends. Nora Robert’s books also taught me a lot about handling viewpoint shifts. When you find writers who do something really well, take the work apart and see how they do things.

When in doubt, you can always stick to first person–but even first person has some tricks to it to keep it from becoming all about “I…I…I” But that’s something to cover in the workshop.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Why do you need a synopsis?

tablettypeIn these days of Indy publishing a synopsis can seem an unnecessary burden. Why write one if you’re going to self-publish? Right?  This April I’m going to be teaching my Sexy Synopsis workshop for Outreach International Romance Writers, and here’s a few reason why every writer could use a strong synopsis right from the start.

1. A road map helps you avoid dead ends and detours. Maybe it’s different for other writers, but in every book I’ve written I get to a point where I forget what I set out to do. Lost in the woods–heck, lost in knee-high grass even. The details swamp me and I look at the story and it gets stuck. A synopsis is my tool to remember what it is I need to write next, and to get me back on the path. You don’t have to be a slave to a synopsis, but it can save you.

2. A synopsis shows your weak spots. This is really helpful. You can look at a synopsis and understand at once that the second act action is contrived, or the main character motivation is weak, or the ending fizzles. Correcting these structural errors in a synopsis can save you pages and pages of revision. I’ve known writers who had to throw out large chunks of their book–that’s never fun, and frankly I’d rather write a synopsis than face revision hell.

3. Your synopsis is the start of your marketing copy. Every book needs a blurb–a good one if it’s going to sell. If you find you don’t have a kickass opening paragraph for your synopsis, chances are you’re going to also have a rambling, weak blurb for your book. This doesn’t help you grab readers. Pitching to an agent, or an editor, or a reader is all the same thing–you need a hook and your concept locked solid. That’s where a synopsis can help you refine your idea.

4. A synopsis can be revised. Get a new idea? Check it out with a revised synopsis? Does the whole story still make sense or is the new idea pulling you in a direction that won’t work for your other characters? A synopsis lets you check your story beats, your character motivations, and also lets you check in new ideas. A synopsis should not be written in stone–you want to be able to weave in those great new ideas. But you also want to keep control of your story so you give the reader the most satisfying story possible.

5. A synopsis is vital for any series or connected books. Did you forget the name of the main character’s neighbor? What about the hero’s eye colors? Are you writing about three sisters and now you have to go back and pull out details that sister two needs in her book? For the connected books I’ve written, the synopsis becomes the most useful tool to keep me on track so I don’t have to keep reinventing worlds.

6. A synopsis will show if you really have enough conflict to carry the story. One synopsis I did ran into pages and pages due to having a lot of characters, and a lot of conflict. I soon realized I had a novel not a novella on my hands. If you can easily fit your story into a one-page synopsis you may not have enough conflict for 80,000 words. Better to find that out with your synopsis and not on page sixty where the story runs out of gas.

7. A synopsis can help an artist create a book cover for you. More than once I’ve pulled out the short scene and character information from the synopsis to create a book cover–for traditional or self-published, indy or small press, a synopsis is simply a really good marketing tool.

So, take a deep breath. It’s not that bad once you get the knack of it. And now you’ll have to excuse me. I need to get a synopsis done for the book I’ve started and which now needs a better road map.

Getting Tense

samfootpaintIt seems a lot of folks are jumping on the Present Tense bandwagon. Now, don’t get me wrong, present tense can be cool–it can also come across as pretentious. The good news is that at least it keeps you from the mistake of slipping up on using past perfect tense when in past tense. But let’s go over these basics for those who may have skipped this class in school.

Present Tense – This is where you write as if things are happening now. I paint a picture. The sun is setting. It’s all going on in the present. The tricky part of present tense is what do you do with things that have happened–you have to not slip back into past tense.

Past Tense – Things have happened. I have painted a picture. Notice the verb change–we’re now in the ‘ed’ world. This is the most widely used verb tense for story telling. It’s comfortable for a reason. The trick here is when you are in past tense and you’re talking about the more distant past you have to switch to past perfect.

Past Perfect Tense – Things had happened a long time ago that need to be mentioned. Back when I was five, I had painted a picture of my world. The key word is “had.” If I had a nickel for every time a writer needed that had and left it out, well, I’d probably be doing other things with those nickles. Anyway, leaving out the ‘had’ can make for reader confusion. The ones that throw me is when a character is thinking about something that happened in childhood, but due to only using past tense it sounds as if this just happened in the story–and I then have to reread the paragraph and pick apart the meaning. I hate that.

 

Now there are other verb tenses, and a nice easy list can be found here at English Grammar Revolution. It’s worth the link to nail this down in your own writing, particularly if you plan to get fancy with your writing.

 

Make Your Scenes Real

mealVery often when I’m reading a manuscript for another writer the scenes will fall flat. The primary reason for this is that I (as a reader) am not pulled into the scene. The world feels flat because the only description is a little bit of what can be seen. When you neglect the other senses, the scene suffers. To be plausible, a scene needs to pull in the reader by using all the senses so the reader experiences the world.

So how do you weave in the five senses–sight, sound, smell, touch, and taste–without overloading the scene or the reader? Here are a few tips.

1-Start with the strongest sensation. What would your character notice first? Give that to the reader first, too.

For example, here’s a description from Burn Baby Burn where the heroine, Mackenzie, walks into a building on the edge of purgatory:

No reception desk. No chairs for waiting. Just lots of black marble, and the painful graffiti of demon-Aramaic dripping red across the ceiling and floor. Someone had also turned the air conditioning to ice-burn cold.

The chill crept along her skin as she walked, and it slipped through the soles of her boots.

Notice that the sense here is touch (the cold touching Mackenzie). There’s a little description of what can be seen (people are visual), but the strongest sensation here is of cold. So the details focus on providing that detail, and that sense is used to make the scene more real and vivid for the reader.

2-Be specific. The more specific, the better. If you say, He smelled like the woods. That’s nice. It’s poetic. But woods can smell moldy, damp, or like pine and very fresh and dry, or like a lot of things. And many readers have never been out of the city. So “woods” is not a specific description or smell. You want to layer in details that make the sense specific.

Here’s another example from Burn Baby Burn:

The half dozen other times she’d had to come down to this musty hole—and every time it had been to dig Josh out of his research—she’d thought it looked like the stacks at UCLA’s library. Miles of tall shelves with wide, leather-bound books stretched into climate controlled coolness. It smelled like library stacks, too—like dry, old paper. The place left her itchy. But any memory of college did that.

Notice the words used. Musty. Dry, old paper. A comparison is made to library stacks, so if the reader’s ever been in stacks, this will make the scene vivid. But even someone who hasn’t ever been into any library still gets the details of leather, dryness, mustiness. The more specific your details, the more the reader will “sense” the scene. Or in this case, smell the scene.

3-Go for the unexpected. If you use the usual descriptions this makes the world seem cliche. You want sensations that stand out and catch the reader.

Again, here’s an example from Burn Baby Burn:

Before she could think about it, she had him in her arms and had her tongue tangling with his. She heard his gun thud against the floor about the same time as hers, and she had her fists on his shirt to rip it off so she could get to his skin because she needed to touch him. And, oh, hell, could the man kiss—pushy and demanding, and just enough bite to make it interesting. He tasted of cherries, and if she didn’t get him on the floor in the next ten seconds, she’d die.

The guy Mackenzie is kissing tastes of cherries because he just drank a cherry Slurpee, so it’s logical that the taste would still be on his lips. This also avoids the cliche of him tasking like “man” or something else that would be too vague and not really locked into the scene and the character. Notice here, too, that we have both touch and taste being important, which shows the intimacy (you’re generally more into touch and taste and smell when you are really close to someone physically).

4-Look to contrast senses. A beautiful place that smells bad. A creepy sound along with a sensual touch along the skin. Contrast are always more interesting.

For example, in Burn Baby Burn Mackenzie walks into a beautiful house:

The rooms had a faint scent of lavender, and something else vaguely familiar. Stopping, Mackenzie took in a deep breath, and realized it was mint—with a vague hint of cloves, and something a little off. She’d know the scent of Josh’s charms anywhere, but this smell had a sour tang that made her want to open windows to air out the place.

So the house is described in a way that seems inviting, but the sour tang gives the reader an uneasy sensation that something is off in this place (and it really is).

5-Remember that a reader needs to be introduced to characters and to settings. This is where description is vital, and you do need to provide the right amount of description so the readers can see the characters and the world. This is very important in the first part of any story where everything is new to the reader.

Here’s a character introduction from Burn Baby Burn:

Glancing at the driver, she came up with an alpha silverback gorilla vibe; short hair going gray, and a lot of long-limbed muscle. The black dress shirt, rolled back at the cuffs and open at the throat, added to the image. And his khakis had not come off any rack. Judging by the expensive clothes and the weapon-edged angles to a face half-hidden by reflective aviator shades, she’d go for another line of work as this guy’s main vocation.

Notice that by putting the description in Mackenzie’s viewpoint it shows the reader what Mackenzie is seeing and thinking. That helps the description avoid the “laundry list” of physical assets. Also, this is where you can get a little lyrical and tell the reader a little not just about what someone looks like but what emotion does that look inspire.

Remember, all the senses help to convey an emotional reaction.

6-Use dialogue. The line from Star Wars, “What an incredible smell you’ve discovered,” delivered with sarcasm does more than say that it smells bad.

Here’s a similar line from Burn Baby Burn:

“This house smells of blood.”

The words came out a deep rumble, and Mackenzie glanced at Felix. Was this his way of saying this place creeped him out, too? Or maybe that he felt all homey because of it?

Have your characters react to the world in ways that help realize the world for your readers.

Viewpoint Shifts

One of the key techniques I learned as a writer is viewpoint control, meaning when to shift viewpoint and how to shift smoothly. This generally is not a problem for writers working in first person, but I’ve also read works lately like Shannon Mayer’s Rylee Adamson series which mix first person and third (that’s a trick too pull off!).writingdesk

I’m teaching a POV workshop this March-April and here are a few tips to help with knowing when to shift the viewpoint and how to shift smoothly.

When to shift viewpoint?

1-Don’t change the viewpoint unless you need to. Stick with the character who has the most emotionally at risk in a scene.

2-Stay with viewpoint as long as you can to keep the emotion and tension in a scene.

3-Only shift viewpoint if the scene becomes stuck, or the story forces you to switch.

For example, maybe you’re writing a love scene.  You’ve started in the heroine’s point of view because you want the reader identifying with her and this is a big emotional moment for her.  But the hero may have a moment, too, once the sex is over—maybe that’s the point he finds himself becoming emotionally involved with the heroine. You finish the scene out, and the hero has to leave. Right there, if you stay in the heroine’s viewpoint, the hero is going to walk out and that leaves the reader with just her and no conflict—if her issues in the scene are over, the hero’s AND his viewpoint need to come into the story.  Now you either have to have omniscient info about him and that could pull the reader out of the story, or you have to force thoughts into the heroine’s head that are going to read like plot exposition (and not really her thoughts).  Or you have to shift viewpoint if you want to follow the hero and stay with what’s going on with him. Now you have an excellent reason to change viewpoint.

Above all, make your decision to change viewpoint based on the fact that there’s no other choice to make this scene work.

How to shift viewpoint smoothly?

Shifting viewpoint is a lot like handing off a baton in a relay race–it’s easy to fumble it if you don’t smooth the shift for the reader. This  means you want to treat every point of view change as a place where you can lose the reader. Here are tips to help you smooth shifts:

1-Make viewpoint shifts happen in new paragraphs, not the same paragraph.

2-Use proper names not pronouns.

3-Use a bit of action to smooth the shift.

As an example of this, let’s look at an awkward viewpoint shift.

She ran into the room, panting hard, gasping for breathe. She wanted to tell him everything that had gone wrong, but would he understand? He thought she looked a mess, her hair tumbled and her face red, and he only wanted to help.

Right there we trip up the reader in that we move straight from one character’s head to another. Most readers will need to re-read that passage. So let’s apply the three tips–break up the paragraph, apply names, and use action to shift the viewpoint.

She ran into the room, panting hard, gasping for breathe. May wanted to tell him everything that had gone wrong, but would Tim understand? Leaning against the wall, May put out a hand to steady herself.

Tom covered May’s hand with his own. Under his touch, he could feel the heat from her skin, and her rapid pulse thudding hard in her wrist. He thought she looked a mess, her hair tumbled and her face red, and he only wanted to help.

The action of May reaching out and Tom covering her hand, the use of proper names before we move back into pronouns, and the paragraph break now all signal a viewpoint change.

But if you really want to force yourself to learn viewpoint control, write each chapter in one viewpoint only. You’ll learn a lot.