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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.

 

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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.

How do you Plot?

notquietThere are as many ways to plot as there are writers. However, one thing I’ve learned over the years is that if you have an idea where you’re going, it can save you from having to do massive revisions. This is not to say you have to know every detail. Sometimes knowing too much can keep you from writing the story–you feel as if it’s already been told.

A balance between too much and too little is my happy spot. I want to know the big moments in every act. I want to know the character arc I’m building–and I want that arc to be the story arc. That’s where I see a lot of writers get into trouble–they build an action arc instead.

Now action can be great–in a mystery, or SF, or a Western. It’s not so good in a romance, which has to be character based. And character-based stories are what I prefer. But character-based stories need to be plotted from the character (not the action). This idea is what led me to my Plotting from Character workshop, which I’m teaching this September for the Contemporary Romance Writers.

handsThe idea behind the workshop is that if you plot from trying to think up actions to happen, you’re more than likely going to end up pushing your characters around as if they are paper dolls. The characters are going to come across as one-dimensional and not well motivated to take the actions demanded by the plot (because the plot is being pushed onto them, not pulled from who these characters are). The other problem is the plot is going to seem contrived–the author will have to manipulate the characters to make these actions happen. That’s going to strain the reader’s ability to believe in these characters (and their situations).

How do you avoid this? Well, that’s the point of the four-week workshop. But there are some tips:

  1. Create one main character–this is your protagonist. I know this seems obvious, but it is amazing how many writers write as if they are really unsure who is the protagonist. This is not the narrator. This is the character who changes the most in the story (and who faces the most problems).
  2. Create an external goal for the main character that is tangible, so the reader knows if the character gets it or not. (There should be consequences for failing to achieve the goal. Failure should be personally costly to the main character. And those consequences are the motivation for wanting this goal.) This will drive your action and needs to be known to the reader as soon as possible (in the first ten pages is best).
  3. Figure out the main characters’ person’s core internal need. This should be something in conflict with that character’s goal so you get automatic conflict for that character between what that person wants and needs.
  4. Make sure you have strong motivations (the why) for a character’s core need. Discard the first three or four ideas (those will be clichés).
  5. Internal motivations are strongest if tied to a specific event in the character’s formative years—create these scenes (you may use them in the story).
  6. WHY is the most important question to keep asking and answering–why would this person act this way? Why do they want that thing? Why must they do this now? Never stop asking this question.
  7. Have a theme in mind–it will help you enormously as you shape all your characters and the story. Theme helps you figure what to put in and what to leave out.
  8. Create secondary characters around the main one, with clear needs, goals and motivations for every character–and with more and more conflict.
  9. Layer in strengths and weaknesses for all your characters–develop them so characters do more than show up to advance a plot.
  10. Leave room for your characters to surprise you.

Obviously, there is more to the art of plotting from characters. But if you keep the story focused on your characters–and keep asking would this person really do this?–then your stories are going to become much stronger.

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Rushing the Story

stophurryingI’ve seen a new habit cropping up with a lot of beginning writers–they’re all rushing the story. It’s like these writers are so afraid of a slow pace that the story takes off the other direction, meaning too fast for the reader to start to care about the action and way too fast to establish the scene and the characters.

Visual media–movies and TV–have it lucky. A thirty second shot can do a lot to establish place, time and even give you a good bit of information on a character. But in any written media, all of that needs far more than a sentence or two on the page.

Now I’m not saying you have to drag the story out, or load on the details until it is overwhelming. I’m talking a balance between too much and too little. Too much information can indeed slow a story down and leave the reader turning pages to jump ahead to where there is some action and the story starts. But too little information can leave a reader confused, and leaves the setting unclear and will not help the reader into the story with vivid details.

The opening of a story–or every scene in the story–is also a vital place to set the reader into the world, the moment, and is a place to establish the tone of the story. Yes, an action packed story should start off with action. But a historical romance can slow down the pace. A cozy mystery doesn’t have to have the same grit as a police procedural. Writers need to think about the type of story being produced. And have confidence in their own skills. A writer who will take time to set up the story and the scene will better hook me because I can see at once that this writer will deliver on the promise in those opening pages. I trust this writer knows how to TELL A STORY.

And I think that is where a lot of young writers fall down. Yes, you need to know the technical stuff–how to write a sentence or craft a paragraph so it won’t trip the reader. Even more important is how to tell a story, and that means all parts of the story. This means you want to know how to craft every scene so it has an arc–a beginning, middle and end. You want to know how to weave in conflict and tension, but how to do so with also weaving in vital details.

A writer needs to use all the senses to bring the reader into the world–to make the reader smell the air, feel the chill or warmth, hear the crunch of frost or gravel. It’s about more than throwing in just a few crumbs of details–the writing must have enough brush strokes to realize the world. And that means the writer has to see, hear, smell and think about all these details.

It’s not enough to say the hallway was black and white marble with a grand staircase. I want to know if that marble is polished to a sheen and is slick to walk on, or is it dusty and cracked. I want to know if the air is stale or fresh with the scent of orange blossoms and roses from a hot house. I want to know if the character standing next to that grand staircase is shivering in the cold of a draft, or sweating from oppressive heat and wishing a window could be opened. I want to see the world through the character’s eyes and have a mood established of foreboding, or joy, or tension, or awe. I want to hear the footsteps crack against that marble, or hear the slam of a distant door and I want to be immersed in that world. All that means the writer must be just as immersed.

It is noted that the great writer Chekhov once wrote to his brother Alexander, that, “In descriptions of Nature one must seize on small details, grouping them so that when the reader closes his eyes he gets a picture. For instance, you’ll have a moonlit night if you write that on the mill dam a piece of glass from a broken bottle glittered like a bright little star, and that the black shadow of a dog or a wolf rolled past like a ball.”’

chekhovmoon03This has come to be attributed as: Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.

Which Checkov indeed did in one of his stories:  The dam, flooded with moonlight, showed not a bit of shade; on it, in the middle, the neck of a broken bottle glittered like a star. The two wheels of the mill, half-hidden in the shadow of an ample willow, looked angry, despondent …

So maybe it is a need for these younger writers (and by young, I mean in experience, and not so much in age), to slow down and read their own work aloud. That’s a habit I learned early on. Reading your work aloud is a great way to catch not just the mistakes, but to hear the cadence of the words and to learn where more is needed. It’s rather like having a chef who must takes the food–a lack of tasting leads to not enough of the right spices.

Or maybe it’s just a need to slow down in general. Stop trying to rush to the end. Start letting the reader–and yourself–enjoy more of the process of getting there. Let the story unfold and spend more time with the details. Do multiple drafts and look to improve every single draft with more of the right details and more vivid images and senses. Give the reader a world the reader won’t want to leave.

And think about the overall tone of the story–go for more of what you want to give the reader (more humor, or more romance, or more tension, or more whatever you want to deliver). A writer’s job is to deliver a great story–and that means the writer must first imagine it.

What Are You Showing the Reader?

faces.jpgOne of the most important things to think about when you open any story is—what are you SHOWING the reader about that character? You want to remember that what you TELL the reader doesn’t matter as much as what you SHOW.

That’s right—you can tell the reader, the protagonist is smart, handsome, pretty, kind, and all kinds of wonderful. But if you don’t show the character being those things, the reader won’t believe it.

When you’re showing the character to the reader, you describe the character’s actions and use those actions to reveal emotion and thoughts. This puts the character on the page. And this all takes more words because you have to layer actions that are expressions of emotion (one action does not clearly identify an emotion, as in trembling hands could be anger, fear, or just feeling the cold). And showing is about IMMEDIACY—it’s happening now for the character. This means you do not want lots and lots of backstory in any character’s introduction.

In a lot of manuscripts that I see, the main characters is not shown as someone that the reader can connect with and root for. The characters does things that make the character unlikable right from the start. This is a problem when you have a reader looking to read for fun–it’s like going to a dinner party and finding out there’s  no one you can connect with. You want to leave the party right away.

Showing a character in action always uses more of the five senses: touch, taste, sound, sight, smell. Anytime you want to show more, read your draft and see if you are only describing sights—then weave in as many of the five senses as you can. And think about what you are showing. Are you showing a character who is a coward, who is cold, who is unkind? Is there anything you can show that would better connect the reader to that main character?

If you want a reader to connect with a character, you want several things:

-SHOW the character in action (so the reader gets an immediate sense of who is this person).

-PRESENT the character with something the reader can either admire or understand.

-CONNECT the reader emotionally with the character—meaning it’s not about the action entirely. The reader has to understand the character’s motivations and emotions.

And if you’re writing genre fiction, take a look at Kurt Vonnegut’s Eight Rules for Writers. They’re going to help you get your readers attached to your characters right off.

The Best Question A Writer Can Ask…

…and Keep Asking!

It’s one little word, and yet it is vital.

WHY?

Why doairconditioneres my hero want this goal? Why does my heroine go into that haunted mansion? Why does the bad guy in the book want the hero dead? Why…why…why?

The answer to why is the motivation for a character to act. In fiction, the reader has to buy into that answer. Fictional characters have to make more sense than real people. Real people can do odd things for seemingly no reason–but readers want their fictional worlds to make more sense.

Now when you ask that why, don’t settle for the first thing that pops into your head. Anyone who reads a lot is going to go straight for a cliche–meaning a overused answer to why–for motivation.

Oh, the hero has commitment issues because his girlfriend dumped him (cliche).

Oh, the bad guy is just crazy (cliche).

Oh, the heroine goes into the haunted house because I really need  her in danger at this point in the story (cliche and contrived).

So you ask WHY? Then you ask again, and again, and again. About the fifth or sixth, or seventh or eighth time your brain will run out of cliches and you’ll start getting ideas that really connect to your specific character. That’s where the gold is–and you have to dig for it.

Which means next time your story is stuck, go back to WHY is she doing this? Or WHY is he acting this way? And keep asking WHY. It’s the most best question you can ask of your characters.

Likeable Characters

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. This holds true in a book, too—readers (all of us) want to spend time with folks we like.

This is a huge issue in any book—it was one I faced in A Cardros Ruby. Initially, the heroine started off as just too cranky and too hard to like. Now, she had her reasons for being that way—and she’s still a little touchy (she’s just seen her brother brought in unconscious, so she can be forgiven for being a little upset)—but I worked hard to make certain she didn’t put folks off.

Lady ScandalMy own experiences with this had taught me the hard way—the heroine of A Dangerous Compromise is a hard-to-like girl. She 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 cotton 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. Let’s face it, if your characters aren’t likeable, you’re going to have a hard time getting readers to settle down, buy the book and the world. That’s the voice of experience talking.

This is particularly true for series characters. I recently devoured the Phyrne Fisher mystery series by Kerry Greenwood. They’re fun, set in 1920’s Australia–but the important thing here is that Phyrne, while she has her flaws, is funny, sharp, and I’d love to sit down to dinner with her (particularly if she has her staff cooking). The books are a delight and I read all twenty because I wanted more time with Phyrne. Others have felt the same for the books have been made into an Australian TV series.

As a reader, I want characters I can root for, characters I can laugh with and cry with, characters with whom I sympathize. Kurt Vonnegut even notes in his Eight Rules to “give the reader one character to root for.” That’s good advice and if you break that rule you’d better have a good reason and even more talent.

But this 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:

Indiana_Jones_in_Raiders_of_the_Lost_ArkMad Skills – We tend to like folks we admire; we like people who are good at what they do. This is why 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, and she may do bad things, but she’s got really good reasons, as in Sarah Conner of The Terminator. We like folks even more when they do good thing. The guy who rescues a stray dog. 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. 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.

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).

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).

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. But think of Tony Stark in Iron Man–it’s his sense irony and his humor as much as his iron suit that makes him stand out in any crowd.

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.

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.

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. And 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. After all, even Hannibal Lecter had the admirable traits of being a cultured man—and very, very 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 for breaking up a beautiful friendship by betraying the reader’s trust. If any reader finds the main character too unlikeable, that book is going to be put down.

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—the character must be shown doing things that show off that character’s traits. (And 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.)

Above all remember that 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. At the very least–make sure you like them and find them fascinating.