Category Archives: Editing

Changes. Story Structure and Character Evolution.

Firstly, I want to apologize for the wordiness of the blog below. Like so many of us, this merry winter season, I have a head full of snuffles and snot… and when I’m sick I tend to get long winded. 😛 Still, for those of you who are at the very beginning of your novel-writing process, I hope this post will help!

“To be in time means to change.”

I don’t remember exactly where I heard that quote, but it rings very true. The crux of the thing is that there is something commons to us all that ardently resists change… This conflict is at the very core of what it means to be human and is the centre about which all great stories revolve.

I think… I mean if you disagree it’s okay. 🙂

As far as I can tell, a successful story is one that chronicles a characters great adaptation/revelation. If no change happens to your character then you’ve just written either a slapstick comedy or a very cynical tragedy. While both these genres can say something depressingly profound about out tendency towards being obstinate… I prefer a story that inspires us to be more than what we commonly are.

Now I’m going to talk about story structure. I’ve come to the belief that once you know the rules you can break them with intent and purpose. So let’s start with a character-driven plot, built by following a three-act structure: Beginning, Middle, and End.

Like life, the heart of this story revolves around change.

The Beginning is about the “who” of the story. You need to use every trick in your pocket to get your audience to intrinsically connect with your main character within the first 5 pages… within the first five paragraphs is better. You establish the character’s unique way of perceiving the world and their ‘normal’ environment (even if normal for them is fighting aliens or posing as a drug lord… whatever). Be sure to give your character a weakness as well… this is great for story and usually makes her more likable.

To move your character from the Beginning to the Middle, you need an ‘inciting incident’. This is something that intrudes dramatically upon the character’s normal world. This inciting incident demands change from the character… normally, the protagonist resists change and needs a very compelling reason to continue. A helpful mentor of some sort is usually inserted here.

By the Middle, your protagonist has a clear goal in mind and a very strong reason to not just get up and walk away from the whole mess altogether. The Middle is a series of obstacles (increasing in difficulty) that your character must overcome to achieve her goal.

I also suggest you use these obstacles as opportunities for reflection and self-evaluation. After an intense action scene, it can be a good idea to insert a short scene of evaluation to develop character and give your audience a short moment to catch their breath.

Everything in the Middle all builds towards a climatic confrontation of some sort. In some of the books I’ve read, this part is called ‘the journey  to the innermost cave.’ Sounds ominous doesn’t it?I think it’s a good idea to kill off that ‘mentor character’ about now but I’ll let you make the choice on that point. 🙂

To end the book, your protagonist must joureny to a place of ultimate testing, often aided by a totem of some sort… anything from a magical sword to an intimate memory to give them strength. This is a place of great temptation as well.

For a happy Ending, I suggest your character has a brilliant revelation of self and makes the necessary changes to overcome this great trial. In doing so, your character evolves to a new level of self-awareness and now becomes the master of the old world they began the story in and the new world they stove to overcome.

Hmmm… like I said. Learn the rules and then break them. If you can detect a note of cynicism in my writing, you’re probably right. All I’m trying to say however, is that this structure works really really well. Just ask George Lucas. Personally, I’m still using classicstory structure myself. One day, perhaps, I’ll be smart enough to go beyond it but I’m not quite there yet. Any ideas?

Okay… now I’m going back to bed. 😛 Happy New Year everyone!

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How to Write Authentic Characters

Like mine, a book is never better than when it uses a constant supply of raw source material. For me, the gemstones of content are found in everyday life, by watching people and taking note of the strange things we all do and say.

Some people find inspiration in isolation and nature. Nature does help me focus, but at the end of the day, I find that I’m never more creatively primed than in a place buzzing with strangers.

I love trying to figure out who a person is and where they came from. I see a man wearing a curly mullet and a red tie and I wonder what he was he like in high school; I guess at his profession and the type of woman he might marry.

It’s creepy, I know, but I can’t help myself. As I focus on my chosen stranger, my natural curiosity causes me to surreptitiously sidle closer.

Eavesdropping on conversations is pure gold. I can think of no better way to learn to write rich insightful dialogue. If it’s good stuff, I pretend to journal and take notes.

When I get home, I combine my notes and my imagination and come up with a vibrant, living, breathing character for a story. Now I know this is odd, but the next step for me is to seat my imaginary character down and interview him. I never cut him any slack, I probe for the recessed childhood memories and ask him about his secret desires. Some sample questions might be:

Have you ever stolen anything?

Do you have recurring dreams or nightmares?

What’s your greatest fear?

Who is someone you look up to?

You get the idea… the more questions and answers that I come up with the more interesting my character becomes. I might not use everything from the interview in my story, but it helps me to understand my character’s thoughts and actions.

What do you do?

PS This is a funny article on Eavesdropping I came across: enjoy! Authors get the Eavesdropping Bug

PPS I posted a picture of Farley Mowat because he happens to be my favourite ‘character’ author. I love and connect with his characters finding them full of good-natured fun, hopelessly flawed, and wonderfully human.


How to Write Great Action Scenes

Whenever I think of an action scene, I see it play out in my head the way it would in a movie: guy jumps from car, pulls out machine gun, blows up tanker.

As you read the previous sentence, what you are visualizing is called “external action”. You know nothing of the internal action in the scene. While pure external action scenes work for movies (supplemented by sexy outfits and special effects) , books simply cannot rely on external action alone to engage the reader. If you do, your writing tends to come across as superficial and mechanical.

Any scene in a book, including action scenes, should propel your story forward and develop character. This is where you mix internal action with external action. Don’t be afraid to write about your character’s internal conflicts. I like to jack up the emotional stakes of an action scene with things like betrayal, lust, and sacrifice. Be sure to work these in!

Another point. If an action scene lacks tension, it’s boring. Trust me, being afraid for your life usually isn’t enough. Once you understand it, tension is easy enough to write. Think of an elastic band being pulled in two opposite directions, the harder you pull the more tension there is. If a character is experiencing a strong emotion (he loves the girl), introduce or suggest an opposite emotion at the same time (he’s afraid she might kill him) and voila! Instant tension.

Finally, pay attention to your pacing. Action scenes tend to be written with short tight sentences to suggest rapid movement. This is entirely appropriate, but if you don’t give your audience a change of pace once in awhile, they’re going to drop out of the race.

You can use longer sentences to highlight points of particular importance to the plot of your book. Below I’ve written a faster-paced sentence:

Tom spun in surprise and Eric hit him on the jaw.

Depending on the story, this might be a really significant event and you may want to spend some more time with it. For instance:

Tom spun in surprise, his expression shocked. Eric, wearing a crooked grin, slung a bloody-knuckled fist into Tom’s jaw.

Notice the tension developed by the fact that Eric is smiling as he punches Tom out.

You can also use longer-paced sentences to build atmosphere and drop in choice bits of description. Because an action scene does tend to be visual, it’s important not to forget about the place where your scene happens.

🙂 In the interests of keeping this blog a reasonable length, I think I’ll stop there. Let me know if you have any questions!


Two common errors that will kill your story

I never did very well in grammar, despite my love of words I always wanted to just tell the story without having to bother with the structure of things. Now that I’ve begun to write in earnest however, I’ve learnt that a little knowledge about the mechanics of writing can change a story’s pace from plodding to riveting. Below are two common errors that can spell the difference between life and death in your story.

#1 Past tense vrs. Present tense.

Please, as much as possible use present tense over past tense! Past tense removes the reader from the action while present tense makes it enthralling. Consider the following sentence:

He was sitting in silence when he was interrupted by a loud knock at the door.

“was sitting” and “was interrupted” are both past tense.This is a tedious sentence. Compare it with the one below.

A loud knock at the door interrupted his silent reverie.

The second sentence is much more engaging. I’m still learning about past tense, but I have found that words like “were, was, have been…” are all indicators of past tense. Watch out for them!

#2 Unnecessary Adverbs

Another way to bog down the pace of your story it to overuse adverbs. Many adverbs can be identified by the ‘ly’ tacked on the end (quickly, happily, etc…). Adverbs are especially damaging in dialogue. Your dialogue should be strong enough to stand on its own without having to constantly be explained by adverbs. Below is an example of poor dialogue propped up with too many adverbs:

Kneeling down, he pulled out a small purple box. “I want you to marry me,” he said nervously.

Rachel bit her lip and frowned. “Oh Don…” she replied uncertainly, “I’m not sure.”

He angrily grabbed her arm, twisting the fabric of her shirt in a white-knuckled grasp. “After all these years?” he said brokenly.  “I thought you loved me!”

“I do,” she replied sadly. “But you’re not the only one.”

Hehe. Wow. That was really bad. It’s embarrassing how easy it was to write. Anyways, here’s the same scene again with the adverbs removed.

Kneeling down, he pulled out a small purple box. He gazed into her eyes, his cheeks flaring red. “I want you to marry me,” he said.

Rachel bit her lip. “Oh Don…” she replied. “I’m not sure.”

He grabbed her arm, twisting the fabric of her shirt in a white-knuckled grasp. “After all these years?” he said.  “I thought you loved me!”

“I do.” Rachel pulled away, unable to meet his eyes. “But you’re not the only one.”

The difference in this bit of dialogue is the way I used action to convey the emotions of the characters rather than using adverbs to ‘tell’ you how they feel. This follows an old rule of thumb for snappy engaging writing: show don’t tell.

More on that later 🙂


Two errors that will kill your story

Here’s the link to my latest post on wordpress.
Two common errors that will kill your story


For Writers: Subtext. Part 2

I’m sure there are better examples of subtext out of there, but to bring it close to home I’ve included a narrative selection from my book that was really dry until I used subtext to heighten the tension. I know, it could still use more work… but well, it can always use more work.
To review, subtext is the hidden undercurrents in a scene.
For me, subtext happens in the details.  

Aria slid her hand into Tavin’s, and led him into the darkness
beyond the doorway. Once they left the cell, the roots wound shut
behind them, encasing them in a small damp room of earth and tree
bark. Eerie green light seeped from the roots and lit the space around
them. If there’d been a window or a torch, Tavin would have never
noticed the light, but in the near darkness, it was just enough to trace
the outlines of Aria’s pale round face.
With a hand lovingly trailing across Mya’s roots, Aria walked
forward, bringing Tavin with her. The room reformed as they
moved, opening the path before them and closing after they passed.
The packed earth beneath their feet remained thoughtfully smooth
and level.
They travelled in silence. The dim light and warmth of the
chamber never changed, and it lulled Tavin into a dreamlike state.
It was hard to guess the passage of time. When Aria finally stopped
walking, she had to call Tavin’s name several times to get his attention.
Mya parted her roots at eyelevel to form a narrow peephole
into the world beyond. Tavin’s nose twitched as the scent of cool
air and damp grass flowed into the chamber, accompanied by gray
moonlight. Aria pressed her cheek to the peephole. It seemed like an
eternity had passed before she drew back.
Here is the subtext I attempted to write into the narrative you just read: 
Mya is a magical tree that has strong “mothering” aspects. To echo this thought, I built the room that my characters pass through to resemble a womb.

Mya is also overbearing. I hope you felt, as Tavin did, rather stifled.

Aria, on the other hand, finds Mya a comforting and familiar presence.

Tavin is in love with Aria.

I hope that makes sense.
 

😛


For Writers: Subtext

So rather than blabbering to myself all the time, I thought I would blog a bit about some of the mechanics of writing… or at least my take on it. By all means! Please feel free to comment and enrich this blog!

I’d like to start with subtext, mainly because it is the one thing that made my manuscript come alive. Subtext refers to the currents of emotion that swirl just under the surface of a section of writing. The characters in the scene are generally unaware of it and it’s a marvellous way of adding tension – especially when there’s nothing really exciting actually happening. I love using subtext in dialogue. It really makes characters come alive! I read somewhere that the less you have going on in a scene, the more subtext you need.

The most obvious example of subtext is sexual tension.
Others might be: ambition, repulsion, attraction, secrets, frailty, manipulation, misjudgement… the list is as long as the range of human emotion I suppose.

When I outline a scene I make a list of my character’s (often competing) emotions and desires. Once that’s done, the tension ratchets up and the scene sort of writes itself.

So. How do you express subtext in your writing? (Or what would you do if you were me and you wanted to write 4000 words today?) 🙂