Skill 4.6: Specific Deatils & Research

  Specific Details Specific details add credibility and life to a story. I am pulling an example from my novel Unveiling. A literary agent read this paragraph and commented on how it made her believe my main character was really an artist and that I knew a lot about art. I am not an artist, but I had become acquainted with artist, Russell Jacques, and several conversations about art contributed to my understanding of the artist’s perspective. I also researched artistic mediums, techniques and the philosophies of various artists. Here is how I used this research and the specific details to create a scene: . . . she stood before a canvas in her studio, adding paint to a she-falcon that soared above The Great Dune. She swirled a one-inch sable brush into unbleached titanium, added a touch of cobalt blue and dioxazine purple, just the faintest touch of purple, to enrich the chestnut brown of its feathers. She used acrylics, which she preferred. Like the environment of … [Read more...]

Skill 4.7: Sensory Details

We are limited in our understanding of the world. We have only five ways to know it, five ways to write about it: Visual (sight), Auditory (sound), Olfactory (smell), Tactile (Touch), Gustatory (Taste). We experience the world through our senses, and more importantly, your reader experiences a scene through your imparting of sensory details. Let’s take the paragraph I wrote earlier and examine what sensory details I added. You are seeing this store as John sees it, but he’s also depressed, so notice that words like cold, crack, sweaty, etc. help to convey John’s dark mood. I did not underline every sensory detail but rather highlighted some: John kept his eyes (sight) on the cold (touch) gray sidewalk and stepped on every crack (touch). He swung open the glass door (touch) of the 7-Eleven. A bell rang (sound), alerting the clerk to his presence. The attendant offered a cheery “Good evening, Sir,” (sound) in an Indian accent (detail/sound), which John promptly ignored as he dragged … [Read more...]

Skill 4.8: Flashbacks vs Information Dump

  A flashback is a scene or memory from a previous time interjected into a story for dramatic impact. Flashbacks share a moment in a character’s history with the reader, used at a time and place in the story that makes sense. It should be natural. Snippets of history help create a fully-lived character. However—a novice writers mistakenly dump the life history of a character into the opening chapters of a book, thinking it is necessary “to explain a character’s motivation.” I mentioned earlier, but it’s worth repeating—you do not start a story with friends by giving them your life’s history. So, why would you write this way? You get your friend interested in your story, blow-by-blow, detail by detail. Same for writing. Get the reader interested in your character and the storyline. Stay with that only. In Unveiling, a few characters tell stories during the course of the main story (ala 1001 Arabian Nights). This was difficult to pull off. I even trashed an entire story … [Read more...]

Skill 4.9: Direct and Indirect Characterization

  Direct characterization (this is telling—don’t do it unless there is a great reason): the author directly states the temperament, mien or personality traits of a character. Examples from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll: “[Alice] was considering in her own mind (as well as she could, for the hot day made her feel very sleepy and stupid), whether the pleasure of making a daisy-chain would be worth the trouble of getting up and picking the daisies, when suddenly a White Rabbit with pink eyes ran close by her. It was all very well to say `Drink me,' but the wise little Alice was not going to do that in a hurry.   Indirect characterization (better): Alice sighed and closed her boring book. Example: `No, I'll look first,' she said, `and see whether it's marked "poison" or not'; for she had read several nice little histories about children who had got burnt, and eaten up by wild beasts and other unpleasant things, all because they would not … [Read more...]

Skill 4.10: Story Structure Styles

Do not go crazy at this point, if this seems like minutia and you are already overwhelmed. I'm simply sharing a few methods below that authors consider and utilize in setting up the story--how it will be told. So many new authors have uttered the words, "I'm not sure where to start." Sometimes, the answer won't appear until you are staring at the completed first draft. Just read the options below, so that it sits gently upon your mind, and move on. Down the road, it's fun and useful to consider the structure and starting point and attempt to have "form follow function"--meaning that if you can, use the structure to help further the plot or enhance the reading experience. Chronological: The story is told from one event to the next, in order, from start to finish. More examples than I can mention. Envelope: Begins at the end. Returns to the past and the story is then related moment-by-moment, often by an omniscient narrator who has already lived it, until we reach the same moment … [Read more...]

Skill 4.11: Dialogue vs Narrative Passages

Dialogue is used to create a moment-by-moment scene. Narrative is the prose passages between the active scenes. Narration enables the writer to set the scene or to write a paragraph that sums up, for example, an entire party. A paragraph can provide the sights and sounds in enough general detail to quickly set the scene and get back into the next scene. Passages are vital to storytelling. They must be as riveting as the active scenes. Pitfalls of dialogue: Some novice writers hand me manuscripts that read more like screenplays—all dialogue, no narration. Dialogue and action carry a screenplay. Novels require narrative that is as strong as the active scenes. Pitfalls of narration: Some novice writers lean on beautiful, well-crafted descriptions that go on and on. If you’re Herman Melville, you can get away with an entire chapter on the magical, mystical qualities of the color white (chapter 42). If you’re a modern, unknown writer, avoid blocks of narrative as they often can bog … [Read more...]

Skill 4.12: Invoking Emotional Responses

When a reader “feels” for a character, the author has made a connection. If the reader sympathizes and wants to know what the character does next and how it turns out, you have done your job. A few simple rules of thumb will guide you. Big mistake—an "emotional character" does NOT invoke emotion in a reader. If you’re writing Steel Magnolias, tears are shed, but those ladies are “steel,” not a bunch of wimps who cry on every page. Indiana Jones doesn’t cry. Even in A Fault in Our Stars, a YA novel about cancer patients, the characters are tough and resilient. Crying will not make your reader sympathize, nor will showing a hysterical character, nor will throwing your character down a hill. Do not make your character an emotional puddle who whines to a best friend about their lonely, miserable life or who runs through boxes of tissue. Emotion means showing a response. The dialogue and actions carry the brunt of our main character’s emotional response to a situation, but a POV … [Read more...]

Skill 4.13: Avoid Adverbs

Leave adverbs out of your writing (all –ly words are adverbs, and others can be used as adverbs as well) Why is it bad to use adverbs? Adverbs explain in a direct way, which is bad, since we want to “show” not tell. Example: Jessica reached timidly for Jim’s hand. “Yes, I’d love to dance.” Better (show she is timed): Jessica stared at Jim’s outstretched hand. “Me? Well, I’d. . .” Her hand trembled as she reached for his. “Yes, I mean. Sure. I’d love to dance.” There's nothing more to it. Let's move on.   Go to Skill 4.14: Figurative Language … [Read more...]

Skill 4.14: Figurative Language

Think of Figurative Language as another colored pencil in your writer's bag of tools. They add color, variety, and draw comparisons. What is figurative language? There are two uses of language—literal and figurative. If I say it’s raining “cats and dogs,” I do not literally mean that cats and dogs are falling from the sky. It is figurative language. Cats and dogs fight and the sound would be like a storm. It’s raining cats and dogs, means it’s raining a lot and it’s a squall. Why is it important to learn and use these: a well-crafted simile or metaphor draws a comparison between two things, and it forces the reader to consider them side by side. That can add multiple layers of meaning to a few words. Key—draw a comparison that is not just “physically” alike, but one that denotes anger, softness, harshness, etc. If your character is strong, use positive words in the figurative language; otherwise, use negative words. Even the bars of a cell can be described in positive or … [Read more...]

Skill 4.15: Poetic Techniques for Fiction Writers

Western Wind

Not for beginners—but if you’re moving to advanced writing techniques, learn these techniques and use them well. Why read and study poetry if I'm a fiction writer? Poetry was the highest form of literary art long before the first "novel" (which means new) was penned. Every song you listen to and dance to is a poem. My students sometimes say they don't like poetry, but they love music--there is no difference. If you love music--you love poetry. Maybe you repeat the words of songs. Unfortunately, not enough teachers expose us to good poetry as we mature; they do not teach the techniques used to create it; they do not even take the time to read it aloud in a classroom. If you missed out--you can fill the gap easily. Poetry will change your writing--and your life. Why bother with learning poetic techniques? Because they enhance the writing. Used poorly, they produce purple prose, which is bad (defined later). I highly recommend that fiction writers read poetry. Poets are masters at … [Read more...]