WriteTip: What is Dialogue and What is its Purpose?

The following is an excerpt from my book How To Write A Novel: The Fundamentals of Fiction, Chapter 7:

Chances are fifty percent or more of your novel will consist of dialogue. Dialogue is the characters’ chief method of communicating information to one another (and readers). But remember: Conversation isn’t dialogue. Dialogue is drama. It is a certain type of dramatic representation of conversation that has conflict and drama and urgency. It may imitate conversation but there is no chit chat. Dialogue involves imparting key information about plot, emotion, character, setting and more that drives the story forward. It involves building tension, pace, and foreshadowing conflict as well as expressing present conflict. Dialogue is one of the essential craft tools of good fiction writing.
  Johnny Payne writes in Voice & Style:  “Dialogue is the essence of teaching…The role of dialogue within fiction can be defined as not so different from the one it plays in learning. Ideally, it should deepen with progressive readings, leaving the reader with an increased understanding of the story’s consequences.” In some ways, dialogue exists in tension with, and separate from the authorial voice. Characters care nothing about the author’s life or concerns, just their own. When two or more characters dialogue, they are in a sense “talking back” to the author or narrative voice. They contest it at times, challenge it, add complexity to its views. This tension gives us perspective on the narrative voice while also clarifying the independence of characters in the story from the narrator. By necessity, fiction must be truer than life in order to give us different perspectives on it. Because characters always speak in opposition—conflict lies at the heart of drama, remember—the tension between character voices and author voice is a key element of the storytelling experience, adding tension and drama and upping the stakes. And while dialogue is part of overall voice, because characters and narrator can also speak in opposition, they create the kind of multiple meanings and complexity associated with dramatic irony. As narration directs and lays out the story, dialogue detonates and creates explosions that create twists, surprises, turns, and consequences that affect the rest of the story and keep it interesting. This is the essence of narrative drama.
  So how do you develop a skill for good dialogue? Let’s look at The Purpose of Dialogue.

The Purpose of Dialogue

Jack Hart writes in Storycraft: “Dialogue isn’t an end in itself; it has to do some real work. It can advance action as characters encounter and struggle with obstacles, such as an antagonist who resists a character’s progress in resolving a complication. It can help shape a scene as characters comment on objects in their environment, such as the clothes one of them wears.” Advancing action, imparting information, revealing character, increasing conflict—all of these are the purpose of dialogue and its every word should serve one or more of these at all times.
  According to screenwriter John Howard Lawson, speaking “comes from energy and not inertia.” It serves “as it does in life, to broaden the scope of action; it organizes and extends what people do. It also intensifies the action. The emotion which people feel in a situation grows out of their sense of scope and meaning.” James Scott Bell writes in How to Write Dazzling Dialogue: “Characters talk in fiction because they want to further their own ends…Every word, every phrase that comes out of a character’s mouth is uttered because the character hopes it will further a purpose.” Because dialogue can foreshadow action, explain it, or set it up, advancing action is a core role of dialogue. Also, dialogue exchanges are laden with conflict and can thus up the tension and stakes of action and confrontations, thus advancing action and leading from one action to another. The very act of dialoguing is, in effect, taking an action: to confront, to question, to ask, to discuss, etc. and in all cases, this dialogical action furthers plot, story, and character in some way (or should).
  Because, in many ways, we reveal who we are by how we speak, what dialogue does best is reveal or advance character. In the next section we will cover dialect and diction, but it’s not just the word choice that is at work here but the interaction with other characters and the world reveals much, too. Word choice can reveal education level, social stratus, historical background, genetics, nationality, etc. but dialogue with others reveals attitudes about society, setting, the world, and relationships which are also important. We talk to different people differently for various reasons, and that very act reveals much about who we are and who they are to us.
  Because much dialogue involves opposition between characters, inherent in its nature is conflict. Stephen King writes in On Writing: “It’s dialogue that gives your cast their voices and is crucial in defining their characters—only what people do tells us more about what they’re like, and talk is sneaky: what people say often conveys their character to others in ways of which they—the speakers—are completely unaware.” Dialogue is intimately connected to character motivation. It reveals motive constantly, setting and revising their agenda. These agenda checks come in opposition with those of other characters, creating conflict and tension and leading to action, imparting information, upping the stakes. This is a key difference between conversation and dialogue. Dialogue is always about tension and conflict, whereas conversation is not. Conversation can be casual and consumed with minute details, facts, and experiences which interest the involved parties but are irrelevant to those around them. Dialogue must always function to advance the story by revealing motives, information, character, action and more, so dialogue and conversation are very different in both purpose and style. In dialogue, characters sometimes say things to inform readers of information they already know in order to advance the story. This exposition is a manufactured trait of narrative dialogue that is not common in real life except with strangers. There are things many times we don’t have to say because we are the party we are speaking to just know them, but with readers watching, in narrative, these things cannot go unsaid and must be imparted.
  Dialogue can also be external and internal. At the same time as characters engage in dialogue with other characters, they maintain an internal dialogue with themselves that can be in conflict with the external dialogue but performs the same functions. It can impart backstory, history, and details readers need to know and also things characters may not share, for various reasons, with other characters but which they know and hold in reserve but which readers need to further the story, action, and character. These two streams of dialogue go on simultaneously and intertwine with the narrator’s voice as the story unfolds.
 Here’s an example from romance author Catherine Bybee’s Wife by Wednesday:
“Kissing me is wrong?”

“Yes,” she blurted out. “I mean, no.”

He chuckled, “Which is it?”

“Ugh. What if I choke? What if I don’t look convincing?” What if she screwed up and gave the camera exactly what they wanted and Blake lost his inheritance?

Blake removed one hand from the steering wheel and placed it over her cold ones. “Samantha?”

“Yes?”

“Relax. Let me take charge here.”

She wanted to trust him. But her hands shook as they  pulled into her driveway. He removed the key from the ignition and shifted in his seat. “Let’s just go      inside and start packing.”

“Are you going to kiss me the minute we’re inside?”   God, she had to know…so she could prepare herself.
Okay, clearly Blake and Samantha are lovers. And they are going somewhere important with potential consequences for Blake that Samantha is worried she’ll screw up. Notice also how Samantha’s internal and external monologue are both at play here to impart understanding of motives and thought behind her reactions and words? Also note how while she is tense, anxious, Blake’s body language and words combine to demonstrate he is not. He is relaxed, at ease. This is a very solid demonstration of effective dialogue.
   The next is example from The Cold Dish by Craig Johnson:
“What are you smiling at?”

“Leave me alone. I’m having a moment of grace.”

He stared at me. “Well, we would not want to interrupt that.”

I tossed a piece of shale at him, missing by a good   two feet. “If you can have multiple lives, I can have moments of grace.”

He grunted. “How was your moment of grace last night?”

“Not bad, as moments of grace go.” I thought for a    while. “More like a moment of truth.”

He nodded. “That is good. They are harder to come by.” He winced as he stretched the tendons in his right 
knee; maybe he wasn’t indestructible. “So, she left 
the Jeep?”

“Yep.”

“You drive her home?”

“Yep.”

He stretched for a minute more, leaned against the 
mile-marker post I was leaning against, and sighed. 
“Okay…”

“Okay, what?”

“We do not have to talk about it.”

“We are talking about it.”

“No, I am talking about it, and all you are doing is 
saying, ‘Yep.’”
Even without a lot of context, hopefully you can tell these are characters who know each other well. In this case, Sheriff Walt Longmire and Henry Standing Bear are childhood friends, now adults. Henry is an American Indian, Walt white. The sarcasm inherent here shows familiarity, as does the inside reference to “multiple lives.” Characters with a history spar as they talk frequently. There is a playfulness and tension to it as they test each other, sometimes in fun, sometimes in anger, but always in shared knowledge. Just four lines of dialogue and two of description, but you see what that can reveal, even out of context. Walt, it appears, had a date or something the night before. Also, notice that Henry uses no contractions in his syntax. He has a unique way of talking that distinguishes him from Walt.
  Dialogue’s purpose is to reveal character, plot, and story. It drips with conflict and drama, moving the story forward, upping the tension, and pushing the story along. Just by tone, phrasing, and wording, it can raise questions and evoke emotions in the reader. That is the importance of getting it right.
  Next week, we’ll talk about some other aspects of dialogue.

Write Tip: Creating Tension Through Dialogue and Description

The following is an excerpt from my book How To Write A Novel: The Fundamentals of Fiction, Chapter 8:

Last week, I wrote about The Key To Good Plotting—Asking The Right QuestionsThe Key To Good Plotting—Asking The Right Questions, this week I want to talk about more ways to build suspense in your storytelling, specifically through creating tension using dialogue and emotions. This post is longer because of numerous examples, so please stick with it.

  “Holding readers’ attention every word of the way,” writes Donald Maass in The Breakout Novelist, “is a function not of the type of novel you’re writing, a good premise, tight writing, quick pace, showing not telling, or any of the other widely understood and frequently taught principles of storytelling. Keeping readers in your grip comes from something else…the moment-by-moment tension that keeps readers in a constant state of suspense over what will happen—not in the story, but in the next few seconds.” This kind of microtension comes not from story but from emotions, specifically conflicting emotions. So above all else, creating suspense is about making readers care.

  Webster’s Dictionary defines suspense as: a. The state of being undecided or undetermined; 2. The state of being uncertain, as in awaiting a decision, usually characterized by some anxiety or apprehension.

What is undecided and undetermined are story questions. First and foremost, suspense is about questions. James N. Frey writes in How To Write a Damn Good Novel II: “A story question is a device to make the reader curious. Story questions are usually not put in question form. They are rather statements that require further explanation, problems that require resolution, forecasts of crisis, and the like.” 

An hour before sunset, on the evening of a day in the beginning of October, 1815, a man traveling afoot entered the little town of D------. The few persons who were at this time at their windows and doors, regarded  this traveler with a sort of distrust.

Thus opens Book 2 of Victor Hugo’s classic masterpiece Les Miserables. The story questions are “who is this man?” and “is he dangerous?” The first question intrigues, the second raises the suspense, and this is how story questions work. Other examples:

The great fish moved silently through the night water, propelled by great sweeps of its crescent tail.

(Jaws, Peter Benchley: “Who will be the shark’s lunch?”)

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.

(Pride and Pejudice, Jane Austen: “Who’s the single man?” And “Who’s going to be the lucky girl?”)

Scarlett O’Hara was not beautiful, but men seldom 
realized it when caught by her charms as the Tarleton twins were.

(Gone With The Wind, Margaret Mitchell: “What are the consequences of the twins being charmed? Will they fight over her?“ Etc.)

Expanding on last week’s post, Frey goes on to say: “Story questions, unless they are powerful, life-and-death questions that are strengthened, reinforced, and elaborated will not hold the reader long.” When they occur at the beginning of a story, they act as “hooks” that draw readers in. That’s why so many classic novels start with hooks and yours should, too. Ultimately, raising story questions—unanswered questions, characters we care about, and tension are the keys to suspense in any story. 

Creating Tension

Since we just discussed it, let’s start with dialogue. Dialogue in novels is not realistic. Every word is thought through and constructed to create the upmost tension and steadiest pace. Characters say what they mean, are rarely interrupted, don’t stumble over words, and all the same the words often seem unimportant if taken by themselves. The words are not what holds the power. The power comes from the meaning, the motivations of the speakers, and the underlying conflict. Here’s an example from John Sandford’s Rule Of Prey:

“Daniel’s hunting for you.” Anderson looked harassed, teasing his thinning blonde hair as he stepped through Lucas’ office door. Lucas had just arrived and stood rattling his keys in his fist.

“Something break?”

“We might go for a warrant.”

“On Smithe?”

“Yeah. Sloan spent the night going through his garbage. Found some wrappers from rubbers that use the same kind of lubricant they found in the women. And they found a bunch of invitations to art shows. The betting is, he knows the Ruiz chick.”

“I’ll talk to the chief.”

Now, tension in this scene comes from two things. One, starting abruptly with dialogue that is a warning or feels urgent in a way before establishing setting and that Detective Lucas Davenport, our protagonist, has just arrived. Two, the underlying tension of the hunt for the killer and the chief wanting Lucas. The words themselves are fairly innocuous at face value, a bunch of information really. In another context, they might play very differently, but here they carry urgency, a sense of danger, emotional foreboding. A sex killer is loose and the cops are racing to find him. Yes, some of this was established in earlier scenes, but just from this little short scene alone, you get a lot of it. This dialogue drips with tension as a result. What makes dialogue gripping is not the information or facts imparted, but the tension, the urgency. The tension comes from the people, not the words.

Let’s look at another example from Every Dead Thing by John Connelly:

“Nice story, Tommy,” said Angel.

“It’s just a story, Angel. I didn’t mean nothing by it. No offense intended.”

“None taken,” said Angel. “At least not by me.”

Behind him there was a movement in the darkness, and  Louis appeared. His bald head gleamed in the dim light, his muscular neck emerging from a black silk shirt  within an immaculately cut gray suit. He towered over Angel by more than a foot, and as he did so, he eyed  Tommy Q intently for a moment.

“Fruit,” he said. “That’s a…quaint term, Mr. Q. To what does it refer, exactly?”

The blood had drained from Tommy Q’s face and it      seemed to take a long time for him to find enough
saliva to enable him to gulp. When he did eventually
manage, it sounded like he was swallowing a golf ball.He opened his mouth but nothing came out, so he closedit again and looked at the floor in vain hope that it
would open up and swallow him.

“It’s okay, Mr. Q, it was a good story,” said Louis ina voice as silky as his shirt.

“Just be careful how you tell it.” Then he smiled a 
bright smile at Tommy Q, the sort of smile a cat mightgive a mouse to take to the grave with it. A drop of  sweat ran down Tommy Q’s nose, hung from the tip a    moment, then exploded on the floor.

By then, Louis had gone.

The tension here comes from the characters, not the dialogue. Separate the dialogue out and there’s nothing particularly tense about it, but the context is that Tommy Q has just laughingly told Angel a story about a gay man’s murder. Louis and Angel are gay and they are killers, particularly Louis. Puts a whole new spin on it, doesn’t it? That’s how tension in dialogue works. I imagine that even not knowing everything beforehand, you felt the tension reading it, but now that I’ve told you, read it again. Even more tense, right? We keep reading at moments like this not because of what they say. We keep reading to see if they will reconcile or fight. Will the tension explode into a fight or resolve?

Ask yourself where the tension is in your dialogue? Look at every passage, every word. How can it be improved? Does the tension come from the words or the situations, the circumstances and characters? Make sure the emotional friction between the speakers is the driving force.

Tension in action works much the same way. Yes, there can be violence and that has an inherent tension. But even in scenes with action that is nonviolent, you need tension. Let’s look at a scene from Harlan Coban’s Tell No One:

I put my hands behind my head and lay back. A cloud   passed in front of the moon, turning the blue night   into something pallid and gray.  The air was still. I could hear Elizabeth getting out of the water and stepping onto the dock. My eyes tried to adjust. I could  barely make out her naked silhouette. She was, quite  simply, breathtaking. I watched her bend at the waist and wring the water out of her hair.

Then she arched her spine and threw back her head.

My raft drifted farther away from shore. I tried to   sift through what had happened to me, but even I      didn’t understand it all. The raft kept moving. I     started losing sight of Elizabeth. As she faded in the
dark, I made a decision: I would tell her. I would    tell her everything.

I nodded to myself and closed my eyes. There was a lightness in my chest now. I listened to the water gently
lap against my raft.

Then I heard a car door open.

I sat up. “Elizabeth?” Pure silence, except for my ownbreathing.

I looked for her silhouette again. It was hard to make
out, but for a moment I saw it. Or thought I saw it. 
I’m not sure anymore or if it even matters.

Either way, Elizabeth was standing perfectly still, and maybe she was facing me.

I might have blinked—I’m really not sure about that   either—and when I looked again, Elizabeth was gone.

Lots of description, and fairly benign at that. Only one line of dialogue. But what lends tension to this is the descriptive details that follow what is obviously an important decision by the narrator to confess something to Elizabeth. Is she gone? Did someone else arrive? Who? That the narrator, David, is deeply in love and feels guilt over a secret is obvious. It doesn’t need to be stated. And that underscores the tension of otherwise mundane action. We want to see what happens. This is how action, even nonviolent, can drip with tension if written well, and it needs to if your book is to hook readers time and again and keep them reading.

Exposition always risks boring readers. Maass writes: “Many novelists merely write out whatever it is that their characters are thinking or feeling—or, more to the point, whatever happens to occur to the author in a given writing session. That is a mistake.” Most commonly, exposition fails because it merely restates what we have already learned from the story or information characters would already know. It becomes uninteresting or false because it feels unnecessary. The key to good exposition is to frame it so it offers new ideas and emotions into the tapestry of the story. Remember when I said you should only give us what we need to know to understand the story at any given moment? That’s why choosing placement of your exposition carefully is so important. Save it until we need it so it brings something useful and important to the story. Don’t just dump it all at once to be stored up for later use. Instead, leave it until it will advance the story.

In Pretties, Scott Westerfeld manages to offer exposition that creates conflicting feelings in the character at the same time.

As the message ended, Tally felt the bed spin a little. She closed her eyes and let out a long, slow sigh of relief. Finally, she was full-fledged Crim. Everything 
she’d ever wanted had come to her at last. She was    beautiful, and she lived in New Pretty Town with Peris
and Shay and tons of new friends. All the disasters   and terrors of the last year—running away to Smoke,   living there in pre-Rusty squalor, traveling back to
the city through the wilds—somehow all if it had      worked out.

It was so wonderful, and Tally was so exhausted, that belief took a while to settle over her. She replayed  Peris’s message a few times, then pulled off the      smelly, smokey sweater with shaking hands and threw it
in a corner. Tomorrow, she would make the hole in the wall recycle it.

Tally lay back and stared at the ceiling for a while. A ping from Shay came, but she ignored it, setting her
interface ring to sleeptime. With everything so
perfect, reality seemed somehow fragile, as if the 
slightest interruption could imperil her pretty future. The bed beneath her, Komachi Mansion, and even the. city around her—all of it felt as tenuous as a soap  
bubble, shivering and empty.

It was probably just the knock on her head causing the
weird missingness that underlay her joy. She only     needed a good night’s sleep—and hopefully no hangover tomorrow—and everything would feel solid again, as perfect as it really was.

Tally fell asleep a few minutes later, happy to be a  Crim at last.

But her dreams were totally bogus.

So on the surface, she is happy to have accomplished her goal and become a Crim. But she has to try hard to convince herself of it. Too hard. That life is perfect. So hard that it is obvious she is not convinced it is real, that she fears it may be bogus. This underlying emotional conflict makes the exposition feel important and relevant in a way the words never would have. It advances the story and adds tension, keeping our interest.

The trick to making exposition matter is to dig deeper into your characters at such moments and examine what is going on with them. Why is this information important at this moment? What do they feel in saying it and why does it matter? Find the delimmas, contradictions, impulses, and conflicting ideas and questions that drive the character and readers will be fascinated. Maass writes: “True tension in exposition comes not from circular worry or repetitive turmoil; it comes from emotions in conflict and ideas at war.”

Description passages have a similar problem, which is why readers sometimes skim them. Maass writes: “Description itself does nothing to create tension; tension only comes from people within the landscape.” So the trick is to use description to reveal the conflict of the observer. How does observing various details affect the character? What makes the details stand out for the character? People tend to focus on details that mean something to them and ignore the rest. So pick the details that are important to the character and describe them so it’s clear why they count. Here’s a great example from Memory Man by David Baldacci:

The bar was much like every bar Decker had ever been in.

Dark, cold, musty, smoky, where light fell funny and everyone looked like someone you knew or wanted to know. Or, more likely, wanted to forget. Where everyone was your friend until he was your enemy and cracked a pool stick over your skull. Where things were quiet until they weren’t. Where you could drink away anything life threw at you. Where a thousand Billy Joel wannabes would serenade you into the wee hours.

Sounds like most bars I’ve been in for sure. There are elements of familiarity and elements of foreboding. Decker is both at home and ill at ease here, conflicting emotions. The history in the elements described keeps him on edge and we with him. And as a result, we feel the tension of anticipation that something will happen here. And in fact, it does. A confrontation follows moments later.

Maass writes: “Tension can be made out of nothing at all—or, at least, that’s how it can appear. In reality, it is feelings—specifically, feelings in conflict with each other—that fill up an otherwise dead span of story and bring it to life.” Finding ways to bring out those conflicting emotions through description is the key to keeping tension in every word.

WriteTip: How To Use Speech Tags Well

The following is an excerpt from my book How To Write A Novel: The Fundamentals of Fiction, Chapter 7:

Another area of concern related to dialogue are speech tags. The most common of these, of course, is “said.” But sometimes people try to get creative and do so badly. Creative speech tags are generally a bad idea. All too often they stand out as forced or awkward and draw attention to the writer and craft, away from the story, rather than just flying by like they are supposed to, allowing readers to stay in the story. All of us can probably think of examples we’ve encountered in our reading. Here are ten common tips to avoid frequent pitfalls in writing dialogue and speech tags:
1) Use Simple Tags Sparingly. Fancy tags like “he expostulated” or “she espoused” are less clear and more distracting than anything. So keep the tags simple when you absolutely must use them. Instead, convey the manner in which a character speaks instead. Make it obvious from what is said.
2) Instead Of Tags, Use Actions. People talk while actively engaging in activities. So should your characters. Giving them business to do during dialogue allows you to identify who’s speaking without resorting to overused tags. Some can come in the form of characterizing the speaker: “His eyebrows lifted with menace,” for example. “Bob’s fist clenched as he spoke.” “Tears rolled down her cheek with every word.”
3) Avoid Expositional Dialogue When Possible. We’ve all violated this rule, but especially when two characters should already know the information being imparted, it seems unnatural and distracting. In such cases, internal monologue is a better tool and more natural. Characters may think about stuff they already know but they wouldn’t tell each other stuff each of them knows.
4) Keep It Short. People talk in choppy sentences. Long soliloquies are rare. So in dialogue, use a combination of short sentences to make it flow and feel like real people talking. Let them interrupt each other, too. People do that in real life. It adds to the pace, tension and drama of it.
5) Avoid Phonetic Spellings For Accents. They are difficult to read. Indications of dialect can be used instead to get the reader to do the rest. Overuse of a dialect becomes distracting to readers and can actually take them out of the story. Keep the words your characters say as unobtrusive as possible so your story flows seamlessly.
6) Dialogue Is Conflict. Conflict keeps the story moving. People talk like they’re playing table tennis-back and forth. This moves the story forward. Lace your dialogue with conflict. It adds dramatic urgency to every line the characters say and keeps the story’s pace.
7) Use Other Characters. Let a character imply who’s speaking to them by saying something specific to only that person. If you use business well (see number 2 above), having a character refer to something the other character is doing is a great way to do this.
8) Give Each Character A Distinctive Voice. Overdo it and its caricature but we all have our own speech tics. Create some for your characters and sprinkle them throughout. Readers will learn them and know who’s speaking. For example, Captain Jack Sparrow loves the term of affection: “love” and uses that a lot. He also says “Savvy?” a great deal as well. He has others you can probably remember, too. Study characterization and see what other writers have done.
9) Speak It Aloud. Talk it out. Get inside the heads of your characters and say the lines. Play out the conversation you’ve written. Does it sound natural? Does it flow? Your ear is often a better judge than your eyes and hearing it will give you an idea how readers will hear it.
10) Remember What Medium You’re Writing For. TV and Film dialogue and novel dialogue are not necessarily the same. There is no third party to use intonation, facial expressions and/or body language to bring it to life. Your words alone are the conduit between yourself and the reader and your prose skills and the readers’ imaginations make it work.
Altogether, remember, the goal of speech tags is solely to help readers keep track of who is speaking, when. That is their sole purpose. It is not a chance to insert adjectives for emotional effect or to show off fancy word slinging vocabularies. They are another tool best used as subtly as possible.
In On Writing, Stephen King writes: “As with all other aspects of fiction, the key to writing good dialogue is honesty…It is important to tell the truth; so much depends on it…The Legion of Decency may not like the word shit, and you might not like it much either, but sometimes you are stuck with it… You must tell the truth if your dialogue is to have resonance and realism…If you substitute ‘Oh sugar!’ for ‘Oh shit!’ because you’re thinking about The Legion of Decency, you are breaking the unspoken contract that exists between writer and reader—your promise to express the truth of how people act and talk through the medium of made-up story.” That some readers may not want to hear the truth is not your problem. Your quest is to tell the truth at all times, to keep their trust, and sometimes the truth is uncomfortable for all of us. Dialogue being how characters talk is one of the most important crafts to writing your novel. It must feel authentic and real for readers to believe your characters could be real people.

My Top 15 Favorite Writing Books & Why (In No Particular Order)

Today, I thought I’d list the 15 writing books I find most helpful to my writing and teaching writing and offer a little explanation as to why. Hopefully some of these are useful and helpful to you. I am doing these in no particular order of priority, but instead based on how they fit with each other.

The first 8 are part of an excellent Writer’s Digest series called ELEMENTS OF FICTION WRITING. These are by no means all of the books in that series. All of them are excellent, but these 8 are the ones I have referred to most often myself.

  1. Beginnings, Middles, and Ends (Elements of Fiction Writing) by Nancy Kress — Kress takes you through not only the importance of these three pieces of any good story but also the hows and whys of writing them in a very organized and useful way.
  2. Characters and Viewpoint (Elements of Fiction Writing) by Orson Scott Card — Excellent examination of building characters that spring to life and dealing with points of view.
  3. Conflict, Action & Suspense (Elements of Fiction Writing) by William Noble — No good story can exist without conflict, action, and suspense, and Noble tells you what they are, how to write them, and why they matter succinctly.
  4. Description (Elements of Fiction Writing) by Monica A. Wood — one area I had the most to learn when I became a novelist. And Wood expertly helps you learn the hows, whys, and wherefores.
  5. Dialogue (Elements of Fiction Writing) by Lewis Turco — Dialogue has always been one of my strengths (or so I was always told) but this book helps examine things like etymology, accents, and more which go beyond just good every day dialogue.
  6. Plot (Elements of Fiction Writing) by Ansen Dibell — A key resource on an essential tool for any writer and something most books live or die on: plotting.
  7. Setting (Elements of Fiction Writing) by Jack W. Bingham — An excellent how to.
  8. Voice & Style (Elements of Fiction Writing) by Johnny Payne — Wanna know the difference? Wanna develop your own? Look no further. Truly eye opening.
  9. Checking on Culture by Lee Killough — A tiny little tome about a huge subject that just nails it. Her checklist alone is indispensable. Not to be missed.
  10. How To Write A Breakout Novel by Donald Maass/The Breakout Novelist by Donald Maass — Technically two books like the next entry, these two are by one of the most successful literary agents in the business and give you real insight into what editors and agents look for and what you need to write a sellable book.
  11. How To Write A Damn Good Novel by James N. Frey/How To Write A Damn Good Novel II by James N. Frey — Two books by a top author and teacher which examine key elements of successful novels, different areas are covered in each book. Essential reading.
  12. On Writing by Stephen King — If you don’t know King, this book gives you insight into his background as a person and his approach to writing. It’s incredibly useful as a writing tool and resource in addition to being a damn compelling autobiography.
  13. Screenplay by Syd Field — The essential book on 3 Act story structure, indispensable for novelists and screenwriters alike. This one was key reading in Hollywood for decades.
  14. The Emotion Thesaurus by Becca Pugliosi and Angela Ackerman — The one writing book I never write without, this one helps you nail the internal and external and mental signs of various emotions so well, you can describe them without ever mentioning the emotion. I use it daily while writing.
  15. The Ten Percent Solution by Ken Rand — The single best revision and editing book I have ever read. Like Killough, it is deceptively slim, but every word counts and it will revolutionize how to revise and edit your own work. Essential.

So those are my Top 15 Writing Books and briefly why. What are yours? For what it’s worth…

Write Tip: A Trick Every Writer Should Know About Writing Scenes (In Medias Res)

When I went to screenwriting school, the key thing they taught us about writing scenes was a concept called in medias res: to enter a scene as late as possible and get out as soon as possible after that. Forget the niceties. None of this:

Bob walked in the room to find Guy sitting on the couch, chilling.

“Hey, dude, whassup?” Bob asked.

Guy shrugged, not even glancing over. “Nothing. You?”

“Meh. Me either.”

No. You’d better have something more interesting. We can assume they’re nice, normal people but we don’t need to see their mundane, routine, room entering banter to prove it.  Show us that and you’ve lost our interest. Why? We can see that every day. And when  you write it out, it’s quickly apparent how boring our lives have become.

Instead, you want to start with as dramatic a spot as possible.

           “Why am I here?” Hachim choked out. Sweat dripped off the arms of the chair as it soaked through his robe. After twenty minutes alone in the interrogation room, he looked like he’d fallen into a lake. Tarkanius and Aron shook their heads, and Aron was thankful he wasn’t present for the odor. They watched through the one way glass as the Major Zylo stopped across the table from the sweaty Lord, staring at him.

            “You know why you’re here,” Zylo said.

            Hachim coughed. “I’ve done nothing wrong.”

            “So you always sweat this much when you’re innocent?”

            Hachim grabbed the towel Zylo tossed across the table at him and began wiping the exposed flesh of his face, brow, neck and arms. “It’s hot in here.”

            “I’m perfectly comfortable.” Zylo sat in the seat across from him and leaned back, watching as the Lord cleaned himself. “You’re gonna need a new robe.”

Are you hooked yet? I hope so. This scene should be a lot more interesting. If not, go back to your boring life. I hope you’re very happy there.

The difference between scene 1 and scene 2 is that when scene 1 starts, nothing is happening. The characters aren’t even all that interesting. In scene 2, the drama has started before we’re allowed in the room. Hachim’s already sweating, Zylo’s already hostile. It’s obvious right away Hachim is guilty of something, at least as far as Zylo’s concerned, and Zylo intends to get to the bottom of it. We’d like to as well. To me, this illustrates well the craft of getting into a scene as late as possible. Something interesting is already happening. No wasted space. No chit chat.

Now let me show you the rest of the scene so we can talk about point two: getting out as soon after.

  “What is this about? You have no right to detain me without cause!”

            Zylo nodded, then slid a datapad across the table, watching as Hachim set down the towel and began to read.

            “Conspiracy? Assassination?” Hachim’s eyes darted up from the screen. “I had nothing to do with it.”

            “You knew about it.”

            Hachim shook his head. “If you could prove it, you’d have already arrested me.” He smiled smugly.

            Zylo laughed. “The Alien Leadership Summit.”

            Hachim’s eyes raced to finish the charges. “What about it?” Hachim slid the datapad back across the table and shot him a confused look that wasn’t very convincing.

            “What’s the location?”

            “That’s classified for the Council.”

            “I have clearance, trust me. I’m on the security team.”

            Hachim hesitated, then melted under Zylo’s stare. “Idolis.”

            Zylo shook his head. “Buzz! Wrong answer. And it was all over the news.”

            “So? I am not the only person privy to that.” Hachim leaned back in his chair, attempting to appear bored, but Aron saw the fear in his eyes. And Zylo saw it, too.

            Zylo chuckled. “Yes, you were.”

            Hachim looked at him again, startled. “What?”

            Zylo nodded, smirking. “Each Lord was given a different location.”

            Hachim frowned. “A different location? They can’t hold the Summit in more than one place…” His voice trailed off as the implications sank in. Zylo raised a brow as their eyes met. “Lies? A trap?”

            “A security precaution. How many people did you tell?”

            Hachim shook his head. “No, I’m innocent. I’m not going to tolerate this abuse.” Slowly, he stood from his chair and took a step toward the door.

            Zylo shoved Hachim back into the chair. “Sit down and start answering.” Hachim looked offended at the treatment. Zylo wasn’t even phased. “Now!”

            Aron looked at Tarkanius, wondering if it were time for them to join the interrogation. Tarkanius shook his head. “No. Let him suffer.”

            “Then their fate will be yours.” Zylo shrugged and turned to casually stroll toward the door. Hachim’s eyes widened.

            “It was Niger’s idea,” Hachim began. Zylo turned back as Hachim’s shoulders sank with his weight in the chair.

Can you see how fast it moves? And the whole thing is fairly dramatic. In fact, you don’t even get to know what he tells him. Why? Because talk is boring. It’s more interesting to show that in the scenes that follow. In context, this opens Chapter 12 in my forthcoming novel The Returning, so readers will actually know more coming into it than you did. They’ll know, for example, that Hachim has been betraying his trust as a public servant. That people’s lives are at risk if he’s leaked the data as suspected. People we care about’s lives. Still, it illustrates my point well. It’s tight. It’s dramatic. It sets up the character’s relationship quickly. The characters are revealed through action and dialogue. There’s tight pace. And it holds your interest. Plus, even both pieces combined, it’s short. In late, out early.

Try it. Not only will your pacing automatically be better. Your readers are likely to turn pages faster. And your writing is even going to be more fun. Yes, this is an interrogation scene. But you can do the same thing with any scene where there’s conflict, and, frankly, most of the time, if you scene doesn’t have conflict, you shouldn’t be writing it. Seriously. Conflict is the heart of good fiction. If you don’t have conflict at the heart of a scene, find a way to dismiss it with a couple quick telling sentences and skip to the next dramatic moment. Your readers will thank you for it.

In any case, that’s how you get in late, and get out early. I hope it helps you improve your craft. Feel free to comment, ask questions, dialogue about it. I won’t bite…well, then, part of the dramatic tension is your not knowing for sure if that’s true. For what it’s worth…

WriteTip: 8 Things You Must Know About A Character To Write Them Well

The following is an excerpt from my book How To Write A Novel: The Fundamentals of Fiction, Chapter 2:

Readers want your characters to seem like real people, whole, alive, believable, and worth caring about. People become, in our minds, what we see them do, so first thing first, your character is what he or she does.
But just seeing what someone does isn’t enough in good storytelling. To truly know a person, we need to understand their inner self, their motives. Motive is what gives moral value to their actions. And what a character does, no matter how good or bad, is never morally absolute. A character is what he or she means to do, but we all make mistakes, we all have flaws. So, the intention they have and the ideal they desire to be and will become by the end of your story is even more important. Even if their motive is concealed from readers for much of the book, as often is the case with the antagonist, and even if they themselves are not always certain what is driving them due to some psychological trauma or issue, you need to know their motive clearly as you write, and they need to have one.

Here are some key things you need to know about your characters to write them well:
Their Name—This may seem obvious. But every once in a while, you get some person who thinks they are clever and decides to write a mysterious unnamed character. This is very hard to pull off and poses and number of problems, but even if you try it, you still need to know their name. Names tell us lots about a person, from their background and history to ethnicity, culture, age, and more. A name is invaluable to helping know your character and to helping readers know them as well.
Their Past—Our past, however we might revise it in memory, is who we believe we are. It shapes our image of ourselves.
Their Reputation—Characters are also restricted and affected by what others think of and expect of them. How are they known? Who do others think they are?
Their Relationships—Who is important to them? Who do they love? Who do they have relationships with that are good, and who do they have bad relationships with and why? And how does this affect their motives and actions and their self-perception? Not all of these relationships will be used in the story or appear on screen, so to speak, but they are part of who the character is and is becoming and what drives them, so you need to know them.
Their Habits and Patterns—Habits and patterns imply things about a person. From personal tics to emotional patterns, we form our expectations based on these characteristic habits that suggest how they will behave in any given situation; often these traits communicate unspoken things about the character’s state of mind, emotions, and more. Many story possibilities can emerge from these. And they make the character seem more well-rounded and realistic because every real person we know has these aspects if we take time to study them.
Their Talents and Abilities—Talents do not have to be extreme to make them a part of a character’s identity or even important to their fate. But what they do well and don’t do well does matter to us, to them, and to those around them, and also to how they take action and respond to the world around them throughout the story.
Their Tastes and Preferences—Someone can like all the same things you do and still not be someone you want to spend time with or would trust to care for your pets or kids. Tastes and preferences tell us a lot about someone while also opening story possibilities and potential conflicts that can help drive the story and build characters and relationships.
Their Appearance—What color are their eyes? Do they have any handicaps? What color is their hair? These are not characterization alone, but they add depth and they can affect self-esteem and how characters are perceived by readers and by other characters, so they matter.

In filling out a character profile that identifies all these characteristics, observe people you know. Think about people you have seen and encountered. What stands out about them? What annoyed you? What did you love? And can any of these things be used to make a real, interesting, dimensional character?

There are three questions readers will ask that must always be considered. And they expect good answers at some point to hold their interest. In fact, your honeymoon with readers lasts only a few paragraphs, so you must constantly keep such questions in mind.

  1. Why should I care about what’s going on in the story?
  2. Why should I believe anyone would do that?
  3. What’s happening?

Fail to answer these questions at your own peril. It may sound harsh, but do your job and it will almost never be an issue. Uncertainties can be part of storytelling, but even intentional uncertainties must be clear, so readers will know you meant it to be that way and continue to trust you to pay it off later. Trust between reader and author is key to any novel’s success. As always, you need to know a lot more about your characters than readers may need for understanding the present story. Some of this stuff may never get written directly into your book, but knowing it may profoundly impact how you write your character and will be very useful in keeping clearly in mind who they are and how they move through the world and interact with it.

WriteTip: Using The Five Senses

The following is an excerpt from my book How To Write A Novel: The Fundamentals of Fiction, Chapter 3:

Many of us are guilty of falling into the habit of using one or two senses and ignoring the rest. For most of us, sight is the dominant sense—the sense through which we first encounter and examine the world. So how things appear will dominate most narratives naturally, closely followed by sound. But we have five senses, and all have the power to bring useful imagery into your storytelling.

Good description employs all five senses—sight, touch, taste, smell, and hearing—and employs at least one every two pages, sometimes more. A few well-placed details can totally embody a character or place and make them come alive for the reader. And nothing takes us deep inside the character’s mind and experience like sensory details. All good settings are rich with detail, so you should have plenty to choose from. From the appearance and smells of a restaurant or grocery store or market to the touch and sounds of the outdoors to the taste of food, there are numerous opportunities to add color and vividness to your prose using these kinds of details.

Here are some suggestions for aspects of each sense to consider:

Sight—Color is usually one of the first things that comes to mind, but studies actually show that spatial dimensions tend to be picked up first by the brain. How large is the area? How high is the ceiling? After dimension, the source of light tends to be noticed next. What is lighting the scene, and what is its source—artificial or natural? Is it bright or white or mixed hues? Then, color impressions form. The dominant color tends to take on significance. Next comes texture, like shadows or rough and smooth surfaces, etc. Finally, there’s contrast. Superimposition of colors and other aspects affects how much objects, people, and places draw our attention.

Sound—Sound can be described by the loudness or complexity—simple or multiple sources—tonality (soft or hard, harsh or gentle, etc.), and the location of its source and distance from the hearer. Also, is the sound unknown or familiar?

Smell—While smells can be often overlooked by both writers and in real life, smell can reveal a lot. Is the odor pleasant or unpleasant? What emotions does it evoke—fear like smoke from a fire, or is it the steady everyday scent of vehicles, animals, or insects in the environment that almost goes unnoticed because it is so common?

Touch—How do things feel—rough or smooth, hot or cold, sharp or dull, etc.?

Taste—Does the character notice sweet or bitter, salty or acidic, pleasant or unpleasant, etc.?

If you’re like me, these kinds of details may not come naturally. So, I recommend two key resources that have really helped me up my game on writing sensory content. The Emotion Thesaurus by Pugliosi and Ackerman and Setting by Jack W. Bingham. These two resources are so invaluable, I often keep them with me on trips and beside me as I write and refer to them often, because writing such visceral descriptions is not first nature to me, and it can be very easy to fall into personal clichés and patterns that repeat the same details and descriptions over and over, which quickly becomes repetitive and glaring to readers. The authors also discuss body language and internal sensations, which can be described to show, not tell, the emotions of characters, the atmosphere of rooms, etc. Additionally, author David Farland describes this as the Kentic, Audio, Visual Cycle and offers useful tips on his website at https://mystorydoctor.com/the-kav-cycle-part-1/.

Sensory experiences and emotions evidence themselves in three ways: internal sensations, external sensations, and body language, and all three are important ways to describe them and help readers experience them too. For example:

Butterflies danced in her stomach as she entered the audition, and she fought to control her face as she took in the other dancers. There were famous faces she’d seen in numerous Broadway shows and performances. What was she doing here? She swallowed and licked her lips, which had suddenly grown parched. Her arm was twitching. She had to make it stop, but it wasn’t listening to her internal commands, so she shoved it tight against her side in an attempt to control it.

I don’t have to tell you she is nervous and intimidated. The descriptions do the work. This is what you are aiming for. If you are unsure about a particular smell or taste or even sound, Googling can provide impressions others have had of familiar things that can be adapted for your prose. I also recommend practicing by going to a mall or price club or anywhere else and sitting down to take notes of all the things your senses notice as they occur to you. This will give you practice not only at writing visceral (i.e., instinctive and emotional) details but also in noting how they naturally affect you and might also affect your characters.

You’ve probably deduced by now that description is the art of picking the right details at the right time. Stories are about movement, so be wary of stories where your characters reflect and remember a lot. Instead, action and discovery go hand in hand. As your characters go and do things, they discover sensory cues that provoke memories, emotions, and reactions and inspire further action. People move through life on two levels simultaneously: physical and emotional. Physical movement follows plot and events that unfold A, B, and C, while emotional movement follows character. The physical tends to move with the emotional. So meshing plot and character is the key, and good description is key to your ability to do that well. As Monica Wood writes in Description: “A story’s pace is controlled by the physical and emotional goings-on in the story, and those goings-on are controlled by description.”

Another element where description is especially important is context. Establishing the scope of a story can be vital to making it work, giving characters a scope in which to love and hate each other, to conquer or fall to adversity, discover or lose themselves. Context uses metaphors and symbols to reinforce emerging themes and organize the movement of a story into beginning, middle, and end. Wood writes: “The breadth of the story should dictate the breadth of the context.” Contextual details, small or large, reveal character and can serve to contrast with the story itself, adding power. The order in which details are noted can tell us much about a character’s values and priorities as well as how they view themselves in relation to those around them. Are they rich or poor? Powerful or weak? Confident or insecure? These details can reveal so much about them.

So, how do you choose which details to use and when? Well, that depends upon what you need the readers to know to understand and connect with the story at any given moment. Let’s look at an example from John Connolly’s Charlie Parker book A Song of Shadows:

The woman stank of cats and cookies, of piss and mothballs, but Cambion, whose sensory abilities had long been ruined by his disease, and who had grown used to the reek of his own decay, barely noticed it.

How do you not remember that? Ask yourself what you most notice about particular people, places, and things. What do you remember? What stands out about them? What did you notice first? What sticks with you most when you have been away from them awhile and remember? These are the beginnings of finding the most definitive choices to use in describing them because they hint at what stands out when you encounter those people, places, and things. Let’s look at another example from Brazilian author Jorge Amado’s Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands:

Delicate, pale, with that pallor of romantic poets and gigolos, black hair slicked down with brilliantine and lots of perfume, a smile that was a combination of melancholy and allure, evoking a world of dreams, elegant in bearing and attire, with large, pleading eyes, the Prince would have to be described by very high-flown words: “marmoreal,” “wan,” “meditative,” “pulchritudinous,” “brow of alabaster and eyes of onyx.”

So much said with just a few words but very colorful, visceral, and intriguing because every word count. This is what good description is all about.

For what it’s worth…

WriteTip: What Is A Premise and What Makes It Good?

The following is an excerpt from my book How To Write A Novel: The Fundamentals of Fiction, Chapter 1:

The Premise

In his bestselling book How to Write a Damn Good Novel, James N. Frey describes a premise as “the E = mc2 of novel writing.” The premise, he contends, “is the reason you are writing what you are writing … the core, the heart, the center, the soul of your expression.” He defines it as “a statement of what happens to the characters as a result of the core conflict in a story.” Agent Donald Maass defines a premise as
any single image, moment, feeling or belief that has enough power and personal meaning for the author to set her story on fire, propel it like a rocket for hundreds of pages, or perhaps serve as a finish line: an ending so necessary that every step of the journey burns to be taken.

While you might say to yourself: What’s the big deal? A premise is an idea—a premise is so much more than that. Ideas are common. Original ideas are almost nonexistent these days. Everything’s been done. So, what makes your premise special is not the basic simple idea but the unique spin and angle you bring to it. A premise is as much in the execution and unique approach to a concept as it is the idea itself.

Again, in How to Write a Damn Good Novel, James N. Frey compares a novel to an argument and writes: “The premise of an argument is a statement of the conclusion that will be reached through the argument. Each part of the argument must contribute to the premise if the argument is a good one … the premise of a work of fiction is not provable or arguable in the real world … not a universal truth. In a novel, the premise is true only for the particular situation of that novel. But nonetheless it is proven by all that leads to it. Your novel’s premise is the conclusion everything in your story leads to.”

In his bestseller Writing the Breakout Novel, mega-agent Donald Maass writes of a premise: “Not just any idea, though, but one with soil rich enough to grow a highly memorable novel; one that will both feed the author’s imagination, and, finally, nourish millions of readers.” An idea is not enough. It must be backed up by all the details of character, setting, conflict, and theme. It’s an idea with something unique and special to say, something we haven’t seen, told in a way we haven’t encountered that pops off the page. Maass calls it “a breakout premise,” implying that truly hit, breakout novels start with something special at their core. I’m sure we’d all love to write a hit novel that breaks out. So, what is it that makes “something special”?

First, a premise should describe an experience that is unusual, one not encountered by everyone, at least not firsthand. The experience also takes place in a vivid, wholly realized world that is compelling in its details and stands apart as unique yet real and fascinating on multiple levels.
Second, a premise should involve a character or characters who are larger-than-life, who talk, think, and act in ways not everyone does or can. These types of characters have a boldness, drive, and determination to pursue journeys we only dream about and take risks and actions we only wish we had the courage to take ourselves. In the process they undergo growth and changes we admire greatly, that inspire us, embolden us, and leave us breathless with admiration.

To create such a premise takes effort. It may not arrive fully formed right off the bat. Some great premises are discovered in the course of writing and discovering a story, but all successful writers learn to identify them and cling to them with all their might when they do. The best premises have the power to illuminate and confront, challenging our most deeply held beliefs, our hopes, our fears, our faith, even our very wills and nature. They engage readers’ imaginations and emotions and raise questions, hopes, fears, and more that have them yearning to turn the pages, cheer for the heroes, boo the villains, and reach the inevitable climactic confrontation that sets everything right again and resolves the mystery and uncertainty it evoked when it began.

Such a premise is so much more than just boy meets girl and falls in love or boy sets out to save the world. There’s something unique and special about the boy and the girl, what draws them together, where and how they come together, and why they are willing to fight for their love. The boy is someone special who believes he might actually save the world, after all. No ordinary Joe would dare undertake such a noble quest. It takes a certain level of courage, even determination, a refusal to surrender to insecurity and incredible odds, and an undeterred drive to keep going no matter what. I don’t know about you, but while I have met such people, I have found them to be few and far between. And those few-and-far-between people are the heart of good, successful stories. So, your premise requires one. Character is story. Story is character. Story flows from character. There really is no chicken or the egg question here about who came first. Who always leads into What.

So, to write your novel, you first need a really good idea with premise potential. You may not devise all the pieces before you write, but you must write looking for them to fall into place, and you will certainly need a solid concept to get you started. How you come up with it is something I cannot teach. It really is between you and your muse. Singer-songwriter John Denver used to say the ideas for his songs came from the aether—just floating out there waiting to be discovered, and he was the lucky soul who connected at the right moment to find them and give them life. In some ways, this is the way stories tend to work as well. Your ideas will come from your life, people you know, places you’ve been or want to go, things you’ve done or want to do, etc., and then your imagination should take over and start working on the rest. There is a certain magic to storytelling that can be neither easily described nor taught. That’s where the talent comes in. But it will take more than talent to write your novel. It will also take determination and a drive to push through the struggles and keep going no matter what. And so, the more passionate you are about your premise, the more likely you are to succeed. If nothing else, pick a premise that fires you up, not just the first seemingly viable one that comes in your head. Find the one that hooks you and won’t let you go. That’s where your great novel will surely come from.

Let’s look at some examples Frey gives of premises from famous novels:

The Godfather by Mario Puzo (the story of the Corleone Mafia family over generations): family loyalty leads to a life of crime.

The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway (the story of an old Cuban fisherman who struggles against a marlin far out in the Gulf Stream off the Cuban coast): courage leads to redemption.

A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens (the story of a miserable, cheap, bitter man who is visited by ghosts of past, present, and future and learns the meaning of Christmas): forced self-examination leads to generosity.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey (the story of patients oppressed at a mental hospital): even the most determined and ruthless psychiatric establishment can’t crush the human spirit.

In effect, a premise is like an argument. A story can have only one premise, because you cannot prove two arguments well at once. Your story’s conclusion will have a cause-and-effect relationship with what came before. In most cases, the argument within the premise is about a dilemma the characters confront. If you start first with characters and think about your premise, you may come up with it as you consider the characters’ flaws and the obstacles they face, as well as their goals and needs. Frey writes: “There is no formula for finding a premise. You simply start with a character or situation, give the character a dilemma, and then meditate on how it might go.” By opening your imagination and letting it run, usually the possibilities are endless, and your premise will come to light in the process. Frey quotes Egri as saying: “Every good premise should contain an element of character which through conflict leads to a conclusion.” So in essence, what are your three Cs (Character, Conflict, Conclusion)? Identify them and you have your premise.

Since the story of characters changing because of dramatic conflict makes good fiction, your premise will define such a situation. Old high school friends meet after 20 years and fall in love despite her terminal illness. The coach of a small-town basketball team with a history of losses recruits the first black player to help lead the team to a championship. A tough technophobic cop must team with an android partner to solve his partner’s murder. Can you see the three Cs at work in all these examples?

A good premise will give your novel focus and power that carries readers through to the end. It will hold their attention. Keep them turning pages. Make them long to know what happens next. And it may well do the same for you as you write. In fact, it should, even for the dedicated outliners. Everything in good fiction propels and leads you to the conclusion of the story, which is also a decisive conclusion or answer to the argument of the premise. Anything else should be cut and dropped. So a well-conceived premise is inherent to a well-written novel and key to your success. You must know where you are going to successfully complete any journey. The premise is the target on the map of your storytelling journey. Start without it at your own peril.

The concept, idea, or premise is a start. Craft and work will do the rest.

Write Tip: 5 Basic Plot Elements All Novels Must Have

The following is an excerpt from my book How To Write A Novel: The Fundamentals of Fiction, Chapter 3:

In Writing the Breakout Novel, Donald Maass identifies five basic plot elements that all plots must have. They are:

A sympathetic character
Conflict
Complication
Climax
Resolution

So, every good plot starts with character, specifically a character we can care about. Then that character encounters obstacles that create conflict. This can be another person or group of people, some natural or other issue, etc. Then the conflict is complicated by various other obstacles and barriers that stand in the way of the character resolving it. This leads to a climax wherein the character must confront the opponent—person, animal, or thing—head on and see who will win. This leads to a resolution. These five elements make up any solid, well-developed plot.
We’ve already talked about how the plot is a series of questions asked and answered, so now let’s look at a key question we must always ask to make our plots stronger: What’s the worst that can happen?

You start with conflict and then consider what the complications might be. In doing so, there may be a temptation to like the character too much and not want to make things too hard on him or her. But that is the death of good drama. Instead, you need to ask yourself, “What’s the worst that can happen?” and consider the more dire possibilities. This is what makes good drama. Maass writes: “What makes a breakout novel memorable are conflicts that are deep, credible, complex, and universal enough so a great number of readers can relate.” So, don’t go off the deepest end necessarily, choosing something so dire and outrageous that it seems too hard to believe. You want to complicate and create disasters and dangers, not create incredulity in readers.

What you do want to do is push your problem far beyond what readers might imagine. Maass suggests: “Push your characters into situations that you yourself would never go near in your own life.” Remember that the characters should speak and act in ways we only wish we had the courage to do. This is what inspires us to admire and follow them. So they will be capable of facing situations we wouldn’t dare take on ourselves. The key is to push things to utter extremes while still managing to make them feel familiar to readers. Not outlandish, then, but familiar. In other words, possible.

When we create conflict that is credible, relatable, and familiar, we create stories with tension on every page. These are the kinds of stories that keep readers turning pages and coming back time and again to the same authors for more. John Grisham, Nicholas Sparks, Michael Connelly, Jonathan Maberry, Stephen King, Joyce Carol Oates, Heather Graham, J.K. Rowling, Rachel Caine—these are examples of authors who have mastered this technique. If you want your plots to become breakout, hit stories, you must create tension on every page. Make us desperate to know what happens next. Create urgency in the questions the plot asks. This will drive the story forward, increasing the stakes and tension with each scene and page, until readers may feel they or the characters can’t possibly take anymore, but they do every time. And we are dying to know how they manage it and can possibly survive, so we stay up all night reading to find out. We’ve all read and loved books like that, right? Imagine what it would be like to write one.

One technique that aids this kind of tension is nonlinear narrative. Grisham is a master of this: constantly holding information back from his readers to surprise them with later. Nonlinear narrative is storytelling that increases tension by telling the story in a nonchronological fashion, using flashbacks and other such techniques. Basically, you start telling the story in the center of the action at the most dramatic place and then go back and fill in the backstory and details as necessary through the course of the novel.

For what it’s worth…

Write Tip: Developing A Novel’s Theme

The following is an excerpt from my book How To Write A Novel: The Fundamentals of Fiction, Chapter 1:

“If a powerful problem is a novel’s spine,” Donald Maass writes in The Breakout Novel, “then a powerful theme is its animating spirit … It starts with you having something to say.” Theme is one of those topics that makes many people’s eyes glaze over. They think of the theme papers they hated writing in school, perhaps. Or find it abstract and hard to conceive. But theme can and should form the unifying narrative structure of your well-written novel. What is theme? Theme is what a story, at its heart, at its moral core, is really trying to say, what it’s about. It’s why you are telling the story. It is what you have to say. Theme, in essence, is not the argument, but the moral derived from it. It is the lesson(s) and life truth(s) embedded and demonstrated through your story.

In Theme and Strategy, Ronald B. Tobias defines theme as “the central concern around which a story is structured.” He writes, “Theme is your inertial guidance system. It directs your decisions about which path to take, which choice is right for the story and which isn’t.” In essence, theme is what unifies the whole and informs it beyond just a story about a guy or girl who did so-and-so into something memorable with lasting impact that speaks to the human condition. Choosing the right theme will help you unify your story. It isn’t something you should just wing or make up as you go, but something you should think about early on, even as you plan your story, and keep in your mind with every scene you write.
Maass suggests three facts to keep in mind:

All stories are moral.
Readers tend to seek out stories that are in line with their beliefs.
Fiction is most compelling when it pulls readers into points of view that are compelling, detailed, and different.

Readers crave insight on the world around them. They want to be pushed to expand their minds and see things differently, through different eyes. Readers become most engaged when the characters’ beliefs capture their attention and make them think. Whether you know it or not, you have something to say, and having the courage to say it through your story and characters will imbue your novel with power that makes it memorable and lasting. Deep down, all writers believe they have something that must be said, some insight on the human condition the world cannot do without, and these demonstrate their own morality and views of right and wrong in the universe. Ask yourself what that is, and let your story speak to that. Have it in mind as you write. This will create a unified story with resonance far beyond just entertainment. As Maass writes, “stories without fire cannot fire readers.”

Because readers are moral people, they inherently look for the moral compass that drives characters in fiction. Whether they agree with it or not is not the primary concern—understanding it is. Powerful beliefs and messages imparted through characters are far more effective than writers preaching or teaching directly, because characters who have beliefs that drive them will take concrete actions that reflect those beliefs. The consequences of these actions then speak powerfully about life, people, and more in ways that direct lessons can never accomplish. The key is embedding these morals and beliefs in the characters’ actions. When characters live what they believe, readers will accept the validity of those beliefs and be impacted by the results.

Tobias suggests several major patterns, which can be summarized as follows:

Plot as Theme—Much of popular fiction is driven by this theme, in which plot is paramount over any other concerns. Escapism is the goal here, and as such, while the novels may not carry long-lasting moral messages, they earn big points with readers and generate bestseller after bestseller. They are not striving for great literature but rather great entertainment, and this has made them hugely successful. Agatha Christie, George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, Dan Brown, John Grisham, and many more create works that fall readily into this category.

Emotional Effect as Theme—Terror, Suspense, Romance, Comedy—in this case the emotional effect of the story is the driving theme. Works by authors such as Stephen King, Peter Straub, Gini Koch, Christopher Moore, John Grisham, Heather Graham, Nora Roberts, Nicholas Sparks, and more deal with this theme.

Style as Theme—This theme encompasses a small minority of movies and books because the theme is the artistic style and approach rather than other concerns. The art films and literary novels by auteurs such as John Hawkes, Ingmar Bergman, Federico Fellini, Margaret Atwood, and more have this focus.

Character as Theme—Character studies, like style-themed art, also lend themselves to literary concerns. The focus here is the characters, their growth, and how the world and events of the story affect them. Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Charles Dickens’s David Copperfield, Gustave Flaubert’s Madam Bovary, and films like Raging Bull, The Great Santini, Taxi Driver, and The Godfather embody this approach.

Idea as Theme—Of all the patterns, this one is most successful at creating memorable events and characters that jump off the page. Idea-themed works affect us profoundly, change the world, change lives, start wars, or at the least, make us think because the whole point of ideas is to make us ponder them, ask questions, discuss, and draw new conclusions. These are often the books whose themes are erased during conversion to movies, leaving us to complain that “the book was better.” Idea as theme is less cinematic, less exciting, but its power cannot be denied. Examples include Robinson Crusoe, Don Quixote, The Graduate, and Shane.

Moral Statement as Theme—The most dangerous of theme categories, this one is most likely to become preachy and heavy handed and turn readers off, so it must be used with great care and attempted only by skillful hands. If the characters are sincere and the plot gripping and storytelling is your focus, though, you can pull this off. According to Tobias, Fatal Attraction and Wall Street are two examples of films that fall in this category. In both cases, the moral results from the story rather than the other way around.

Human Dignity as Theme—These are the stories where the fight to hold on to dignity in spite of circumstances is the focus. Stories like One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Rocky, On the Waterfront, Gladiator, and even Roots employ this type of theme.

Social Comment as Theme—Criticizing or shining a light on our culture can be accomplished with great power using fiction. The trick here is finding the right story. Great examples are The China Syndrome and The Grapes of Wrath. The key is to let the characters’ convictions argue for you.

Human Nature as Theme—“What is Man?” is a question that has been explored for centuries and still captures readers’ interest. Stories that fit here include Deliverance, Lord of the Flies, and Robinson Crusoe. (Note: Stories can combine more than one theme. More on that later.)

Human Relations as Theme—Terms of Endearment, Ordinary People, Love Story, many a Nicholas Sparks book like The Notebook or The Wedding, and more all explore this theme where the relation of humans in community, small or large, is the focus.

Coming of Age as Theme—This one I know a lot about as it has been the theme of six of my novels and several short stories to date. The exploration of finding one’s self and confidently staking one’s place or recognizing one’s role and purpose in the universe is a theme found in Star Wars, Rocky, Harry Potter, The Hunger Games, Ender’s Game, and many, many more.

Once you know your theme or themes, you must then decide several things:
1. Who are the characters who can best embody this theme?
2. What plot is best suited for the theme?
3. What kind of setting will best fit the characters and actions necessary to portray the theme?
4. What voice and style is best suited to the theme?

All together, structurally, Theme works with Plot and Character as shown in this diagram.
Your theme informs all these decisions, which is why knowing the theme first is so important. As the diagram demonstrates, theme is at the center of the core elements of your story’s structure. Additionally, many stories explore more than one theme. If the themes are compatible, this is a very powerful and easy thing to do.

As moral people, readers will turn to fiction for affirmation of their values or the values that underpin the world as they see it. They seek deeper understanding, answers to questions, and more in great stories, driven by the desire to know that what they believe is right. Maass suggests it matters less whether the moral is widely accepted than that it is developed in depth. “The key is your antagonist,” he writes. “If we believe in him, we will believe what he believes.”

We buy into Star Wars because Luke Skywalker believes so passionately in his cause—the Force, the right of the Rebels over the Empire, good versus evil, and what is just. The same can be said of Rocky and many other films, even The Godfather, wherein the protagonist is a criminal corrupted by his world and relationships over the course of the film. The viewer’s agreement with the decisions being made is less important than the conviction of the character. It is in the character’s anger, weeping, fear, and determination that we are inspired to believe, that readers feel it is imperative to know their stories. This is how knowing your theme and developing every scene from that perspective can transform a simple, ordinary story into a life-changing, memorable classic.

So, whether you are a planner or a pantser, outliner or discovery writer, thinking about theme and allowing it to inform your writing will make the difference between your novel being plain or something special, blending in or standing out from the pack. Theme is that vital, that key. And so, as you move forward to plan your premise and the structure that will best bring it to life, theme is an important component of your process which must be considered and carefully weighed.

For what it’s worth…See you next Wednesday.

Write Tip: Four Act Structure

The following is an excerpt from my book How To Write A Novel: The Fundamentals of Fiction, Chapter 2:

The four-act structure is a more recent rethinking of three-act structure. Proponents claim it is much better and more effective because it more naturally follows the flow of dramatic story. I certainly agree that for motion pictures this is probably the case, but I am not sure about novels. Regardless, the rule in writing is to use what works for you, so I present it here as an option that might be more helpful to some of you than the three-act structure.


Fundamentally, the difference between the three-act and four-act structures is that act two is now two acts, with each ending in a plot point or establishing point. Act one ends with an establishing point where the hero has a life-changing event that spurs him or her to action, essentially enabling circumstances that lead the hero to launch into the quest or journey that makes up the rest of the story and results inevitably in a confrontation with the antagonist in act one. In act one, there is no midpoint but instead an establishing point that generally consists of a hero-ally confrontation in which the hero is forced to give up his or her flaw. Act two becomes about establishing a relationship with the ally while the hero tries to hold onto his or her flaw and still complete the quest. The establishing point here reveals that the flaw is an obstacle which must be overcome to achieve success.

After that establishing point, instead of a second half, we enter act three, which ends with an establishing point where the flaw is finally resolved, and the hero enters the ring against the opponent in preparation for act four’s final confrontation. Act three thus consists of the hero demonstrating the growth of overcoming the flaw or at least conquering and controlling it as he or she prepares with the ally to take on the antagonist. Act four is the climbing into the ring where the hero faces his or her opponent to see who will triumph.

In theory, using four acts makes writing the longer middle easier for writers by breaking it into two logical halves. It also puts more emphasis on a hero-ally confrontation where the flaw is confronted and overcoming begins. This can be a physical or emotional confrontation, but it is a key turning point that functions much like the midpoint in the three-act structure. This often serves to strengthen the relationship between the hero and his or her key ally.

A great example of this four-act structure can be found in the film Rocky, which is considered one of the best-structured films of all time. In act one, Rocky is on the mean streets of Philly and considers himself a loser, but is a nice, bright guy who won’t even stoop to breaking legs for work with loan sharks or other things. Then he gets the chance to fight for heavyweight champion of the world, his establishing point or life-changing event.

In act two, Rocky tries to react to this challenge but is dragged down by his lack of self-confidence. Allies come in the form of his wife, Adrian, and manager, Mickey, who push him to believe in himself, but he can’t do it until he finally confronts the memory of his father telling him he was too ugly and stupid to be anything but a boxer, so he’d better be good. Once he articulates and faces this, he regains a sense of purpose and confidence in an establishing point wherein he determines to prove his father wrong.

Act three is then the training surge when Rocky prepares for the fight with Apollo Creed and begins to think of himself as capable and strong and smart, not a loser, mentally changing and transforming into being ready for the fight.

Act four is the final fight against Creed.

As you can see here, the four-act structure depends more on character development for its turning points than the three-act structure does and really defines and clarifies the characters in a different way, which may be helpful to some of you in structuring your story and thinking it through before writing.

To download a free copy of How To Write A Novel: The Fundamentals of Fiction, click here.

Write Tip: Three Act Structure

The following is an excerpt from my book How To Write A Novel: The Fundamentals of Fiction, Chapter 2:

A sketch that will inform your outline, the three-act structure nonetheless identifies the core dramatic points of a story. Some of you may be discovery writers like me, preferring to let the story unfold organically. But at some point, you will be required to outline as a professional writer. And when faced with a tight deadline, the more organized you are, the more efficient you can be. The first thing you need to do is understand the dramatic structure that underpins your story. So we are going to talk about a very simple, basic way to identify key points that can help you write more quickly and efficiently to meet a deadline.


While outlines are multiple pages of detail, the structural diagram will be no more than a brief paragraph or a few sentences describing each required point accompanied perhaps by a paradigm sketch. The paradigm shown is based on Screenplay by Syd Field, a classic writing teaching book employed by many film schools, but in Western literature, the principles also apply to any dramatic story, including those told in prose. The outline is for three acts. In a screenplay, those are act one, which is 30 pages, or a quarter of the text; act two, which is 60 pages, or half; and act three, which is 30 pages, or a fourth. Your page numbers will vary, but the fractions for each portion should wind up roughly the same.

The key turning points between acts are called plot point 1 and plot point 2. These are events which force the protagonist, and sometimes the antagonist too, to turn in new directions and take new action in pursuit of resolving the conflict. Plot point 1, at the end of act one, will require agency, or action, from the protagonist in pursuit of finding the solution and determining what must be done. Plot point 1 propels the protagonist into act two, which is an ascending action involving discovery and a journey to find the solution and achieve the goal without yet knowing all that is required. In the course of act two, the questions will be answered until you reach plot point 2. Plot point 2, at the end of act two, will occur when the protagonist discovers what must be done and where, and with whom, to resolve the conflict and achieve the goal. And thus, it propels him or her into act two, which is the climactic, descending action to reach that point.

When I write any story, I always start with some idea of what my plot points will be and how it will end, to give me a sense of focus and direction as I write, even when allowing it to unfold organically. Now, just as the overall story has three acts, so will each plot and subplot, and each act. As such, each has a mini turning point called the midpoint or pinch that twists the action a bit and propels us into the second half. In the first act, this is called the inciting incident. This inciting incident often provokes a change in the protagonist’s routine—something new they experience that could either challenge or encourage them. In The Silence of the Lambs (1991), FBI trainee Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster) meets with Dr. Hannibal “the Cannibal” Lecter (Anthony Hopkins). The confrontation of both parties is nerve-wracking. But it intrigues us and sucks in Clarice and leads to the rest of the story. Other examples are Indiana losing the golden idol to Belloq at the opening of Raiders of the Lost Ark, which then sets up a rivalry that drives the later journey as Indiana Jones seeks to get the Ark before Belloq. Morpheus choosing Anderson in The Matrix sets up all that follows after. In The Sixth Sense, without the opening confrontation and gunshot, nothing else that follows could occur.

In act two, you have a pinch point for each half, and in act three, you have the climactic confrontation before the denouement. These may not be as dramatic as the inciting incident of act one, but they nonetheless inspire the protagonist or antagonist to take further action and move forward on the journey. Whereas the plot points are both major dramatic developments, the inciting incident, midpoint, and pinches can be more internal than external but of significance to the characters’ hearts and minds such that they cause them to change course and move in a new direction or with renewed vigor toward the goal. These are like lesser plot points, in a way, but nonetheless significant points in the framework of the overall dramatic arc that drives your story.

Let’s talk examples. In Star Wars: A New Hope, the inciting incident starts with Darth Vader’s ship attacking Princess Leia’s rebel ship and forcing her to load the Death Star plans into R2-D2, the droid, and send him to escape. He lands on the planet with his companion, C-3PO, and they wind up in the hands of the hero, Luke Skywalker. When Luke discovers a message from a princess that reports danger and points him to a mysterious figure named Obi-Wan Kenobi, he sets off to find out what it means, and that leads him to Old Ben Kenobi, whose shared surname is an obvious clue. Kenobi rescues Luke from Sand People at the midpoint of act one and takes him back to his own home. There, they view the message and Kenobi gives Luke a lightsaber and tells him about the murder of his father, a story Luke never knew. The Empire and a Rebellion, which until now have been mostly rumors far away, have entered Luke’s life, and when Kenobi takes him home, they find that the Jawas who sold Luke’s family the droids have been murdered and torched. Fearing the worst, they race to Luke’s home and find Luke’s aunt and uncle have been murdered and their homestead torched. Plot point 1 is when Kenobi tells Luke they must go rescue the princess together and find a way to deliver the plans hidden in R2-D2.

Act two starts with their trip to Mos Eisley spaceport where they must find passage, and they end up recruiting Han Solo, evading Stormtroopers searching for the droids, and head off for Alderaan. Then, we see Luke in training for the inevitable confrontation, while Vader and Tarkin attempt to extract information from Leia, and ultimately destroy Alderaan. Luke, Han, and Kenobi’s discovery of this is our pinch point for act one. That determines they must rescue Leia themselves and deliver the plans. Then they are caught in a tractor beam and pulled aboard the Death Star. The midpoint comes during the attempted rescue in the Detention Block when they are trapped. The pinch point for act two is when Kenobi confronts Vader to help his friends escape with the droids to the rebellion. Plot point 2 is after they fight their way clear and escape to the rebel base, where the plans reveal the Death Star’s flaw. The Rebels unveiling their attack plan propels us into act three. Act three is the Rebel attack and the Imperial counterattack, and the climax comes as Luke faces off against Vader in the trench run and ultimately destroys the Death Star with surprise help from Han.

So, now that we have seen how this plays out in a story we are all familiar with, it’s time to identify this structure for your story. Keep in mind that this is only a blueprint. Plans can change. As the story evolves, if required, your plot points, as well as pinches and midpoints, and even your climax, may change. The point of this is not to set anything in stone but to have goals to guide your work. It will help direct you as you write and set up each character and point required to reach each marker. If that ultimately requires the markers to change, it’s okay because these are tools to help you achieve a whole.

Here are the things you’ll need to know to develop this paradigm outline.
Who is your protagonist?
Who is your antagonist?
What are their goals?
What are the obstacles each faces in reaching that goal?
What growth must each undergo to make success possible?
And finally, what do you think the final confrontation needs to be?

Answering these questions is just a temporary means to an end. The answers may change, but the idea is to think through key elements of your story to allow you to write with blinders off and have some goal points along the way to work toward. That will allow you to write faster and spend less time wondering what the heck you should do next. As you actually write, these goal points may need to change, and that is okay.

To download a free copy of How To Write A Novel: The Fundamentals of Fiction, click here.

Tomorrow: Part 2-4 Act Structure
Friday: Part 3-How To Structure Scenes

For these and other WriteTips, click here.

Write Tip: Character Narrative As A Plot Device

Our tip for today regards using character narrative as a plot device. Now, to begin, let me define character narrative. In the present case I am defining it as the narrative embraced by a character or person as the lens through which they view the world. We see this all the time in politics. The Democrats have a narrative. So do the Republicans. And we hear accusations all the time, not all false, of media bias wherein reporters report angles on stories that match their narrative and leave out the rest. All characters have narratives too, and it is often the differences in narratives that cause conflicts between characters. That being the case, why shouldn’t writers consciously employ narrative as a plot device?

I think they should.

We often talk of the villains being the hero of their own story. This is narrative. The same is true of every character and where those narratives, or worldviews, clash, is where we find them coming into conflict with one another. So understanding your characters’ narratives and where they come from and how they differ can be a very useful device for helping you shape your stories. And the degree to which you get into the details of it will determine how useful it is.

Good stories have nuance and nuance is depth, so the more you know, the deeper you can go and the richer the results will be. With some minor characters, you may never know their narrative. With supporting characters, you will examine it only on the surface a bit. But with your major characters, the deeper you dig in, the better they will be and the better your story will be for the effort.

So how do you build a character’s narrative? It is similar to how you write a character history or bio. The easiest way is to develop a series of key questions to ask and answer about each character and build from there. The base questions will be the same initially for every character but as you go deeper, unique questions will arise that are unique to specific characters and demand answers. You answer one, another may crop up, rinse and repeat. But the result will be a deeper look inside your characters’ beliefs, motives, personalities, and more. And what you discover in the process will be useful for all kinds of things.

You can use what you glean to help shape your character’s personality, actions, and reactions, even their internal monologue. And the more information you glean, the more specific you are, the more interesting the results will be as you discover key differences between your characters and yourself you never suspected. Building the results into your story will add a lot of layers and depth and nuance that just adds to the experience for readers and makes the characters pop off the page and come more alive like real, unique individuals, not stereotypes or archetypes. There will be nothing run of the mill about characters examined so deeply.

So consider adding examine your characters’ narratives as a possible tool to add to your writer’s toolbox. It’s also a useful tool for interpersonal relationships, but that’s a whole ‘nother blog post which poses a whole different set of potential conflicts, so we’ll leave that be for now. Regardless, I hope it’s a Write Tip that pushes you to think about your stories and characters with a new perspective. For my narrative, that would be very satisfying. For what it’s worth…

5 Days Of Comic Con

I took a break from blogging regularly for a few years now, but with the publication of my latest book How To Write A Novel: The Fundamentals Of Fiction earlier this year, I have been wanting to revive my blog. In particular, the weekly Write Tips feature that was so popular.

So to celebrate San Diego Comic Con’s 50th, which I will be attending and participating in as a panelist, I thought what better time than now to relaunch Write Tips. So each day the rest of this week, I will feature a new Write Tip, and then every Wednesday that follows, will present another one. It is my hope these will stimulate and assist you in your writing process. I know they are things that help me.

As a bonus, Wednesday through Friday, I will be giving away free downloads of How To Write  Novel: The Fundamentals of Fiction in each post.  So happy 50th to San Diego Comic Con, the original Comic Con that started it all, and happy writing to all of you.

Here’s the posting schedule for this week:

Tuesday- Character Narrative as a Plot Device

Wednesday – Three Act Structure

Thursday – Four Act Structure

Friday – How To Structure A Scene

Just look for the Write Tips logo starting tomorrow. For what it’s worth…

Guest Post: Which Comes First—Character or World?

daysofdead_banner_v1-1

by Gail Z. Martin

Ask three writers how they do their worldbuilding, and you’ll get four opinions. Maybe more, if our characters get to give their own answers.

That is to say, there’s no wrong way to worldbuild as long as the final product ends up satisfactory to readers. The trick is to come up with an approach that works for you, that creates a realistically detailed and nuanced setting, and—most importantly–seamlessly and believably supports your plot and characters.

How detailed should your worldbuilding be? That reminds me of the old joke about how long a man’s legs should be—long enough to reach the ground. You want your world to have age and depth and weight to it. It should feel like it’s been thoroughly lived in and hard used, not like one of those false-front fake Wild West villages at amusement parks. Your characters and plot should feel as if they rise organically from your world, as if they couldn’t possibly happen anywhere else or be the same in any other setting.

If you’ve ever traveled somewhere unfamiliar, whether it’s across the state or across the world, it’s the little things that made you aware that you were someplace far from home. The menu choices were unfamiliar. The brands of soda were different. The money looked odd and came in strange colors and sizes. People went about their daily routines a bit differently than back home. Signs are not what you’re used to seeing. All those little details aren’t important by themselves, but collectively they are the stuff of authenticity, and to the extent that you have thoroughly thought these things out, your readers will have a richer, more immersive experience.

I believe that immersion was part of the genius of the Harry Potter books. In a million different little details, J.K. Rowling signaled that we weren’t in our own mundane world but someplace wondrous and frighteningly different. The best books give us enough of these nuanced details that we don’t feel infodumped or overwhelmed but we do grasp that we’ve been whisked away to somewhere new.

As for which comes first, character or world, that’s like the chicken/egg dilemma. If you think hard about the circumstances and experiences that shaped your character, you’ll know a lot about the world he/she came from. And if you build out your world convincingly, you’ll know what kinds of characters arise from its climate, history, culture and society. Start wherever you please; you’ll end up in the same place.

How do you drill down to those details? Some writers like to ‘interview’ their characters, sitting down and having a mental chat with their creations who proceed to spill their guts. I’ve used that successfully. Sometimes, either the world or the character just comes to you full-blown, and you have to figure out the rest around the edges. I’ve also built series that way as well. For me, I want my world to be a character in its own way. For example, in my Deadly Curiosities urban fantasy series, things happen that are quintessentially Charleston, SC so that if the action were to happen somewhere else, it would have to be different. The city of Charleston is woven into the fabric of the story in a way that can’t be undone.

If you’re still struggling with worldbuilding, think about the places you’ve been (or go on a day trip somewhere new) and note the details. Jot them down and pay attention to everything you notice that differs from back home. Now think about how you might pull that kind of nuance into your fictional worldbuilding. It could be easier than you think!

My Days of the Dead blog tour runs through October 31 with brand new excerpts from upcoming books and recent short stories, interviews, guest blog posts, giveaways and more! Plus, I’ll be including extra excerpt links for my stories and for books by author friends of mine. You’ve got to visit the participating sites to get the goodies, just like Trick or Treat!  Get all the details about my Days of the Dead blog tour here: http://bit.ly/2eC2pxP

holdontothelight-fb-bannerLet me give a shout-out for #HoldOnToTheLight–100+ Sci-Fi/Fantasy authors blogging about their personal struggles with depression, PTSD, anxiety, suicide and self-harm, candid posts by some of your favorite authors on how mental health issues have impacted their lives and books. Read the stories, share the stories, change a life. Find out more at www.HoldOnToTheLight.com

Book swag is the new Trick-or-Treat! All of my guest blog posts have links to free excerpts—grab them all!

Trick Or Treat with an excerpt from my Deadly Curiosities Adventures short story Buttons http://bit.ly/1v5t9Zf

A free excerpt from my Deadly Curiosities Adventures short story Coffin Box Deadly Curiosities short story http://bit.ly/SDCIjx

Trick Or Treat w excerpt from The Big Bad II anthology http://www.darkoakpress.com/bigbad2.html

Use your free Audible trial to get my books! Ice Forged Audible https://amzn.com/B00EP1C1HK

Trick Or Treat excerpt from Espec Books https://especbooks.wordpress.com/2016/07/18/winner-war-machines/

Try a free excerpt from my m Reign of Ash http://bit.ly/1oCEa5j


About the Author

Gail Martin, Dreamspinner Communications
Gail Martin, Dreamspinner Communications

Gail Z. Martin is the author of Vendetta: A Deadly Curiosities Novel in her urban fantasy series set in Charleston, SC (Solaris Books); Shadow and Flame the fourth and final book in the Ascendant Kingdoms Saga (Orbit Books); The Shadowed Path (Solaris Books) and Iron and Blood a new Steampunk series (Solaris Books) co-authored with Larry N. Martin. A brand new epic fantasy series debuts from Solaris Books in 2017.

WriteTip: The Importance Of Writing Rules As Boundaries For Learning Craft

WriteTips-flatSince December of 2010, I’ve been interviewing authors, editors and others almost weekly on craft every Wednesday for SFFWRTCHT, and one of our regular and favorite question is about Best and Worst Writing Advice. It’s always interesting the answers we get. And after hundreds of guests, only a few repeats, it always amazes me how many different answers we get.  In fact, sometimes a repeat guest will answer differently each visit.

But what surprises me sometimes are the harsh rejections of mainstays writing rules like “avoid passives,” etc. I think sometimes experienced writers reach a point where old rules seem more limiting than helpful, perhaps. But I still find and believe, as an editor and author both, that those rules have an important role to play in most writer’s development and growth with craft.

There’s another old adage in entertainment that applies as much to publishing as Hollywood. It goes like this:  “No one knows everything.”

And while it’s true no one knows everything, you do need to know the boundaries before you break them, and writing rules are a great way to learn those.

For example, passives are a weaker form that when employed exclusively or excessively weaken the storytelling and act as telling, not showing. Once you’ve learned how to construct strong sentences, yes, you can use passives effectively, but in the beginning especially, I think learning to write without them is absolutely important and even essential to success.

Another thing about writing rules is that they often outline pet peeves of various people, and some care about one rule more than others. But the value in knowing them is that they tend to help guide you to a stronger path and stronger prose. And they often identify common weaknesses and missteps writers have taken which have hurt their writing, their success, and the appeal of their work not just to publishers but to readers as well. There are differences between writing fiction and nonfiction, between journalism and fiction, and so on. And sometimes fiction rules are helpful if you’re experienced with another form of writing but inexperienced with fiction, as I was.

There’s another adage that gets trotted out too: “Rules are made to be broken.”

You hear people cite writers like Stephen King or Neil Gaiman who have broken rules. And yes, they have and get away with it. But usually they get away with it because the rules are so imbedded into their process that when they stray from them, they do it with such skill that it just works in ways a lesser writer couldn’t manage.  You see, knowing the boundaries so well that they become second nature has advantages, and one of those advantages is that you can later deviate outside them a bit without falling off a cliff.

Let me say it again, knowing the boundaries is necessary before you can risk going outside them. And teaching boundaries is what the writing rules so often taught are for.

As a professional editor of both anthologies and novels, I see people violating the rules all day long. Rarely is it on purpose. Most often it’s because they don’t know the rules or understand how to abide by them. And the result is always sloppier, weaker writer, and a less effectively told tale. ALWAYS. I can’t count how many times a day I have to correct over and over the same errors and explain the same rules. It gets tedious. Sometimes it gets annoying. But it’s the job, and it’s made up for by the pleasure and joy I get in seeing the final polished project overcome these weaknesses and really sparkle and shine.

You can’t be expected to just know everything when starting out. And you won’t learn unless someone takes the time to show you, to explain. So part of my role as editor is to do that for you, gently, but firmly. And I try and do it with a sense of humor, too, to hopefully lessen the sting. But I still have to do it, and you still need to learn the rules.

Just because they seem arbitrary doesn’t mean they are. Just because they can be annoying doesn’t mean you can ignore them.

These rules have developed over decades for good reason. And although they evolve as tastes and grammar and publishing house style guides change, most of them have remained relatively the same for a very long time.

So next time you hear or see your writing hero blow off the rules, don’t take it as an invitation to do so yourself. Your journey is not the same as theirs. In fact, your journey is not identical to anyone’s. Learn the rules, practice them until they become instinct and you can recite them by heart. Learn them until you don’t even remember them anymore, you just do it. Because you’ll be a better writer, that’s what their for. And you’ll be more successful and respected.

And once you have that respect, then you can throw caution to the wind and go crazy. But not before.

For what it’s worth…


Bryan Thomas Schmidt

Bryan Thomas Schmidt is an author and editor of adult and children’s speculative fiction. His debut novel, The Worker Prince (2011) received Honorable Mention on Barnes & Noble Book Club’s Year’s Best Science Fiction Releases for 2011. His short stories have appeared in magazines, anthologies and online. He edited the anthologies Space Battles: Full Throttle Space Tales #6 (2012), Beyond The Sun (2013), Raygun Chronicles: Space Opera For a New Age (2013) and coedited Shattered Shields (Bean, 2014) with Jennifer Brozek and is working on Monster Corp.A Red DayMission Tomorrow, andGaslamp Terrors, among others. He hosts #sffwrtcht (Science Fiction & Fantasy Writer’s Chat) Wednesdays at 9 pm ET on Twitter.

 

Guest Post: Writetip-Writing Suspense In Science Fiction and Fantasy by Linda Rodriguez

Today’s guest is one of my favorite people, a local friend who’s talented and writes both mystery and speculative fiction as well as poetry. Her debut mystery novel Every Last Secret was published this Spring by Thomas Dunne and tells the story of a college police chief and Cherokee Indian investigating a murder on a college campus. Linda agreed to join us today to talk about writing suspense in Science Fiction and Fantasy. Recently I did a guest post for www.sfsignal.com identifying 15 Science Fiction and Fantasy Thrillers That Are Worth SFF Fans’ Time and mentioned that my second novel,The Returning, book 2 in my space opera epic The Saga Of Davi Rhii, is written like a Ludlum thriller in pacing and surprise plotting,  so her topic seems particularly appropriate.

Writing Suspense in Fantasy and Science Fiction

 by Linda Rodriguez

Suspense is not only the province of thriller writers, and some of our techniques can be useful to science fiction and fantasy writers. Every novel needs suspense elements to keep the reader turning the page. At its simplest, suspense consists of making the reader want to know what happens next. At its best, suspense is making the reader worry that his beloved protagonist will never reach his overpowering need or goal and what on earth is going to happen next! You will find this kind of suspense in all kinds of good novels. Will Atticus Finch be able to save innocent Tom Robinson’s life in To Kill a Mockingbird? Will Scarlett O’Hara save Tara in Gone with the Wind? Will Paul Atreides be able to become the Kwisatz Haderach to defeat the evil Harkonnens and the Emperor in Dune? There are a number of ways to provide suspense in a story. I say “provide” rather than “insert” because the suspense needs to be integral to the story and not just something added on.

One of the most important ways to increase suspense is to make it clear to the reader at the beginning of the story just what is at stake. It must be something that threatens to devastate the protagonist’s self-image, life or world, and he must be willing to make any sacrifice and go to any lengths to keep this from happening. However, another fine way to keep the reader wanting to know what happens next is to open your story or book deep in the action and explain it later. Although these strategies seem contradictory, they can be combined to add powerful elements of tension and apprehension to the reader’s experience of the book. If you start in the middle of some strong action scene, and then in the next scene or chapter, establish the background of your characters and the situation, you can delineate the high stakes that are involved for your protagonist here. These combined strategies can be used in almost any kind of story.

An alternative to this kind of two-part opening can be a first scene or chapter that establishes the protagonist within her everyday world but buries hints of impending change or danger within these ordinary moments. This is foreshadowing, and it has been misused often, but when the hints are subtle enough (while still being apparent to the attentive reader), foreshadowing can build excellent suspense. Movies have it easier here because they can use the background music to warn the audience that something wicked this way comes. Writers must try to create that same kind of atmosphere with sharp dissonant details and atmosphere.

One of the key ways to ensure that your book has the kind of suspense that keeps the reader saying, “Just one more page,” is to offer the reader the viewpoints of both the protagonist and the antagonist. This way the reader can see the problems the antagonist is planning for the protagonist long before the protagonist is aware of them. The reader can see what the protagonist cannot—that he’s on a collision course with disaster. This is a very powerful tool for suspense in all genres of novels, but is unavailable to those of you with a first-person protagonist-only viewpoint.

In the case of the first-person protagonist viewpoint, you can avail yourself of some of that reader foresight of disaster by stealing a trick of the traditional mystery writer. In the traditional mystery, as opposed to the suspense novel or thriller, the reader is in the dark and trying to figure out what happened and who the villain is at the same time as the protagonist does. Write in details that plant questions in the reader’s mind about the various characters, about what really happened in the past, and about what might happen in the future. Mystery writers call these “clues” and “red herrings.” Clues are actual evidence of what has happened or might happen, while red herrings are false harbingers, leading the protagonist and the reader in the wrong direction. Either of these can increase the reader’s need to know what’s going to happen. All characters have some secrets, even from themselves. Something that reveals one of these secrets, perhaps one that someone has lied about, will build suspense. When using clues and red herrings to increase suspense, keep the ratio of clues to red herrings high in the favor of real clues to keep from annoying the reader.

Another way to use clues is to plant some detail that brings uneasiness but is made to seem innocuous at the time. Later, this detail will turn out to be an important harbinger of some violence or problem. This stems from Chekhov’s gun on the wall which must go off before the play is over, or Brian Garfield’s famous dictum—“Plant it early. Pay it off later.”

A great technique to ratchet up tension in a book or story is to use a deadline. Time becomes the enemy and is working for the villain in this technique. The bomb is ticking and our heroine must find it and disarm it while that clock on it is inexorably ticking down to explosion and other obstacles are thrown in her way inevitably slowing her down. It needn’t be an actual clock or bomb, and it needn’t be minutes counting down to disaster. It could be years if we’ve been given a large enough view and long enough timeline at the beginning of the book, perhaps with a genetic time bomb ticking away.

Suspense is always present when the reader knows the protagonist is fighting seemingly overwhelming odds. The reader wants to see him stretched to the breaking point as he tries to prevent the feared disaster (remembering that this is a disaster in the protagonist’s eyes, not necessarily a “blow-up-the-world” disaster). Your character must learn new skills, access new abilities, overcome old flaws in ways he never thought he could in order to save the day. This kind of determination will keep the reader turning pages to find out what happens to him next.

We’ve seen how important the protagonist’s character is to reader suspense. He or she has to be earning the reader’s backing. But the antagonist’s character is just as important for true suspense. The antagonist must be worthy of the hero and capable of providing clever and devilish problems for the hero that will really stretch the protagonist. Unless you’re doing first-person narration by the protagonist, allow the reader to know the antagonist’s motivation and make it strong, so the reader will believe that he’s dedicated to what he’s doing to undermine or destroy the protagonist. If your story is a first-person protagonist narrative, once again you can attempt to let the reader know the villain’s motivation through dialogue overheard or another character telling the protagonist or some other bit of news that will tell the reader why the antagonist is determined and just how very determined he is.

An important but often overlooked way to ratchet up tension and suspense is to allow daily life to throw extra obstacles in the protagonist’s way. She’s trying to get to the old house where her child’s been left by the bad guy before the flood waters drown the kid, but it’s rush hour and there’s a huge accident and traffic jam, or she runs out of gas on the deserted creepy road to the house, or the flood waters have brought out alligators or poisonous snakes, or the street she needs to take has been blocked off for road repairs, or her ratty old car that she can’t afford to replace refuses to start, or… None of these are things the antagonist did, but they impede her nonetheless. This technique also has the positive effect of increasing reader identification with the hero. The reader knows what it is to be in a hurry to get somewhere important and encounter a traffic jam or blocked-off road. It also helps with the writer’s most important goal—verisimilitude. We all want to make our story-world become so real to the reader that he will never wake from the story-dream.

Suspense is a technique every writer can use. It’s a matter of creating a steam engine with no whistle, so that the steam builds in pressure, and at any time there could be an explosion. As a writer, in a thousand ways, great and small, your job is to keep turning up the heat under that engine.

In my own mystery-suspense novel, Every Last Secret, I can show some of these techniques right in the jacket copy. I’ll bold them. Marquitta “Skeet” Bannion fled a big-city police force and painful family entanglements for the peace of a small Missouri college town and a job as chief of campus police. Now, the on-campus murder of the student newspaper editor who traded in secrets puts Skeet on the trail of a killer who will do anything to keep a dangerous secret from being exposed. While Skeet struggles to catch a murderer and prevent more deaths, a vulnerable boy and ailing father tangle family responsibilities around her once again. Time is running out and college administrators demand she sweep all college involvement under the rug, but Skeet won’t stop until she’s unraveled every last secret. Secrets, high stakes, motivated and strong antagonist, overwhelming obstacles, everyday difficulties, a deadline, and dedicated protagonist.

You might take your book’s synopsis/summary and try bolding or underlining all the various techniques of suspense you find in yours. If you only find one or two, perhaps you’ll want to rethink your story so it will include more elements of suspense to keep your readers turning the page.

Thanks, Bryan for having me here today. I’ll be happy to answer any questions anyone might have. Suspense is one of those fundamentals with lots and lots of different applications.


Linda Rodriguez’s novel, Every Last Secret, won the Malice Domestic Best First Traditional Mystery Novel Competition, was a Barnes & Noble Mystery Must-Read, and was a selection of Las Comadres National Book Club. Julia Spencer-Fleming, New York Times bestselling author, said, “Every Last Secret is a triple crown winner; superb writing, hell for leather plotting and terrific characters.” Criminal Element said, “Every Last Secret by Linda Rodriguez is a dark, twisty, turny tale of love, lies, loss, and murder on a quiet college campus.” Publishers Weekly said, “Fans of tough female detectives like V.I. Warshawski and Kinsey Millhone will be pleased.” As a poet, she has won the Thorpe Menn Award for Literary Excellence, the Elvira Cordero Cisneros Award, and the Midwest Voices and Visions Award. She blogs about books and writers at www.LindaRodriguezWrites.blogspot.com, reads and writes everything, including science fiction and fantasy, and she spends too much time on Twitter as @rodriguez_linda. Every Last Secret can be obtained at http://www.amazon.com/Every-Last-Secret-A-Mystery/dp/1250005450.

Write Tips: The Power Of Diligence

In a recent interview with Charlie Rose, Steve Martin talks about how important diligence has been to his success. And the website Study Hacks, which explores how some people succeed and others don’t explores his comments. I also recently read that a high percentage of Robert Frost’s most acclaimed poems were written after he’d reached the age of 50. That got me thinking how important diligence is to the writer’s journey.

If anyone hasn’t figured it out yet, the writing life is a lifelong journey. The day you stop learning new things or striving to get better, you might as well close up shop because that’s what it’s all about. Through all the rejections, all the bad reviews, all the starving days, all the tribulations of artistic life, only one thing is sure: you can always get better. You’ll know know everything.

That’s why diligence is so vital for success as a writer.

If someone as respected and famous as Robert Frost did his best work in his later years, if someone like Steve Martin values diligence, how can we not ask ourselves to be diligent too?  You can only be the best you can be at any moment. But if you continue to grow and learn, i.e. through diligence, you can get better and better. And, like Frost, the highlights of your career can come later in life. Martin won two Grammys for his banjo albums, both well into his career as movie star, post-career as standup comedian. He’d been playing banjo for 50 years when he won one of them. Now that’s diligence.

How successful do you want to be? Do you want a career or just a hobby? One requires diligence, one doesn’t. Period. To do anything artistic well, one must constantly reexamine and strive to improve technique, craft, etc. No one’s perfect and there’s always room to grow as an artist. There’s a reason writers talk about the “writer’s journey.” There’s also a reason you don’t hear successful authors say “the journey is over.” In fact, many would say “my writer’s journey’s just begun.”

Think of writers like George R.R. Martin, who is writing a 7 book series but taking more than a decade to do it. The gaps between books are years, not because he intends to drive readers and his publisher to distraction, but because he’s diligent. He wants to get it right. Would anyone begrudge him that? To me, there’s something to be admired in that kind of dedication. It’s a level of intensity I sometimes wish I could match. On the other hand, GRRM has more financial security as a writer than I do and I wonder if I’d survive such long periods between paychecks. Still, I admire his dedication and diligence in writing it the best it can be and doing it the way he needs to in order to get there.

To do anything well, one must be willing to work hard. Some times working hard means different things for different people. For some, certain things come more easily than for others. I have writer friends like Jay Lake who turn in what they call “clean first drafts.” Others of us spend days going over copyedits. I think these are things one can improve on with time. I know some who struggle with POV and description, while others roll intricate flowery emotional prose off their keyboards like breathing air. (I hate them for it, don’t you?) Some are stronger on science than character. Some are stronger on dialogue than plot. Part of being human is to be imperfect. It’s not a crime. It’s a challenge. But it’s a challenge that can be overcome with diligence.

It’s a cliche, I suppose, to say anything worth having is worth working for, but in a sense, that’s just truth. The writers whose careers last decades are known for diligence: Robert J. Sawyer, Robert Silverberg, Mike Resnick, Anne Rice, Orson Scott Card, Ben Bova, Stephen King, Peter Straub, etc. All have worked hard to perfect their craft. All write with great discipline and take advantage of every opportunity. All produce multiple books and stories every year. And all will tell you it’s hard work and that they are always seeking to improve.

For me, part of following their example is modeling myself after their efforts. I am diligently blogging, writing, and networking. I am diligently educating myself about this business. I am diligently reading to be aware of what’s come before and who’s writing what. And I am diligently studying storytelling, craft, prose, etc. to understand how others do it well and improve my own work in the process.

How’s your diligence? Is it a priority for you? Are you in it for the long haul or short run? Good questions to ask, I think. For what it’s worth…


Bryan Thomas Schmidt is the author of the space opera novel The Worker Prince, a Barnes & Noble Book Clubs Year’s Best SF Releases of 2011 Honorable Mention, the collection The North Star Serial, Part 1, and has several short stories forthcoming in anthologies and magazines. His second novel, The Returning, is forthcoming from Diminished Media Group in 2012 along with his book 102 More Hilarious Dinosaur Jokes For Kids from Delabarre Publishing and the anthology Space Battles: Full Throttle Space Tales #6 which he edited for Flying Pen Press, headlined by Mike Resnick. As  a freelance editor, he’s edited a novel for author Ellen C. Maze (Rabbit: Legacy), a historical book for Leon C. Metz (The Shooters, John Wesley Hardin, The Border), and is now editing Decipher Inc’s WARS tie-in books for Grail Quest Books.  He’s also the host of Science Fiction and Fantasy Writer’s Chat every Wednesday at 9 pm EST on Twitter, where he interviews people like Mike Resnick, AC Crispin, Kevin J. Anderson and Kristine Kathryn Rusch. A frequent contributor to Adventures In SF Publishing, Grasping For The Wind and SF Signal, he can be found online as @BryanThomasS on Twitter or via his website. Bryan is an affiliate member of the SFWA.

19 5-star & 4-star reviews THE WORKER PRINCE $4.99 Kindle http://amzn.to/pnxaNm or Nook http://bit.ly/ni9OFh $14.99 tpb http://bit.ly/qIJCkS.

 

Write Tip: How Screenplay Structure Can Help Plotting & Pace In Your Novels

I am a film school grad of California State University, Fullerton. I spent several years working in TV and film and had a script in development at Disney. It never got made. I never got rich and famous. But the lessons I learned from film school and, particularly, the books of Syd Field about story structure have stayed with me. In Screenplay, field presents the standard for screenplay structure: 3 acts, the first and last of 30 pages (a page equalling approximately a minute on screen) and the middle being 60 pages. This is called the Three Act Structure.

On a basic level, it works like this:

The First Act sets up the setting, characters, etc. We are introduced to our protagonist, antagonist and their problems, i.e. the issues which will cause them to clash later on. Around page 30, a major plot point occurs, called a turning point, where something happens the compels the protagonist to react and takes the story in a new direction. He or she must respond and struggle to save the day, solve the problem, win over the girl, or otherwise deal with their life being turned upside down in a major way to get back to happy again. This act tends to move fairly tightly and concisely. And a good steady pace is helpful to get people into the story and make them want to stay for the rest.

The Second Act is the middle. The first major plot point has happened and the character must now respond, going on an adventure or quest to solve the problem. The antagonist, meanwhile, is working to get there first or keep the protagonist from succeeding. Act Two is full of complications. The first half propels us toward a middle plot point which in some way turns the story and compels them to action toward the second major plot point at the end of the act, around page 90. Although pace is important here, at times, in Act Two, one can slow down a bit and develop characters, etc., allowing the story to breathe.

The Third Act is the wrap up dealing with the results of major plot point two and all the loose ends from throughout the story. Like Act One, this act moves quickly, and more quickly than any of the others because it needs to feel driven to carry us to the climax.

Those are the basics of Three Act Screenplay structure, but further breaking it down is where it really becomes useful for us as novelists. In screenplays, stories consist of beats.

There are three types of beats:

1. Story Beat (Plotting) — these are action points upon which the story is framed. They build together like a puzzle. These include the major turning points at act breaks and usually the halfway beat for Act Two. But many smaller beats occur as well (we’ll get to that shortly). Major Story Beats typically include:

Opening (Normal World)
Inciting Incident (Act One midpoint)
Act 1 Break (Plot Point 1)
Midpoint (Mid-Point of the Act 2, takes us into the second half of Act 2)
Act 2 Break (Plot Point 2)
Climax (Resolution)

2. Emotional Beat (Character Arc)–We’re all familiar with “character arcs.” These are made up of emotional beats: events wherein the physical action of story creates an emotional reaction within your character. These show us what motivates the next action within the character. By connecting the emotional beats, you see the character arcs.

3. Reversal (Emotional Beat Within a Scene)–Unlike the others, this refers to specific moments within a scene where a character undergoes an emotional reversal. Example: Bob confronts Joe who killed his mother. Bob wants to kill Joe. But then Joe explains Bob’s mom viciously murdered his mom years before. Not only that but Joe is Bob’s half-brother from his father’s affair. Now Bob is reconsidering his initial emotional reaction.

Something major happens every 15 pages. While the major act turning points occur at page 30 and page 90, these in between breaks matter too. They are beats. And some are emotional, some story and some reversals. Reversals are powerful and must be used with care, but you can use more than one to provide some mystery and twists and turns to your story as long as you use them wisely.

How can this help novelists?

By thinking of your story with this framework, you can make sure you keep your plot moving at a steady pace. You can avoid long periods where “nothing happens” and, instead, focus in on beats and plot points which push things forward. It doesn’t matter if you’re a pantser or an outliner, this can work for you. I tend to be a pantser and that’s how I write. I ask myself: what could happen next that would surprise the characters and take things in unexpected directions? Sometimes, I surprise myself. The Returning, my second Davi Rhii novel, is full of moments like that. The Story Beats lead to Emotional Beats as characters affected by the events of the plot react emotionally. Examples: A friend’s life is threatened, the protagonist takes action to protect and/or save the friend. A secret past is revealed and the protagonist struggles to come to terms with it and redefine who he/she is. See how it works?

Novels don’t share the same paging as screenplays, so you have to set aside the specific 15,30,60,90 pages marks in this case. But screenplays consist of sparse description/action and lots of dialogue, so thinking through this structure should still make things come out fairly close to the same as you write. By incorporating these beats and plot points, something many of us do on instinct, you can be more deliberate about arranging your story so it moves at a good, even clip and avoids needless sidetracking or lags. The end result will be a tighter, better paced story which hooks the reader and keeps them interested to the end.

How do you structure your novels? I’d love to hear your thoughts in comments. For what it’s worth…


Bryan Thomas Schmidt is the author of the space opera novel The Worker Prince, a Barnes & Noble Book Clubs Year’s Best SF Releases of 2011 Honorable Mention, the collection The North Star Serial, Part 1, and has several short stories forthcoming in anthologies and magazines. His second novel, The Returning, is forthcoming from Diminished Media Group in 2012 along with his book 102 More Hilarious Dinosaur Jokes For Kids from Delabarre Publishing and the anthology Space Battles: Full Throttle Space Tales #6 which he edited for Flying Pen Press, headlined by Mike Resnick. As  a freelance editor, he’s edited a novel for author Ellen C. Maze (Rabbit: Legacy), a historical book for Leon C. Metz (The Shooters, John Wesley Hardin, The Border), and is now editing Decipher Inc’s WARS tie-in books for Grail Quest Books.  He’s also the host of Science Fiction and Fantasy Writer’s Chat every Wednesday at 9 pm EST on Twitter, where he interviews people like Mike Resnick, AC Crispin, Kevin J. Anderson and Kristine Kathryn Rusch. A frequent contributor to Adventures In SF Publishing, Grasping For The Wind and SF Signal, he can be found online as @BryanThomasS on Twitter or via his website. Excerpts from The Worker Prince can be found on his blog.‎ Bryan is an affiliate member of the SFWA.

The Returning: How I Dealt With Middle Book Syndrome

Well, we’re four chapters from finalizing the editing of my novel, The Returning, sequel to my debut The Worker Prince. ARCS will go out next week, and then copyediting. As I look at this book, a book which I’m amazed even got written–written in the midst of my life completely falling apart (unemployment, mental health issues and hospitalization for the wife, then divorce and a cross country relocation), I also marvel at how well this second book actually works. I know, I know: “We’ll be the judge of that” you’re thinking. And yes, you will. But from beta readers to editors, responses have been encouraging. They comment that it starts out fast like a Bourne movie and never lets up. They talk of the stakes being upped on every level from character development to complexity of plot to emotional arcs and actual events of the story. The stakes were higher in every way. And although that was deliberate in part, I find myself pondering how important second books are for us as authors and in trilogies generally. And how hard they can be to write.

When I started The Returning, I had no idea what the book would be. I knew where the story would have to go for the ending in book 3. But unlike Book 1, which employed the biblical story of Moses as a framework, and book 3, which will also employ more elements of that, book 2 had to fill in gaps and required me to create more of my own storyline and structure with these characters. I knew there were mistakes I’d made in The Worker Prince which I didn’t want to repeat. I also knew there were things I wanted to do with the characters. But I wrote in total chaos. Outlining a chapter at a time is usual for me, so that’s not what I mean. What I mean is that my life was so chaotic in the background of writing that I often went a month or weeks between chapters or even scenes. Coming back to it, I found concentration hard, so I couldn’t review what I’d written as fully. And often I didn’t want to reread the previous six chapters just to write. Unlike The Worker Prince, this book took 9 months to write. And it went out a chapter at a time to three beta readers as I went. They urged me for more quite often. Their patience was greatly appreciated. I didn’t look at their feedback until after I’d finished.

I was amazed.

First of all, as I hinted at above, I’m a pantser. I let the story go where it takes me. I always have some key plot points in mind. And I always have a rough idea of the base storylines (plots and subplots). But in this case, I had no idea how I would end it until I was well over 2/3rds through. It’s a middle book. There was no real ending. Many events in this book carry over into Book 3. But at some point, I realized I could still create a satisfying denouement, even if it was a cliffhanger ending. And the book most certainly has that. At the same time, the events push toward the point where a chapter feels closed in spite of that.

Early on I realized Book 2 needed a sense of everything being turned upside down. The Worker Prince was a happy story overall. It almost feels like a standalone. Despite the survival of the antagonists and potential for more stories, everything gets wrapped up in a pretty happy ending. But for the characters to progress and the story with them, I needed to tear all the stability and happiness apart again. Their lives, relationships and future all needed to be in jeopardy, and readers needed to be surprised. So, as I wrote, I set that goal. In addition, I wanted a fast pace, action packed novel, both emotionally and physically. It required a more complicated plot. And wound up with seventeen point of view characters, a hell of a cast to manage. (Some only have a scene or two from their POV. There are major POV characters who have scenes throughout as well.)

As I reached each plot point I’d planned, I examined my options and looked for the unusual choice, the surprise twist. What could happen here that would make readers say: “Whoa! I cannot believe that just happened!” Where can I take things that makes it more complicated and pushes them further from their goals and happiness again? At every chance, I made such choices. Unlike The Worker Prince, I knew that meant important characters would have to die. In the end, four do.

It’s hard to kill characters. You spend so much time with them that you begin to feel a bit like they’re family. So killing them, unless you’re psychopathic I suppose, feels wrong and mean. Who wants to be mean? But in order for the heights of the emotional arcs and plots to be reached, the stakes had to get higher and higher in The Returning, and I found no way to do that without endangering characters. In choosing the characters to subject to this “cruelty,” I also tried to make surprising choices. I chose characters I liked but characters who, ultimately, have less interesting arcs left to them than the ones who remained. My readers may disagree, but I hope not. Because the deaths of these characters actually redefine and energize the arcs for other characters in Book 3. They serve to drive the rest of the story.

I also did more exploration of my solar system, using more alien species and worlds, and exploring more of how the Boralian Alliance got to be in control and treated the natives they encountered. This will be a big part of Book 3 as well, and I think it made for some very interesting worldbuilding along with some nice plot twists and turns.

Obviously, I can’t say too much. The book doesn’t release until June. But in any case, by the time I concluded writing The Returning, I knew I had the makings of a very satisfying chapter in my saga. In fact, editors and my beta readers all agreed it’s a better book on every level than The Worker Prince. [That’s a compliment writers. We need to grow with each book. So I took it that way. It was also my goal as mentioned above.]

And so now I can’t wait to share it with you. It goes out to reviewers and other authors for blurbs next week. I have some pretty cool people lined up, including a couple of Star Wars authors. I can’t wait to hear what they think. I hope you’ll take the time to read The Worker Prince and The Returning and love them as much as I loved the experience of bringing them to life for you.

For what it’s worth…


Bryan Thomas Schmidt is the author of the space opera novel The Worker Prince, a Barnes & Noble Best SF Releases of 2011 Honorable Mention, the collection The North Star Serial, Part 1, and has several short stories forthcoming in anthologies and magazines. His second novel, The Returning, is forthcoming from Diminished Media Group in 2012. He’s also the host of Science Fiction and Fantasy Writer’s Chatevery Wednesday at 9 pm EST on Twitter, where he interviews people like Mike Resnick, AC Crispin, Kevin J. Anderson and Kristine Kathryn Rusch. A frequent contributor to Adventures In SF Publishing, Grasping For The Wind and SF Signal, he can be found online as @BryanThomasS on Twitter or via his website. Excerpts from The Worker Prince can be found on his blog.‎ Bryan is an affiliate member of the SFWA.

19 5-star & 4-star reviews THE WORKER PRINCE $4.99 Kindle http://amzn.to/pnxaNm or Nook http://bit.ly/ni9OFh $14.99 tpb http://bit.ly/qIJCkS.

Write Tip: Thoughts On Choosing Point Of View

There are many decisions one makes when writing fiction. One of the most important is the choice of POV character and whether it’s first person or third. Often, when dealing with multiple POV characters, the choice is based on who has the most to lose or gain in a particular scene. But sometimes other factors can be useful.  

In The Returning, my forthcoming sequel to The Worker Prince, I found it advantageous to tell a scene from the POV of an antagonist despite the fact the focus of the scene was a subplot of the romance between the protagonist and another character. In doing so, I was able to up the tension beyond the drama of the moment. While Davi and Tela are having a fight and their relationship is jeopardized, the scene becomes more powerful because Davi’s rival, bent on killing him in revenge for past slights, is stalking them during the scene. Thus, not only is their relationship in danger, but their very lives. It wound up becoming one of my favorite scenes because of that.

A further advantage was that several subplots are advanced in the process–the Davi-Tela love story, the Bordox revenge plot, and the main story about attacks on Davi’s Vertullian people are all advanced in this scene. Having Davi’s rival, whose hatred for Davi seethes throughout the book, see Davi in a humiliating fight with his girlfriend also serves to make Davi’s situation more sympathetic. It’s bad enough he’s messing up his relationship, it’s bad enough some of that conflict is based on misunderstanding each other, but now his life’s in danger and he’s been humiliated in front of Bordox. It just adds layers of dynamics to the scene which up the pace, the tension, and the stakes all at the same time. When you add to that the fact that this encounter was coincidence–Bordox was there for other reasons and just stumbles upon them–it’s all the more dramatic.

Below is the scene from my third draft so you can see how it plays out. Remember: Bordox is working for a group trying to unseat the government and reenslave the Vertullians, ancient enemies. He’s Davi’s Academy rival and his family are the rivals of Davi’s for the leadership of the Borali Alliance. Tela is Davi’s former trainee, fiancee and a fellow Vertullian pilot. The romance that started in The Worker Prince is facing new pressures and their relationship is strained because of it. 

As you read, consider the POV choice. How does it work for you? Would you have chosen differently? What are the questions you ask when deciding which POV to use in scenes? Feel free to discuss it in the comments. I’d love to hear your thoughts on choosing POV.

***

Bordox fought his every instinct as he stepped off the shuttle into the starport landing bay on Legon. His mission required stealth yet he stiffened at having to sneak around a place he’d once walked freely—admired and respected. Here he was, less than a year later, hiding in shadows like a wanted man. And there was only one person to blame: Davi Rhii!

He made his way through the pedestrian corridors and deliberately avoided areas frequented by pilots and maintenance crews with the hopes he’d be less likely to be recognized. The datacard in his pocket pressed against his leg with every step. He just needed to get to the flight data booths and insert it. The program it contained would do the rest, drawing out the desired intel from the systems, and he’d be on his way again.

“What’s keeping you so quiet?”

He knew that voice, stopping to listen as it came from around the corner ahead of him.

“Nothing. I’m fine.” A woman’s voice answered. One he didn’t recognize. He heard footsteps approaching and shrunk back into a shadowed doorway. “Just let me check the shuttle maintenance records for Aron and we’ll be on our way.”

“I know you, Tela. Something’s upsetting you.”

Rhii! Bordox gritted his teeth. His old enemy, the idiot who’d ruined his life, was coming toward him. What was he doing here this time of night? Last he’d heard Davi was a squadron commander. Military pilots didn’t casually walk around this side of the starport.

Davi and the woman appeared around the corner and stopped as Davi jumped into her path so they were face to face. The woman was medium height, shorter than Davi, with long brown hair and sparkling blue eyes. Her pleasing curves stiffened in anger as Davi blocked her way. Both wore Borali Alliance flight uniforms with rank insignia on their shoulders and blasters holstered at their sides. Seeing Davi in uniform just launched him into a rage. Rhii had the career Bordox deserved.

“I know you, Tela,” Davi said. “Why won’t you talk to me about it?”

“Because it won’t make any difference. We’ve tried before.”

She stepped around him and continued down the corridor as he hurried after her.

“So it’s about me then? What did I do?”

The woman, Tela, sighed. “I am not some delicate damsel in distress, Davi Rhii. I’m a fully qualified Borali officer, just like you.”

Davi looked confused. “Of course you are. What are you talking about?”

She stopped and whirled to face him, arms on her hips. Her eyes narrowed with annoyance. “You had me taken out of your squadron rotation. You got me in a lighter flight duty assignment. I keep finding myself not chosen for any risky missions—”

“There haven’t exactly been a lot of risky missions lately, and your reassignment was required by military rules. Couples can’t fly together.”

Tela growled. “A convenient excuse.”

“It’s true. I can show you the memo the commander sent asking me to sign the transfer paperwork.”

“You don’t get it! I am not going to be the girl who sits at home and pines after you. I want to do my duty like anyone else. I don’t want to be protected.”

“I’m not protecting you.”

“Yes you are!”

She whirled and started up the corridor toward Bordox again. He slipped further back into the shadows, sliding his hood up over his head as he enjoyed the show. They were so distracted with each other he doubted they’d even notice him. Bordox began to relax from his rage a bit as he watched Davi Rhii get put in his place by a woman. The only thing better would be the day he did it himself. Like instinct, his hand felt for the blaster at his hip, closing around the handle, he squeezed it. All he had to do was draw and shoot and Rhii would be dead. They would never see it coming, totally taken by surprise. His fist clenched and unclenched around the handle as he fought the urge. He’d blow his mission. But he might never get a chance like this. The feel of the cold steel of the blaster against his palm got his adrenaline pumping.

“Okay, maybe I didn’t argue.” Davi smiled as if that alone would charm her. Bordox wanted to step out and wipe that smarmy grin off his face with a fist but he swallowed, silent and hard, and stayed frozen in place. Or maybe I should blast it off. “Look, I love you, okay? Guilty! It’s my instinct to want to protect you.”

“We fought side by side in the Resistance. Why can’t we do that now?”

“Well, there’s not really any enemies at the moment for one. And we were just getting into things then. Now we’re together.”

“So I’m supposed to sit at home and worry about you while you get to relax and know I’m safe? That’s fair.”

Davi grinned and shrugged. “I’d feel good about it.”

Tela groaned and punched him hard in the arm. “Well, I don’t.” She turned and marched on down and through the door into the landing bay as Davi raced to catch her.

Bordox paused a moment, tempted to follow, but shook it off, remembering his mission and slid on down the corridor the way they’d come. There was more at stake. He had to remember that. Rhii’s day would come. Just not today. In less than two minutes, he’d stepped into the data center and selected a private booth. He slipped the datacard from his pocket and inserted it into the terminal then watched as the screen exploded in thousands of numbers moving and changing at a pace so fast his eyes could barely recognize them. After another minute, the terminal beeped and the datacard ejected. He returned it to his pocket then slipped out and headed back the way he’d come.


Bryan Thomas Schmidt is the author of the space opera novel The Worker Prince, a Barnes & Noble Best SF Releases of 2011 Honorable Mention, the collection The North Star Serial, Part 1, and has several short stories forthcoming in anthologies and magazines. His second novel, The Returning, is forthcoming from Diminished Media Group in 2012. He’s also the host of Science Fiction and Fantasy Writer’s Chatevery Wednesday at 9 pm EST on Twitter, where he interviews people like Mike Resnick, AC Crispin, Kevin J. Anderson and Kristine Kathryn Rusch. He can be found online as @BryanThomasS on Twitter or via his website. Excerpts from The Worker Prince can be found on his blog.‎ Bryan is an affiliate member of the SFWA.

4 5-star & 11 4-star reviews THE WORKER PRINCE $3.99 Kindlehttp://amzn.to/pnxaNm or Nook http://bit.ly/ni9OFh $14.99 tpb http://bit.ly/qIJCkS.

Write Tip: The Importance of Heroines

A modified version of this post first appeared on the blog of author Jeremy Ship on October 27th. A companion piece on heroes appeared around the same time on Adventures In SF Publishing’s blog.

One of the traditional tropes of much science fiction and fantasy has long been the damsel in distress. Naturally, modern women often find such characters hard to relate to. They certainly find them hard to admire. So in revisiting the Golden Age style for my debut science fiction novel, The Worker Prince, one trope I was determined to avoid was the damsel in distress. In the end, I wound up with four strong female characters in major supporting roles. Here’s a break down:

Tela—pilot, slave rebellion leader, young but very smart and very independent.

Miri—Boralian princess, spoiled but yet independent. Refuses to accept the history and philosophy officially espoused by her ruling family, instead educating herself and her son, Davi, with exposure to diverse sources. Unafraid to question. Unafraid to confront her brother, who rules the Boralian Alliance, when necessary.

Lura—slave woman long separated from her husband who disappeared along with their only son, Davi, twenty years before. Nonetheless, she takes care of her sister’s family and stands firm in her faith and conviction and hope for the future.

Kray—sole female member of the ruling Boralian Council, life-long friend of Miri, independent, strong-willed, not intimidated by the powerful men around her.

One advantage in writing strong women characters is that I grew up in a family of strong women. From my mother to my grandmothers to my twin sister, the women in my family were taking no guff, and believe me when I say I tested those boundaries. But you quickly learn to respect women who are not pushovers. It’s amazing to be both loved well and scolded well by the same people. Yet you learn that their passions for both run deep, and it makes you a better man.

To me, the importance of strong heroines is twofold. First, for inspiring young women to grow up to be proud and comfortable and secure in their identities. And second, to raise young men who will respect and appreciate those women for all they have to offer.

Literature is influential. It teaches even as it entertains. If all we provide for young readers are examples of weak heroines, they will, in some way, grow up expecting that’s all they should find in the real world. All human beings have their weaknesses, of course. No two humans are exactly alike, we are all individuals. So writing characters as individuals is vital. And offering examples of the infinite possibilities available to our young people, I believe, is an author’s responsibility. A part of this is modeling behaviors which such strong individuals might exhibit. Being strong women does not automatically mean bitches. That is one old stereotype we can all do without. At the same time, strong women can cry and express a variety of emotions. Showing emotion is not a weakness. It’s just something women in society have learned to do better than men. In many ways, they are fortunate in that opportunity.

For me, the trick to writing strong women is to write them like men. But remember key things. Women are all about communication, especially emotional communication. Whereas men tend to prefer action to show their emotions and don’t tend toward long emotional discussions, those things are the opposite with most women. Of course, women also have different priorities and often different concerns. From child birth to homemaking, etc., women do have different societal expectations to wrestle with than men. Whether your characters go the traditional route or buck the trend, the questions must be asked and answered and can be used in building their characters.

One important clarification point: when I say I write them like men, what I am saying is that if I treat women characters like men in initial approach it’s easier to make them stronger and write them with the same considerations I give male characters. Because I, like many male writers, never claim to understand women, there is a tendency to write weaker women and feel uncomfortable with approach but if I approach them the same as male characters, it becomes easier. Then I apply the key things mentioned to focus on aspects which address femininity and differences like the importance of emotional express and communication and it works well for me. Female readers, at least, respond to it.

There’s also certainly nothing wrong with male heroes rescuing or helping their women. Some women in real life even fantasize a bit about this. But you can have a woman in jeopardy without her being weak and defenseless. Especially in larger than life space opera settings, such as mine, the odds against characters are often larger than life themselves and require teamwork to overcome. A male hero leading the way is not all bad if that character has knowledge the female character would rely on to help get them out of the trouble they’re in. The woman can use her skills as well to contribute and work with the man to extract themselves to safety.

I think the key to keeping heroines strong while still building dramatic situations with real jeopardy and challenges for the characters is to emphasize the individual strengths of the characters and think about how those can be used for each character to react differently to the various circumstances you put them through. It’s also not wrong to have the woman rescue the man sometimes. In my case, having a woman partner who can do that is a big turn on. I like to be taken care of, too. Don’t you?

It doesn’t make me feel week to rely on someone else’s strengths. It make me feel loved and safe, and that’s a good feeling. So employing these things in your story just makes it more relatable for readers. It also makes it more fun and connected to their contemporary reality, and that, when writing in the speculative realms, can only make your stories more accessible and successful.

There are many ways to approach this, of course, but here’s one technique you may find helpful:

Make three lists:

1) Traits typically associated as typically associated with men

2) Traits typically considered associated with women

3) Traits your story will require characters to have

Be sure and write these lists in context of the world you are creating. In other words, if it’s not set in the contemporary world, think through how things might be different in the period/place in which you are writing from the contemporary world in which you live and employ those ponderings in making lists of traits which would exist in that world.

Then pull items from the first two lists to create characters which meet the needs of the third. Consider specifically how these traits can be used to surprise readers, not in a “that’s unbelievable” way but in a “I didn’t expect that way.” Remember, they still have to believe the character could exist. Part of that depends on setting, situation, etc. of course, but don’t overshoot the mark either. You can use traits appropriate to a made up world which might seem different from the contemporary one. You just have to set them up properly through world building. The key here is to be aware of what you are doing and work deliberately to sell it in the context of the story.

So don’t forget about the need for strong heroines. What are some ways you can employ them to make your stories rise above the rest?


Bryan Thomas Schmidt is the author of the space opera novel The Worker Prince, the collection The North Star Serial, and has several short stories forthcoming in anthologies and magazines. The sequel to The Worker Prince is forthcoming in 2012, The Returning. He’s also the host of Science Fiction and Fantasy Writer’s Chat every Wednesday at 9 pm EST on Twitter, where he interviews people like Mike Resnick, AC Crispin, Kevin J. Anderson and Kristine Kathryn Rusch. He can be found online as @BryanThomasS on Twitter or via his website. Excerpts from The Worker Prince can be found on his blog.

The Worker Prince is the story of a prince who discovers he was born a slave. When he raises objections about the abusive treatment of slaves, he finds himself in conflict with both friends and families. After a tragic accident, involving the death of a fellow soldier, Davi Rhii winds up on the run. He then joins the worker’s fight for freedom and finds a new identity and new love. Capturing the feel of the original Star Wars, packed with action, intrigue and interweaving storylines, The Worker Prince is a space opera with a Golden Aged Feel. 

4 5-star & 8 4-star reviews THE WORKER PRINCE $3.99 Kindlehttp://amzn.to/pnxaNm or Nook http://bit.ly/ni9OFh $14.99 tpb http://bit.ly/qIJCkS.

Write Tip: 10 Tips For Writing Dialogue Better

Writing dialogue can be a challenge for some writers more than others, but it’s an extremely important part of good fiction. There are many tools and techniques one can use, the most important being to use your powers of observation. By listening to dialogue of the real people around you, you can learn how people talk, especially people of different socioeconomic, educational and age groups. But there are craft elements involved as well. Here’s 10 Tips For Writing Better Dialogue:

1) Use Simple Tags Sparingly. Fancy tags like “he expostulated” or “she espoused” are less clear and more distracting than anything. So keep the tags simple when you absolutely must use them. Instead, convey the manner in which a character speaks instead. Make it obvious from what is said.

2) Instead Of Tags, Use Actions. People talk while actively engaging in activities. So should your characters. Giving them business to do during dialogue allows you to identify who’s speaking without resorting to overused tags. Some can come in the form of characterizing the speaker: “His eyebrows lifted with menace,” for example. “Bob’s fist clenched as he spoke.” “Tears rolled down her cheek with every word.”

3)  Avoid Expositional Dialogue When Possible. We’ve all violated this rule, but especially when two characters should already know the information being imparted, it seems unnatural and distracting. In such cases, internal monologue is a better tool and more natural. Characters may think about stuff they already know but they wouldn’t tell each other stuff each of them knows.

4) Keep It Short. People talk in choppy sentences. Long soliloquies are rare. So in dialogue, use a combination of short sentences to make it flow and feel like real people talking. Let them interrupt each other, too. People do that in real life. It adds to the pace, tension and drama of it.

5) Avoid Phonetic Spellings For Accents. They are difficult to read. Indications of dialect can be used instead to get the reader to do the rest.  Overuse of a dialect becomes distracting to readers and can actually take them out of the story. Keep the words your characters say as unobtrusive as possible so your story flows seamlessly.

6) Dialogue Is Conflict. Conflict keeps the story moving. People talk like they’re playing table tennis–back and forth. This moves the story forward. Lace your dialogue with conflict. It adds dramatic urgency to every line the characters say and keeps the story’s pace.

 7) Use Other Characters. Let a character imply who’s speaking to them by saying something specific to only that person. If you use business well (see number 2 above), having a character refer to something the other character is doing is a great way to do this.

8 ) Give Each Character A Distinctive Voice. Overdo it and its caricature but we all have our own speech tics. Create some for your characters and sprinkle them throughout. Readers will learn them and know who’s speaking. For example, Captain Jack Sparrow loves the term of affection: “love” and uses that a lot. He also says “Savvy?” a great deal as well. He has others you can probably remember, too. Study characterization and see what other writers have done.

9) Speak It Aloud. Talk it out. Get inside the heads of your characters and say the lines. Play out the conversation you’ve written. Does it sound natural? Does it flow? Your ear is often a better judge than your eyes and hearing it will give you an idea how readers will hear it.

10) Remember What Medium You’re Writing For. TV and Film dialogue and novel dialogue are not necessarily the same.  There is no third party to use intonation, facial expressions and/or body language to bring it to life. Your words alone are the conduit between yourself and the reader and your prose skills and the readers’ imaginations make it work.

Well, those are my 10 Tips of the moment for writing better dialogue. Do you have any others? We’d love for you to share them in the comments.

Raygun-Chronicles-Make-This-Happen-Banner
My latest project:


Bryan Thomas Schmidt is the author of the space opera novels The Worker Prince, a Barnes & Noble Book Clubs Year’s Best SF Releases of 2011 Honorable Mention, and The Returning, the collection The North Star Serial, Part 1, and several short stories featured  in anthologies and magazines.  He edited the anthology Space Battles: Full Throttle Space Tales #6 for Flying Pen Press, headlined by Mike Resnick. As a freelance editor, he’s edited a novels and nonfiction.  He’s also the host of Science Fiction and Fantasy Writer’s Chat every Wednesday at 9 pm EST on Twitter under the hashtag #sffwrtcht. A frequent contributor to Adventures In SF PublishingGrasping For The Wind and SFSignal, he can be found online as @BryanThomasS on Twitter or via his website. Bryan is an affiliate member of the SFWA.

3 5-star & 6 4-star reviews THE WORKER PRINCE $3.99 Kindlehttp://amzn.to/pnxaNm or Nook http://bit.ly/ni9OFh$14.99 tpbhttp://bit.ly/qIJCkS

Preorder THE RETURNING here for June 19th release!

Write Tip: Get In Late, Get Out Early

When I went to screenwriting school, the key thing they taught us about writing scenes was to enter a scene as late as possible and get out as soon as possible after that. Forget the niceties. None of this:

 

Bob walked in the room to find Guy sitting on the couch, chilling.

“Hey, dude, whassup?” Bob asked.

Guy shrugged, not even glancing over. “Nothing. You?”

“Meh. Me either.”

 

No. You’d better have something more interesting. We can assume they’re nice, normal people but we don’t need to see their mundane, routine, room entering banter to prove it.  Show us that and you’ve lost our interest. Why? We can see that every day. And when  you write it out, it’s quickly apparent how boring our lives have become.

Instead, you want to start with as dramatic a spot as possible.

 

           “Why am I here?” Hachim choked out. Sweat dripped off the arms of the chair as it soaked through his robe. After twenty minutes alone in the interrogation room, he looked like he’d fallen into a lake. Tarkanius and Aron shook their heads, and Aron was thankful he wasn’t present for the odor. They watched through the one way glass as the Major Zylo stopped across the table from the sweaty Lord, staring at him.

            “You know why you’re here,” Zylo said.

            Hachim coughed. “I’ve done nothing wrong.”

            “So you always sweat this much when you’re innocent?”

            Hachim grabbed the towel Zylo tossed across the table at him and began wiping the exposed flesh of his face, brow, neck and arms. “It’s hot in here.”

            “I’m perfectly comfortable.” Zylo sat in the seat across from him and leaned back, watching as the Lord cleaned himself. “You’re gonna need a new robe.”

 

Are you hooked yet? I hope so. This scene should be a lot more interesting. If not, go back to your boring life. I hope you’re very happy there.

The difference between scene 1 and scene 2 is that when scene 1 starts, nothing is happening. The characters aren’t even all that interesting. In scene 2, the drama has started before we’re allowed in the room. Hachim’s already sweating, Zylo’s already hostile. It’s obvious right away Hachim is guilty of something, at least as far as Zylo’s concerned, and Zylo intends to get to the bottom of it. We’d like to as well. To me, this illustrates well the craft of getting into a scene as late as possible. Something interesting is already happening. No wasted space. No chit chat.

Now let me show you the rest of the scene so we can talk about point two: getting out as soon after.

  “What is this about? You have no right to detain me without cause!”

            Zylo nodded, then slid a datapad across the table, watching as Hachim set down the towel and began to read.

            “Conspiracy? Assassination?” Hachim’s eyes darted up from the screen. “I had nothing to do with it.”

            “You knew about it.”

            Hachim shook his head. “If you could prove it, you’d have already arrested me.” He smiled smugly.

            Zylo laughed. “The Alien Leadership Summit.”

            Hachim’s eyes raced to finish the charges. “What about it?” Hachim slid the datapad back across the table and shot him a confused look that wasn’t very convincing.

            “What’s the location?”

            “That’s classified for the Council.”

            “I have clearance, trust me. I’m on the security team.”

            Hachim hesitated, then melted under Zylo’s stare. “Idolis.”

            Zylo shook his head. “Buzz! Wrong answer. And it was all over the news.”

            “So? I am not the only person privy to that.” Hachim leaned back in his chair, attempting to appear bored, but Aron saw the fear in his eyes. And Zylo saw it, too.

            Zylo chuckled. “Yes, you were.”

            Hachim looked at him again, startled. “What?”

            Zylo nodded, smirking. “Each Lord was given a different location.”

            Hachim frowned. “A different location? They can’t hold the Summit in more than one place…” His voice trailed off as the implications sank in. Zylo raised a brow as their eyes met. “Lies? A trap?”

            “A security precaution. How many people did you tell?”

            Hachim shook his head. “No, I’m innocent. I’m not going to tolerate this abuse.” Slowly, he stood from his chair and took a step toward the door.

            Zylo shoved Hachim back into the chair. “Sit down and start answering.” Hachim looked offended at the treatment. Zylo wasn’t even phased. “Now!”

            Aron looked at Tarkanius, wondering if it were time for them to join the interrogation. Tarkanius shook his head. “No. Let him suffer.”

            “Then their fate will be yours.” Zylo shrugged and turned to casually stroll toward the door. Hachim’s eyes widened.

            “It was Niger’s idea,” Hachim began. Zylo turned back as Hachim’s shoulders sank with his weight in the chair.

 

Can you see how fast it moves? And the whole thing is fairly dramatic. In fact, you don’t even get to know what he tells him. Why? Because talk is boring. It’s more interesting to show that in the scenes that follow. In context, this opens Chapter 12 in my forthcoming novel The Returning, so readers will actually know more coming into it than you did. They’ll know, for example, that Hachim has been betraying his trust as a public servant. That people’s lives are at risk if he’s leaked the data as suspected. People we care about’s lives. Still, it illustrates my point well. It’s tight. It’s dramatic. It sets up the character’s relationship quickly. The characters are revealed through action and dialogue. There’s tight pace. And it holds your interest. Plus, even both pieces combined, it’s short. In late, out early.

Try it. Not only will your pacing automatically be better. Your readers are likely to turn pages faster. And your writing is even going to be more fun. Yes, this is an interrogation scene. But you can do the same thing with any scene where there’s conflict, and, frankly, most of the time, if you scene doesn’t have conflict, you shouldn’t be writing it. Seriously. Conflict is the heart of good fiction. If you don’t have conflict at the heart of a scene, find a way to dismiss it with a couple quick telling sentences and skip to the next dramatic moment. Your readers will thank you for it.

In any case, that’s how you get in late, and get out early. I hope it helps you improve your craft. Feel free to comment, ask questions, dialogue about it. I won’t bite…well, then, part of the dramatic tension is your not knowing for sure if that’s true. For what it’s worth…


Bryan Thomas Schmidt is the author of the space opera novel The Worker Prince, the collection The North Star Serial, and has several short stories forthcoming in anthologies and magazines. He’s also the host ofScience Fiction and Fantasy Writer’s Chat every Wednesday at 9 pm EST on Twitter, where he interviews people like Mike Resnick, AC Crispin, Kevin J. Anderson and Kristine Kathryn Rusch. He can be found online as @BryanThomasS on Twitter or via his website. Excerpts from The Worker Prince can be found on his blog.

Why I Used A Real Religion In The Worker Prince & Why You’ll Enjoy It Anyway

Boy, we live in strange times. That’s never been more clear to me than by watching the way some people blanch at the audacity I must have to put a real religion in my novel. The Worker Prince is the story of Moses retold as space opera. The story of Moses is a story of ideological and racial bigotry. How do you tell that without ideology? I think the real objection is that I chose Christianity. I chose Christianity for two reasons: one, I grew up in it so I know it very well. Two, ideological bigotry against Christians is growing in the world today. And thus, it gives my story a relatable culture for readers. Yep. I am not going to assume that those taking issue are all ideological bigots nor that they all are the very ones who are discriminating against Christians today. Why? Because most of that bigotry is done by well meaning people who have bought political pundits’ hyperbole and failed to look into the facts. But at the same time, it saddens me a little to see people write the book off because of it as some seem to be doing.

I spent a lot of time thinking through this novel before I ever tried to write it. 25 years, in fact. And the time spent writing and revising, this was one of the issues foremost on my mind. I grew up in a culture where ideological and other differences used to be respected. The country was founded on freedom, after all. I’m not writing about Klu Klux Klan or other hate groups here. I am writing about a large group of believers who make up one of the largest faith groups in the Western world. I also spent time vetting the story with non-Christian readers. The majority of people who blurbed my book and beta read it were people who do not share my faith. Why? Because, honestly, I am not writing an evangelistic book. I am writing entertainment. I have no desire whatsoever to use The Worker Prince to change your mind about anything except perhaps the fact that ideological bigotry is just as evil as racial bigotry and other forms. That’s the sole agenda.

Take a look at the reviews (you can find links at the bottom of this page as well as blurbs). Not one accuses me of being preachy. Even the one who didn’t finish it because she doesn’t care for books with religious themes (that’s her reason–she raves about the book in other aspects) specifically said it’s not preachy. I worked hard on this aspect because I respect readers. I hate being preached at. The last thing I want to do is do it to you. So I was very careful what and how I present any religious content. In fact, the Christian Bookseller’s Association members who publish speculative fiction wouldn’t touch it. That’s right. This book isn’t Christian enough for them.

It’s odd to me that people have such an issue these days with reading books they know will be outside their worldview. I do it almost every time I open a book. The majority are not written by Christian writers, and, even when they are, no two people share the exact worldview so there are always differences. And in science fiction and fantasy, you especially find few religious writers. Should I just not read it then because I don’t share their views? It particularly bothers me when writers show this bias, because as writers, we cannot hope to understand our world and write about it if we don’t examine it well. And even more so, if we stay inside our box, how can we write characters different from us in a way that readers will believe it? How can we address the topics we want to address believably if we don’t examine them from many sides? I honestly don’t know a way. People of faith live all around us. Don’t you think getting a long with people is easier when you can respect their beliefs? And how can you respect them, despite disagreeing, if you don’t take the time to learn about them? The same applies to them respecting you.

It’s hard to write about a religion of any sort and not be preachy. It’s hard with strong world views, in fact. Try it. You’ll see. I put a lot of work into this. It was not easy. So it’s actually a matter of pride I take in my craft that I accomplished that. And I think anyone could read it, regardless of their beliefs, and get enjoyment. It’s a fun story. Again, check the reviews on this  page, if you don’t believe me. I am getting mostly 4-star or higher reviews. Most from non-believers. That should tell you something about the book.

Do you like action? Humor? Larger-than-life characters? Fast paced plotting? Space ships and laser guns? What about family politics? What about societal political manuevering? What about romance? Friendship? They’re all in The Worker Prince and more.

So, if you like Golden Age stories and old fashioned heroes (plus modern heroines–none of those weak damsels in distress for me, no), I encourage you to give The Worker Prince a shot. I don’t think you’ll be disappointed. Okay, it’s a first novel, it’s not perfect. I’m still learning my craft. Doesn’t mean you won’t enjoy it. In fact, my beta readers all are raving about book 2. The Returning will be out next Spring or Summer. Maybe you can learn from watching my craft evolve. They say it’s way better. (It’s harder for me to see from the inside, of course, but some aspects were a lot easier to write this time around). I even toned down the religious stuff because a) I’d already established that in book 1 and b) I am sensitive to reader’s feelings. It’s the only real barrier people seem to have: the inclusion of a real religion. Otherwise, the story entertains, engages, carries them away. Isn’t that what good stories are meant to do? I’d sure like to read more of them.

If you agree, check out my book. I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.

326 pp · ISBN 978‐0‐9840209‐0‐4 ·Trade Paperback/Epub/Mobi · $14.95 tpb $3.99 Ebook  · Publication: October 4, 2011

Trade paperback only

 EPUB or MOBI — please specify in notes on order


Bryan Thomas Schmidt is the author of the space opera novel The Worker Prince, the collection The North Star Serial, and has several short stories forthcoming in anthologies and magazines. He’s also the host of Science Fiction and Fantasy Writer’s Chat every Wednesday at 9 pm EST on Twitter, where he interviews people like Mike Resnick, AC Crispin, Kevin J. Anderson and Kristine Kathryn Rusch. He can be found online as @BryanThomasS on Twitter or via his website. Excerpts from The Worker Prince can be found on his blog.