WriteTip: How To Approach Worldbuilding, Part 3

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

 

Science and Industrial Development

The battery was a lithium thionyl chloride non-rechar-geable. I figured that out from some subtle clues: the
shape of the connection points, the thickness of the 
insulation, and the fact that it had “LiSOCl2 
NON-RCHRG” written on it. (The Martian, Andy Weir)

The planet’s famous red colour is from iron oxide coat-ing everything. So it’s not just a desert. It’s a 
desert so old it’s literally rusting. (The Martian, 
Andy Weir)

Another key area of world building is always science and industry. But in science fiction, the futuristic and scientific aspects of this take on special importance and significance for both narrative plausibility and practical reasons—science and development are key elements readers expect. Science Fiction readers love cool tech and science that makes sense or even the hint of such. Even if it is not real, if you make it sound plausible, they will often find this fascinating and engaging. 

What kind of transportation methods exist? Horses and wagons or buggies? Cars and trucks? Planes or space ships? Hovercraft? Each type of transportation requires the industrial and scientific development to make them possible. Given we barely have anything of the sort ourselves, a lot of thought will need to go into these aspects. Where do they get the fuel? How did they devise it? What materials are starships made of and their various parts? Do they have laser or projectile weapons? What kind of defensive armaments do people and ships have and what are they made of? Are they physical or digital? Etc. 

Then there are questions of military? What type of military do they have—formal or informal? Private or government? Do they have armor? What type? What is the structure and ranking system? Where are the bases and training facilities? How do they recruit—volunteers or conscription? Do they use animals or vehicles or both? What kinds of duties and missions are they called upon to undertake usually? What is their history? What is their relationship with larger society—respected or hated? Feared or loved? Etc.

Technological dependence also says a lot about a culture and affects it in many ways and has many meanings. How advanced are they? How did they get there? If there is tech and science, there must be engineers and scientist. How did they develop these abilities and create or acquire the tools required to perform the tasks? Do they make them themselves or trade for them? How do various cultural approaches differ in performing, understanding, and approaching various tasks? Here’s an aspect where time frame, as mentioned earlier, plays a key role. If they are a far advanced society, time frame matters. For humans especially, believable time must have passed for certain technologies to be possible. And again some require sciences and engineering feats we have yet to develop so time must be allowed for those to occur as well. For alien cultures, it is possible to have societies which are advanced over our own, but again, they must have science and tech and engineering knowledge and skills that they acquired earlier which surpasses our own. Not all of this always has to be explained in detail but the writer should think it through and be full aware of the implications of it and write the story accordingly so it adds credence to the world building for readers.

Are there robots or androids? Are human cyborgs or modified humans part of it? What about animals? Are there hybrids? Is there nanotechnology? What is the state of computers and media? Is there virtual reality? What problems from our own world and times have been solved to make such things possible or to advance society? What modifications to laws, mores, etc. have been required to permit the developments, if any? What sciences are used and understood by alien cultures and how does this compare to human knowledge? What ability to exchange such information exists? Writers must consider all of this and more as they create.

I realize that at this point, you may be feeling overwhelmed by all that we’ve covered. But I hope you are beginning to see the complexity of world building and how one set of questions leads to many others on many different topics. There’s a reason so many authors choose to work with our existing world and its history rather than make up their own. It’s complicated to create a well-rounded world, and as I have said, you don’t always know what you’ll need until you need it, but it is also easy to overlook things that may stand out to readers as omissions that were important to questions they are asking.

The rest of this chapter, we’re going to cover some areas that get overlooked a lot in world building but may be just as important as the rest. Let’s start with Agriculture, Horticulture, and Diet.

Agriculture, Horticulture, Diet, and Medicine 

On the bare forest floor, in the open space between 
the trees, grew stemless plants of colossal size. 
Their leaves, four or five inches broad and eight or 
nine fee in length, sharp-toothed along their sides 
and metallic of texture, were arranged in loose roset-tes. At the center of each gaped a deep cup a foot in diameter, half filled with a noxious-looking greenish fluid, out of which a complex array of stubby organs 
projected.

It seemed to Valentine that there were things like 
knifeblades in there, and paired grinders, that could come together nastily, and still other things that 
might have been delicate flowers partly submerged. 
(Lord Valentine’s Castle, Robert Silverberg) 

Agricultural development is very much determined by geography and technological and scientific development. What types of crops and animals are used for food and clothing, depends upon the resources available like location of water supply, crops, grass and plant life, landscape, and more. You won’t grow much in a desert, for example, but if there are oases with water, some sheep herding can occur, like in the Middle East. There can be camels, horses, and other desert animals. In mountains, it is hard to farm the land, but there can be animals who live there as well like bears, venison, various birds, and other mammals which could be hunted for food. Plains are great for farming but limited as home for much beyond domestic animals, though coyotes, wild birds, rabbits, and other animals may thrive. And with each decision about animals, it is important to consider predators and prey—the circle of life. For anywhere one group of prey live, predators will arise to feed on them, and not just humans, but other animals. Additionally, landscape determines what kinds of bushes, shrubs, grasses, trees, etc. will be available and natural to the region for animals to live in and eat from, etc.

What type of crops you have and natural resources, of course, determines the diet of local humans and other inhabitants, and so plant life, crops, water, etc. all determine what people will eat in various parts of your world and how much as well as what they may trade to other areas for goods they cannot get. At the same time, what clothing they wear is determined by land and weather conditions and resources as well. Do they have technology to manufacture clothing or make it by hand? And so on. Sartorial concerns are easy to overlook. I remember one of the first editor comments on The Worker Prince, my first novel was “You’ve written 90k words without mention of what anyone is wearing. It seems odd.” Ooops. So I had to go back and work that in and think it through. I know of other authors who have had similar experiences.

Along with crops, animal husbandry and resources comes the issue of medicine. What kind of medicinal resources do they have? Formal or informal? Do they make drugs or manufacture them? Do they use home remedies or chemically devised cures? Do they have trained medical personnel or just village experts? Etc. Who treats the animals? What kind of training do those people have? Is it science or magic? And if magic exists, how does that work and what are the costs of performing the spells or using magic? There is always a cost for everything. Sometimes casting spells can only be done once every few days, sometimes it costs blood or energy that wipes out the magician, etc. These and more concerns become very relevant.

If there is technology, do they use machines to farm or just animals and primitive equipment? How industrial is agriculture? How regional is it? What about fishing or hunting or trapping? Can they make hybrid plants somehow by cross pollinating or do they just have to plant whatever seeds they can find? 

As we think about landscape and natural resources like plants and trees, we must also consider architecture and design. Do they have formal architecture or is it regional and informal? Are there whole industries for construction and design or is it done on the fly? Are quarries and mining involved? How do they gather materials? What issues and regional concerns come into play to determine locations of towns and types of housing, etc.? Are there formal schools or are people educated at home? What kind of educational system and higher learning is available? Are there apprenticeships? Are there internships? Trade guilds? What kinds of tools and equipment do they have available and how are those manufactured? And then, where do they get the money to buy land and build? How is land and wealth allotted? What role does it play in society?

Beyond that, what about energy production? Nuclear, solar, wind, fusion—what kind of power will there be? What of war? What of peace? What about nuclear and chemical weapons? What will medicine look like? Will we have cured diseases, genetic defects, cancer? What new answers and treatments will have been devised? What communication devices and methods will be common? What will have faded away?

Money and Business

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Figure 9-1. (Monetary exchange rates in The Name of The Wind, Patrick Rothfuss, cited on http://www.brinkofcreation.com/KKC-CurrencyExchange/CurrencyExchange.html)

Money and economy are one of the most overlooked of world building concerns. Patrick Rothfuss in his Kingkiller Chronicles, beginning with The Name Of The Wind, is an author noted for having created a sophisticated economy for his world, including different monetary systems for various people groups and conversion and even commonwealth currency for use in trade between them. The system is sophisticated enough that fans on Reddit have figured out approximate conversions to U.S. dollars and Rothfuss himself has created the above widget and can lecture on the system for an hour or more. That is a well-thought out system. And of course, along with money comes the entire business system and how it functions related to currency and trade and what types of businesses thrive and arise according to resources available as well as needs of the world. Various service industries like money changers and trade posts will arise if needed along with banks, law enforcement, security, and more, but then there are various other businesses as well taking on roles in making food, clothing, and materials, etc. and sometimes even vendors who then sell their products to the public.

The key element is what they value—what their economy is based on. In much of the Western world and the wider world today that would be minerals like gold, silver, bronze, diamonds, etc. In ancient Africa, however, much value was placed by many tribes on conch shells. They used conch shells to make everything from jewelry to clothing to even tools, weapons, and more. Once Europeans discovered this, they began trading conch shells for things they valued far more like gold, diamonds, etc. which were abundant in Africa. The Europeans found many sources for obtaining conch shells, and since the African tribesmen valued them so much, convincing them to trade something the Europeans considered worthless for things they coveted, was easy. It also gave the Europeans immense power over the Africans, particularly because conch shells were cheap and easily obtained and not valued greatly by anyone else around the world. In part, the colonization of Africa came about at least economically because of this dichotomy. The Europeans used it to establish inroads they exploited to take over mining and other industries to extract minerals and eventually conquer the tribes and their land. So what do people in your worlds and cultures value? How does that affect their trade relationships and subsequent power relationships with others? These are major concerns related to the economic system of your world building which should be carefully considered.

Economic systems can get immensely complicated very quickly, of course, but careful thought should at least be given to basics needed for the story. And then you should be prepared to address the various issues and needs these concerns raise as you go, if you want to create a believable system that doesn’t leave readers confused, frustrated, or scratching their heads.

(To Be Continued)

WriteTip: How To Approach Worldbuilding, Part 2

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

Solar System and Galaxy Relations

The thirteen planets in the star system all varied in size and shape, the outermost and innermost planets 
being the smallest. Three of the larger planets had 
several moons. Vertullis had two. While Vertullis, 
Tertullis, and Legallis alone had atmospheres suitablefor human life, due to Borali scientists’ determina-
tion and skill with terraforming, all but one of the 
system’s planets had been inhabited, though some with populations consisting only of a few workers and mili-tary personnel. The planets revolved around the two 
suns, Boralis and Charlis, in an unusual orbital pat- tern due to the effect of the twin gravities. Because of the limitations in terraforming science, the four 
planets nearest to the suns had been surrendered as 
viable habitats for humans. Of the thirteen planets, 
Vertullis was the sole planet which had a surface con-taining fifty percent forest, and it had one other 
distinction. It remained the only planet in the solar system whose native citizens weren’t free. (The Worker Prince, Bryan Thomas Schmidt)

If you are dealing with interplanetary relations—is more than one planet involved? If so what are their relationships physically and spatially and do people travel between them? Are there unique transports like space elevators or quantum tunnels or something? Do they use FTL, Faster Than Light tech? Or do they travel for days and weeks like our current limitations would allow?

As most of us know, one of the key tropes of the science fiction sugenre are starships. They come in all shapes and sizes from planet sized like the Death Star to slightly smaller like Imperial Destroyers down to shuttle craft and tiny fighters like X-Wings or Vipers and everything in between like Battlestars or Cruisers. Some ships are meant for short term travel to and from one locale to another. Others are actually living spaces like cities where hundreds or thousands of people reside and work for years on end. Obviously the size and scope of usage determines the facilities required. And one should take into account the various needs for sleeping, recreation and entertainment, food, medical facilities, waste disposal and personal hygiene, storage, and more. Obviously the longer the ships must function as homes and larger the number of inhabitants, the more concern for supplies, storage, etc. becomes an issue. For every inhabitant, a certain amount of food, water, etc. will need to be regularly used and thus available and stored between ports and stops, with extra reserves for periods of battle, long distance travel, etc. Haircuts, clothing, shoes, grooming, and more are also concerns as well as psychology and counseling, law enforcement or regulations, even criminal detainment, disposal of deceased, sex, and many more. Are they warships or peaceful? Do they have weapons and defenses? What are they? How secure are they? How does this vary according to uses and needs? How does having such items affect the crew compliment and training and roles? So all of this must be considered and weighed carefully in designing your starships according to their purposes and uses.
    Solar Systems can be big. Pluto is 4.5 billion miles from the sun at its farthest, while earth is 92.96 million miles. Light can traverse 4.5 billion miles in 5.5 hours. But at current rates, space craft would take years. So to expediate things and make interaction between planets possible, science fiction writers created Faster Than Light travel, FTL for short. This tends to be a minimally defined variant that allows ships to travel between planets in days or hours rather than years. It is a cheat that even some hard science fiction writers employ. Because the practical reality of space travel deals with numbers so high it is hard for writers, let alone readers, to fathom. Not to mention the loss of dramatic tension one experiences when ships must fly toward each other for years before engaging in battle. Whoo hoo, how tense and exciting that is! For creating dramatic tension alone, FTL is really useful. There have been many forms and explanations for it from hyperdrives to warp drives, but all generally come down to the same thing: faster travel between celestial bodies and galaxies.

Hyperspace, in use since 1940s is often depicted as an alternate reality or universe or some sort of subspace existence. Since the science involved is imaginary, you can make assumptions, design mechanisms and assign limits any way you choose as long as you are consistent and plausible. Are there preexisting gates used to enter hyperspace or is it created through some kind of physics or scientific displacement using the special hyperdrive? Are the gravity wells of planets and stars necessary for its success or can it be done anywhere? What role do gravitational fields play? How do you calculate and carry enough fuel and resources to get there and back? Where do you acquire them along the way if needed? Then what about communications? At such high speeds, sound waves are affected. Can they keep up or do you need special communications methods and devices?

And of course, if you can travel between planets, you must address the issue: how are they related to each other? Are they familiar with established relationships that are good or bad? Are they strangers and unknown? Do they share a government or treaties or other common agreements and rules or is it a free for all? Who are their primary populations and what species? What is their primary language and currency? How do any differences get bridged when two different planets interact? How are conflicts resolved and what incompatibilities must be overcome? What is the ongoing history of relations, if any, and what are the issues and obstacles which have arisen and continue to affect ongoing relations?

You must consider separate geography, resources, etc. for each planet. What do they trade? Why? How do their resources, tools, etc. differ? Do they travel across the planet differently? Do they need life support domes? Is gravity modification required? How can different species interact in space that support different life forms?

If your story takes place on Earth or a single planet, on what part of the planet is the story focused? Does the story take your characters to many places or is it concentrated in one area? Knowing this will define the amount and type of research you will need to do. Obviously, knowing one or a few areas really well will be simpler than having to research many and answer all of these questions about them.

Society and Cultures

Doubled, I walk the street. Though we are no longer in
the Commander’s compound, there are large houses here also. In front of one of them, a Guardian is mowing 
the lawn. The lawns are tidy, the facades are gracious, in good repair; they’re like the beautiful pictures they used to print in the magazines about homes and 
gardens and interior decoration. There is the same 
absence of people, the same air of being asleep. The 
street is almost like a museum, or a street in a model
town constructed to show the way people used to live. As in those pictures, those museums, those model towns, there are no children. (The Handmaid’s Tale, Marga- ret Atwood)

The next concern is what kind of society and cultures will be present in the setting of your story? If you create aliens or nonhumans, you must first determine how humanoid they are going to be or how different from us? Why? And how did they come to be that way? These questions can be decided by a number of factors: factors about the world on which they will live; practical concerns for language and communication, the relationship they will have with humans, etc.; biological and geographic factors; etc. Since aliens are often what draw many readers to science fiction, they are important, as is the distinction from mythological creatures. Unlike these folkloric beings, aliens are grounded in scientific possibility and so such factors must be careful considered and employed in designing and presenting them. Luckily, the research can be fun.

There are substances other than oxygen which can release energy from sugar and serve biological function, for example. Hydrogen sulfide can replace water in photosynthesis as well. And silicon serves just as well as carbon as a basic building block of life. Your imagination can take you fun but scientifically plausible places if you do the research.
Besides scientific plausibility, however, your aliens must also serve narrative interest by being able to interact with human characters and sometimes even communicate with them and by being intriguing enough to engage reader interest, pique their curiosity or even inspire their fear. Most of the time, this will require sentient beings, but on occasion, when the aliens are meant to serve only as obstacles and antagonists to human characters’ goals and interests, nonsentient alien monsters will do. Don’t forget to consider the evolutionary advantages of the aliens’ unique features. If they don’t need hands, what do they have for limbs? If they can float and don’t need legs, what other features might they need instead? Is genetic engineering involved or is it entirely organic? All of these concerns can lead you in interesting and intriguing directions.

If dealing solely with humans on Earth, what races are involved and what are their relationships to each other? How do they communicate? Do they need translators? What social classes, attitudes, and history do they share and how does that affect their interactions and determine their relationships, etc.? What are the societal roles for each gender? How are LGBT people regarded and treated and what place can they have in society? Are there any limitations placed on people for reasons of class, sexual preference, race, religion or something else? What reasons lie behind any restrictions and what is their history?

There are also environmental factors. If other elements from oxygen and carbon are key elements in our world, what they value, what they eat, what resources they need will all be affected. Their priorities will be influenced accordingly and so will trade, economics, sociocultural interactions, etc. Their goals and values will also reflect this. Food chain, ecology, and economy and the implications of each are key factors as well. Each alien culture will have something distinctive to offer the larger whole toward economy, etc. What that is, how it developed, and what it says about them are important factors to consider as well. Additionally, their evolutionary makeup affects their emotions and memory and learning styles. What if they have a group brain and can share information? How does this group mind affect individualization or emotions or relationships? Is there privacy or none at all? How does this interconnectedness affect their attitude toward and trust of strangers and outsiders? Etc.

While it is a convention of science fiction particularly that humans and aliens are able to understand or speak each other’s languages, in your world are universal translators required or even interpreters? Can they communicate directly or is some form of mind to mind communication used rather than vocal speech? Behavioral and physiological traits can both serve as barriers and increase bonding in relationships with human characters, depending upon how you design them. Thinking these through carefully is key. Also the societal mores, roles, statuses, and laws are factors which will play a role in how aliens and humans think of and about each other and how they interact and will often be key to their relationships and interactions on many levels constantly. What are mating and child bearing and rearing rituals? Are they monogamous or poly? Do they love? Do they form attachments for life or short term or at all? Do they have philosophy or religion? Do they have science or industry? What are the various roles and how are these affected by geography, physiology, beliefs and more?

And did I mention the arts? Do they have fine arts? What about music, drama, painting, sculpting, etc.? What forms to they take? What instruments and mediums are used? What languages? Where are they performed or displayed? What do they look and sound like? How valued are they and by whom in the culture, etc.? A realistic culture will always have such things interwoven into daily life. Loved or hated, characters will take note of them.

“Remember this, son, if you forget everything else. A poet is a musician who can't sing. Words have to find a man's mind before they can touch his heart, and some
men's minds are woeful small targets. Music touches 
their hearts directly no matter how small or stubborn the mind of the man who listens.” (The Name Of The 
Wind, Patrick Rothfuss)

(To Be Continued 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: How To Hire An Editor

The following is an excerpt from my book How To Write A Novel: The Fundamentals of Fiction, Chapter 13, slightly modified for this blog.

As a professional editor, one of the questions I hear most often from writers and others is how does one go about finding and hiring a good editor. So today’s tip addresses that challenge.

First, it’s important to know the type of editor you need. This diagram breaks down the types of editing a writer may encounter or need:

Most writers will be hiring either Developmental, Line or Copy Editors for their book. Not every editor does all of them, but some do more than one. I do all three and frequently do Developmental and Line Editing together as a package because they can be combined easily. Copy Editing is a separate pass requiring different focus and skills. Proof Readers are also quite useful, although many people find volunteers who are helpful and cost effective.

If you need to hire an editor on your own you will need to do some research. For information on standard rates, check the Editorial Freelancers Association for a list of average rates here:https://www.the-efa.org/rates/. For individual editors, they should have their rates on their website as well as a list of clients they have worked with and even quotes recommending them. For me, I’d ask some of the clients about them as well as friends to see what kind of reputation they have in the community. Then most editors usually offer a sample edit to demonstrate their skills for free (usually a page or two, maybe a chapter). Submit your work to several for samples and then compare them when you get them back. You can also reach out via social media to authors you admire asking for recommendations. Most of us have been there and will be happy to point you in the right direction toward finding a good, reliable editor—one we’ve worked with or who has worked with friends. Be sure and search bookstores and online for books in print that they’ve edited and check the quality and who published them. This kind of information tells you their level of success and skill as well as their taste, which can be important, as well as their knowledge of genres. You definitely want someone knowledgeable in the genre in which you are writing to help you navigate market expectations, tropes, and other genre-specific concerns.

Once you’ve found an editor or two you are interested in, ask for full quotes and discuss their cancellation fees, timeframe and deadlines, and how they deal with cost overruns, if any. You’ll want to be sure in advance you are not charged for extra time without permission, whether they do extra passes or just one, etc. Then choose your editor and get a contract. Make sure the contract outlines guarantees to you, not just the editor. Usually there will be clauses about payment schedules, how they deal with non- or delayed payments, etc. as well as a delivery timetable. All of this is important to have in writing to avoid conflict later, as these tend to be the areas where most misunderstandings and conflict occur between freelance editors and clients.

After that, you send them you book and get started.

I would expect a decent editor to need between three weeks and six to edit the average novel well (80,000 to 130,000 words). More if your book is longer. I would also expect them to send you regular updates on the progress and even provide the first half around the time any second payment is due, so you can get an idea of the quality of their edits, usefulness, etc. Editors work for you in this case, not a publisher, so you have total control over what you do with their edits. That’s why it’s very important to hire an editor you trust and enjoy working with, then trust their judgment enough to use their advice. Your editor’s job, whether freelance or in-house, is to help you make your book the best it can be. If you succeed, they look good, too, but most of all, you look good, because your book is your reputation, your calling card. The editor has no motivation to ruin your book with bad advice or to sabotage or hurt it. So the advice they give is always intended to help, whether it hurts your feelings or not. There is a need for your editor to be somewhat blunt—though most try to point out strengths as well as weaknesses and use a sense of humor in doing so to soften the blow—so that you get a sense of how readers will react and can really dig into the issues properly. Remember, it is not personal nor is it an attack. They are all about helping you. They are on your side. So take their comments seriously, ask questions as you have them, and try to find a way to make them work if at all possible, never dismissing them entirely out of hand.
There will be times when you disagree. Some of those will be over things that are per choice, up to you. Personal taste or preference may be a part. Good editors will admit this and explain their reason for making the editorial suggestions. These are the edits you should decide if you agree with and want to do. In other cases, edits are absolutely necessary. These usually are edits about clarity and understanding, facts, character motives, story holes, story pacing, mood, tone, emotion, etc. and should be considered very carefully and every attempt made to find a solution you can both agree on, even if it is a compromise. Remember that we all have weaknesses and strengths and the writing process is a journey. Everyone wants to best book possible and is working toward that goal, because a great book makes us all look good. Keeping that in mind should make it easier to take criticisms, even when they sting or confuse, and put you in the right mindset to trust and work with your editor as a partner, not an opponent.

Ultimately, once your book is edited, it is ready to go on to formatting, copyediting, and proofing. And those stages will involve more edits, but generally focused on repetitive words or phrases, grammar and spelling errors that slipped through, italics and underlining, house style, punctuation, etc. If the items are house style, they are nonnegotiable. Everything else can be discussed and considered, but, of course, if the grammar is wrong unintentionally or you have misspellings, you need to fix them. Accuracy matters to readers and critics. It is about professionalism and presentation.

I find the editorial process with some clients can be like pulling teeth, but with many it is pure joy. I enjoy very much watching writers gel with their material as things come into clearer focus, get stronger, and take on that sparkle they always envisioned in their minds. There’s real joy in watching a good book become great and seeing the pride the author takes in it and the success that follows. I feel very much a part of that, as well any editor, and if you find a good one, hold onto them and treasure the relationship. It is like finding gold.

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…

WriteTip: Suspense Tools—Pacing The Slower Moments & Narrative Pacing

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

For the past month I have been covering Suspense and Pacing Techniques for writing. Today, we wrap it up with final techniques for Slower Moments and Narrative Pacing. For reference and context both, my previous posts in this series are as follows:

Dialogue and Pacing: Tips To Keep It Moving

Techniques For Creating Suspense

Handling Pacing in Writing Action

Slower Moments

In between the more action driven scenes, you will need moments that build characters, set up conflict, and even show confrontations and events leading up to the action. Some of these may be quiet, reflective moments, some will have a different intensity. But the trick is to create a flow that lets us breathe, gather our thoughts, and regroup a bit before more action.
Earlier we talked about flashbacks for building suspense, but as I said, they can also slow things down. If a character breaks the current tension and timeline to go back and recall a key moment from their past, it can ease the pace a bit. The important thing is to make the flashbacks matter by providing key information about characters and their motives or relationships or both, while still not making the scenes too long or slow. You don’t want to stop the story dead, you just want to let up on the adrenaline a bit while still moving forward the story. Flashback scenes still need to be written in media res so they are as tight and focused around conflict as any other scene, but when used to break the pace, they can be less action and more conversational, with characters arguing or discussing points of disagreement or even replaying key moments from their past that have stayed with them, motivating the action and decisions they are making in the present timeline. I’m sure we can all think of examples, so I’ll skip that here, and move on to other options.
Love scenes, planning scenes where the characters compare notes or discuss strategy, meal gatherings, evidence gathering, interrogation, searches, even expositional moments can all can serve the purpose of slowing down the pace in your story. They still need conflict, and they still need to provide information that advances the story, but not every moment has to be high drama. Write these scenes using the tension methods discussed earlier in the chapter and insert them in between your high action scenes, and you will create a nice flow and rhythm that builds into an ascending arc through the Mid-Point and then allows for the descent to the climax in the second half, just the right structure. It takes practice, as they say, but you can see how this works in your reading if you pay attention. Then imitate it in your own work. That’s how we all learn.
Another trick is to use humor. An anecdote or humorous banter or even a slightly comedic scene can break up the tension and pace just right to allow readers to regroup for more.

Narrative Pacing

Most writers learn to look at writing scenes and stories like planning a race. And to win a race, you need the right pace and rhythm. There are ups and downs, sprints and jogs, and slow scenes are your downs and jogs, not sprints, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have to move. The key, of course, as already discussed, is maintaining tension. As long as the story is moving forward and story questions are coming up, even slower scenes will feel like they move. Much of this comes down to narrative pacing.
Keeping excitement high doesn’t just mean action. What it means is keeping it relevant and interesting. As discussed before, as long as descriptive passages, exposition, and character moments are still providing information that readers want to know and feel advances the story, the pace continues to move. Narrative takes up a lot of space in any novel, and many novels have action unfolding at a steady climb throughout until big crises of action occur. William Noble defines narrative pacing as “pacing without dialogue shifts or quick scene cuts or sharp point-of-view changes.” It won’t work over the long haul, but in short sections, as long as we know the action and suspense are leading somewhere, narrative pacing keeps your story moving while still giving readers breathers in between tense moments of crisis.
Noble writes: “narrative pacing works because we show what is happening; we are moving the story forward using description, anecdotes, and character development. As we depict what happens, we keep our readers involved because the story continues to unfold and the action and suspense grow taut, until we reach that crisis or turning point.” A slow build can be very satisfying; often far more satisfying than a breathless race. The trick is to create flow of movement. Narrative pacing works best, Noble suggests, when it opens a story or chapter, lasts several pages, builds to a crisis, keeps the story moving, and develops conflict early and keeps it pulsing.

Mixing It Up

Dialogue tends to move more quickly than description and exposition, so when constructing a story, writers learn to pay attention to the impact dialogue has on pace. Sometimes you need some background and information to understand character’s motives and decisions. And other times you need a conversation as they gather information, debate options, and confront others. Then they must take action. This pattern will repeat time and again in your novel and should. Well-paced novels have pages with a mix of sentence and paragraph lengths on most pages. You can just look at them and tell where the slow spots and fast spots are. Much of this is intuitive, but when you are learning, paying attention to varying sentence and paragraph lengths is important training. Keep those descriptive and expository passages broken into shorter chunks and multiple paragraphs, so the story feels like it moves. Every paragraph break and page turn feels like progress to a reader, so constructing your story with such movement in mind is essential to a well-paced experience.
As you write, description, action, exposition, and dialogue will become intermixed. Sometimes you will have a page or half-page of description before a single line of dialogue, then some exposition and action before the next line of dialogue. Other times, dialogue will move quickly, only occasionally interrupted by bits of exposition or description or action. As long as all of these parts have tension and conflict flowing beneath the surface to drive them, all will be well. This is why I spent so much time talking about creating tension at the beginning of this chapter. If you find a scene feeling static, with characters repeating themselves or chit chatting and saying nothing that moves the story forward, trim, trim, trim. Every word must count. Every moment must move. If it doesn’t, your novel will big filled with bog-like potholes that stop it dead and force readers to slog onward, risking their loss of interest.
Transitions and scene breaks can also help pacing because both cut away from the action and crisis long enough to allow a shift. Noble writes: “the scene change can cause a variation in the level of action and suspense and generate a continuing interest in what’s happening. Without the change of pace, the reader will grow weary and turn away.” Cliffhangers are a great way to build suspense. They leave us hanging, wanting more, anxious to find out what happens next. But cliffhangers make bad transitions and scene changes if used too often. They are most effective when use for effect, especially when breaking up action scenes to intersperse with other important moments—such as when two sets of characters are involved in different confrontations or actions at the same time—or to end chapters and keep us reading. Otherwise, transitions and scene changes should feel natural and make sense. We need to feel one scene or chapter coming to a natural close before we switch to a new one. This doesn’t have to involve long, drawn out narrative passages. It can be a few sentences or a line of dialogue or action or two. What we need is that sense of conclusion to the present scene or chapter.
A lot of what we are talking about here is learning on instinct. You read and absorb how it plays out in other books, then learn to imitate and apply it to your own. It is not easy to teach, and for some, it will not be easy to learn. But it really becomes instinct with time, or needs to. Your mind will create the right combinations as you go, and you will teach and hone them in editing and revision to get just the right flow. For most authors, that is how pacing works, and that’s probably how it will work for you.

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.

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: The Key to Good Plotting—Asking The Right Questions at The Right Time

This week as I launch my latest novel, and my first thriller, Simon Says, I wanted to talk about the importance of suspense to drive a story. But before I get into how to make a story suspenseful, it’s important we first talk about Plot, because plot drives suspense, and the core of any good plot are questions asked and answered.

In Writing The Breakout Novel, Donald Maass identifies Five Basic Plot Elements all plots must have. They are:

  1. A sympathetic character.
  2. Conflict.
  3. Complication.
  4. Climax.
  5. 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.

Once you have these core elements, plot is driven by asking questions. But what makes readers keep turning the pages isn’t just the questions themselves but how and when you answer them. Some questions get answered in the same scene, some several scenes later but within the same chapter. Some questions get asked and go unanswered for many chapters or even the entire book. The weight in importance of the question usually determines how long you will take to answer it and whether you answer it in pieces or all at once. Asking intriguing questions that readers just have to know the answers to will keep them interested and compelled as they continue to read. So picking the right questions is vital.

Questions can derive from characters or conflict. They result in complications that lead to a climax or climactic confrontation and then to a resolution (unless you have a sequel and end on a cliffhanger of sorts). The questions need to be compelling but they don’t always have to be complex or deep—just something we care about the answer to. At different points in the story, our level of caring will vary. At the beginning, it takes a while to care about the characters, so while you may ask big questions that set up the story and drive the characters (and won’t be answered until the end), the full weight of them isn’t felt right away. We may be intrigued, but to make us “dying to know” we need to care about the outcome, and that means caring about the characters: what they want, who they are, what their goals are. So, as you can see, all the five core elements of plot play into the power of storytelling. It’s very important to pick the right ones: ones that will generate compelling and interesting questions that keep readers coming back for more.

For example, some things we will want to know in a good story are: Who is this character? What does this character want? How is what this character wants affected by what other characters want? Why does any of it matter? Where does the story take place? When does the story take place? How is this character like me? How is this character not like me? What is this clue or object? Who has it? Who wants it? Why does it matter? What is the effect of one character having it over another? And so on.

The result of this pattern of questions and when and how you answer them is suspense—the tension that drives the story and compels us to keep reading to see how it turns out. Asking the right questions at the right time and answering them at the right time builds tension and keeps a story interesting and well-paced. Asking the wrong questions and answering too soon or not well (or not at all) destroys tension and interest and leads readers to stop reading or even throw your book against a wall in sheer disgust. So you see: the first key to good plotting is asking the right questions at the right time. The second key to good plotting is answering them at the right time in the right way.

Also key is viewpoint. Because picking the right viewpoint affects what we know and what we don’t know and how much we care about finding the answers. The question to ask yourself in choosing viewpoint is which character is the best person to tell this story or scene? In the case of singular viewpoints, everything readers learn will be what one character learns or knows, solely their experience and interpretation of people and events. With multiple narrators, you must choose who has the most to lose. Usually that character is the best one to tell a particular scene because their stakes are the highest. And as such, their questions and needs will be the most compelling and interesting for readers.

In next week’s post, we will examine techniques for building tension and suspense. The goal is to help you make your stories more compelling so readers come back for more and more.

  In the meantime, if you want to see what I am talking about, perhaps check out my new novel, Simon Says, which I mentioned earlier. Readers tell me it is a real pageturner because of the suspense. The editor was so hooked he forgot to edit and kept having to go back and reread to do his edits. Free sample chapters can be found here.

Thanks for reading this far. Good luck with those questions. See you next week when we talk about how to play off them for greatest effect.

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.

WriteTip: What Is Voice and How To Use It

The following is an excerpt from my book How To Write A Novel: The Fundamentals of Fiction, Chapter 5:

What Is Voice?

Voice is a combination of the character viewpoints and your own. While it is important to avoid jarring readers out of the story by intruding too much as the narrator, inevitably your own unique way of saying things will always come through. And it should. In Writing the Breakout Novel, Donald Maass explains that when editors talk of voice, “they mean not only a unique way of putting words together, but a unique sensibility, a distinctive way of looking at the world, an outlook that enriches an author’s oeuvre. They want to read an author who is like no other.” Voice is your unique writing language and approach, reflecting your own diction and style along with that of the characters. Maass adds: “You can facilitate voice by giving yourself the freedom to say things in your own unique style… To set your voice free, set your words free. Set your characters free. Most important, set your heart free.” Voice is indeed the single most unique thing any writer brings to their storytelling.
The best way to develop your voice is to read thoughtfully a lot. Pay attention to and study what other writers are doing that you like and don’t like, then imitate it. Practice writing in their various voices, and play around to develop your own. What stands out about a particular voice? What types of details do they tend to use most often, and how do they affect you as a reader? What do they say about the world and characters? If you want to be a good writer, you must read. All too many writers make the excuse that they don’t have time to read. I read a book or two a week and still hit 1,300 words a day on average when on a book project. If you make it a priority, it will happen, and consider it part of your work research and author development time. It really is that valuable. Not only can you stay abreast of the latest trends and shifts in genres and subgenres, but you will discover much about what works and doesn’t in fiction that will be invaluable to you in developing your own craft—especially voice and style.
Let’s look at examples from two classic books which I borrow from Frey’s How to Write a Damn Good Novel II. First, from Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell:

Scarlett O’Hara was not beautiful, but men seldom realized it when caught by her charm as the Tarleton twins were. In her face were too sharply blended the delicate features of her mother, a Coast aristocrat of French descent, and the heavy ones of her florid Irish father. But it was an arresting face, pointed of chin, square of jaw. Her eyes were pale green without a touch of hazel, starred with bristly black lashes and slightly tilted at the ends. Above them, her thick black brows slanted upward, cutting a startling oblique line in her magnolia white skin—the skin so prized by Southern women and so carefully guarded with bonnets, veils, and mittens against hot Georgia suns.

Okay, let’s examine what all we learn here. First, we learn what Scarlet looks like in many details and that she is not considered beautiful but is charming. We learn of her French and Irish parentage as well. Additionally, we learn of the Southern attitudes toward pale skin and beauty. So there is appearance, heritage, and cultural context all in a few sentences of very specific details. These are the kinds of details that give the voice authority, and while the voice is neutral and not passing judgments, its melodramatic tone does aid the tone of the larger story.
Next, here’s a passage from Stephen King’s Carrie:

Momma was a very big woman, and she always wore a hat. Lately her legs had begun to swell and her feet always seemed on the point of overflowing her shoes. She wore a black cloth coat with a black fur collar. Her eyes were blue and magnified behind rimless bifocals. She always carried a large black satchel purse and in it was her change purse, her billfold (both black), a large King James Bible (also black) with her name stamped on the front in gold, a stack of tracts secured with a rubber band. The tracts were usually orange, and smearily printed.

Note the feel of sarcastic or ironic tone to this narrative voice. There are rich details, but the tone lends almost a sense of commentary to the descriptions. “Her feet always seemed on the point of overflowing her shoes” is a very specific detail that evokes an immediate image of fat feet crammed into too-small shoes, and the clothing and accessories are big and stand out to match the big woman and make her stand out, intentional or not. We also see she is a Christian or at least a Bible reader, and the public display of this, along with her size, makes her come across as foreboding, even perhaps a bit serious or intimidating. These kinds of subtle details are vivid and memorable and create characters who readily reflect the complex people we meet in the world around us, making the author’s voice ring with truth that inspires confidence in its telling of the story.
In his stunning debut Harry Bosch novel, The Black Echo, Michael Connelly introduces his main narrative voice and protagonist with a flashback dream that tells us volumes about the character without stating it outright:

Harry Bosch could hear the helicopter up there, somewhere above the darkness, circling up in the light. Why didn’t it land? Why didn’t it bring help? Harry was moving through a smoky, dark tunnel and his batteries were dying. The beam of the flashlight grew weaker every yard he covered. He needed help. He needed to move faster. He needed to reach the end of the tunnel before the light was gone and he was alone in the black. He heard the chopper make one more pass. Why didn’t it land? Where was the help he needed? When the drone of the blades fluttered away again, he felt the terror build and he moved faster, crawling on scraped and bloody knees, one hand holding the dim light up, the other pawing to keep his balance. He did not look back, for he knew the enemy was behind him in the black mist. Unseen, but there, and closing in.

When the phone rang in the kitchen, Bosch immediately woke…
Note the mixture of narrative description with inner thoughts that provide emotional context for what the character is experiencing. When he thinks, “Why didn’t it land? Why didn’t it bring help?” we suddenly know he is feeling afraid or in trouble, when all we have been told before this is that he heard the helicopter. This sets the emotional tone and tension for what follows. The “smoky, dark tunnel” as setting lends an air of danger to it that just adds to the tension, and his dying flashlight, which the comment on batteries tells us before the word “flashlight” is even introduced, also ups the stakes. Who hasn’t been afraid in the misty dark with a dying flashlight? No mention is made of fear or terror until the helicopter has appeared for the third time and he is then crawling, his knees in pain, desperate to escape the dark. This shows how the right details, ordered carefully, can create a whole atmosphere, tone, and ambience that indicates so much more than actually needs to be said, demonstrating how a character’s own experiences and background affect and interplay with what he or she is experiencing in the immediate moment of the story scene.
If this isn’t how you read, then you should start, because this is how one reads and studies the craft. It will transform your reading into work at times, for sure, but if you don’t pay attention to such details, a good book will catch you up and breeze you away without helping you notice the stylistic choices that make up the voice so you can think about them as you develop your own voice or voices. I say “voices” because most writers have more than one and employ them as needed in different genres and books or stories that they write. Few writers have only one voice, but again, it takes time to develop the voices and write in them with confidence, because none of your narrative voices will ever be completely you at any point as you naturally converse or think in the world. All of them are amalgamations of character and author, affected by considerations of diction, tone, and more. Your fiction will always take on a personality of its own, and it should do so well. That personality is not you nor is it just a character, but a combination of them.
One thing narrators can do that characters and authors cannot is legitimize character and world by showing the characters’ emotional reactions to various circumstances and actions they experience. The narrative voice can speak as if it knows them intimately and cares deeply about them or loathes them, depending upon the needs of the situation. It can legitimize their pain and anger or characterize it as unusual or inappropriate in ways that will guide the reader’s own opinions and impressions and guide them along in how they connect with the story. In Voice and Style, Johnny Payne writes: “The narrating voice provides a more sensible and level-headed account than the character’s simply because its passions are not engaged in the flow of the action in the same way.” Unlike the character, the narrator doesn’t have anything to lose or gain. They don’t have to worry about the reactions of other characters or consequences for its thoughts or actions. They can merely observe, comment, and hover like a ghost. Of the difference between first- and third-person narration, Payne reminds us: “Third-person narrators tend to offer more range and elicit fewer questions, while first-person narrators, even when they’re volatile, offer the advantage of a more immediate and tangible voice.” This is because the first-person “I was” lends itself to a feel of being closer to events and actions in the story than the third-person “he was.” The first is talking about itself and the third about some stranger, removed from the self.
The voice is key to setting atmosphere and tone by its word choices. It can layer a mood over any scene just by how it describes the events and characters as the scene unfolds. The wellspring here is character emotions grounded objectively in the setting. Authors should not engage in atmospherics or hysterics. That kind of melodrama should instead flow from the characters themselves. Description should never be written for its own sake but should serve the characters and story always, every time. This is how the writer guides the storytelling without inserting himself or herself directly into it. Tone always flows from who is telling the story, whereas point of view flows from character. The author brings the tone, the character brings the point of view, and the two combine and unify into one narrative voice that sets forth the story dramatically, weaving the emotional tone, atmosphere, etc. necessary to engage readers and tell the story with the appropriate gravitas and effect. The impression your story makes, Payne reminds us, “will depend to a large degree on the tone established at the beginning and sustained throughout the performance.” This is why sometimes reviews note changes in tone that render novels less effective or troubled. Consistency in tone is very important to readers and their experience of receiving a story.
Ultimately, if you set the proper tone and maintain it, providing the right details to gain confidence from your reader, your main responsibility as a writer is then to ensure you honor the author–reader contract, making all the details and emotions of the story pay off rewardingly for readers.

WriteTip: The Difference Between Showing and Telling Explained

The following is an excerpt from my book How To Write A Novel: The Fundamentals of Fiction, Chapter 5:

We’ve all heard the saying “Show, don’t tell.” Description and settings are the most common area where this problem arises. Telling is just stating things in passive and direct ways. Showing involves describing key details so they unfold like a movie before our mind, and we get the message without it having to be just stated outright. These key details evoke empathy in us so that we experience what the character experiences in a way that just telling us doesn’t accomplish. Visceral descriptions evoke readers’ emotions and memories in a unique way. This is why “show, don’t tell” is so oft repeated that it almost sounds cliché. The key is to tell as little as possible and show as much as possible. Sometimes, you just need to tell readers a few bits of backstory or facts to get them out of the way quickly. In short bits, this is fine and very effective. But around that, we need you to show us the story so the prose unfolds almost like a movie in our minds as we read, drawing us into the book and connecting us with the world and characters in a way that makes us care and want to read on. That’s what showing versus telling is all about.
In essence, it comes down to the difference between scene and narrative. Narrative is the writer telling the tale by providing all the information directly. Scene is a dramatic structure that involves dialogue, action, beginning, middle, and end, characters, and drama. Every scene contains some narrative, but narrative alone does not constitute a scene. Narrative passages tend to use weak verbs, expository language, and nonvisceral point-by-point description of what is going on, what readers need to know. Scene uses visceral cues to show and imply emotions, state of mind, motivations, and more while also playing out actions and dialogue dramatically. The best writing does both, combining them effortlessly into a larger whole.
In her book Description, Monica Wood offers two great examples demonstrating the difference:
Telling/Narrative: Alice was a timid young woman who looked like a mouse. She was short and skinny, with brown hair, small eyes, and a pointed face. She always peeked inside a doorway before entering a party, thus giving herself a chance to flee in case she saw no one she knows.

Showing/Scene: Alice hovered at the door of Everett’s apartment, chin lifted, tiny feet balanced on their toes. She peered inside, shrinking at the loudness of Everett’s new stereo. She breathed quickly, her black eyes darting back and forth, as if keeping her face in motion might prevent her from toppling over. When she finally spotted the wide-grinning Everett approaching, she scurried to the punch bowl, her flat shoes making a scratching sound on the polished wood.

Did you notice how much more information is imparted in the second example and how it interacts with your imagination differently, stimulating your emotions, raising questions that draw you in, and hinting at aspects missing from the flatter narrative approach? Instead of just stating that she looked inside a party to see if she knew anyone, we experience what that is like for her as she does it, sharing her emotions and thoughts, experiencing her approach. The key is to let the characters reveal themselves through their words and deeds as much as possible. Showing too much can overwhelm readers’ senses, but telling too much fails to engage them, so the richest prose combines the two seamlessly by choosing carefully what to dramatically play out and what to provide quickly in exposition. In either case, writers should avoid using great gobs of text and instead spread them out a few lines or words at a time. Every time you stop to describe or exposit something, the pace slows or stops, and the dramatic tension drops. Using a combination of internal monologue and external dialogue and action with exposition, the story unfolds naturally and effectively while holding readers’ interest, each scene leading to the next, and each page demanding that they keep turning to find out where it goes from here.
How do you know when to use scene and when to use narrative? When action is required, scene is the best approach. You want to evoke empathy by revealing telling (significant and insightful) details about the characters and world as the plot unfolds dramatically. Every story will require a different combination. When you need to quickly impart key information that characters know and readers need to understand the story going forward, then telling comes into play. This can be done in expository description either as direct narrative or internal monologue. Either way, as you will learn in the the next chapter, the goal of viewpoint is to let readers experience the story through the eyes of the characters rather than the eyes of the author. Essential to this are descriptions that regularly employ the impressions of the character’s five senses.

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.

Write Tip: How To Register Copyright For Your Prose

NOTE: This is a reprint of an old post which wasn’t a WriteTip but should be. Still relevant. Hope it’s useful.

In the current climate of instant everything, protecting your work is important. Anything you post online or email to a friend could potentially be stolen. So how do you protect yourself? One important method for serious creatives is by copyright. Now copyrighting is handled by the Library of Congress a Federal agency. It’s not the best approach in all cases, because it’s not inexpensive. At a cost of $35-65 per written work, that can really add up. But it does provide security. By law, copyrights last the author’s lifetime plus 50 years and can be renewed indefinitely by legal heirs. You’re also listed and a copy kept on file in the archives at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. which can be used as evidence in legal proceedings should you face the misfortune of having to sue to protect your intellectual property. So there are advantages to this but it may not be right for you in every case.  Much information can be found on the Library of Congress sites at www.loc.gov and www.copyright.gov.

By law, Copyright exists from the moment of creation. So protections are already in place under the law. However, registration of copyright can be important in providing stronger proof and enabling you to sue for more damages in the case of infringement. This post examines how to go about officially registering a copyright claim and when it might be a good idea to do so.

How To Determine If Copyright Registration Is Necessary:

1) Is your creative work at risk?  If you post it online, the answer is yes. If you turn it in as a class assignment, the answer may be no. Most professors would never violate your copyright. And in most cases, when you are first learning, school work isn’t going to have serious potential for marketing. So the likelihood of your work being stolen and distributed is pretty minor. What is the intended audience and how is the work being distributed? If your work is really at risk, then copyright may be a good idea.

2) What is the type of prose? If it’s fiction, poetry, or nonfiction on a significant topic, copyright is wise. But how do you know it’s significant? What’s the subject? If it’s scientific with unique contributions to the study of the topic, involves a subject of great interest (celebrities, political issues, religion, etc.), then perhaps it’s worth copyrighting. Some raw scribbles, probably not. It’s up to you to determine and in this day and age, caution should be the watch word, but do use wisdom.

3) Do you own it? If your work is a work for hire, you have no right to claim it. A work for hire is a creative work instigated by someone else but created by you on their behalf. In most cases, your contract stipulates that they own all rights. If not, that should be worked out. If you are writing technical manuals for a product owned by a company, the copyright will belong to them. If you are creating something original from your own mind for them, that’s another question. But you must own a work to claim the copyright. If your work is derivative of another property, such as a Star Trek tie-on novel, you likely cannot copyright it. If you can, you can only copyright the original portions which were not previously created by the originator.

4) Is Your Work Valuable? If you are just an unknown person posting on a blog, putting copyright notice (c) on the blog itself should protect you. The law states that your copyright is owned by you the moment you publish the work and suggests putting appropriate notice. Registration through the Library of Congress is merely a formality for extra protection in court or legal matters. It’s a way to prove definitively that your claim is valid. If you are a celebrity or you work will be significantly distributed, then the chances are it will come to be of such value as needing extra protection.

Once you’ve determined that it’s appropriate to register a copyright, then you need to get the materials necessary together.

What You’ll Need:

1) A clean copy of your manuscript--Typed for clarity is best. And make sure it’s the version you want to protect. Do all editing and other adjustments. Formatting itself is not copyrighted, only content, so layout is not the concern, just the content itself. Also be sure and put your name, address, phone number and other relevant information, including a copyright notice on the work. Don’t put a date as that won’t be official until you actually file.

2) Form TX–the official copyright form, which can be found here: http://www.copyright.gov/forms/formtx.pdf

3) A check or credit card–to pay the filing fee which is currently $35 online and $65 by mail.

4) A stamped envelope–if you intend to mail your submission.

Once the materials are ready, then you can file as follows:

 1) Fill out the appropriate form in detail. List all pertinent information as concisely and clearly as possible. Be sure and save a copy of the form for yourself in case it 1) gets lost in the mail; b) you need it for reference, etc.

2) Paperclip the form to your work and place in envelope. Mail it. No need for Priority, Registered or Express or tracking. All of these cost extra. You will get confirmation that it’s been received by mail when your copyright certificate arrives. However, if you have the money and want reassurance, you can pay for these as you wish.

To file online,

1) Find the Electronic Copyright Office online at: http://www.copyright.gov/eco/ and register yourself. Read the relevant information about acceptable file types, etc. When you are ready, fill out the form here: http://www.copyright.gov/eco/help-registration-steps.html

2)  Once the form is filled, attach your document. You will be prompted. Again, view the list of acceptable file types above to verify yours will be accepted in its present format.

3) Make electronic payment. This can be done online with credit or debit card or electronic check and you will be prompted.

4) Submit. Click the button to submit when you are finished.

Processing time can vary, and the Copyright Office site issues the following warning:

 The time the Copyright Office requires to process an application varies, depending on the number of applications the Office is receiving and clearing at the time of submission and the extent of questions associated with the application.

Like everything else in life and especially when dealing with government, you will have to wait, but you will receive a copy back of your registered form signifying recognition and acceptance of your claim with the official date of copyright. This can be kept in a safe deposit box or file.

That’s it. Allow a few weeks for a record of your copyright to be searchable in the Library Of Congress database.  But you can rest assured you will soon have a legally registered copyright protection for your work.

An example of a listing can be found here.   I own several copyrights to musical works as listed. Not everything under “Bryan Thomas Schmidt” is mine, however.

I hope his helps you better understand the copyright process.


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 protagonist,” 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: How To Structure A Scene

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

The scene is the basic building block of dramatic structure for any story. If written correctly, each scene leads to another scene and another. According to Jack M. Bickham, in his book Scene & Structure, all well-written scenes use the following pattern:

Statement of goal

Introduction and development of conflict

Failure of character to reach his goal or a tactical complication/disaster which creates a new goal

Notice how these parallels the three-act dramatic structure of the entire story. It is not an accident. Scenes have three acts just as the entire story will. Scenes are not static. At their heart lies conflict. One character or group has a goal and others have other goals, and these meets and create obstacles to be overcome. Hence, conflict. Most scenes start with the point-of-view (POV) character walking into a place with a clear goal in mind. (As discussed in Chapter 4 the point-of-view character is the character from whose vantage point a particular scene is told.) Success of the scene dramatically depends upon your ability to interpose obstacles between your hero/heroine and the obtainment of this goal. Sometimes the goal carries over from the previous scene. Sometimes it is the overall goal in the story. Other times, it is a sub-goal required as part of the many steps to reaching the overall story goal. In any case, usually the goal is stated early on either through internal monologue or dialogue of the character.

For example, Luke Skywalker enters the workshop and cleans the droids per Uncle Owen’s instructions (goal). In the process, he finds something jammed in a slot on R2-D2 and tries to free it, unleashing the video of Leia pleading for help. When the message is unclear, he asks R2 to play the whole message and R2 refuses by first pretending not to know what he is referring to, then saying that the restraining bolt is preventing it in order to get the bolt taken off (obstacles). The disaster comes as R2-D2 escapes, forcing Luke to chase him down.

To work well and increase dramatic tension, all scenes must end badly. Whatever the goal going in, whatever the action taken, the result must be a failure of some sort. It can be an actual failure, a twisty complication, or additional unexpected tasks, but it constitutes a delay to success regardless.

But there is another key element at play as well. When the character’s goal is stated, the reader asks a question.

Goal: To get the golden key to the temple where I can retrieve the sacred scroll.
Reader Question: Will (character) get the key?

Whatever the question, the resolution (or answer) must be a negative. Sometimes a character does the get the key, but other objects are required to find the temple or open the door, and the character must go seek them before getting the scroll. The answer to the question, the disaster, the end of the well-written scene, always creates further complication on the character’s journey through that story.

There are several key points to keep in mind when determining goal, conflict, and resolution:

1. The goal of each scene must clearly relate to the larger story question; the question evoked in readers by the stated goal of the character for the major story arc.
2. The conflict must be about the goal.
3. The conflict must be external, not within one’s self. Either with an object, animal, or person or more than one.
4. Point of view should be maintained from goal to resolution in the same scene. It is best not to break it up into different points of view to avoid confusion and loss of tension.
5. Disaster always works by pushing the character away from his or her goal.
6. Readers will tolerate much if you keep making things worse and worse in every scene. This is how you build tension and suspense and create a compelling read.
7. Since the end of each scene dictates what will happen after, scenes cannot be written in isolation from the overall arc, goals, conflict, etc. of the story itself if they are to work well.

Plots are made up of a series of interconnected scenes that create a larger story. Since a plot is the storyline arc of the overall book, and the book is a story that is like an argument with a premise, a plot consists of a series of questions asked and answered. What you ask when, and how soon you answer it, affects the tension and pacing of the overall story. Some questions get asked and answered in the same scene or chapter. Some carry over multiple scenes and chapters. Some may carry over to another book. Some carry from chapter 1 to the final chapter. The questions have various levels of stakes to them. More intense, important questions tend to take longer to answer. One great way to figure out if your story makes sense and has good pacing is to go through and identify all the questions asked and answered and when and where they are asked and answered. If you are missing any answers or questions, you have a problem that needs fixing.

Since some stories have several plots—usually an overarching main plot and subplots—and not all scenes relate to each plot, but all relate to the main arc in some way or affect it. All plots and subplots have three acts just like the overall story, so sometimes identifying which plot and subplot(s) relate to each scene is key to making them work and determining in what order the scenes need to occur to best tell the story. To be clear, a subplot is a lesser plot that is less important than the main driving plot and sometimes focuses around a specific character, location, or aspect of that larger plot and points readers back to it.

It is also important to know which characters are in a scene. Too many characters can make a scene confusing. And too few can make it ineffective. Most importantly, the person with the most to lose is usually the best POV character for that particular scene, so keep in mind whether you have multiple POV characters or not. That will determine your character use in each scene. Remember also that individual characters can have conflicting goals, and that can further complicate scenes by creating competing tensions or conflicts that add layers and depth to the scene and further obstacles to the resolution as well.

In Medias Res

The last point I’ll make is the number one rule of good dramatic writing I learned in film school: Get into a scene as late as possible in its action, and end the scene as soon as you can after that. The literary term for entering a scene when the action has already begun is in medias res.

Scenes are more dramatic when they start within tense moments of action or conflict, so skip all the slow buildup and setup like greetings and small talk, how the characters got there, etc. which would slow things down, and instead get right into it. Telephone scenes, scenes sitting around a table, on couches, or in a car, etc. have a casual, slow feel that does not lend itself well to drama, so these use sparingly. The pacing and power of your story will go up in spades, and your readers will thank you for it.

Here’s another example, one of my favorites: the opening scene from the film Lethal Weapon 2.

The film opens with Riggs yelling and pounding his palms on a dashboard as horns honk and traffic roars. Then he and Murtaugh are arguing about speed and strategy. They are in a car chase. We don’t yet know who they are chasing or why, but we are immediately thrust into the center of tense, fast-paced action, and the details will come. We soon learn there are two car chases with two teams of cops, and as they fight traffic and near misses with other vehicles and race to keep up with the fleeing criminals—Murtaugh driving his wife’s station wagon, which hardly seems up to the task—the bad guys start shooting and taking more and more chances. The goal is to catch the bad guys. The conflict comes from disagreements between cops and from all the obstacles.

When the bad guys ditch them in airport traffic, Riggs jumps out and continues the chase on foot until Murtaugh untangles the station wagon and catches up. Riggs then insists on driving, and he pushes the car even more to its limits, practically destroying it in the process. So now they are fighting each other as well (more conflict). Then the other chase ends at an intersection, where cars collide and a helicopter comes in to rescue the bad guys with automatic gunfire leading to a shootout with cops (Failure 1). Riggs and Murtaugh, meanwhile, continue their chase until their baddie flips his car over a black-and-white cop car that blocks its path and crashes into a building. By the time Riggs and Murtaugh get to the car, the bad guy is gone (Failure 2), but they find Krugerrands, the currency of South Africa, and so their quest begins.

This is a great example of getting in as late as possible and out as soon as possible (in medias res) while still including all three core building blocks of a great scene.

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

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…