This week’s podcast from Manchester University Press is the third of a six-part series of interviews and centers on viewpoint.
This week’s podcast from Manchester University Press is the third of a six-part series of interviews and centers on viewpoint.
Sooner or later, just about anyone seeking training in the fiction-writing craft is given the adage, “Show! Don’t tell.”
When starting out, newbies generally want to just tell their stories, much as we tell a friend what happened in a TV episode or a book we read recently. Our quick summation gets across the gist. However, the drawback to most narration is that it’s flat and less than involving for the recipient. The individual doing the telling may enjoy it immensely. After all, the story is clear in the teller’s head and imagination. But recipients are often unenthused by dull summations that go on and on.
How, then, do writers show a story? By dramatizing it in scenes–where the conflict that’s taking place between two opponents unfolds moment-by-moment, blow-by-blow, and in verbal exchange-by-verbal exchange. Also, by dramatizing it in sequels–where the viewpoint character hits a scene setback or meets momentary defeat and has to stagger back, react, process, and cook up a new plan of action. Getting the hang of writing dramatically takes time and practice. It requires considerable thought, and it’s a slower writing process than just dashing off a summary of what your characters are doing. But once you get the hang of it, it has the potential to bring stories to life.
Why, then, am I reversing all of that sound, solid writing advice in this post? Am I actually urging you to stop dramatizing and resume telling?
But only under certain conditions and for certain purposes that will benefit your story.
Narrative summary is a specialized tool. Consider the sculptor of metal. This artist uses hammers, tin snips, welders, etc. This artist may also have a small acetylene blowtorch used to create a patina or apply colorization to the finished piece. Does the artist use a flame-thrower all the time? Probably not. But to achieve a particular effect, flame is exactly the right tool.
Like fire, summary possesses some drawbacks, but it offers benefits as well, and sometimes it’s better to tell rather than show.
What if, for example, you’ve written a story that’s stretched longer than your intended market allows? Perhaps you’re writing a children’s fantasy story, and intend to launch a series with it, so you’ve filled it with numerous character introductions, bringing in story people that will span the series beyond this initial book. You’ve thrown in subplots for the same reason. You’ve built a quirky, enchanting (pun intended) world. All of those factors gobble manuscript space. And perhaps you’ve tightened and streamlined all you can, but the scenes just kept marching forward, and the manuscript grew to be much too long.
Do you throw out a subplot? But if you cut it from the midsection then won’t a later reference to it seem contrived? Do you omit some of your characters? But what if you’ve chosen them carefully and ensured you haven’t included anyone extraneous to the plot. In other words, your story is tight but just too long.
The best solution is to pick certain scenes and summarize them. Not because you don’t know better, but because you don’t want to lose their essential contribution to your plot even while you need to reduce page count.
Look at scenes that have been written for character, perhaps to demonstrate or reveal some important character trait or an aspect of a character’s past that will play a subsequent part in the manuscript. Otherwise the scene carries little conflict or dramatic impact. Preserve what’s important and summarize the event.
Look at small scenes that are perhaps amusing or quirky and reduce them to indirect dialogue and a few paragraphs of summary.
Perhaps you’ve written a scene where Igor and Natasha are teaching Pytor how to tame a fire-spider (and no you can’t really use a fire-spider in your fiction because author Jim Hines created the beast and it belongs to him). Pytor is reluctant to learn and the fire-spider is less than cooperative. Maybe the scene is funny, conveys a vivid sense of place, and you just by golly like it, but the only truly important aspect of it is that Pytor needs to be able to minimally handle or control the creature. So you may have to sacrifice all the sparkling dialogue and moment-by-moment account of Pytor getting his fingers scorched while trying to safely pick up the fire-spider and boil down a ten-page event to a paragraph:
It took most of the afternoon to persuade Pytor to even pick up the fire-spider. By the time he’d burned his fingers twice and hopped about, shaking his hands and swearing so vehemently the fire-spider hid under a rock and the ground trembled, Igor was finally able to persuade him to use the gloves. Natasha made certain he understood how necessary it was to handle the fire-spider gently and not crush it in his fist. Natasha also enticed the fire-spider from beneath the rock with bits of a Twinkie she’d brought just to reward it. And eventually Pytor was able to balance the creature on his palm and even remember to orient it so that its head faced any on-coming foes. It was, Igor said resignedly, the best they were going to get, given the approaching deadline and what they had to work with. Pytor by then was too tired to argue. He knew, after all, that Igor considered him unsuitable for the job.
Nothing critical has been lost; the pacing stays quick; and the story can advance with a few less pages.
Boiling down your copy this way, for a valid reason, is effective. It varies how you’re presenting story, which makes your plot seem less predictable to readers. Just keep in mind that you should do this kind of thing in revision and not when you’re writing a rough draft. Otherwise, you’ll backslide into old habits of just telling.
Show, then tell … if you must.
For some reason, chapters tend to baffle newbie novelists. I am frequently asked questions such as
What are they?
How long should they be?
How should they start and end?
Are they the equivalent of a short story? Is a novel a series of short stories strung together in chapters?
Should they have titles?
Let’s take these one at a time.
Chapters divide a novel into sections that psychologically give readers a stopping point. They help to break up a very long story and make it visually less intimidating. They serve to assist writers with transitions, viewpoint changes, and the setting of hooks. They are usually centered around a plot event.
Therefore, if an average-length novel contains roughly 20 plot events–give or take–then there will be approximately 20 or so chapters.
Chapter lengths vary. Time was when chapters were lengthy, featuring perhaps two or three scenes, with sequels in between. But then James Patterson started the trend of very short chapters. His rationale was based on shortening attention spans and multi-tasking, where readers are increasingly distracted by our hectic, modern world. So you might pick up an older, midlist book where chapters run as long as ten or fifteen pages. Or you might decide to read the latest young adult bestseller, where chapters average two to five pages.
The shortest chapter I can recall reading is in Ray Bradbury’s SOMETHING WICKED THIS WAY COMES. It’s one sentence long.
It’s placed somewhere in the midpoint of the book for special effect, and it works beautifully as a transition and pacing change.
Chapters should end with hooks. Chapters should begin with hooks, or viewpoint changes, or time/location changes. Avoid starting each chapter the same way. Avoid ending chapters with your protagonist falling asleep. Set a hook at the end to keep readers turning pages.
Chapters are not short stories and should not be written in the same way. As I’ve already mentioned, they are either focused on a story event, which may involve one scene or two scenes. They may be focused on the aftermath of a major story event, where the protagonist has to pause and process what just happened.
Chapter titles usually appear in fiction for young readers. They serve as a guide or a foreshadowing of what’s about to happen. In effect, they are a tiny hook to keep young readers going. Fiction for adult readers seldom requires them.
When readers settle down to enter your story world and meet your characters and become caught up in your plot, those readers are making an effort to suspend disbelief in the whole thing. They are trying to believe in what you’ve written. They want to make believe with you. They have come willingly to play with you.
It’s a writer’s job then to help readers continue to suspend that disbelief from start to finish.
Various things, however, can bump that fragile suspension. Writer errors, inconsistent characterization, implausible plot events, jarring dialogue, slow pacing due to too much description and explanation, weak scenes, and shoddy viewpoint management are all factors that can jar readers right back to the real world. Jar them too often, and they may give up on the story with impatience, frustration, or a sigh.
After all, they’ve paid good money for the entertainment your book or short story promised them. And that money will be seen as wasted.
So let’s consider these problems one at a time and see how they can be avoided or remedied.
Sometimes known in the business as “gotchas,” these are factual errors or anachronisms that readers catch. Although writers make valiant efforts to research settings, procedures, history, skills, situations, clothing or gear, etc., mistakes can and do happen.
Years ago, I was listening to best-selling thriller novelist Ridley Pearson talk at a writers conference about how he had researched the city of Seattle as a setting for some of his crime novels. He pored over maps. He consulted with Seattle law enforcement. He tracked down every detail he could think of, and then discovered–after his book was published–that he’d gotten the tides wrong and the victim’s body wouldn’t have washed ashore in the way he described. How did he discover it? Readers–maybe even readers from the Seattle sheriff’s department–let him know.
Ouch! Years after his book’s publication, Ridley was still wincing. Because he cared.
Some gotchas are fatal to a book. Others are not.
The fatal ones occur when the storyline is implausible because it’s heavily based on serious writer ignorance. For example, a writer wipes out a plane’s pilot mid-flight and then has a passenger flying the plane to a successful landing … incorrectly. So incorrectly that the plane would crack up if someone actually did what the character executes. Such extreme error occurs when writers fail to research at all, hoping lazily that no one will catch it.
Another form of fatality is to write a string of implausible character actions that leave even lay readers saying, What? Why doesn’t she just … Wouldn’t they do … Shouldn’t it be different than this?
A nonfatal gotcha can often appear as a goof in the setting detail, such as a character threading his car through afternoon rush hour traffic, with the author unaware that the street in that city at that time of day is one-way only. Locals would know it, but the majority of readers probably would not catch it.
A few months ago, I introduced a student to Jim Butcher’s first novel, Storm Front. She really enjoyed the story events, but his minor errors with the Chicago setting bugged her terribly, as she claimed to be very familiar with the locale. So she read the story because I assigned it, but itching and twitching all the way.
Naturally, some gotchas are dependent on the level of reader tolerance. Some readers will find mistakes but shrug them off. Others are bothered, or distracted, or annoyed, or offended. And some readers are themselves wrongly informed about your topic or setting and are too stubborn to believe you’re right.
Recently I read a historical romance set in the French Revolution. The plot was quick and engaging. The characters were likable. The historical period is a favorite of mine. It was evident that the author had done a considerable amount of research on her setting and period details. Since I used to write books in this time frame and have researched it, I was glad to be able to enjoy the book without gotchas.
Until the hero came into his room at a roadside tavern in 1792 France and “set a mug of coffee on the dresser.” It was so anachronistic, so wrong for the period and time, that it jolted me out of the story. I liked the plot and characters enough that I kept reading. But every time they drank coffee on the road or in a house or wherever, I remembered that phrase. Worst of all, I found it progressively harder to suspend disbelief.
You might be thinking, over a tiny detail like coffee? Lighten up!
Yeah, I do try. But you see, in the 1790s, coffee was expensive and hard to come by. It wasn’t available at modest roadside inns and most people couldn’t afford it. And people didn’t have dressers either. They used other types of furniture, but not dressers which came along in the 19th century. Worst of all, the phrase was just too modern. It was perfect for a story set in the 21st century, but not for a story set in the late 18th.
A lot of readers wouldn’t catch this and most might not care. But for me–for this reader–it was a distraction. I read books set in historical times for the flavor of the setting. A modern phrase destroys that ambiance, and it disappoints me. It also made me doubt other details the author was using. It made me doubt the story. I became wary, and my antenna went on alert for more errors that might be lurking in those pages.
Too much doubt, and readers will dump the book. I didn’t stop reading the historical because its author was pretty sound on everything else. But had I caught another glaring anachronism or error, I would have tossed the book aside.
Are you thinking, why didn’t the editor catch it?
Because editors these days are overworked and rely on writers to get things right. This particular author is successful and popular with her readers, so evidently the majority of them aren’t bothered by mugs of coffee on dressers in an era when people drank coffee rarely, went to coffee houses to partake of the beverage, didn’t use mugs unless they were peasants–and even then they were called tankards instead of mugs–and didn’t have dressers because they used wash stands, dressing tables that we would call vanities today, chests of drawers, and wardrobes instead.
Nitpicking? You bet! In all fairness to the author, she was just having the guy bring his lady love some breakfast. But I would have been happier had he whisked a tray from the hands of the chambermaid and put it on the bed so his lady could partake of a dish of tea and a morsel of ham. The lady was English and I don’t think she swallowed tea in the entire novel. And while I’m no tea drinker myself, I do know that it was the beverage of choice in that time period. If the character disliked tea, then the author should have said so and I would have loved her for it.
As a writer, you can’t be 100% perfect, but you should always strive to be as accurate as you possibly can, because you never know who’s reading your fiction or how it’s being interpreted. When you do get things right, readers notice and they are incredibly appreciative that you cared enough about their area of expertise or knowledge to check and double-check.
As we move through the final days of this year, some of us may be lurching along in post-holiday stupor while others are still riding the endorphins of shopping-rush. Then there are the well-ordered, organized souls who are balancing checking accounts, writing donation checks, purchasing tax-deductible items, or shopping for new cars while pre-inventory prices are rock bottom.
When it comes to creating fiction, do you consider yourself a lurching, euphoric, or organized writer?
Let’s narrow the topic further by examining how stories reach their conclusions. Some, you see, are written with a dramatically definitive ending. Others simply stop. And yet others fade, leaving readers to flip back through the last two or three pages, checking numbers to see if the last page has been torn out.
Lurching to a stop:
The lurchers of fiction tend to open with some sort of very exciting hook and a rapid plunge into story action. When that event plays out, the story’s momentum slows or even stalls until the writer thinks up another exciting event to happen next. The story jolts forward, only to slow once more, then picks up again. Story action tends to be rough and feels tacked together (which it is). The conclusion may not make a lot of sense dramatically, but it will be exciting and packed with action, usually putting the protagonist into dire danger.
Generally, there’s the effect of a rushed, incomplete finale. Questions raised within the plot may or may not be answered to reader satisfaction. Some are often forgotten or overlooked.
Because the writers of lurching stories tend to be pantsers instead of planners, the general effect of this approach is slap-dash. It may work … somehow, despite itself … but it may not. It’s a reckless way to write, and it runs the risk of leaving readers dissatisfied with how the story is finished.
Euphoria, Hysteria, and Froth!
The story that relies on its writer’s emotions alone focuses on characters more than plot. How the characters feel propels their motivations, complexities, and actions–although they may not do very much more than make tea and think a great deal about problems that are never actually dramatized on the page.
And while some lovely introspective stories have been published–THE NUMBER ONE LADIES’ DETECTIVE AGENCY by Alexander McCall Smith, for example–an inept or inexperienced writer can float, mull, and philosophize her way into a muddle.
Muddled stories tend to end up trapped in corners, with the writer unsure of how to back out. Therefore, they may simply stop with the protagonist waving tearfully to her lover as he catches his train and is borne away from her.
But is this the end? readers then wonder. How does it work out? Are they parting forever? Is she just going to stand there and weep? Will he come back? Is my book defective and missing the last chapter? How does this thing end?
As writers, we can ache for our beleaguered characters. We can grieve for them, worry over them, cry because of them, but we shouldn’t leave readers asking any of the above questions. It’s possible to finish stories plausibly and conclusively, tying up the loose ends and resolving the main plotline, without sacrificing one droplet of emotional potential.
The Organized Climax:
When one’s artistic soul is pulsating in the raw throes of creation, “organized” is an unpleasant, off-putting word. There’s no glamour to the term organized. It possesses no zing, no zip, no bling, and certainly no appeal. It’s mundane and boring–positively nauseatingly dull. It carries the connotations of hard work, discipline, labor, planning, and drudgery. Rest assured, there is no fun to be had from organized anything.
Or so says the imagination.
Yet the imagination is a lazy trickster that is not always truthful.
Bringing your story to a dramatically satisfying, exciting, intense, enthralling, cathartic conclusion takes planning, thought, and hard work. It should never be drudgery, but it’s seldom easy. If we writers do our jobs well, our stories take readers through the agony of near defeat and the relief of a logical, but unexpected reversal. Loose ends are tied up. The questions are answered. Characters get what they deserve–either good or bad. The story is finished. Readers aren’t left hanging. They’re satisfied because the story has taken them on an emotional journey and delivered the full, entertaining experience it promised.
When you sit down to write your next story, know where you want it to end before you write the beginning. Don’t lurch, leap, and contrive your way there. Think the plot events through so that your protagonist takes logical steps from start to finish. Or if your protagonist’s emotions carry her away from the story goal in pursuit of some tangent, take the time to delete that version and put her back on the path you intend her to follow.
Remember, it’s always the writer’s responsibility to wrap up a story dramatically to the reader’s satisfaction.
How do you entice readers to care about your protagonist? To care enough to sit down and read your story? To take time away from other activities or tasks to read your story to its ending?
Readers have innumerable alternatives to occupy their leisure time, even if it’s just checking their phones for new text messages. There’s no incentive for them to read fiction unless they’re intrigued by a story’s premise or they bond with a protagonist.
Which brings me back to my opening question: how is that bond established and how is it maintained?
Several elements factor into successful character design, but the detail that functions best in bringing a character alive and thereby catching reader attention is that character’s feelings.
Emotions make all the difference.
Consider this example:
The man in the shapeless purple hoodie drew an enormous knife–somewhat bigger than a bowie, almost machete sized.
Luke sized him up, taking note of the crazed desperation in the man’s eyes. Luke hesitated a moment, then smiled. “Dude, you should be careful with that.”
Luke may be smiling, but a reader won’t know if he’s baring his teeth in nervous fear or if he’s even crazier than Purple Hoodie. His emotional reaction is odd, incomprehensible, and on the surface. We experience no perceptions or internalizations from Luke’s viewpoint. It’s hard, if not impossible, to care about him.
Let’s try again:
The man in the shapeless purple hoodie drew an enormous knife–somewhat bigger than a bowie, almost machete sized.
Luke’s breath stilled in his throat. He knew better than to freeze, much less show any fear, but time seemed to slow around him. He noticed everything, from the tremors in Purple Hoodie’s hands to the twitching of the man’s mouth. Luke shifted his weight imperceptibly to the balls of his feet, gauging his chances of survival if the guy went berserk and attacked. Over and over, Luke told himself to stay calm, to keep thinking, to ignore the strangling sensation knotting his windpipe. His palms were sweating, and the air seemed to have left the room.
“Dude,” he whispered, trying without success to sound confident, “you should be careful with that.”
In Version 2, we don’t know much about Luke beyond his fear and how he’s trying not to panic. But his emotion has put some life into him. Version 2 is more interesting than Version 1.
Here’s another example:
The baseball bat swung at Jeff in a blur, cracking across his forearm before he could react. Swearing, Jeff dropped to the ground, then pushed himself back onto his feet. He kicked at his assailant’s shins, but with a laugh the attacker spun around and ran into the dark alley.
Gee, Jeff just received a blow that knocked him off his feet, but it doesn’t slow him down a moment. Does Jeff have super-human powers? Why doesn’t he feel any pain? A writer of this kind of superficial copy might believe readers will imagine what’s left out. Instead, readers will feel indifference and very little sympathy.
Let’s try again:
The baseball bat swung at Jeff in a blur, cracking across his forearm before he could react. Agony flared from his wrist to his shoulder. Jeff cried out, even as he lost his balance and fell. Hitting the ground jolted his arm, bringing another wave of pain that sent chills through his body. His forehead beaded with sweat. Gasping for breath, he curled himself around his injured arm and tried not to whimper. Another blow thudded into his shoulder, then his hip.
Jeff swore under his breath, feeling like he might throw up. His arm had to be broken. But if he continued lying here, he would probably be beaten to a pulp. As soon as he could catch his breath, he rolled over and pushed himself to his knees. He slapped the next blow aside, deflecting it, although the smack of wood against his palm stung hard.
Version 2 is running much longer, isn’t it? I haven’t even gotten Jeff back on his feet, much less fighting back enough to send the assailant running into the shadows.
But do you see how the internalized reactions, emotions, and physical sensations have brought Jeff to life? In Version 1, he’s a cartoon figure. His lack of reaction to a forceful blow creates a sense of unreality. The disconnection between being struck and feeling anything from it overrides any potential excitement in the action.
Without Jeff’s feelings, readers are detached from what’s happening. And if they’re detached, how can they care?
Thanks for your patience as I wrapped up the fantasy textbook and did, indeed, meet deadline.
There were a few frustrating moments as I struggled to make Excel obey me in creating some illustrative charts. And it looked like my elderly computer might crash during submission, but although wheezing the machine held together.
All I can tell you at this point is that the book will cover nuts and bolts writing techniques used principally in fantasy novels, with some amendments for short stories. So if you’ve been wanting to experience my novel-writing course but can’t attend the University of Oklahoma, this will be the next best thing.
Now the manuscript enters the production process with Manchester University Press. If all goes smoothly, it should be published in late fall 2015. Meanwhile, I’ll be taking on the challenge of learning how to make a book index.
The working title is THE FANTASY FICTION FORMULA.