Tag Archives: writing

Setting, Typical & Stereotypical

When does a setting become too typical? When is it overused to the point of being a stereotype? How should a writer fulfill the expectations of readers, supply the tropes that make a story’s locale fit its genre, and yet avoid cliche?

This balancing act is not easy. Meeting the challenge of being fresh–even original–while making readers happy can twist writers into knots of indecision.

Ultimately the solution comes down to an author’s intent, tone, and approach.

Intent:

Are you aiming for a light, whimsical story that will hit a few key elements of location without going into marked detail?

Are you instead creating a serious drama?

Are you striving to supply a backdrop that’s never been used before, one that will startle or even astonish readers?

Tone:

Serious? Light? Moody? Romantic? Creepy? Hilarious? Cynical? Suspenseful? Terrifying? What is it you want your setting to do for your story? Choose any of these suggestions or come up with your own, but be anything but dull, bland, or generic.

Approach:

Choose your setting. Decide on your story opening. Pick the initial scene action. Introduce your characters. Draw on the physical senses to embrace where your story takes place.

These seem like obvious decisions, yet they can’t be neglected or tossed together haphazardly without thought. If the tone doesn’t jive with the intent, or the approach contradicts the tone–details and description will seem subsequently contrived or phony.

Above all, meeting reader expectations may supersede everything else. It’s possible to be original and fail to convince readers the setting is plausible. Too fresh or too different from the norm may contradict audience belief because in certain stories in certain genres, readers want certain elements.

Because we’re approaching Halloween weekend as I type this, I’m going to borrow examples from the classic tale of terror, Dracula by Bram Stoker.

The first image that springs to my mind is Bran Castle in Transylvania.

[Bran Castle]

Although this real castle belonged to Vlad the Impaler, who lived in the 15th century and got his name from impaling his enemies on iron stakes, and although Mr. Stoker drew on Vlad to some degree for inspiration in creating his character Count Dracula, this castle was not the actual setting for the novel. Only through the efforts of Romanian tourism did Bran Castle come to be known as Dracula’s castle. Prior to COVID, you could tour Bran Castle and even spend the night there.

But is this really what Bram Stoker had in mind?

Let’s back up a bit to the novel itself. Stoker described a “ruin of a castle in the Carpathian Mountains.” He mentioned great round arches, immense iron-studded doors, rattling chains, massive bolts clanking, and long passageways.

Well, okay. Those are specific details. They seem plausible enough, if a bit threadbare. However, let’s remember that Stoker came first. Then Hollywood jumped in with visual images that were so effective they became imitated again and again.

[This is Orava Castle in Slovakia, used as the setting for Count Orlok in the 1922 silent film, Nosferatu.]
[This depiction of Count Orlok shows him standing beneath a huge round arch of a doorway, true to Stoker’s description.]

[Dracula’s castle from the Spanish version of the 1931 film starring Bela Lugosi.]

Here, Hollywood created the rugged mountains and a creepy mass of towering stone walls that should make any viewer think, let’s not go in there. Time to turn back.

[Again, from 1931’s Dracula. The set is well designed to convey ruin, decay, arched spaces, and immensity. Note the crumbling stone staircase newel and the tree growing through the window.]

Universal Studios really nailed (pun intended) the sets. So much so that even in 1992, when Dracula was remade yet again, the setting didn’t truly change. Starting in 1958, Hammer Studios put Christopher Lee in the role but kept the usual setting.

[Christopher Lee up to no good before Peter Cushing as Van Helsing manages to stake his heart.]

[Van Helsing at work in a Hammer classic film.]

[The castle from the 1992 version of Dracula. Back again to the same old standard.]

What can be done that’s different? Well, there’s the 1979 comedic parody, Love at First Bite, starring George Hamilton and Susan St. James, that has the count kicked out of his castle by a communist Romanian government. Homeless, he’s forced to travel to New York City where no one’s afraid of him and disco dancing is all the rage. It’s a funny film because the count is a fish out of water. To the extent of the tone and approach the filmmakers wanted, it succeeds. But is it the Dracula most audiences think of or long to see? Not quite.

[George Hamilton in the 1979 Love at First Bite.]
[Mandatory Credit: Photo by Daily Mail/Shutterstock (897295a) Film: Dracula (1979) Starring Frank Langella As Dracula Film: Dracula (1979) Starring Frank Langella As Dracula]

Both of these 1979 films took Dracula to new settings. But unlike Love at First Bite, the Frank Langella version stayed in the 19th century and kept the count in cemeteries and old stone crypts.

In 2004, the film Van Helsing kept a similar look to the backdrop but relied on special effects and monstrous creatures.

So what’s the answer? When in doubt, study the actual setting. Find the reality and use that as a foundation. To repeat Stoker’s description from the novel: “a ruin of a castle in the Carpathian mountains.”

I ran a Google search for those mountains, which span across Romania, Poland, and the Ukraine. I also looked up ruined castles in that region. Here’s what turned up:

[A Carpathian castle ruin.]

Hmm. Looks like the set designers all the way back to the 1920s did their research. Looks like Mr. Stoker did also. So the commonalities are therefore typical of the setting. They are true to the story. They are plausible. They are authentically creepy. They are what readers–or film goers–expect. At some point, a writer must decide whether to buck a tradition this powerful or accept it and use it. If the latter, offer your audience originality elsewhere in the story to compensate.

Even better, create a new predator character of your own instead of clinging to old Dracula’s cape.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Setting and Plot

If you’re thinking you can plunk your action scene in any old gritty dark alley in Generic City, USA, then you’re shortchanging the dramatic potential of your story. For one thing, there are no generic cities in America–or anywhere else in the world. (I would love to plunge into the character of European cities, for example, but for the purposes of this post, I’m going to focus on the US.) Each major metropolis has its own unique vibe, character, and tempo whether it’s a planned retirement community in Miami, where the condos are sleek, modern, too manicured to look real, and the inhabitants wear Bermuda shorts and sweaters tied around their necks, or winding narrow streets and back ways in Baltimore, or avenues of abandoned old mansions in Detroit. Yes, there are elements common to nearly all large cities, but the atmospheres of New York City, Ft. Worth, and St. Louis are far from identical. What could be more divergent than New Orleans, El Paso, and San Diego? Are you dodging the selection of a big city because you don’t want to do the research? If so, why choose a location you don’t know?

Let’s move on to the dark alley as a scene locale:

While not all real alleys are dark–or even gloomy–writers of many genres find them to be practical places for various sorts of nefarious activities and/or danger. If you haven’t ventured into an alley lately, try it. Even in broad daylight, an alley can have a decidedly creepy, abandoned, utilitarian vibe that makes you feel surreptitious, as though you shouldn’t be there. Darkness, naturally, adds to dramatic tension and helps build suspense. After all, darkness hinders the physical sense of sight, which humans depend on. Darkness triggers primitive survival instincts. Darkness offers crime the opportunity to flourish. Therefore, alleys–both creepy and dark–are infinitely useful to fiction writers.

I am not taking dark alleys away from you. Instead, for this post, I want you to reason through an impulse to use a dark alley. We’ll take it one step at a time:

Why is this alley dark? Is it just because alleys are always dark and spooky? Or is it because Vinny the Villain is laying a trap and has shot out all the mercury vapor lights on the backs of the buildings? Aha, it’s a trap. Okay, good. Now we understand that Vinny is luring someone there. Why? For revenge? For a shakedown? For a kidnapping?

More importantly, who is Vinny after? The protagonist, perhaps? Is Vinny planning to ambush Henry Hero? What if Vinny is instead after Lucy Love, the light of Henry’s life?

What, specifically, is Vinny’s objective here, and what else besides breaking the lights has he done in preparation for his trap? Are henchmen or minions scattered around to put the odds in Vinny’s favor? Will Vinny be helped or hindered by the darkness? Will the confrontation go as planned? What if it doesn’t?

Such questions as these are designed to guide you through plotting in a logical and cohesive way. They serve to help you shape plot and visualize what your characters might encounter as they move into confrontations with each other. By mulling over questions like these, liking some of them and discarding others, you’re systematically planning your story instead of just jumping impulsively from one character action to another.

I have some additional questions:

Firstly, why this particular alley? A big city has many, so why choose this one? Did Vinny select it because of its proximity to the location where Henry Hero is expected to be? Or does he like it because it’s a dead end and Henry can be trapped into a shootout? Maybe, instead, this alley cuts through an area and provides a shortcut? No, wait. If Vinny is planning an ambush, then a shortcut doesn’t fit story needs. On the other hand, if Vinny is planning a shakedown instead of an assassination, then maybe an alley that goes somewhere is best for his purposes.

Plotting, you see, is always about making choices and weighing options that are in line with each other. Plotting is not really about plunking your characters into a bland, one-size-fits-all location and forcing them into haphazard confrontation.

Let’s ask some more questions:

What else is present in this metropolitan alley? Remember that alleys in Smalltown are different from those in Metropolis. Some alleys in Smalltown will be unpaved, muddy, full of broken glass. In Metropolis, some are designed to give people parking spaces off the street. Others are for the use of delivery or garbage trucks, so these byways are often filled with litter and feature Dumpsters and recycling receptacles, loading docks, ramps, and utility doors.

Do homeless people shelter in this alley? If so, what types of detritus, cardboard-box sleeping quarters, and trash are scattered around? Are there narrow side yards containing guard dogs that will snarl, bite, and bark? Are there security cameras? What does this alley look and smell like? Are there rats?

Okay, maybe my questions are starting to overwhelm you. You’re thinking I go way overboard with too many questions and details. But my alley is coming to life. It’s becoming vivid in my imagination. How’s your generic one doing?

Maybe you don’t want to deal with Vinny the Villain at all. Maybe you just need a corpse found in a dark alley so you can insert a crime scene into your story. No problem! Let’s consider this body and where it’s been dumped.

How did it end up in this alley? Was the victim killed here, or was the victim murdered elsewhere and brought to this place? If the latter, how was the body transported? What forensic evidence will be left? Were there any witnesses? If you’re writing about Smalltown and it’s a graveled alley where the trash cans are kept at the back of people’s yards, does anyone’s dog bark? Is the killer seen by a teenage girl sneaking into her house long after curfew? If your story is in Metropolis, is the killer observed by a homeless man? And if that scenario has worn too thin for you, is the killer seen by a well-dressed couple out walking after going to the theater? After all, in NYC’s Broadway district, that’s when cabs are hard to get. In San Diego, the couple might be walking because it’s a beautiful evening and they want to watch the moon shining over the bay.

Why was this particular alley chosen as a dumping point for the body, as opposed to any other alley in the community? Please don’t tell me it was just random, and the villain didn’t plan anything. Because if so, then why wasn’t the murder planned? And if not planned, what are the consequences for the killer who now must weigh options or else be caught immediately?

The more you think through the details involved in where your story action takes place, the more specific and non-generic you’ll be. The more specific you are, the more believable your setting becomes. And the more vivid and plausible your setting, the more your story comes alive.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

The Power of Setting

This post launches a new series of tips and strategies for handling fiction locales.

In the realms of science fiction and fantasy, the setting–or story world–is so important that it’s considered a character.

But what about other genres? How important is setting to the success of romances, mysteries, thrillers, horror, or westerns? Won’t any old backdrop do? After all, it’s the story people and plot that matter, right?

Uh, not entirely.

The backdrop matters a great deal. It should not be bland and generic, interchangeable, or forgettable. Balance is important, of course. You don’t want your story’s setting to overwhelm everything else. It’s fiction, after all, not a travelogue. However, the vague, one-setting-fits-all location will bring nothing to your fiction party.

Therefore, consider the following questions:

How will your setting affect the plot?

How will your setting affect your characters?

How will your setting affect the imagery, tone, and mood of the story?

Is your setting bland or vivid? Why?

Is your setting stereotypical or fresh?

How much research will your setting require?

In the posts to come, I’ll be addressing each of these questions in further detail.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Swamp Survival Strategy 6: Increase the Suspense Quotient

Usually most genre books have some degree of built-in suspense as to their eventual outcome. Romance is an exception, in that the outcome nearly always results in a relationship commitment between the two primary characters. However, the misunderstandings and tribulations they endure create a small degree of suspense over how they will work things out.

Basically, if a book is written with a goal-centered protagonist opposed directly by an antagonist, then readers turn pages with some degree of suspense/anticipation as to how, where, why, and whether the protagonist will succeed.

Thrillers, suspense, mystery, and urban fantasy books, naturally, employ additional methods to heighten suspense from start to finish. And therefore, as a swamp strategy, I strongly suggest that you borrow some of these techniques to help fill a sagging story middle. It not only perks up reader interest, but I have found that it keeps me more involved in my story. The writing process stays fun instead of becoming a monotonous slog.

Let’s look at some of the ways suspense can be generated or boosted.

Establish reader sympathy for the next victim. By the center of the book, you should have a strong bond built between your protagonist and readers. However, if your midpoint is going to feature the death of a secondary or minor character as a shocker plot twist, then make sure you put a brief spotlight on this individual and feature some action or personality revelation that makes him or her either likable, vulnerable, or poignant. Take care with this approach because you don’t want to telegraph the danger that’s about to strike. But if you can evoke reader sympathy–however briefly–then the shocker will carry stronger emotional impact. Sympathy can be launched in a sentence or two. No massive character background info-dump is necessary.

Set a clock ticking in the second act. Whether the deadline is a literal one or a psychological one, establishing that time is running out brings a sense of urgency that keeps plots from losing momentum. Ticking clocks can be a bomb detonator set to explode at a certain hour. It can be a slow-acting poison administered to someone the protagonist cares about, necessitating a race to find an antidote. It can be a looming hurricane approaching the coast and forcing people to evacuate. It can be criminals holding hostages in a bank.

Don’t open that door. The ancient Greeks created the myth of Pandora’s box to illustrate the dangers of curiosity. Without being curious, mankind can’t move forward or make discoveries. Yet curiosity can tempt the unwary into all sorts of difficulties. As a suspense technique, the “door” that shouldn’t be opened can be an address or locale that’s off limits. It can be an actual locked door within a spooky old house. It can be the questions asked by an investigator or the background check on a suspect. Is there a place in your story’s middle where your protagonist can prowl in forbidden areas? Secrets are always fascinating, aren’t they?

Set up a series of obstacles. Some thrillers put their protagonists through a harrowing ordeal of physical challenges. Think of every James Bond plot you’ve ever read or watched. Sooner or later, Bond must infiltrate the lair/stronghold/citadel/laboratory/mansion of the villain–working his way past guards, traps, sharks, pitfalls, attack dogs, and henchmen. Throw in a ticking clock or sense of urgency, add a dose of extra sympathy, and make certain your protagonist is trying to open a door that shouldn’t be unlocked, and your plot will benefit. However, if your story isn’t action-adventure, then a series of obstacles can be a series of riddles to be solved or optical illusions to master or a spellcasting to countermand. Cracking a code or deciphering the missing element in a chemical formula are variations of obstacles.

Isolate your characters. Whether your protagonist actually infiltrates the villain’s territory by venturing behind enemy lines, or simply remains behind to hold on while sidekicks are sent for help, the point of this tactic is to isolate your main character and thereby intensify the danger he or she is in. In Agatha Christie’s suspense masterpiece, AND THEN THERE WERE NONE, the entire group of characters is immediately isolated by being lured to a remote island without any means of leaving. Their isolation casts an initial feeling of unease over the company, and when deaths start occurring, their entrapment with no way to get help adds to their danger. Although in contemporary fiction the invention of cell phones mitigates this effect, writers simply create dead zones, make Wi-Fi unreliable, or drop calls. Think how cut off and uneasy you feel if you inadvertently leave your phone behind. Emails and texts can’t reach you–bliss–but you can’t help but wonder, what if I should need to reach someone in an emergency?

Use atmosphere. Let the works of Edgar Allen Poe guide you in how to employ atmosphere, mood, setting, and even weather to increase the creepy factor your book may need. Storms and downpours create an atmosphere of gloom and isolation. They hamper our senses. Be sensitive to the setting details you’re mentioning or describing. Radiant sunshine in a lovely flower-strewn meadow makes us happy. Booming thunder and hammering cold rain make us huddle for shelter and dive into caves or creepy old deserted houses where we shouldn’t normally venture.

Danger should be real. Beware of creating phony danger that turns out to be a false alarm. It’s inadvisable to warn of danger, to build anticipation toward your protagonist having to confront that danger, and then end up rescued in the nick of time or finding nothing in the locked room after all. This kind of plotting is, at best, weak. At its worst it’s known in the writing biz as a “paper tiger.” Fake danger is considered a cheap trick, and it infuriates readers. Earlier this week, I was listening to a half-hour old radio program from the 1950s, a mystery featuring the detective Rick Diamond. Normally Rick is snarky, self-assured, and always investigating his way into trouble that beats him up, shoots at him, or knocks him cold. This particular episode featured a murder victim that had been beaten to death. Details were gruesome, including a broken back and crushed throat. Rick, of course, ended up locked in a cellar with a creepy giant of a man who intended to do the same kind of violence to him. Up till this point, the story had been suspenseful and harrowing. Imagining Rick scrambling in that gloomy cellar, trying to avoid grappling with an immense man with long swinging arms and a habit of muttering to himself about “having to kill another one,” was hair-raising stuff. And then, just as Rick was about to be snapped in half, rescue arrived–very contrived rescue–with an awkward verbal explanation of how the police lieutenant just happened to figure out Rick was there and in trouble. No doubt, the writer ran out of time or minutes or ideas and had to do something to meet the deadline, but his “solution” was a phony and a cheat. It made me angry that I’d wasted time listening to it. That’s the worst Diamond program I’ve ever encountered. Actually, it’s the only bad script I’ve come across in the Diamond episodes, so I won’t give up on the show but I’ll never trust it quite the same way again.

These are a few tactics to add danger, zest, unpredictability, and excitement to the central portion of your book. Thrillers employ these and more from start to finish, but I’ve chosen these because they work very well for second acts. Utilize them all or just a few or simply one, and see if you aren’t happier with the result.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Swamp Survival Strategy 5: Surprise Central

The center of novels written for the commercial genre market generally serves up a shocking plot twist or a large, highly anticipated pivotal event that marks a turning point for the characters and sends them rushing toward the finale.

Either approach is fine. Each has its own merits. Let’s look at them separately.

Wowza Surprise Injection:

We owe this method in part to thrillers and their dominance over the entertainment market. Yet any genre can utilize this technique. After all, what’s better than jolting readers with a logical but unanticipated plot twist? Depending on the type of story, this stinger can be funny, tragic, heartrending, scary, horrific, tragic, dangerous, or intensely romantic.

Two evenings ago, I was reading the latest John Sandford thriller, OCEAN PREY, and the middle of the book served up a doozy I didn’t see coming. I won’t spoil it, but it was a big shock. I didn’t expect it. I didn’t like it. I wish it hadn’t happened. However, it was logical. It made sense. The story events supported it. It raised the stakes. It fit the thriller genre perfectly by providing both thrill and chill. It’s the kind of plotting that put Sandford on the bestseller list to begin with and keeps him there, year after year. It gave me my money’s worth even before I finished reading the book.

Unexpected central events can come into a story as a huge confrontation between oppositional characters. It can be a startling revelation. In whatever form it takes, the surprise should deliver maximum entertainment value (up to that point in the story; remember the climax must top this.) Whatever it does, it should grab reader attention in a big way.

Spoiler Alert: In the mystery novel HOT MONEY by Dick Francis, the protagonist’s father’s home is exploded by a bomb in the book’s middle. In the urban fantasy, FOOL MOON by Jim Butcher, a horrific demonic monster breaks loose in a police station and kills cops, nearly destroys the building, and injures the protagonist who tries to stop it.

Even in quieter stories, the surprising plot twist is placed to wake up the saggy middle and give it fresh dramatic punch. In romantic fiction, for example, the center of the book can be where either member of the couple reaches the realization of intense physical attraction for the other. Or it may be the first bedroom scene of the book.

Disadvantages to the shocker plot twist:

  1. It may prove impossible to top this plausibly. Evaluate this plot development carefully to make certain you have a bigger and more compelling finish.
  2. You must plant for it, so that when it occurs it seems logical to readers, but take care you don’t give it away.
  3. It can be so shocking and destructive that it generates an enormous letdown in the aftermath. This can slow pacing too much, and some writers find it difficult to regain their story’s momentum.
  4. Avoid the temptation to kill your protagonist in the middle of the book. Although this may seem clever to you while you’re deep in the throes of swamp floundering, it’s rarely a brilliant idea. It’s extremely difficult to persuade readers to shift over to a new lead character.

Anticipated Pivotal Event:

This confrontation or story event is dangled before readers and characters from the book’s opening. Signals are clear that it’s coming and it won’t be pretty. Anticipation–and its by-product of suspense–builds scene by scene, leading up to whatever is going to take place.

The central pivotal event is a signal–well understood by readers–that the swampy middle is ending, and the author is about to lead everyone into Act III of the story. Up until this point, the protagonist probably had a safety line of some kind that would allow retreat. From the central event, however, there is no turning back. Whatever happens, the story stakes should go up. A gauntlet is thrown.

In some mysteries, a major clue is discovered that may turn the investigation around. In some thrillers, the killer’s identity is exposed. In some women’s fiction, marital infidelity may be revealed, shaking the relationship apart. In romance, the couple may break up. In science fiction, the ship may be severely damaged, putting everyone’s life in danger.

This type of looming central event must fulfill all the anticipatory buildup leading to it. Therefore, it must be large and it must be long in word count. That’s because in reader perception, length equals importance.

In the twentieth century, book chapters tended to be much longer than they are now. For example, Dean Koontz’s breakout thriller, WHISPERS, features a 7,500-word scene of intense, dangerous action between two characters. It’s tightly focused. The goals are directly oppositional–one wants to kill the other–and there’s nothing extraneous, nothing padded. With a single scene exceeding the length of a conventional short story, this is obviously of deep importance to the plot. We call this type of confrontation a Big Scene. It’s long, dynamic, impossible to put down, and very much delivering on reader expectation.

However, thanks to the influence of marketing guru, James Patterson, writing in the twenty-first century has become broken into smaller segments reflective of how people absorb information in quicker bursts, with myriad distractions vying for attention. Chapters today may be only 1,000 words–or less–so does that mean the Big Scene has become extinct?

It does not.

Instead, authors employ what we refer to as a Scene Cluster. This is three or more very short scenes jammed together without aftermath or character reaction. The clustering allows authors to keep the intensity or danger going, and the pacing very fast, but the segmentation allows viewpoint cross-cutting or stopping points for readers who may be interrupted. Once the cluster is over, then a long reaction is supplied to carry across all the scenes that were clustered into a single pivotal event.

While the Big Scene and the Scene Cluster are two very different writing structures, they accomplish the same result of spinning out and fully developing a momentous, terrible, horrific event taking place in your characters’ lives.

Disadvantages to the Central Pivotal Event:

  1. It can be challenging to build anticipation for the coming confrontation while not boring readers. The solution lies in finding fresh ways to keep raising the stakes just a little, just a little more, and more until the suspense seems unbearable. Simply relying on repetition will make readers impatient and jaded.
  2. Scene clusters can be difficult to manage without splitting story focus or losing control of what’s happening in a logical, cause-and-effect pattern. If you’re trying to juggle two or three viewpoints, stay aware of your protagonist and don’t let other characters seize too much limelight.
  3. Scene Clusters run the risk of losing reader involvement since the story action doesn’t stop to allow viewpoint character reaction to what’s happening. This is dangerous ground. Tread carefully.
  4. Either a Big Scene or a Scene Cluster must deliver whatever has been built up for it, and then add a little extra.
  5. Remember that the Climax of the book must top whatever happens in the story’s middle.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Swamp Survival Strategies 4: Managing Viewpoint, Part b

Some writers–including the late mystery author Tony Hillerman–consider single viewpoint to be the perfect POV. It is by far the easiest to manage, and keeps your plot focused.

However, if your story is one that requires multiple perspectives, then you need to know

when to switch,

where to switch,

to whom to switch

for your story–especially in its middle section–to achieve its full potential as reader-enthralling entertainment. In genre fiction, multiple viewpoints means you’re shifting from one limited viewpoint to another at strategic points for specific reasons. Viewpoint is not shifted at random or just because you can’t think of anything better to do with your story.

By limited, I mean you stay in one viewpoint at a time, for the duration of a scene, or a chapter, or a section of the story, and then you change to another.

Viewpoint shouldn’t jump at author whim.

Viewpoint shouldn’t float, uncontrolled, meandering from the perspective of several characters within a scene or conversation.

Limited viewpoint means that you maintain the illusion and integrity of any given viewpoint as long as you are inside that character’s skin.

Now, for any character in your cast to be given a POV, that character should meet the following criteria–even if only temporarily:

*Will this character be at the center of the story action?

*Will this character have everything at risk?

*Will this character’s struggle toward a goal be the fuel driving this portion of the plot?

*Will this character be altered or changed by the scene’s outcome?

If a character in your story lacks leadership qualities, is not a doer, is not someone who gets involved, is passive and stands aside from what happens to others, is dispassionate, and is content to watch the world go by, this individual should NOT be a POV.

Therefore, only proactive characters should carry viewpoints.

Viewpoint Rules

#1–Never switch POV just to show what another character is thinking.

As you write a book, you develop an idea of how well a the protagonist’s viewpoint is working and whether you need more perspectives.

A careful selection of POVs will help focus the story and keep you on track.

One or two viewpoints is sufficient for short books.

Up to four viewpoints are enough for longer, complex books.

Remember that each viewpoint you add to your story serves to expand the plot and render it more dimensional. That, in turn, makes your job in writing it more challenging.

Consequently, with multiple viewpoints you should plot and graph where and at which key, dramatic points these different plots will intersect because each viewpoint constitutes a subplot. That’s why you should limit your POV selections to characters with whom you can empathize, understand, or care about. Even more importantly, limit your POV selections to a number you can comfortably handle.

If you can’t find some emotional link between you and a character, don’t include that perspective just for the sake of variety.

#2–Change POV to follow the story.

If you story bogs down–possibly during the dismal middle–then perhaps you need a viewpoint shift. It will perk up a story that’s losing momentum. It will give you fresh material, and it will intrigue readers.

Anytime your protagonist must be sidelined for a short time in the story world, if exciting events are taking place, shift to whatever character is at the center of those events.

It can be fun also to put your protagonist in a tough spot, then shift away to a different character. You follow this second perspective through a setback and leave Character 2 teetering on a metaphorical (or actual) cliff edge, then shift back to your protagonist’s POV.

#3–Change POV to heighten danger or suspense in your story.

For example, when you shift to the villain’s perspective, and this individual is busy planning some way to foil, defeat, or harm the protagonist, then threat is immediately heightened because readers are now aware of impending danger while the hero is not.

This tactic carries with it advantages and disadvantages, which should be weighed.

Advantage:

Shifting viewpoint to show impending danger will cause readers to turn pages more quickly. They’ll read faster with heightened involvement. They want to warn the protagonist, but, because they can’t, anticipation rises within them. They read anxiously, not wanting to miss a word of the approaching danger.

Disadvantage:

Shifting viewpoint to the villain destroys the element of surprise. When danger strikes the protagonist, there’s no plot twist.

Also, if readers know too much more than the protagonist for too long, they tend to grow impatient. They unfairly expect the protagonist to solve problems more quickly.

#4–Change POV to show character motivation.

This isn’t the same thing as jumping between characters from paragraph to paragraph to share what they’re thinking. Instead, you limit yourself to a single perspective from start to finish within a scene. Then shift POV after the scene ends to show Character 2’s reaction in viewpoint.

For example, in a romance story, doing this serves to keep the hero sympathetic early in the plot when he might be acting rude, arrogant, or unhelpful. Shifting into his viewpoint shows readers why he’s behaving the way he is, and also that he’s really a decent guy.

#5–The most effective POV shifts occur at the end of chapters.

You gain the advantage of a natural break point with a structural separation that helps readers transition smoothly into the perspective of the new POV character.

Most chapters end at the setback of a strong, conflictful scene. That setback provides a powerful hook where things look bleak for the protagonist. Then, when you switch chapters, shift to a different POV character. Doing this entices readers to keep going instead of putting the story down for a while.

#6–Viewpoint can also be shifted between scenes within a chapter.

I don’t see this technique used much these days. Chapters have become very short, thanks to the influence of writers such as James Patterson. But in older fiction, you’ll see a long chapter separated by a space break and possibly a POV shift.

#7–NEVER shift viewpoint within a scene.

Doing this disrupts reader suspension of disbelief. It splits the scene’s focus. It also muddles the identity of the scene’s protagonist. Finally, this muddles the scene setback because who wins and who loses? Shifting perspective within a scene creates a diffused goal intention, split focus, confusing stimulus/response, and a weak or missing setback that fails to firmly resolve the scene or set a hook for what’s to come next.

2 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

Contradictions

My official stance on editing as you write your rough draft is don’t do it. I always say, keep going and don’t second-guess yourself until you’ve completed the draft.

Yet, how do you follow that sweeping advice if you honestly don’t know what you’re doing? What if you’ve never written fiction before, or are tackling your first novel? It’s like being trapped in a fun-house, with dead ends, distorted mirrors, and wobbly floors. Just as you think you see the path ahead of you in whatever scene you’re going to write next, the dialogue falls apart, or it doesn’t go as planned, or you hate it. How are you supposed to keep going while the whole structure of your premise is crumbling around you?

It’s next to impossible.

However, if you began your story with an ending in mind, you should keep floundering forward. You may have to rewrite certain passages or redesign certain scenes because your first effort flopped and the artist inside you is howling with frustration. But rewrite that troublesome character conversation once or twice and then–if you still dislike it–flag it for later and move on.

WHY?

QUESTION: If you’re rewriting chapter one for the fifteenth time and still not getting anywhere with it, what are you accomplishing?

ANSWER: A big case of writer’s block.

Grinding a problematic section over and over and over and over without having a clue how to fix it is only creating frustration. Meanwhile, the story isn’t advancing. And you aren’t making progress toward anything except the death of your idea.

I’m sure you’ve read or heard the adage about the best way to learn how to write is to write, but while that’s glib and seems wise superficially, it can’t be your sole mantra.

If you perpetually write in error, violating story principles you don’t know, and you hit one dead end after another, grind your story to death, then abandon it–all you’re accomplishing is the reinforcement of error. You’re creating bad habits and training yourself never to bring any story you attempt to completion.

It’s been said that it takes 30 days of repeating a task or action to form a habit. If you start a story, get stuck, and toss it aside–how long until that variety of non-production becomes a habit?

Conversely, skipping over problems every time you hit one carries the danger of creating another bad habit–one of never solving plot holes. It’s entirely possible to blithely disregard a technical flaw in the cause of forcing a story forward no matter what. I did exactly that early in my writing career because I had a book deadline and I wanted to take a small vacation, so I hurried along by hammering out my daily page quota and paid no attention to a scene I goofed up. I took the trip, did not enjoy it because my story sense was screaming by then, and–once home again–had to work many long, hard hours to rewrite over 100 pages of material to correct my mistake and still meet deadline.

Now, here I’ve told you to keep going, but I’ve also told you not to skip/disregard problems. Is that contradictory? Yes, I think it qualifies, so I’ll explain:

Keep going, but when you stumble over a problem or find yourself facing a scene you don’t know how to write, pause and think it over. Is it an issue of changing viewpoint but you’ve never written multiple viewpoint before and you aren’t sure this is the right thing to do? Is it a difficulty in that your scene is long and complicated with six characters to juggle, and nothing is coming out where you want it to?

Pause and seek technical assistance. Look up scene construction in your books on writing technique. Consult the rules of changing viewpoint. Then think about what you’ve read and consider how your problematic passage is meeting those technique rules or falling short. Think about how you might approach your material differently and how the consequences of such change might affect your story outline.

In the viewpoint example, ask yourself why you want to change viewpoint at this point in the story. Is it to follow the story action? Has your protagonist suddenly become sidelined and is no longer central to the exciting story events? Why has this happened? Have you lost focus? Is another character becoming more intriguing to you than your dull protagonist? Why did you let your central, lead player become boring? What could you do to enliven your star again?

If you really want to show the villain making plans to ambush your protagonist and you think switching viewpoint will heighten the suspense, that’s a sound dramatic reason for doing so. However, do you plan to use the villain’s viewpoint more than once in the novel, and if so, have you plotted that? Before you make a decision, weigh the pros and cons of heightening suspense with the risk of giving too much away versus the advantage of an unexpected plot twist striking your hero without warning. It’s a judgment call of anticipatory suspense versus an unpredictable jolt of danger.

As for the complicated scene example, juggling six characters who are all upset, angry, or distraught is a difficult challenge for the most seasoned writer. Generally, scene conflict works most efficiently and dramatically when it’s narrowed down to two characters. Could you possibly divide your conflict into three smaller scenes, with your protagonist confronting one or two irate characters at a time? Or, could you push five characters into the background while the most vocal among them becomes the spokesperson?

After you’ve researched and thought, write a correction. It may wobble and still fall short, but chances are it will be on track enough for you to continue forward.

If it still doesn’t work, ask yourself if your story needs it at all. Experience has taught me that one or two futile attempts means I need to cut that section. There’s nothing to be gained by stubbornly beating your head against an immovable wall.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Making Progress

Just letting you know that I am pouring every spare moment right now into revising my book on revision. Fortunately this week–so far!–I haven’t suffered serious power outage like many of my friends. However, there are flickers and blinks.

Even as I just typed the above paragraph, the power cut off then back on. Yikes!

Needless to say, entering my corrections into the book’s document file is flirting with danger. My nerves today have suffered enough of that.

And, yes, if you’re wondering … I compose on the computer, then print out a paper version and proofread it with manual line editing with a red, green, or bright pink pen–whatever strikes my fancy. I stick with the same ink color through a single pass. As I go back through, I’ll change color to something else. That way, I know what draft I’m on. It mattered less in the past, when I could really concentrate on editing. These days, I’m so frequently interrupted that I need every device, method, and gimmick I can find to stay on track.

Once I’m done line editing, I then get back on the computer and enter my corrections. Laborious? Yes. Tedious? Sometimes. Necessary? I think so.

Why don’t I just edit off the computer screen and save myself all that work?

Because I do that, too. And because I comprehend better from paper. I work faster from paper.

A few years ago, the Smithsonian conducted a study that showed human comprehension is greater from reading paper than screen. Since their findings validated my already-formed opinion, I’m sticking with it.

We each have our own habits, our own methods.

October has been wild and crazy on the personal front. Sometimes I lift my head and ask myself, where did my favorite month go? Could I rewind, please, and have a chance to enjoy it?

Now I’m thinking, can November be put on pause so I can maybe, despite everything, finish this book? But instead I should just be satisfied to have power restored and operating smoothly. Then I at least have a chance to make deadline.

6 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

Explain the Game

The sibling genres of Fantasy and Science Fiction feature unknown worlds, unusual inhabitants, and extraordinary adventures. They carry readers into lands of enchantment or embed them into a matrix of the fantastic.

Although this holds tremendous appeal and draws readers like bees to honey, it presents writers with the challenge of how to make the unknown knowable without getting in the story’s way.

After all, description and exposition are the two slowest-paced modes of discourse in writing. If allowed to continue too long, they bog down the story or stop it altogether. Traditional fantasy is especially prone to the awful explanatory info-dump at a story’s opening, where the hapless but eager writer shoves page after page after page after page of background, mythology, history, and foretellings of the as-yet-unborn protagonist’s destiny at readers.

Writers can’t toss aside description altogether. That leaves readers disoriented, with next-to-no way of imagining the settings or characters.

Background–if pertinent–can’t be dodged either. There’s so much to learn if readers are to understand what’s happening and why.

Fortunately, there are solutions. Here are a few:

  1. Take your time. You don’t have to explain everything in a single, twenty-page passage. Inject a paragraph here and there as you go, supplying the bare minimum of information to help readers understand ramifications or context of what’s happening in the story action.
  2. Explain immediately before or after an exciting scene. This will help position your characters for an upcoming conflict or, immediately following a scene, it will help your viewpoint character–and readers–process what just happened.
  3. Avoid long explanations during slow spots in your story. Are you becoming bogged down in the middle of your story, where your characters are slogging along on their quest to the fabled caverns of Mitharia and have nothing to do except choke on road dust and explain to each other why it’s so important to go there, defeat the demons now guarding the ancient treasure, and solve the riddles an oracle will ask before letting them inside? You might suppose, given that no action is happening, that this would be the perfect place to inject lots and lots of background information. WRONG! Do not place slow informational passages in a plot’s slowest spots. (Use Suggestion #2.)
  4. Dialogue of information is bad. No one is forbidding your characters from discussing their situation. Dialogue of information, however, is where two characters who already fully know and understand a story problem are discussing it solely to inform readers. It comes across as hokey and stilted and artificial.
  5. Let your characters USE their props and gadgets instead of marveling at them. No matter how fantastic such items might be to readers, the characters should treat them as part of everyday life without pausing the story for descriptive admiration. After all, do you admire the sleekness of your iPhone each time you pick it up to check your inbox, Instagram feed, or weather report? (Only if you just bought a new phone, perhaps.)
  6. Make description as vivid and specific as possible. This will not only strengthen your writing, but it will help you keep necessary description short and effective. Consider the following: The dagger was ornate and shiny. It was long with a curved point. It had obviously been designed for use in ceremonies since it was too fancy for any common purpose. The hilt seemed heavy, but that’s because it was ornamented with many jewels and probably made of solid gold. Now compare it with this: Johan picked up the heavy ceremonial dagger, glittering from its jeweled hilt down to the wickedly sharp point of its curved silver blade. “How many sacrificial throats have you sliced, my beauty?” he murmured.
  7. Improve your verbs. Avoiding the flabby weakness of to-be verbs not only strengthens writing but also serves a descriptive purpose. For example: The door dilated open. That conveys an immediate image in a reader’s mind of a round orifice spiraling open. It also shows readers a glimpse of the setting’s unique architecture.
  8. Put nomenclature to work. All of the places, plants, animals, geographical features, cities, etc. that writers invent will require names. While it’s fun to generate exotic ones, make them descriptive to help readers comprehend the object quickly. For example: stingfly instead of jornak.

2 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

Clothes Make the Character

When you’re designing a character–especially your protagonist–do you know what’s hanging in her closet? Do you even think about this individual’s wardrobe, or do you just imagine her in a pair of yoga pants and a generic white tee-shirt?

After all, don’t you have enough to do already with choosing personality traits, age, hair color, background details, and deep inner flaw?

Uh, no. You need to do more.

Because while you’re attending to all those details–and juggling plot decisions at the same time–you should also be thinking about what a character is going to wear for those upcoming scenes of conflict.

Really?

Yes!

If we want to get technical about technique, then clothing falls into the tags-of-appearance or tags-of-possession category of character design. What your character chooses to wear at any given time or place in your story emits signals about this individual’s taste, judgment, personality, degree of imagination, degree of practicality, and likability. Your readers may be focused on the story events, but on some level their brains are registering wardrobe signals. They’re either liking your character even more or starting to doubt or mistrust this person.

If you’re unaware of the effect such signals can have, then you’re missing an opportunity to manipulate how strongly your readers will like or dislike a character. You’re also risking crossing up those signals, which will–at worst–create an inconsistent, uneven character, or–at best–confuse your intended audience.

Consider movie costume designers. They are working off these same principles as they choose colors, styles, and costume wardrobe for the actors in a film. Such costumes contribute to the dominant impression the director wants the actors to make on an audience.

So, too, should you be factoring in style and fashion choices as you plan character introductions.

Let’s consider the Disney animated villain Cruella de Vil. Everything, from her skunk-stripe hair to her angular body, chiseled face, and cigarette holder, is chosen to make her unlikable. All her clothes match her hair. The touches of red she favors are garish punctuation marks. She wears furs. She wants a new coat made of dalmatian puppy skins. She’s absolutely ghastly, and there’s nothing subtle about her design.

Cruella de Vil from 101 DALMATIANS

On the other hand, Cinderella in the film THE SLIPPER AND THE ROSE is always dressed to make her as sympathetic and appealing to audiences as possible.

Cinderella in THE SLIPPER AND THE ROSE

Even in her working clothes as a servant in her stepmother’s house, the rich color and ornate details of her dress show that she once possessed pretty things although this dress has been worn threadbare.

Cinderella dressed for the bride-finding ball in THE SLIPPER AND THE ROSE.
Even in exile, she’s dressed exquisitely as a princess should be.
The fabulous slippers for the ball. That’s serious bling!

Therefore, if your protagonist wears Armani suits, a paper-thin gold Cartier watch, and handmade shoes, he is conveying his level of success or affluence, his taste, and his degree of formality in an increasingly casual world. He may truly be cosmopolitan and wealthy, or he may be trying to fit into that world while living above his means.

Conversely, he might own a multi-million-dollar company but always dresses down in Levis, hand-knit sweater, and work boots. What, then, would that tell readers about him?

Whether you design a character that wears Paris couture or Target trendy, remember the signals of attire that give readers insight into her true nature. Make those signals work for you rather than against you.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized