Friday, August 23, 2013

Writing Tips 20 and 21

I'm getting behind! The sky is falling! Ahh!!! Must start posting two at a time. Okay, maybe the sky isn't falling, but my good friend Mark Forman is right. I'm slacking off on this. So, let's do a couple of fun ones.

Tip 20: Let your readers know your character better than the character does.

At first this sounds a little counter intuitive. Don't you know yourself better than anyone else? In some ways you do. You know your favorite candy bar, you know the most embarrassing story of your life--the one no one will ever hear, you know who you had a crush on in third grade.

What you don't know is the way everyone else sees you. You also are often the last person to realize when you are acting dumb, or how much you were affected by an event you've been trying to forget about. It's not until your best friend says, "Dude, Tiffany is never going to give you the time of day and you've totally been neglecting your real friends to chase after her," that you see what you've been doing.

And lots of times, even when you are told what you've been doing, it's hard to verbalize why. You have all these jumbled up feelings, and you're not sure who you really are on any given day. Sometimes, it isn't until years later that you can look back and go, okay, that's what was really going on in my life. (Wow, deep. At least for me!)

How does this translate into creating a character? Well, let's say you want your character to be blame herself for her parents' divorce. There are several ways of communicating that to the reader.

  1. Samantha blamed herself for her parents' divorce.

    Well, it's definitely not beating around the bush. You get the point across very clearly. Unfortunately, it's sort of like interior decorating with a sledgehammer. Any intelligent reader is going to feel like they've been hit over the head. Let's move on.
  2. Samantha stared at the spot at the table where her father always sat. It felt like someone had taken a piece of her life and cut it out with a chainsaw. Was it because she hadn't been a good enough daughter?

    This is better. And it's what most authors do. At least it has moved from straight showing to a little bit of telling and a little bit of showing. It sounds like the way a teenage girl might think. It will do in a pinch. But you don't want to be just okay. You want to be good, or even great. Let's go with a little defter touch.
  3. Samantha slammed the door and cranked her music. A minute later, the door swung open and her mother stuck her head inside.

    "Can we talk?" Mom asked, her words almost lost beneath the harsh rhythms of Samantha's grunge music.

    Samantha rolled her eyes. "What?"

    Mom sat on the edge of the bed and turned off the MP3 player. "The last few weeks, you've been a different person."

    Samantha knew her mother was trying to help, but she was just so sick of everything going on in her life, she wanted to claw out her eyeballs. "The last few weeks I haven't had a dad to talk to." The minute the words left her mouth, she wished she could take them back. The hurt on her mom's face was so raw it could have left bruises.

    She expected her mother to blow up. That's what she would have done. Instead, her mom laid a hand on her arm. "You aren't blaming yourself, are you?"

    Samantha nearly fell off the bed. "Of course not!"

    What makes this better is that Samantha doesn't see it. Even when asked directly, she denies it. That's the way life usually is. It's so hard for us to see what's really going on in our head. But the reader is going, "I'll bet she does blame herself." This advances from entry-level writing to something with some depth. But there is an even better way.
  4. Let us see through Samantha's actions that she blames herself for her parents divorce without ever mentioning it outright. Readers LOVE to know more than the character. I'm not saying make the character dumb. I'm telling you to give the reader clues they can pick up like bread crumbs. Samantha is suddenly getting better grades, cleaning her room every day, bending over backwards to be the perfect child, all while inside, her life is falling apart. As a reader we see what is happening. We know that there is a ticking time bomb inside Samantha. But what makes this so readable is that Samantha doesn't know it yet. 
See how we went from an ax to a scalpel? The best stories are the stories where the reader knows what's going on without being hit over the head. 

Writing Tip 21: Kill your babies.

If you've gone to enough writers' conferences, you've probably heard this before. But do you know what it really means? I've heard people describe it as cut out the best part of your writing, and that's not it at all. What it really means is, don't be so tied to a paragraph or a sentence or a scene that you close your eyes to the fact that it isn't working.

One of the best examples of this is first sentences. You come up with a great first sentence like, "The day purple Jell-O squirted out of my mom's nose was also the day I took over the world." Now that is a pretty cool sentence. I mean it definitely beats, "Sarah Eden thought back to the first J Scott Savage book she'd ever read; it was magic." I don't burn books. But, man, I would burn a book with a beginning like that.

So great, you have this awesome first sentence. But then, as you start writing the book, you realize how difficult it is to make your character take over the whole world. And the scene with the purple Jell-O isn't working at all. But you fight against fixing your story because then you'd lose the cool first sentence. The first sentence has become your baby. Kill it! Smash it! Feed it to blood-thirsty vultures.

In a current WIP, I had a really cool bullying scene. It was fun, because the kid getting bullied ends up giving the bully bullying advice. It was clever. It was funny. It was unique. And you know where it is now? Gone! I killed it because it didn't fit the story.

I know it's hard. But the story is more important than any one scene or sentence. If it makes you feel better, save all your babies in a document called, Really cool stuff I cut. Then, when you are a rock star, you can release all those awesome books in a special limited edition authors cut.      

Any questions?


1 comment:

David Glenn said...

I had to wait a while to read this advice. I'm glad I did. It was worth the wait. I'll definitely be trying out the advice to have the readers know the characters better than the characters do. I was wondering how can a writer make the motives of both sides of the struggle seem realistic? For example if someone wanted to learn magic while the main antagonist wants to forbid magic in the land? Right now I'm thinking that the main character is wanting to learn magic because they feel they can do so much good with it while the enemy views magic as just a way to manipulate others and believes it is an abomination in nature for humans to be able to levitate and transform things. Would that be a good way to make motives seem believable?