Elements of Writing

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(~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...
(~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...
(~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...
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.


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)
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.
I recently read an anthology 'Why We Write: Craft Essays on Writing War'. This anthology has been published 10th Dec 2019 by Middle West Press LLC, the Military Writers Guild, editors Randy Brown & Steve Leonard (https://www.amazon.com/Why-We-Write-Essays-Writing-ebook/dp/B07Z8BQD6T) with the intention of educating writers who want to write about war about aspects of their craft. Each of the included essays gives a unique viewpoint about writing and sometimes about war. All of them have been put together with care and attention to detail.

One stands out. 'Attention to detail' by Steven L. Moore. He talks about how to make writing real, to show the reader boundaries by which to place the events not in the fiction category but as 'true'. Moore maintains that it's all the result of details.

Details give the reader a framework within which a story happens. Supposedly, details are the periphery of the story. If the thing was any less meaningful, the writer would have left it out. But the writer wrote it, the reader reads it and bounces off, gets directed back inside the story.

That means what you don't include is similarly important to what you actually write down. So how unimportant is a detail that you don't include it? Some details are inconsequential or beside the point. Some aren't.

In the framework of war, details can get you or your buddies killed. Moore takes as example a pile of stones by the road—a detail. The pile can mask a problem that's known as IED (improvised explosive devise). This specific detail clearly is important, if there is an IED underneath. But as writers we are tasked to discern between the important and the inconsequential. If there is no IED underneath, do I still include the pile of stones in the story?

If a patrol sees the stones, they'll put up a cordon and call the bomb disposal guys. They'll set up a security perimeter. They'll remain on this spot. So the pile of stones, formerly classified as 'detail', is no longer inconsequential, not since it got noticed. Until they looked at it. Until they lingered because of it.

Moore brings the example of a movie. The moment the camera lingers, it affects the narrative. The moment the writer describes a detail, it immediately becomes important because the reader looks at it.

As writers, we can't describe everything. We have to tell the reader which detail is important. So the task of the writer is to choose the detail which best distill everything around it. Remember, we are not talking about the large storyline. We are talking about details.

I'll leave you with a quote from this essay. Moore wrote down a brief scene, which is defined by a detail. I love this detail. It places the scene in reality.

To strengthen the bond between two characters whose friendship is one of the most important part of the book, I've been thinking about this a lot lately.

You don't think about this when you meet a new person. You become friends because you have things in common (interests, personality...) before you actually truly know them. When you really get to know them, there will be some things that you'll like and some you won't. If you decide to stay, it'll mean that you've decided that they are worth remaining into your life after all. Why? Because they'll make you laugh, because they understand you, ultimately; they give you something in return.

What does it take to become close friends with someone, apart from time? Some people, I've known for years, most of whom I barely talk to by now. We are just too different, and I believe we always have been. What they offered to me was temporary. We don't share the same values, and I probably wouldn't enjoy seeing them all the time.

Those I kept: I like the way they think, or I love the energy they bring which seems to collide perfectly well with mine. With some of them it's all about our conversations and how they bring something different to the things I observe, be it in my day to day life or my deeper thoughts. They do so each in their own unique way; they are all different. Still, some friendships are a bit more physical. Simply put; I just love spending time with them. They make me laugh, and even though we don't agree on all important things and may very rarely have long and intellectual conversations about the world for that very reason, it may never matter to us at the end of the line. Chances are, we will be too busy enjoying ourselves to think about such things. I believe that in such relationships, despite the fact that we may not be similar in our way of thinking, all similarity and connection found may mainly if not fully reside in the mechanical functioning of our brain. It is a rare thing to find someone with whom it is possible to be understood and communicate without the need of words. Most likely, what you are trying to express, they will be feeling it, too. Perhaps not in the same exact way, but surely close enough.

I've been thinking about two characters I've read about lately whose friendship has moved me beyond words. In the end I believe it was those both types of friendships - intellectual and physical - in one. It started as an intellectual friendship, and as the two grew into one-another, turned into a physical one as well without their noticing. The result was that they were rarely apart, reason being that they understood each other like they rarely, if ever, had with others, but also that together they brought an energy to every moment that passed that, surely, made everything better. It is a simple word but a large one: better in the sense that everything became more tolerable; easier and more enjoyable; filled with possibilities which, as time together must have proven, had ways of becoming stories that they might ultimately never forget, and share with others even after years will have passed.

To add to it, I believe it has also to do with what they brought in each other in terms of character. The way that they influenced each other was commendable, and if one of the two may not have noticed, it was shown many times that the other had. This led him, I believe, to become even more dependant on his friend than he may have been in the past, even when their appreciation of each other was already high. It is an interesting thing to observe. This side of him that has matured, he owes it to his friend. It is something that he regards highly of him. This influence, which is in part owed to the great kindness of his friend, sometimes feels, in the book, as though he is aware of it the way we are aware of warm covers on cold nights, or like a coat in a snow storm. Every time it showed, he seemed to be reminded of his friend and the way that he looks up to him for it.

I began writing this in hopes of discovering something new and different about strong friendships that I might have missed before, something almost mythical, like an old romance novel, but perhaps it can also be said that in every ordinary thing may reside something magical and rare. It could be that we are only too used to it to notice, or are not paying enough attention. In the end, it is true that strong friendships can only be built with time; to realize that we love the person in question and the things they bring to us, but also time to reflect what they mean to us and how far we are willing to go to keep them. I realize now that I may have been looking for a magical answer to bypass this element of time to create a bond between my two main characters, so powerful, that it would be strong right away like a platonic love at first sight. But there is nothing boring about time, if done correctly. We do not form such strong connections with every stranger we meet, it simply cannot be forced. Why do we find such delight in platonic romances such as Sherlock and Watson, Harry and Ron, Marty and Doc (each different in their own way, but relatable in their strength and sacrifices)? It could be for the very same reason that the romance genre has been dominating the movie industry for decades. It enviable because it is rare. We all have, or at least for the greater part of us, formed a romantic connection with someone, and there is not a person on earth that has never had a friend, but the connection that we find in movies, powerful as what made the Titanic such a historical sensation in its industry, same as Good Will Hunting, Forrest Gump or the Dead Poet society, are rare things indeed. We may never live to experience these ourselves, but it is quite nice to feel it through some other's eyes, for an hour and a half or more.

This may look like complete gibberish. I don't truly expect anyone to read it, but it has helped putting a lot of things into perspective. Also english isn't my first language.....
Why are characters so important?
One of the most important aspects of fiction is the characters. Stories are all about people (and creatures or things which, to all intents and purposes, act like people). No matter how good your plot is, or how realistic your setting, if the characters don’t work your reader won’t enjoy the story.

Readers need to feel that they understand your characters. This means that their motives need to be clear, their actions need to make sense, and the reader needs to be able to empathise with them. That doesn’t necessarily mean they like them, just that they can get inside the characters’ heads and understand what they are thinking and feeling, and why.

The problem of empathy in autism
There are two main types of empathy: cognitive, and affective. Cognitive empathy is the ability to understand other people’s thoughts, feelings and perspectives, and affective empathy is the ability to share in and reciprocate others’ feelings. People with autism and aspergers often struggle with cognitive empathy, which makes it harder for us to work out what other people are thinking and feeling, and what they know and do not know. Often we have to work this out logically from knowledge we already have or patterns we have observed previously, rather than doing it spontaneously or naturally through our interactions with people. Sometimes our understanding of other people takes more time, and we realise things about people after the interaction has already finished.

How does this problem of empathy apply in writing?
A character is not a real person. Even if it is based on a real person, the character itself is not real. However, empathy still applies when writing a story. When you are writing a story, there are two perspectives influencing what gets written down: the perspective of the author, and the perspective of the character.

Writing the story from the perspective of the author is a problem because the author already knows everything about the story. He/she also knows everything about all the other characters. So if the author’s own perspective ‘bleeds’ into those of the characters, it distorts the characters’ points of view. The character will appear to know things that they should not know; or they might think, feel, say and do things which do not make sense in the context of the story (for example if these thoughts, feelings, words and actions are those of the author).

So in order to correctly portray your character, you have to take their perspective. You have to put yourself into their mind and think not about what you are thinking and feeling, not what you know or would do in their situation, but about them. In other words, you have to empathise with your character in just the same way as you would with a real person.

Lets look at an example to illustrate this point. Our main character is a little boy called Simon. Simon’s parents are arguing behind a closed door. Simon can’t open the door, or his parents will know he is listening. However, he can’t hear his parents’ whispers well through the door, so only hears fragments. Later, Simon is telling his sister what he heard. In order to know what he knows, the writer has to empathise with Simon. What can he reasonably know in this situation? And which parts of the argument (which you, the author, already know) represent knowledge he cannot have? This is crucially important, because it will affect the realism of the character and of how he chooses to act on his knowledge. If he acts on information he shouldn’t know, his actions will appear unrealistic.

A further complication: ‘double’ empathy
Your characters are interacting with other characters. That means they also have to empathise. So you have to take the perspective of one character and then consider what he/she knows about other characters. So we have to get inside Simon’s head and work out what he knows about his parents’ argument. Now we have to think about how Simon will understand what his sister is thinking and feeling, and what she already knows or does not know, during his interaction with her. For example, when he tells her that he heard the word ‘divorce’ through the door, his sister will react. But what does this reaction mean? That depends. Does she understand what the word ‘divorce’ means? If so, she might be shocked. If not, she might be confused. Could she already have known that her parents were talking about divorce? And how does Simon know that she knows this?

As you can see empathising with characters is not simple. It’s easy to get tied up in knots thinking not only about what your character is thinking and feeling and what he/she knows, but also about what they know of the perspectives of other characters and how this interplay of perspectives affects their communication and interaction.

Strategies for writing characters
So empathy, which is a fundamental difficulty in autism, is central to writing realistic and consistent characters. But all is not lost. There are things you can do to make this easier, and they mirror the strategies you might use when trying to empathise with people in real life.

Ensure your body is regulated
Unmet sensory needs will affect your information processing. Empathy is a cognitive process, so sensory dysregulation will impair your ability to take your characters’ perspectives effectively. Before you start writing, or even thinking about writing, do what you need to do to regulate your body. That might mean moving around, fidgeting, or making some noise if you are a sensory seeker, or adjusting the environment (e.g. lighting, background noise, resonance in the room etc) if you are hyper-sensitive to any of these things. Take regular breaks while you are working to check you are still regulated, as sometimes bodily and sensory dysregulation can creep in and affect thinking without you realising it—especially if you are very focused on what you are doing.

Slow down
This is easier when writing than when interacting with a real person. Sometimes it takes time to process information about others’ perspectives, and this is true when writing fiction as well. When you are writing, you have the luxury of slowing down and taking the time you need to work out your character’s perspective.

Work backwards
It can be hard to start from a character’s current position, take their perspective, and work out their actions from that point. Sometimes it’s easier to start with what you want the character to do next. Then, consider what would cause them to do that, and what would they need to know or understand in order to do it. Then you can fill in the gaps in the detail of the character’s perspective linking one action to another, while keeping their actions consistent with their state of mind.

Go back and forth between inner monologue and actions
When you’re re-reading, keep going back and forth between your descriptions of your characters’ thoughts and feelings, and the things they do as a result of them. Ask yourself if it makes sense that they would say or do what they did in light of their internal state.

Ask someone to check your characters’ actions
If you’re not sure, check with someone else whether your character’s actions make sense in light of what you have told the reader about them (i.e. what they think, feel and know). If they don’t, then it’s possible that you have misjudged or miscommunicated something about your character’s mindset.

Base characters on people you know
Because they’re not real, characters have the potential to do anything. That leaves a lot of scope for them to behave in ways which a real person might not. If you base your characters, even loosely, on people you know well, then it can be easier to take their perspective. This is because you can draw on past experience of interactions with that person when determining the actions they take as a result of their situation.

Include characters with autism
If your main character is autistic, you can be explicit about the fact that they don’t know certain things. This takes some of the burden of empathy away. This is probably a short-term fix, however. The reason for this is that in order for the plot to progress, they will need to learn things that they didn’t know before, which means you need to know those things and find ways for your character to learn them; you also need to be conscious of the things your character doesn’t know, which in itself requires empathy. However, it may be easier to empathise with an autistic character if their mindset more closely reflects your own.

Make detailed character sheets
This will help to consolidate your characters’...
Why write autistic characters?
Recognition of autism is improving as society learns more about what it means to be autistic. We now recognise that autism is prevalent throughout many aspects of society, and are understanding more and more about both the challenges and advantages it brings. It is statistically likely that everybody knows somebody with autism, whether that person knows they are autistic or not. And it is for this reason that I think there should be more autistic characters in literature. Autism is part of the human experience, bringing a unique and sometimes quirky perspective and novel ways of solving problems. These factors alone create the potential for autism to influence character and plot in interesting ways.

What is autism?
Autism is a congenital neurological difference which results in altered perception and information processing. This might sound very different to other descriptions of autism, which often focus on impairments, disabilities and social difficulties. However, these difficulties are secondary to the main difference in autism. Think of the brain as a computer; there are inputs (keyboards, mice, touch screens etc), which are akin to the senses, and there are outputs (displays, speakers and hardware devices) which resemble human communication, movement and action. Between the input and the output is the processor, which is what makes sense of the input and decides on the most appropriate output.

In autism, the inputs (i.e. the senses) work differently. Some of them are more sensitive than usual, some of them are less so. This can mean hyper-sensitivity to certain senses, such as finding light over a certain brightness or noise which is relatively quiet very overwhelming. Conversely, hypo-sensitivity can lead to things like not noticing certain sensations and therefore craving them in order to feel regulated; this is often associated with the need to spin around or flap limbs, which are due to reduced vestibular and proprioceptive senses.

The effect of all this is that information is processed differently by the brain. Things to which the person is hyper-sensitive is given a higher priority, because it is the most demanding of attention. Things to which they are hypo-sensitive is given reduced priority, because it is unnoticed or not considered to be important. And the processing of information, which is required in order to understand it, is slowed down or altered by the overwhelming amount of stimulation which is bombarding the person at any given time.

The reason why this affects social interaction is complicated. First, in this whirlwind of sensory information, social behaviours from other people may simply not be noticed. I don’t see that you are angry because my visual cortex is burned out trying to ignore the patterns on the wallpaper. Or I can’t take in your tone of voice because the police siren down the street is too distressing. As children, this means that autistic people often miss opportunities to learn about social interaction by observing it in others. Furthermore, people are often very unpredictable, and in a world consisting of overwhelming sensory information, autistic people tend to be drawn to things which are consistent and safe. This is the reason why autistic people often withdraw from social situations. The sensory onslaught is overwhelming, and the social demands too great to cope with. This leads to huge amounts of stress, fatigue, and ultimately shutdown.

That all sounds terrible. Why would I want to include an autistic character in my writing?
The same aspects of altered sensory and information processing which cause a lot of turmoil for autistic people also brings many gifts. Sensory hyper-sensitivity can lead to amazing attention to detail, noticing things that others wouldn’t (or couldn’t). Hypo-sensitivity can be more of a challenge, but at times can work well, such as by filtering out irrelevant stimuli which might be distracting to other people. This can help massively with focus. On the subject of attention, it tends to be single-channeled in autism, rather than multitasking. This means that autistic people can focus strongly on one thing at a time, and with such strong focus to the exclusion of all else they can accomplish more in a shorter space of time. Interests for people with autism tend to be narrow, and this allows them to learn huge amounts of information and develop amazing skills within these interests. This is partly due to the search for safe consistency previously noted, and partly because once a motivating interest is found it tends to become a passion. In childhood this looks like obsessions (such as loving a particular cup and spinning it round and round over and over again), and in adulthood it tends to mean a narrow focus on particular topic areas.

For these reasons, autistic characters in fiction can provide an interesting perspective. They will notice things around them in ways which other characters don’t. Some things that the reader might expect them to be aware of will go unnoticed, and this will cause confusion and misunderstandings for the characters. They will read different things in to other people’s intentions, and will solve problems in different ways. They will interpret situations differently, and can present these interpretations in ways which can intrigue readers and make them think about their own perceptions of the environment around them - not to mention the people within it.

How to write a good autistic character
I am by no means claiming to be an authority on writing. Far from it - I am an amateur at best. But I am a specialist in autism by profession, know many autistic people, have autistic relatives, and am on the autism spectrum myself. So I do know a lot about autism, what it is, and more importantly, what it is not. So here are my tips on how to portray autism in a way which will accurately reflect the truth of its differences, while at the same time allowing your reader to empathise with the character.

Meet real people with autism
Characters in fiction will portray their surface behaviours, and perhaps some of their inner monologue and thought processes. But they won’t really explore the processing that is going on under the surface. So you might see that a character is covering their ears when a train goes by, and they might even say that the sound is unbearable, but you won’t necessarily get deep insight into how that affects that person at the time (e.g. that when they are experiencing am overwhelming stimulus in one sensory modality they are unable to process information from other senses). Also, they probably won’t explain how this experience affects them moving on from there, i.e. the time it takes for the sensory system to return to baseline. You might also see the social difficulties they have, but not necessarily the reasons for them. It is important to understand not only what’s going on on the surface, but also the processing differences which are associated with them. And the best person to tell you about those things is a person with autism.

Read autobiographies about autistic people
Wenn Lawson, Ros Blackburn, Clare Sainsbury, Jim Sinclair, Zaffy Simone... these and other autistic adults can tell you, from a first-hand perspective, what it is like to experience the world as an autistic person. Reading their accounts will help you get inside the mind of an autistic person and take their POV.

Beware of stereotypes
Rain Man has a lot to answer for. As does The Big Bang Theory. These are catchphrase characters who portray stereotypical autistic traits. Outside of fiction, we are bombarded by historical figures who are posthumously diagnosed with autism. Mozart, Einstein, Lewis Carrol and Alan Turing are all touted as autistic, and all on the grounds of genius or prodigious abilities and/or an aloof manner with people. Yes these can be characteristics of autism, but not necessarily. Focusing on these traits and basing ostensibly autistic characters on them risks giving a stereotyped and two-dimensional view of autism. So don't write a character who flaps his hands and hums to himself and repeats the same phrases over and over again. Yes some autistic people do those things, and yes your character might do them at some points. But if it's all they do, and if you don't explain why they are doing, your character will seem shallow. This is unfulfilling for readers, deprives them of an opportunity to learn about autism in an enjoyable way, and is annoying for people with autism!

Get empathy right
It is a myth that people with autism lack empathy. There are two main types of empathy: cognitive, and affective. Cognitive empathy is the ability to understand other people’s thoughts, feelings and perspectives, and...
There are some fundamental differences between actual, spoken conversation and the dialog we expect to see in fiction. This means that dialog is one of the most difficult things to make "realistic" in writing, because the idea that we need to make is "realistic" at all is a misapprehension. I'm going to run down a few highlights.

1. People say "um" and "uh." Characters do not.

It's not that characters are that much more intelligent than the average person, but rather that the reader hasn't got time to filter out a lot of "Er... Um. Hm," every time your protagonist needs to order a sandwich. These interjections are one of a set of several things that we add to dialog only as seasoning: a dab here, a pinch there, and you're done. You can throw in one of these to demonstrate that a character is taken aback by something or confused by some strange circumstance. Use too many, however, and what you're signaling is not that something weird is going on, but rather that your character is stupid, apt to be confused by the most mundane things.

I don't bring this up because it's a thing people commonly get wrong--writers rightly see the "hmmmm" in their stream of consciousness as their own grasping for what comes next rather than the character's--but because this concept of "spice" or "seasoning" is a good one to carry forward.

2. People work blue. Characters are PG-13.

If I had to guess how often I used the word "fuck" throughout my college years, I would be too ashamed to actually give you a number. It's dropped off a little since then, believe it or not. This is a thing that real people do: put them in a blue collar situation and they will swear a blue streak up and down the road. Characters don't have this luxury.

"But Tom Clancy's characters swear nonstop!"

You're right; his works are a prominent exception when I think about this topic. But how would his characters express an extreme sentiment in a trying time? Like, what if someone were to drop a bomb on their garage? Well, they'd have pretty much the same reaction to that as they would to sour milk on their Cap'n Crunch. "God dammit to hell, stupid expiration date..."

By all means, let your characters swear, but use some restraint so that profanity doesn't lose its impact. Do that, and it's also possible to portray a character as being "foul-mouthed," a thing that becomes far more difficult to pull off if everyone in your cast is screeching four letter words nonstop.

3. People make small talk. Characters make points.

I've had two people ask me how I'm doing today and a third talk to me about their dog. None of that has a damn thing to do with anything I'm trying to accomplish. It's called small talk, and it's something humans engage in when stuck together on an elevator, or when waiting for a taxi after someone has dropped a bomb on their garage. I assume. Anyway, the point is that your characters should not do this. They should not have time to do this. That's not to say that every line of dialog has to relate directly to your plot. Not every spoken word relates to the Death Star: some of them are about wampas, or nonsensical euphemisms for sex, drugs, and rock and roll, like "Toshi station" and "power converters."

Dialog is one of your most powerful tools. It's highlighted with a pair of quotation marks, it is often offset with whitespace, and it tends to take up less room on the page than your exposition, which means that readers almost always read dialog. (Fun fact: they will skim pretty much everything else!) This makes dialog prime real estate for anything important that you want to say to the reader. Keep your blathering to a minimum. If a little bit of color commentary is important to a character or to the setting, sure, go for it! ...But don't waste my time with a grocery list unless those groceries are about to get MacGuyvered into a miraculous escape or a bomb for someone's garage.

None of this is realistic in the least.

Spend a little time watching Bob Ross on YouTube. He has not once painted a tree, or a rock, or a bush, or a lake, or a mountain, or a cloud, or a sky, or anything at all. He just bangs the brush on the canvas with the right technique, and your brain will tell you that you are looking at all of those things because you've seen them before, and the illusion works. Your objective in writing is very similar: you want to give your reader the illusion of realism (we call it "verisimilitude" when we have extra $64 dollar words lying around). but your writing needs to be better than real.
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