Category Archives: Story Triage

Don’t Let Your Characters Fail at Life

There is a little book that sits on my desk and I consider it to be one of my secret weapons when it comes to honing the craft of writing. It’s compact and filled to the brim with great advice from writing dialogue, structuring scenes, creating characters, story pacing and much, much more.

Each section covers a different topic and is color coded so that you can easily navigate towards the topic you want to explore or need help with. One of the sections on CHARACTERS stood out to me as the example to author provided is seen so often in books and film. I even think that I’m guilty of it. But audiences are getting tired of seeing this kind of lazy writing. I’ll let Mr. Smith do the explaining as he puts it best.

The following is an excerpt from  The Writer’s Little Helper: Everything You Need to Know to Write Better and Get Published, by James V. Smith, Jr. :

Don’t go into the basement.

Why do some characters do things that most sane people would never dream of doing? Warning: don’t allow your characters to do stupid things.

In a story where the screen is literally bathed in blood after a series of basement murders, why would any story’s character, after hearing a strange noise, open the door, and call out, “who’s there?” And go down?

And why does a brilliant, competent lady cop rush into a fight against half a dozen black hat, black belt bruisers without even calling first for backup? Don’t these people in the movies ever go to the movies?…

When you pull a stunt like that, readers don’t like it. If you treat readers like dopes, they get the last word. They can shut you down by shutting your book.

So anytime a character encounters a terrible situation, the predicament ought to have been logically foreshadowed as an outcome of previous events. No matter what choice the character makes under duress, a reader should be able to conclude without straining credulity that the character has proven himself capable of that decision by his actions in previous, less stressful situations or by his nature, which the writer already has at least hinted at.

Having said all that, I added a caveat: don’t rule out illogical behavior.

The huge mistakes that fictional characters make contribute to the very best stories of our times. If Ishmael had heeded a fortuneteller’s warning not to go aboard a whaling vessel, you’d have had no Moby Dick to vex him at sea and you in school.

This having been said, I am extremely guilty of having characters make stupid mistakes. Maybe it seemed plausible to me at the time or maybe I didn’t think things through all the way. Sometimes it takes a second set of eyes on your work to bring this to your attention. And even when that second set of eyes does bring it to your attention, you may not always agree with their suggestion.

I’m asking you to consider it. If you’re character’s behavior seemed out of place to someone who is editing, proofreading or beta-reading your story, at least give it some thought. Because it most likely will be obvious to the rest of your audience. You may come to find that what you’ve already written really does make the most sense. Or you may come to find that your character really wouldn’t have done such a thing.

Why is this important?

The decisions that your characters make shape the story. Just like James Smith said above, characters do sometimes make stupid mistakes. For example, did you know that when human beings are being chased, we tend to run upstairs rather than outside? We do it. Why? I don’t know. Maybe it’s because we’ve seen it done it so many horror flicks. But I think that’s what he means when he says “don’t rule out illogical behavior.”

I consider myself to be a somewhat intelligent person. Do I make dumb mistakes? All the time! Do I sometimes speak out of turn or put my foot in my mouth? Absolutely. Human beings aren’t cardboard cut-outs nor should your characters be. We are complex, emotional beings with many different wants, needs, goals, aspirations, etc. This is why it’s very important to know who your characters are when writing a story (a future post).

So in writing and editing your work, when one of your characters comes to a fork in the road and has to make a decision, think it over. Is that decision true to their character? Using Smith’s example from above… maybe they would be dumb enough to call out “Who’s there?”

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Character Description: Use TMI

I once read somewhere that you should never write more than three lines of description when introducing a new character. While extra bits of description can be added amidst dialogue or thrown in throughout a scene. Keeping it to three lines is a general rule of thumb for when you first introduce someone new.

The reason for this is so you don’t overwhelm your reader. A big, wordy dump of information is difficult to absorb all at once. But the real question is- how do you go about picking the perfect three lines? How do you decide which character attributes to hone in on when you first introduce?

A great technique I learned to help you focus on the three perfect items or lines is to use too much information or TMI. Right before you introduce a new character, right down absolutely everything you can about them. Write a terrible description. Write everything you know. Be wordy. Once you get everything out on paper, you can start picking through your words to find the most important and identifying qualities.

Most likely you’ll focus on things that set this character apart from the rest. You want your readers to have a distinct view of who this person is. As human beings the first thing we notice about another person is their appearance. It’s human nature. It’s natural. Were not going to know about the lilt of their voice if we’re not talking to them yet. However, if we only see them from across the room, we might notice a bit more than the color of their skin or the color of their hair – those are obvious.

Help Define Your Character with Description

Other things that help define who a character is can be reflected in the way they walk. Perhaps they have a limp? Or maybe they have a scar above their upper lip? The way someone dresses can also reveal a lot about who they are, what they do, their income, their social class, even possibly their education.

In a way you almost have to think like a detective. Look for things that aren’t necessarily obvious, such as gender. It’s not very interesting to say, “Sally was a girl with blue eyes, red hair, and white skin.” Sometimes we can tell a character’s gender by their name. [I say “sometimes” here because science-fiction, fantasy and young adult dystopian novels make up a lot of names.] It’s almost an insult to your reader to spell things out for them. Also, most people with red hair have white skin and fair colored eyes. This doesn’t mean that there is a place for these obvious descriptions to be inserted somewhere in the story if you feel it should be in there. But someone’s hair color doesn’t tell you a lot about who they are as a person.

Another thing to consider is how you would want an author to describe you. Would you like them to describe you generically (i.e. He was a white man with a comb-over). That doesn’t tell us much. That doesn’t even really tell us his age because I know young men under the age of 30 with receding hairlines.

Again, you can pepper some of the more generic descriptions throughout the scenes. But when first introducing them, try to write down every possible thing you know about them and narrow it down from there. It will allow you to capture their distinct image in such a way that it entertains the reader with your language but also cements in their mind how this character stands out from the rest.

Utilize Real Life for Character Description (Things to Consider)

If you’re not sure where to start, start with someone you know. How about the biology teacher who wears a patch over his left eye? The man who pirates freshly released movies and walks around with an actual parrot on his shoulder? Does the character have smoker’s lines around their lips? Missing teeth? Gold teeth? A service dog? A tiny chihuahua in their purse? Are their shoes polished and shiny? How shiny? Is there a pep in their step? Any noticeable tattoos? Piercings? Do they wear a wedding ring? Which hand is it on? (Some religions and nationalities wear their rings on another hand or not at all).

You might also consider what they are doing when you first see them. Are they riding a horse? In a business meeting? Are they alone? In a group? An orchestra? A choir? The list goes on and on. It takes all kinds of people to make the world go ’round. Which kinds of people are you writing about?

Help! I Don’t Understand ‘Target Audience’

Readers, I need your help. I’m always after new ways to try and better my writing. To fine-tune it. But there is one term that comes up a lot when reading about the craft of writing and I can never grasp its purpose. I don’t understand “Target Audience.” I understand what it is, I don’t understand the purpose of it. So many websites and books preach that you must know your target audience to be successful.

I know that there is a different in writing for yourself and writing for the industry. I’m a firm believer in writing for yourself. I think you should write the book that you want to write and if someone isn’t happy about it, screw them! Not every person is going to like every book. I’ve read insanely popular bestsellers and hated them. I’ve always read popular books that I love. I read some Stephen King books that I love and some that I can’t force myself to finish because I found them boring. You can’t make everyone happy. So why have a target audience?

Are target audiences wrong?

I feel like so often they are. The Lord of the Rings had a target audience of 9-year-old boys… do you realize how hard that book is to get through as an adult? Regardless, it took the world by storm anyway. So did Harry Potter which had a similar target audience. So why to authors continue determining their target audience?

Who is my target audience?

Anyone who wants to read…? At least that’s always been my answer.

I would love for everyone to post in the comments below, their thoughts on the term “target audience.” Do you understand it? Are you like me and feel like you’re missing a point? I feel like I’m missing some bigger picture or perhaps I’m just looking at it from the wrong perspective. Please let me know.

-RB

 

The French Scene: How to Break Your Fiction Into Smaller Bites

No. A french scene is not when one character sticks their tongue into another character’s mouth during the scene. It was a term we used in the theater department to break a play into more manageable parts. Allow me to explain.

Having been a theater major in college as opposed to an English major, has given me a different outlook on writing fiction. I’m not sure what all goes on in those fiction-writing classes but I’ve never heard an English major (or any other writer for that matter) talk about French Scenes. Nor have I heard them mention Triggers, Heaps and Beats but that is another blog post! Studying fiction from an acting and directing perspective, has broadened my understanding of storytelling. In the end, I think English majors could learn a thing or two from us theater folk especially when it comes to writing dialogue.

Now I’m not a master of the craft (who is?) But I’ve noticed that when writing a first draft or editing later drafts that larger chunks of work can be overwhelming. It’s daunting – looking at a 7,000 word chapter and knowing you need to break that shit down. So I’d like to introduce to you the concept of a French Scene.

What is a French Scene?

By definition, “A “French scene” is a scene in which the beginning and end are marked by a change in the presence of characters onstage, rather than by the lights going up or down or the set being changed.-Wikipedia

So basically, anytime a character enters or leaves a scene. You may have some french scenes which consist of three lines of dialogue, and some which last more than a page. Granted, this doesn’t work for every work of fiction. In Emma Donoghue’s Room, a large part of the story consists of dialogue between Ma and Jack. The french scenes for this work would be very long. However, there are other ways to break up chunks of fiction.

Some elect to edit page by page or even break their editing up into paragraph by paragraph. I find that when I edit this way, my fiction is clunkier and doesn’t flow as well. Instead, treat each new thought or topic of conversation as a character entering or leaving the scene. This way, you’d still be utilizing the french scene method.

What is the Function of a French Scene?

I first came across the term during a Stage Management class during my sophomore year of college. It was one of the most fascinating and influential classes I took during my college career. The stage manager, much like the author of a novel, is the god of the play’s production. They keep track of EVERYTHING for that production from the stage lighting cues in the script to each actor’s audition papers.

There is even a specific short-hand language and way of writing that we had to learn so that should something happen to the stage manager during a production, someone else can easily replace them. Seriously, we had an entire assignment on the quickest way to hand write (with instructions on how to write every letter of the alphabet, capitalized and lower case) in the least amount of pen strokes.

Please let me know in the comments below how you break down your fiction. You never know when your pearl of wisdom just might help the next greatest writer tackle their work.

Further Reading

If you’re interested in learning more about stage production, Angela Mitchell has a fantastic series of blog posts on the topic. I highly recommend checking out her work.

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The Story Determines Its Own Length

Some writers will tear their hair out over story length. I was sitting in my One-Act Play class during junior year of college discussing the instructions on writing a paper with my classmates. I don’t recall what the paper was about but I remember our professor telling us it needed to be double-spaced, 12 pt font, Times News Roman, and all that jazz. She also told us about all of the points we needed to cover but one thing she didn’t address was the length of the paper.

Normally, teachers and professors will tell you that your paper needs to be one page, or three to five paragraphs, or fourteen pages single-spaced. They always dictate some sort of length. I wasn’t alone. Everyone else in the class was a little perplexed because we’re so used to being told how long something needs to be. So we asked the professor how long she wanted our essays to be?

She said, “Just answer the questions.”

Our minds were blown. Just answer the questions? That had never been told to us before. Even though I did not particularly care for this professor, she taught me a very valuable lesson in that moment. When it comes to writing stories and trying to write novels, so many people are bound and determined to reach that 60,000-word goal or that 80,000-word goal and certain stories aren’t meant to be that long.

When I wrote Laszlo, it ended up being about 40,000 words. I felt like that length allowed me to tell the story. But often people who don’t write ask me, “why didn’t you throw in an extra 10,000 words?” “You came this far. Just make it a novel!” “Why don’t you beef it up?” They are very annoying questions to answer. Non-writers don’t understand and no amount of explaining seems to help them.

Certain stories have a certain length. That’s just the way it is.

If a story was only meant to be 2,000 words, then beefing it up to be a 50,000-word novel (by putting a bunch of random crap in there) weakens it. “More” doesn’t always mean “better.” Turning a short story into a novel could turn a brilliant tale into a pile of drivel. On the other hand, taking a story that should be fleshed out to 100,000 words and only writing 30,000 doesn’t let the story really express itself. I know that to non-writers that sounds like a stupid statement. But it’s true. The only thing a story really has to do it tell

The only thing a story really has to do it tell its tale. Period. It doesn’t have to make you laugh. It doesn’t have to make you cry. And it doesn’t have to make you think, feel or care. In some cases, stories don’t even make sense. I’ve read short stories that ended abruptly and seemed to have no point. I’ve watched long movies that ended on odd notes and left me confused and unsatisfied. Perhaps it wasn’t as long as it should have been? Or perhaps it would have been stronger if it were more concise? Forcing a story into a mold that it doesn’t fit only makes matters worse. Let the story determine it’s own length. You’ll know when to stop adding brush strokes to the painting.

So the bottom line is, don’t fret if that story that you wanted to be 20,000 words ends up being 60,000 words or if the story you wanted to be 50,000 words ends up being 10,000. Never fear.

Happy Writing!

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