Creative Writing Forums - Writing Help, Writing Workshops, & Writing Community

A creative writing forum dedicated to all writing, where writers can discuss publishing, plot, character development, word mechanics, and may use our Writing Workshop to further develop your writing.

Mar
06
(~4 minutes read)

What is your story about? What makes your story unique?


This is called the PREMISE, and it can take many forms. Logline, tagline, elevator-pitch, blurb, query... all of them draw on the premise to make a stranger want to read your book. Your premise sums up your story in the least number of possible words. If you know your premise, you'll know what you're writing about, and a stranger at the busstop will as well, if he asks you, 'Hey cool, you're a writer! What are you writing?'

A premise is not the same as THEME. While a premise is necessary and intrinsic to a successful story, specific to your characters and their struggles within the plot, theme is not. It is the mood and moral that transcends plot and character struggles and overlies your story like mist which you only get aware of in retrospect. What matters so much to you that you'll spend rather a lot of hours writing this beast? This is your theme.

But when someone asks you what your story is about, they don't want to hear about your motivation. They want (in most cases) a bite-sized sentence. So tell me about your unique story in 27 words. These 27 words are called a LOGLINE, and when I encounter them I should know why I need to read your story before others. Start with the Who, What, When, Where, and Why? Or with the hero, situation, goal, villain, disaster. That there's no set formula makes life interesting.

Condense those 27 words into a TAGLINE that you can use at the backcover of your book. (e.g. Lord of the Rings: One ring to rule them all.) Remember the last bestseller? I bet it shows one sentence at the top of its backcover that made you think 'Yeah, I'll read that one', even before your eyes skim the rest of the backcover. A tagline will also come in handy when you want to market your book on social media or your author's webspace.

Points of note for the tagline: Be careful of negative phrasing. Don't mislead. Make it memorable. Express confidence: People want to read your book. They picked it out from all the other millions. They are just about to open the first page. You are a superstar!

While we're talking about the topic of social media and marketing, an AUTHOR TAGLINE is always a good idea. What kind of stories do you write? Humour? Fluffy Romance? Dark and twisted Fantasy? Brand yourself, and your following will know that you are their kind of author. The same rules as for a tagline apply to your brand as author. Readers may not remember your name, but hopefully they'll remember your tagline.

But we digress. Back to our story. Next, what's your story about in less than 20 words and words you'd actually use spoken aloud. This's called an ELEVATOR PITCH, and you have until the elevator reaches the next level to get the interest of the agent of your dreams. What about your book sticks in the agent's mind when he/she exits the elevator? Surely you're not going to tell him 'Well, it's complicated. You see, there's this girl who is really a werewolf in disguise but she has these issues...' and ping, the doors open and—the agent makes his escape. (Nothing against werewolves by the way. This is just an example of how not to go about pitching.)

With the elevator pitch, you might notice similarities to your logline, but you can and should craft them distinct from each other. Speaking is different than writing, and what looks lovely and compelling in written words, might sound awkward spoken aloud. Write the elevator pitch in words you actually would use, being stuck in an elevator. And then memorise them. Tomorrow, a stranger on the bus might ask you what you're writing. He might be an agent in disguise. What are you going to tell him?

Give me next a two-sentence introduction on a cover letter. Tell me what your story is about in two sentences (which might or might not be the same as what you wrote in the logline). Make it colourful and engaging. It might or might not be the premise of your story.

Make me impatient to read your book by a proper QUERY in less than 750 words. Three paragraphs. Should be manageable, right? Think of your query as an introduction to your book, though a query is not about what happens but about stakes. If you tell me the ending, why should I spend time to read your book? Don't give me solutions. I want to be curious. Depending on the complexity of your book, stop when the magnitude of your hero's task looms and the stakes are clear.

There's no set recipe to how to write your query, and if you are struggling, look to https://queryshark.blogspot.com/ or go to our query-critique section of WF https://www.writingforums.org/publisher/traditional/query-cover-letter-critique/ .

And then there's BACKBLURB, which's going to be on the backcover of your book. It's a query condensed, because you can't fit 750 words in. Keep the word count down, but the tension high.

And finally we come to something every author I know hates because it's not creative writing at all: A two-page SYNOPSIS, which is a dull, blow-by-blow factual account of what happens. Keep out all the fluff. Resist the temptation to write for a reaction. The synopsis shows the agent (and editor. and yourself.) if you have a proper story arc. Condensed into two pages, it's easy to see if your story has meat and bone and if it's worth being taken on. Outliners should be familiar with the concept, but even for pantsers like me it helps to keep all the threads of my story in mind. Really. You can actually do it while writing your story; as you're finishing a chapter, each time write down what happens. Copy+paste them all together, and you have your synopsis.

On you go. I hope you're not confused anymore.

Have you finished your book, or are you still writing? If the latter... happy blurb writing, next time you procrastinate.
Feb
20
(~5 minutes read)

Show, Don't Tell, and Exposition

'Show, Don't Tell' is a storytelling technique for creating an experience for the reader. It aims to shift the reader emotionally closer to the story. Done well, it should involve the reader on a visceral level in the story and let him take part in the narrative by evoking sensory details.

'Show' or 'Tell' is the difference between Narration (Show) that gives a sense of physicality, interactions, emotions, and feeling what happens to the character; and Narrative Summary (Tell) that is used for exposition and engages the intellect. Telling is a narrative shortcut that compresses time while Showing is nearer to real-story-time. In and by themselves, narrative summary is not bad and even necessary sometimes, but...

Paul asked Pauline to marry him and she said 'No'. Is that good storytelling? No? Were you expecting something else? Well, you should be feeling betrayed, but not at Pauline—at the author. He cheated you out of an experience.

Before you now think 'Okay, gotcha, I'll never tell anything again' I need to say that, as with all things in writing, there are times when narrative summary has its place. Read on for when; and... what is 'telling' anyway?

(Narrative Summary) TELLING is:
  • BASIC SENSORY words: hear, see, smell,... these words tell the reader about sensory input into the protagonist. They're objective, without inflection.
  • BASIC INTROSPECTIVE words: seems, feel, think, wonder, belief, know, decides, notice, and their derivatives.
  • BASIC EMOTIONAL words: Happy, sad, angry, frustrated,...
All of them tell the reader how a character feels or think but don't let the reader experience the emotion himself. They are called filtering words.

Maybe you think that if only you avoid filtering and use stronger words, you'll be showing. Not so. I'd argue that if you're telling something to the reader, you're using exposition—describing something—on a personal level, but which still 'tells'. e.g. Your writing will be a bit more colourful when you say 'elated' instead of 'happy', but you still tell me what the character feels.

'Telling' means widening the narrative distance. It feels safe, because we're interacting with our own surroundings in the same way. If someone asks you how you feel, you answer "I'm happy," maybe. You tell your friend how you feel. You don't describe the elation you feel when you look up at the sky and it widens and widens until you think you can embrace the whole horizon and do anything, have everything within reach. 'Happy' can mean so many things, and maybe you thought I meant something completely different when you heared me tell you 'I'm happy'. The same happens in writing. When you let your character say 'I'm happy' and then go on to explain why he's happy so the reader gets the correct picture, why aren't you showing the reader the exact emotion he should experience right from the start?

That's exactly what you have to do in writing when you want to show.

Some other ways a writer increases—sometimes unconsciously—narrative distance is by telling about the intention (e.g. picking up the phone to call someone) in order/an attempt to...

Or telling that something comes before, then, or after something else. Suddenly and as soon as, hits the same groove. They disrupt the narrative and take the reader out of story-real-time. Look out for a follow-up article about editing and immediacy of the narrative.

In writing, when you're telling, you lack confidence. Tell, and you'll be safe. Say it through exposition, because then you won't have to feel. It's always a good idea to use strong words that best describe the experience of the character; just don't stop there. Good stuff always takes a stand. In writing, there's no place for timidity. Show me the truth. Show me lies. I don't care, but show me.

(Narrative) SHOWING is:
For starters, use strong verbs and specific nouns: A tree isn't specific, but a willow is. Are adjectives and adverbs showing or telling? Often, they are placeholders for what actually happens, so again: show me what they mean to the character, specifically, in this moment. Replace them with a description of how your characters experiences the moment. Give me details (check out the article on 'Details in Writing'). Word of caution though: Too many details aren't good either. Don't go and stick an adjectives (or more than one) to every noun within reach. Choose which ones describe best and use only them.

Create a sense of setting: The crunch of leaves under my shoes, the sensual impressions of raindrops hitting my skin... You're not interrupting the scene, you're helping me visualise. Take your time with description. Don't rush. Savour the moment. Don't minimise. Using strong words doesn't mean you should rush. Details, details. Well chosen. Use a character's physicality to give the reader the sense of being there when the setting interacts with the character, like the discomfort of rain.
Using Narrative Summary for storywide pacing:

Done right, action and dialogue scenes are showing. Dialogue and action expand time, in sync with your feelings. It creates a sense of the character by body language: Can you tell if someone has a crush just by the way his body shifts? Punctuate scenes with action and then close in on the reaction (check out the article 'Dialogue Done Right'). Movies zoom in on a particular detail after an emotionally revealing scene e.g. the guy's face after the girl rejects his marriage proposal.

But scene after intense scene of action and dialogue gets exhausting. And when you want to give readers a break, you need narrative summary because it varies rhythm and texture of the narrative. It also takes efficient care of repetitive actions, glosses over unimportant events while telling the reader that they're there, or it covers time that's too long or devoid of dramatic tension.

Also, narrative summary can be necessary and revealing when it states clearly what happened in the previous scene. Maybe your character had a highly emotional moment and now digests what happened.

And the take-away message? Don't give your reader information, give them experiences with Show AND Tell.

References:
Self-Editing for Fiction Writers (Rennie Brown & Dave King, HarperCollins, 2004)
https://jerichowriters.com/show-dont-tell/
https://www.louiseharnbyproofreader.com/author-resources.html
Feb
18
(~5 Minute Read)

A poem often starts as a singular image, a momentary expression of an impressionable scene or object on the poet’s mind. It speaks to them, whatever it may be, in a way that demands preservation and presentation in words. They want to share this image in their own way in which they experienced it, enlivening the image with a temperate bath of various senses to draw the reader into their understanding. To do this, the poet must employ not only a range of senses to draw them into the poem, but also give it life through using those images to enhance tone and theme.

As a base example for how this is done with an expert hand, Theodore Roethke’s Root Cellar provides a solid start. His poem comes alive with its imagery.

Theodore Roethke
Root Cellar (1948)

Nothing would sleep in that cellar, dank as a ditch,
Bulbs broke out of boxes hunting for chinks in the dark,
Shoots dangled and drooped,
Lolling obscenely from mildewed crates,
Hung down long yellow evil necks, like tropical snakes.
And what a congress of stinks!
Roots ripe as old bait,
Pulpy stems, rank, silo-rich,
Leaf-mold, manure, lime, piled against slippery planks.
Nothing would give up life:
Even the dirt kept breathing a small breath.

At first the reader may notice; Roethke doesn’t rely on meter or rhyme to pace the poem. It’s free verse, not even maintaining the syllable count per line. And yet, it flows slowly and smoothly in its prosaic imagery that carry the reader off into a living jungle of stillness and rot. Every line is new image or a continuation of the previously introduced, letting the experience speak the message to the reader.

The very first line establishes the ‘living death’ aspect which is held through the poem. By letting the reader know that “Nothing would sleep in that cellar,” Roethke establishes that the inhabitants of the cellar, maybe even the structure itself, is constantly living and moving. He then contrasts this life with an image of rot: “dank as a ditch.” The room is wet, sweaty with the heat and slime one feels when they lay in an old run-off ditch. It’s alive, but uncomfortable. With the personification of the “bulbs…hunting” in the next line, it seems that even the unnatural, human developed objects are contributing to the action by being given an active role. They’re a source of light stifled by the darkness, eliciting the death tones of the uncomfortable ditch they are desperate to escape.

Descriptive word choice and simile bring the image of the next three lines alive. The loose reeds growing out of rotted boxes are likened to that of snakes in the jungle. The previous image of the wet ditch and the canopied darkness the bulbs experience set the large stage for the reeds to become animated. Roethke uses key words like “obscenely” and “evil” to add to the darkness, adding a macabre depth to the denizens of his fateful root cellar.

By the sixth line, Roethke moves beyond touch and sight to have the reader experience smell. In a fantastic use of the word “congress,” the poet establishes a buffet of smells for the reader to appreciate and fill the airspace of the envisioned root cellar with. His next line-up of objects rapid fire familiar feelings and smells of objects that have sat for too long. Roots and wood have become have eaten detritus and by the wet wood planks the reader can feel and smell that bacterial slime of old, wet wood being eaten away by detritivores as they await their inevitable fate.

Line ten gives the reader one last authorial interjection as to the theme. Roethke states “Nothing would give up on life” which tells the reader this is an uncomfortable existence. The rot is a perpetual blight on all the senses of the beholder. It repulses directly by making the reader experience uncomfortable natural items eating away at the human ones left in place to rot. By the final line, the dirt floor of the cellar is even a living creature. The image carries with it a perpetuity of life from the Earth contrasted on the abandon of human endeavors left behind. The root cellar was likely once a useful storage, but in its abandonment, it is in the process of being reclaimed. The images of repulsion have a natural draw of wonder in the darkness of a jungle. The cycles of nature will press on, reclaiming the still death of the human created cellar into a living and breathing ecosystem.

Roethke’s poem shows the reader how to effectively portray theme and tone through only a few dictatorial pushes from the author’s voice and primarily active imagery. The images take on multiple levels of interpretation and images, portraying both their literal image and their metaphorical likeness that gradually controls the themes. It’s a living, breathing creation through words that transports the reader an effectively transmits Roethke’s sensory intake.

In the reader’s own poetry, effective use of imagery like Roethke’s can be critical to the effectivity of the poem. For an image-centric poem, the images must speak for themselves. A multiplicity of meaning behind the images in conjunction with the other surrounding images allows the meaning of the poem to be derived through a metaphorical sense. With Roethke, the recurring contrast of life in death achieves verisimilitude through the conversion of human abandon back to natural conditions. The reader not only understands that the poet observes the thematic element, but first-hand experiences it with them.

This is the art to be mastered in image-centric poetry. Let the reader be devoured by the onslaught of imagery, exposing them to all the senses the poet desires to be immersive, then layer them together in progression to tell their own story. Let the images in conjunction speak for themselves as a group, entering only minor dictations on tonal direction. The poet should use key adjectives and adverbs for these descriptors sparingly, as to allow for subtlety. The best poems of these images are desirous of their readers to dig for their own conclusions. The poet, as Roethke has done with Root Cellar, shouldn’t cast too much directorial oversight, but instead give gentle nudges, allowing the reader the pleasure of developing meaning in the poem themselves.

The more active a participant a reader is, the more willing they are to except the poet’s experience developed for them on the page.

Works Cited

Roethke, Theodore. The Lost Son and Other Poems. Doubleday and Company, 1948.
Feb
13
(~6 min read)

For the purpose of this article, dialogue is an alive, action-alike, realistic way to reveal new information about character and/or plot and thus it should carry tension (from 'Make a Scene' by Jordan E. Rosenfeld, Writer's Digest Books 2008). To that end, dialogue can destabilise or demand action—which is almost the same if you ask me.

First some DEFINITIONS:

Dialogue consists of the spoken part and the dialogue tag, which tells us who does the speaking.
  • Dialogue tags: Is a phrase that precedes, intersects, or follows dialogue and includes the word 'said' or one of its synonyms (asked, yelled, muttered, screamed,...).
When used right, dialogue tags should be near invisible, except when they shouldn't as in...
  • Action beats - huge topic coming!
An action beat is a standalone sentence, designed to break apart dialogue. It's a powerful tool for structuring dialogue. See the last example, when Paul sits down? This is an action beat, because it belongs with the dialogue. See later for further information.
Some articles talk about 'speaker attributes', and they're not to be confused with dialogue tags, because speaker attributes are stuff we infer about the speaker from how something is said, or what actually is said. A line like "Don't you dare loom!" tells me that the speaker is annoyed at the dialogue partner for appearing big and intimidating. We can use dialogue to show the reader new information without it being obvious. Usually, the dialogue portion of the speech is about showing, while the dialogue tag is the telling part. Even when you now think that action beats are better (and they are, usually, because of showing) than dialogue tags, don't go and do away with dialogue tags entirely. It's not necessary to only write dialogue with action beats. Sometimes it's enough to just let the reader know who's speaking with a simple dialogue tag.

Verbal communication and what goes on in terms of body language can tell us what's going on inside and outside an character (thinking, feeling, processing, or knowing), but also mask what's going on. If you write the dialogue and action beats well, when a character asks his boss for a pay raise, the boss (and the reader) will see small signs that the character's not confident he deserves it. These kind of exchanges are fraught with tension, and rightly so. They propel the story forward in all directions.

Other times, the dialogue will be open and honest, and we'll feel your protagonist relax among friends who support him onto death and beyond. Done well, dialogue is a powerful tool for characterisation. Don't leave me with only smiles, shouts, and hugs.

Examples of an emotionally revealing dialogue is if your protagonist goes quiet or chatty, he deliberately misunderstands his dialogue partner, or maybe he contradict things he himself has said in the past. And his dialogue partners? If they catch these undercurrents, they'll get that something has changed and it might give them pause.

But whatever the ends of your dialogue, choose words your character would choose. Ask yourself which kind of conversation this is and how the characters relate to each other. Do they have specific quirks you can infuse their dialogue with? Something a bit subtle is mirroring patterns. Maybe they mirror each other in words. Maybe you cross your legs when your dialogue partner does. Even body language sometimes mirrors your dialogue partner. These are great tools for characterisation and action beats.

A word of caution about action beats here: Everyone has crutches that he/she uses over and over. My characters are often smiling or balling fists. Or propping themselves up against the wall. When you've written your dialogue scene, go back and look it over with specific regard to those and change them to fresh actions.

And a second caution: Don't use action beats to detail setting, except when it's a tool for characterisation. When a character does something during dialogue, you have the opportunity to—briefly—show me the layout of the room they're in. Maybe Pauline moves her chair over to the fireplace because it's cold. Or Paul flips the lightswitch and a single-bulb dangles forlorn from the ceiling.

So how to do dialogue right, or wrong? First we need to pay attention to the MECHANICS and punctuation, everyone's favourite topic.
  • Punctuation and ways to vary dialogue
Dialogue tags are Paul said or Pauline asked. They can be given after, before the dialogue, or in the middle of the dialogue. You can vary where you place the dialogue tags. They don't always have to come at the beginning, nor do they have to come at the end. Sometimes they are in the middle:
There's no rule if you should write "Welcome to our introduction to dialogue," Paul said. or "Welcome to our introduction to dialogue," said Paul. I'd argue that 'said Paul' sounds a bit old-fashioned, but that's something you can hash out with your editor.

When a dialogue tag comes after an exclamation or a question mark, don't capitalise the dialogue tag.

The above were easy. The next ones are not so much:
  • Let the reader know who's speaking.
Sarcasm off. Your readers need to know immediately who's speaking, not only at the end of a long paragraph. Imagine you've just turned the radio on and someone gives a campaign speech. You need to wait until the radio announcer tells you who's said what you just heard, right? Well, we're not on radio. We can avoid the prolonged agony.
I didn't put a dialogue tag in the above line; but eliminating them can easily confuse your readers about who's speaking, so make absolutely sure the reader attributes the dialogue to the correct person. And the easiest way to avoid confusion is to break a new line, use dialogue tags, and put them near the dialogue.

Talking head syndrome is when you write unaccounted dialogue and the reader gets confused who says what. A rule of thumb for unaccounted dialogue is three lines, no more. You need strong characters' voices if it goes on longer, but if in doubt... ask someone else for critique.
  • A word on dashes and ellipses:
An ellipse (three full-stops in sequence) can be used as trailing off, while an em-dash (the long dash, not to be confused with the slightly shorter en-dash) shows a sudden cutoff.
In the following, I'll list some ERRORS that are common enough to have found their way into writing craft books like Self Editing for Fiction Writers (Rennie Browne & Dave King, William Morrow Imprint, 2004). Some examples are taken from this book.
  • Overexplanation and redundancy:
How often do you need to tell the reader that Paul really, truly doesn't want to?
The next one is a bit more subtle:
When the dialogue itself conveys emotion, don't prop it up with adjectives/adverbs in character description to tell the reader how it's said. Here, the perennial discussion about adverbs comes into its full glory, so watch out for these little beasties. Overexplanation can also hide in a longer line of dialogue that explains the character's emotions when we'd be better feel it with...
Feb
07
(~10 Minute Read)

In the conservative nature of horror film and literature, audiences have come to know and expect certain tropes to appear consistently to fulfill their pleasure in those entertainment mediums. This is most especially true in the sub-genre of the slasher. The ‘Final Girl’ is a trope viewers and readers have become accustomed with since its original inception in the nineteen sixties with Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. Ever since, it has become pervasive to the genre in works like Texas Chainsaw Massacre (Liebesman) and Halloween (Carpenter). But the trope has evolved due to its flexibility and reflexive nature from that inception to the present.

In contemporary literature, Riley Sager’s slasher novel Final Girls presents the reader with a main character that is presumed to be a ‘Final Girl’ at the very beginning, starting the story after the massacre of Pine Cottage had already occurred. The author reverses the structure of the standard plot right away, throwing the reader’s expectation of the trope off-balance. This initial reversal becomes an ongoing process throughout the book. Sager uses the reader’s bias towards the ‘Final Girl’ trope to undermine their expectations of the character and mask the familiar slasher plot while commenting on the trope itself.

In nineteen eighty-seven, Carol Clover, in her landmark essay “Her Body, Himself: Gender in the Slasher Film,” defined the ‘Final Girl.’ She told the reader that “the Final Girl is, on reflection, a congenial double for the adolescent male. She is feminine enough to act out in a gratifying way, a way unapproved for adult males, the terrors and masochistic pleasures of the underlying fantasy, but not so feminine as to disturb the structures of male competence and sexuality” (Clover, 211). From the inception of her contemporary presence in the novel Final Girls, Sager’s main character Quincy is presented in quite the opposite fashion. She is shown as a rich, Upper West Side New York native who has an affinity for baking and blogging while her boyfriend she’s intent on marrying is out being a defense attorney. This isn’t the typical description of a ‘Final Girl’ type character according to Clover because it doesn’t fit the mold of the adolescent male stand-in. She is instead presented as still struggling with the events. Clover states that a ‘Final Girl’ is supposed to present “smartness, gravity, competence in mechanical and other practical matters” (Clover, 204), but instead Quincy projects the lack of ability to do much of anything, even struggling at the more feminine tasks she sets out to do on her own and perpetuating a Xanax addiction that worsens as the novel progresses. Though Quincy’s narration describes herself as being one of these character tropes, she acts the opposite. Her presence and demeanor are very feminine from the onset and take the role of a victim rather than a survivor, the survivor being the more male identifiable character according to Clover.

Another important rejection of the trope defined by Clover is that of sexual abstinence. The ‘Final Girls’ in most of these older slasher movies are the ones who don’t have sex, while those “who seek or engage in unauthorized sex amounts to a generic imperative of the slasher film” (Clover, 200) are the ones who are almost always killed. Quincy has sex often in Sager’s story, and most of the time it is unfulfilling for her. She narrates her desires to be with more rough men of her college days than the man she is currently with. She even has sex outside of her relationship, which in the spirit of slasher films, designates her as a girl who the reader expects to die. This extra-relationship sexual act is also later identified to be with the actual killer of Pine Cottage, rejecting Clover’s argument for the description of a ‘Final Girl’ and what it means to the story because it firmly plants Quincy in the feminine gender. Therefore, the male audience can’t directly identify with Quincy as a stand-in for the male perspective because they now view her in a sexually penetrative way.

This old description of the ‘Final Girl’ that appeared consistently during the seventies and eighties and shaped viewer biases of the trope just doesn’t fit Sager’s character in Quincy. Instead, Final Girls takes on more of a relation to the slashers of the late nineties like Scream (Craven). Alexandra West, in her article on late ninety’s slashers, tells the reader that these “slashers would expand the very characters that 80s horror took for granted. By tying the site of horror directly to the would-be victims, the ‘90s slasher would create a template in which the freedom, survival and desire of the 'Final Girl' (as well as her friends) was dependent on subduing the killer” (West). Sager’s story is much less interested in exemplifying the dangers pressed on the ‘Final Girl’ in physical conflict than it is in placing the reader along with her as the center of attention in character. His novel is less atmospheric, as would be seen in films such as Texas Chainsaw Massacre. The story instead finding its home in the character-driven first-person perspective of Quincy, the supposed ‘Final Girl.’

Sager’s novel is fully aware of the trope it’s following, even electing to take on the trope designation as the title. This is consistent with West’s description of the ninety’s slasher in that “these films would not just work by being scary, they had to acknowledge audience expectations” (West). Like Scream, Final Girls acknowledges its own trope from the start, describing it to the reader as if it were a notable title character. From that point, Sager’s audience feels that they know the character and what to expect from her, though the story is developing after the event. As Sager unwinds this comfort in knowledge by rejecting the Clover description of the ‘Final Girl’ as was described earlier, the knowledgeable reader in the genre would become suspicious as she doesn’t fit the mold.

The main reason Quincy can’t embrace this status yet is because the process is actually incomplete, but this is unknown to the reader for the majority of the novel. Quincy isn’t a ‘Final Girl’ because the killer hasn’t actually been put down and she subconsciously knows this. Instead, she was saved by him, which is yet another feminine trait given by Clover. The suspicion then falls on Quincy in being the actual murderer, since it is still unknown to the reader that her secret is that she isn’t a ‘Final Girl.’ She refuses to acknowledge or remember anything that happened other than the initial screams and being ‘rescued.’ This confusion in what the character actually is is presented by Sager through Clover’s idea that there is a “’certain link’ that puts killer and Final Girl on terms…(that) is more than ‘sexual repression.’ It is also shared masculinity…and also a shared femininity” (Clover, 210). The reader distrusts Quincy’s nature because she doesn’t fit the biased expectation for the trope, leading them to believe the opposite. Sager plays into this directly in multiple scenes by never directly stating she isn’t the killer.

He drives the misdirection by scenes such as the interview with the police investigators a week after the Pine Cottage massacre. Here, Quincy acts completely out of character for a ‘Final Girl,’ saying that she fails to remember the crime through the constant pressuring of Detective Cole. Cole states he doesn’t believe her, continuing “not one bit. But we’re going to find out the truth eventually” (Sager, 317-318) and takes on the role of the reader in their distrust of her character. The detective acts like a guide for the reader to continue their mistrust of Quincy. At this point, Quincy takes on a very gender mute role, neither acting the feminine part completely, as she shows a strange strength in independence and control, nor taking the role a male as she maintains her story of failed memory and being saved. When she hugs Coop in distress at the close of the interview, this solidifies their non-binding gender as one in the same. Sager uses this to drive the reader into believing a more sinister plot from Quincy, setting up the potential murderer further as he gives proper motive for her. Then when the reader believes they’re about to see Quincy become the murderer, she drops the knife.

When the knife drops, the mask Sager creates for the plot that she is the killer drops and her ‘Final Girl’ status resumes questionably, which leads the reader on a road to discover she was never a ‘Final Girl’ to begin with. This was heavily implied earlier with a sense of misdirection because of the assumed killer status. Quincy idolizes some of Tina’s (believed to be Sam at time) independence as a ‘Final Girl.’ In thinking about Tina’s tattoo of ‘Survivor’ inked on her wrist, Quincy writes this same identifier in marker on her wrist. It washes off in the...
Jan
29
(~7 Minute Read)

We want our story to be gripping. We want it to stay in our reader's minds. We want to entertain, we want to challenge, we want to fire our reader's passion so that they'll read our next story.

But writing away doesn't necessarily result in a story people want to read. Sometimes it does, but more often I'm left with a lot of words that lack... something. It's the 'something' I want to talk about now.

I don't know if you will agree with me at the end of this post, but the following is condensed from 'Writing the Heart of your Story' (C.S. Larkin, Ubiquitous Press 2014), 'The Emotional Craft of Fiction (Donald Maas, Writers' Digest Books 2016), 'Save the Cat' (Blake Snyder, Publishers Group UK, 2005), and 'Outlining your Novel' (K.M. Weiland, PenForASword 2011), in no particular order. It's a lot to take in, and all of the bullet points deserve a dedicated article, so... stay tuned for refinements in later ones.

The first questions every new writer inevitably ask themselves when they embark on a brand new, sparkling story are...
  • What is the plot? (What's it about?)
  • Who do I want as viewpoint character? (Who's it about?)
Sadly, most inexperinced writers stop here, and then cynics (or publishers, or agents) will ask one or more of the following: Why should I care; So what; and/or Why does it matter? Let's examine them for a moment.
  • If you have to field the question 'Why should I care', it means you failed to make the protagonist multi-dimensional. Give your protagonist faults but don't stop there. Every character has backstory, a childhood or grown-up experiences that hurt him or her and which created a need that this person has. As opposed to a 'want' that is more superficial, like pursuing an exalted career (want) for the security it brings (need).
  • 'So what' really asks if the struggles your protagonist faces are not only personal but general to your story world (does something happen to change your story world? Is something different after the events of your story?), or the opposite, if the plot is not only about some nebulous goal like saving the world but means something deeply personal to the protagonist as well (Is there a lesson that your protagonist learns as he goes through your plot? Does it make him a different human being?) Both, general and personal change should take place.
  • And 'Why does it matter' means 'Is there a more general lesson, something that will enhance the reader's life afterwards?'. Is there a moral? What question does the story ask? What feeling should the reader have at the end? If you the writer show me a bit of life I've missed, an experience that I haven't had, a lesson that will resonate with me after I've read through to 'The End', then I'll remember your story when others fade.
Let's examine a storyline in detail: How a horde of cavemen defeated the wholly mammoth instructs as well as makes for a gripping evening around the campfire. The listeners get entertained and learned something new. Right here, you have two things a story needs:
  • Tension, which is not dependent on change, but when change happens you always have tension. And when you have tension in your story (and you've made your protagonist relatable), the reader will care about your story;
  • Something that the reader takes away from it, entertainment or new information. The Premise.
What more do you need? What about theme?

Theme is the underlying truth in your story; and truth comes from the Author’s Stakes: What do you want to write about? What does matter so much to you that you'll spend rather a lot of hours with this story? A reader can tell if the author writes passionately. These stories carry more weight than others. Now, you needn't write a memoir or make your protagonist a template of yourself, but it does mean that in your story there should be a grain of truth, however it is shaped.

And before we go on to examine Characters and Plot in detail, let's spend a moment on SETTING. Consider
  • What would we love about this world?
  • What is it like; and what is it Not Like?
Your world must come alive for you, the protagonist, and only then will it come alive for the reader as well. It takes the reader somewhere else, gives him the feeling to be in another place. A story alive with details will be remembered. A surgeon's office and a glass of whiskey will do. Or a framed certificate that gathers dust behind the wedding photograph.

A story rips you from your home and shows you a different life. Make the setting complex so I can imagine myself there and yes, detailed, because details are what define a story. Describe it to me so when I close my eyes, I can see this room/garden/landscape as real. For more on details, read the article on 'Details in Writing'.

See it? Good. Then we can go on to CHARACTERS:

The big question here is 'who carries the story'? I'll write an article about characters as well. Later.

Who is this person? I'm not asking for stuff like you might find in a character questionary (colour of hair and eyes, likes/dislikes, and friendships), but more character-defining questions:
  • Opinions, attitudes, frustrations, and values
  • Principles (strong conscious values that are not to be compromised)
  • Core beliefs (what is the truth the protagonists believes without examination, often something unconscious, ties in with his past and background)
  • Greatest fear (what makes your protagonist vulnerable, defined by past and background)
  • Self-Lie (what he doesn't accept about himself)
  • Facade and Self-image (the image he's presenting to the world)
A three-dimensional character has all or most of the above, and it gives you the opportunity to make the plot a personal challenge to them.

Your characters all want something, fight for something. And what your protagonist unconsciously fights for is the Spiritual Dramatic Goal. The protagonist can have any number of personal stakes, but what he yearns for but can't admit carries the story.

However, your protagonist doesn't exist in a vacuum. There are secondary characters who may help or hinder him. What would a secondary character’s life look like without the protagonist? Consider how each of them stands to the protagonist. What do they like, what do they hate about each other? Even the best friendship is fraught with misunderstandings and small conflicts.

And even beside other people, your protagonist has had a life growing up before your story, and he has memories that are associated with a certain stone that fits neatly in the palm of his hand, or the smell of freshly baked bread. Include these small details in your story and it'll be the better for it, because they matter to your protagonist. Don't let him go through the world as a bystander.

Your world changes the protagonist, and great people shouldn't leave the world unchanged. We're writing about great people aren't we? Of course we are. Whether your protagonist lives a quiet life in the suburbs or is the manager of an international company, everyone has a story to tell. Even the smallest and most insignificant of your characters can enrich the lives of your readers.

The last thing I want to talk about is PLOT. I'll stay away from structure (three-act or whatever because that's a big topic and beyond the scope of this article), but just some thoughts here:

Plot is what happens when the protagonist goes through the story and leaves mayhem in his wake. Or when the story happens to the protagonist and again mayhem results (but your protagonist should get perceived as active, not passive). Be careful with chances because when they happen too often, it takes away from the reality of the story. How often in real life do you get a lucky break? Exactly. Everything in your story should be linked by either deed or thought in action and reaction. Check out the related article on 'Paragraphs and Pacing'.

It's not all one plot either: You can employ ever smaller subplots that trigger the breakdown. With every obstacle your protagonist encounters, his temper will rise, like a boiling kettle. The trigger for the breakdown at the climax can be something as insignificant as a leaking faucet. Bonus points if that's a symbol of your protagonists unconscious self-lie. Imagine a cascade: Not only a big stone tumbling down the mountainside is a problem, but the smaller ones accompanying it grow into a landslide until they level a village.

And finally, what is the plot goal, the Major Dramatic Question? What are the Public Stakes? What happens when the protagonist fails to the world...
Jan
23
(~8 Minute Read)

Writers, whether for scripts or other fiction, make a lot of mistakes with depicting military members. Sometimes to the point that it gets so obnoxiously cliché or romanticized that it is hard to watch or read. We’ve all seen the Army private going through the ‘coming-of-age’ to callousness in killing. Or some Tom Cruise flyboy doing whatever the Hell he wants in a jet with only a slap on the wrist and some wildly plot armored circumstance to make his actions necessary. They are laughable at best, cringe inducing at worst. They are about as tired as is tolerable and it is time to look at remodeling the stock of these characters.

You know you have a real problem when Wikipedia has a stock list of these characters.

This list has been robbed from so heavily that it has become pervasive in public thought over the military members themselves. One would think that to be an enormous problem. I think it poses quite a bit of opportunity.

Everyone knows battles in war movies and novels. Warzones and firefights are mechanical in writing. The reader realizes the strain and tension of their beloved MC pinned by some bunker to a fate unknown. But they can also see you still have 200 pages left in your book, so the character probably will be just fine. That’s tension lost, and at that point you’re just going through the motions that will likely resolve in a few friendly deaths for drama and the struggle main character dealing with the pain. Yeah, yeah…been there, done that. How about we try something a lot different.

Let’s write a story that’s main focus isn’t guns blazing with R. Lee Ermey articulating obscenities in the background. Let’s look at building the military member as a dynamic character. The opportunity we can find is in depicting them as the odd sub-culture that they really are. So, here is a list of what to look for when creating these characters to prevent you from feeding the Hollywood cliché machine.

1). Military Culture is its Own Animal.

First, let’s kill something that has been rolling around for a while from article writers that just doesn’t sit well with me: military members are just people. Sorry friends, they really really aren’t. They come in as regular people, likely a bit on the patriotic side. But when they get through the grind of basic or bootcamp and enter the world of the larger military, they are forever changed. Not into a machine, but into something a bit outside the mainstream.

What most people miss is that the American military is a conglomeration of cultures formed into an amorphous mass that the government tries the form fit into their own box but fails.

Complicated? You're right.

Think of it in a simpler way. How about you take a couple of military members that have been in for a while, we’ll say an always-in-boots Texan, a New Yorker who says “Facts B” and “Dead-ass” every five minutes, and a former gang member from LA trying to recant through religion. Next, we’ll have those three training a boot from Minnesota who spent his weekends boating and fishing competitively. They’ll mold that guy over time into a boot wearing, “dead-ass” speaking, church on Sunday attending punk who still boats and fishes any weekend he gets the chance. Stick all these cultures in a room every day for long hours on end, they’ll meld.

Now, I’m sure you’re saying boot camp is supposed to break that down and build them up with specific values. You’re right, it is supposed to. In some respects, it is successful. It will instill a fear of authoritarian retribution, a toughness in spirit that let’s them work through immense physical stress, and a commitment to each other. But it doesn’t turn them into the order following machine, and it does quite a number on their mental health. We’ll get to the comedy of that, because it is at the heart of military sub-culture.

When you’re attempting to develop such a character, base the character’s actions on where they came from first and foremost. What that means is that they had goals and lives before the military that led up to that point. And as far as I’ve seen, those goals were rarely just to get signed up for the military first. Maybe it is different on the officer side, but from an enlisted perspective they usually ended up there from other parts of their lives not working out. In fiction, these goals don’t need to be directly said and set in the writing, but they can be the groundwork behind the character’s decision-making processes.

To effectively start writing a military character, set their background in the non-military environment. Sure, some do want to join with all their heart, but write to yourself why that is. What makes them so adamant about subjecting themselves to that sort of hardship for so long? And keep in mind, most kids who spend all primary and secondary school in junior military programs get to bootcamp and drop out. It never is what they expected it to be.

When you’ve got who they are before the military set, think of who they encountered daily after they’ve been in. This determines a good portion of what their military personality will be.

2). Their Comedy is Incredibly Dark, with Good Reason.

No. The reason is not the threat of death. At least not in peace time. It’s the understanding of the constant misery that comes with the job and knowing how much longer they have left to endure it. Four or five years for an initial contract is actually a pretty long time. They make it through boot camp and the absolute irritation of those places and find they still have most of that time left.

Think of that. One to three months of absolute misery and irritation in initial training, then coming out to a greater military service to find that everyone finds them utterly worthless. If you’re looking for self-esteem growth, you won’t find it there.

So, they drink oftentimes, and make a whole lot of bad decisions. Then they drink some more. Those bad decisions make for their best comedy. Narcissism and masochism are staples in military humor.

Take for example a hungover boot who forgets his tools out on the flight line for the third time that week. Queue an ass chewing from higher, which always brings joy to everyone else. Then comes a laundry list of painful tasks for said boot to slave over to the point of crying and failure throughout the day. Everyone will likely watch, setting out lawn furniture in Okinawa to see the poor bastard soaked sweat running from jet to jet, stumbling across the airfield in delirium. They’ll remember their own moments of this pain and love it.

Then they’ll all get together that night and drink it away as a family, joking and telling stories of their own moments.

Self-deprecation becomes the standard as they endure the struggle. That struggle they come to love. It’s a downward spiral of drinking and smoking into oblivion day-to-day, only living for the chance to persevere over the pain next day. They know most the tasks they’re doing are just training exercises that don’t matter. Doing all these incredible feats of endurance and long hours, sometimes seven days a week, for something that likely will be meaningless.

It leads to recklessness on unheard of levels.

In your writing, this means a number of things for the character’s development. They are very likely to be a bit offensive in their language unless they have good reason not to be. The sarcasm in humor is damn near constant, to the point that people can speak entirely in sarcastic comments like “Best day of my life!” and have everyone know immediately that they mean the opposite. The dialogue is mostly joking, hiding a lot behind the words they say. Depending on first person or third perspective, the pain of the characters is often hidden, fissuring at critical times but sutured easily through this sort of dark humor.

Spend less time with the buddy-buddy aspects of the military speech and more with the violent and crass in-fighting and joking. It’s a difficult thing to understand, I know, but the military tends to work in opposites regarding emotional response. A great reference for understanding this is the series Generation Kill. It is set during war time, but it displays military humor very close to how it is.

3). Military members all have specific jobs.

On to something a bit more particular. And also done wrong so so so often. Every military member has a specific job they were essentially ‘hired’ for.

They are coded and a part of their career the entire enlistment. An AC-130 turbo-prop engine mechanic is only an AC-130 engine mechanic. A pilot of an F-18 is a pilot of only an F-18. You get the picture, I’m sure. Unless your character is in the Marine Corps, which gets a minor amount of infantry training before setting out on their real job, they are basically hired to do only that job. It’s like working for any company in...
Jan
11
Let's start with a definition: A paragraph begins at a new line. It is a group of related sentences that describe a central idea and a grammatical unit.

Is that helpful? No?

You're not alone. Don't know where to set the break? Confuse beat with scene with paragraph? Sounds familiar?

Word -> Sentence -> Paragraph -> Beat -> Scene -> Chapter -> Story

See what I've done here? I broke up the big mountain of work that's a story into ever smaller units. The smallest for our purposes is a word. Go smaller and you reach spelling; but that's beyond the scope of this article.

Words form sentences form paragraphs form beats form scenes form chapters form... story. Easy, right?

Well, no. If it was so easy, you wouldn't be reading this article. Believe it or not, the distinction has to do with time.

Blink.

Yes, I mean time. But let's start at the beginning. We want to express a continuing stream of reality, because that is what our minds are accustomed to. Fiction is suspension of disbelief, after all.

There's this sensory, highly subjective world your main character occupies. Your reader has never met this person you're about to introduce him to, and now he's going on an intimate journey. And what is a journey? A sequence of change: internal (character) change as well as external (plot) change. The word 'Story' might be used as synonym for 'change'.

Let's assume your story is designed to make the most of conflict. If story equals change, change equals... what? Physics dictate that every action has a reaction, and that means you have cause and effect. Words on a page don't overprint each other: By their very arrangement left to right you see them passing from one to each other. Action, reaction. Cause, effect. One thing happens, then another thing, then another thing. Ideally. Such a sequence is a beat. Until the next unit-that-is-a-beat. Not helpful?

But then there's time. There's chronological, objective time and emotional, subjective time. As writer, you can play with both of them. Ever reduced a journey to a laconic 'After two weeks, they arrived in Moscow'? Or the opposite 'My heartbeats come one at a time, like droplets dripping from a leaky faucet'.

If the situation is tense, time races. And you can translate tension into space: The more words, the more relaxed your viewpoint character is. Long sentences and paragraphs describing scenery and the reader can just experience the timelessness of this particular afternoon.

But any change in external affairs telegraphs the possibility of danger. Something changes and your character has to react. Your character is forced to adjust, depending on how dangerous he judges the situation to be (i.e. a soldier sleeps through shelling while his comrade runs for the bunker). Change doesn't always involve progress, but progress always involves change.

If you consistently track internal and external time, your reader will experience the character's 'person' more than he could with any kind of character questionary, because in-built time and hence the sense of danger is a very personal characteristic. Your reader will see the fictive person as 'real'. You'll put him in your character's shoes.

And when change happens, this is when you place a paragraph break.

A scene organises conflict elements. It telescopes them, intensifies them, and gives them a sense of time. You don't have a continuing climax. You can slow time (emotional reaction, internal debate, yes, even flashbacks) and speed them up again; build towards a curtain fall.

You control story pacing by the way how you dole out action-reaction time. I hope you begin to see how paragraphs pertain to time. Follow action-reaction and at change put a break. It's that easy. Or at the change between external to internal. Or at punchpoints that you want to resonate with the reader. External time and internal time, action and reaction: Internal reaction (astonishment) or external beats (rubs eyes), integrate and intersperse them between each other. Ultimately, it's about time.

A beat equals a unit of story time, and paragraphs equal a smaller subset thereof.

You can use sentences in the context of time as well. Shorter sentences one after another will leave your reader gasping for breath, longer compound ones will ground him in description. And yet the effect of sentence length is not clear cut: In furious action, compound sentences will string together time in an unbroken string to be experienced by the reader heartbeat after heartbeat, giving a sense of urgency. But as with all things in writing, don't overdo it. Diversity is the name of the game.

Equally, there is no rule how long a paragraph should be. Play with paragraph breaks; they don't bite. Look out for when action pauses, in the real life as well as in your story. When is it time to draw 'breath'? When is an action over and a reaction starts? One sentence or five, to a total of 2 or 200 words, the only guidance is your reader, because a long wall of text looks as intimidating as the time it takes to read it (here we are again on the subject of time), while a two-word paragraph packs a punch.

Reference: 'Techniques of the Selling Writer' (Dwight V. Swain)
Dec
26
Today, I want to talk about the first chapter. If it's been giving you trouble, you're in good company. Almost every writer moans about it at some point.

The common advise is to not sweat blood over the first chapter until you've written the bulk part of the novel. Don't spend ages on it before your plot has even kicked off, honing the words on the first page until a year's gone and you're still writing this first chapter that should be magnificent... and all the rest of your novel hasn't been written.

I'm not that hardcore and I think a writer needs dreams and a vision. Your first chapter should be something for you to read when you feel down on luck, when you doubt your ability and stamina, when everything goes wrong at the same time and you think you might never finish this story that you've sweated so long over. It should give you hope and determination to finish your story... never mind how inapt you might feel. You've a vision, right here in this chapter—so go out and write the rest.

Make a Scene by Jordan E. Rosenfeld (2008, Writer's Digest Books) has the following advise on how to craft the first chapter:
  1. Hatch your plot in the form of your significant situation
  2. Introduce your protagonist and provide a brief glance into his inner and outer struggles
  3. Establish a distinct, rich setting and subtly evoke the senses without being overbearing.
  4. Set up a feeling of dramatic tension that hints at complications and conflict to come.
I'd argue that 3 is more editing and word mechanics than actual choosing what to write; and 4 concerns mostly word mechanics and style choices (microtension and foreshadowing), and how you end this first chapter. So let's start at the beginning, with 2) and go to 1).

Introduce your protagonist and provide a brief glance into his inner and outer struggles

Your reader's about to enter your story-world through one particular set of eyes. Of course he's curious about who this person's gonna be.

What makes you choose to talk to a guy at a bus-stop? Does he look lost? Maybe one of his grocery bags's just split while he's getting small change. Or the backpack has a sticker on it that reminds you of your own days at high school.

In essence, talking to a guy at a bus-stop poses the very same question that the reader's asking: What makes your protagonist unique? How is it that he gets to be centre-stage in your manuscript?

And, having answered this question, you need to let the reader see that the protagonist is someone he'd be interested to meet—because he's about to, sentence after sentence. ('If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth', J.D. Salinger, Catcher in the Rye)

I'll talk about what makes a compelling characters in a later article.

Hatch your plot in the form of your significant situation

How do you know what is your significant situation? The answer is easy: It's the one that kicks off your story. Forget about prologues for the little while you're reading this article. The inciting incident isn't some ancient God's power struggle or the sins of fathers, visited upon children. It's more immediate. It's change in your protagonist's life, right now.

By the way... when I say 'protagonist' I mean the element central to your story. This can be a person (ninety out of a hundred times it will be), a theme, or something abstract that's embodied by i.e. the relationships of citizens in a small town.

What makes the current day so special that you want to give it a place of honor in your manuscript? Readers will start exactly here. You want to give them something to remember.

Techniques of a Selling Writer by Dwight V. Swain (1981, University of Oklahoma Press) gives the advise to 'Start on the day that's different'. Your status-quo changed, from accustomed routine of what had been to something new. A change happens and responding to this change, your protagonist'll spark a chain reaction down the line until he gets caught in an intolerable situation which will be your story's major conflict.
  1. Where/When to open
  2. How to open
  3. What to put in
  4. What to leave out
  5. How to introduce needed information
  6. When to close
For the moment, I'll leave out discussion of 5), as it's techniques of exposition and show&tell (also later article material).

Where/When to open

You want to open just on the brink of change (if you're too early your readers have the chance to get bored). Or with change (but try not to leave the reader disoriented; remember, he doesn't know yet where and who he is in terms of your story). Or just after the change (though be careful that you don't chunk in a huge mass of exposition later). There's no clear cut rule. Every start has the potential to get messed up, but it can also be a stepping stone into your story's abyss.

This is the moment to hook your readers. Don't waste this chance!

How to open

You'll not be the first, nor will you be the last to curse your first sentences. Welcome to the club.

Practical advise says it's good to orient your reader immediately with the four W's: Who, Where, When, and bonus points for What's Happening. A word about the 'what's happening':

What to put in
What to leave out


Don't confuse 'what's happening' with 'what's happened in the past'. You're in the story-present. Your reader needs to be oriented to what's happening right now, not about events hundreds of years past. Present action is the sweet spot. Engage the senses. Throughly ground your readers in your story's present.

But, I hear you cry out, that still doesn't tell me how I get to write this first sentence!

My own strategy is write something. Anything. Start anywhere. Don't worry, just start. Can you feel yourself getting into your story world? Good. Just write. Don't look back. Forget your awful first sentence if at all possible. Somewhen, maybe a week or two later, when you're throughly enjoying yourself, read your first page critically. Disengage as much as possible, try to look at it with reader's eyes, and watch like a hawk for the one sentence that stands out, that makes you pay attention and say to yourself 'Yes, now we're off and running!'

This sentence pinpoints the significant. What distills your story best? This is what you have to use to hook your readers. You're making them a promise.

It can be buried middle of some paragraph on the second page, or even later. You know you've found it when it either is unique ('It was a bright, cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen', George Orwell, 1984), unanticipated ('They shoot the white girl first', Toni Morrison, Paradise), deviates from routine or shows a change about to take place ('Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendia was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice', Gabriel Garcia Marquez, A Hundred Years of Solitude), or focuses the readers' inordinate attention on something commonplace ('Call me Ishmael', Herman Melville, Moby Dick) ...

... Or it introduces your protagonist with a little detail that makes the reader sympathize with him; or think they want to know your him (I'll talk about this later, in another article).

... Or all of the above.

When to close

Have you introduced your protagonist? Have you made him relatable? Have you oriented the reader in the here-and-now? Have you asked questions the reader will be looking to find answers to? Bonus points if your protagonist's been finding out that his world's about to turn. Then your first chapter has done its job. The only question still remains is—

Which detail do you want the reader to have at the forefront of his mind going into the next chapter? That's when you write 'Chapter 2'. I'll write a dedicated article about endings as well.

A good first chapter raises questions that beg to be answered—by reading the rest of the novel; and what hooks your reader is not the past but the future.

Now go out and conquer it.
Jun
08
WHY I WRITE

My childhood had a powerful influence on why I write. I was born in the city but grew up in the country. And there in the country I discovered that words could take me beyond what I knew with my eyes and my ears. It began on a hike in the woods with my father. We had stopped to watch some bees buzzing around wild flowers along the trail. I knew the bees were gathering honey but wondered if there was something else going on. When we got home, my curiosity led me to a library where I discovered it wasn't a one-way affair. Those flowers were gathering pollen from the bees. But watching bees buzzing from flower to flower wasn't enough. I needed words to transform my observations into meanings. Bees do things to flowers. Flowers do things to bees. Words do things to me. And that makes me love them.

My love of words was born in those woods, and grew up in libraries where words were always windows and sometimes even doors to adventure, mystery, and self-discovery. Words stimulate my curiosity, my thinking and my imagination. Now, with the years piled up like pages in a book, most of my reading takes place on my Kindle. But I still go to my local library to stay in touch with the feel of a printed page, the smell of a printed book, and the look of words on paper.

Most of all, I go to be in a library, to feel that electric awareness that here in this quiet place are zillions of things waiting to be discovered, waiting to feed my curiosity. To benefit from the men and women who put their thoughts and feelings into words in a book. Some of them have been dead for thousands of years. Some published their book when the Egyptians were building pyramids. Some when the Greeks were discovering science and art. Some in the Dark Ages when mankind turned away from science and art. Some during the Renaissance when men and women returned to the arts and science. Some put their thoughts and feelings into a book just a year or so ago.

Doesn't matter where or when. Those writers are still alive in the words they wrote. In a library, I am a space-time traveler being carried to once upon a time in a land far away by the author's imagination. Even if it's fiction, I gain insights on politics, religion, history, philosophy, art, science—anything and everything that has occupied the heads, hearts and hands of men and women throughout the ages.

Reading the words that other people wrote motivated me to write my own words. Now, with the years piled on top of each other like pages in a book, I'm more aware of why I write and why it matters. You may not identify strongly with any of my reasons but they might start you thinking about yours because knowing why you write will make you be a better writer.

To Understand Myself and the World

Every clear sentence I write clears more of the under growth of confusion in my mind. Writing is just speaking on paper or typing on a keyboard. What's magical about it is that I don't know what I think or feel until I see what I'm saying.
We've been told that a picture is worth a thousand words. My last visit to an art gallery, however, made me doubt the artist had any words in mind when he placed his brush on the canvas. Some of the paintings looked as if the artist had tossed the canvas on the floor of his studio, then thrown paint into a fan.

I have, of course, seen photographs and paintings worth at least a thousand words. Norman Rockwell, Annie Leibovitz, Ansel Adams and others. But I'm drawn to words more strongly than to photographs or paintings. My bias is that pictures can only show, whereas words can show and tell. When I see an eye-catching painting or photograph, my first thought is to ask myself how I could express what I'm seeing with words.

To Earn a Living

Writing played a crucial role in my career. My job required me to write reports and instructional manuals so other men and women could do their jobs. Good writing reflects good thinking, and my employers noticed.
They also noticed, as did the people I was writing for, that I was paying close attention to my target audience. If you are designing an upscale restaurant, for example, the building, the landscaping and the entrance, when viewed from the street, should not appeal to people who are wearing raggedy jeans and baseball caps turned backwards on their heads. Your restaurant is a space to dine, not a place to eat.

To Express My Creativity

Writing brings my imagination out to play with prose and poetry. Play? Yes, creativity is allowing yourself to make mistakes. Art is knowing which ones to keep. Play first, then work with the results so what you publish is art. And what is art if it isn't transforming thoughts into things—something real that evolved by entertaining dreams and making up stories.

Some people think stories aren't true because fiction is inferior to fact. Yeah, stories are made up, so fiction can be just an entertaining way to escape reality. We live in a world with problems that are often beyond our ability to solve. So it can be reassuring to read a story with problems we know will be solved by the hero in the end.

But people who write books, compose poems, make movies and sing songs seed their imagination with what they see and hear in the real world. So fiction can also be a powerful way to change reality.

In other words, storytellers use fiction to tell the truth, and that empowers you and me to find something true about ourselves. We live in a world that makes us too busy to look back and see our own lives as stories, too busy to connect the dots of cause and effect and paint our own story with a plot and a point.

Stories give us that look back. We become the young hero, the wise old woman, the transformed fool. The story becomes more true than if it had really happened, and that makes fiction psychologically valid, emotionally realistic and loaded with clues for shaping and navigating the sticky web of real life.

To Connect Yesterday and Tomorrow

Without reflection, the history of our lives is just a string of incidents connected by the passage of time. Like salmon swimming upstream, we get so immersed in the business and busyness of life we don't see how the circumstances we encountered and the choices we made became a story with a plot and a point. So I transform memories into memoirs to unlock the door to yesterday. And every sentence I write moves me closer to things that mattered in the past and will, therefore, matter in the future.

To Entertain, Inform and Inspire

Writing plays a crucial role in how we share knowledge with others and communicate our thoughts and feelings. I get more pleasure from writing when I know that somebody is reading what I've written. So I share my creativity, my knowledge and my experience with others by publishing my writing with e-book distributors and on-line magazines.

To Enjoy the Process

I love the process of brainstorming an idea, then researching, writing, editing and polishing it to create a clear, concise, finely-tuned work of art. And whether I do or do not find an audience for what I've written, I "publish" it in my Things that Matter scrapbook. Why? Because that makes it more tangible, more present and less forgotten.

Forgotten? Yes. Having something I've written published out there in the world is as temporary as the issue of the magazine in which it appeared. And then it's buried in the back issues. I'm not trying to be negative, just realistic about the difficulty of finding an editor who thinks that what I've written has some entertaining, informative or inspirational value for the publication's readers. Even if the editor does, and publishes it, I won't know how it's received or what effect it had on those who read it.

To Save My Self for Posterity

My website is a virtual Things that Matter scrapbook of pictures, prose and poetry, musings, memoirs and memories. Publishing my thoughts, feelings and experiences at my website softens the transitory nature of publishing my writing in a magazine and the wait-and-see nature of publishing my writing with a distributor.

It, like my actual scrapbook, also makes it less likely my children and their children will forget me five days after I'm dead. Like Orwell, and perhaps you too, my self interest hopes I will be talked about and remembered after death. Except for astronauts, nobody gets off this planet alive, and everyone is forgotten-some sooner than others. So even though I'd prefer immortality by not dying, and hope my physical and virtual scrapbooks will delay their forgetfulness of me, I embrace the inevitability that it too will be placed on a shelf and forgotten. That's OK with me.

Why Do You Write?

If one of the reasons you write is to publish what you've written, keep in mind that you can be 100 percent successful with e-book distributors—just write and upload. With editors, it's more like 10 percent—submit and wait.

Either way, it's a quality-versus-quantity project. The vast number of books on...
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