The Most Important Writing Skill

underwoodOver the years, I’ve come to believe the viewpoint control is the most important skill a writer can have. Viewpoint affects the writer’s voice, it allows the writer to get the characters onto the page—viewpoint connects readers to the characters.

I’m going to be teaching a workshop on point of view this August, and I’ve just finished up my Show and Tell workshop, and the two are closely connected. I’ve seen writers struggling with how to show more in a story—and what they really need is deeper viewpoint.

If you write as if you are a character who is experiencing something, you will naturally show more and tell less. This is because the description is immediate, and the focus is on sensor experience. You won’t be telling the reader things—writers only do this when emotionally distanced from the scene.

It is like that scene in Romancing the Stone when the main character is sobbing as she writes—that is because she is that character. She is experiencing that moment—and getting it onto the page.

If you don’t have mastery over this skill, the reader will know you aren’t experienced and aren’t in control. This means the reader no longer trusts you to deliver a good story—the reader is going to bail on you.

So how do you learn better viewpoint control, which in turn gives you better control over your story (and a better ability to hook readers)?

Here are a few tricks that can help.

1-Know your viewpoints. This is a basic, but it is surprising how many writers start off without really knowing their craft. Different viewpoints do different things in a story—you want to know the advantages of first person or third person or omniscient (let’s not get into second person here).

2-Know what the point of every scene is. This means you need to know what is the main conflict—and who has the most emotionally at stake in that scene. Picking the wrong viewpoint for a scene is going to give you a flat scene. So if a scene isn’t working, try changing the viewpoint character.

3-Write in first person. This is one of the best ways to learn how to master viewpoint. You don’t have to stay there, but if a scene or a character is giving you trouble, switch to first person. This forces you to go deeper into your character.

4-When writing in third person, stay in that viewpoint for as long as possible. In other words, stop jumping around with your viewpoint. In the first book I ever sold, I stuck to one viewpoint character per chapter to make sure I was getting the reader connected to the character and to the emotion. Staying with one character will get your reader more deeply attached to that character.

5-Treat any viewpoint change like it is a bomb ready to explode—and needs careful handling. Any transition—in time, viewpoint or even place—is a moment when the reader might decide to put down your story. And might never pick it up again. So when you change viewpoint, have a good reason for this change AND use some techniques to smooth the change (go for names, not pronouns, and use action to hand off the transition).

6-Only use omniscient viewpoint if you want to distance the reader from the scene. Think of omniscient like a long-shot with a camera—it gives you a huge view, but from a long way away. Now omniscient can let you go into anyone and everyone’s thoughts, and that can be used for humor. But beware—it can also leave your reader outside the story.

7-Know your writing voice strengths. If you don’t know if you’re stronger at first person than third person, or if you have a voice that is perfect for omniscient, it’s time to find out. Write the same scene in first person, third person and omniscient—that’s good practice. Now give those three versions to three different reader friends—ask which one stayed with them. That’s the viewpoint that will work best for you as a writer.

Above all else, work at improving your viewpoint control—it’s essential to a great story that pulls the reader into the story and keeps the reader wanting to know what happens to your characters.

 

Shannon Donnelly Bio

          Shannon Donnelly’s writing has won numerous awards, including a nomination for Romance Writer’s of America’s RITA award, the Grand Prize in the “Minute Maid Sensational Romance Writer” contest, judged by Nora Roberts, and others. Her writing has repeatedly earned 4½ Star Top Pick reviews from Romantic Times magazine, as well as praise from Booklist and other reviewers, who note: “simply superb”…”wonderfully uplifting”….and “beautifully written.”

In addition to her Regency romances, she is the author of the Mackenzie Solomon, Demon/Warders Urban Fantasy series, Burn Baby Burn and Riding in on a Burning Tire, and the SF/Paranormal, Edge Walkers. Her work has been on the top seller list of Amazon.com and includes the Historical romances, The Cardros Ruby and Paths of Desire. Lady Chance, her latest Regency, was awarded the Indie BRAG Medallion.

 

 

 

 

 

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This entry was posted on August 4, 2018, in Uncategorized. 1 Comment

Show More, Tell Better

“Writing well is the best revenge.” — Dorothy Parker

We’ve all heard “show, don’t tell” but I prefer to tell folks “show more, tell better.” This is something I use in every Show and Tell workshop I give (and I’m doing one for the RWA FF&P Chapter this July.) There’s a good reason for this. Narrative is actually vital in fiction—there are places where you need to smooth a transition or introduce a scene or a character and ‘telling’ or narrative works best. However, within a scene, it is vital to ‘show’ more of the character’s emotions through the character’s actions.

Like much of the craft of writing, you have to learn how to balance showing and telling by doing—meaning you have to write—and the amount of showing or telling you do varies by the story and the intent of the author.  This is part of your voice as a writer. However, there are some good guidelines that can help you with all of this:

– Where are we? A reader needs to be placed into the story and into every new scene. Do not throw your readers into the deep end without giving them some help, and that means use some narrative to set the story, and you can use narrative to set every scene. This is VERY important if you are writing a story that is set somewhere other than our own reality. The reality of your world must be woven into the story. Use vivid details, meaning weave in as many of the five senses as possible—smells, sounds, tastes, touch, and not just sights.

– When are we? This is just as important as where, and this does not mean not just the era. Think about the details of the time of the year. What’s the weather like? Is it day or night? Is it cold, warm, windy? What are the smells? All these details help the reader settle into the scene as if this moment in time really exists.

– Who is here? An introduction to the characters, particularly to the main characters for that scene and for the story, is important. I’m not talking a laundry list of descriptions, but the reader does need more than tall, dark and handsome. Think about what makes THAT character stand out. What is different about him or her? Is there a scar or a limp? How about height or weight? What about hair? What is the first thing that anyone would notice? Use unique features to start to make characters come to life for the reader. Think of your description as brush strokes of a watercolor that suggests images.

– Why are we here? This doesn’t have to be greatly detailed information, but you need enough background to make a reader care. It’s one of Kurt Vonnegut’s Eight Rules for Writers: “Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To hell 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.”

As with all writing, you want to edit, polish, revise and make your narrative wonderful. Cut every extra word. Use active voice. Use the right words in the right way. Brilliant narrative is invisible—if a reader is noticing your writing, that reader has fallen out of the story.

Now all this needs to be woven together, stitched in with careful threads. Do not dump tons of narrative into the story—unless it really is brilliant. Narrative can also be woven in with a scene—in other words, it’s never show or tell. These two things can go together.

But what’s good ‘showing’ in a story?

– Punch your dialogue so it’s strong. Know that your dialogue is weak if you find yourself leaning on tags such as: he taunted, she exclaimed, he smirked, she pouted, he expounded, she tossed back, he leered, she sighed. All of these are TELLING the reader an emotion. You want to get your characters onto the page by showing how that person expresses emotion. That includes making the dialogue so good that the reader knows the emotion in the words without having to be told. Another way to think of this is to imagine you are writing a script for your favorite actors—give them great dialogue to speak.

Eliminating every “feel” or “felt”. That is a spot where you flat out told the reader the emotion. Let your characters take actions that express their emotions, and trust the reader to figure things out. This goes along with those tags being used to prop up dialogue. When you say, “He felt angry.” That’s weak to the reader because the reader has nothing to visualize. Every person gets angry in different ways—some folks bottle it up, some turn red, some go pale, some folks yell, some start to cry, some shout. Get your characters onto the page by having them express emotions. It takes more time and more words, but it makes the characters come to life for the reader.

– Keep asking ‘what am I showing the reader about this character’? If you want the reader to believe your character is a kick-ass vampire slayer that character has to slay a vampire right off. It’s no good telling the reader this information, you must show the character being what that character is supposed to be. This is why Superman has to be super. Readers will believe what you show a character doing, not what you tell the reader.

– Watch those lovely “writerly” phrases. Maybe you’ve come up with a clever line. The trouble is, if you’re deep into a character’s viewpoint and emotion, that clever line could throw the reader out of the scene. You have to look at the overall effect of the line—and you may need to cut it if you’re jumping out of character just to fit in the clever phrase.

For example, maybe you’ve described a woman as: Her honey-blonde hair floated around her, a golden nimbus, a heavenly aura. That’s a fine description—lovely telling. But if you’re in the viewpoint of another woman who actually hates this honey-blonde, you’ve gone for the clever phrase instead of SHOWING the enmity between these women. That’s where you save this clever phrase for another time and go for showing these two women being bitchy with each other.

– Do remember to get emotions onto the page. This is where characters are doing a lot of things, but the reader has no idea what the character feels about events. Maybe you’ve got an exciting moment where the heroine of the story jumps in to save a boy from zombies. Awesome! She grabs the boy and chops up the zombie with an ax. Great stuff. But what is she feeling? Is she frightened? Is she angry, furious because this is her son and she’s told him five times not to go out on his own? Is she shaking? Is she covering up her feelings by acting tough because she’s a cop and she thinks cops shouldn’t show emotion?

You have to know your characters to get this onto the page and to do so without resorting to telling the reader a flat “she felt angry that he hadn’t listened to her and had almost died.”

Above all else, if you show, you don’t need to tell. And if you tell, you don’t need to show. Repetition can be useful in places, but with showing and telling if you do both, it conveys to the reader that either you don’t really know what you are doing or you don’t think the reader is very smart. Readers do not like being hit over the head with endless repetition. You don’t have to show a guy slamming out the door and tell the reader in the next sentence: He was so angry he could spit nails. See—even me repeating just a little bit here starts to become boring. Trust your readers—they are actually very smart. And take to heart the phrase—show more, tell better.

What’s Not to Like?

HHRW-slider11I’m doing a workshop this June on Creating Likeable Characters for Hearts Through History.

The workshop came about because I kept seeing a classic mistakes that is often made. The writer gets caught up in creating a character with problems—with challenges. Yes, you want there to be some conflict and you want a flawed character. But go too far with that and the character comes across on the page as someone that’s not likeable. End result is that the reader bails on the story because the reader doesn’t want to identify with that character.

Why does this happen?

Look, if you have a choice, are you going to spend the evening with folks you like or with people who make you grind your teeth? I’m going to bet on the former unless you are being forced to be there by blood ties or a job. This holds true in a book, too. Readers (all of us) want to spend time with folks we like.

The Cardros RubyThis is a huge issue in any book—it was one I faced in A Cardros Ruby. In an early draft, the heroine came off as too cranky and hard-edged. She was not likeable. Now, she had her reasons for being how she was, but she wasn’t someone you wanted to root for. That meant she needed major work to bring in some things to make her likeable. I had learned about this when I wrote the heroine of A Dangerous Compromise.  She’s a spoilt girl who eventually redeems herself—or at least shows a good side—but that came too late in the story for many readers who just didn’t warm to her. And I can understand that.

If I’m going to pay money and spend my hours with some folks—even fictional folk—I want to have fun. I want to be with people I like. If your characters aren’t likeable, you’re not going to sell that book. That’s the voice of experience talking.

As a reader, I want characters I can root for, characters I can laugh with and cry with, characters with whom I sympathize. I want to spend time with folks I like.

Which brings up the question—what is likeable?

This is where subjective opinion gets into it. Even the most beloved characters have their detractors. And good characters are like people, or they should be. This means not every character will be liked by every reader. However, there are some basic things you can do give a character a better chance of being someone that a reader wants to spend hours with, as in give your characters:

Mad Skills – We tend to like folks we admire. We like people who are good at what they do. This is why we like sports figures at the top of their game. We like to see folks doing amazing things. Think of Indiana Jones—we like him because right off, even if things don’t go his way, he’s shown to have extraordinary skills. This is something I use in The Cardros Ruby—the hero’s shown as being able to handle a tough situation right off.

Good Intentions/Actions – We tend to like folks who mean us (and the world in general) well. We like characters who have good reasons for what they’re doing—as in a mother who is out to protect her child. She may do bad things, but if she’s got really good reasons (as in Sarah Conner of The Terminator) we’re going to be on her side. We like folks even more when they do good thing. The guy who rescues a stray dog is likeable. The woman who goes without movies for a month to buy her niece the prom dress the poor girl has been longing for and can’t afford is likeable. Little acts of kindness can mean a lot to a reader—and will put the reader on the character’s side. This is another one I use in The Cardros Ruby—even though the heroine’s heard bad things about the hero (and some of the gossip is deserved), she stands up for him because she recognizes she owes him and that helps put the reader on her side.

Underdog Status – We like characters that don’t start out with everything going their way—folks who are behind the eight ball and have had nothing but bad luck tend to stir our sympathy. If the main character has everything else stacked in his or her favor, that’s not someone who is earning our praise and sympathy. This is another one I use (and notice that you can layer these on—just don’t go heavy handed with this). However, the important thing is we want to see a strong underdog. That means someone being strong against overwhelming odds. Make your underdog whiny or weak and you’ll lose the reader’s sympathy—most folks just don’t like weaklings.

Grit – This could be called strong moral fiber—or even just stubbornness. These are folks who don’t quit when things get tough—characters who preserver, because it’s nice to see that works (even if only if fiction at times). This is a trait most admire. Again, don’t take it too far. If this turns into someone being stupid, you can lose the reader.

Humor – Let’s face it, we like folks who make us laugh. This is what keeps comedians in business. These are the witty types, folks we admire for having a fast mind and a way with words.  I actually try to have all my characters be funny and quick because I love people who are sharp—so that’s a personal choice. A wry wit has turned many a bad guy into someone we love (as in Loki in the Avenger movies).

Quirks – Every character needs some flaws. No one likes perfection. A few quirks and a character is both more memorable as well as more likeable. An odd physical trait—a scar, or a handicap overcome such as being very, very short. Or a metal quirk, as in Monk, the OCD detective. Again, if you go too far, the character may come across as just crazy, and most folks shy away from that. Even Monk has mad skills to balance out his oddities.

Empathy – Characters don’t exist in isolation. They need to be aware of the world around them. Characters who demonstrate empathy for others earn our empathy—we are prone to like these folks. This means you do not want a character who is all about me…me…me.

Now this is not to say that all characters must display all these traits. That would be too much for any reader to believe. But pick three or four things. Or even a couple. Demonstrate that your main characters—your protagonists—are likeable. This means you do not tell the reader others like this person, you SHOW the character DOING things that make the reader think this character is likeable.

Keep in mind that if a character is going to have to do bad or stupid things in the story, that character needs the reader on his or her side early and to a great degree. Even give some of these likeable traits to your antagonists. They need to earn the reader’s sympathy, too, if the conflict is going to be strong. Even Hannibal Lecter has the admirable traits of being a cultured man—and mad skills (emphasis on the mad there).

Let your readers get to know and like your characters before you start having your characters do terrible things—and then think long and hard about if a reader can forgive that character.

Think about making sure your character demonstrates he or she is likeable—it’s not enough to tell the reader these things. The character has to be shown doing things that are worthy of the reader. (If you’re not sure about this, read Dick Francis, he’s a master at making you like a character in less than a page.)

Use viewpoint to your advantage—not to your character’s disadvantage. If a character thinks about her long, raven hair, she comes across as vain. If a guy is eyeing another guy and thinking about that other guy’s muscles, the character comes across as gay. Now all of that is fine if you want the reader to believe one character is vain and another is gay, but KNOW what you are conveying to the reader with those internal thoughts. Don’t just stuff description into thoughts because it’s easy—you may be sending the wrong signals to the reader.

Above all, remember you’re asking a reader to spend time in your world. Make sure readers want to stay, want to root for your characters, and start to like them. It all starts off with creating characters you really like—and making sure they show up right off doing some admirable things.

Internal Conflict

notes-macbook-study-conference.jpgThere’s some advice in romance writing that it is the external conflict brings the hero and heroine together, and the internal conflicts that keep them apart. That’s a great guideline for writers. Too often I see writers going for just the external conflicts, and these are often clichés, which include:

  • The heroine gets kidnapped (this sometimes has a twist of hero being kidnapped, but that’s almost as tired a cliché).
  • The evil stepmother/stepfather spreads terrible gossip that breaks up the couple (usually without any really good motivation for why the character should want to do this).
  • The ex-mistress convinces the heroine the hero (or vice versa) is not to be trusted (she lies in other words, and the heroine/hero somehow believes this just because the plot demands it).
  • Bad things happen to hero and heroine (pick a disaster, and it’s already been used).
  • The hero/heroine decides to leave “for the good of the other person” (and how is this ever good to break someone’s heart?).

Now, external conflicts are great in an action story—they really keep the pace going. But in a character-based story (and that means a romance), you really want the focus on the characters and their relationships. And that means you want to develop internal issues for the characters to have to face and overcome in order to be able to have a relationship. In other words, you want a character arc for your protagonist (not an action arc).

So, let’s talk character arc.

  1. A character arc is where the protagonist has an internal issue that at the start of the story prevents that person from forming a deep relationship.

An arc needs a starting point. This should be as close to the opening of the story as possible. In other words, you want to set up conflict between the hero and heroine (and only one of them should be the protagonist), so that these two people have a deep, internal divide between them.

This can be a personality divide—she’s disorganized, he’s compulsively correct—or it can be an attitude to life—she champions the poor, he’s idle rich, or anything else that comes out of the core personalities of the characters.

  1. There must be consequences for changing or not changing—in other words, the stakes must be high.

If change is easy for the protagonist, there’s not going to be much of a story there. You can go for a small change in a short story, but longer works demand greater conflicts. If the hero can easily also become a champion of the poor, the story ends right there. There must be obstacles to change—and reasons not to change.

The best way to accomplish this is to set up that the protagonist can only get the external goal by giving up the internal need—or vice versa. This sets up a dilemma for the protagonist. You want tough choices and to make them tougher. This gives you the arc of rising action—you want to keep raising the stakes and keep making it harder to make that change. This means there must be a benefit to not changing—all this means really good, thought-out motivations. The reasons WHY characters do things must make it onto the page so the characters make sense to the readers.

  1. Did you set up conflicts between needs and wants?

You want to build in conflict so your story doesn’t wander or fade out about page 100. The best way to do this is set up lots of internal conflicts with external goals. In other words, if a woman’s external goal is to hide her past and her internal need is to keep secrets, she’s not really conflicted about these things. But if a woman’s external goal is to hide her past and her internal need is to be honest, now you have her conflicted—she can’t have it both ways.

You want to set up these conflicts for all your major characters. And you want to make sure the needs and wants are well motivated.

  1. Are the needs and wants really well motivated?

Reader needs to know WHY wants and needs matter to a character. This is very important.

GMCThis is where you get down to bedrock in a character’s psyche—this is what drives this person and makes them do stupid as well as smart things. This is where deep emotions brew—and where actions are driven by core issues for that character. Debra Dixon in her book GMC: Goal, Motivation, Conflict, talks about how this core motivation works best if deeply entrenched in the character–in other words, you want his to be something the character learned in the formative years. It is a deeply held believe that shapes that person’s identity, and to let go of it would be to face the destruction of self.

If your character’s needs go deep—as in straight to core development years in their childhood—the reader is going to understand that these are core issues. The character who grew up poor and who saw her mother die because there was no money for a doctor will make sense as a woman who will marry just to have money. The character that started torturing small animals at six is going to seem a lot spookier and threatening than anyone who started killing people as an adult.

To make things matter to the reader, make it matter to the character. However, make sure you have someone look over your ideas—motivations have to be plausible, too. They have to fit your character’s background. In general, accountants don’t suddenly wake up one day wanting to be lion tamers—that’s too big a jump to be plausible to readers. So it needs a lot of motivation (as in he’ll get three million dollars if he makes the job change within six months.)

  1. Are any of your conflicts clichés?

A cliché is something that has been done—and over done to death. Now, if you can come up with a great new twist, awesome. But don’t settle for the first idea that pops into your head.

c&VIn Orson Scott Card’s book, Characters & Viewpoint, he holds that the first four to five ideas will be clichés. They pop into mind just because you have read them too often. Throw them out and keep digging. Somewhere about idea six or seven you’ll start to come up with ideas that better fit your characters in terms of both actions and motivations.

Always keep digging. Hunt down clichés and put a fresh twist on them. Let your characters come up with better ideas. And never settle for ideas you’ve already read in too many other books.

  1. Let your characters fail.

All too often, we learn best from failure—so let your characters fail and lose. That is where they are going to find a path to change. That is the peak of the character arc—all is lost, and the old self must die. That is where realizations happen.

A tip here—the bigger the change, the greater the threat/failure must be. If someone is making a minor change, you can use a minor defeat. But if a character must make a 180, you need a HUGE disaster—the loss of everything.

If a woman loses her job when she fails to reach her goal, readers are going to be left wondering why she can’t just get another job. It doesn’t seem a big deal.

Remember, too, that death—while dramatic—is not always the greatest threat to a character. You want to find out what means the loss of “self” for a character.

  1. Make it personal.

The stakes must be personal.

Let’s say your main character helps disabled kids. Great. And if the center where she works gets shut down, she won’t be able to help the kids. Those are good stakes, but it’s not that personal to her. Why can’t she go to work for another disabled center? Why can’t the kids go to another place?

Now it would matter more if one of those kids was hers. But it would matter even more if it’s not the center that would be shut down—it would matter to her most if she’s going to be banned from every working with kids anywhere, ever. Now the thing that defines her is being threatened—she will no longer be who she is if she loses. That’s called raising the stakes, and the higher you raise them, the more the conflict will matter to the characters and the readers.

This is where you want to go digging for gold. You don’t want the character arc to fit any old character—you want it to be specific to your protagonist.

And for that gold, you want to go looking inside your character, not to outside circumstances. Dig into your characters. Develop their internal needs, and what will shatter that person inside. Then you can use the external conflicts to be icing on the strong character arc you’ve developed.

 

This entry was posted on March 28, 2018, in Uncategorized. 2 Comments

What Conflict?

conflict3I just finished up a synopsis workshop and one of the things I kept seeing was that folks were having a hard time writing the synopsis due to not really knowing what is the main conflict in the story. It really does help to know this before you start writing, but it’s vital to know this at some point because the conflict has to come to a head in the third act. If it doesn’t, the story risks being unsatisfying.

You also have to know what’s the main conflict, because that’s going to show anyone interested in the story that you knew what you were doing when you wrote the story. It’s your main selling point.

So how do you figure out the main conflict in your story? It starts by making sure there really is strong conflict.

In one of my favorite Monty Python skits, a man shows up and pays for an argument—the person he paid tells him he didn’t pay. He says he did, too. And they go back and forth. The fellow who came in for an argument puts forward this is contradiction, not an argument. Again with “is too, is not.” That’s sometimes what I see—not really good arguments from the characters, but them contradicting each other. Or, even worse, manufactured, contrived conflict from characters that do not really have deep conflicting issues and goals. This is a problem in a story.

A reader pays for a good story, meaning you need some conflict going on.

The best summary I’ve heard of this is from Bob Mayer—know what your characters want, what they really want, what they really, really want, and what they really, really, really want.

What does that mean?

  1. What does a character want?

This is the obvious goal, and it’s usually external. This is the goal that drives the plot forward. In one of my books, Paths of Desire, the heroine’s external goal is to get married to a rich man—yes, she’s a gold digger. She has reasons for this buried deep in a past which has left her insecure. But this a surface goal—it’s not what she really wants.

The obvious goal (external goal) works best if tied to deeper needs and issues, and this is where you start to dig deeper into your characters.

  1. What does a character really want?

Under ever want is a driving need—if a character just wants something, that’s a weak character. So you did deeper and ask why? This why becomes the really want. In the case of Thea from Paths of Desire, her obvious goal of wanting a rich husband comes from her really wanting security—she thinks if she’s rich and married she’ll be safe from an uncertain world. Again, this want has deep roots (the deeper, the better) that go back to a poverty stricken childhood. But this is still not enough.

  1. What does a character really, really want?

When you find out what a character really wants, ask–but what do they really, really want? You’re now starting to dig down into what makes that character tick. In Thea’s case, what she wanted was a rich husband, what she really wanted was security—but what she really, really wants is to not end up like her mother.

This is where you hope the character will surprise you. In Thea’s case, I hadn’t thought about her past, but when this came up it was an “of course” moment. Thea’s mother has ended up abandoned by a man (Thea’s father)—she’s ended up broken because of love. Thea’s determined to be practical and marry rich and have her security—but it’s her secret fear she’ll become like her mother. However, we’re still not done. We have rich material, but you want to dig deeper.

  1. What does a character really, really, really want?

This is where you get down to bedrock in a character’s psyche—this is what drives this person and makes them do stupid as well as smart things. This is where deep emotions brew—and where actions are driven by core issues for that character. In Thea’s case, her brother died when Thea was just a girl. The boy was even younger, and he died because there wasn’t enough money to pay for a doctor. That event both scared the young Thea and drives her still—she doesn’t want herself or anyone she loves to ever be hurt by lack again. That’s what she really, really, really wants—to have enough.

Now all of this is great stuff, but without obstacles (and other characters to stand in the way), you’re not going to have much in the way of conflict. A character that can move forward without problems is going to give you a boring story. So…what gives you conflict? You want other characters who want things that conflict with the main character’s wants.

This is where you look at your other characters, find out what they want and set them up to provide maximum conflict. Have them want the same thing, but only one person can have it (any McGuffin movie). Have them want opposite things (any superhero movie with one side wanting world-domination and the other side out to stop that). Have them want the same thing but have different approaches to getting it (any buddy flick, with one guy being the rule keeper and the other being the rogue).

In every book, I love it when every character wants something—and really wants something. And really, really wants something. All of this causes trouble for the main character. In Paths of Desire, Thea meets a man who lives for adventure—he’s also married. He’s the last man she should become involved with. But he wants to keep his friend, who is rich, away from her, and that brings them together. His goals are not only different from Thea’s, but tangle with hers in a way so that something has to give—one of them has to change in order for them to find happiness together. And it is not just one character causing Thea problems–she has issues with her mother, her employer at the theater where she is an actress, and with other, younger actors who want to take her place.

And that brings up the next issue with conflict.

If a character can easily give up his or her goal, that’s not a core, strong goal.

This is where you have to be honest with yourself—and dig deep for those very core goals. You don’t want a character who can casually say, “Oh, never mind, it wasn’t that important.” This leaves readers feeling cheated by the story.

Recently, I watched a movie in which Will Farrell plays a man who loses his job and his wife leaves him on the same day. His company car is repossessed after he slashes his bosses’ tires and his soon to be ex-wife freezes the bank accounts to try and force him into a quick divorce. And she puts all his stuff on the front lawn and changes all the locks on his house. Everyone thinks he’s having a yard sale, so that gives him some money—and he starts to live on his lawn.

Now this is a character that seems not to have goal—but he actually has one. His goal is simply to get by every day—and get hold of drink. He wants oblivion. But it’s not what he really wants. He really wants to get back at his wife and his ex-boss. But that’s not what he really, really wants. What he really, really wants is to get his life back. But that’s not what he really, really, really wants. His old life was a shambles, too—and he gradually realizes that. And what he really, really, really wants is to find his way back to a fresh start.

The interesting thing about the story is watching the character cling, at first, to every stupid little thing that is his—all the junk on the front lawn. At first, he’ll sell nothing. He has a signed baseball worth thousands (not that he can sell it, given he can’t get anywhere), and he has more stuff no one needs. He hangs onto everything—at first. But the stuff is a symbol of his old life. As he starts to let it go, he starts to make room for a new life. The stuff becomes a metaphor for living. And letting go of it shows both his conflict and his growth.

Because the stuff is important to the character, letting it go is difficult—if the character had walked away without a look back, there would not have been conflict or a story.  And it’s what the character wants, really wants, really, really wants, and what he really, really, really wants that drives the story.

Finally, look to have consequences–that is how you make goals matter. If your character wants a job promotion, but there is no problem with not getting that promotion (there are other, better jobs out there), then the goal doesn’t matter. Look for goals have huge personal benefits–and losses. So if that character doesn’t get that job promotion, maybe mom ends up thrown from her nursing home. Or better still, that without that promotion, life as that person knows it is over. Make it matter. Make it matter a lot. That is how you raise the stakes in a story and make the reader care.

That’s the kind of conflict you want to build into your characters. And you want to know that’s the conflict you have in your story–conflict you can easily identify and summarize.

juliusceasar

This entry was posted on March 11, 2018, in Uncategorized. Leave a comment

Really Good Narrative

There’s a time to show…but there’s also a time to TELL. A really good narrative is invaluable in many stories.

Narrative seems to have gone out of fashion. It doesn’t seem to be taught, and no one seems to really get what it is. So let’s make it easy.

Merriam-Webster gives us the root for narrative/narrating as the “Latin narratus, past participle of narrare, from Latin gnarus knowing; akin to Latin gnoscere, noscere to know.”

This means it’s basically the author telling the reader the information the author knows, which the reader also needs to know. And now you ask, what does the reader need to know, and when does the reader need it, and how much does the reader need. This is where narrative becomes an art.

There is no exact formula for what is enough telling.  However, readers always need to know:

– Where are we? (Place and world – the reader needs to be placed into the scene, otherwise it’s confusing to the reader. Do not throw your readers into the deep end without giving them some help.)

– When are we? (What’s the era, the time of the year, the month, the day, the hour? We need everything that helps the reader settle into the scene as if this moment in time really exists.)

– Who is here? (An introduction to the characters, particularly to the main characters for that scene, and for the story.)

– Why are we were? (This doesn’t have to be greatly detailed information, but you need enough details to make a reader care. Think of it this way—too little and you starve the reader’s imagination; too much and the reader quickly fills up and drops the book down.)

All this needs to be woven together, stitched in with careful threads, not dumped on the reader in big clumps. Or, to put it another way, feed the reader your telling—your narrative—with a teaspoon, not a soup bowl.

Good narrative does a lot of things for you:

– It condenses information, which helps keep the pace of the story moving forward.

– It weaves in backstory and plot exposition, so you don’t have to have huge info dumps.

– It allows touches of your author voice to add atmosphere and mood to a story.

– It allows you, the author, to set the scene for the reader, thereby setting expectations about the story—you’re basically setting up the reader to enjoy the story (and not have to work too hard).

Bad narrative also does a lot of things for you, but worst of all, poor narrative is awkward, verbose and  tends to make a reader put down the book.

So how do you know if your narrative—your story telling—is working?

– Have someone else read the story—and just have them make an X on the page every time their attention starts to wander. That’s a place where the telling is probably getting to overload.

– Look at the balance of action (showing) to telling—go through with a colored marker and make sure you’re not telling too much.

– Use the story telling to move into and out of scenes (for transitions). Within a scene, cut the telling and only show your characters in action. Only tell if you must to clarify action, intent, or motivations (and even then look for better ways to show this instead of tell).

Most of all, if it works, don’t fix it. But if it doesn’t work, time to get back to edits to make the story work for the reader.

 

Point of View and Voice

I’m starting my Point of View workshop tomorrow and as always before a workshop, I’ve been thinking about the topic. A workshop is always a challenge–how do you better communicate ideas? Do the students understand basic concepts? Are folks trying to run before they can walk? Is anyone even listening?

POV is tough in that I think most folks brush it off as not really that important, when it is in fact one of the most important decision to make. Whose POV best tells the story? What POV gives the most conflict? And, more to the point, what POV calls to you?

Point of view and a writer’s voice cannot be separated. It is what makes writer’s voice authentic. A writer who attempts third person when their skills, preference and characters call out for first person will fail. Just as a writer who attempts first person who really leans heart and soul to third person will end up with clunky writing. Or even worse–writing that just sounds like showing off. And heaven help the story when craft is put first. The poor reader ends up with stories that are just terrible because the writer is spending too much time saying “look at what I can do.” It is death for a story when the reader notices the writing first.

So what’s a writer to do? Learn by reading, of course.

A great fist step I always advise is look at your bookshelf. Are most of the novels in first person? Or third person? Or a mix? Can you even get through a book written in first person (or, heaven help us, first person present tense). My own style leans toward third person–I love that it disappears. But I’ve read and loved some excellent work in first person, and mixed–but it takes talent to pull this off. It also takes passion–and it needs to fit the writer’s voice.

Trying something on is fine for a writer just starting out. Sometimes the only way you know if a pair of jeans fits is to put them on. But it’s also important to figure out what works best for you. And for the story. It’s also important to have your techniques down solid–if your technical skills are weak, the whole story is going to fall apart for the reader. Mastery of technical skills is what allows you to forget them. They’re in your DNA and you do them without thought. But you want to know your intent, too. You want to know just what it is you want to have the story do.

And that thought came up in a recent discussion on a forum about mixing up points of view had me wanting to respond with a question. What’s best for the story? That is the question a writer needs to ask. We’re back to intent here. And then the writer must answer with authority. That is what provides the reader and the story an authentic voice.