Examining the Essentials

As my planned date of publication for my debut novel draws closer, I find myself thinking a lot about what makes a story worthy. What should an author most pay attention to? I came up with 4 essentials.

Essential 1 – Don’t Make Stupid Choices

So your story takes place in some ancient country that I’ve never heard of. Great. I’m sure it’s a wonderful setting, but do you really have to use authentic names for your characters? The five scholars who make the study of that country’s history their lives’ work will be appreciative, but the rest of your potential audience will give up reading when they lose track of who and where.

I do understand that no problem is too great that it can’t be solved, and a creative writer can make anything work.

The truth is, writing something people will want to read is freaking hard. Becoming competent in the basics is challenging enough. I just don’t need additional hurdles.

Essential 2 – Setting and Events Don’t Matter Without Context

Let’s say I’m writing a story and choose for my setting: late evening in the French Quarter of New Orleans on February 7, 2010.

To the vast majority of people, the time and date will have no relevance. The location might have some. They may remember a drunken Mardi Gras. Perhaps they have a pleasant association involving their appreciation of the city’s architecture. Maybe they have a negative feel for the place because an old girlfriend from there dumped them.

I wasn’t there at the time the story takes place, but I get goose bumps thinking about it. If I expect my audience automatically to feel the same way, I’m an idiot. It takes work to get them to that point.

The story isn’t about a setting or the events; it’s about a guy. If I show him as a long-suffering Saints fan — throwing the TV remote at the end of yet another 3-13 season, his despair at a series of poor decisions and squandered opportunities — when I take the reader to the culmination of Super Bowl XLIV with this guy surrounded by throngs of the faithful, I can make any reader feel the same emotion that I do (well, maybe ANY reader. It requires the capacity for emotion, and I have a hard time ascribing any human attribute to a Falcons fan.).

Essential 3 – Tension

If a story is life without the boring parts, tension is what removes the boredom. Truthfully, if you want to find a single area on which to concentrate, pick this one.

A story with the tension done right will keep the reader turning pages even if everything else about it pretty much sucks. The reader will finish the book and say, “That writing was kinda crappy,” but they’ll probably buy your next book.

A Brief Aside…

Not making bad choices is the least important of the essentials. Unfortunately, it’s also the one I’m the best at.

I didn’t come to understand the importance of filtering through your POV character until writing my 3rd draft, and I think it shows. I made a valiant effort in my editing, but I still have work to do.

I don’t think that tension is a weakness of mine, but I also wouldn’t consider it a strength. I’ll try to ramp it up in both the final drafts.

That brings me to:

Essential 4 – Emotion

If you want your reader to love your book, you have to make them feel something. The only way to do that is to get the emotion right, and that’s not an easy proposition. You can’t just tell the reader what the character feels; you have to demonstrate it in a way that makes the reader truly understand. If you go too far, though, it induces eye rolling.

This morning, I used my DVR to catch up on an episode of Grimm. One of the ongoing plot lines is the development of a relationship between two of the supporting characters, and it struck me how well the writers are handling that subplot. They don’t devote a lot of time to it, but, what time they do spend, they use well.

First, the guy is just enough of a loser to be sympathetic. I’m firmly rooting for him to win the girl.

Second, they don’t get sappy. He never pines over her. Instead, they show him doing things that indicate his feelings.

In the episode I watched today, the character, a clock repair man, gives his girlfriend a, wait for it, clock. He doesn’t go on and on about his feelings for her; he goes on and on about how awesome the clock is. The camera cuts to the girl, and her expression indicates her understanding of his meaning. It’s fantastic writing.

Quite simply, the 3rd draft of my novel is not where I want it to be in this respect, but I’m working on it. I found this blog post recently that offers tremendous advice: http://awriterstouch.wordpress.com/2013/03/27/words-concrete-and-stacking-stories-3-tips-for-writing-emotion-in-fiction/

I strongly suggest you check it out.

The 5 Things I Most Need from Beta Readers

Writing a first novel is a huge learning process, and how to deal with beta readers was one of the biggest lessons. Before I get to my 5 Things, here’s a bonus 2 procedures that I’ll change:

1. I sent the 2nd draft of Power of the Mages out in 5-chapter increments. While I’m glad I did it that way because the comments I got back improved my writing, I’ll send out only complete drafts in the future. There was simply too much loss of continuity. I’d change character traits, story arcs, and names of things and places from one section to the next, so the beta readers never got a true sense of the book as a whole.
2. In addition to getting comments for the 2nd draft, I’m sending out the 3rd draft to beta readers, mainly because of the continuity issues mentioned above. For the sake of efficiency in the future, I’ll send manuscripts out only once.

Now, on with the actual post —

In any endeavor involving working with people, communication is key. Define the feedback you most want from the critique process and relate that desire to your beta readers. Here are the 5 Things I think are most important:

1. My biggest goal is to engage the reader, and, to that end, I need to know if there’s anything in my writing that draws you from the text. Did you have to read a sentence twice to figure out what I was trying to say? Did you get confused over who was speaking? Are there any formatting or punctuation issues that made you spend mental effort being annoyed rather than experiencing the story? Did you get irritated because I overexplained something?
2. Tension and pace are hugely important and are difficult for an author to judge correctly. If the pace is too fast or the story too tense, the reader can get worn out. I read a book one time with Energizer Bunny battles; they just kept going and going and… On the flip side, if the pace is too slow or the story not tense enough, the reader will get bored. I need to know if/where these problems occur in my text.
3. Emotion is both crucial and difficult to get right. My second draft was flat because I didn’t include enough. I fear I’ve swung the pendulum too far the other way and induced eye rolling in the 3rd draft by making the characters too melodramatic.
4. Where did I screw up? Did I have the group journeying north, turn right, and say they’re now heading west? Did I make a character do something that completely contradicts who I’ve established that person to be? Did I refer to the same town by different names?
5. If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s how insidious typos, homonyms, and grammar/punctuation mistakes are. They bury themselves in the text to actively try to hide from me. Each one of these that a beta reader points out is one that doesn’t make it into the final version.

3 Ways Writers Rob Tension from Their Scenes

A lot of people see writing as an art, and, to an extent, I agree with them. Figuring out your story, determining the exact right words to use, painting a picture with your description are all creative, artistic endeavors.

There’s another side of writing that is just as important — technique.

If you use a particular technique, you’re going to create a particular result every time. Figuring out which one to use is creative; the actual use is technical. Each technique is a gear, and, when you fit the right gears together in the right order, you create an engine that hums along and draws in the reader.

The fuel most commonly used for that engine is tension. A character wants something, and the writer creating doubt about the character’s ability to achieve that objective creates interest for the reader.

I’ve offer critiques to a lot of writers, and I’ve noticed three ways that they unintentionally rob their stories of that crucial fuel.

One – The characters have a blasé attitude toward the opposition to the goal.

Take this example:

The bullet whizzed past Joe. He yawned and stretched before lazily reaching for his gun.

I started out with a tense situation. A bullet implies that Joe’s life is in danger and gives him an immediate, important goal — to escape with his life. The bullet also implies the presence of opposition to Joe’s goal in the form of the person who fired the bullet.

With two of the primary elements for tension present, I should be well on my way to a fantastic scene. Instead, I rob all my hard work with the second sentence. For tension to exist, the reader must have some doubt that Joe is going to escape with his life. Since the reader is seeing the action through the filter that is Joe, his blasé attitude will infect the reader and pull out all the tension.

So, obviously I’m saying that you can never have a badass character who laughs in the face of danger. No. Do you think I’m an idiot who doesn’t know that “Joe” exists in hundreds, thousands, maybe even millions, of novels? If those authors can make Joe work, so can you. My point is that you have to know that you’ve killed your tension and fix the issue.

Perhaps the scene continues this way:

“I hate you!” Jill yelled.

Joe rose from behind the crate and shot the guy drawing a bead on her. She drew back her arm and readied her throwing knife. Another bullet passed by Joe, this one close enough to rip his leather jacket.

Damn, he thought, I loved that coat.

Before he could adjust his aim to the new threat, the red handle of Jill’s knife appeared sticking for the man’s eye socket.

The laser from a third assailant’s rifle glowed red on Jill’s shirt, and he shot the guy in the center of the forehead. A flash of red passed before Joe’s eyes, and a blade impaled the wall inches from him.

“Look at me when I’m talking to you!” she yelled.

Now, the action is a comedic backdrop for the tension-filled argument between two lovers.

Another method might be to reveal information to the reader in a previous scene that the POV character doesn’t have. Perhaps Joe is so confident because he’s a superninja who can take out scores of mortal opponents without taking a scratch. Unfortunately for him, his three opponents are all superninjas! That “Oh crap” moment when he realizes it can be a lot of fun.

Bottom line: If you’re going to populate your story with these types of characters, understand the challenge you’re creating for yourself and figure out ways around it.

Two – The author inserts inappropriate description.

The other day, I’m reading a book, and I get to an action scene. Bullets are flying. Giant robotic creatures are terrorizing nineteenth century London in pursuit of, essentially, Frankenstein monsters (Unfortunately, I am not making this up). The time-traveling POV character arrives in the midst of this mayhem, and the author — wait for it — decides to insert long paragraphs describing the city.

Really?

Description is a great tool. When used appropriately to set the scene, to control pacing, etc., it absolutely belongs in your story. In this case, it did nothing other than kill the tension. If the POV character has time to study the city streets, she’s probably not all that concerned about her life. If she’s not concerned, why should the reader be?

If you feel the pacing needs a break, focus on something that increases tension rather than kills it. Taking a paragraph to describe in detail the tip of the sword thrusting at your hero emphasizes that the POV character is focused on the danger, which in turn focuses the reader on the danger.

Three – The author tells instead of shows.

Long time readers of this blog will know that I take a more lenient stance toward telling than some. This attitude doesn’t mean that I don’t believe that showing should be your default technique.

Think of it this way: Your buddy comes up to you and says, “I survived a gunfight yesterday.”

It’s possible that you, as an author, are thinking, “See, that creates immediate tension and interest. It’s just not a usual situation for one of your friends to be involved in a gunfight.”

Granted, unless you are a cop or a soldier (and, even then, I’d guess your actual gun battles are fairly limited) it’s not all that common for your friends to be in gunfights, and, if one of them comes to you with such a story, your ears are going to perk up. There’s a fallacy here, though.

While my in real life buddies don’t routinely get shot at, characters in the books I read or shows I watch do. There’s absolutely nothing inherently exciting to me about one of those characters being in that situation.

Contrast the telling with the author showing the character in a gunfight. This technique allows me to experience the gunfight, and, as long as I feel doubt that I’m going to survive, that introduces tension.

Why Does That Scene Exist?

It is my firm contention that an author should ask himself the question posed in the title of this post for every scene.

I know I’ve expressed the same sentiment before on this blog, and I probably will do so again because I think it’s the second most important piece of advice I can give you. However, I have a different end purpose in mind for telling it to you this time.

Usually, the subtext to the comment is that, if you can’t answer the question, you should delete the scene. On this occasion, the point is that answering the question can make the scene better.

In the most recent chapter of Power of the Mages that I’m editing, I got a bunch of beta reader comments that suggested alternative things that could happen instead of what I wrote. My takeaway — “These scenes are so incredibly boring that I spent my mental effort trying to find kernels that might provide interest in order to distract me for the mind-numbing prose.”

Boring. Got it.

Long time readers of this blog will instantly know how to fix boring — add tension and add emotion.

While doing just those two things made up a part of my troubleshooting strategy, these scenes required some extra TLC. The root cause of them being boring was that they did not fulfill the story need that justified their existence.

Simply put, it felt like the scenes didn’t belong because they served no purpose.

Easy fix again, right? Just delete them.

In this case, no. The problem wasn’t that they’re not needed; the problem was that the idiot author (me) hadn’t written the scenes to make them fulfill their respective objectives. By tightening the focus to emphasize fulfillment of the scene goals, I was able to make the scenes feel like part of the whole instead of boring outliers.

How to Create Tension

The more I study the craft of writing, the more I’m convinced that the driving force to engage a reader is a relatable character displaying emotional responses to tense situations. If you miss any of those three key elements — a relatable character, filtered emotion, or tension — you’re not going to hold your reader’s interest.

Quite honestly, I haven’t quite figured out how to define the creation of the first two of those essentials. The third, however, is quite easy, so I’m going to focus on it. Instead of telling you that you need to add tension or even explaining how to add tension, I’m going to show you.

Step 1: Give your character a goal.

Jack wants to go up a hill.

Example –

Jack wanted to go up a hill, so he did.

Commentary –

Okay, not exactly the most tense scene in the history of writing. Give me a break; we’re only on step 1!

Step 2: Create opposition to the character achieving his goal.

It’s rained a lot lately, so the only path up the hill is quite muddy.

Example –

Ready for a bit of exercise, Jack struck out for the hill, but he failed to consider the amount of rain that fell yesterday. Thick, stinky mud covered the dirt track leading to the top. He stuck his foot off the paved parking lot onto the trail, and it sunk several inches. A goopy mess coated the previously pristine white Nike.

Sighing, he considered turning back. No, he thought. I’m not going to let a little rain stop me.

Jack slogged up the path, often losing half as much ground with each step as he had gained. But he persevered. Reaching the top brought him tremendous satisfaction.

He looked at the trail below him. “Oh crap, now I have to get back down.”

Commentary –

Okay, a little more tense, but not exactly riveting.

Step 3: Increase the character’s motivation to achieve the goal.

Instead of wanting exercise, Jack needs something at the top of the hill. Let’s say it’s a magic pail of water that is the only thing that can save his dying wife, Jill.

Example –

Knowing it was his only shot at saving her, Jack struck out for the hill. He knew the slog to the top would be difficult considering all the rain, but he didn’t have a choice. If he didn’t get that pail of water, and get it fast, Jill would die. He had only hours.

Thick, stinky mud covered the dirt track leading to the top. He stuck his foot off the paved parking lot onto the trail, and it sunk several inches. A goopy mess coated the previously pristine white Nike.

Imagining himself slipping and breaking his leg or injuring his ankle kept his pace cautious, but his need for quickness spurred him faster. He desperately sought the right balance between safety and speed.

Often losing half as much ground with each step as he had gained, he persevered until reaching the top to claim the life-saving Water of the Oracle.

He looked at the trail below him. “Oh crap, now I have to get back down without spilling it all.”

Commentary –

See, this is picking up. It still could go a little further, though.

Step 4: Increase the opposition.

A hill is too easy. Now, he has to climb a mountain. Rain and mud? Really? Now, there’s a blizzard. And let’s throw a stone-hurling Cyclops in his path.

Example –

“I have to do what?” Jack said.

“You heard me. Climb Mount Oracle to reach the Water. If Jill doesn’t drink it within the twelve hours, she’s dead. There’s nothing else I can do.”

Jack peered out the window at the swirling snow with trepidation. Reaching the summit of the mountain was no easy task under ordinary circumstances. In a blizzard, it would be well-nigh impossible. But he had no choice; Jill was his wife, his one true love.

A white blanket covered the roads as he drove to the base of the trail, and the parking lot was in even worse shape. He pulled his coat around him as he stepped from the car. I don’t know which is more likely, he thought, falling off a cliff or freezing to death.

It was a long, slow slog even on the relatively level part of the trail. Jack looked upward in dismay when he reached a slope that led seemingly to the sky. A man would have to be bloody insane to try to climb that in this weather.

Insane or desperate.

After several attempts, he managed to hook a rope around a tree above him. Though he struggled to gain purchase for each step, the rope held him steady. Cold seeped through his gloves, and his fingers grew numb. He shivered, knowing that failing to hold his grip would send him into a hundred-foot fall.

A rock bigger than his head flew past him within inches of his shoulder. Frantic, he glanced about and spotted the creature. Its single red eye dominated its face, and…

Commentary –

Okay, I think you get the picture. Tension is easy to create. If you don’t have enough, make sure you have clearly defined Steps 1 and 2. If you need more of it, just turn up the volume on Steps 3 and 4.

Oh, since I left you hanging, I’ll tell you how the story turns out: Jack manages to get the water and save Jill, but, before then, a bad fall causes him to break his crown.

Two Writing Rules I Don’t Like

You’re on a road trip, and it’s 2am.  You’ve still got an hour of driving to reach the hotel you’ve booked.  It’s the middle of nowhere, west Texas.  In the distance, a green glow emanates from a traffic light.  As you near, it goes to yellow.  Crap, you think, and slow to a stop as it turns red.

As far as you know from your last hour, you might just be the last person left in existence.  You can see for literally miles in each direction.  There is no sign of life.

Do you:

A)    Wait for the light to turn green?

B)     Carefully look both ways and drive on through?

I’d pick B.

In general, as you may have noticed from this blog, I like writing rules.  They have helped my work, and I think they provide fantastic guidelines. 

I refuse, however, to follow them blindly.  When I encounter a rule, I do my best to gain an understanding of it – not just the what, but the why.  Here are two that I examined and found wanting:

Single space after a period

There exists a vehement group of professionals who have decided that the rest of us must single space after a period in lieu of the traditional double space.  To do otherwise, in their opinion, is wrong and the hallmark of an amateur.

I disagree.

Look at the following:

at 2 A.M. Brian drove

Without context, you have no way of knowing if “Brian” starts a new sentence.  This could be:

Leaving at 2 A.M. Brian drove home.  (Of course, I’d typically use a comma there, but some wouldn’t)

Or it could be:

He arrived at the store at 2 A.M. Brian drove home from there.

I think that a punctuation mark that requires contextual clues is somewhat lacking.  Consistent double spacing eliminates the problem. 

Obviously, having a proper noun follow an abbreviation isn’t a common occurrence, but I have another reason for disliking the rule.  The period is, perhaps, our most important punctuation mark.  Its signifying a full stop certainly outweighs the comma’s yield.  Yet, it’s also the smallest of our marks.  To me, the extra space helps draw that tiny bit of extra attention to it.

Now, am I so vehemently against the single space that I would advocate the double space as the only valid method?  No.  It’s purely a personal stylistic choice.  I think that saying otherwise is absurd.

Within a scene, always thwart the protagonist’s goals until the book’s climax

As a guideline saying that this is usually a good idea, I have no problem with it.  I think more nuance is needed, though.

As the reader follows your character, they grow to experience the events of your work with him.  Having your character achieve happiness is an opportunity to let your reader experience a powerful positive emotion. 

I just got finished with a couple of scenes in Power of the Mages where I do something similar but for a very different reason.  By giving Xan what he wants for a short time, I feel it’s going to be that much more impactful when I yank the rug out from under him.  How can he truly experience sadness if he didn’t know what happiness was?

Bottom Line:

If someone you respect is telling you a writing rule, you need to consider it.  Do not, however, follow blindly.  Seek understanding of the rule and make your own decision.

BrianWFoster’s Fifth Law of Writing

Fifth Law: Add Tension.

Have you ever written a good scene where the words flow, but it somehow seems off or boring?  The problem is probably a lack of tension.

Scenes need conflict and tension to engage the reader.  Take the following dialogue exchange:

Protagonist: Hey, I’ve got an idea.  Let’s (fill in the blank).

Others in the party: That’s a great idea!

Remember what Alfred Hitchcock said: A story is life with the dull parts taken out.  The dialogue above is boring.  You can take it out by summarizing: They all agreed to (fill in the blank).  Alternately, you could show the group doing the activity and let the reader assume that everyone agreed to do it. 

Depending on your story, it might be better to keep the discussion.  Spice it up:

Protagonist: Hey, I’ve got an idea.  Let’s (fill in the blank).

Friend: Imbecile!  That’s a horrible idea.

Make the protagonist fight to win over the group.  Keep in mind, however, that you risk making the friend appear whiny.  If you make sure that the friend’s arguments and motivations are good, you lessen this problem.

The best tip I’ve read to add tension to a scene is:

  1. Give your protagonist a goal.
  2. Create opposition that prevents your protagonist from reaching the goal.
  3. To increase tension, increase your protagonist’s desire to achieve the goal and/or the strength of the opposition.

Let’s say that your protagonist, Jane, is in a scene.  Her scene goal is that she’s thirsty and needs a soda.  The opposition is that the car won’t start.  Since her goal is kind of weak, she might just decide that she can grab a glass of tap water.  The opposition is weak as well.  Perhaps the store is at the end of the block.  She can walk and grab a soda.

What if we play with the goal?  Instead of needing a soda, her child was just ate something the caused an allergic reaction.  The kid’s throat is clogging.  She desperately needs Benadryl. 

This is much better.  She has to get the medicine.  The problem is the obstacle.  Why doesn’t she call 911?  Failing that, she can run down to the corner pharmacy.

We need to increase the opposition as well.  They’re living in the deep south, and they’re having the snowstorm of the century.  The roads are so bad that even ambulances aren’t running.  Add to that the fact that the nearest drug store is two miles away, and you’ve got the makings of some tension.

Show Jane trekking through the snow, forcing every step to get to that pharmacy and back before her child dies.  Then, she gets to the story and…  It’s closed.  That sets up your next scene.  Does she break in?  I don’t know, but I want to find out.

In my example above, note an additional tip: adding time pressure helps to increase tension.  You’ve seen it in a million movies and TV shows: the seconds ticking down until the bomb explodes, the car that’s about to fall over the edge of a cliff as the rescue workers struggle to pull the people out.  It’s clichéd for a reason; it works.

One final thought on tension: It’s necessary for most scenes, but be careful.  Too many high stress scenes in a row wear the reader out.  You want to engage the reader, and being unvarying in tension can cause them to pull away.  I’ll cover pacing in a future post.