Home of Ane Ryan Walker, Teller of Tall Tales, Writer of Short Stories

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How do I make that hero shine?

Interviewing the hero is a good start, if that works for you. If not, I’m going to give you some guidelines about what a hero should–and shouldn’t be, and how he might act.

Remember, writing doesn’t have a lot of “rules” per se, but if you want your hero to be likable, you will at least consider the following things:

  1. Heroes are strong people, not only physically, but emotionally. They don’t hold other people to blame for every misfortune in their lives, but they do hold the people in their lives accountable. So if your heroine makes a promise or a commitment to the hero, he expects the promise to be kept.
  2. Heroes have an excellent sense of humor. They do not make jokes in poor taste or at the expense of the weaker characters, but they often exercise a dry wit, and they know how and when to be able to laugh at themselves.
  3. During social encounters heroes are aware of their surroundings, and are not likely to be the center of attention, but are aware of the tensions in the room or situation. They are often the person who will diffuse a tense situation or control activities which have the potential to get “out of hand”.
  4. They do not wear flashy clothes or make odd or awkward fashion statements, but have a classic, quiet,  dignity which is always in style.
  5. While the hero is often aware of what others think of him, his actions, his choices, the opinion of others has no effect on the hero’s behavior.
  6. True heroes know the art of romance. They always treat women like ladies, regardless of age or station in life. This behavior towards women is what starts the ordinary man down the path to true hero.
  7. Heroes don’t typically seek out others to help them. They like to resolve their difficulties alone, but are strong and secure enough to ask for help when they need it.
  8. Heroes know how to say no. The have mastered the art of saying no rather than the art of apology. No means no.
  9. Heroes know what they want and are focused on getting what they want. They pursue their desires by doing what is necessary to achieve their goals.
  10. Heroes are decisive, not reactive. No knee jerk reactions. No panic. Again, heroes know what they want and focus on making their desires their reality.
  11. Heroes command respect. Others follow the hero because his is to be admired, not feared. He earns the respect of others by demonstrating the qualities of a true hero. Not by instilling fear into the weaker of the species.
  12. Heroes are problem solvers. The others in their social circle, friends and family know they can count on the hero in their time of need. Heroes are reliable.
  13. Heroes exhibit a calm and serene dignity. The trick to this is not to react, but rather to collect all the available information before making a decision, whether it is personal or advice to a friend or loved one. A calm and serene demeanor is the face a true hero shows the world.
  14. Heroes do not hesitate when a decision is needed. They assess the situation, and make a decision based on the need at that moment in time. They do not hesitate. They are not afraid of failure.
  15. Heroes command the attention of everyone when they enter a room. The exhibit excellent posture, make eye contact, give a firm handshake when introduced to others and always exhibit confidence. Their body language–confident, competent–tells everyone who they are as soon as they arrive in a room.
  16. Heroes know the secret of good communication. They speak less and listen more.
  17. Heroes assume the leaders role rather than wait for others to offer it to him. He is not a jerk, and is not aggressive, but he will stand up for what is right. Every time.

Defining Characters

There are a lot of questions you’ll be asking about developing any character. Some writers like to sit down and “interview” the characters they’ll be working with over the course of a story.

I am not one of those writers.

Is is wrong to interview characters? Yes, and no. If you use this method to delay writing, yes. If you really want to get to know the character before you leave on the story journey, then no. It matters only if you use the interview, or the excuse of the interview, as a delaying tactic to put off working on the story. If the character interview is working on the story, then knock yourself out.

Some of the things you’ll need to know, or will want to ask those characters are what motivates them. In other words, why do they do what they do? In your story, each and every character has a reason for their behavior. That reason is motivation, commonly referred to as the cause and effect of the story. This is part of the conflict that drives your story forward. Characters, no matter how well crafted, are not believable without the proper motivation. For example, the work obsessed tycoon, who is ruthless in business dealings may come from a background of poverty, in which he never knew if he would get another meal. The background of extreme poverty of this type might cause a person to be judgmental of those who waste anything.

If you start out interviewing the character and find the process difficult, just hang in there. It becomes easier as the character takes root in your subconscious

Keep in mind, when the interview ends, the information is for the writer to use as needed. It should not be disposed of in an”information dump” on unsuspecting readers. This interview provides the background that allows you to show us, rather than tell us how a character grew into his role for this story. Like an iceberg, if we see the tip, we know the danger is there without having to view the 80% of the danger which remains hidden.

Gimme a Hero…

As soon as you open your novel, on the very first page, in the very first line…what your character does and says will make or break him/her –and by association, you–as a writer.

You only get this one chance to gimme a hero. He/she must be unique but ordinary, courageous but  vulnerable, strong and weak at the same time. This is the hat trick of writing a great opener. You need to show me and to tell your readers in so few words, the hero who can be real and storybook perfect even while flawed. Get it? Not many writers do. Those that do get it, find themselves in great company and consistently on the coveted “lists”. You know, the NYT, USA Today, and in line for prestigious awards, consistently.

We want the characters we love to be “real”, and what we mean is for them to be just like us. Ordinary people with whom we can identify. But we also need them to be heroes. The fictional characters who allow us to believe that we can step outside the box of “ordinary” and become the guy who saves the life, the child, the day.

So really, what we want is for you to make your characters, less and more at the same time.

Got it?

The most important thing for you to remember now, is that human beings hard-wired to resist change, even when it is for their own good. Your story, if you really have one, is about change.  Change is what brings conflict you cannot avoid. Sounds like a catch-22, doesn’t it? No, its story perfection at its best. It is everything you need to make your story great.

As humans we don’t like change and we don’t like conflict. But for story people, the well-rounded characters that induce others to read your books, conflict and change is excitement. It’s the adventure we seek without having to leave the safety of our living room, reading nook, or our comfy bed.

Again, it is conflict that drives your story forward.

Because the hero needs to grow, to change, to evolve he needs an arc. Show your reader how he meets the challenges your story provides, overcomes the obstacles, or recovers from his defeats, and grows in spite of his hardships and shortcomings. We grow when we win and when we lose.

Conflict

Conflict is the promise we make to our readers. Once we set the stage, bring the reader into our characters ordinary world, it is conflict that keeps him reading our story.

But first, you need to get your readers attention. Building a character that is sympathetic, someone we and the readers can identify with, someone they want to read about. If your hero isn’t likeable, why would anyone want to read your story?

So you open with a likeable character, an ordinary guy, who’s having an ordinary day, when all of a sudden…BAM! things change, and that’s the important part, the conflict. Internal or External conflict you ask? Doesn’t matter. Internal conflict will grab your reader by the guts, and is therefore extremely effective. But if it’s done right, external conflict is just as compelling.

Prologues, often used in suspense or thriller fiction, in which someone usually dies, are effective. It doesn’t have to introduce your main character, but it must be action and connect to the main story. Even when the time-lapse between prologue and first chapter is years, they two still must connect. The prologue should provide conflict (sometimes a death, or another tragedy) that connecst to the main story.

Plot may be the framework, the bones if you will, your story hangs, but conflict is the power that drives story. Think of your heart, pumping life sustaining blood throughout your body, nourish organs, muscles, tendons, etc.

That bears repeating: conflict is the power which drives your story forward to its ultimate conclusion, the resolution of the conflict. In the end, your hero will win, or lose, or walk away. The only choices, but the story that takes him to the ultimate conclusion is driven solely by conflict.

Conflict is the reason your hero leaves his ordinary world. Without a disruption of the characters “normal” there is no story. Conflict is the opportunity for your hero to choose his path in life (story). The choices he makes and the expected results–especially when they are not met–are a powerful drive that keep your reader reading. The main conflict named in the beginning of your story must escalate, in order to keep your reader engaged. Each chapter, each scene, and sometimes every paragraph must demonstrate an escalation of the conflict. Rising tension is the pattern which allows you to engage your readers and bring them back for the next story.

The essence of good conflict is setting your hero up to want something…and then denying him his desire. Beyond that, not only can he not have his desire, but his choice to pursue it should cost him. His situation gets worse, and your reader will vow, “one more chapter” before they consent to leave your story world.

What’s it all about?

There are people who want to tell you how to organize your story. Sadly, writers are individuals. Every writer has, or will have, their own method for telling a story. But two things are essential to storytelling. Plot and structure.

First of all let me tell you that you can take this statement to the bank. Writers are rarely born, writing can be taught, and truly, most writers simply evolve. This evolution is known in the common language as “learning the craft”. Storytelling, like writing, is a craft. Most of us work hard to learn the craft. Of course, every story needs a start. So start with the basics, Plot and Structure.

Plot is simple: P is for the plan, what is going to happen in your story. Don’t start a story without a plan. L is for the lead, the character who will take the lead in your story. O is for objective, the thing your character most desires, what he/she believes that they cannot survive without. T is for the termination, since every story must come to an end. You need to know the end of your story since you will want to have a goal to aim for, like a dock when your ship is adrift. It’s a place you will want to go. Agents and editors want to know if you know the end of your story. Make sure it is satisfying.

Some critics will tell you a story is Plot Driven or Character Driven. While in their minds, or on the surface, this may seem to be true, I will tell you to tread carefully here. Plot is not enough to carry a story without a dynamic character. By the same token dynamic characters who operate without a goal, are people adrift like those who live under a bridge begging for scraps. They go nowhere, and are uninteresting.

Structure is the framework that holds your plot together, with the characters, their emotions and interactions–their growth, if you will–comprising scenes, sequels and the overall story structure such as the three acts, which will effectively show us your story worthy characters and their foray into literary life.

Each of us, writer or not is familiar with three act structure. The beginning, middle and end. The structure is not only simple in its elegance, but solid in its strength. A character is presented with a problem, he/she struggles with it, and finally is either defeated or defeats the problem.

Mythic structure is also a popular template for storytelling. Joseph Campbell explains (and many others have contributed to) the template which provides specific patterns for the course of any story. Be advised, even this mythic structure is based on a three act template.

Just remember, whether you use simple three act structure or mythic journey for your story, the engine that drives it forward is conflict.

Next time: Conflict.

 

 

Hooking your reader

I knew you wouldn’t listen to my advice, you just wanted to start writing, and you know you want to keep those readers reading. So you have to take a look at the hook. You certainly can’t open a story without a hook. You need one, at least one, to capture the initial interest of your readers.

Good news. Hooking a reader with a great opening is a skill you can learn. There are a host of tomes dedicated to the art of the opening hook. I’m even going to list them for you at the end of the blog. Along with several other sites where you might be able to pick up some much-needed craft tips. How do I know they’re good places to go? Because I’ve used them myself.

But for now, let’s address the nature of the hook.

The ability to consistently and productively hook your reader is a difficult lesson for some of us, and comes naturally to others. What doesn’t come naturally, again–can be learned. When and if you are the type of writer who looks to your favorite novels to study the craft, remember tone of the novel and writers voice influence opening choices. Not only must you choose a hook for your opening line, but the opening paragraph,opening scene, and opening page.

But the first sentence is usually the one that seals the deal.

“The magician’s underwear has just been found in a cardboard suitcase floating in a stagnant pond on the outskirts of Miami.”

Tom Robbins, Another Roadside Attraction

“You better not never tell nobody but God.”

—Alice Walker, The Color Purple

“All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

—Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina

“They shoot the white girl first.”

—Toni Morrison, Paradise

“The time has come.”

—Dr. Seuss, Marvin K. Mooney Will You Please Go Now!

“Don’t look for dignity in public bathrooms.”

—Victor LaValle, Big Machine

“On the morning the last Lisbon daughter took her turn at suicide—it was Mary this time, and sleeping pills—the two paramedics arrived at the house knowing exactly where the knife drawer was, and the gas oven, and the beam in the basement from which it was possible to tie a rope.”

—Jeffrey Eugenides, The Virgin Suicides

“The grandmother didn’t want to go to Florida.”

—Flannery O’Connor, “A Good Man Is Hard to Find”

“In the town there were two mutes, and they were always together.”

—Carson McCullers, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter

“I’ll make my report as if I told a story, for I was taught as a child on my homeworld that Truth is a matter of the imagination.”

—Ursula K. LeGuin, The Left Hand of Darkness

Each and every one of these opening lines serves the purpose of grabbing the reader’s attention. Above and beyond getting the reader’s attention, we need to work hard to keep that attention focused on the story we want to tell.

Intelligent readers identify right away when the hook is set that there is more to the story. This is what keeps them reading. To open a story with summary is to dump the backstory in the most unappealing fashion possible. Also, it’s telling–the cardinal sin of good fiction writing. But that’s a subject for another time.

The top ten things you need for a killer opening are:

  1. set up for the story question
  2. story worthy problem
  3. the inciting incident
  4. initial surface problem
  5. Killer opening sentence
  6. a TINY amount of backstory
  7. introduction to character
  8. a glimpse at the setting
  9. excellent word choices
  10. foreshadowing

http://www.darcypattison.com/ read her book, Six Winning Steps Towards A Compelling Opening Line, Scene and Chapter.

http://lesedgerton.net/ Hooked: Write Fiction That Grabs Readers at Page One & Never Lets Them Go

http://sherrysoule.blogspot.com/p/author-bio.html How to Craft a Gripping First Chapter: Learn How to Create a Riveting and Compelling Opening Scene (Fiction Writing Tools Book 1)

http://jamigold.com/ No actual single book at present, but a gold mine (no pun intended) of information for writers, from guest blogs to beat sheets.

Some food for thought, and a few sites to try out, or try on for size.

Apologies & Introducing a New Book

For the past several weeks I’ve been offline. Yeah, computer problems. Everyone has them and most of us suffer in silence, or just moan and whine a little but press on when the problems are resolved.

I won’t do that. I have decided this is an opportunity to strike off in a new direction and share a new start with all of you.

First things first. I will take you through how a novel is structured, how the idea seeds are planted and how the book is brought to full growth. A lot goes into planning and executing a novel and I will tell you exactly how to get started.

Week by week I will share how to structure the story, how to build a solid foundation and how to deal with the twists and turns that present themselves along the way. You will choose how your story will start and end, and also decide how much to write.

I hope that these step by step suggestions and guidelines will answer some of the many questions I receive about where ideas come from and how to recognize the fertility in the good ones.

So please don’t abandon me, because I certainly didn’t abandon you, and I will be sharing information you might find useful.

Thanks for reading.

Trust

We’re never so vulnerable than when we trust someone – but paradoxically, if we cannot trust, neither can we find love or joy.”

― Walter Anderson

This post speaks to the issue of sharing your work with others. I know, I know. You write for the satisfaction of having created something from the sheer fabric of imagination. You want to see what materializes from the vapor of pure imagination, and if the story burning in your heart and mind can be told, understood, and shared.

Unless you take the leap of faith and share your story with others you will never know. Remember, it is a leap of faith. As creators of fiction we are timid in sharing our story for fear of our “baby” being deemed ugly. And keep in mind, not every one will love your story. Some may even dislike it. But the stories we write are not for others, but rather for ourselves and those who can identify with the story we need to tell.

Sometimes the most difficult people to trust with a story is our family and friends, who may feel compelled to tell us  our  stories are wonderful.   The people we love, and who love us, often feel compelled not to criticize, even in a constructive way. They don’t want to hurt our feelings when we truly desire to hear their thoughts in hope of finding our way onto the path of success. So who do we turn to?

Sometimes we need to approach and engage strangers to help us judge the merits of our work. We need to be selective in the approach, seeking out readers who will and can give constructive feedback.  This method will more likely ensure assistance in a forward motion rather than annihilate our hopes and dreams.

Beyond that we need to listen. Often, authors who are overly sensitive complain of being unfairly criticized. “They just didn’t get me.” “No one understands what I’m trying to say.”  Do we stop to consider that we, as writers, aren’t making our intentions clear? That editing, and possibly re-writes are in order?

Not every writer is fortunate enough to have a mentor. Not every writer can approach a critic–and every potential reader is a critic–and find the help her/she requires. We have to trust sometimes that the criticism we hear, especially commonly repeated criticisms, are true. When these criticisms are repeated, we need to assume they may be true. Trust your judgement.

 

Opinion vs. Reality

   “Don’t let someone else’s opinion of you become your reality.”

― Les Brown

 

Do you sometimes put too much stock in what others say? Spend too much time worrying what other think? These are the two foremost traits of the dreaded internal editor. They are deadly to the pursuit of a writing career.

I’ll be the first one to say we all need a little help from our friends. Critique partners, mentors, like minded aspiring writers, Beta readers, and of course the professional editor whom we hire to help us make our work …better. That is the end goal, a story that is just better. and that’s a good thing, right?

But there sometimes is just too much of a good thing. So we have to know when to say no.

You know you can do it.  Say it with me now. I appreciate your input, I honestly value the time and thought you gave to this, but I just don’t agree. But make sure you know the reason why you don’t agree and that the reason is justified.

Anyone can correct my grammar. Almost everyone does, because sometimes it’s necessary. I have a thought, and not being the best typist, it goes down hard and fast. Mostly hard, and often incorrect. In spite of that, I sometimes don’t take well-meant advice if I feel it interferes with “voice”.

You are always allowed to say no, even though many times you shouldn’t.  There are those writers who come seeking advice and encouragement who want you to approve their choices. And that is not always possible. When the writer refuses to listen to the reason for changes, they don’t approach– and are certainly not receptive to– improving their writing.

The opinion most authors have of aspiring writers who fail to follow advice is often quite low. If you don’t understand the reason for the suggested changes, ask. Listen carefully, sometimes it is simply a matter of structure or placement, not big changes in the grand scheme of things.

Learning the Craft

   “Start by doing what’s necessary; then do what’s possible; and suddenly you are doing the impossible.”

― St. Francis of Assisi

In order to write that novel you always talk about, or dream of writing, you must start. I know you may not have the skills required to write the next great American novel. I get that, you know that, we all agree it’s not happening. But where do you start?

You just start.

Don’t stop by the Idea Store and purchase anything. Don’t ask your mother, father, girlfriend, boyfriend, or your best friend what they think. We all know they have opinions. Everyone has an opinion.Your opinion is what counts in the immediate moment.

A seasoned writer usually has developed a method for determining if they have enough idea to sustain a story, and what size of story (word count) the story idea can support. They have a good grasp of what it takes to make a story work, and this is why seasoned writers don’t always discuss their ideas until they’ve determined if the story has legs. Can it stand on its own?

For the beginning writer, there is no valuable advice –especially for a first novel–other than to start writing. That’s correct, just take a page from Nike, just do it.

You could of course, ignore this advice, and attend writing classes, make an outline, fill out character sheets or do character interviews, design a storyboard, ask for advice from other beginning writers and do any number of other things that only delay your writing. That’s correct delay your writing.

The number one reason unpublished authors experience a failure to launch, is basically simple; it’s a failure to write. We each have a certain amount of words we need to write before we can identify our own voice. Some experts say you won’t recognize your voice until you’ve written a million words. Now, I don’t know if it’s true, but I do know you need to start writing.

My first book was a fantasy novel, beautifully written with engaging descriptive backgrounds that made critique partners “see” the landscape of the novel. Yea for me! I’m good a world building. They told me the characters engaged the readers and all were anxious to see what would happen next. Yea for me, great character development. One critique partner described my passages as “liquid poetry”, and I was flattered, and amazed and felt so good about my writing. Except 400 pages into the story, the characters great adventure, no actual plot was found.

That’s right No Plot, BIG Problem.

I didn’t know what my weakness was until I started writing. Based on this experience, I never start a novel, novella, or short story without knowing the full plot. Every pinch point, every turning point, every reversal and big black moment is down on the sheet before the writing begins.

You have to determine what your own shortcomings are, and define your style, before you can learn the craft skills necessary to become successful. Once you have accomplished this, then the life long learning begins and you may have your feet firmly planted on the road to success.

 

 

 

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