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

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

Here are a few ideas:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

WriteTip: Beginning Well—How To Start Your Story

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

 

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

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

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

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

Beginning

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

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

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

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

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

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

But there is nothing.

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

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

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

Kress suggests several techniques important to credible prose:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

WriteTip: How To Approach Worldbuilding, Part 1

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

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

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

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

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

Existing or Secondary World

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

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

(The Book of Changes, Robert Silverberg)

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

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

WriteTip: The Dangers and Benefits of Vernacular

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

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

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

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

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

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

For what it’s worth…

A Few Thoughts on Boxes & Character Worldviews

We all live in a box.

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

WriteTip: Techniques For Creating Suspense

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

 

Techniques for Creating Suspense

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Numbers. Always numbers.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Excuse me, sir? Sir?”

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

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

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

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

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

WriteTip: Dialogue and Pacing—Tips to Keep it Moving

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

Dialogue and Pacing (In media res)

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

Johnny opened the door and stepped into his kitchen.

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

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

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

Now what if it were written like this?

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

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

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

“Well, we kinda knew that.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes?”

“Lucas? This is Jennifer.”

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

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

“Who told you this bullshit?”

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

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

“Where was it?”

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

“What do you think?” Leaphorn asked.

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

“Or why?” Leaphorn asked.

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

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

“It’s cold out tonight.”

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

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

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

“You’re not sleeping,” Roger said.

“I’m trying,” Julie replied.

“You answered.”

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

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

She groaned. “Damn it.”

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

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

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

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

Another technique to aid pacing with underplayed dialogue is gesturing.

“Someone’s coming,” Al said.

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

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

“That’s what the boss said, yeah.” 

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

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

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

Next week, we’ll talk about writing action.

WriteTip: What is Dialogue and What is its Purpose?

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

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

The Purpose of Dialogue

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

“Yes,” she blurted out. “I mean, no.”

He chuckled, “Which is it?”

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

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

“Yes?”

“Relax. Let me take charge here.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yep.”

“You drive her home?”

“Yep.”

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

“Okay, what?”

“We do not have to talk about it.”

“We are talking about it.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hey, dude, whassup?” Bob asked.

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

“Meh. Me either.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

            “You knew about it.”

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

            Zylo laughed. “The Alien Leadership Summit.”

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

            “What’s the location?”

            “That’s classified for the Council.”

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

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

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

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

            Zylo chuckled. “Yes, you were.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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