WriteTip Classic: 9 Tools For Character Development

Character Development is core to good storytelling. After all, characters are whom readers connect to and if they are stagnant and unchanging, the story can fail to hold reader’s interest. Growth of characters creates drama and propels the story. So what tools can you use to develop characters well? Here’s ten suggestions:

1) Treat Your Characters As Individuals–People are unique, no two the same, and so should it be with your characters. So each character should respond differently to a situation as any other character. In particular, fight scenes, for example, can often be a place where characters blend into one, as they all react the same. Instead try treating such common scenes as opportunities to reveal character through uniqueness. How would one character fight differently than another? Work this in and your story will be richer, your characters stronger. There are many other common scene types where you can similarly emphasize the uniqueness. Look for them.

2) Vary The Vocabulary–People use words differently, so your characters should as well. One of the best ways to distinguish and develop characters is through dialogue. Educated people use more sophisticated words, while less educated structure sentences  differently. Think of this as you develop each character’s voice and use it to set them apart, create conflict and develop them throughout your story. Vocabulary, in fact, is far more effective than attempting to create accents. Phonetically, accents already pose problems and can even devolve into silly or, far worse, confusing dialogue styles which detract from the story.

3) Scene Point Of View–Another way to develop character is by choosing the protagonist whose point of view will tell particular scenes. I tend to consider who has the most at stake in a particular scene and make the scene happen in that POV but there are varied theories. Whatever your method, your characters can be developed well through use of POV. For example, I had a scene where a couple are fighting. At the same time, an old enemy is stalking them, intent to do them harm. I told the scene from the enemy’s POV, even though he never interacts with the couple because it allowed me to further both the romantic storyline and the antagonist’s storyline in one scene through his internal monologue as he witnesses their discussion. Three character arcs and two plotlines were thus furthered in one short scene.

4) Sartorial Style–People’s tastes vary, and so should characters’. What they wear, how they choose it, etc. can be a part of characterization. Everything from color to fabric choices to scale, formality, and even clothing cost can be used to establish character. We use such things daily as we observe others to determine things about them, and readers will use such details as clues to define characters if you include them.

5) Naming–Names say a lot about who we are, and so choosing character names is another way to develop them or establish particular impressions almost immediately in reader’s minds. Someone named ‘Timothy’ and someone named ‘Theodore’ will be considered differently by readers. The first sounds more common and less formal, while the second sounds a bit more haughty and implies a different educational level or even class level. Now that’s stereotyping, of course, so sometimes naming a character contrary to the impression the name gives can also be a tool you use. But whatever the tactic, character naming is a very important tool in their development. In addition to formal names, nicknames can also be employed as well. Whether a character has a nickname, uses it or likes it, can say a lot about who they are.

6) Props–We all have our favorite do-dads, don’t we? Things we take with us everywhere we go. The cliches for women are purses and for men, perhaps, favorite hats, but we all have something. Sometimes it’s small enough to fit in a pocket. Other times, it’s carried around for all to see. Props are a great tool for revealing character. Spend time observing people around you. What props does each person have? Keep a spreadsheet or list of potential props for characters. Yes, when writing fantasy or science fiction you might have to be more inventive than just copying from a list you made at the mall. That’s called writing, dears. In any case, props can add great flavor and speak volumes about characters.

7) Companions–Fellow characters, animal or otherwise, can be great for revealing character. We see how they interact with each other and we learn volumes about who they are. Think about it: what would the Lone Ranger have been without Silver or Tonto? What about Batman without Robin? There’s a reason Michael Keaton quit after two movies: he was lonely (Ok, that might be just a guess). Who a person spends his or her time with says a lot about them and so use it to develop your characters well.

8 ) Backstory–It seems obvious but sometimes it’s easy to forget to dig deeply into a character’s past for material to develop the character. Even things you know about them but don’t include in your narrative can be of value. All the experiences of that character’s past serve to shape who he or she is becoming, from determining responses to various stimuli to emotional hotpoints from happy to fearful. When your character seems to become stagnant, review what you know about his or her past, then ask yourself if maybe there might be more to uncover which would help you as you write. You can only have too little backstory, never too much. It’s core to the internal battles all people face and will enrich your ability to write your characters with depth and broadness that stretches outside the boundaries and limitations of your story itself.

9) Traits–Another that seems obvious but developing your character’s likes and dislikes can take you all kinds of places, especially when you examine how they might clash with those of the characters around them and even the attributes of the world around them. All kinds of instances will soon arise where you can reveal more of the character through actions resulting from these traits. In the process, your story will have built in conflict and drama and perhaps even humor you might not have thought of before. Character traits are a great way to add spicy detail to your story, surprising and entertaining readers at the same time. And don’t just limit yourself to personal preferences either. Character traits can also include physical ticks like clenching hands when angry or a slight stutter or even a limp or other defect.

Okay, there you have them: 9 Tools For Character Development. Have more? Please add them in the comments. I’d love to hear what tools and tricks you employ. Let’s learn from each other.

For what it’s worth…


For more tips, come back next Wednesday. For previous WriteTips, click here.

Bryan Thomas Schmidt is a national bestselling author/editor and Hugo-nominee who’s edited over a dozen anthologies and hundreds of novels, including the international phenomenon The Martian by Andy Weir and books by Alan Dean Foster, Frank Herbert, Mike Resnick, Angie Fox, and Tracy Hickman as well as official entries in The X-Files, Predator, Joe Ledger, Monster Hunter International, and Decipher’s Wars. His debut novel, The Worker Prince, earned honorable mention on Barnes and Noble’s Year’s Best Science Fiction. His adult and children’s fiction and nonfiction books have been published by publishers such as St. Martins Press, Baen Books, Titan Books, IDW, and more. Find him online at his website bryanthomasschmidt.net or Twitter and Facebook as BryanThomasS.

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

To check out Bryan’s latest novels, click here.

WriteTip Classic: 10 Tips For Writing Better Dialogue

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.


For more tips, come back next Wednesday. For previous WriteTips, click here.

Bryan Thomas Schmidt is a national bestselling author/editor and Hugo-nominee who’s edited over a dozen anthologies and hundreds of novels, including the international phenomenon The Martian by Andy Weir and books by Alan Dean Foster, Frank Herbert, Mike Resnick, Angie Fox, and Tracy Hickman as well as official entries in The X-Files, Predator, Joe Ledger, Monster Hunter International, and Decipher’s Wars. His debut novel, The Worker Prince, earned honorable mention on Barnes and Noble’s Year’s Best Science Fiction. His adult and children’s fiction and nonfiction books have been published by publishers such as St. Martins Press, Baen Books, Titan Books, IDW, and more. Find him online at his website bryanthomasschmidt.net or Twitter and Facebook as BryanThomasS.

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

To check out Bryan’s latest novels, click here.

Write Tip: Writer’s Block Is Not a Myth But Keep Writing (3 Steps)

One of my pet peeves is when I hear fellow writers advise others writers that “writer’s block is a myth.” Having experienced writer’s block for myself, I find this condescending, and I’m not sure why those writers need to feel so superior to others by denying a problem so many have experienced. There’s nothing more frustrating than writing along making good progress until you reach that spot where for some reason, your mind just stops—blanks, or freezes, or whatever you want to call it—and you can’t seem to put words together to push on to the next scene. It’s a phenomenon most every writer has experienced, so calling it a myth feels dismissive and condescending. “Hey, you may be so lucky you’ve never had the problem, but I haven’t, and I don’t appreciate your denying it exists because that doesn’t help!”

But here’s the thing: writer’s block is not a myth but it’s also not an excuse to stop writing.

“What?” You say. “But isn’t that the definition of Writer’s Block, that you can’t write?” Yes and no.

Writer’s Block is finding yourself stuck at a particular point in the story. Maybe a particular scene or line, maybe even mid-scene or mid-sentence. Try as you might, you can’t seem to get past it, and the problem seems to drag on hour after hour, sometimes even for several days.

The mistake many writers make is to let that keep them from writing, but that’s a mistake, and here’s why. Writer’s Block happens when there’s a problem in your story your subconscious knows about that your conscious self hasn’t realized yet. That’s right. Your subconscious is warning you the story isn’t working but you can’t see it because consciously you haven’t identified or recognized the problem yet. Usually it’s something you’ve already written that has a logic or other issue. Sometimes it can be what you are about to write next.

For linear writers, this is particularly frustrating because your normal pattern is to write scenes chronologically and not skip around. So when you get stuck on your next scene, the whole project comes to a halt. You literally feel like you can’t write until you get over the block so you can create the next scene in order like you’re supposed to. But I submit that this type of wrong thinking only exacerbates the problem.

The problem with this kind of thinking is that it gives you an excuse not to write. And every time you give yourself an excuse not to write—essentially violating your discipline and your commitment to productivity—you make it that much easier to use the same excuse the next time. So day after day of using Writer’s Block as an excuse not to write—“I can’t write. Writer’s Block.”—can allow the problem to stretch out even further.

Instead, I argue, you should work the problem. And here’s how.

First, look at your story. Go back and think through any scene or moment where you felt even a little uncertainty and ask yourself about it. What bothered you? Why was that troubling? Is it still bothering you? If so, that’s a spot you might want to look at. If not, then move on to the next one. In doing this, you will do things. One, you will stimulate your mind to think about story problems and reexamine your overall story subconsciously even as you look at each moment one by one. Two, you may uncover the very problem that’s causing the block, thus moving you that much closer to the possibility of a solution.

Second, write something else. Professional writers like myself often have multiple projects going on at once. When we’re writing one novel or story, we have another waiting to be rewritten or polished or edited. So switch to that for a while. Writing, rewriting, and editing take different brain space from each other, and just by shaking up what you are focused on and doing something else, the problem may reveal itself subconsciously and work its way out to your conscious mind. Relieving the building stress and frustration of being blocked is also one of the best ways to solve the block and resume writing. So anything you can do to keep writing and not feel stressed about productivity or progress is a win.

Now, I can’t write two novels at the same time, because juggling all the complex plots and characters is really too hard and tends to weaken both projects. But what I can do is do a rewrite on something else, edit something else yet again, and write a short story and/or screenplay while writing a novel, so I often have those other projects to choose from.

3. Write a different scene. Even if you don’t multitask, you can always find a scene ahead in the story that you’ve pictured in your mind with some clarity. So think through your story and identify such a scene then try writing it.

I know what you’re thinking. “But I am a linear writer, that’s not how I work.” Exactly! The point is to push through the block, so switching up how you do things is a great way to shake things up and free your mind to find the solution. So what if the scene you write out of order may need a little tweaking once you go back and write what leads up to it? Rewriting is part of the process anyway. You’ll be doing it one way or another at some point so no harm, no foul (to use a sports term). But in the process of writing past where you’re stuck, you may also discover a new angle or plot twist that opens up new possibilities you’d never thought of before that paves the way to solving the block problem. And just by becoming conscious of those possibilities, you allow your mind the freedom to work through the problem and find a solution. It happens to me all the time.

Again, while I strongly disagree with those who dismiss Writer’s Block as a myth, I also strongly disagree with those who use it as an excuse to stop writing. When you’re under contract, you’ll find that most of the time, not writing isn’t an option. Your deadline isn’t blocked. It’s not going to move. You still have to meet that to get paid. So writing something is a whole lot better than writing nothing  because at least it’s progress. And if it has the bonus of freeing your mind from the block and allowing you to approach the story from a new timeframe and angle that illuminates the problem causing your block, then that’s even better! So find a scene you can write and write that. Trust me, even if you throw most of it out, you’ll feel better because the frustration and stress will be relieved, at least for the moment.

So there you have 3 Steps you can take to Work The Problem of Writer’s Block and push through to keep writing and being productive. Do you have other tips? We’d love to hear them in comments. Meanwhile, I hope this helps you. Happy writing!

 

WriteTip: How To Write In Times of Stress-10 Tips To Keep You Going

As writers, we all know that life goes on. And sometimes that means great times of stress and difficulty that challenge our muses and creative drives. Nothing is as stressful as a pandemic. So what do you do when you need to write but just don’t feel like it? Or when your daily life is suddenly filled with new distractions and demands from children stuck home, spouses always around, and so on? Or just when your thoughts are so filled with worries and other concerns that it’s hard to focus?

Here are a few ideas:

1) Aim Small. Whatever your usual expectations, circumstances are different. Don’t be too hard on yourself if you struggle for words and your word count suffers. In times like these, 300 good words or 500 are better than none at all. Give yourself a break and celebrate any success. When you surprise yourself and write abundantly, enjoy and celebrate. It’s an accomplishment as always, especially on top of stressful daily concerns.

2. Write What You Feel. Sometimes the distractions make it hard to focus on a work in progress or keep the current story focused in our mind as we write. In such times, it can be helpful to vent some of what clogs our heard—and for most writers, that means writing it out. Don’t be afraid to journal, if you don’t do it normally, and write out what you’re experiencing and feeling. Open a scratch file and go wild. You may find it clears your head and heart enough that you can get back to work.

3. Write Something New. Sometimes with a change in mood or stress, a change of scenery or story will be just the trick to keep us going. If you find yourself flummoxed on your current project, perhaps trying something new will help you not only stay productive but stay sane. Feeling successful and accomplishing your goals is sometimes more important than being stuck on one project at a time, so give yourself leeway to try something more in tune with your mood or focus—some idea you have been wanting to write that maybe has spent more time in your thoughts of late than that WIP. And feel good at what you accomplish.

4. Outline. I get it. You’re a discovery writer and you like to let the story lead your organically. Refining can come in the rewrites. But sometimes, when life is unstable and distracting, it helps to set a path you can follow, and outlines provide exactly that. It doesn’t have to be in depth. It can be as detailed or scarce as you want. Just a few lines or pages. But outlining the next scene or chapter can boost your confidence and give you the focus you need to work through the stress and distractions.

5. Just Let It Flow. Sometimes outliners get distracted too and they struggle to write because the outline just isn’t coming together. Don’t be afraid to write the scene and see where it goes. You don’t even have to write the next scene chronologically in the story. You can skip to some other scene you have a clear vision for and write that, then fill in what comes before later. In times like these, it’s productivity that matters, not form.

6. Writing Is Work—Treat It Like A Job. Some of us write for a hobby. others for a job. And some write full time, while others write when they can. Regardless, the surest way to stay on task is to treat your writing like a second job (or first). That means setting time and a dedicated writing location and protecting them to keep them available when and how you need them. Whatever makes you most productive. Whether you need quiet isolation or the outdoors, a notepad, laptop, desktop, or iPad. Setting up a space, however large or small, and blocking out a time to write is especially important in times when everything and everyone else is constantly clamoring for your attention. So treat it like a job and be professional.

7. Goals Are Good. As much as giving yourself a break is necessary during times of crisis, sometimes pushing yourself can be the best plan. Don’t be afraid to set word goals, even if they vary from your usual output, and force yourself to write to them. If you never set word goals, like me, then now may be the time to try. Having to meet a goal is a great motivation to push you onward. And don’t worry, even if some of the words wind up being useless or cut, it’s writing them that counts.

8. Write With A Friend. Okay, social distancing makes it hard, but turning on Facetime or Skype may be useful as a way to have encouragement, even accountability when you’re struggling to write. For me, there’s nothing like being in a room of people busy writing to push me to do the same. Even if it’s just you and a friend, a writing buddy can be a great support to help you keep going through stress.

9. Change Your Routine. Even at the best of times, it’s possible to get stuck in a rut, but during times of stress and crises, that can be all the more true. So sometimes you need to shake things up, break out of the normal routine and patterns, and try something new. From writing in a new location or at a different time of day to switching stories to outlining instead of pantsing, to changing music, any number of things to shake up your routine might be just the change you need to find inspiration or shake the doldrums and get some words pouring out. Don’t be afraid to experiment.

10. Use Prompts. Some people love writing prompts, some hate them. Others just don’t need them at all. But sometimes writing to prompts can be really helpful. Prompts can be everything from a short concept to a photograph or painting, a list of key words, or even a line of dialogue or description. Whatever works for you and “prompts” you onward is fine. Sometimes just a little inspiration goes a long way.

So there you have it, ten ideas on how to keep writing even through a pandemic or crisis. What works for you? What tips can you offer to help others like yourselves? We’d love to hear from you in comments.

For more writing tips like this post, check out my book How To Write a Novel: The Fundamentals of Fiction. You can find it on Amazon here or download it here.

WriteTip: Beginning Well—How To Start Your Story

The following is an excerpt from my book How To Write a Novel: The Fundamentals of FictionChapter 12: Beginnings, Middles, and Ends, the first of three parts in a series covering Beginnings, Middles, and Ends.

 

“A long time ago, when all the grandfathers and 
grandmothers of today were little boys and little 
girls or very small babies, or perhaps not even born, Pa and Ma and Mary and Laura and Baby Carrie left 
their little house in the Big Woods of Wisconsin.

They drove away and left it lonely and empty in the 
clearing among the big trees, and they never saw the 
little house again.” (Little House on The Prairie by 
Laura Ingalls Wilder)

As you write your novel, there are three areas you’ll need to pay particularly close attention to: the Beginning—particularly the first two scenes, the Middle—and particularly the Mid-Point, and the End—particularly the Climax. This chapter will examine them each in turn. All three will work together in a great novel.

Nancy Kress writes in Beginnings, Middles, and Ends: “By the time she’s read your opening, your reader knows what you’ve implicitly promised. A satisfying middle is one that develops that promise with specificity and interest. A satisfying ending is one that delivers on the promise, providing new insight or comfortable confirmation or vicarious happiness.” So let’s start at the beginning as you consider writing your novel. What makes a great opening?

Beginning

The cliché of “A long time ago,” actually wasn’t cliché when Laura Ingalls Wilder used it long ago in her now classic tome. For us, it’s a phrase we must mostly avoid. To open our stories, we’ll have to reach deeper, try a little harder. Some stories just lend themselves to strong, dynamic openings: the murder mystery that opens with a murder, the police procedural that opens with a chase, the science fiction or epic fantasy novel that opens with a battle, the romance that opens with the protagonist catching their lover having an affair. These are all inherently dramatic openings, with lots of built in conflict, character development, and emotional resonance as well as action. But not every story brings such an easy opening directly to mind. Sometimes, writers have to work a little harder to craft just the right opening.

There are two key points from earlier chapters we must revisit here: the idea of questions asked and answered—the answers stretched out for pacing over long or short stretches depending, and the promise inherent in the author-reader contract—the promise to deliver on a premise in a satisfying way. Both these things must be established in any good beginning. Kress writes: “In your first scene, your main goal is to keep your reader interested. You do that by focusing not on overall meaning but on the four elements that make a first scene compelling: character, conflict, specificity, and credibility.” So to start, your opening should give readers a person to focus on. Usually this is the protagonist.

In his wonderful sequel to The Notebook, titled The Wedding, Nicholas Sparks manages to open with his protagonist out front and the story questions asked in the first two sentences: 

“Is it possible, I wonder, for a man to truly change? Or do character and habit form the immovable boundar- ies of our lives?

It is mid-October 2003, and I ponder these questions 
as I watch a moth flail wildly against the porch 
light. Jane, my wife, is sleeping upstairs, and she 
didn’t stir when I slipped out of bed. It is late, 
midnight has come and gone, and there’s a crispness
in the air that holds the promise of an early winter. I’m wearing a heavy cotton robe,and though I imagined it would be thick enough to keep the chill at bay, I 
notice that my hands are trembling before I put them 
in my pockets.

Above me, the stars are specks of silver paint on a 
charcoal canvas. I see Orion and Pleiades, Ursa Major,
and Corona Borealis, and think I should be inspired
by the realization that I’m not only looking at the 
stars, but staring into the past as well. Constella-  tions shine with light that was emitted aeons ago, and
I wait for something to come to me, words that a poet might use to illuminate life’s mysteries.

But there is nothing.

With those words, he establishes the central journey of the protagonist: a search for meaning, a desire to be better man, and an uncertainty if it is possible. The stars and the cold act as physical symbols of his uncertain thoughts and emotions, reminding us as they do him of his state of mind. The mention of his wife tells us the focus of his desire to grow: his wife and marriage and also introduces another key character for the journey we are about to embark on. It may not be as action packed an opening as a space battle, police chase, or murder, but the search for meaning and hope there is more to life inherent in the questions the protagonist is asking are universal themes all readers can relate to, questions that call to mind similar journeys we’ve all made, and the setting of pondering such things while a spouse sleeps and we watch the stars is also familiar. The whole thing, simple as it is, lacking in action though it may be, nonetheless evokes familiarity that connects us with the protagonist as he seeks universal truths we seek ourselves. And that makes this a powerful opening.

Kress writes: “Most successful openings give the reader a genuine character because most stories are about human beings.” And so your opening must connect us with a character we will want to know better, want to follow through a story; one who asks the kinds of questions that peak and hold our interest and make us read on. Such questions bring with them implied conflict—potential or existing—that will need to be faced to resolve the question. Again, there’s overt dramatic conflict and there’s also conflict like we see in The Wedding, which involves a man wondering if he is the best he can be and if he can find renewed satisfaction in his marriage and life. No matter what type of conflict lies at the heart of your story, it must be hinted at in the beginning, even though it won’t be developed until later, because the hint of that conflict is a hook that catches readers and keeps them reading.

Specificity encompasses the specific details you use to set the scene and character as well as mood and tone in your opening. The right details give you credibility. They anchor your story in concrete reality, distinguish your opening from others that may be similar, and convince readers you know what you’re talking about. The wrong details may lose readers and ruin your credibility right off the bat. Again per Kress, credible details in credible prose convince readers to trust that the author has something to say and knows what they are doing. The sense of trust enables readers to suspend disbelief and go along for the ride, believing the journey will be worth their time and take them somewhere interesting.

Kress suggests several techniques important to credible prose:

  1. Diction: Know the meaning of words and use them well and correctly, avoiding clichés, and establishing the character’s voice, not the author’s clearly and commandingly. If your character would say it—even a cliché—then it belongs, but make sure it is in character and has a point. No words in credible prose are wasted.
  2. Economy: “Credible prose,” Kress writes, “uses only as many words as it needs to create its effects. It doesn’t sprawl.” Credible pose is concise, with well-chosen words and phrases. It is not verbose. Repetition is only used when it is needed to create a powerful effect—a mood, an atmosphere, or a state of mind. It is precise and to the point. Why should your reader be forced to read twice as many words as you actually needed to tell your story? Keeping credibility means not wasting words.
  3. Good Sentence Construction: Awkward sentences never appear in credible prose. Your sentences may vary from simple to compound, long to short, but every one of them is smooth, unambiguous, and purposeful, moving forward story, character, plot, or theme with every word.
  4. Variety: Good sentence construction goes hand-in-hand with sentences of varied lengths. Short sentences can add punch and drama when following longer ones. And longer sentences after short ones will garner heightened attention from readers, who trust that every word counts.
  5. Spare Adverbs and Adjectives: Credible prose is not overflowing with unnecessary words like needless adverbs and adjectives. Excess modifiers are the work of amateurs. Strong verbs and nouns are the mark of pros. 
  6. Tone: The tone of credible prose is never self-indulgent always focusing reader’s attention on the story, not the writer. It resists the temptation to over write, offer needless asides, showy vocabulary, and over punctuation. The writing is straight forward and the words shine, not the author or his devices.

So how does all this fit together? Let’s look at a couple more examples of strong openings. Here’s the opening from Dennis Lehane’s Darkness, Take My Hand:

Three days ago, on the first official night of winter 
a guy I grew up with, Eddie Brewer, was one of four 
people shot in a convenience story. Robbery was not a motive. The shooter, Jeff Fahey, had recently broken 
up with his girlfriend, Laura Stiles, who was a cash- ier on the four-to-twelve shift. At eleven fifteen, as
Eddie Brewer filled a Styrofoam cup with ice and 
Sprite, Jeff Fahey walked through the door and shot 
Laura Stiles once in the face and twice through the 
heart.

Then he shot Eddie Brewer once in the head and walked down the frozen foods aisle and found an elderly Viet-namese couple huddling in the dairy section. Two bul- lets for each of them, and James Fahey decided his 
work was complete.

Darkness, Take My Hand is a noir detective novel set in Boston. Now let’s go to Bend, Oregon and this opening from Frisky Business by Tawna Fenske:

Either Marley Cartman had stepped in dog droppings, 
or the makers of her new lotion had a weird concept ofsweet seduction.

She dragged the toe of her Jimmy Choo peep-toe across the floor of the Humane Society lobby, thinking it was
absurd she’d dressed this nicely to drop paperwork at a business with a goat pen in the foyer.

One detective noir, one romantic comedy, two very different openings, but both excellent examples of the concepts Kress suggested. Lehane starts his story with a darkness and tragedy, that has a sad, wistful tone, while Fenske’s opening is quirky and comedic, much like the novel that follows. The Lehane novel centers on violence as Boston detectives Gennaro and McKenzie try to protect a local kid from the Mafia, while Fenske’s is about romance set around a wildlife sanctuary. Both openings establish character voice, are short on adjectives and adverbs and long on sentences of varied lengths, while also establishing setting and tone with economic prose. They are memorable and powerful and draw us in immediately. This is what your novel’s opening should accomplish as well.

For readers—and this includes agents and editors—the opening scene or two are all you have to convince them your novel is for them: worth their time and competently written by an author who has something to say and the credibility to say it. If you cannot convince them in the first two scenes, most will put down your novel and walk away. Some won’t make it past the first page, to be honest. And the risk is that they may decide never to pick up another book by you again. This is the importance of strong openings. This is why beginnings matter. Find an opening scene that accomplishes all of these things and follow it with a scene that opens up the character and world a bit more, letting us in on who they are, where we are, and what the problem and central question will be, and you will have our hearts and minds for the next few days or week it takes to read your story. But, of course, then you must deliver on the promise of your strong opening. And that’s where the Middle comes in, which we’ll discuss next week.

WriteTip: How To Approach Worldbuilding, Part 1

The following is an excerpt from my book How To Write A Novel: The Fundamentals of Fiction, Chapter 9: Worldbuilding. It is part One of a multipart series.

World Building is something that every author has to do, no matter what the genre or setting. For example, here’s a passage from Laura Lippman’s In Big Trouble, followed by another from And here’s another one from Robert Silverberg’s Lord Valentine’s Castle:
A sign hangs next to the cradle of Texas liberty, reminding visitors that concealed firearms are not permit-ted on the grounds…

…Within the walls, it’s like being in a shallow dish— azure sky above, the taller buildings crowded around, dwarfing the Spanish mission, which isn’t very big to begin with. She walks through the gardens, noting the placement of each plant, each bench, each sign. Changeis not to be tolerated. She picks up a cup with a lit-tle electric blue raspa juice inside and drops it in the trash, as fastidious in her own way as the Alamo’s keepers, the Daughters of the Republic of Texas.

It is a shrine, and not only to Texas liberty. A shrine to her, to them.
And then after walking all day through a golden haze  of humid warmth that gathered around him like fine wetfleece, Valentine came to a great ridge of outcroppingwhite stone overlooking the city of Pidruid. It was   the provincial capital, sprawling and splendid, the   biggest city he had come upon since—since?—the biggest in a long while of wandering in any case.

There he halted, finding a seat at the edge of the    soft, crumbling white ridge, digging his booted feet  into the flaking ragged stone, and he sat there star- ing down at Pidruid, blinking as though newly out of sleep. On this summer day, twilight was still some 
hours away, and the sun hung high to the southwest 
beyond Pidruid, out over the Great Sea. I will rest 
here for a while, Valentine thought, and then I will 
go down into Pidruid and find lodging for the night.
The Lippman establishes the setting as contemporary San Antonio, downtown to be specific. The Silverberg is a science fiction secondary world, but both have the same effect: introducing and drawing us into a living, breathing setting we can picture in our minds. This is world building.
No matter what your genre or setting, the basic concerns tend to be the same. Some require a bit more than others, like science fiction worlds requiring space travel, alien cultures, other planets, etc. but all still call for thoughtful consideration of the same categories of details. In her chapbook Checking on Culture, Lee Killough offers a great checklist which lists the relevant concerns. Here’s my adaptation of it:
Habitat__
Cosmetics__
Humor__
Religion__
Anatomy__
Cosmology__
Hygeine__
Science/Magic__
Psychology__
Death__
Knowledge Preservation__
Sex__
Agriculture__
Education__
Labor__
Sports/Games__
Animals: Domestic__
Etiquette__
Laws__
Superstitions__
Animals: Wild__
Elders__
Machines/Tools__
Taboos__
Architecture__
Families__
Marriage__
Timekeeping__
Arts__
Food/Cooking__
Math/Counting__
Towns__
Calendar__
Gestures__
Medicine__
Travel__
Childhood__
Government__
Modesty__
Transport__
Class__
History/Heroes__
Mythos__
Infrastructure__
Clothing__
Hospitality__
Pregnancy__
Warfare/Weapons__
Commerce__
Horticulture__
Professions__
Weights/Measures__
Communication__
Housing__
Property__
Use this list by checking off the items as you go through them and think through that aspect of your world. But first things first, before you start world building, you must already know your time frame. Near future, current day, or far future? When does your story take place and where? This will determine everything else. Then your research and planning can center around things relevant to that time period. Once we know the time frame, we proceed on with the list. The order depends on your priorities, but for me, it usually goes something like this:

Existing or Secondary World

He returned his attention to Barbirike Sea, which stretched, long and slender as a spear, for fifty miles 
or so through the valley below the gray cliff on which
Kasinibon’s fortress-like retreat was perched. Long 
rows of tall sharp-tipped crescent dunes, soft as 
clouds from this distance, bordered its shores. They 
too were red. Even the air here had a red reflected 
shimmer. The sun itself seemed to have taken on a 
tinge of it. Kasinibon had explained yesterday, thoughFurvain had not been particularly interested in hear- ing it at the time, that the Sea of Barbirike was hometo untold billions of tiny crustaceans whose fragile 
brightcolored shells, decomposing over the millennia, had imparted that bloody hue to the sea’s waters and 
given rise also to the red sands of the adjacent dunes.

Furvain wondered whether his royal father, who had 
such an obsessive interest in intense color effects, 
had ever made the journey out here to see this place. Surely he had. Surely.

(The Book of Changes, Robert Silverberg)

Existing worlds are Earth or known planets in our solar system or even a few beyond. Secondary are inventions of the author. Are you inventing everything or building on what already exists and what we already know? Then you need to know geography, gravity, culture of lifeforms, etc. How many suns or moons? How many other planets? Etc.

If you are creating a secondary world, do not put your planet around a famous celestial body just because it is well known. Many of these are highly unlikely to have habitable planets around them and it requires careful thought about viability before placing planets there, particularly earth-like, human habituated ones. You should carefully consider the scientific realities of planetary location and solar system building before deciding upon such a course, even if writing a soft science story, instead of hard science fiction. Because believability for readers is paramount. Remember: you should create the questions readers ask carefully and guide them toward questions you can answer satisfactorily and away from ones you cannot. Not one covers everything. There will always be gaps. But try to avoid awkwardly obvious, glaring ones. Also, constellations will appear differently from various points around the galaxy, so don’t describe them as they appear on Earth when viewed from elsewhere.
Secondary or not, ask yourself what are the key geographic features and how do they effect population density, location of settlements, travel around and across the surface, economics, weather, etc.?  Avoid oversimplifying but just saying a planet is all jungle, all ice, etc. because based on location from sun, rotation, geography and other factors, this is not scientifically plausible as we know it and will tend to seem unrealistic and poorly considered. Frank Herbert put a lot of thought into his desert Dune planet, but too often the results of oversimplifying come across as lazy thinking. Planets are big places and will have a lot of variety. For example, civilizations will form cities around bodies of drinking water and food supplies, and their diets will vary depending upon the area in which they live and the wildlife, plants, etc. that also reside there. Those things also choose habitats based upon location of resources and so on and so forth. There is a circle and a chain of logic that will determine much of it and thus should be considered.
Geography determines travel options. Heavily mountainous areas may not have room for landing zones for starships or local air travel. Large bodies of water may need to be traversed via boats, ships or other craft in order to avoid long delays in supply, commerce, shipping, etc. So consider these things in determining where your cities are located and how people get between them.
Gravity affects quality of life from retention of water and atmosphere to breathing to ability to run and jump, etc. But this can also affect the magnetic field and exposure to radiation from solar flares, cosmic rays, and more. High gravity worlds would have shorter mountains and require people to have thicker, stronger muscles. Air would be denser and tension on body parts might lead to premature aging, sagging faces, etc. Also accidents might multiply as objects are thrown about or pulled loose by stronger gravity and strike people, vehicles, buildings, lifeforms, etc. On high gravity worlds, rain and rivers would erode land much more quickly as well, smoothing rough edges. Oceans would be calmer and bigger, more extensive, and evaporation would be slower, leaving the air and atmosphere drier with water taking longer to boil and clouds hanging lower. Planes would need bigger wings as well. Reverse these factors for lower gravity worlds, with larger land masses and smaller bodies of water, etc.
If your planet has an Earthlike atmosphere, a very slow day will result in extremes of temperature from day to night. Wind speeds will be affected by rotation as well. Oblation will tend to occur for planets with shorter days and rotations verses longer. It will be thicker or thinner at the equator accordingly. Axial tilt will determine the seasons. Slants greater than Earth will create more extreme seasons.  Weather conditions will be affected. The amount of exposure to the sun’s heat determines extremes. Wind and ocean currents will moderate the effects. Higher rotation planets will have more hurricanes and dangerous winds. Ice caps form because poles receive less heat and water freezes. Planets with ice caps will generally be cooler than those without. The skin color of people can be affected by location with desert peoples generally tending toward darker tones due to sun exposure, while people living in shadows or colder climates who spend much time underground, indoors, etc. may have lighter skin. All of these are interesting factors to take into account.
As you can see there are many factors to consider and I can only scratch the surface here. You may not use all the details but knowing them gives you the option to write the story you need to tell, without being boxed in or slowed down by ignorance.
(To Be Continued Next Week inPart 2)

WriteTip: The Dangers and Benefits of Vernacular

A recent Facebook post in a writing community I am part of got me thinking about using vernacular in fiction and writing. The post quoted from a 1987 Star Trek novel How Much For Just The Planet by John Ford which featured the following:

The poster’s comment was that this dated the fiction of a future universe by discussing video in tape format when that has now, many years before Star Trek is supposed to take place, become all but obsolete. And while this point is valid, I pointed out that the author was using vernacular in the 80s when discussing video playback commonly was referred to as tapes because that was the most common format. And authors, inevitably, are products of their time, even when writing far future stories. They struggle for balance between their imagined futures and worldbuilding concerns and communicating familiarly with readers in order to connect with them. This is where the use of Vernacular can be helpful at times. As we see from the example, however, it can also be limiting.

Now just to be clear we’re all talking about the same thing, the Oxford Dictionary online defines Vernacular as follows:

Language and dialect uses common terms that develop out of every day usage to promote unity and provide common reference and aid the sense of unity and community. Referring to video playback as tapes can be considered one of those. And for about twenty years, that vernacular was a broad common frame of reference for a great many people. The problem is that in the 2000s, tapes became almost obsolete. At first they merely stood alongside CDs and DVDs, but now they have been replaced by them entirely. With rare exceptions. Now, there was no way for John Ford to know this would happen, and the Star Trek TV series did have referring to playback of tapes as part of its worldbuilding because the TV writers didn’t anticipate it either, so in a sense he was writing within canon and established boundaries. But is that really an excuse? Shouldn’t he have anticipated the possibility that term would become outdated and avoided it just to be safe? Such was the argument of the person posting the example on Facebook, the problem I see is that in practical reality that creates close to impossible expectations for writers.

The fact remains that whatever you write, whenever you write it, you will always be a product of your time and so will your work. Anyone who wants to dig deep will be able to find from future perspective holes that date your material. It may be just an antiquated turn of phrase or, a word or two, or it may be something more glaring like technology that is outdated, but regardless, there’s virtually no way to make you work bulletproof from this occurring. You can make it hard for them, sure. There are many examples of older works that hold up so well they continue to amaze modern readers. But many more examples exist of older works that show their age with time. And the thing is there’s nothing wrong with that. I think it’s a mistake to be dismissive of something just because of small errors in anticipating future changes like this or modifications to vernacular. It doesn’t make vernacular any less useful a tool for communicating and connecting with readers. And it certainly doesn’t make the story any less powerful or effective unless you are so petty as to allow such minor glitches to do that.

My feeling is that none of this should make one avoid use of vernacular in writing stories, but it should inform it. But not more than it informs any other aspect of worldbuilding when it comes to futurism. Keeping material as non-dated as possible for future readers should almost always be given consideration when setting stories in the future, the only exceptions being perhaps stories that are particularly tied to historical events or specific dates in some way, thus requiring direct reflection of those periods. But this consideration should never be paralyzing for the writer. Doing your best to keep the story relevant and avoid it being dated by future generations is noble but not if it keeps you from writing well or telling the story you feel inspired to tell. In the end, no one can anticipate everything, because no one has the ability to accurately predict every aspect of the future down to language, vernacular, technology, and beyond. Even if you guess, you could get it wrong. And using future trends research can only take you so far as accuracy goes as well. When it comes down to it, you can only do what you can do and let the chips fall where they may, and that’s perfectly okay. As long as you do your best. No one can ask more of you, and you shouldn’t ask more of yourself.

For what it’s worth…

A Few Thoughts on Boxes & Character Worldviews

We all live in a box.

Some of you will know immediately what I mean when I say that. Others may bristle. But  have the advantage of having traveled the world quite a bit and I’ve seen the truth of it everywhere I go and everywhere I have lived.


The world is a complex place. Filled with uncertainties and variations and surprises that can twist things unexpectedly. So depending upon the  breadth of experience one has in living in various locations, cultures, subcultures, etc., one tends to come to see the world through a particular lens. The boundaries of this lens are a sort of box. Anything that falls within our box is what we tend to expect and understand as normal. Anything outside of it is an aberration.

Yes, I’m oversimplifying a bit. But I hope you all understand the concept now.

In the internet age, coming into contact with people whose box conflicts with or at least seems to hardly overlap one’s own is becoming common and more and more leads to conflict. So when writing characters, I think writers need to consider this aspect of human world views to write more realistic characters and conflicts. In truth, most writers have been doing this all along, because the conflicts between characters always arise out of their different Points of View—needs, wants, desires, goals, and so on. But nuance and depth can come from deeper understanding of how the basis of these conflicts arises out of ways of seeing the world through different lenses.

For example, in Ghana, West Africa, it is considered rude for servants—even those temporarily assuming such duties like tour guides, drivers, or assistants to visiting dignitaries—to eat meals in public alongside their betters. When we ate out in Ghana, our young aide refused to eat with my team and one time some team members got very irritated with me for not inviting him. I told them I had been there before and that even if I asked, he would refuse, but they insisted, so I walked outside and asked him. I should have had one of them do it. But when I came back, as expected, with his declination, they were convinced I was some kind of bigot. I later explained this to the young aide, who is a good friend even today, and he tried to set them straight but it did no good. So stuck were they in their concept of what the world should look like that they couldn’t even consider, let alone respecting, his point of view or my regard for it.

This is just one example of many such I could give but things like this happen every day. Another time, I was surprised to hear the Ghanaians once express resentment toward the African American “homelanders”— who came back and acted like they had returned to their home when they knew nothing about it, had no concept of its culture, beliefs, or customs. They said that was arrogant and disrespectful. Those people were no Africans. This is the culture clash of different boxes. Do all Ghanaians feel this way? No, but even within Ghana with all the tribes and subcultures there are different boxes just as there are in the U.S. with all our cultures, subcultures, etc. This is not exclusive to international culture clashes. It is local, too.

Your characters will have boxes and the worlds they inhabit, to be realistic, will have cultures, subcultures, and divisions wherein people have different views of the world that come into conflict with each other, so it would behoove you to write and carefully consider how these cultural differences create conflict and nuance in your worldbuilding and story. Your stories will be richer and more realistic for the effort. And you will in turn gain valuable perspective to perhaps look at those around you with new eyes. Things that maybe once bugged you might be worth a second look or a few sensitively phrased questions to determine their cause. Perhaps you will be able to reach new understandings with others that enrich your own life in the process.

Our boxes only define us if we allow them too. It is possible—I have done it and it was hard work—to inhabit the world with respect for others and sensitivity to control emotional or knee jerk reactions in these kinds of moments so that you can not only better see and respond to the conflicts arising from the different boxes of those around you but widen your own box in the process. Your world, life, and writing will be much richer for it, and you will gain deeper respect and friendships as well.

Just a few simple thoughts on a very complex problem. For what it’s worth…

 

 

WriteTip: Techniques For Creating Suspense

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

 

Techniques for Creating Suspense

So in addition to ratcheting up the tension every chance you get, what are some techniques to use to build suspense? The description of the bar above is a form of subtlety and misdirection known as foreshadowing. And foreshadowing is a technique all writers should use. Foreshadowing is presenting hints that will pay off in a bigger way later in a story.

For example, in Andy Weir’s smash hit novel The Martian, he sets up his protagonist, Mark Watney’s, background as a botanist to foreshadow later events:

In other news, I’m starting to come up with an idea 
for food. My botany background may come in useful 
after all. Why bring a botanist to Mars? After all, 
it’s famous for not having anything growing here. Well, the idea was to figure out how well things grow in 
Martian gravity, and see what, if anything, we can do with Martian soil. The short answer is: quite a lot… 
almost. Martian soil has the basic building blocks 
needed for plant growth, but there’s a lot of stuff go-ing on in Earth soil that Mars soil doesn’t have, 
even when it’s placed in an Earth-atmosphere and given
plenty of water. Bacterial activity, certain nutrientsprovided by animal life, etc. None of that is happen- ing on Mars. 

One of my tasks for the mission was to see how plants grow here, in various combinations of Earth or Mars 
soil and atmosphere. 

That’s why I have a small amount of Earth soil and a 
bunch of plant seeds with me. I can’t get too excited,
however. It’s about the amount of soil you’d put in a window planter-box, and the only seeds I have are a 
few species of grass and ferns. They’re the most 
rugged and easily grown plants on earth, so NASA pick-ed them as the test subjects. 

So I have two problems: not enough dirt, and nothing 
edible to plant in it.

Later on, Watney uses materials on the ship and in the environment to grow food and extend his life on the planet while he waits for rescue. In fact, his scientific calculations and knowledge become key to making rescue possible, but the timing for the mission becomes vitally important and dramatic. He has one shot at it and complications, of course, put the timing in jeopardy. What at first may seem like backstory on the character, becomes an essential plot elements. This is foreshadowing. A seemingly innocuous mention of science that might otherwise seem boring or useless foreshadows an important skill that will later save his life and be a hinge the story’s outcome depends on.

In my epic fantasy novel Duneman, I was creating a world where parts of the lands lived in medieval like conditions, while others had started industrial development, with steam powered airships, cranes, and more. Because the story starts in the medieval-like area, at one point, I had the protagonist pass airship landing zones on his journey, hinting that this land may seem medieval and standard fantasy but somewhere there are airships. It was subtle but later became important and set up the contrast between different areas of the lands, which in itself becomes an important source of conflict between various people groups—one that soon puts them on the brink of war. Always look for ways to hint at details early on which will play a key part later. If you don’t, readers will feel like you are inventing of necessity character skills and abilities or objects just when you need them for the story, which is manufactured and doesn’t ring true, and will shake their confidence and trust in you as a storyteller.

What if your characters hear a gunshot out on the street…discover a missing letter in the couch cushions…or smell an out of place odor in an unusual place? In Conflict, Action & Suspense, William Noble describes this technique as “plot-hypers.” Plot-hypers involve “injecting an unexplained event or circumstance” to add uncertainty or raise tension. Some are accomplished via misdirection and others through subtlety. He offers two classic examples.

In Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes book The Hound of The Baskervilles, Sherlock discovers that a watch dog did not bark at a crucial moment, an odd coincidence. But at the end of the story, it becomes a significant clue that helps solve the case. This is subtlety.

In Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Purloined Letter,” a thief places an inoffensive letter next to a crucial one and then slyly slips away with the important one in front of witnesses. Police begins suspecting the thief because of his history and assume a search will turn up the letter, but the thief tricks them and hides it in plain sight. It almost works. This is misdirection.

Both involve one little fact that leads to an assumption. The authors don’t hit readers over the head. But yet the assumptions both take the story in surprising directions.

Another technique for setting up suspense is through flashbacks. Now, some people hate flashbacks. Flashbacks are scenes that take place earlier in a character’s history which reveal important information about the character, his or her relationships, or his or her conflict and flaws, which advance the story in their reveal. Admittedly, some authors overuse flashbacks, which can be annoying and also risks killing the pace of storytelling. Like any other scenes, flashbacks should be kept short and in media res applied. Enter and exit the scene as close to the key action as possible. Also be sure you introduce flashbacks only as needed vitally to further the story. Timing is key and when used well, flashbacks are an invaluable and quite effective tool for building tension and suspense in storytelling. The catch is that flashbacks can often slow the pace because they take us away from the main tension of the story and out of the present, pressing conflict to another time. For that reason, we will discuss them again briefly under pacing. But here’s an example from Miracle Man by David Baldacci, where a flashback actually continues the suspense and tension, despite interrupting a scene.

Decker has just posed as a lawyer in an attempt to get in to see a suspect at a police precinct—a suspect in the murder of his wife and child. As the woman at the counter asks him to sit and wait while she calls for approval, this happens:

Realizing he might have just blown a bunch of money he
didn’t have on lawyer-looking attire, Decker sat down in a chair bolted to the wall and waited. The old 
woman picked up her phone and slowly, ever so slowly, punched in numbers.

Numbers. Always numbers.

They had a hypnotic effect on him, sending him to 
places he didn’t always want to go.

Decker closed his eyes and his mind began to whir back…back to the day, no, the exact moment when his life 
changed forever.

The crowd went berserk every time the hit was replayed
on the megatron, and that was often, I was told later.My helmet flew five feet and rolled another six, end- ing at the feet of a zebra who picked it up and maybe checked inside to see if my head was still in there.

I think my brain bounced against my skull multiple 
times like a bird trying to introduce itself to a 
window until its neck breaks.

Yep, the crowd cheered and whooped whenever the mega- tron belched out the replay.

Then I was told that they stopped cheering. Because I didn’t get up. Because I didn’t move a muscle. And 
then someone noticed I had stopped breathing and had also turned blue. They told me the head training was 
alternating pounding my chest like a punch press 
attacking metal slabs and blowing air into my mouth. 
Later, they told me I died on the field twice but he 
brought me back both times from the hereafter. They 
told me he was screaming in my ear, “Hang on, ninety-
five. Hang the hell on.” I was such a nobody that he 
knew my jersey number but not my name.

My professional football player identity was a nine 
and a five printed on my chest.

Nine and five. Violet and brown in my counting colors mind. I never consciously assigned colors to numbers. My brain did it for me without my permission.

The collision changed everything about me, because it essentially rewired my brain. So I died, twice, and 
then came back, essentially as someone else. And for 
the longest time I thought that would be the most 
awful thing that would ever happen to me. And then 
came that night and those three bodies in neon blue, 
and the gridiron blindside dropped to number two on 
the list of my personal devastations.

“Excuse me, sir? Sir?”

Decker opened his eyes to see the woman staring down 
at him.

Now that is a well-constructed flashback. Not only does he use telling language because Decker is recalling things that happened along with things others told him about them, but it interrupts the moment he has awaited for four long years: a chance to confront his family’s killer, yet still manages to maintain tension and suspense. That’s because every word drips with the character’s emotions and because Baldacci chooses the flashback placement well. It has everything to do with who Decker is and his intensity as a person and it even ties into the moment at the police station at the end. So, planned and written well, flashbacks too can be a device for upping suspense. We’ll talk about them more later. First, here’s yet another technique.

A fourth technique is reversing the rules. This technique uses contrariness to create excitement and defy expectations. It’s about having things go against the established expectations to twist plot and characters from what readers would normally expect. Noble writes: “A reader expects something to be a certain way, but suddenly it’s not. The misdirection is in the expectation, the subtlety is in the surprise.”

For example, what if a handsome man is cruel, a real jerk, or an evil character happens to have a soft heart for kids, who love and flock to him whenever he’s around? A church is corrupt and hides a criminal enterprise. A school teacher is engaged in selling students into sex slavery. All of these are twists on normal expectations that first occur to us, twists that surprise us by defying our natural assumptions. This is reversing the rules.

These four techniques are the most common tools for building suspense, but no doubt some of you—and other authors—can think of others I didn’t mention. The general rule is to use whatever works for you and betters your story and ignore what doesn’t. Also closely related to suspense is pacing—the flow of your story. It’s the combination of tension and suspense—keeping readers wondering, guessing, wanting to know what happens—that sets the pace of your story. We’ll examine that next.

WriteTip: Dialogue and Pacing—Tips to Keep it Moving

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

Dialogue and Pacing (In media res)

Previously, I wrote about In Medias Res—the rule that you should get into a scene as late as possible and get out as soon after as you can to up the tension and help pacing. This is particularly true in dialogue scenes. Dialogue, as a rule, tends to move faster than action and description, upping your novel’s pace. In How to Write a Damn Good Novel, James N. Frey writes: “Plunging into the middle of scenes speeds your novel along and keeps the reader involved in the rising conflict…When critics say a work is fast-paced, it is often because the writer keeps his characters engaged in intense conflicts and cuts directly into scenes with rising conflict.” A lot of time can be saved by starting scenes with the conflict already happening or ending them right as it ends. The results will also make your story feel faster. For example:

Johnny opened the door and stepped into his kitchen.

“Hi, honey,” his wife said, sing-song as usual, and   bounced across the floor to greet him. They embraced 
and kissed as usual before she asked, “How was your 
day?”

“Boring. Usual sales calls. Nagging boss. How was 
yours?”

“It sucked. I got fired,” she said, frowning. Johnny 
hadn’t expected it, given her great mood.

Now what if it were written like this?

“Today sucked,” Johnny’s wife said the minute he 
opened the door.

“What happened?” he asked as she moped across the
floor to greet him.

“My boss is an asshole,” she said, then kissed him.

“Well, we kinda knew that.”

She smiled. “Well, now we have proof.”

Which feels more dramatic and fast paced? In every scene you write, look for the best way to enter dramatically and shape the dialogue for the greatest dramatic effect. In real life, niceties like greetings and chatter might be socially expected but in dramatic narrative, they kill pacing. Just cut to the drama. Charles Johnson in The Way of The Writer: “We should remember that dialogue occurs in a context, in other words, within a specific scene. And every dramatic scene has a structure. If we have two characters, say, each enters a scene motivated by a desire or need (or conflict) that has brought him or her there.” Sometimes establishing a rhythm requires getting the characters into a scene with a greeting or set up, and sometimes they jump right into the conflict or have “a hit” as Johnson calls it, “the heightened moment in the scene where what has brought them there is finally revealed.” It depends on the needs of the story and scene and characters at that moment. It must be natural while at the same time dramatic. Still, finding ways to cut to the chase will make your dramatic narrative more effective every time.

Here’s an example of dealing with a phone call from John Sandford’s Rules of Prey:

Lucas looked up at the clock. Eleven-forty. Damn. If 
the cop who took the gun was planning to call, he 
should have done it. Lucas looked at the phone, 
willing it to ring.

It rang. He nearly fell off his drawing stool in 
surprise.

“Yes?”

“Lucas? This is Jennifer.”

“Hey. I’m expecting a call. I need the line open.”

“I got a tip from a friend,” Jennifer said. “He says 
there was a survivor. Somebody who fought off the 
killer. I want to know who it was.”

“Who told you this bullshit?”

Two techniques are used to increase the tension of the scene. First, Lucas, a detective, is awaiting an important call. By telling us this, Sandford allows readers to feel the character’s tension as he looks at the phone. Second, because the caller is a tv reporter and not the fellow cop he was waiting to hear from, we get more tension, despite the routine nature of the chit chat that opens the call. If you need a bit of social nicety, this is a great way to handle it while still keeping the scene as dramatic as possible. Also, note the varied length in sentences, none of which are especially long. Johnson writes: “Characters usually speak naturally or colloquially in short, crisp sentences.” Study the speech patterns of others around you and you’ll see this is true. Varied length of sentences also affects pacing and can add dramatic effect to a scene, in addition to being more natural particularly in dialogue.

Dialogue is not normal conversation. It is conversation with drama. It is a medium of performance. William Noble writes in Conflict, Action, & Suspense: “The throwaway words of conversation such as “Hello,” “How are you,” “I’m fine,” “Good” should never be thought of as dialogue…because they don’t contain drama. Don’t reproduce conversation and call it dialogue; reproduce only that portion of the conversation that has drama…Dialogue must contribute to telling the story. If it doesn’t, it’s of no use.” Dialogue needs to move in a few short sentences. Take this example from Skinwalkers by Tony Hillerman:

“Where was it?”

“On the floor under the bunk. Maybe it fell out when I changed the bedding.”

“What do you think?” Leaphorn asked.

“I think I never had anything that had beads like that
on it or knew anybody who did. And I wonder how it 
got here.”

“Or why?” Leaphorn asked.

In this scene, Navajo detectives Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee are at Chee’s trailer, which was shot up the night before, looking for evidence. The bead they discover raises ominous questions, upping the tension, and it becomes a major key to the unfolding mystery of the overall story. This is how you write effective, dramatic dialogue. Cut to the chase, the drama, what matters, and skip everything else. Noble writes: “When dialogue disintegrates into dull conversation, it destroys the forward movement of the tale, and once this happens, the conflict falls apart and the action and suspense hold no one’s interest.” Dialogue must always fulfill two purposes: Keeping the story moving and developing characterization. This is why most dialogue inevitably becomes confrontation. “Readers are interested in confrontation because the drama inherent in a face-off carries excitement and uncertainty,” Noble writes. The “Yes/No” countering in dialogue carries inherent disagreement that ups the drama every time.

Also, humans are rarely directly responsive to each other when conversing. Oblique or partial responses, especially those that ask or raise questions are common. And this keeps the pace of the conversation flowing. 

“It’s cold out tonight.”

“I’ll get locked out if we don’t hurry.”

Not, “my fingers are cold,” which would be a commentary on the coldness. Instead, the reply is about the agenda of the second character. Since this is a natural human trait due to poor listening skills most of us possess, it is a great tool to utilize for keeping dialogue dramatic and moving. It avoids bogging down the story in chit chat, while also providing information about the characters: their motives, priorities, what is on their minds.

Varying character emotions is also an effective tool. If one character underplays and response calmly, while the other is tense and emotional, this has the effect of varying pace while also building the story. When we are stressed and talking to someone who isn’t, we naturally want them to share our sense of urgent emotion. Tension increases each time they respond calmly to our urgency. The same is true in dramatic scenes. Subtext—implying more than the words say directly—is a great technique for upping the drama via underplay. It makes the impact more devastating, too. 

“You’re not sleeping,” Roger said.

“I’m trying,” Julie replied.

“You answered.”

“Well, you talked to me,” she replied but left her arm
laying over her eyes just where it had been.

He rolled over and touched her shoulder. “I can’t stop
thinking about it.”

She groaned. “Damn it.”

Subtext is when something going on beneath the surface unspoken changes the meaning of a scene. Here, the subtext is that Roger has something urgent on his mind but Julie doesn’t want to talk about it. She is annoyed at being bothered. But this is never stated outright. The mystery of it allows the story to build because we are waiting to see what happens, wondering how it will play out. Will they talk or will she go to sleep? Will this lead to more conflict later? Etc. It is subtle, but very effective, and not unrealistic to life.

Stream of consciousness in interior dialogue can also be used to up tension, especially in scenes where dialogue with others is impossible because a character is alone.

She was coming toward me. I couldn’t get into it 
again. I glanced around for somewhere to hide.

This kind of inner monologue adds tension, even if the “she” is someone we have not seen before by asking questions we want to know the answer to, thus upping tension and building expectation that it will pay off in a dramatic fashion at some point later.

Another technique to aid pacing with underplayed dialogue is gesturing.

“Someone’s coming,” Al said.

“Is it him?” Rick never even looked up from his 
newspaper.

“Blonde, tall, thin, about twenty or so?”

“That’s what the boss said, yeah.” 

Al watched as Rick reached down and fingered the blade
in his pocket. “I think it’s him,” Al motioned. This 
time they both looked.

Two mobsters waiting for their victim. Plenty of tension from the implied expectation, but the dialogue itself isn’t all that dramatic. It is the subtext which adds the drama. The gesturing adds dimension by having the characters innocuous dialogue be underscored by what they are doing: waiting for a victim, knife ready. And when the body movement happens, it is almost like the start of violence. It is restrained, but we anticipate it, and the physical movement punctuates the anticipation by foreshadowing a physical response to go with the subtext.

These techniques are always effective time and again when keeping dialogue dramatic and well-paced so they keep the story moving and reveal character at the same time.

Next week, we’ll talk about writing action.