WriteTip: Making That Climax Count—Endings

The following is an excerpt from my book How To Write a Novel: The Fundamentals of Fiction Chapter 12: Beginnings, Middles, and Ends, the first of three parts in a series covering Beginnings, Middles, and Ends. To see part one, Beginnings, click here. For part two, Middles, click here.

Endings—The Climax

A satisfying climax comes from one thing: Protagonist confronting Antagonist, preferably face to face, and winning. What they win and how depends on the stakes and the goal, of course, but getting the girl, defeating the evil empire, getting the job, stopping the takeover, etc. are all valid and potentially satisfying wins for us. Make them count but give us the satisfaction of watching the win. That’s what all the pacing and suspense has been all about: getting us to this moment. So make sure the moment counts and is emotionally and dramatically rewarding for us. This does not mean every story must have a happy ending but it explains why many often do.

The climax needs to be played out dramatically. Don’t let it happen off screen. We need to witness it. It needs to be the ultimate dramatic conflict that unfolds before us as a scene. Make sure you plan accordingly and write it well. Anything less will be a letdown from all the anticipation you have created. How would you have felt if Luke never faced off with Darth Vader at the end of Star Wars? If Frodo had never destroyed the ring in The Lord of The Rings? Or if Harry Potter had not confronted Voldemort? I imagine your feelings about any of these stories would be very different. Would you feel satisfied? Seeing the protagonist overcome their imperfections and obstacles and win is a bit part of the satisfaction of good storytelling. And you just don’t get the same affect if you tell us how it ended rather than showing us by letting it play out as overt drama. Watching the confrontation is the payoff readers have been waiting for so give it to them.

In preparing to write your climax, it is important to revisit the earlier story and make sure you have set it up correctly and put all the necessary pieces in place needed to make it feel satisfying and complete. Go back and look at your set up for major reveals. When, where, and how do you ask what questions? Is there enough foreshadowing? Note areas that need work and potential revisions you can make during editing. Don’t stop and do it now. That will interrupt your writing pace. But make sure you correct course in what you write ‘til the end and note what you can go back and fix later to make it better and where to do so. Are your three acts clear in each plot line and arc? Do the characters show growth and change? Double check to see you are on track and look at how you can improve things for better pacing and suspense in your book both going forward and later in editing.

In addition to looking at the questions, foreshadowing, plot arcs, and character arcs, don’t forget to also consider emotional arcs. Because good endings satisfy don’t just wrap up the pieces logically and neatly on the outside, they also satisfy our inner selves: our emotions. Donald Maass writes in Writing The Breakout Novel: “Why do endings disappoint? Often it is because they are rushed; that is, because the author has written it in a hurry due to fatigue or due to a looming deadline, perhaps both. Climaxes are both inner and outer, both plot specific and emotionally charged. The payoff needs to fully plumb the depths in both ways if it is to satisfy.” The secret, Maass suggests, is to allow your protagonist the possibility of failure until the very end; maintaining the possibility that he or she can fail. He goes on to say “construct the plot so that its conflicts, inner and outer, all converge at the same time and place…A great storyteller leaves us in suspense right up to the final moments. Success is never sure; in fact, failure seems the far more likely result.” The satisfaction is in the protagonist rising to the moment and somehow overcoming the odds to succeed. Without that, victory is hollow, the ending emotionally unsatisfying and lacking in depth.

In her book Beginnings, Middles, and Ends,  Kress suggests four things good climaxes must accomplish:

  1. Satisfy the view of life implied in your story.
  2. Deliver emotion. Readers should feel what the characters feel. If characters feel nothing, the story has not ended yet.
  3. Deliver an appropriate level of emotion. As discussed above, it’s not just any emotion but emotional fulfillment readers are seeking, and that means we need to have been conflicted and unsure until the very end how it might go; if the protagonist can possibly succeed.
  4. The climax must be logical to your plot and story. This last one may seem obvious but we’ve all encountered those endings that were meant to be surprises and twists but seemed to come out of nowhere, leaving us frustrated and feeling unfulfilled. Kress says, “the climactic scene must grow naturally out of the actions that proceeded it, which in turn must have grown naturally out of the personalities of the characters.” A satisfying climax is intimately tied to satisfying character arcs—characters we care about, root for, and want to see grow into better people. A climax must not be coincidence either. It must pretty much be inevitable, even if we doubt it will happen right until the end. Kress suggests asking yourself: “If the protagonist were a radically different person, would this story still end the same way?” The answer must be “No” if your ending is to be convincing. If it could happen that way for anyone, your ending will fail. 

Who else but Luke Skywalker could have used the Force to visualize the exact target and destroyed the Death Star? Who else but Frodo could destroy the ring? I can’t imagine those endings coming out any other way, can you? And the same should be true of your climax. Ultimately, the whole story is like an arrow pointing to a specific climax and how you write it ensures that reader’s expectations emotionally and mentally follow the arrow to the exact place you lead them. That’s the only way you can ensure they’ll be satisfied with your climax.

Denouement

Everything after the Climax is called the Denouement—the wrap up of the story. In most cases, the denouement is fairly short and concise, providing confirmation of closure for the characters and plot by revealing their emotional and physical fates after the climax. This is especially true for any characters not involved in the climactic scene. The denouement should give readers just enough information about the characters that they feel the story is really over and satisfy reader curiosity. So the denouement is the place to wrap up any pesky unanswered questions still hanging from earlier in a book. All except the few left over to point us to the sequel, that is (if there is one). Readers don’t want to be left hanging. They don’t want to decide for themselves, either. Readers want to know what happens definitively to the characters they’ve cared enough about to stick with the story, so make decisions and give it to them.

The general rule is, according to Kress, “the more subtle and low-key the climax in action and tone, the briefer the denouement should be.” Don’t drag it out and leach all emotion from the climax. Get it done and keep it short so it doesn’t seem too anticlimactic. The other key is to dramatize. Show what happens to your characters in action, don’t just tell us. But keep it low-key enough that it doesn’t detract from the power of the climax.

To demonstrate, let’s look at the denouements from two of the stories we looked at in the beginning of this chapter. First, The Wedding by Nicholas Sparks:

Standing on the porch, with autumn in full swing, I 
find the crispness of the evening air invigorating as I think back on the night of our wedding. I can still recall it in vivid detail, just as I can remember all that happened during the year of the forgotten
anniversary.

It feels odd to know that it’s all behind me. The 
preparations had dominated my thoughts for so long and
I’d visualized it so many times that I sometimes feel
that I’ve lost contact with an old friend, someone 
with whom I’ve grown very comfortable. Yet in the wake
of those memories, I’ve come to realize that I now
have the answer to the question that I’d been ponder- ing when I first came out here.

Yes, I decided, a man can truly change.

Remember the universal questions asked right at the opening: “Is it possible, I wonder, for a man to truly change? Or do character and habit form the immovable boundaries of our lives?” Here we see that the character has found the answer he sought. We’ve seen it dramatized through events in the story and particularly the climax, but the denouement just serves to confirm the character’s recognition that he gets it now clearly. He’s found the answer.

What about Dennis Lehane’s Darkness, Take My Hand? It ends as follows:

In the kitchen, we made hot chocolate, stared over the
rims of our mugs at each other as the radio in the 
living room updated us on the weather.

The snow, the announcer told us, was part of the first
major storm system to hit Massachusetts this winter. 
By the time we woke in the morning, he promised, 
twelve to sixteen inches would have fallen.

“Real snow,” Angie said. “Who would’ve thought?”

“It’s about time.”

The weather report over, the announcer was updating 
the condition of Reverend Edward Brewer. 

“How long you think he can hold on?” Angie said.

I shrugged. “I don’t know.”

We sipped from our mugs as the announcer reported the mayor’s call for

more stringent handgun laws, the governor’s call for 
tougher enforcement of restraining orders. So another Eddie Brewer wouldn’t walk into the wrong convenience store at the wrong time. So another Laura Stiles could
break up with her abusive boyfriend without fear of 
death. So the James Faheys of the world would stop in-stilling us with terror.

So our city would one day be as safe as Eden before 
the fall, our lives insulated from the hurtful and the
random.

“Let’s go in the living room,” Angie said, “and turn 
the radio off.”

She reached out and I took her hand in the dark kit-  chen as the snow painted my window in soft specks of 
white, followed her down the hall toward the living 
room.

Eddie Brewer’s condition hadn’t changed. He was still in a coma.

The city, the announcer said, waited. The city, the 
announcer assured us, was holding its breath.

Progress, Lehane implies, may not change the past, but it bodes well for the future. There is hope. There is a sense of movement in a positive direction. And there is a sense of renewed safety and reassurance that all will be well. For a book that started with the uncertainty and wistfulness of the random shooting of an old classmate, that makes for a pretty decent denouement if you ask me.

WriteTip: How To Navigate and Survive Those Stubborn Middles

The following is an excerpt from my book How To Write a Novel: The Fundamentals of Fiction Chapter 12: Beginnings, Middles, and Ends, the first of three parts in a series covering Beginnings, Middles, and Ends. To see part one, Beginnings, click here.

Middles

The middle of your book makes up its largest section: Act Two. It is half the book in length generally. This is often the section where writers struggle to find focus and feel bogged down. It helps if you approach your middle (Act Two) using the Syd Field paradigm we discussed in Chapter 2 on Three Act Structure, considering it two parts of a whole, divided by a Mid-Point. Everything after the Plot Point I turning point of Act One forms an Ascending arc that rises toward the Mid-Point. Everything after the Mid-Point forms a Descending arc that descends toward the climax. On a chart, it looks something like this:

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The arcs represent the curve of the action, emotion and character development, which rise in the first half toward the Mid-Point and then descend after to the Climax. In her book Beginnings, Middles, and Ends, Nancy Kress writes: “The middle of a story develop’s the story’s implicit promise by dramatizing incidents that increase conflict, reveal character, and put in place all the various forces that will collide at the story’s climax.”

In the first half of Act One, it is very much a journey of discovery as the character experiences Plot Point I—a Call To Action—and responds, trying to rise above his or her weakness, overcome obstacles, and gather the clues or complete the steps necessary to be ready to face the Antagonist. The Mid-Point, as we will discuss in a moment, is the point where the Character has a revelation that changes him or her in a way that redefines the journey and sends him on a descending arc toward the final confrontation—possessed of more certainty about where she must go and what she must do and more confidence to do it. This is why the Mid-Point is so important. Although it is not always an overtly dramatic moment, it must always be an internally dramatic one.

The Mid-Point

As we discussed in my post on Three Act Structure, the Mid-Point is a key turning point where the drama goes from Ascending to Descending. Something happens that twists the story a bit, either personal revelation for your protagonist or reveal or event that changes direction and pushes him or her forward into the second half of Act Two on their drive toward the final confrontation. Although the Turning Points at the ends of Act One and Act Two tend to be larger dramatically, this event is still a significant moment. It’s the scene where the protagonist and readers stop to take stock of how far they’ve come and put together many of the pieces further revealing the map they must follow going forward.

For authors, this is the same opportunity. A chance to look back at what you’ve done so far and regroup. You’ve established your setting and significant characters. You’ve set out your arcs and written one and half acts. You’ve described many key things that are recurring themes, settings, and items throughout the story. Ask yourself what you’re missing? Did you forget anything? Is anything confusing or unclear? Is anything feeling incomplete? What do you need to do to proceed on with confidence? Then take the time to tweak a bit and revisit or at least make appropriate notes in these places before continuing, so that you can revisit them later.

One of the common occurrences during a Mid-Point that is helpful to remember is a shift in driving motivation for your protagonist. The character has changed over the course of what you’ve written so far in several ways (or should). At this point, he or she will consider all that’s happened and reevaluate the why and how of the rest of the journey. The event, reveal, or revelation that serves as your Mid-Point is a great spot for them to solidify motivation, even revise it. For now they see things more clearly, they have more pieces to the puzzle, and they can reevaluate their chosen course and make corrections. Here’s where they go from an insecure, but determined person forced to embark on a heroic quest to a more confident, deliberate acting hero. Their growth journey is not over but they are much more sure of themselves, what they are doing, and why. And they have a much clearer sight of the endgame and the stakes as well. This should make them stronger in determination, vision, and even confidence, even if they and we still have doubts about whether they can succeed in reaching their goal. From the Mid-Point on, the protagonist moves with a new drive forward, even as the antagonist becomes more threatened and desperate in efforts to thwart the hero/heroine. 

One of the best ways to work out the next phase is to examine the character and how they’ve changed so far. What has led to the changes and have they and we recognized actual change in attitude, approach, confidence, etc.? If not, perhaps work on tweaks that slowly reveal the change or use the Mid-Point for a big scene where the change is made manifest and we all realize it. Go back and look at the key scenes that set up that change and then consider where they need to be at the end of the story and imagine scenes you will need to complete the arc and get them there.

You can do the same with every plot and subplot in the story, revisiting key moments for each and planning the next steps needed to carry them to the natural conclusion. And by natural conclusion I don’t mean whatever comes. I mean what you envision as the best ending for the story. If you weren’t sure before, you should have a better idea what this is by now. Go back and look at your Three Act Structure outline of your ending. Does the ending you envision still look like what you envisioned at the beginning or does it need tweaks? Remember, in Chapter 2, I said your Outline was just a guideline and could change. This is a good point to reevaluate and restate or revise your goals so you know where you’re headed; what you’re working for.

It is also important to examine the Antagonist and any main supporting characters the same way. How have they changed? What led them there and where are they going the rest of the story? Having in your mind a clear sense of what is going on with your story and characters is key to feeling unstuck and prepared to write your second  half. Mid-Points can often be points where a writer feels stuck and confused about where to go next. So thinking through all these key aspects is a great exercise for escaping that trap and being renewed in vision and confidence to continue on with a sense of direction.

What clues and key questions were asked and answered that provided the suspense and plot twists so far? Which are still unanswered that compel you and readers forward? And how will you answer them and in what order? Do you need to rethink any of them? Do you need to add or subtract any? 

Take our earlier example of Star Wars, Luke Skywalker has now rescued the princess with Han and finds himself trapped in the Death Star Detention block with his companions, fighting against incredible odds. They must find or make a way out and get back to their ship. And then hope Ben Kenobi has disabled the tractor beam. From this point on, Act Two becomes a chase with Han and Chewie and Leia and Luke separately fighting their way back toward the Millennium Falcon to escape, while C3PO and R2D2 do their best to lend whatever aid they can and Kenobi reaches and disables the tractor beam then faces a confrontation of his own.

Looking at this famous story it is easy to identify a lot of key moments: from R2D2 revealing Leia’s message to Luke finding Ben to meeting Han to arrival at the Death Star which all led up to where they are now. Their goal remains clear: to get the plans and the princess back to the Rebel Alliance. And Luke has also learned many skills of the Jedi and how to fight and has gained confidence as a leader and hero that he never had in the beginning. He’s never embarked on such an important and dangerous quest before and he is actually pulling it off. He moves forward with a sense of drive and direction stronger than he had before. This is what good Mid-Points should do in a story.

Getting Through and Staying Unstuck

Middles are places a lot of writers get stuck. I used to find this a problem, until I started focusing on the throughline—a film industry term for the main plotline, the one that focuses on what happens between the protagonist and antagonist in the story. Since the middle is the core journey wherein the protagonist and antagonist prepare to confront each other and fight out their opposing goals, keeping this in focus can give your middle a sense of direction. Everything that happens should feed this storyline taking plot and characters toward that ultimate confrontation. In the first half, on the ascending arc, the focus is on preparing the character to know how to confront the antagonist and believe he or she is capable to do so. The second half, the descending arc, focuses on final preparations and moving directly and determinedly toward that final showdown as all the necessary pieces are put in place and final preparations taken. If you keep these two goals in focus, it should help shape your middle and allow you push through any uncertainty that blocks your writing.

Additional space in the middle is made up of the various subplots and the scenes required in their arcs. But again, every scene must serve character or plot growth. Every single scene. So before you write a scene, figure out what it accomplishes toward the throughline and the character growth necessary to get the protagonist and antagonist to that final confrontation. Knowing that will help you write the scene well and also give you a sense of its belonging in the story. If you have a scene you can’t answer this question about, don’t write it. It probably doesn’t belong yet, though it may be relevant later. You may just be trying to put it in the wrong spot.

Ultimately, if you are blocked, the problem is always internal, not external. Think of it like your character’s journey. You have flaws and obstacles to overcome. So to get past it, you should ask yourself some questions about why you are stuck. Is it fear—fear of failure, fear of success? Is the scene not a good fit for the advancement of plot or character at this point in the story? Have you answered all the questions in your story that led to this scene or is something missing? Make a list of the next few scenes you envision needing to advance your story and then consider whether they are in the right order or need to be adjusted. Does the present scene need to shift within that rough outline? That could also be why you are stuck. Your mind may know subconsciously you are not ready to write the scene you sat down to write and you need to go elsewhere first before you can make it work. Another trick is to think through the plots and subplots and ask to which the current scene contributes. Perhaps you have not revisited a certain plotline for a while and need to take a detour there before you can continue with the story or perhaps a certain scene can contribute to the advancement of multiple plot or character arcs and writing it that way will free up your mind so you can get to work.

Whatever the answer to these questions, the best approach is to always think in terms of the short term, not the overall when sitting down to write. Don’t think about sitting down to write the whole story but the scene at hand. Putting the rest of the task out of mind allows clarity of focus and single minded attention on the scene at hand, which can unclog any blockage or confusion or at least help reveal answers to the questions that are causing uncertainty. It also can be helpful to set word count goals and mini deadlines for yourself. Most professional writers write whether they feel like it or not and are prepared to completely toss aside a day’s output if warranted. They know that the act of writing is like exercise and doing it every day is key to progress, even if the usefulness of the output isn’t as equal some days as others. Often the very act of writing can get you over the hump and clear your thoughts, allowing you to regain focus. Sitting and stressing over a blank mind is not the helpful way. The only way to get more story is to write. Sometimes a trigger helps, and can be provided by reading another novel as your work. Something in the subgenre you are writing perhaps or something so different it completely takes your mind in different directions. The goal is to unclog your mind and regain clarity and focus. Whatever route works best to get you there is a good route to take.

Some writers use rewards to spur them to write, disciplining themselves to deny the rewards when they don’t reach word count or page number goals. Some writers research to break free of the fog, finding it stimulates new ways of thinking and various ideas that can open the mind and free it to write. Many find that discipline is key. For me, when discipline in one area drops, I find it bleeds into others. If I get lazy with exercise, I get lazy with writing, diet, bill paying, and so much more. So having focus in one area affects the others and it is key to my writing therefore to maintain a lifestyle of discipline in many areas. Certainly taking breaks to walk my dogs or exercise is a very good way to unblock by getting my mind on other things and pondering the scene and the questions I need to answer to be able to write. It will be different for every writer, so until you find the best method for you, experimentation may be necessary. But all of this is part of finding the way to write that works best for you.

Whatever you wind up doing, it may also help to have some idea of the climax you are working toward to write the middle that leads there. This is why the structural outlines I suggested in Chapter 2 can be good road maps to help you write. After all, knowing the goal and the destination is often the best way to sort out how to get there. And in fulfilling the promise of a satisfying climax, it is helpful to know where you’re going so you can set it up properly with foreshadowing, character growth, plot twists, clues, and the various pieces it will take for everything to fall in place that allow the climax to satisfy us both mentally and emotionally.

Next week, in Part 3, we will consider the Ending of your story—especially the Climax.

WriteTip: Beginning Well—How To Start Your Story

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

 

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

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

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

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

Beginning

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

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

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

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

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

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

But there is nothing.

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

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

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

Kress suggests several techniques important to credible prose:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

WriteTip: How To Approach Worldbuilding, Part 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)

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.

Write Tip: Dialogue: Diction vs. Syntax as Tools

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

Diction and Dialect

Diction has to do with tone and style, whereas syntax, which is closely related, has to do with the form of the sentence. The level of diction of a truck driver has a different level than a bishop, but both might use all three forms of syntax. Syntax and diction depend on one another. The truck driver may speak more base, slangy language than the elevated syntax of the bishop, for example. This is dependent upon levels of diction with which they choose to speak. It is also dependent upon the word order (syntax) they choose to use.


A truck driver might say, “I was having sad thoughts when I was alone.”

A bishop, “To me came thoughts of grief when alone.”

Just as Henry Standing Bear stands out in Craig Johnson’s Longmire because of never using contractions, another character might stand out for going to pains to use “whom” instead of “who” whenever it is grammatically correct or the opposite. Subtle grammatical quirks can be quite effective characterization tools. What if a character says “the killer musta wore gloves” instead of “the killer musta worn gloves”—“must have worn” being grammatically correct? Some of these quirks are quite common in usage and can be observed daily in those around us. Often they subtly reveal things about people’s backgrounds—education, social class, where they come from—that will make your dialogue more realistic.

Stephen King writes: “Well-crafted dialogue will indicate if a character is smart or dumb, honest or dishonest, amusing or an old sobersides.” When done well, dialogue can impart several bits of information about your characters just through word choice. Bishops, kings, politicians, professors and others all speak differently and with more sophistication and less common vernacular than truck drivers, plumbers, mechanics, and farmers. Add in gang members, foreigners, and others and you have a third style of diction as well. Use diction to differentiate between characters and help us know who is speaking without even requiring a speech tag. You can know the area of the world they come from, their education level, their level of class and refinement, their self-esteem level, their social circles, their religion or lack of religion, and so much more just via how a character speaks. The unique voice of each character will add depth and realness to your world and story like nothing else.

In my novel Simon Says, a tough KCPD detective is forced to team with a humanoid android to solve his partner’s murder. At one point, Simon points out the humanoid’s speech patterns:

["I function ninety percent like a human being in most respects," Lucas said as they continued up the stairs.
    "Yeah, and at least ten percent is how you talk," Simon teased.
    Lucas turned a puzzled look at him. "You think I do not speak like a human?"
    "No normal human uses the cadence you use, no," Simon said.    
     Lucas looked disappointed. "Well, I hope you will assist me to do better. I am designed to blend in with humans and wish to learn."
    "You want to blend stop saying things like 'in most respects' or 'I am designed,'" Simon said, shaking his head. "You sound like a machine."
    Lucas hrmphed. "I will remember."    

Just listening to them you can tell the difference. This is a prime example of syntax and diction at work. Now the same thing can happen with socioeconomic class.

“You, stop!” The detective stepped in front of the vagrant and raised his hand.  
     “What ya want?” the disheveled woman demanded, her dirty, unkempt hair hanging down off her forehead to obscure most of one eye, her nose brown with dirt and grime from life on the street.  
     “I have a couple of questions. Did you see what happened down there last night?”  
     “Huh? I was ‘sleep.”  
     “No way you slept through that,” the detective countered. “Were you here?”
     Her face shriveled as she shook her head and looked away. “I don’ know nothin’.”  
     “You’re not in trouble. We just need your help. People died.”  
     “Not my pro’lem,” she said.  

Dialogue can also tell readers about your world. Do they speak familiarly to present day people around us or like people from another place or time? Do they speak with familiar vernacular and nuance and pop culture references or are the references odd and unusual, even requiring us to work to understand them a bit? All of this is key to world building characters and creating a sense of place and dialogue is a key tool for accomplishing it. Here’s an example from Wager of My Heart by Claire Ashgrove:

 “What seems to be the problem, Thomas?”
      “A wreck, sir,” the man replied as he bounced the long reins to quiet the agitated horse.  “Easy, girl.  Stand now.”      
     “A wreck?” 
     “Aye.  The crowd’s thick—I cannot make it all out.  But a coach is twisted at such an  angle I can clearly see the top of it.”
      Perfect.  Lord only knew how long it would take to right a coach.  “Is there a way  around?” he asked, his patience rapidly deteriorating. “I would prefer not to linger in this  stench.”         
     “No, my lord.  Not unless you wish me to drive over the onlookers, sir.”  

Both the vocabulary and the descriptions clearly indicate a different time, in this case Victorian Era London.

Point of View characters engage in two main types of dialogue throughout a fictional work: external dialogue with other characters and internal dialogue with themselves. External dialogue we have described above. Internal dialogue is similar but is their inner voice and thoughts taking expression.

The Worker Prince by Bryan Thomas Schmidt - front cover from WordFire PressHere’s an example from my novel The Worker Prince:

 “I can’t tell you what to do, Davi, but it’s a big risk.”
      “Now you sound just like Farien,” Davi growled and drowned the words with another gulp from his beer.
      Yao’s purple eyes softened to violet with sympathy. “Hey, I’m on your side here, okay? One man can’t change an entire culture.”
      Davi wiped his lips on his sleeve and met his friend’s eyes again. “This man has to try.”
      Yao sighed, sinking back into the couch again. “Why?”
      Davi stared at him a moment, anger mixed with disgust. But Yao wasn’t the bad guy. You’ve got to tell him. Ignoring his internal voice, he shrugged.
      “Have you spoken to Farien since?” Yao asked.
      “No. There hasn’t been an occasion.”
      “Maybe we could pay him a visit,” Yao said. “Be good to have the three musketeers back together again.” Yao loved references to the classics. Along with history, he’d read many novels.
      “Sure. Of course …” Davi’s voice trailed off as he looked away, lost in thought. Should I tell him? He needed to confide in someone before he burst.

Internal monologues are often written in italics to differentiate them. When needed, “he thought, etc.” are used to indicate. In this case, we can see Davi has two conversations going on at once—one external with Yao and the other internal with himself.

J.R.R. Tolkien in The Lord Of The Rings uses elevated diction combined with a formal syntax to suggest an ancient language:

Gimli shivered. They had brought only one blanket apiece. “Let us light a fire,” he said. “I care no longer for the danger. Let the orcs come as thick as summer moths around the candle!”
     “If those unhappy hobbits are astray in the woods, it might draw them hither,” said Legolas.
     “And it might draw other things, neither Orc nor Hobbit,” said Aragorn. “We are near the mountain-marshes of the traitor Sarumon. Also, we are on the very edge of Fangorn, and it is perilous to touch the trees of that wood, it is said.” (The Two Towers)

So using different dictions is a great technique and device for characterization. If a character is a con artist, they may use different diction externally than they do internally. This tells us about your character. Or they may fake an accent they don’t really have, etc. Also, the character’s internal dialogue will reveal what they choose to reveal and not reveal to various characters which tells us much about their motives, emotions, etc. Internal dialogue is where characters debate decisions, mourn mistakes, and so much more, and it is necessary for storytelling because we cannot see what we are not shown, so it provides a method of showing what is going on in the inner life of characters that is essential to building good conflict and drama in your story.

Remember that characters may speak differently to one character than another depending upon their relationship, their motives, etc. If hanging with old friends from the old ghetto, one may slip into a dialect left behind in childhood for those interactions even if the character usually speaks in a more refined way with characters outside that world and life. Ever have a friend from a foreign country or the U.S. Deep South who talks with one accent with you but goes home and slips back into a native accent? People speak to a lover different than a mother or a sister or a boss or a priest. One also speaks differently to a king or ruler than a fellow citizen and often to a teacher than fellow students, and so on. So remember to establish changes in dialogue appropriate to the circumstances in which the dialogue is occurring and who and to whom the characters are speaking. This will make your world come alive and feel realistic.

Lewis Turco writes in Dialogue: Characterization “is largely what dialect is about—identifying the persona and his or her traits, including the main personality trait on which much of the story will depend for its plot and the motivations of its characters.” Remember that characters who speak with the same diction only recognize the difference when speaking with outsiders. The same is true of dialect or accents. Characters with accents only know they have one when someone points it out or when talking with another character. Even then, to them they sound normal and the other person has the accent.

Dialect is a particular way of speaking that is different from other characters being represented in a modified written form to reflect its accent or peculiarities. It is particularly common in older novels, but frowned upon these days because it is often challenging for readers to read. Use dialect sparingly and only for strategic purposes. Often just a line or two is all you need to remind readers of the character’s accent. The rest can be rendered more naturally. Another technique is to render a few key words in dialect.

Here’s an example from my novel The Worker Prince, a science fiction space opera:

 As he neared a tent, someone poked his arm—a smiling vendor who looked half-human and half-Lhamor, gesturing with his bottom two arms when he spoke, his forked tongue giving him a strong lisp.
     “’ello, Capt’in, my frien’, wha’ever you nee’, I can ge’ for you,” he said with the accent of Italis and patted Davi’s back like they had been lifelong pals.
    There’s a reason others of your race use translators. “No thank you, just passing through,” Davi said with forced politeness, moving on through quickly.

The Lhamori here is speaking in dialect, and a particularly hard to understand one, which is why I used it sparingly (though not sparingly enough according to some readers. It was my first novel.)

In How to Write Dazzling Dialogue, James Scott Bell suggests 3 guidelines for using dialect:
Decide if dialect is absolutely needed in a scene.
If so, go ahead and use it in the first spoken line.
Use it sparingly after that, only as a reminder to readers of the voice.

Here’s another example from James Michener’s Soyonara:

 I started to get up but Makino, the cook, grabbed my arm and translated, “She not angry. Only she say very dangerous Fumiko-san walk with Americans.”
    “She wasn’t walking,” I cried. “She was sitting here.”
    “Please!” Makino protested. “I not speak good. Trouble too much.”

Here, Michener is representing the broken English of a non-native speaker fairly well using dialect to give a realness to the dialogue, another appropriate technique. In this case, rather than odd or modified spellings, it involves missing words or rearranged syntax.

Generally speaking, it is advisable to avoid dialect and use standard diction. Remember, writing is communication and communication is about clarity first and foremost. Anything that might be a stumbling block for readers is to be handled with care.

Similar to dialect are idioms which means: “an expression whose meaning is not predictable from the usual meanings of its constituent elements, as in kick the bucket or hang one’s head, or from the general grammatical rules of a language, as the table round for the round table, and that is not a constituent of a larger expression of like characteristics; a language, dialect, or style of speaking peculiar to a people. (Dictionary.com)” Mark Twain is the U.S. master and Charles Dickens the U.K. master of idioms. Lewis Turco writes: “An expression may begin as the slang—or ‘popular jargon’—of a particular generation, but once it enters the language permanently, it becomes an idiomatic expression.” So, for example, where Brits might say “throwing crockery,” Americans would say “throwing dishes.”

Both Dickens and Twain exploit idiomatic expressions freely in their novels and sometimes develop or perpetuate them into greater popularity by repeating the same phrases over and over again in their works, giving them a stability in the language. Examples from Dickens are “heart and soul,” “jog-trot,” and “turn and turn about,” the last two of which are particularly British. Examples from Twain include “without you” (unless you), “by some stretchers” (lies), “back to the drawing board,” and “I lit out.”

The following passage from Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn contains some more:

 The Widow Douglas, she took me for her son, and allowed she would sivilize me; but it was rough living in the house all the time, considering how dismal regular and decent the widow was in all her ways; and so when I couldn’t stand it no longer, I lit out.

Twain and Dickens both use colloquialisms to give characters distinctive voices. Huck misspells civilize as “sivilize,” which reveals his lack of formal education and uses “allowed” instead of “said.” He also uses adjectives in unusual and informal ways in phrases like “it was rough living” and “dismal regular” (instead of dismally regular). And he uses a lot of double negatives like “I couldn’t stand it no longer.” These details add authenticity that capture the time and place and bring the characters to life. Idioms can be a great tool for this but must be used skillfully and handled well to avoid confusing or drowning readers.

To write dialogue well, it helps to go out and observe people as well as to read a lot. If you are writing a historical period, find movies, newsreels, and others books and observe carefully, taking notes, on how people talk, turns of phrase, idioms, etc. To write teenagers, go to Sam’s Club or Costco or Walmart and sit in the food court and listen or to a mall or theatre. Note how the teens speak to each other verses adults, how they address strangers verses friends, etc. Do the same with anyone else you need to study in whatever profession: from cops to priests, jewelers to plumbers and more. Writing down key observations in a notebook will create an invaluable resource to jog your memory later when the time comes to write various characters, especially if you want to find turns of phrase, idioms, or other idiosyncrasies you can employ to added authenticity and bring characters to life. You want dialogue to sound believable and real, after all, and that means you have to write it so it sounds natural while still performing all the dramatic functions beyond conversation that it must to move forward your story.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

WriteTip: 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.

Guest Post: Which Comes First—Character or World?

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by Gail Z. Martin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


About the Author

Gail Martin, Dreamspinner Communications
Gail Martin, Dreamspinner Communications

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

WriteTip: Advice On Why No Is Rarely Personal – Handling Rejection For New Writers

WriteTips-flatYesterday at ConQuest, a panel discussion led to talks about editors and writers and how much editors love discovering new writers and great new stories. And in the midst of it, I got reminded how intimidated writers often are by editors, especially writers who don’t know any personally. I’ve experienced this myself as a writer and as an editor. So I wanted to offer a little perspective.

The most important advice is this: “NO” is almost never personal. The only times it is personal, you’ll know it because the person will make it obvious. And this is very rare. Seriously. The reality is that hearing “No” is just part of being a writer. And saying “No” is part of being an editor. Editors take no more glee in saying it than writers do in hearing it. Unless, of course, you’ve pissed the editor off. So don’t do that.

Editors say “No” for lots of reasons, many of which have to do with factors besides simply elements of your story and certainly besides who you are. If they have a similar story already, you’ll hear “N0.” If they have too many stories with a particular theme, setting, etc., it’s “No.” If they have budget issues because of length of stories they bought–especially with the headliners whose name cache helps sell the books– then it will be a “No.”  And so on and so forth.

The only things you can do to lessen the likelihood of rejection are to:

a) respect and follow the guidelines. Doesn’t matter if they are annoying or sound stupid. Just do it. You can be rejected simply for ignoring them, because you are saying, “I’m an exception and my story’s so good you won’t care.” Well, wrong. We do ask for guidelines for a reason, and you’re not going to be that exceptional.

or b) Write an awesome story.

c) Submit early in the open reading period. This will make it more likely that if similar stories come in, yours was chosen first and you won’t be rejected for the other reasons mentioned above.

Those are the best ways to avoid rejection, honestly. Beyond that, it’s a matter of timing, luck, and finding the right market. Just like everyone tells you.

People who reject you for personal reasons almost always reveal that in some way, from comments to a later post or off the cuff comment, etc. But most professionals leave that stuff aside when choosing stories. Because all we care about is that the story is awesome and whether we can work with you in a respectful relationship. Don’t be an asshole and the rest won’t matter. If you’re an asshole to the editor, it tells them you don’t respect them and likely wouldn’t take edit notes. And it’s not worth the bother for them. It’s that simple.

So how do you respond to a “No?” Don’t email them to criticize their taste. Don’t badmouth them on social media. Don’t even graciously thank them in an email for considering the story. Chances are they are overwhelmed with emails already and won’t want to have to sort through another.

Instead, send the story elsewhere or polish based on any suggestions offered that you find useful and then send it out.

Write another story and submit to them again.

And the cycle repeats. Seriously. There’s no magic trick here. Persistance, Politeness, Professionalism — these are the keys to success. Ask successful writers.

Short but sweet, but I hope it’s helpful. Seriously. It will also help your self-confidence and morale to remember this: “No” is rarely personal, it’s just part of the process.

Now, go write more stories! And good luck!


 

Bryan Thomas Schmidt
Bryan Thomas Schmidt

Bryan Thomas Schmidt is an author and editor of adult and children’s speculative fiction. His debut novel, The Worker Prince received Honorable Mention on Barnes & Noble Book Club’s Year’s Best Science Fiction Releases for 2011. His first children’s books, 102 More Hilarious Dinosaur Books For Kids and Abraham Lincoln: Dinosaur Hunter- Land Of Legends appeared from Delabarre Publishing in 2012. His short stories have appeared in magazines, anthologies and online. He edited the anthologies Space Battles: Full Throttle Space Tales #6 for Flying Pen Press,Beyond The Sun for Fairwood Press, Raygun Chronicles: Space Opera For a New Age for Every Day, and Shattered Shields with coeditor Jennifer Brozek for Baen Books (forthcoming in November).  His first YA anthology CHOICES will be out from EDGE Science Fiction and Fantasy in 2015. He is currently working on Gaslamp Terrors, Mission: Tomorrow (BAEN) and Galactic Games (BAEN), amongst others. He has also edited novels, including the New York Times Bestseller The Martian by Andy Weir.  He hosts #sffwrtcht (Science Fiction and Fantasy Writer’s Chat) Wednesdays at 9 pm ET on Twitter.