Stalling means to halt the motion or progress of; to bring to a standstill.
In writing, stalling occurs a few different ways:
~ a writer leads up to the point of a scene with back story and/or description;
~ a writer tosses in tasks, observations, distractions between a character and high action;
~ a writer becomes mired in revising/tweaking/editing a section of a story and can’t move forward.
The above instances of stalling happen for a few reasons:
~ the writer (not the story) needs to warm up before writing the active part of the scene;
~ the writer is reluctant to put a character in necessary danger, or is unsure how to get the character out of necessary danger;
~ the writer doesn’t know what comes next in the story so s/he piddles endlessly on what has been written so far.
Today’s post will focus on the first two types of stalling: warm-up and avoidance. To illustrate, I’m back to my pretend novel, Bad Sale, a thriller about a farmer whose life falls apart after he is tricked by a boyhood friend into buying bomb-making supplies at the hardware store. In this scene, the farmer Richard and his boyhood friend Simon, go to a hunting camp in the woods. Bad stuff ensues.
~ The camp was a log cabin, build by hand by Richard’s grandfather. Richard knew the tale well. His grandfather promised his wife he’d build her a romantic hideaway in the woods, far away from the open space and endless toil on the farm… [insert family history here] But the romantic hideaway in the woods didn’t have running water or electricity or a modern toilet, so it was only a matter of time before it became a place Richard’s grandfather and his brothers used to hide away from their wives…. [insert family disharmony here]
It was made of birch…[insert long description]. All around, the woods… [more description]. As Richard and Simon drove up for their weekend, Richard told him the story of his grandparents…[long narrative description of what we already know]. The first day, they bagged two deer and some other innocent woodland creatures…[add telling, and bragging]…and spent the evening drinking beer and reminiscing…[add telling plus male bonding and BS].
On the morning of the second day, while Simon still slept, Richard made coffee in the old tinware coffeepot and took a cup outside. He wandered to the back of the cabin. The woods had crept close….[add dissertation about local flora and fauna] Too close. He wondered if there was a machete around to deal with some of these brambles. He seemed to remember one his dad kept hanging from the rafter on the porch….
His foot hit something and he stumbled. He peered down at a rusted ring on the ground and instantly remembered. The root cellar….[insert Richard removing brush with his bare hands]
From the cool darkness of the cellar, he heard the sound of a door slam. Not the cabin’s door–a car door. And another.
Paranoia hit in full force. Cops? Could the cops have followed them here?
Are you frustrated yet? Yes, someone followed Richard and Simon to the rustic hideaway in the woods, but by the time we get to that discovery, we could have added running water, electricity, and a boudoir.
This is all warm-up. The story of the cabin might be interesting, but even if we need to know it, we don’t need to know it twice. If the author wants to slow down the pace of the story and set up the conflict, that’s fine–in small, relevant doses. Piling on the background of the cabin, the dirty laundry in Richard’s family, and a Nature Channel episode about blackberry bushes will undermine the pacing. It also begs the question: Is Richard’s family back story so important? Shouldn’t the focus here be on him and Simon, and whoever followed them?
Additionally, every time I add a [...] the reader is pulled out of what is happening now.
Let’s get back to Richard and the second type of stalling: avoidance.
Richard crept around the side of the cabin. He heard someone say Simon’s name, followed by “You stupid asshole, did you think you could hide here? Everybody in three counties knows about this place.” ….[insert some inane story about the speaker's granddaddy and Richard's great aunt]
Richard pressed against the side of the cabin. Who could this be? From inside, he heard thuds, a chair scrape across the floor, the distinct sound of a slap. He winced. A voice said, “Where’s your friend?” and the wince changed to a full-body freeze.
“What friend?” Simon said. Another slap. “He’s not here. He doesn’t even know I’m here.”
Richard wondered if they would believe him. Would it look like two people had slept in the camp? He’d made up his bed and put away last night’s dishes…. [insert childhood reminisce about being raised to be neat by his mother]
Richard gripped the coffee cup. Dammit. If only he had a weapon. He glanced down at the cup. His wedding ring glistened in the sun. Jillian. She’d told him not to come here… [insert admonishment from his wife]
He crept along the side of the cabin, listening to the questions Simon refused to answer…. [insert questions that may be useful to story]
More slaps. A punch. Richard pulled up to the window and steeled himself to peek through it…. [insert pounding heart, sweaty palms, other physical reactions to indicate Richard's trying to man up]
Finally, he raised his head, praying the top of it wouldn’t be shot off by whoever was inside. When he was able to see the scene, his worst nightmare came to life…. [insert some other leading sentence to add melodrama] Standing before Simon, in jeans and a plaid hunting shirt, his dark hair… [add description of man] was the county sheriff. Beside him, punching a fist into a palm… [or some other cliched form of menace] was Deputy Harlan Jones. Richard was shocked. He always thought Harlan was a good guy. In fact, when Richard’s dad had that tractor accident… [add ancient history to show Harlan's one decent act as a human being]
Richard ducked down and ran as fast as he could to the front of the cabin. At the porch, he got on his hands and knees and crawled toward the door, careful not to put too much weight on his bad knee… [add description of high school football injury]. At the screen door, he stopped. The slaps had changed to punches. Simon grunted with each one, but he refused to answer the question: “Where’s your friend?”
Richard hung his head, ready to cry. He and Simon had been friends for so long… [insert childhood story of how they met]. He glanced around frantically and then… [insert moment from long ago with his dad]
Richard looked up. There it was, hanging by a leather strap alongside the windowsill. A machete.
Poor Simon. He may be a bad guy and he may deserve some roughing up, but if he’s depending on Richard to save him, he’s got a big problem. Richard didn’t know how to save him from this situation–and neither did the author. That’s why it took Richard forever + two weeks to travel from the back of a tiny cabin to the front door. What he’s going to do now is anybody’s guess. He’ll probably grab the machete, and then digress into how the word is a derivative of the Spanish term for macho.
Simon’s not the only one to deserve pity. See how many times the story stops and starts, while the author hems and haws about how to move forward?
Reading long chunks of back story or multiple interruptions in a scene that’s supposed to set up a conflict tells me a couple of things about the writer:
~ He’s not sure what’s going to happen next.
~ He’s not comfortable in putting his character in danger.
~ He’s not confident in his ability to write an action scene.
~ He’s too close to the story to strip away unnecessary story history.
How do you stop stalling?
First, know where your story is going. If you are waiting for Richard to come to the rescue of your story and figure out how to get through that door, guess what? Richard’s doing the same thing–waiting on you to tell him what to do.
Second, recognize warm up. Do you want to take it slow and tell everything about the cabin because you have it all in your head and you need it to mentally see the scene? Go ahead. Write that in a draft. Then cut it out. Does the reader need to mentally prepare for the scene? No. The reader needs you to thrust them into it.
Third, stay in the story as it is happening now. Only tell what you absolutely must of what’s not in this moment. The machete? That’s a keeper. Harlan’s good act–maybe. Some background of the cabin–sure. The rendezvous between the sheriff’s granddaddy and great-aunt Pauline? Surely not.
If you are unsure about what to include or not include, consider this. While you write, someone is getting beaten up. Are you moving forward to rescue them as quickly as you can, or is your victim going to righteously demand, “Dude, thanks for saving me, but what took you so $%*#-ing long?”
Tomorrow’s Topic – How to Wrap Up a Month of How To Posts
A Writers Conference is a professional gathering of people involved in the publishing industry. Attendees run the range from writers, illustrators, editors, agents, publishers and techie people.
A year ago, in preparation for the Pennwriters conference, I did a post called Conferences–What to Bring, What to Leave Behind. That was a cheerleadery post meant to encourage writers not to be shy or commit faux pas. The advice remains relevant and true, as cheerleading is one of my specialties.
Today’s post will focus specifically on three conference-related opportunities: Pitches, Read & Critiques, and The Bar.
1 ~ How to Prepare for a Pitch:
A pitch is a short private session between a writer and an assigned editor or agent. A pitch is the author’s chance to sell his story. That’s the official version, the one that will make you crazy, keep you up at night, and make your palms sweat like it’s your first date/arrest/ prostate exam/time in the confessional. If you set the weight of your writing world on five minutes with another human being you believe holds the key to the universe, you’re going to be stressed out. I got stressed out just writing that sentence.
So look at it this way: A pitch is a conversation. You’re going to meet with someone and talk about your story. You love your story, right? You are thrilled to find someone who’ll listen to you discuss your story, right? Take that into your pitch. It’s a conversation.
If you are still nervous about what to talk about in your conversation, consider these three questions:
What are you writing? Why are you writing this story? Who do you think would buy this book?
Think about honest answers to these questions and prepare to chat about them for a few minutes. That’s all you have to do.
If it comforts you to have a memorized log line for your story, try this formula:
Name of story is a word count +genre about a main character who must Story Question before consequences if Story Question is not solved.
2 ~ How to Prepare for a Read & Critique
A Read & Critique is (usually) a round robin type session where a short piece of work is read aloud and verbally critiqued on the spot. Sometimes the feedback comes only from the editor/agent/combo assigned to the sessions. Sometimes other writers in the group chime in.
The best way to prepare for an R&Q session is, first, understand the critiquer is working with no advance look at your work and no time to be diplomatic in response. As a veteran of R&Q, I can tell you it’s difficult to process on the spot, especially work that is delivered orally when you’re accustomed to writing on the page. It feels very Johnny-on-the-spot. Cut the critiquers some slack if a nuance or two is missed.
Second, understand that feedback is subjective–but it’s intended to be an aid and make your work stronger. This translates to Don’t Argue. Don’t Argue doesn’t mean you have to agree with every comment, but defending your work defeats the purpose. Allowing for individual reading levels and styles, if you have to explain what’s on the page to every person in the group, it means what’s on the page isn’t explaining itself.
Third, to prepare for an R&Q session, follow the guidelines. If you are to turn in two pages, don’t turn in one, or three. Read it aloud yourself. If it sounds boring or convoluted to you, the author, guess what? It will sound dull or confusing to the critiquer. Select an opening or vivid scene that best reflects your work and that works in an oral setting. Don’t choose a piece from the middle of a story that includes a lot of pronouns–how can the critiquer know who “he” or “she” is if we haven’t yet met the characters?
Many R&Q sessions are done anonymously. If you have a positive reaction from the agent/editor, by all means seek out that person with a followup email after the conference, to express your appreciation for the helpful comments. Even if that person doesn’t accept work in your genre and you don’t see yourself working with them, it’s good to hear from this end that the session did some good. Likewise, if you have a constructive criticism about the session, I would listen to it–in an email after the conference, not button holed in the bathroom or while I’m attempting to enjoy my down time. Which leads me to….
3 ~ How to Work the Conference Bar
The Bar may not be the bar-bar, it may be the Hospitality Room, the meet-n-greet area, the foyer, or the actual bar. It’s the place where attendees gather between or after workshops.
Making contacts with editors, agents and publishers at a conference is fabulous. But on a day-to-day, practical level, it’s the contacts with your colleagues and fellow writers that will serve you best. Publishing is a small little world. We are like-minded individuals with similar goals and interests, even if we cross genres. The bar is the place to make friends. Contacts and networking aside, ask people who are repeat attendees at a conference and I’ll bet the majority will offer this as the primary reason for attending year after year: To see writer friends.
Sidle up to the bar, the bench, the pool or pull up a piece of carpet wherever your colleagues are gathering and jump in. Make some writer friends.
After I decided to write a How To post every day for the month of May, I declared my intention to writer friends and colleagues and asked for topic suggestions. This is one of them:
“Use stronger verbs rather than modifiers. People say don’t use …LY words, but they don’t explain why. The real task is using a more descriptive verb.”
What is a verb?
A verb is a word that shows action, being or doing.
Verbs drive the narrative of a story; verbs control pace, determine tension, reveal secrets. It is a hefty job, so selecting a strong verb to perform the sentence’s task is not a willy-nilly undertaking.
How do you choose a strong verb for every sentence? By breaking down word choice into three areas of consideration: Task, Precision and Structure
In every sentence, a verb performs a job. To make a good verb choice, think about the task to be performed. Second, choose a verb specific to the task. Finally, construct the sentence in a direct and powerful way so the verb is not impeded in its duty.
1. Verb Task – What do characters commonly do in stories? They walk, run, climb, sit, jump, look, think, grab, pull, throw. This list could go on and on. To illustrate, let’s use the verb walk.
Walk is a good example for two reason. First, it’s common and universal. Second, it’s so common and universal, writers try not to use it, sometimes in a good way, sometimes not so good.
Here’s a task: We need to get a man to cross a courtyard to get to a gate, and he can’t walk there.
~ He went across the courtyard to the gate. Really? Visualize this. Tell me what “went” looks like.
~ He moved across the courtyard to the gate. Moved? Like, drifted? Packed up his suitcase so he could live closer to the gate?
~He approached the gate from across the courtyard. Hmm. Approach means to come or go near, but there is nuance to approach, a sense of intention. There must be something special at the gate, if he’s taking the trouble to approach it. So, if he gets to the gate and nothing special is there, the word is misleading.
Which leads to the next consideration:
2. Precision - Why do we want him across the courtyard to the gate? What’s going on in the story that, first, requires him to be near the gate and, second, can be heightened by a strong verb?
If there is an emergency near gate, he would run, sprint, hustle, dash, rush, bound.
If there is danger near the gate, he would creep, tread, sneak, tiptoe, steal, skulk, scuttle.
If there is an attractive woman near the gate, he would saunter or swagger, amble or meander, depending on his level of confidence.
There are many choices for the word walk, but not all walks are the same. Consider these homonyms: stroll, march, stride, tread, tramp. Visualize them. Does stroll look like tramp? No. Each verb is a precise way of walking. As such, each verb adds something else to the story. The guy still gets to the gate, but there is subtext to the verb choice that tells more.
One of my favorite illustrative examples of walking is the word lope. Close your eyes and picture a man loping across the courtyard to the gate. Now consider these questions:
~Is the man short or tall?
~Is he young or old?
~Is he healthy or infirm?
~Is he confident or timid?
~Is he worried or relaxed?
~Is there an emergency?
~Is he headed to a specific place or not?
Lope is great because it answers the above questions through implication–aka subtext.
Loping requires long legs, so the man must be tall. Loping requires strength to take long strides, so the man is probably young, healthy and confident. Loping is not slow but it is not hurried, so there is probably no emergency and he’s probably not worried. He may be headed to a particular spot and is walking in a determined fashion to get there, or he may be out for exercise. The last is hard to tell. Lope can only tell so much.
3. Structure – A strong sentence construction gives power to all its parts. Write in the active voice. I have devoted two former posts on How To Be–or Not To Be–an Active Writer, part I and part II. Here are simple examples of active versus passive construction.
~ He rushed, instead of He was rushing.
~ He stalked, instead of He was stalking.
~ He plowed ahead, instead of He was plowing ahead.
~ He loped, instead of He was loping.
~ He walked, instead of He was walking.
Decide on the verb’s task. Find the word that best describes that task. Craft an active sentence and voila! You wrote a strong sentence.
To go back to the suggestion above and the comment about …LY words, think of this. If you are tempted to say someone walked quickly, don’t you mean he ran? If you write someone spoke loudly, don’t you mean she yelled? If you write someone cried piteously, don’t you mean they sobbed?
Choose a strong, precise verb and it will do the job on its own.
I dedicate this post to my friend and writing colleague, KB Inglee, who sent the suggestion at the top.
Tomorrow’s Topic: How To Prepare for a Writers Conference
A Free Write is an informal gathering of writers who meet to practice their writing. Free writing can help you discover new story ideas, dissolve writer’s block, or move forward on a work in progress.
Some Free Writes are guided, using prompts and round robin sharing of what was created during the session. Other Free Writers meet in a specified location, fire up their laptops, and work on individual projects in a quiet, supportive atmosphere.
Some writing organizations hold regular Free Write sessions for their members and visitors. One group in my area, the Rehoboth Beach Writers Guild, posts prompts via a Facebook page. Both organized and informal groups hold Free Writes during intense writing times, such as November during NaNoWriMo.
To host an unguided Free Write is simple: select a space (library meeting room, coffee shop), invite people, and show up to write.
A guided Free Write requires a little more work. It needs a plan, a program, and a facilitator.
A Free Write plan includes the purpose of the session and how that will be demonstrated. Will the Free Write focus on one area of writing, such as sensory details; story openings; colors; encounters both hostile and friendly? Will there be a theme, with specific prompts from broad categories such as holidays, childhood, marriage?
A Free Write’s program is like a meeting agenda: the order of business and length of each prompt session. For a guided Free Write, the program should include time to write but also time to read aloud if the group includes sharing as part of the experience.
A Free Write facilitator is the person who runs the meeting: she states the rules, offers the prompts, watches the clock, and guides the sharing sessions.
Here’s a sample 2-hour, Free Write program based on a Memorial Day theme:
Arrival and welcome by the Facilitator- 15 minutes, which includes:
…the purpose of the Free Write (to have fun and explore ourselves as writers)
…the theme of the day (Memorial Day)
… the guidelines about the Free Write (prompts will be offered, time given to write, and round robin sharing to follow. Sharing is optional. Anyone who wishes to pass on a particular prompt or share can simply say, “Pass.”)
Prompt #1 : “in the trenches” – 5 minutes to write, 15 minutes to share
Prompt #2: “poppies” – 5 minutes to write, 15 minutes to share
Free writing time: Unguided time for writers to expand on prompts or write on any subject of their choosing – 20 minutes
Prompt #3: “parade” – 2 minutes to write, 10 minutes to share
Prompt #4: “picnic disaster” – 2 minutes to write, 10 minutes to share
Prompt #5: “sacrifice” – 5 minutes to write, 15 minutes to share
Free writing time – whatever time is left over from prompts and sharing
Memorial Day was used as a Free Write theme a year ago, at a local Get Out & Write Free Write. Click here for a sampling of what writers created from the “poppies” prompt.
Free Writes can be a boon to a writer’s creativity as well as an introduction to other writers. Try one!
Yesterday, we left off with a stranger opening the door to our pretend character party. Strangers can be important in a story—or not. Looking at the function of a stranger is a good way to illustrate the point of this post.
With the exception of a regular cast in a series, each character is a stranger to the reader. It is the author’s job to pull off a stranger’s mask and reveal the interesting and engaging person inside.
The trick is deciding how much to reveal about characters without overloading the reader will unnecessary information. Who gets a name? Who gets a description? Who needs background? Who has tics and habits? Who performs a single function that could, possibly, be performed by someone else?
Overpopulating causes the reader extra work. Every character introduction takes up brain space. Every detail has to be stored. Every name processed. If a writer puts too much of that in the front of the story, it impedes the reader’s ability to make an emotional attachment to the primary character or situation. There’s too much extraneous stuff using up the reader’s brain power.
Think about it. At a party, if you stand before a round table of people who introduce themselves by name, how many of those names do you remember five minutes later?
When too many characters are thrown at a reader, it’s tough to tell which are the important ones, so all of them lose some measure of importance. The bigger the crowd, the harder it is to focus on an individual.
How does an author make judicious choices about a story’s population? Here are some simple questions.
1 ~ What is this character’s function in the story?
2 ~ Can the plot move forward without this person’s involvement?
3 ~ Can someone else perform this function?
4 ~ How much page time or detail does this character require?
If the answer to #3 is yes, and the plot does not hinge on a particular character’s presence, the question becomes, keep or toss?
Any schmuck can open a door. If the schmuck does nothing else, he doesn’t need a name. If the schmuck is going to turn up in the wine cellar with a bottle of chardonnay imbedded in his right temple, maybe he should open the door with a smirk, or a nervous laugh, or call the new guest by the wrong name. In short, if the stranger is going to reappear in the story in a big way, remove some of his mask and start the revelation process. If the schmuck is going to disappear into the crowd, don’t bother describing him.
But what about the people in stories who make small appearances that move a a story along in some small way? Life is full of encounters by people we know by name but are not necessarily important to our lives, but add color and detail. Does the same apply to a story?
Yes, and no. If characters appear for local color, that’s fine. Learning about setting through a unique character certainly works. The lady who mans the counter of the fish market and wears crawfish claw earrings—she should get a name. It’s better if she’s friendly and sees everyone in town, so she probably knows all the dirt.
But the checkout girl who is blah and never engages anyone in chit chat? If all she does is perform a single, uninteresting function, does she need to be more than the checkout girl? Probably not.
Which leads to a problem solving question. If you suspect your story is character heavy, think about combining characters. Can crawfish claw earring lady also run the register at the fish market? One interesting character trumps two flat ones every time.
Last time, I asked a word problem type question about Daniel and the pharmacist. For folks who like mathy things, here’s a simple formula to help control your story population:
Character function + importance + interest = degree of detail.
It’s tough to depopulate a story, but if a character doesn’t add something memorable, strike them from the guest list.
Tomorrow’s topic: Sunday is a day of rest. Monday’s topic will be How To Run a Free Write
In a story, Overpopulation means there are too many characters; or it can mean too many characters are introduced at one time; or it can mean the prose is cluttered with unnecessary details about throwaway or stock characters.
Entering the world of a new story is like walking into a party. Maybe you are acquainted with the host (protagonist) and his/her spouse (sidekick/love interest) because you been to their home (read about them) before. Maybe they are new to you. For the sake of this post, let’s pretend you’re walking into a book party and you don’t know a soul.
Who greets you at the door and invites you inside? There are four possibilities:
The host ~ At the book party, this would be the protagonist or main character (MC). The MC is your guide through the story. As a guest, you want to get to know your host, so you would notice this person’s speech, clothes and manners; you’d listen attentively to their anecdotes; you’d observe their interaction with other guests.
A greeter ~ At a party-party, this would be a butler, doorman, or a relative assigned to the task; at our book party, this person would be a minor or secondary character who serves a function in the story. The function may be large or small. How much you learn about this person depends on how important their story task.
A stranger ~ A random person who happens to be near the door when you ring the doorbell. In fiction, this would be a throwaway character: a character who performs a single function and leaves the story when that act is done. Do you need to know this person’s personal history if all they’re good for in the story is opening the door? Maybe. Maybe not.
No one ~ There is no host, greeter or random stranger at the door. You walk right in, like an open house, and work the party using your own social skills.
Who does not answer the door at a party? A group of people, each of whom introduces him/herself to you and thus expects you to decipher a jumble of names and descriptions two steps inside the story door.
Have you ever read a story where the first chapter is so overloaded with names and character details, you feel like you’ve walked into a room full of strangers who are all babbling at you at once? This is a form of Overpopulation. Throwing too many characters at the reader just inside the door forces the reader to work extra hard. Why are you making your reader work so hard?
How do you keep from Overpopulating a story? Begin by considering the function of each character and how much the reader needs to learn about him/her/it.
With primary characters, it’s simple. The reader needs to know what this person looks like, what he does with his time each day, and a personal history. The reader needs enough background so there’s logic to why this person acts as he does. In short, we need a full dossier on the important people in the story.
Second, with minor or secondary characters, the reader needs to know enough to maintain story logic or make the plot work. Let’s say the MC’s neighbor is ex-military, which the author points out because the MC is often gone and the neighbor keeps an eye out on her place. Since the neighbor has an ongoing function in the story, let’s award him a name: Daniel. It’s helpful to see that Daniel keeps his high and tight haircut; to learn he goes running every morning; to know he keeps a loaded gun on his premises. It might be necessary to know Daniel suffered from PTSD; that he has screaming nightmares about his war experiences; that’s he’s wary of strangers and can be aggressive. Or, maybe Daniel’s background has given him a don’t-sweat-the-small stuff attitude. However much the author knows about Daniel, if none of this impacts the events of the story or drives the action, do we need to know so much about Daniel? This is the author’s choice, to decide if the guy next door is a nameless neighbor or our pal Daniel.
Third, let’s consider throwaway characters. Throwaway or stock characters are those folks who perform a single function in the story. Let’s take the young officer who delivers the bad news to the MC that the military guy next door has been found dead. If the officer is going to participate beyond this moment, he gets a name and physical description. We don’t need his life history, but it’s easier to remember Corporal Clark than “the officer who informed me of Daniel’s death.” On the flip side, if the pharmacist calls from the drug store to remind the MC her prescription’s been sitting in the basket for three days, and the purpose of that call is to get her out of the house so Daniel can sneak over and booby-trap her basement, do we need to know the name of the pharmacist? This sounds like a word problem from math class, but the answer is no.
Fourth, the stranger at the door.
We’ll talk about him, her, or it, tomorrow. Stay tuned.
Tomorrow’s Topic: How To Avoid Overpopulation, Part 2
A World Changer is a phrase or sentence that alters the reader’s perception of the story world.
When a writer begins a story, he introduces the reader to the world of the story. That world can be today’s reality; it can be a specific, faraway place in the past; it can be today’s world with magical or supernatural elements; it can be the future; it can be a new and fantastical creation; it can be today’s world with an unexpected element.
It is the writer’s duty to reveal the rules of the story world. A World Change happens when a twist or revelation exposes the reader to a specific, unusual aspect of the story world. A shift in what the reader thought they knew about the story world is the result.
Here’s an example:
Harvey stopped at the edge of the field and listened for Mama and Pa. After a moment, their voices lifted over the freshly plowed field. Harvey slouched against the fence post. They were arguing, again. He couldn’t stand it anymore. He turned around and ran toward the tree line.
What does this tell you about this story world? Harvey is a child who lives on or near a farm. His parents argue, a lot. This bothers him. Now see what happens in the next line:
Harvey ran over and between the clumps of dirt thrown up by the plow, his quills bouncing as he picked up speed.
Quills? Harvey has quills? Okay, so now we know Harvey is an animal. A porcupine? Hedgehog?
He ran toward the bushes beneath the trees and dove into his favorite dugout to hide. He rolled into a ball and tried not to cry.
Chances are, we’d know from illustrations or cover copy that Harvey is a hedgehog. Without these aids, however, Harvey sounds like any child who gets upset by his parents’ arguments. He just happens to be a hedgehog child. Quills or no quills, his emotions are real.
Now consider this:
After a little while, Harvey unfurled himself and shook off the dirt from his spines. It was almost dark and tonight was The Coronation.
He reminded himself of his duty as prince. No matter how much his parents argued, he had to be present–and presentable–when the responsibility of the kingdom was placed upon him.
Oh. So Harvey is a hedgehog, and a prince, so his parents must be the royal family.
This is a somewhat absurd example but you get the point. With each sentence, we learn a new detail about Harvey that alters what we think we know about the world of this story.
Here’s something different:
Jacqueline walked along the boardwalk, wondering if she should touch up her sunblock. Her shoulders felt tender and hot. She glanced around the crowd, stopping at a handsome blond guy with no shirt leaning against the beach fence. He was licking a chocolate ice cream cone. Slowly. For a moment, Jacqueline swayed, imagining his cool, chocolate flavored tongue licking her hot shoulder.
The voice cried out a micro-second before a woman slammed into Jacqueline’s side. The woman grabbed onto Jacqueline’s arm for balance, and Jacqueline gasped. Violent images shot through her brain—a pipe crashing down from overhead, over and over.
She pulled away, her arm as hot as if she’d stuck it in a bonfire.
“I’m so sorry,” the woman said, but Jacqueline could only nod mutely and wince at the scars running from the woman’s hairline to her temple, where the pipe had come down.
Jacqueline is a woman at the beach on a hot day, made hotter by her quick fantasy about a handsome guy. But the world changes when a strange woman crashes into her and Jacqueline gets hit with a scene from this stranger’s past. Now we’ve learned Jacqueline is an empath, a person able to feel another person’s emotions or experiences through physical contact.
Now, what if their quick encounter had ended this way?
“I’m so sorry,” the woman said, but Jacqueline could only nod mutely and stare at the woman’s head. No scars. No bruises. It hadn’t happened–yet.
Now we know a new rule of the story world: Jacqueline can see the future. This is a character skill Stephen King used so effectively in The Dead Zone.
A final example, to show how a World Change can be used in a contemporary story that doesn’t include quills or special powers. This is from Catering to Nobody, the first in Diane Mott Davidson’s Goldy Schulz mystery series. Book one opens with Goldy in the kitchen. We learn through narrative she has a jerk of an ex-husband, her new catering business is struggling to stay afloat,and she has a best friend who calls to complain–humorously–about this, that and the other. In the world of mystery novels, the response to those three story elements might be, well, who doesn’t? And then comes this line:
I looked down at my right thumb, which still would not bend properly after John Richard had broken it in three places with a hammer.
Ah. This is different. We just learned Goldy was an abused wife. The jerky ex, the struggle to be independent, the reliance on a good friend–all of those details got kicked up a notch with that world changing line.
How do you write an effective World Changer?
1. Weave it into the narrative in an organic fashion. That means show, not tell, in a live scene.
2. Do it boldly. Harvey’s quills bounced as he ran. Don’t over explain, “As a hedgehog, Harvey had quills. They bounced as he ran.” No. Keep it quick and dirty: Harvey’s quills bounced as he ran.
3. Sprinkle changes in to give readers time to process. First we see Jacqueline get hit with the violent images. There is a break as she pulls away and the woman apologizes. Then we learn something new, that Jacqueline sees the past (or the future). That little break gave the reader time to digest one new story element before being tossed another one.
4. Make sure the World Change does its purpose in exposing or refining the unique aspects of the story world and is important to the story. If you are writing a World Change because it’s fun but it doesn’t affect the plot or the character, why are you making me work harder to learn something I don’t need to know? Don’t toy with your readers.
An episodic story is one told via a series of interconnected scenes, with a theme instead of a question driving the narrative.
A story told in a typical dramatic structure features a clearly drawn plot. The plot begins with an inciting incident. From there, a protagonist recognizes a story problem, embraces it, and spends the story seeking a solution to that problem.
In contrast, an episodic story is more like a journey. It can be a physical journey; a journey of emotional growth; a journey to bond a group.
In an episodic story, there is a lesser sense of cause and effect–no inciting incident that demands resolution. Instead, a character seeks to fulfill a desire, to discover meaning, or to reach enlightenment.
Some familiar examples of episodic stories are:
~ JD Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye, a coming of age story wherein Holden relates to the reader events from a year ago. The episodes are brief: he goes from Pencey Prep, to a hotel in NYC, to his parents’ apartment. The incidents are tied together only by Holden, as he heads toward a mental collapse.
~ Larry McMurtry’s western, Lonesome Dove, features a group of retired Texas Rangers on a cattle drive. There is no story question such as “Who shot the sheriff?” within the story, but there is a story goal: to drive a herd of cows from Lonesome Dove, Texas to Montana and open the first cattle ranch in that territory. There are multiple characters on the cattle drive, with individual reasons for taking the journey.
~ Evan S. Connell’s two novels, Mr. Bridge and Mrs. Bridge, are episodic stories about the same family, one told from the husband’s point of view, the other from Mrs. Bridge’s point of view. Set in the 1930-40s in Kansas City, Missouri, the novels are structured through short, almost vignette-like scenes. In Mr. Bridge, the central idea is a honorable family man’s frustration as his children balk at his conservative ideals. Mrs. Bridge’s episodes are tied together by her desire to keep the facade of a perfect, peaceful family despite her children’s rebellion and her husband’s emotional distance.
Some other examples of stories told in an episodic style:
~ Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
~ Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut
~ Don Quixote by Miguel Cervantes
~ Candide by Voltaire
~The Corrections by Jonathon Franzen
~ The Reivers by William Faulkner
~ On the Road by Jack Kerouac
As with the typical dramatic structure of inciting incident + story problem + climax + resolution, an episodic structure follows a few basic rules:
1. There is one or a few dynamic characters whose needs and desires are paramount to the story’s goal.
2. A unifying element runs through all of the scenes.
3. Episodes may not be chronological, but there is an order. Part 1 may be in the present, part 2 in the past, part 3 in the deeper past, part 4 back in the present. Despite the lack of strict chronological order, there is a logical segue between episodes.
4. Episodes are not sparked by an event. Instead, they are related by theme.
5. There is a story goal instead of a story problem.
Episodic stories are sometimes compared to slides shows or music videos, in contrast to a story told in typical dramatic structure, which would be like a movie.
Have you read an episodic story that delighted, or frustrated you, as a reader? Are you trying to write one?
An ellipsis is a series of periods used to indicate a gap in a quotation, a pause in the middle of a sentence, or a thought that trails off at the end of a sentence.
What is a dash?
A dash is used to indicate an interruption in dialogue, to introduce a list of items, or to signal an explanation the writer wants to emphasize.
Ellipses and dashes are not interchangeable, but the misuse of either and both is common. A dash is a highlighter. An ellipsis takes the place of missing words.
Let’s move into show, not tell, now. Some examples of how to use an ellipsis:
~ To indicate a gap in a quotation:
“Ask not what your country can do…for your country.”
~ To indicate a pause in the middle of sentence:
I asked my country for help…but it said no.
~ To show a thought trailing off:
Sidney walked up to the organizer on his two healthy legs and volunteered. After all his country had done for him….
^^^Notice in this last example, there are four dots (periods) instead of three. An ellipsis is written as three periods. At the end of a sentence, a fourth period is added to show the end of the sentence.
Now let’s consider the use of dashes:
~ To indicate an interruption in dialogue.
“Come on, Sidney, join the cause. Remember, ask not what your country—“
“Okay, okay! If I sign the petition, will you quit imitating my mother?”
~ To introduce a list of items:
I stared out at the crush of people in the street and flashed back to my trip to Oklahoma–the freshly plowed fields, the red barn catching the sun, the cows clustered by the creek–and felt like I was on a different planet.
~ To emphasize a thought:
“Ask not what your country can do for you–ask what you can do for your country.”
Used properly, ellipses and dashes add variety to sentence structure and the pacing of the narrative.
Like any other style choice, using dashes and ellipses too often can jumble up the writing and make it less effective.
Overusing ellipses can make a character sound like a hem-and-haw addict. It’s frustrating to converse with someone who never completes a thought. The same applies to reading a character who too often lets his mind wander.
Too many dashes is disruptive to the narrative flow and defeats the purpose if that purpose is to highlight a thought. By emphasizing too many thoughts, the emphasis gets diluted.
Are you a dash addict? Do your characters peter off their thoughts all the time, sometimes, or only once in a while? Do you understand the difference between 3 dots and 4 now?
Writers conferences come in many shapes and sizes, but after a good one, a writer walks away with a slew of notes, a bundle of new contacts, and a host of opportunities. Here are five things to do ASAP after a writers conference.
1 ~ Express appreciation: Conferences don’t present themselves and few (if any?) conference chairs are salaried positions. This year’s conference chair donated a hefty portion of his/her life planning, booking, organizing, and troubleshooting an event that involves the care, feeding, and teaching of hundreds of people. A written note, an email, a Facebook post, a tweet, a box of chocolates—the medium doesn’t matter, just send a thumbs up to the folks who brought the whole shebang together. Everyone from the conference chair to the hotel guy who set out the chairs, put on a team effort.
Equally, if you had a legitimate issue, or a helpful suggestion for next year, wait a few days and then send a polite note to the person you believe can take care of it. No need to alert the world, or bother someone over something they can’t control, but if an issue is real, the organizer will want to know.
2 ~ Keep in touch: There are a couple of ways to do this. First, all those business cards you picked up from the freebie table, a workshop, or at lunch? Spread them out on your desk.
If you’d like to continue or develop a meaningful exchange with someone, this is the time to send out a Facebook friend request, to follow on Twitter or any other social media you use. If you want to stay in touch through email, send out a note saying so. A handwritten note by post is also lovely. However you reach out, do it now.
If you shared a fabulous dinner, if someone helped out in a workshop, if you have mutual friends or writing contacts, if you spoke about their writing—jot it down on the back of the card. When you’re done, rubber band them and write the name of the conference and year. If you plan to attend next year, dig out this bundle before the conference and refresh your memory. Reviewing last year’s business cards helps you recall your good time, and people like to know they’ve been remembered. There’s nothing wrong with using a memory aid.
3 ~ Tame the paper collection. You probably have pages of scribbles and handouts. Now that your desk is cleared of business cards, cover it again with notes and handouts.
For handouts, those you took to be polite but won’t ever use? Toss ‘em. No one will know. Those you want to keep, put in a file folder, binder or whatever means you use to store craft materials. Please DO NOT make copies and/or post on your blog, hand out to your critique partners, or distribute handouts unless you have permission from the workshop leader. Free distribution of the handouts, without permission, is not okay. If you want to to share with a particular group for a particular reason, send a note to the person who put together the handout. I would always say yes to sharing with a small critique group. For redistribution on a larger scale, I might say yes provided I am given credit and my name remains on the handout.
For your notepad covered with advice, tips, what to do and what not to do, quotes, names, books you should read….The longer you wait, the harder it will be to read your sloppy handwriting. Decipher it now.
4 ~ Respond to the professionals: Did you attend a kickass workshop on query writing? Listen to someone teach you how to organize your writing day? Take part in a read & critique? Get inspired by a keynote speech? Send an email expressing what helped or what you enjoyed. Be specific. As a workshop leader, I can tell you it is meaningful and helpful when someone writes and says, I really was intrigued by your tips on how to end a chapter. That tells me, hey, that worked! I need to know that for the future, and I appreciate anyone who takes the trouble to help me.
5 ~ Send requested partials, full manuscripts and so on, if requested by an agent or editor. If you had a successful pitch session or chatted with an agent who asked to see something from you….well, I probably don’t need to put out a reminder on this one, do I?
Tomorrow’s Topic – How To Use an Ellipsis Versus a Dash