Considerations in a First Person Opening

This post walks through my thought process in starting a short story. Hopefully, it will help someone out there who might one day encounter a similar situation.

To begin with, I try to keep myself focused on the goal of my writing and the goal of my story.

Primary Goal:

Write two short stories, one from the point of view of a mage and one from a noble, that explain the causes of the Wizard’s War.

Secondary Goal:

There are a lot of readers out there that want a story that will make them feel something. If you can achieve that goal, you can tap into a significant market absent any other criteria. Beyond that, I personally admire any author that can both keep me engaged and evoke an emotional response. Those two criteria, in fact, comprise my main objectives for what I try to achieve with my writing.

One way to learn a technique is to find a book that accomplishes a particular objective really well. Stephenie Meyer’s Midnight Sun did a better job of evoking an emotional response in me than any other book.

My goal for these two short stories is to emulate the techniques in that work. That means a deep immersion into the character from an emotional standpoint and writing from in a 1st person POV.

My Process:

I’m a discovery writer, so, going into my first story, I don’t know much about the situation or the character. I know he’s a young mage nearing graduation at the academy that serves the Three Kingdoms. He’s in Love and wants nothing more than to marry his sweetheart. Luckily, she feels the same, so it’s not a “win the girl’s heart” story (not that that’s a bad story; I just want to pursue a different plotline than my novelette, Abuse of Power). Instead, the conflict comes from a decree from the nobles requiring that permission is required for any mage who wants to marry.

I think this is a fairly smart start. The protagonist has a relatable goal. Who can’t sympathize with someone who fights for love? And the situation provides lots of opportunities for conflict.

Problems Inherent to a First Person Opening:

1st Person offers a lot of great advantages, chief among them the ability to slip thoroughly inside the protagonist’s head. It also puts up a couple of roadblocks straight from the start:

• Describing the character is difficult. People don’t generally give a lot of consideration to their how they look to others, so getting in a good description is problematic. The appraising glance in a mirror has been overdone. I’m pretty minimalist when it comes to description anyway, so I’ll probably just throw in some pertinent details in conversation – “You know I can’t see well at night with my dark eyes” OR “My light skin burns easily if I’m out in the sun too long.” I’m not overly concerned at the moment about his appearance, and I’d prefer to let the reader draw their own pictures.
• Getting the character’s name in. A pet peeve of mine is an author going too long without giving me the character’s name, and this is much more difficult in first person. This consideration shapes a lot of decisions at the start of the story.

On to the Story:

“Tomis. I’m sorry.”

That was my first thought for the opening line. By starting the next line with “I,” it immediately establishes the name of the POV character as the first word. My main problem with it, however, is that I’m having a person other than the protagonist perform the first action (speaking) in my story. That just grates on me.

Instead, I’ll add the following as the first line:

I knew something was wrong when I saw his face.

That’s definitely the sentiment I want. It filters the situation emotionally, but there are some major issues:

• I will not start any story with the first verb being “knew.” Not going to happen. I need something more active that conveys the same emotion.
• “Saw” is the bad type of filtering.
• I don’t like the alliteration.

Modified, it becomes:

I faltered at his expression.

“Faltered,” to me, conjures the exact right picture — a guy walking along and hesitating from the emotions caused by something he sees.

I do have a problem with “his.” If I were beta reading your story and saw this, I’d write, “What, exactly, is the antecedent to ‘his’?” The pronoun use without the proper antecedent, however, allows me to focus on the protagonist. I think leaving who “his” refers to as a bit of a question doesn’t harm me all that much at this point.

“What’s happened?”

I like this response, but I need to constantly remind myself to filter the situation through Tomis’ emotions. The more I do so, the better — for this experiment anyway. I need to add something like: My alarm grew. Since that’s a bit telly, I’ll change it to: My heart raced.

Granted, that’s a pretty generic indicator. Better might be something more specific to my character. Three problems, though:

1. The absolute weakest part of my writing is coming up with those perfect beats. It’s usually something that has to wait for the 3rd or 4th draft.
2. I don’t know enough about the character yet to establish the perfect beat.
3. Would a more specific indicator detract from the focus as the reader has to parse the meaning?

The end result of those considerations is that I’m going to leave it alone for now.

Cale’s eyes darted toward the arched doorway leading to the main hall before focusing behind me to the right. That he couldn’t bear to look at me wasn’t a good sign. “Another decree.”

This section is okay for a rough draft. I finally reveal who “his” referred to, and I don’t think the wait was too long. I also give him an action that shows his anxiousness.

The next line is more problematic. Normally, I’d say RUE, but I’m trying to learn a new technique rather than do what I normally do. Establishing emotional context is far more important right now than worrying about overexplaining. I can already see, however, that this issue will present constant struggles.

I like the terseness of the explanation in that it both presents a hook and fits the image of Cale that I’m trying to build as being reluctant to explain the situation to Tomis.

Putting It All Together:

I faltered at his expression.

“Tomis. I’m sorry.”

My heart raced. “What’s happened?”

Cale’s eyes darted toward the arched doorway leading to the main hall before focusing behind me to the right. That he couldn’t bear to look at me wasn’t a good sign. “Another decree.”

(Overall, it’s a little choppy, but it’ll suffice for the rough draft.)

Thoughts?

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this. Are you intrigued by where I’m going? What do you think of the technique? Any comments on my thought process? Does this help you at all?

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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.

Filtering – The Biggest Technique I Have Yet to Master

Whenever I learn a new writing rule, I go through a process to incorporate it into my work:

1. Skepticism – I read in Self Editing for Fiction Writers that you shouldn’t use “, gerund” in your writing. My first thought was, “I do that all the time, so the authors of that book must be mistaken.” Example: The character stared at the sky, wondering if…
2. Acceptance – The more I thought about it, the more I gradually began to agree with them. I still think the technique is okay sometimes, but my default is now: The character stared at the sky and wondered if…
3. Working to Incorporate It – At first, I had to look for places where I had done it incorrectly and make the correction.
4. The Wrong Way Starts to Stand Out – As time went on, the incorrect version stood out more and more to me. I didn’t have to look for it. As soon as I typed it wrong, I’d hit backspace and correct it.
5. Internalized – Now, I don’t even have to think about it; I automatically type “and” instead of the comma.

Overall, I’m pretty happy with my writing, but there’s one technique that would take it to the next level if I could just manage to internalize it – Filtering.

Filtering refers to the process of channeling everything that happens in your book through your POV character. But there’s a right way and a wrong way to do it.

The wrong way is as follows:

Joe watched the bird fly across the sky.
Joe heard the water plunging from the cliff and splashing onto the rocks below.
Joe smelled the odor of fresh baked bread wafting from the inn.

Joe is your POV character. In most cases, Joe watched (or heard, or smelled, etc.) simply is wasted words that give no emotional context. The bird flew. The water plunged. The odor wafted.

The correct way:

Use filtering to give an event emotion and context.

Take, for example, this:

With great fanfare from the accompanying trumpeter, the soldiers unfurled the flag on the pole. Its gold squares on a black field stretched over the land.

A flag unfurled. Great. What should I feel about this? What does it mean? Why is it in my story?

Instead:

A sounding trumpet drew Durloc’s gaze to the top of the parapet. His heart soared as the soldiers unfurled the flag. Under that banner, we shall rule them all, he thought.

And:

At the sound of a trumpet, Seraius looked to the top of the parapet. The filth that called themselves soldiers proudly unfurled their garish flag. He clenched his fists. This shall not stand, he thought.

Instead of worthless words that tell me nothing about the story, I have paragraphs that engage the reader and set up the conflict that is to come.

Know When to Show ’em, Know When to Tell ’em…

Sorry for the lack of a post yesterday. Apparently, tis the season for me to get knocked on my butt by random bugs.

Let’s take a look at two passages:

A. She was hungry.
B. Her stomach growled as emptiness gnawed at her. She clutched her belly and stared at the bread through the bakery window as if it were her very salvation.

Which is better?

A year ago, determining the answer to that question would have been quite simple to me. I would have said, “(A) is telling. (B) is showing. Showing is better than telling. Thus, (B) is better than (A).”

The more I learn, the more I disagree with my old self. There are so many more considerations, and I grow less sure of my original assertation every day. Let’s look at it more in depth:

Showing > Telling

Is this statement true in all cases? The first example that pops into my mind where it isn’t is a transition between scenes where I want to move forward in time and space but where nothing interesting happens. It seems intuitively obvious that summarizing that transition using telling is far superior to showing uninteresting activities in detail.

Of course, some would say that it’s better to leave out the transition altogether. That argument may, at times, be valid, but it does not speak to the original premise. Saying that C>A does not eliminate the need to prove the B>A.

If Showing isn’t always better than Telling, we need to adopt a more nuanced approach, so let’s look at the all the considerations:

1. Engagement – Item (B) is much more engaging than (A). Showing draws the reader in more than telling.
2. Clarity – Item (A) clearly states what you want the reader to know. I think that most people will get what you’re trying to convey from (B), but, anytime you leave open the opportunity, someone is going to miss it. What you absolutely do not want to do, however, is to use both (A) and (B).
3. Story Space – If a description is not relevant to your story, you should leave it out. If a description is relevant but not important, you should mention it but not dwell on it. If a description is important, you should spend more story space — words — on it. (A) is more concise. If the fact that she’s hungry is relevant but not important, it’s a winner. If the hunger is important, (B) is better.
4. Active – Existing in a state of hunger is not active. Growling and clutching is.
5. Pace – Using three words in a short sentence is fast pacing. Using two sentences for a 29-word description slows pacing.

I still think that showing should be a writer’s default method for conveying stories, but the situation is not as easy as always show, never tell.

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.

Pacing Example – Using Description to Add Emphasis

I do a lot of reading about writing.  I see a lot of blog posts and chapters in books telling you what to do and, sometimes, why to do it.  What I find both valuable and in short supply are examples showing how.  I’m going to make an effort to do more of those types of posts, as I’ve done below.

I’m an engineer.  I’m trained to solve problems, and I apply that training to my writing.  The following example illustrates how I took a problem section and corrected it.

Steps to Correcting a Problem in Writing:

  1. Realize you have a problem
  2. Identify the nature of the problem
  3. Determine the cause of the problem
  4. Figure out how to fix the problem
  5. Implement changes

Check out this excerpt from The Slender Man Massacre:

With a flurry of finger movement, he typed to Christy: Got something.  Tell you tomorrow.

As soon as he hit send, the device died, so he returned his attention to the internet.  He copied the link from the blog and opened his Gmail account.

Something clicked behind him.  He spun around and thought he saw movement.  When he focused on that spot, he saw nothing.

Jonathan feigned returning his attention to the monitor.  After a moment, he snapped his head back to stare at that spot.  Still nothing.

He repeated the maneuver a few more times, making rapid movements to view random areas of the room.  Each time produced the same result — nothing.

“You’re being stupid, man.”  The sound of a voice, even his own, gave him comfort.  “There’s no one here but me.”

As much as his argument made sense, he couldn’t shake the feeling of being watched.  He walked to where he thought he had seen the movement.  There was no sign of anyone and no place nearby to hide.

Shaking his head the entire way, he went back to the computer and sent the email to himself. 

A blast of cold air, like breath from a corpse, hit him square in the middle of the back of his neck.

Step 1: Realization – Though I had read through it a bunch of times and not noticed anything wrong, my collaborator immediately noted a problem.  That’s the value of a second (or third or fourth or…) set of eyes.  Sometimes you’re simply too close to the work.

Step 2: Identify – Imagine you’re in an empty room, and you feel a blast of air, like someone breathing on your neck.  It would creep you out, right?  That last sentence is supposed to have a tremendous impact.  It doesn’t.

Step 3: Determine Cause – I have an impactful moment hidden at the end of a list of other actions.  The reader doesn’t have enough time for each action to sink in before moving to the next.  By the time the reader reaches the bottom of the section, the impact of the blast of cold air is diluted.

Step 4: Determine Solution – The solution is obvious; I need to slow the pacing before the blast.

Step 5: Implement Changes – Description slows the pacing.  If I were to insert a paragraph of description between the last action and the blast of cold air, it would give the reader a chance to relax before I hit them with the hard punch.  See the revised example below:

With a flurry of finger movement, he typed to Christy: Got something.  Tell you tomorrow.

As soon as he hit send, the device died, so he returned his attention to the internet.  He copied the link from the blog and opened his Gmail account.

Something clicked behind him.  He spun around and thought he saw movement.  When he focused on that spot, he saw nothing.

Jonathan feigned returning his attention to the monitor.  After a moment, he snapped his head back to stare at that spot.  Still nothing.

He repeated the maneuver a few more times, making rapid movements to view random areas of the room.  Each time produced the same result — nothing.

“You’re being stupid, man.”  The sound of a voice, even his own, gave him comfort.  “There’s no one here but me.”

As much as his argument made sense, he couldn’t shake the feeling of being watched.  He walked to where he thought he had seen the movement.  There was no sign of anyone and no place nearby to hide.

Shaking his head the entire way, he went back to the computer and sent the email to himself. 

Beyond the whir of the CPU, nothing sounded in the library.  The silence hung over the massive room like a suffocating weight.  Each rustle of his clothes and breath he took echoed like thunder.  Even the steady tap tap of his heart beat became the rhythm section of a marching band.  Jonathan hummed a tuneless melody just to fill the void.

A blast of cold air, like breath from a corpse, hit him square in the middle of the back of his neck.

It’s a subtle change but an important one.

What do you think?  Did it make the scene work?

Cut it Out!

“Know when to hold ‘em; know when to fold ‘em.”  That’s good advice for poker and good advice for writing.

There’s a simple rule to remember — if it doesn’t advance the plot, get rid of it.

Take the following passage from the rough draft of Chapter 27 of Power of the Mages:

He had a pretty good idea of the direction from his multiple earlier sensings of the power, so he walked in that general direction.  His path took him through the center of the nearly deserted city.  Only a few of the shops were open, and those saw little custom.  Even with the relative coolness of the day, the sun shining on Xan’s head caused the mass of curls atop his head to become a discomfort.

“I hate my hair.  Brant’s and Dylan’s grow down.  Mine grows straight out.” 

He searched the area for an open barber but didn’t find any.  He did, however, spot an open clothing boutique down an alley that sold men’s hats.  Ducking in, he quickly selected a wide brimmed cover that didn’t look too hideous.  The flat black color didn’t stand out, and, aside from a black band, it had no ornamentation. 

As he placed it on his head, the shop’s proprietor approached.  “That looks perfect on you, young sir.  For the low price of one silver, you’ll have the young ladies falling all over you.”

Xan chuckled despite himself.  “I seriously doubt that, and, if it’s more than two coppers, I’ll be putting it back on the rack.”

He didn’t hear the man’s response because he sensed the magic use again.  He pulled five coppers out of his pocket, generously giving one more than what he figured was a fair price, and handed them to the older man.  No complaints followed him out of the shop.

As he rushed down the alley back to a small square with a fountain depicting some form of imagined sea creatures, he saw two men walking away from him.  Something about their walks stood out to him.  He looked at them magically.  Both glowed with power.

When I read back over this to edit it for the 2nd draft, I thought, “This is dreadful.  Why did I even write it?”  It relates nothing about the plot since the hat never comes into play in any meaningful fashion, and there’s no tension.  I finally figured out that the entire passage is there to get Xan out of the way of the two catcher’s men so they don’t see him.  There’s a much easier way to do that.  See the new version:

The winding streets confused him, forcing him to backtrack several times.  As he entered a small square, he sensed magic use again.  Trying to get a better orientation, he rushed down an alley.  When the narrow lane intersected a road, he felt the mage to his right, but movement to his left drew his attention.

Two men walked away from him.  Something about their gaits stood out to him, so he examined them magically.  Both held power.

That’s 220 fewer words to accomplish the same plot goal.

Often, the best way improve your work is by deleting the stuff that doesn’t belong.